This interview was first published in 2015.
Americana music enthusiasts and guitar tone freaks have been following Pete Anderson’s music and career moves for decades. Country music fans, and particularly those who appreciate the rootsy, Bakersfield stylings of superstar Dwight Yoakam know too, and probably miss the classic line-up of Yoakam’s band, which included Anderson as lead guitarist and producer for nearly 20 years. With Yoakam, Anderson was able to wallpaper a good portion of his home in gold and platinum albums — the country star and sometime actor sold more than 20 million records with Anderson at the helm. Together they appeared on the “Tonight Show” 19 times, and toured the world for 18 years, between Yoakam’s emergence as a fresh new voice in the mid-’80s, and Anderson’s departure in 2002.
Before he left, Anderson put out a couple of uber-cool solo records, notably Working Class and Dogs in Heaven, and launched his own record label, Little Dog, through which he eventually released his own records, and a plethora of Americana styled favorites. Aside from Yoakam, his production credits — whether for Little Dog or major labels — include everyone from Buck Owens to the Meat Puppets, Rosie Flores to Jim Lauderdale, Flaco Jiminez to re-issues by Roy Orbison, k.d. lang, and Sara Evans.
In his post Yoakam life Anderson has released three albums any fan of jazz-blues, roots, or even surfy honky-tonk ought to add to their collection poste haste. Daredevil, a selection of instrumentals Anderson put out in 2004 features Pete not only playing guitar, dobro, banjo, and bass, but drums, piano, hammer dulcimer, and harmonica as well. Even Things Up, his 2011 release, found Anderson singing lead again for the first time in 10 years, and his bluesy vocals are a great foil for his Chicago-blues-meets-country-swing songwriting.
Anderson’s latest release, Birds Above Guitarland, showcases the maturing musical taste of an artist who easily stretches from rock to blues to country to surf to Wes Montgomery-inspired jazz. Played primarily on an archtop of his own design, Anderson even redesigned his playing, putting down a pick and recording primarily jazz fingerstyle, and in the process moving from linear to more chordal playing that’s sure to inspire.
In this detailed Guitar.com interview, Anderson gives us insight into his evolving musical tastes; his take on the state of the Americana, blues, and country music scenes; and a whole lot of great guitar-related discussion covering his new signature model guitars, his studio techniques, and where his playing is headed from here.
Guitar.com So tell me what you’ve been up to since the last time we spoke. I’ve got your most recent disc here, Birds Above Guitarland, and the one before that: Even Things Up.
Pete Anderson: Well, it’s been awhile since we spoke. I left Dwight in ‘02, parted ways, and I still had my label, Little Dog, for whatever a record label is worth. But I had my label, I had a little unfinished business to take care of. I finished a record that was all instrumental called Daredevil. And then I had a guy on my label that was really interesting. His name was Moot Davis and it was country, it was sort of like Webb Pierce country, like late ‘50s, like Hank Sr. It wasn’t Telecaster country, it was more like P-90, Scotty Moore, acoustic-electric style stuff.
And then I did a record with him, and I was in his band. I really liked the music and everything about it was great and I said, ‘I’m really gonna pick this up and try to make this into something.’ And we went for about three and a half years. Made two records. Both of them were really good, but we made the second record and he just fell apart: disappeared, couldn’t take the road. We did 200 shows in like a year and a half. Went to Japan, went to Europe twice. We were hittin’ it really hard, gettin’ on the radar. And he just fell off.
And in the process of that I started to change things because the Telecaster — it wasn’t Bakersfield country — and so, in working with Dwight I went from triads, in the case of Dwight, to tetrachords. If I’m playin’ Western Swing, rockabilly, Webb Pierce style stuff, there’s sixes and nines and diminished chords.
And we were revvin’ it up. So there was some stuff goin’ on, like country-jazzy things. And I started exploring a new guitar because the Tele didn’t work for me for that particular sound. So I kind of got on a track of finding a guitar. And the only guitar I had in my arsenal was an Epiphone Joe Pass that I had gotten from them, a Korean thing. It was a nice guitar, but it had it’s flaws. It had a plastic finish on it, and this and that.
So during the time of playing with him I sort of took this guitar and morphed it into something I could use. I put my frets on it, I put a Bigsby on it, I put P-90s on it. I kind of re-did the guitar as much as I could. I couldn’t get around the finish, and the lack of sustain. The guitar had about as much sustain as a set of car keys. It was like playing clothes-line wire.
But that fell apart in ‘06, and I told my wife — who is a recording engineer at our studio at the building we had been leasing for nine years in Burbank — I said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to be in anybody’s band ever again. I don’t want to be a sideman, I don’t want to play behind somebody, I don’t want to look for a gig like that. I want to play, and I want to be able to play whenever I want to. If somebody calls me for a gig, or I want to go out and play — and I didn’t want to just be able to do last minute things and do a pick-up band.
