Tony Gilkyson’s 6-String Minimalism

It’s a classic case of the carpenter’s house being the last on the block to get built. Since his 1998 solo record Sparko, Tony Gilkyson has been gigging with Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, and Mike Stinson, producing Exene Cervenka’s solo outings, co-producing (with Tom Waits) singer Chuck E. Weiss, and contributing to the Walk the Line soundtrack.

But after eight busy years, Gilkyson (whose band credits include Lone Justice and a decade-long stint with the storied L.A. punk troop, X) knew the time was right to fly solo again. “If I go too long without having an outlet for my own music,” he says, “I’ll become uninspired and lose my effectiveness as a sideman and producer for others.”

To relight his creative fires, Gilkyson holed up in drummer Don Heffington’s home studio with a crackerjack cast of cohorts, including the legendary songwriter and pianist Van Dyke Parks, pedal steeler Josh Grange, and bassist Charlie McGovern to track the rootsy songfest Goodbye Guitar [Rolling Sea Records]. Despite his rep as a formidable country-tinged rockabilly picker (dig the sweet flat-top eighth-note cascades on “Gypsies in My Backyard”), Gilkyson said the equation governing most of his playing on Goodbye Guitar was “simplicity plus spontaneity equals serendipity.”

“I’m trying to get away from thinking about chord changes when I solo,” he elaborates. “When you map out your lines too much, they can come off sounding stale. There’s a certain naiveté in my playing I try to protect. Becoming too knowledgeable about what you’re doing can interfere with the joy of new discovery. The worst thing you can possibly do is play a solo to impress other guitarists, because gymnastic routines have nothing to do with making music. Look what happened to jazz saxophone. In the ’30s and ’40s, you had guys who weren’t afraid to solo with simple riffs. Then jazz became intellectualized, and you had a whole generation of players doing scalar gymnastics for themselves and each other. Popular guitar could be in danger of going in that direction too, although thankfully it has endured because you can still have no knowledge of the instrument, pick up on a sound someone else has made, do your own bastardized version of it, and make it totally your own. That’s the beauty of guitar.”

Gilkyson cites his melodic lines on “Man About Town” (a song penned by his father Terry, a Disney composer and noted folk musician) as an example of this hand-me-down process. “I was trying to channel Django Reinhardt in an unschooled, intuitive way. It’s not very flashy, but it’s way more expressive than if I’d simply strung together a bunch of minor swing licks.”

Can one interpret the album’s title track, “Goodbye Guitar,” as an homage to minimalism? “You could say it’s about gear minimalism,” laughs Gilkyson. “Specifically, it’s about avoiding the obsessive need guitarists—myself included—sometimes have of throwing money at gear in search of the elusive holy grail of tone. But I’ve been pretty good on that score. I own a few vintage instruments that could fetch thousands of dollars on the open market, but for Goodbye Guitar, I mainly played a Stella acoustic, a Mexican-made Fender Telecaster, and an old Kay Sizzler solidbody with reissue Filter ’Tron pickups. These guitars are giving me the love right now. They have a lot of personality to their sounds, and I always choose personality over pedigree.”