Butch Walker readily admits that when it comes to his life as a musician, performer, and producer, he has some decidedly “first-world problems,” like when a guitar he’d like to use on a song (or to photograph for a magazine spread!) happens to be at his Nashville studio instead of his other one, in L.A. He forges on, nonetheless. The Georgia native who began making music professionally when shred-guitar was king and “big hair” was everywhere has spent most of the last three decades carving a unique path.
Like so many other wannabe singers/drummers/guitarists from Everytown U.S.A., in the ’80s, he and a few fellow teens from the small town of Rome woke up the day after graduating high school and made tracks to Tinseltown, stars in their young, naive eyes. Unlike most, however, things worked out pretty well for them.
Through various twists and turns since, Walker has enjoyed a career in bands that had a hit or two (his trendsetting post-grunge band Marvelous 3 scored big in ’99 with “Freak of the Week”), as a soloist with an extensive discography, and as a producer with an even longer list of credits working with some of the highest-profile artists of a generation (Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, etc., etc., etc…).
As a child, Walker was exposed to music via his mother’s piano playing and his father’s record collection, which included CCR, Grand Funk Railroad, and “lots of Elvis.”
“I would sit and stare at the album covers,” he said. “When you’re that young and seeing the images of this sweaty dude with jet-black hair and sequined jumpsuit striking kung-fu poses… I wanted to know what that was about.”
Those albums and scant music-oriented television programs sent Walker down the path. “I’d see guitars and drums on ‘The Monkees’ or ‘The Muppet Show’ and just lose my little adolescent brain,” he laughed. “Then, when I was taken to my first concert, it was all over. I really lost it.” His watershed moment happened at age eight, when, in a questionable parenting move, Walker’s folks took him to see a Kiss concert.
“Mom and dad hated that s**t, but I begged them. I saw the ad on TV, and of course I was all about it. I thought, ‘What is this, man?’ The face paint, the blood… You weren’t seeing that on public-access television in Cartersville, Georgia, in 1977.
“So, I talked them into taking me, and there, we watched people passing joints and beer getting thrown around, beach balls bouncing all over. It was pretty incredible – like going to the circus.”
After his sensory deflowering, though, “…the circus sucked in comparison.” It was then and there Walker knew he wanted to play music.
A husband and proud father, he’s also a motorcycle enthusiast whose garage hosts a ’54 Harley-DavidsonFLE panhead, ’49 FL panhead, a shovelhead chopper, a ’72 BMW R-75/5, and a few others.
We talked with him as his seventh solo album, Afraid Of Ghosts, was set for release. Produced by singer/songwriter/roots-rocker Ryan Adams at his PAX AM Studios in L.A., the disc offers hints of gritty folk, pop, and rock while telling a bit about the Walker’s journey through life, love, and everything in-between. In short, Walker says, “It represents a culmination of all the stuff that has been my musical diet for years.”
Which instrument did you first learn to play?
I wanted to be a drummer, so I begged my parents for a kit, and for Christmas got a white four-piece Reuther set. It was the most awesome thing I’d ever seen. I practiced and practiced and wasn’t that great, but it was enough to get me into bands around town and hold a beat through an Elvis song, Kiss song, or an REO Speedwagon song. But, I was a musician, and I was playing with guys who were much older than me – married, had kids. The thing was, drums didn’t come natural to me. What did come natural was being a ham, and I started to feel like drums were inhibiting. More and more, I wanted to be out front, so I started on a guitar that was left at my house, where we rehearsed, learning chords and playing Steve Miller songs or whatever. I was hooked.
What was the guitar?
It was a Hondo II or something, with weird pickups and lots of rocker switches. I sounded awful on it, but it didn’t matter, because it was cool to me. Any electric guitar was cool to me at the time. I would learn songs on the low E string, just sliding up and down the neck, picking out notes. My mom saw that and thought, “He can do this.” So, she found a guitar teacher for me – a guy named Jerry King.
I was 13 at the time, so of course I couldn’t drive, but Jerry was so passionate about teaching that he’d pick me up after school on his way from teaching jazz ensembles and classical guitar in Atlanta. He’d drive through my town and we’d go to his studio in Rome, where we’d do an hour-and-a-half lesson, then mom would pick me up after work. We did that for several years and I really advanced. Jerry was into contemporary jazz, so I was learning a lot of Larry Carlton and Joe Pass. I really liked the challenge, and every so often he’d teach me a Journey solo just to shut me up.
Who were your idols in those formative years?
Well, seeing Ace Frehley playing a cherry sunburst Les Paul, I remember thinking, “Look at that thing!” Ace put the rock-and-roll visual in my head. Then, it was Neil Schon – everything from early Santana to Journey; he wrote the most memorable solos ever, and has always had a beautiful playing style. I got into Van Halen after my sister’s boyfriend traded me their first album for my Kiss Alive II, and it freaked me out. From there, I never looked back. And that was when Kramer madness happened – superstrats and stuff like that – and I was way into it. Then, I started listening to Gary Moore, Brian May, Randy Rhoads – all the guys who became my rock icons. I learned to play all those solos.