So I said, ‘For the first time in my career, I’m going to just commit to being a guitar player and work on my career as a guitarist, and let the production be secondary.’ Instead of being a producer who plays guitar, I wanted to be a guitar player who produces records on the side. I moved the studio to my house. I’ve got a four-car garage that I built a beautiful studio in. It’s very nice. I’ve been here four and a half years, made some really great records here. And I brought my overhead down, so I could make low-budget records, because that’s all that’s left.
So I came here and concentrated. I made Even Things Up in 2011 with my buddy Mike Murphy, and we ended up with an organ trio where he played organ and bass, and I had a good drummer, and myself. And I just started working a little place called the Moose Lodge, which is literally a Moose Lodge, like an Elks or Knights of Columbus type place, just to get my legs under me. I hadn’t fronted a band in a long time. I did two tours during my time with Dwight, one in ‘95, and one in ‘97, but it was really in the middle of Dwight’s career, and we were concentrating on that.
So I did Even Things Up, and I did quite a bit of touring behind it for two and a half years. I released it on my label, then I re-released it with VizzTone. My label, Little Dog, was much more of an Americana label, and I didn’t know the blues world, so I released it six months later through VizzTone as an imprint, with Richard Rosenblatt and VizzTone out of Boston.
I got a lot of action out of it, and a lot of notoriety. I had a song go to number two on the charts, on B.B. King’s XM satellite radio channel, Bluesville. I got number two on his chart. And everything was really cool. So it came time to make a second record. I worked really hard on my vocals.
The second record I had a much better view of concentrating on my singing and how important the keys were, because I wasn’t really singing in the right keys for my voice. I had a lady that was giving me singing lessons, more like just stretching my voice, and she kept telling me, ‘You’re a baritone.’ I had a good range, but that doesn’t mean that you sound good everywhere in your range. So I started singing lower in my range, and it felt right to me. So I got locked in on the keys, and worked really hard and made Birds Above Guitarland.
That came out September 17th, 2013. I did a tour last year and hit the United States, and Toronto and Vancouver. And then here I am talking to you.
Guitar.com And you put together some guitars too, right?
Anderson: Yeah, I did a lot of other things with guitars. That guitar that I made — I ended up doing a signature model with Reverend. They pretty much did whatever I asked and turned into this guitar called the PA-1. It’s a semi-hollow body, and it has a piece of wood down the middle, but very narrow, L-shaped where the bridge is pinned. That comes with P-90s and a Bigsby, my frets, my neck angle, my headstock angle. It’s a very playable guitar.
And the I did a Tele-body with them called the Eastsider, which we’ve been selling. And I’ve just been concentrating on being a guitar player, getting my endorsement stuff together, getting my signature guitars together, working on a signature acoustic guitar line, working with a guy to start designing an amplifier. Just stuff like that that I would have been doing if I’d just been doing this all along. And I’m just having the time of my life.
Everything I did was about playing guitar. Producing records. going on tour — everything I did was about playing guitar. It didn’t matter what it was, the end result was, ‘Do I get to play guitar?’
I’ve produced records for guitar players where I didn’t play. That was fine with me, but I just want to play the guitar. As simple as I can tell you is, I want to play my guitar in front of people. Everything I have to do to make that happen is just what happens.
Guitar.com I completely understand that! So you’re not doing as much producing, or as much with Little Dog Records at this point?
Anderson: Well Little Dog, there’s no reason to sign anybody to Little Dog at this point. I put my record out on Little Dog, because there is some of an imprint there. But there’s no reason for me to sign anybody because, back in the day, my real equity was that I owned the masters. And maybe somewhere down the line, I could maybe recoup what I spent with some usage of the master.
But the reality was, it was a break even. I could sell enough records with Mom and Pop stores — who were my pals — back in the day I could push out five or six or seven thousand, which was a lot in the indie world. And I could break even and say, ‘OK, I recouped the cost of making the record, and I own the master and I’m going to try to get lucky with licensing something, or see what happens.’ But that’s just not plausible now because there’s no Mom and Pop stores, and there’s no hard CDs, it’s all downloads.
And it doesn’t make sense for me to put my hand in your pocket from bandstand sales, because that’s where everybody makes their money. Instead of the artist being able to sell the CD off the bandstand for manufacturing cost, which is $1.20, and get $15 or $20 for it, they’re going to have to pay me $6 or $7 and then sell if for $15 or $20. It’s just a hard way to make a go.
And almost every artist that I signed, no matter how good of intentions I had for them, I had better intentions for them than they had for me. So, it ends up an ass-whipping at some point. It becomes a real tough road. Without them having any skin in the game they look at it like, ‘OK I did this, and it didn’t happen. I don’t want to do it anymore.’ So I just got tired of that attitude.
