Talking Shop with Muscle Shoals Guitar Veteran Will McFarlane

From Bonnie Raitt to Muscle Shoals, Will McFarlane has been an in-demand gun for hire for over four decades.
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At the time that Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and FAME Recording Studios were celebrated in Greg Camalier’s 2013 documentary, Muscle Shoals, Will McFarlane had already been a session player in those parts for more than 30 years. His story began in the early ’70s, when Bonnie Raitt’s manager, Dick Waterman, brought his charge to a Boston club where McFarlane was playing. “She came in at the end of a set,” he recalls. A formidable lead player, Raitt was not in the market for a flashy soloist. That made McFarlane a good fit. “I wasn’t a real lead player. I was a fill guy,” he explains. “Playing rhythm guitar and locking in to the hi-hat was my thing.”

The guitarist learned the fills that inspired his style from the masters. “The things that caught my ear were Cornell Dupree’s pretty licks on Brook Benton’s hit ‘Rainy Night In Georgia,’ and Steve Cropper’s opening to ‘Soul Man,’” he says. Eventually he learned to play lead and even slide. “Bonnie loved slide and would sometimes want that sound while playing rhythm on her [Gibson ES-] 175,” he says. “Little by little, I started playing more slide. Initially, it was all in standard tuning, which helped me learn to mute.”

Back when McFarlane began touring, the pedals we enjoy today didn’t exist. “I went straight into the amp for the first tour,” he says. “There was a guy in our crew who gave me an MXR Distortion +. It saturated the tone a little, so I could get those one-note slide things.” These days he favors Dunlop’s Moonshine and Keb’ Mo’ guitar slides. “The Keb’ Mo’ is a little glassier and makes an acoustic sound almost like a resonator,” he says. “Whereas, I use the darker Moonshine on my electric for that fat, slow thing.”

McFarlane was living in Los Angeles while touring and recording with Raitt, but after a few years he and his wife had enough of the West Coast scene. Fate intervened when he met Jimmy Johnson while the legendary Muscle Shoals guitarist was in Los Angeles getting MSS — as in Muscle Shoals Sound — Records started. “I played him one of my songs, and he said, ‘Jerry Wexler’s in Muscle Shoals producing McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, and I want to get that song on the record,’” McFarlane recalls. Johnson flew him down to the Alabama studio and put together a band to demo the song. Among the musicians were drummer Roger Hawkins and bassist David Hood, from the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a.k.a. the Swampers.

Shortly after, McFarlane moved his family to the Alabama area, where he signed to a publishing company and began working as a session guitarist. “When Malaco Records bought Muscle Shoals Sound and started bringing in Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Little Milton and Johnnie Taylor, I was the guy they were using,” he says. “FAME was still going, and owner Rick Hall had guys he would use, but every now and then he would want something different. The first time he hired me, it was to play slide. I brought my ’59 tweed Fender Bassman and my ’54 Strat. He wanted one lick. It was a double-scale or scale-and-a-half overdub session. I know I did it right the first time, but he didn’t want to pay me the full fee for five minutes, so he kept me doing it for a couple hours.”

McFarlane’s invitation into this exalted company wasn’t a mere matter of luck. The guitarist was steeped in the music of the area long before he relocated there. “I had a buddy, Paul Siegel, who may be my biggest musical influence,” he recalls. “In 1972, he turned me on to the Staples Singers record, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, with ‘Respect Yourself’ and ‘I’ll Take You There’ on it. That was the first time I ever saw a picture of the Muscle Shoals guys.” Like so many others, McFarlane was shocked to learn they were white. “Eddie Hinton was on ‘I’ll Take You There,’” he says. “Eddie may have been the funkiest guitar player ever from Muscle Shoals. He was like Otis Redding as a singer and like Reggie Young on guitar.”

As “the youngest of the old guys” at Muscle Shoals, McFarlane worked with OG Swampers Hinton, Johnson, Hawkins, Hood and pianist Barry Beckett. He also logged hours with later guitar pickers like Wayne Perkins, who played on the Rolling Stones’ Black and Blue; Duncan Cameron, who worked on “Smuggler’s Blues” for Glenn Frey; and, more recently, Kelvin Holly of the Amazing Rhythm Aces. In the beginning, Jimmy Johnson served as McFarlane’s main mentor, with Roger Hawkins helping as well.

“When Jimmy moved to the other side of the glass, I became his alter ego,” he says. “I’d done sessions in L.A., including playing on the Urban Cowboy soundtrack and Bonnie’s records, but he helped me learn how to compress my dynamics so they sat well in the mix. I also learned how to make my tone articulate, so when they pan my part to the side and mix it low you still feel it. Roger had a great expression when he produced. I would be playing something and he would stop the tape and go, ‘No truth in that.’ It’s about believing in what I’m doing.”

When it comes to gear, in Muscle Shoals less is more. “You very rarely use distortion,” McFarlane explains. “I might use an overdrive pedal like the Klon. I use a volume pedal and a tuner. I have a restored ’69 Fender Princeton that is a mystical little amp. I bring it up to about three. If you hit it with an overdrive pedal, it does great power chords.”

McFarlane has known JHS Pedals owner Josh Scott since the manufacturer was three years old and employs some of that company’s effects. “I have a Moonshine overdrive for a little more saturation,” he says. “It’s good for slide tone. I use an analog delay he sent me, the Cub Panther. I’ve been using his Pulp ’n’ Peel compressor because you can blend in the compression. I don’t always like to commit to full compression, especially with humbuckers.”

As for his key guitars, McFarlane favors a custom-built TMG Tele-type out of Australia, a ’55 Telecaster he’s had since he toured with Raitt and a Danocaster S-type. “My main guitar with Bonnie was a ’54 Strat,” he says. “It’s serial number 0533. The guy before me bought it from the original owner, then saw Hendrix at Woodstock and got a factory refin because he wanted a white Strat. It has the original bobbins, but they’ve been rewound by Seymour Duncan, and I have a five-way switch in it.”

His guitars are strung with D’Addario .010s, except for the ’54 Strat, which is strung with .011s for playing slide in his band, Big Shoes. The name is a takeoff on Little Feat, because at first they exclusively covered tunes recorded by that iconic band. Recently, though, the group released a record of original compositions called Step On It (Biglittle Records).

“A wonderful drummer, Andy Peake, wanted to do a Little Feat tribute, and they needed a slide player,” McFarlane says. “I drove up to Nashville for the first rehearsal, and we clicked. We’d go and play an hour and a half of Little Feat tunes. But all the guys in the band write, and little by little we started saying, ‘Let’s be a band, and not just a tribute act.’”

McFarlane still does sessions, both in Muscle Shoals and in Nashville. Asked to explain the difference between them, he explains, “In Muscle Shoals, we’re not a 10, two and six town,” referring to the strict three-hour groupings of work in Tennessee. “An artist may want to cut 11 tracks in three days. We might get five or seven the first day. Or the session may start slowly, and we may not get one for a while, so we only cut four the first day, but we come in the next day and cut six. Then we might say, ‘You want to leave one more for tomorrow, or hang around?’” As relaxed as that may seem, the job gets done in a way that is musically and financially economical. More and more artists are drawn to that economy and to the historical magic embedded in the multiple studios and talent of the Muscle Shoals area. Notes McFarlane, “We’re the best sound per dollar in the world.”