What guitar were you using at the time?
When I started taking lessons with Jerry, it was a Kramer or Ibanez – I don’t recall exactly. But not long after, I really got into Strats and bought an early-’70s one for $300 or $400.
When I was 16, Jerry suggested I start teaching. So, I started giving lessons to about 15 students, and also started playing in a band with guys who happened to be 10 years older than me, but like me, were into heavy metal. We did lots of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Kiss, and Dokken – heavier stuff. We played bars in Atlanta and Rome – five- or six-night stints where we’d do two or three sets each night. One day, the bass player ran off with our van and all of our lights, and sold it all for coke money. We never saw him again. After that, I formed a new band with guys I found mostly through Jerry. We became popular enough in Atlanta and Rome that, even though we had to play covers to make a living, we could sneak in a couple of originals and people would sit through them. It was the Holy Grail for me – a kid in high school, playing in bars, partying with all these older girls.
You were the jailbait (laughs)…
Yeah. We’d go to their cars between sets, and I’d sometimes wake up after three hours of sleep and go to school with some of their makeup smeared on my face (laughs).
Did the fact it went so well locally push you to move to L.A.?
Yeah. That and I had two older sisters who spent my dad’s last dime going to college. Plus, I wanted to play my own music and write my own songs, and there was no original-music scene in Atlanta. It sounded lofty, telling my old-fashioned parents, who of course were like, “Good luck with that.” And, a lot of the guys in Atlanta had tried L.A. and came back within a few months. They’d tell me, “There’s a million bands better than you out there.”
I heard all the clichés, but, the day after we finished school, we moved. And immediately, we suffered culture shock. We’d never been out of Georgia, and of course there’s no way to prep for it. We didn’t know anything or anybody, didn’t know how to get a gig. We just had to go. I had $1,000 in my pocket, saved up from teaching lessons, and it lasted about a week.
We had a s****y three-song demo we’d made on a four-track cassette recorder, and played it for some guy at the Whiskey A Go Go – we went there only because we knew that some bands had gotten a start there – and he said, “I’m gonna put you on our jam night next Monday.” I don’t know why he chose us – our personalities, maybe – but it was a big deal, even if we knew we’d be lucky to play in front of 10, 20 people. And of course, it was a pay-to-play thing; the club told us, “You gotta sell $1,500 worth of tickets,” which sucked when nobody knows you. So, we ran around and tried to convince all these hairsprayed groupie girls to buy tickets for a band they’d never heard of – and there were 20 bands doing the same thing.
We sold our tickets, played our six songs, and were written up in a local heavy-metal rag called Rock City News. They called us, “The tightest band on the Sunset Strip,” which was not true, but it got us noticed. We got popular quickly and were headlining clubs within a year – the Whiskey, the Roxy, Gazzari’s, which was the big one at the time. It was fun… and weird.
Was the name SouthGang an ode to Georgia?
Yeah. We were trying to let people know that we were not an L.A. band. We had to be in L.A., just like every other band at the time, but once we got signed, we moved back to Atlanta, where I lived for the next 16 years. I pretty much came up in Atlanta and was in a lot of bands there.
You and SouthGang bassist Jayce Fincher sometimes played Robin instruments in an era of Jackson, Charvel, Ibanez, etc.
Yeah, for a while we were endorsed by Robin Guitars, out of Texas. They were great. They made us all kinds of funky instruments with weird graphics. I had a couple of their Ranger guitars, and a Machete. They were cool. Through the years, though, I always ended up going back to Les Pauls or Strats, for the most part – or Teles – before I went into different styles, musically, where I needed weirder hollowbodies or 12-string electrics.
Talk about your personal and musical transition from SouthGang to Marvelous 3 and your solo work.
At various times, I got into power pop, pop punk, ’70s glam, you name it. And over the years, I’ve worn parachute pants, leather pants, cowboy boots, spandex, hoop earrings, bell-bottom jeans – all that s**t.
Funny, how you equate the different music you made with clothing styles…
Yeah… and you know, the only thing I’ve never regretted, ever, was wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Those never go out of style, and will always be rock and roll. You see pictures of John Lennon wearing jeans and a t-shirt, Elvis, or whoever down the line all the way to current artists – everyone has worn jeans and a t-shirt. And really, that’s the music I’m making now – jeans and a t-shirt. I don’t classify it. It’s just music.
There was a span where you were making quieter, acoustic-driven music. More singer/songwriter stuff.
For a long time, I was burned out on electric guitars, and I started really enjoying what I was getting from an acoustic and how it was speaking to me as a songwriter. I actually started collecting acoustic guitars, and had a mandolin, a banjolin – instruments like that.