So Little Dog is really just catalog, and that’s how I look at it. I put my records out on Little Dog. Producing records — I’ve got the best studio I’ve had here. I master here, it’s flat. The room sounds great. I’ve got a good drum room, a vocal booth — everything I need to make records. My wife is an engineer, Tony Rambo is my other engineer, and he’s been with me 12 years. I’ve got a crew here that’s been together for a long time. We make great records.
With Pro Tools and what I know, and what my engineers know, making a great record is not a problem. It’s just that it’s almost all self-funded records, where somebody comes in and goes, ‘Hey, I need to make a record.’ And they come here and I offer them a place to do it.
There’s nothing left of the business. If you look at the majority of the records being made, records that you and I liked or bought growing up — nobody’s making those records. Major record companies aren’t funding that kind of stuff. It’s all American Idol, it’s all big pop, young kids, hip-hop, R&B, and kids’ bands. That singer-songwriter stuff — Nashville isn’t going to have me make records, which is OK, I never made records there. That would have been one refuge, but I wasn’t looking for that. I don’t make records like anybody in Nashville now, and I barely did back with Dwight.
There’s not a lot of avenues open for what I do, which is a songwriter/producer. So for my studio, it’s just whoever comes through the door. There’s still people who want to make records, but the budgets are just devastated. A really high-budgeted record now is $40,000. And at my place, $40,000 will get you a record that sounds like $150,000, but that’s because of my experience.
Guitar.com So where do you fit in as a player now? What do you see in the Americana scene, the blues scene?
Anderson: Well, when I decided really to concentrate on having a career as a guitarist, I sat down and looked over what I liked to do, what I was doing. I could sing country music, and I can write country songs, but there’s a lid on the country world in that, you’re never going to advance much further than just playing little honky-tonks.
And I like the Americana scene. The Americana scene has taken an interesting flip, which I’ll address in a moment, but breaking through that ceiling — and major country still owns that marketplace — and I saw that with the artists that I had. With Moot Davis, we were doing gangbusters, the record sounded great, everything about him. But we weren’t going to get much past occasionally getting a festival for like, $2,500. We weren’t going to be in a bus, and doing $5,000 or $7,500 a night. That was not going to happen. And we weren’t going to ever, ever get on country radio.
So as a guitar player, I truly fall on the blues side of the page, left to my own devices. If I take everything that I know about playing guitar, and oddly enough, I’m flattered with the success that I had with Dwight, and what people thought about me as a guitar player with Dwight. And I’m very proud of what I played. But, with that said, I was really only playing about 40 percent of my palette. Sixty percent of what I can do on the guitar was left off the table because it wasn’t appropriate for his music. I didn’t play any slide stuff — a little bit, but not really — and nothing with a tetrachord, nothing with a four-note chord.
I was limited to Bakersfield style and whatever I could do with that. It was very major sounding stuff, and occasionally dominant sounding stuff. And I know I did some pretty radical shit, but that said, there was a whole bunch of stuff left off the table that just wasn’t right.
I played Dwight music. I customized my style for Dwight’s career and his songs. I played appropriately for him. I didn’t play for me. And that was the challenge that any great guitar player that I’ve ever followed accepted and took, where they would take whatever they had and tailor it to the song they were playing, or to the artist.
Sometimes it’s a comfortable fit. Albert Lee could play with Emmy Lou Harris, and he fit perfectly because he had this thing that he did better than anybody, and she would push that button every once awhile and go ‘train beat, Albert Lee.’ So he didn’t have to compromise what he did.
In my case, I had a lot of other stuff going on musically that I needed to explore. So I fall on the blues side of the page. I write on the blues side of the page, left to my own devices. And I was working as a singer and I felt that I would be singing much more on the blues side of the page.
So in doing that, I figured that I would go into this thing under the banner of the blues world. I looked it up online. Coco Montoya is a friend of mine and I spoke to him. Johnny A is a friend of mine and I spoke to him. I spoke to them about their careers and what was going on, and how it worked out there, and kind of got the lay of the land. And I thought that would be my best way to re-introduce myself, my album, and what I’m trying to do.
But the blues world is a little clique-y. I could not get a booking agent. It did not matter what I said, who I called. I had a guy, Rick Booth, nice guy at Intrepid. He had a couple of guys on his label who wanted to take guitar lessons from me. They admired my playing, and they told him, ‘Rick, you should book this guy, it’s Pete Anderson.’ And he was like, ‘Man, I don’t know much about Dwight Yoakam, and I don’t know who you are.’
