The Foley Files: Laura Chavez

Two terrific blues guitarists—Sue Foley and Laura Chavez—talk shop in this edition of "The Foley Files."
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If you haven’t heard Bay Area blues guitarist Laura Chavez, you’re missing out. She’s one of the hottest players on the scene right now. Equal parts great technique, tone, soul and fire, Laura personifies what a true blues musician is. She performed for years with Candye Kane, up until the blues and jazz singer’s death in 2016. I caught up with Laura while she was on tour with the Nikki Hill Band to talk about her gear, how she developed her tone and her favorite players.

What’s your rig?

I generally use a Fender ’59 Bassman reissue for bigger shows and for when I’m home. With the Bassman, I blend both the Bright and the Normal channels together. For reverb, I use the Boss Fender ’63 Reverb pedal — I like a lot of reverb — and then the Xtotic RC Booster to fatten everything up. I leave the boost on all the time, and it makes it easy to switch between the tones. I prefer to keep my pedals up on the amp, rather than on the floor in front of me, so they’re out of the way.

There’s also an amp company in Chicago called Vero. I have two amps from them. One is the 20th Century Limited 1x12, which has a nice dark sound — kind of like a Silvertone. The other is a Chicago Zephyr 2x12, which is more like a Fender Vibrolux. I use the 1x12 the most. That’s what I played most of the time with Candye Kane.

My main guitar is a 1960 reissue Fender Strat. It’s one of the first Relics they made. I play the Strat almost exclusively on the bridge pickup. I have the bottom tone knob wired to it so that I can roll the highs off a bit. I learned that trick from Jimmie Vaughan, because his Jimmie [Tex-Mex] Strat is wired that way. I settled on a Les Paul Gold Top ’56 reissue as my second guitar.

Who are your favorite tone masters?

I think Ronnie Earl has the purest tone for what a Strat should sound like. I also love Kid Ramos and Hollywood Fats as far as their use of reverb and their fat tones. I like things that sound big and clean at the same time. With tone, so much of it does just come from your hands and fingers. I have an aggressive way of playing with both of my hands, and I think being aggressive is part of that big clean sound. I use my fingers on my right hand a lot, which always sounds good. Gear is important, but for the most part, I could play someone else’s guitar and rig and it will basically sound like me.

Another thing I do is keep the action really high on my Strat. I can dig in hard that way. I use .010–.052-gauge strings — lighter on top, heavier on the bottom. I used to use 11s and 12s, but I find that my guitar stays in tune better if I use the lighter strings on top.

Who are your favorite blues players on the scene right now?

My favorite new thing recently is Monster Mike Welch and Mike Ledbetter. They call themselves the Welch Ledbetter Connection. I played on their first album last year. When I hear them it’s like hearing what I want to sound like. Mike’s also got great tone.

What’s it like playing with the Nikki Hill Band?

It’s been great. This is my first experience playing with another guitar player. The music is really high-energy and fun. We play a bit more rock and roll than just straight blues stuff, so it’s given me a different way to express myself.

Name your five favorite guitar players.

Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Freddie King, Keith Richards, Charlie Christian, Jimmie Vaughan. My very first favorite was Clapton. He was kind of the gateway for me learning about all these others.