Billion Dollar Babies—recorded between August 1972 and January 1973—is full of great songs, and one of my favorites is “Hello Hurray.” It was very well written (by Canadian folksinger Rolf Kempf), it had a great arrangement, and it had terrific parts played very well by the Alice Cooper boys. But I was taken aback when producer Bob Ezrin suggested a slide part for the song’s solo section. I had tried my hand at slide playing a few times, and I quickly discovered it was much harder than it appeared. I decided to leave the slide stuff to Johnny Winter or George Harrison.
Luckily for me, however, I had spent five years of my youth learning how to play lap-steel (thanks to my father), and I experimented with making my lap-steel technique sound like slide guitar. So I brought a beat up, mid-to late-’50s Gibson 6-string pedal steel to the Billion Dollar Babies sessions. It was a rudimentary design that featured four pedals, each of which could only raise the pitch of certain strings. Today’s pedal steels, by comparison, can bend strings up and down, and are very complex instruments. My poor old Gibson barely worked. In fact, one of the pedal rods was severely disfigured and completely dysfunctional, leaving me only three pedals to work with. I tuned the guitar to an open E, the first pedal to an open A, and the third pedal to an A minor chord, so I would have at least one minor—plus, I could use the relative major/minor chord relationship to get another minor. That was just about the extent of my music theory in those days. With all of its problems, when you plugged the pedal steel into a Marshall half-stack, it sounded amazing—likely due to the fact its pickup was probably a PAF.
Whatever Bob had in mind when he envisioned a “slide part,” it was a pedal-steel performance that he was going to get. We discussed the approach, and settled on a solo and a harmony part. Normally, I’d go into the studio and play until we got something. But “Hello Hooray” demanded a more constructed solo. We plugged the Gibson into a Marshall half-stack, turned up the amp—although not all the way—and I worked out the solo. Then, I doubled the first half and played harmony to the second half. Over the chords immediately following the solo, I pushed a couple of the Gibson’s “chord pedals”— which is what I called them—to follow the progression.
The tone was pretty organic—no effects pedals. I get asked a lot about the sounds we got in the “early days,” but I really didn’t use many pedals, because there weren’t a lot to choose from back then, and I often didn’t like what was available—the Fuzz Face, for example. We did use outboard studio gear such as compressors and EQ, but my guitar tones were primarily from the Volume and Tone controls on the amp, and the Volume and Tone controls on the guitar.
I still love the tone of that old pedal steel on “Hello Hurray.” Unfortunately, I no longer have it. It died a sad death. If I had known then what I know now, I would have at least kept that PAF pickup. Another lesson learned…
Sometimes called “The Deacon,” Steve Hunter is an American guitarist best known for his collaborations with Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, and Alice Cooper. Hunter has played some of the greatest riffs in rock history, including the opening solos on Aerosmith’s version of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and Alice Cooper’s “Cold Ethyl,” and the acoustic intro to Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill.” He also wrote the legendary “Intro” for Lou Reed’s 1973 live version of “Sweet Jane.”