And I’m kind of like, ‘Well, I’m not discouraged by that, but let me tell you this: I worked for a guy for whom I produced who sold above 20 million records, we toured the world for 18 years, and I’ve been on the Tonight Show 19 times. Can you market that? Can you just use that, whether you like or not, or know what it is? Do those credentials help you in any way getting me gigs?’
And I just couldn’t break through to anybody. So I started doing it myself, and then Kevin who works with me here started booking me. And we started doing it that way. It’s a tough road. I thought the blues scene was gonna be different, and it wasn’t at all. It was very clique-y, very compartmentalized in how they do it. I joined the Blues Society, went to Memphis, hung out. Really made one friend there, Bill Wax, the guy who is the head of B.B. King’s Bluesville on Sirius/XM radio.
Bill got exactly who I was and what I was doing. He said, ‘Man, this record is great.’ He’d help us with the blues world, because he was all about helping. But other that it was, ‘Oh, you’re a new guy. I’ve sort of heard of you.’ And I was, ‘I can’t live with that. That’s not going to work for me.’
So I didn’t abandon it per se. I knew that I was coming out with this record, and I was going to make a blues-ish record, but I was like, ‘I’m gonna broaden this thing of Pete Anderson, guitar player.’ Not make a ‘blues’ album. It’s just Pete Anderson, guitar player. And I’m more on that trek, of doing that. And I hate to say leaning back toward Americana, because I think my earlier records were definitely Americana records.
Truth be told, Rosie Flores, and Dwight Yoakam — way back — and Jim Lauderdale, the people I made records with way back in the ‘80s, they were the first Americana records. They were American music records that didn’t fit anywhere. There wasn’t an Americana format back then.
Now the cool thing that’s happened with Americana — very interesting — first of all the guy that runs that scene is very hip. I really like the new guy that’s running the Americana Association. I think he’s from Brooklyn. He really gets what it’s about, and he’s really protective of it. And the interesting thing that’s happened is, I guess the power of the major country labels has declined and dissipated, like every major label has, but the Americana chart has just remained constant.
Let’s say you built a two story building in a little town, and the guy next to you had a ten story building. But then they came and told him, ‘You gotta knock two stories off, and now you gotta knock two more off.’ All the sudden the little building next door looks like it’s getting higher, because it’s just consistent. The Americana format has been very consistent.
In leveling the playing field by taking away record shops, CD stores, because here’s what would happen back in the day, and I wasn’t aware of it, but I heard it from distributors: When the salesman from the distributor would walk into a record store, they’d say, ‘What do you have?’ And he’d say, ‘I’ve got country records,’ and they’d say, ‘OK, country sells pretty good man, give me 100 of those.’ ‘I got rock records.’ ‘Oh, rock sells great, give me 200 of those.’ And when he got down to Americana, they’d say, ‘Oh, Americana doesn’t sell, just give me one or two.’ So they didn’t get to play. They couldn’t get the shelf space, they couldn’t get the eyes on their records.
Well now that’s changed, because not so many eyes are on the big guys. There’s no more record stores to blindly ghetto-ize the format, and listeners are like, ‘Really, that was an Americana record? That was really cool!’ They don’t know. You just want an honest take. You just want somebody to be honest and say, ‘I really like your music. I don’t like it because it’s in some format, I just like it.’
And so that’s what has happened to Americana, and it’s pretty darn cool. And it’s been a nice home for a lot of very… the real talent, I think, you know, for some person that has some gift, that’s a songwriter, but that doesn’t have a home because he doesn’t wear a hat, or he’s not pretty, or he’s doesn’t fit a certain format, or an attorney didn’t get him a gig with a guy who runs a label who doesn’t have a record collection. This is a great home for those people. And how far it grows from there, and what happens…I think the sky is the limit, but the sky is not as blue or as big as it used to be for the whole record business. But is just kinda is what it is.
Guitar.com Who do you think are some of the guiding lights of the Americana movement at this point?
Anderson: I don’t watch the format so much. There are younger artists who have come along. I like Seth Walker, he’s made four records already, and I don’t know that he’s Americana. Some other people that sort of slid out of the [country] world — now you see Rodney Crowell in Americana, you see Emmylou in Americana, Dwight was in Americana. They’re not getting chart action in country music anymore. I’d have to think about it. Hayes Carll has had a lot of impact, a young songwriter out of Texas. I don’t follow it too much.
Once I committed to being Pete Anderson, guitar player, and was concentrating on me as a guitar player, I’ve been really conscious of staying on my road. I might look at your road and go ‘Hey Adam, how you doing?’ But I’m not getting on your road for even 10 seconds. I’m going to just be the best Pete Anderson I can. And that requires my concentration on everything that I’m doing. And you know this as a musician and as a guitar player: There’s all these intoxicating styles out there.
