Guitarists often cite instruments as sources of inspiration. For musician, songwriter, and producer Dave Stewart, it wasn’t a ’57 Strat or a ’Burst that recently caused a creative flurry, but a guitar far more pedestrian.
Stewart and bandmate Annie Lennox rose to fame in the early ’80s as the Eurythmics, a pop duo that, especially early in its existence, paired high-tech sounds with soulful vocals. As they progressed, though, Stewart gave their sound a much more noticeable rock-and-roll (usually guitar-driven) edge; the transition is exemplified by comparing their first hit, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” with later songs like “Would I Lie to You?” and “Missionary Man.” A music producer of considerable aplomb, he has worked in that capacity with Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Bono, Sinead O’Connor, Mick Jagger, Katy Perry, Jon Bon Jovi, and a host of others, racking up numerous awards along the way.
Stewart’s new album, The Blackbird Diaries, is his first solo disc of new material since 1998’s Sly-Fi, and it may not have come about were it not for a May, 2010, trip that had him stalled in London for a few extra days. While there, he stopped at a guitar shop on the city’s famed Denmark Street, where, he recalls, one instrument in particular struck his fancy.
“It was one of those things… I said to the owner, ‘I want to look at that one,’ and he had to step over 10 guitars, then climb a ladder on the wall to get to it!” The shop owner happily retrieved “that one,” which, as it turns out, was a Gretsch Rancher that had once belonged to an eccentric singing cowboy from Texas named Red River Dave.
“It’s a really neat little guitar,” Stewart said. “It has a strange neck and that funny soundhole that looks like a plectrum. I said, ‘This is really unusual,’ and the owner said, ‘I bought it at an auction in San Antonio.’ Then, as we were packing up, I opened its case and there were all these documents – Red River Dave’s songbooks, pictures of him with pretty girls and his hat on – lots of interesting stuff inside it. Later, when I started to play it… I don’t write country songs, but it became kind of an Excaliber in a way.”
The next day, he got a call from country singer Martina McBride, who was looking to pick the brains of Stewart and his cohorts in his media company, Weapons of Mass Entertainment (“It’s an ideas factory,” he says), in regard to a television show he’d conceived called “Malibu Country.”
Shortly after the call, Stewart was Nashville-bound.
“I hadn’t been in Nashville since the ’80s, when the Eurythmics played live. But I took this guitar with me. After our meeting (with McBride and her A-list music-producer husband, John), we went to their recording studio, and we were up until 2 a.m., drinking and playing music, and I was looking around the studio when something sort of took me over. I told them, ‘I’m coming here to make an album.’ And they said, ‘Oh… Great!’ But they didn’t realize I meant now – straight away (laughs)!
“So I asked John to get me players, and he really got into it. The guys he found had all done plenty of sessions, and some had even done sessions together, but they’d never played together in a band – and that was my concept – a backing band.”
As the principal players (drummer Chad Cromwell, bassists Michael Rhodes, guitarist Tom Bukovac, steel-guitarist Dan Dugmore, and keyboardist Mike Rojas) were being gathered, Stewart kept to himself one “small” detail… “I hadn’t really written any songs! I was making them up, adding things here and there. But it snowballed, and in five days, I came out with 15 songs.”
Also in the works is a “supergroup” being organized by Stewart and Mick Jagger. It’s called Super Heavy, and also includes Joss Stone, Damian Marley, and A.R. Rahman.
When you were a kid, you were turned on to music by a cousin who ran away to the U.S. and would mail old blues records back to your family in England.
Yes, it was amazing. We’d get this box from him, and inside he would put a pair of Levi’s corduroy jeans or something – things we couldn’t get in England. And then albums by Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson – all these blues artists. I was like, “What the hell is this?” And we’d play them, I was 13 or 14, and I would hear this stuff being played on guitar. That’s how it started for me.
Were they your inspiration for picking up the guitar?
