Tommy Shaw

“It all started because my father said I needed something to do with my hands while singing along with Sammy Davis, Jr. on The Ed Sullivan Show,” remembers Tommy Shaw. “So when a friend of my brother’s left a tenor guitar on our couch, I grabbed it, snuck out to the porch, and started playing ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky.’ I haven’t been the same since.”

For Shaw, that solo porch concert blossomed into a career performing for arena audiences and selling millions of records. First gaining massive exposure with Styx in the ’70s and beyond, the guitarist also posted a tenure in the Damn Yankees—along with Ted Nugent and Night Ranger’s Jack Blades—as well as releasing several solo albums, and a duo project with Blades. The latest Shaw/Blades release is Influence—a tribute to the ’60s and ’70s music that inspired them—where the pair weaves their signature voices, harmonies, and musical styles into songs by Simon & Garfunkel, Buffalo Springfield, Seals and Crofts, Steely Dan, the Mamas and the Papas, and other radio-revered acts of the classic-rock era.

How did Influence develop?
I’d love to say we had an original vision, but it just snuck up on us. It began as a labor of love that we did in our spare time in our home studios. We started out by doing a couple of songs, and it grew from there.

What were some of the challenges in re-interpreting classic rock songs?
Well, it was mainly finding the spirit of the song—which is that thing you can’t put your finger on, but it makes the difference between the song touching you and just going flat. We tried to get inside the songs, and find out the little twists and turns that made them unique. We wanted to honor the original track, but, if the spirit moved us we would add a little bit, and certain things did inspire changes. For Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock,” I tuned the E string on my acoustic to D, and, all of a sudden, it just became a bigger-sounding song. By the time we added drums and bass, it was huge. Then, on “Summer Breeze,” we decided to do the horn, keyboard, and percussion parts by ourselves. For example, I played some harmonics on the guitar to emulate the piano bits, and I played the saxophone lines before the choruses on guitar. “Dance with Me” was hard—we just couldn’t get that one great performance. Then, Jack’s son Colin came in and tuned one of my guitars. To this day, I can’t remember what that tuning was. I picked it up, played the first two chords of “Dance With Me,” and Jack said. “Now, that’s more like it!” We re-recorded the whole thing, and added a mandolin solo and some loops. “For What It’s Worth,” however, is pretty faithful to the original. I thought the Buffalo Springfield was the coolest band, and I wanted to study how Stephen Stills and Neil Young did it.

You also play the synthesizer solos of “Lucky Man” on guitar.
That was my PRS guitar and a DigiTech Whammy pedal—which had been sitting in its box in my studio since 1993. We had planned on finding a keyboard player to redo [Emerson, Lake & Palmer keyboardist] Keith Emerson’s solo, because it was a really important part of the harmonic structure of the song, but then Jack said, “Why don’t you play it on guitar?” I said, “Man, how am I going to do that?” And then the Whammy came out of its box. I plugged into the pedal, hit a low note, and manipulated the treadle to get a low growl. It’s like you can hear the beast breathing in the background! As soon as I heard it, I said, “Oooookay!” That pedal did all the talking. I just sort of stood there and let it happen.

How has your gear evolved through your recent projects?
Currently, I’m on an acoustic tour, so I’m using a ton of my beautiful Taylors. The one exception is a Taylor T-5, which I plug into a Vox ToneLab SE. In the studio, I use Vox Valvetronix amps. In Styx, it’s very simple—I use a three-channel Marshall head and a Marshall cabinet. You can’t go wrong plugging a Les Paul into a Marshall! Then, I use the guitar to get the rest of the tone. Every once in a while, I’ll also use a few stompboxes, but I never have a chorus effect going while I’m singing because it messes with my pitch. When I was in Damn Yankees, Ted [Nugent] pretty much played all the leads, so I was the rhythm player. I was playing Boogies with a Hamer guitar.

Is it hard to switch between prog rock, boogie rock, classic rock, and, now, your acoustic performances with Jack?
You know, I grew up loving all kinds of music, so I’ve never felt confined by a particular type of music. I’ve always played anything that motivates me. For example, I didn’t give it a second thought going from a prog band like Styx to a rhythm-and-blues-based band like Damn Yankees. I just went with my gut, and my gut was tingling the whole time. g