I mean, like, Derek Trucks: ‘Ah man, that’s great!’ But I’m not going to spend any time trying to cop Derek’s sound and trying to play slide like him, because I can’t do what he does. He probably can’t do what I do. Robben Ford: We all love Robben Ford and the tone and the style. Robben’s great, but you’re never going to be the best Robben Ford, you’re never going to be the best B.B. King.
So I said, ‘I have certain techniques that are very unique to me, and I’m going to concentrate and expand on those. I’m going to expand on my tone, my right hand technique, my concept of harmony, and jazz harmony and theory, on the way I play, and blaze that trail as me, and raise my flag as high as theirs’ by doing that.’ And that seems to be working the best for me.
It always has, but before I did it from the shadows, or from stage right when I was with Dwight. Now I’m in the center of the stage, playing guitars that I designed, through amps that I designed, with slides that I designed, with pickups that I designed. And I’ve just got to concentrate on being a really great Pete Anderson. And it’s not easy. It’s not super difficult, it’s just that you’ve got to kind of slap yourself and go, ‘Quit lookin’.’ It’s like you’re at the nude beach, ‘Quit staring, you’ve got work to do!’ So that’s kind of how I look at it.
Guitar.com In the past when we’ve spoken, you told me about — in your youth in Detroit — being influenced by Bob Dylan and jug bands…
Anderson: Oh yeah, my first band was a jug band, literally without a jug. We had a wash tub and a washboard, but we didn’t have a jug. But yeah, I came from the roots. The first knowledge I had of the guitar was Scotty Moore, but it was because I saw Elvis Presley on TV and he had such a big impact. But I saw the guitar, but the sound was Scotty. And I didn’t realize it, but I have subsequently deciphered that it was Scotty Moore. I do find it interesting that now I’m playing a guitar that looks kind of like the one Scotty played. And I’m sort of bridging, in my own way, blues and country and jazz — kind of what Scotty was doing. I find that interesting in a strange turn of events.
Then I got into singer-songwriter, folk music, the early Dylan stuff, and blossomed out from there, reading who wrote what songs, who played on what songs. I started with an acoustic guitar, and when kids my age were infatuated with the Beatles and playing parties and doing that kind of stuff, I was playing Mississippi John Hurt, and Dylan tunes, and Dave Van Ronk, and folk stuff. That was just the path I took.
Guitar.com You told me years ago that when you first took the Dwight Yoakam gig, you were coming from a background of more of a bluesy player.
Anderson: Yeah, I had played a lot of blues, and switched over to playing country in the mid-70s, and started learning how to play country. But I didn’t have a pathway, and I hadn’t studied music yet when I first started, so it was kind of difficult for me when I first started. I looked at James Burton’s playing because I could kind of grasp it. He had a blues pentatonic approach with chicken pickin’ to country music, sort of like you would get off a Howlin’ Wolf record, that Hubert Sumlin would do. In a strange way the two were sort of similar to me.
And because I had played so much blues, I wasn’t adept at major key playing. The V (five) chord was always dominant, it wasn’t a major V like in country. In country music there’s a lot of pro-gressions. The term progression means I to V to IV to I. And in blues, it’s retro-gressions. It’s I to IV — and the IV means nothing — and the V is dominant (a 7th chord), and in reality the V means nothing. That’s why you can sit on a minor pentatonic and just work it over and dismiss the changes. You can’t do that in country. You’re going to run into the major thirds, the dominant sevenths. Those things [playing straight minor pentatonic] aren’t going to work, unless it’s like a funky country song. But there’s a lot of major scale stuff. I really had to switch over my thinking and work it that way.
By the time I started playing with Dwight, and we made the first record, I was adept at chicken pickin’, and the style of playing: a lot of steel licks, and a lot of major sounding stuff, and I created a style for myself. But the thing I had over the majority of guys at that time, was that I had such a strong blues background, that I could sneak it in, on the Dwight records. So if I’m playing on the record, I could do this stuff and it was like, ‘OK, I’m taking an approach that is not dissimilar to what of country players would do.’
But I played a lot of real blues, not a country guy playing blues in a bar, like one song. I played a lot of real blues. And I would sneak in Freddie King licks, B.B. King licks, and things of that nature because I could, and because it was different from what everyone else was doing. I would see an opportunity to do it, and I was like, ‘Man, I’ll just throw this lick in here. I’ll rip off “Hideaway,” I’ll rip off B.B. King and I’ll put their licks right here.’ There’s a blatant B.B. King riff in Dwight Yoakam’s recording of “Little Sister.” It’s a complete rip of a B.B. lick. And then there’s a bunch of sixths, but more like “Hideaway” sixths in “Little Sister” and “Please, Please Baby,” and things of that nature. It’s part of having all those colors on your palette that you can draw from.
Guitar.com And so now with your work on Birds Above Guitarland, you’ve taken those blues and country elements and even added a touch of jazz to it.