Well, in Britain at the time – it was 1966 – all the bands were playing electric guitars and drums and bass, and we just didn’t have them. And then these records would come from my cousin. I particularly liked the records by Mississippi John Hurt. He had a fingerpicking style on just one guitar that sounded like there was more things going on. So I learned how to play and sing at the same time, then went off to play in folk clubs. It was really weird, this 15-year-old kid singing (hums a melody) “I’m satisfied, tickled too, old enough to marry you…” and people watching were like, “What the hell? Where’s he gettin’ this stuff from?” It was all out of my cousins “magic box.”
How did you progress as a musician?
My brother went to college and left his guitar behind – and he’s never forgiven me for this, but I took his guitar to a pawn shop and walked out with an electric guitar (laughs)! I wrote about it in a song called “Magic In The Blues” (from The Blackbird Diaries).
What brand was your brother’s acoustic?
It was pretty bad – an Eko. And he was really pissed off when he came home! But he didn’t play it that much, and by then I had already learned how to play electric, so he was kind of relenting because he thought, “S**t, Dave’s really good!”
So what electric guitar were you carrying when you walked out of that shop?
It was a copy of a Gibson Firebird; where I came from, we never got the real thing – even our potatoes and carrots were the bruised ones from Newcastle! But I learned to play electric guitar… then joined an acoustic band that eventually broke up over me arguing about wanting to be electric.
Did you get into a group that made some headway?
Yes. Actually, the acoustic band… I got signed first, as a solo act, to Island Music, and then the acoustic band made two albums on Rocket Records – we were signed by Elton John. Then, when we broke up, I sort of messed around for a bit before I met Annie and then this gentleman named Peet Coombes, and we formed a little group called the Tourists, where we made two albums and had quite a bit of success with it – gold albums and things, in Britain. Then, of course, the punk movement came around, and if you lived in London at that time, it was an avalanche – a wave – which we thought was really exciting, with the Clash and the Adverts and the Vibrators and the Sex Pistols.
We decided, me and Annie, that we didn’t want to try being a punkie guitar band because… it has to be living, breathing what you are and what you do at that time, you know? And so we went the exact opposite way – using icy-cold synths and sequencers, with soul singing on top.
The Eurythmics became one of the biggest pop bands of the early and mid ’80s…
We captured a lot of attention, then we started going back to bluesy R&B with “Would I Lie To You?” and “Missionary Man” and all those numbers.
Most fans of guitar music won’t correlate blues music with the Eurythmics. But there were definitely blues-influenced songs.
Yes, live, especially. In fact, the last live performance we did was during the opening of the Experience Music Project, and I played Mosrites and electric dobros… actually did during that whole tour.
Have certain guitars played bigger roles in your music a certain time?
I tend to stick to certain ones, then people tell me, “Try this” or “Try that.” And every now and then I see one on a wall in a shop or somebody brings one, and I get sort of possessed by it. Those I’ve tended to stick to have been either a Tennessean or different Gretsches, but mainly this big green Country Gent, which now my son plays in Nightmare & the Cat, which is his band. That’s kind of interesting because that guitar played on all of the Eurythmics songs.
You’ve worked with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers going back to the mid ’80, when you helped write songs and did some production work on Southern Accents, and Mike Campbell has mentioned using your guitars on some of their recordings.
And not many people know that he played on some Eurythmics records, like “Missionary Man” and a couple other songs. I was very close to him. He actually just gave me a guitar last year, which I played on Jay Leno [July 11]. It’s a Duesenberg Mike Campbell Special Edition. I’ve played that a lot.
Speaking of, you’ve teamed with Duesenberg on a guitar inspired by the new album…
Yes, the Blackbird Dave Stewart Artist Series guitars. It’s an amazing guitar.
What other vintage guitars do you have in your collection?
Well, my son steals half of them! I’ve got a 1951 Gibson acoustic that I love, but he won’t let go of it. I also have a Maccaferri. When I first got that, I couldn’t believe it. I’ve got old Fender Teles… but I’m often giving them away to friends and associates.