Anderson: Yeah, the chords have expanded out from triads to tetrachords. So after the one, three, and five — once you add a flat-five, a major six, sometimes a major seven. Once the flat-five and six get in there it just changes everything. So if I set you up with a flat-five 13, or I set you up with a major sixth, or a dominant 9 or a diminished 9, something like that, I now have established a tone in your ear as a listener. And if I go there with any kind of a lick, or phrasing, it’s not so shocking.
And that combined with my right hand technique, because I completely dropped using a pick, and I’m using — not a hybrid picking technique — but I’m using all my fingers. It created more of a piano sort of thing. I’m pulling, at any given time, five notes with my right hand. And that means I can choose five different notes, or whatever I want to do with it, and create sonic palettes with it.
Guitar.com And with this playing technique, and the fact that you’ve designed your own guitars — and I remember being in your climate controlled storage room at Little Dog studios in Burbank where you had an unbelievable collection of classic guitars — tone is very important to you, isn’t it?
Anderson: Yeah. That collection got downsized when I moved to the house. I had a lot of good stuff, but I only played instruments that were… I’ve got three instruments that are sort of part of my “family” as I would say, instruments that I would give to my daughter in my inheritance. I had a lot of really nice instruments, but some of them got replaced with better instruments.
I had a vintage 335 that I replaced with a 335 that I got from Gibson that was just a better guitar. And I said, ‘Well, I’m about playing better guitars.’ And I sold that old one. I downsized a lot of that stuff because you had to have two of everything when I toured with Dwight. At the level we were touring at I couldn’t afford to break a string on anything in the middle of a show, or have anything happen. I mean, I had two amplifiers. It was kind of like NASCAR. If the amp went down in the middle of the show there was another one sitting there, and with two plugs going ‘click, click,’ I was back on, and only down for like four seconds. Not that that ever happened, but you had to be prepared for all that stuff.
And so I did have a lot of gear. And now with the advent of me having signature instruments, I’ve got guitars coming out my eyeballs. So I sort of pared down my world to bring everything to the house. I kept the most valuable instruments, and if I pulled out all my instruments today and you and I were here, except for the the three vintage ones that I still have that are family, everything I have is more of a tool: this is a six string bass with flatwounds, this is an octave mandolin, this is 12-string, this is a banjo, this is an acoustic that does this, this is an acoustic that does that.
They’re really all tools. They all have a purpose. So when I’m playing or producing something, I can go and grab the instrument that I need, and it will work for the job that I’m doing.
Guitar.com And what were you bringing on the road most recently, touring with Birds Above Guitarland?
Anderson: My main guitar is made by Reverend. It’s called the PA-1. It’s a laminated, arch-top, f-hole, Bigsby, P-90s. Because Seymour [Duncan] is a pal of mine, it comes with P-90s. And I’ve done different things, and because my music has gotten a little bit more sophisticated, and I wanted a cleaner sound, I went to humbuckers. But what Seymour made for me was a humbucker in a P-90 frame with rails instead of pole pieces, so I didn’t have an issue with string spacing. I really love the pickups, they’re great, great, great pickups. I have a real Bigsby on it.
And that guitar I play for the majority of the show. I’m playing a little bit of slide, and I’ve got what looks exactly like a Telecaster, but it’s called an Eastsider, made by Reverend. It’s got a multi-radius fingerboard, it’s got some cavities up in the front of the guitar. It’s got a shaved heel, kind of like an Anderson. I have one of those with really high flatwound strings that I use, and I use a really great capo that converts your guitar — it keeps your action high, let me put it that way. Jim Dunlop invented this capo, and it’s unique because it has a little bar in it that slides right over your fret, and elevates your strings just slightly, enough that you don’t get any fret rattle when you play slide.
I use that for slide, and I’ve got Rock Slides — Danny Songhurst at Rock Slides took the company over from his uncle who passed away, and he makes these incredible slides that his uncle invented. It has a little divot in it for your finger to rest in, and a little half-moon cut out to sit over your finger. They’re just brilliant, and they’re really comfortable.
And I told him he needed to make some glass slides, because I sort of never had played glass slides, and then I switched over because I found out they were warmer. So he makes a glass slide — he makes all kinds of slides. But the glass slide is what I’m using by Rock Slides.
And then the other guitar is an Eastsider, it’s just a regular Tele with binding. And I use that in the show too. So I’ll play Tele style, sometimes with a capo like Albert Collins style, or without a capo, kind of my hybrid style. I’ll play the PA-1 with the Bigsby, and then I’ll play slide on the heavy flatwound stringed Tele-lookin’ thing. And that’s what I take on the road. And I play harmonica too.
Guitar.com What kind of strings are you using these days?
Anderson: I’m tuned down a whole step, so when I play an E natural on my guitar, it’s a D. The string gauges are 11.5, 14, 18, 34, 44, 54. D’Addario strings.
Guitar.com It’s an unwound third, right?
Anderson: Yep. The biggest unwound third I could get. They’re pretty heavy, but I’m tuned down a whole step. The strings have some girth to them, but I’ve noticed that I’m playing a lot more percussive, piano-like playing, than string-bending. I do some string bending on the Eastsider, but it’s much more percussive, kind of piano-style playing with little inversions and things that I’m doing as far as harmony with the chords.
I’m playing more chordal. I’ve gotten kind of bored with linear playing for myself. I’ve heard a lot of linear, legato playing, and I’m kind of moving away from it. It’s not what inspires me as much as what I’m doing now.
Guitar.com What do you mean by linear playing?
Anderson: Scale-style, high sustain — what almost every guitar player does and has done for years. Single note playing. I listen to a lot of Wes Montgomery. I don’t try to play like Wes, but I try to absorb Wes. And Wes would have some intervals and some other things going on when he played. It wasn’t all just scales. There would be one or two or three notes, and he’d be using chords interspersed with his scale playing, or riffing. I’ve been concentrating a lot more on phrasing. And I’ve come to find out that phrasing is almost everything when you really study it.
I’ve told a lot of people: There’s three elements that we have in playing guitar. I call it the “Three T’s.” Tone, time, and taste. And that said, I could teach anybody pretty quickly how to tune their guitar, and play “Dust My Broom” by Elmore James. But I could never, ever, ever teach them — including myself — to play it just like Elmore James. Because what he brought to it was his sense of time; how he played the strings, which is tone; and what he had to say, which is taste.
So tone is in your ears, and in your hands: however hard you pull the strings or pluck the strings or whatever you do to them is how you shape your sound. And that comes from what’s pleasing in your ear. And then time is — one of the kings of time is Albert King, because he could put the note on the back side. He could wait the exact amount of time before he played the note, so he is an extreme example of great time. And then taste is what you have to say. It’s like, what three or five notes — what did you just do, and say with these things that you have available to you. So that’s really what I’m trying to concentrate on.
Guitar.com You’re always working on new music, right?
Anderson: Yeah. The record got done, and we went on the road. So the last thing I was thinking about then was writing or doing anything new because it was a trek to make the record. And once the record was done and I started doing shows, I’m concentrating on getting up to speed. I want to be as good as the record. And I’m not trying to exceed the record, but if you play a song enough, it will start to morph a little bit because you’re playing it live, and you’re having fun, and you’re doing some different things with it. I play all the songs on Birds Above Guitarland when I play live, and I wanted to get those songs up to speed, that I owned all those songs live.
I played them on the record, but that’s a studio environment. That’s like making a movie, and then I decided to do a play. And when you go out to do a play, it’s live, and things happen, and there’s interchange. And I wanted to get to the point where myself and the band owned those songs so that I could have fun within the framework of each individual song.
So right now I’ve started sort of fumbling around with stuff. I’m always trying to write instrumentals. I love instrumentals and they’re, in my case, really difficult to write because they have to have meaningful melodic heads, musical statements, and somewhat creative chord changes. And that’s not easy.
Guitar.com So on the road you stretched out and improvised live over these songs?
Anderson: Yes. Absolutely. I could play them just like the record, but you have to take into consideration that now you’re putting on a show, and maybe you had a short intro, or you want to play two choruses of a solo on the front of this song. There’s little places within the song that can expand. I try to keep the framework respectful to the basic structure of the song when I’m singing and playing, but there’s plenty of room for improvisation in whatever I write. There’s always going to be a solo that’s open to interpretation. But the chord structure I try to keep locked down into its original form, because that’s what the song is. That’s what we recognize as the song. But other than that I try to get to where I can improvise, and be spontaneous, and amuse myself.
Guitar.com I know a few years ago you teamed up with Guitar Center and wrote and recorded all the backing tracks for their “King of the Blues” competitions…
Anderson: Yeah, I did every one of them, but they stopped doing them. I was in the house band, I created the backing tracks, and I was one of the judges. We did like five or six of them, but they stopped doing it.
Guitar.com There were some awesome backing tracks that you laid down there…
Anderson: Thank you. That was a lot of fun. And that’s sort of one thing I want to do. I have those in the back of my mind. I might grab and take and turn them into songs, maybe instrumentals. Also, really the next thing I’m going to do, I’m going to do a new guitar instructional DVD. And in doing that I’m going to tour behind clinics. So I’d like to do a 40-city tour, over the course of so many months, with a raffle at the end of it, where I give away a guitar and an amp and this and that.