How does the Duesenberg play compared to a Gibson or a Fender?
They play fantastic. It’s a modern guitar, but has the feel and the weight as if you’re driving an old Cadillac. I don’t use much foot pedals – only every now and then, and it’ll just be a delay or overdrive once in a whole show. On the Leno show, I used a wah at one point.
What other guitars did you use on Blackbird Diaries?
Well, I used some of Tom Bukovac’s guitars as well as my own, but I mostly used my chrome Strat made at the Fender Custom Shop. It’s one of those freaky guitars that stays in tune all the time. It has a pure tone and has never needed fixing – it just goes spot-on.
You’ve been playing Takamine acoustics for years…
Yes, the very first time I played one was in Nashville, and I went into a guitar shop and there was a weird blue-looking guitar on the wall. I was like “What’s that?” This girl said, “It’s new from this company called Takamine, and you can plug it in.” Because I’ve always had problem playing acoustics live, what with standing still and having a mic and the feedback. And the Takamine has an amazing sound – it was the same as when it was sitting on your lap.
What other guitars are current favorites?
Brian Calhoun has a little company called Rockbridge Guitars, and I bought a few of those. They’re exactly what I wanted – loud and small – and I play them often. And Danny Ferrington has given me a terrific 12-string with a scroll neck.
Did you use it on the album?
I’m not sure, but I did use a Rickenbacker 12-string. That was pretty amazing – I was in L.A., playing with my band, Spiritual Cowboys, and Bruce Springsteen comes up backstage with Roger McGuinn and he says, “I’ve got a gift for you,” and he gave me a signed Roger McGuinn Limited Edition Rickenbacker 12-string. I’ve been very fortunate that guitar players give me guitars, and on the other hand I’ve done the same myself.
So, for every one you give away, you get one from somebody?
I don’t know about that, it’s just that I think a certain person should play this or that guitar.
Do you have a favorite type of guitar tone?
You know, in the past I had to be a bit of a chameleon, guitar-wise, because I’m producing and playing on so many different people’s records, and their records kind of determine the sound. Whereas The Blackbird Diaries is really the beginning of me as a singer/songwriter making my own records just as me and with a setup in a band that will be my sound. Then I can create a consistent guitar sound. But, I tend to love the warmer-sounding amps like the Divided by 13 – I play these crunchy, grungy, semi-distorted rhythmic parts with bluesy lead stabs. But then when I’m using a jingly-jangly guitar, like the Rickenbacker, I like a Fender Twin. I mostly go between those two.
Have you formed a touring band yet to go out with for The Blackbird Diaries?
No, but the guys who played on the album all talk about playing live. And I’m recording new songs with them in the exact same setup, which will establish, even more, this sound.
I went and waited 13 or 14 years to actually make an album that I sort of feel comfortable with, the sound being constant, and with me as the vocalist and front person. Now I feel like I put on the right suit, you know? It fits me and I feel comfortable in my skin.
So you’re going to turn around and do it again?
Sure, what’s the point in changing horses mid-stream? I love this band, and we could do anything, really. Even on the album, when we go from a strange song with accordion and to full-on like in “Beast Called Fame,” we can play anything and it’s still got this sound.
So, the session guys are going to tour with you?
Well, I’m building toward that. They’ve always been so booked up with Nashville sessions, that to get them all for a four-week period or something is complicated because you’ve got five guys who play with all different people.
It’s a bit like what we’ve done with Super Heavy. “I know! Let’s get Mick Jagger, A.R. Rahman, Joss Stone, and all these people who live in different parts of the world… and make a band (laughs)!”
What’s the story with Super Heavy?
I had this idea to make music that was really great sort of fusion, but not world music – it was saxy and bluesy and had Jamaican rhythms and drums, and Asian rhythms and singing, merged all together. And it just got bigger and bigger. We ended up recording 30 songs and an hour on film and we just shot a video. Now there’s all sorts of stuff happening.
This article originally appeared in VG September 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.