But the next project is a DVD on how to play guitar like I’m playing right now, and then take it on the road and do clinics and then gigs in appropriate cities. That’s the next big plan for me. But when you brought up the Guitar Center tracks it made me think of that because I’m going to use those tracks, pare them down to three or five to play to and demonstrate what I’m talking about. Then I can use them in the clinics and for sale in the package. It will be like, ‘Here’s some tracks to play to, and here’s what I would play on them, and on this one we’re going to work on pentatonic, or flat-five, or substitution chords…’ Things like that.
Guitar.com That will be cool. And part of the reason I brought up the Guitar Center contest backing tracks was to ask: Did you use similar backing tracks of your Birds Above Guitarland material to practice over before you went on the road?
Anderson: Yeah, absolutely! I would. I would refresh myself on what motif or how did I approach the solo on this, or how did I sing that. What melody did I use. Because it starts to fluctuate as you move away from it. So, yeah, [I did practice with the Birds Above Guitarland tracks] a lot. I really tried to stay close to the record. Return yourself back to the motherland (laughs).
Another thing, and I don’t know if we ever talked about this, but I’m slowly in the process of writing — I guess it would be a DVD and a book — “How To Produce A Record.” Now there’s record production courses, and there’s a lot of information on that, but every one that I’ve looked at teaches record production from the engineer perspective.
So if you and I were going to guitar school together and we were walking down the hall and we saw a bulletin that said, “We’re going to start a production class.” And I said, ‘Hey Adam, check this out: How to produce records.’ And we’re both guitar players, and all we wanna do is play guitar and write our music and do what we do. And we see this bulletin and we decide this class would be great. So we sign up and go into the class and the first day the guy goes ‘OK, we’re going to talk about signal flow and electronics.’ And we’d be like, ‘Gotta go!’
I have no interest in signal flow, electronics, phase, plugging in microphones, limiters and compressors. Because there’s people that do that. And the digital world has made it easier for you to do that.
But how do I organize, or psychologically prepare to make a record with somebody? How do I win them over? How do I win their trust? How do I use all my skills to convince them that I’m the right person, that I’m a sounding board to work off of? How do I communicate with the musicians? How much of an arranger am I? How much of a co-writer?
So I would be coming at it as a musician-producer. There’s three types of producers: There’s engineer-producers, musician-producers, and then a musicologist. John Hammond Sr. was a musicologist. He had studied records. He didn’t play, and he wasn’t an engineer. But he certainly had a lot of great taste. And so he could go in and say, ‘I like this, I like that.’ He could reference records for you because he had a great record collection.
But the majority of producers who I follow — and the type of producer that I am — is a musician-producer. I bring my musical skills into the studio, and I work it from that perspective. So I’m putting together something that I don’t think has been done yet in a course, how to produce a record from my perspective.
Guitar.com And you’ll get into topics covering arranging, voicings…
Anderson: Yeah, everything. How to organize the arrangements, the rehearsals. I have a section called “Coffee Table Arranging” where you sit with the artist and you go over it. How to work psychologically if you’re working with a band or a single artist. How to get your messages across. When they’re auditioning you to be their producer, you should be auditioning them to see if you really want to produce them. Where are the pitfalls? What’s going to be a problem with this artist? What do you have to overcome to make the record and win their trust?
But then basics too: What am I accomplishing on the first day of recording? How do I get the artist comfortable to sing? When am I doing each segment of the recording? How do I mix the record, from a perspective of panning, and what do I want to communicate to the engineer? It would be all-inclusive and fairly intense.
I think anybody who plays guitar and writes songs would be interested in this, especially now, because everything is going to home recording. And it’s getting really good. You can do really good at home. And I can’t imagine anybody — unless they’ve experienced everything I’ve already experienced — who would read this book, and not pick up quite a few tricks on how to make their records better, or how to produce records better for other people.
Guitar.com How far along are you with this?
Anderson: I’ve only gotten into it a little bit. And I try to explain to it from the viewpoint of filmmaking, because a lot of people know how films are made. That in music the term “producer” is a misnomer. A producer is more like a director of a film. I align it with filmmaking, so studio would be the location, actors would be the musicians, script would be the songs, the engineer would be the director of photography, and that’s how it works.
The producer of the record is really directing everybody like the director of a film, and he is responsible for every note that everyone plays, on everything. Every note. I have to hear every bass note, every kick drum note. The director gets the best performance from his artists — his actors — and I get the best performance from my musicians and star, or whoever the client is.
Guitar.com I think that’s a great analogy that people will really be able to understand.
Anderson: Yeah. And that’s where I’ve started. I might take this over to MI (Musicians Institute) and prop it up and teach it as a curriculum. I’d love to sell it as a curriculum to music schools. And then I could go around the country and do producer seminars, guitar seminars, and play a gig. And that would just about make a break-even for me! Everyone in my band could have their own room by then. (laughs).