The new record is a bit of that – my Nebraska, or a bit like a Jackson Browne album. It has a very “songwriter” feel, but with guitar work that stands out as each player’s. I played a solo or two, but mostly it’s me singing and playing acoustic. I asked Ryan Adams to produce it because I wanted to not produce myself for a change. Ryan and I are friends and we respect each other’s work. We used his band, had him play lead on some songs, had Bob Mould play a few, and Johnny Depp plays one. I’m playing solos on a couple and [Adams’ guitarist] Mike Viola plays some. It became a true collaborative effort.
It’s kind of like a driving the same car for years, but changing the color and upholstery and wheels as time passes. I love Harleys, and it was like starting with a classic tank-shifter from the World War II era and through the ’40s and the ’50s and the ’60s and ’70s, then going to choppers with flashy paint jobs and crazy wheels, then going back to something more functional, that you can drive across the country. It’s always been a Harley, but we’ve changed the look and the ride a bit.
Which of your bikes is equivalent to Afraid of Ghosts?
I’d say it’s back to my ’49 panhead – all stock, no bulls**t, and no matter what, it always rides, always runs.
The album is moody and ethereal, with a great old-school sound. Did you use old amps?
Totally. It was mostly vintage Fender Deluxes or Princetons – a lot of silverface Deluxe.
What guitars are heard most on it?
Most of the gear we used was Ryan’s; he is more a vintage nut than anybody I know and has an insane collection of guitars and amps. So, I didn’t take any of my stuff. He has a Silvertone that I liked, and all these vintage Kays and Gibsons and Martins, and of course his Gibson ES-355, his ’60s Jazzmaster, and a ton of others. But yeah, the album is very classic-sounding.
Are there solos that draw you in more, personally, because they sound a certain way or because of the way they were played?
Well, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my favorite solo on the record is the one I did (laughs) for “Bed On Fire.” Almost everything was recorded live in one or two takes, and that solo was the first attempt. I played it off the top of my head; it’s weird, piercing, and brittle, almost like when Elvis Costello plays a lead, you know? Real maniacal and shakey, with just enough shred to it. But, it’s also got a dark, weird vibe; I used the vibrato on the Jazzmaster like crazy.
The end of “Father’s Day,” when Bob Mould comes in on guitar, is so signature. It’s always powerful when you have a guy come in and play through an amp he doesn’t normally use and a guitar he doesn’t normally use, but when you hear it, it’s still very much, “Oh, there’s Bob Mould!” So, yeah, I thought that solo came out really well.
The solo at the end of “21 and Over” is Johnny Depp. People give him s**t for being an actor who plays guitar, but the dude is a musician, first and foremost; he shouldn’t be discounted just because he’s known more as actor. He’s awfully good, and I was pretty impressed with his solo, which sounds super-haunting.
Ryan plays a solo over Bob Mould’s rhythm stuff at the end of “Father’s Day,” and it is killer. He’s a great guitar player – also very underrated – and I remember him telling me how frustrated he was when he was making a couple of records with Glynn Johns, how Glynn never let him play guitar, didn’t want him to play solos, didn’t want him to play electric. I was like, “Man, that’s a shame,” because I wanted him to play all over my record. He has a style that comes from a different place that is fat-sounding and beautiful, just like his songs.
Which guitar did Johnny Depp play to do the “21 and Over” solo?
Ryan’s 355. Ryan plays that guitar a lot, live. It’s walnut-colored and beautiful, with block inlays.
Is guitar your primary songwriting tool?
Definitely, always has been. I started playing piano late in the game and have written songs on it, too, but I’m more John Lennon, less John Legend. I play piano with three fingers, know a few chords, and I like piano as a tool, but 90 percent of the time, I reach for a guitar and a capo.
You mentioned your tendency through the years to turn back to classic solidbody guitars. What were a few of your favorites?
I had late-’70s Les Paul Deluxes and Customs that were great. I was always trading guitars, buying and selling whatever, but it was mostly ’70s stuff that had been modified or routed – Frankenstein guitars, scalloped-neck Strats. When I was a teenager, I was into Yngwie, and I ended up with a few Strats. My favorite was a Silver Anniversary model I bought for 500 bucks in mint condition from some bible thumper who brought it to sell in the music store where I gave lessons. At the time, I had long hair, earrings – everything – and at first, he was like, “I’m not selling this guitar to some devil worshiper!” I wish I still had that one.
Have you ever had the opportunity to acquire a ’50s Les Paul Standard?
I never got close back in the day. I was playing Les Pauls I could pick up for 500 bucks before Slash made them popular again. I did come close to buying Peter Green’s ’58 Les Paul that once belonged to Gary Moore, right before Gary died, but I needed to build a house at the time, (laughs), so…
Whenever I’ve bought anything that was so precious or expensive, I’ve always found myself scared to f***in’ play it, man. I’m really hard on instruments, and playing won’t be fun if I’m onstage with some guitar worth a quarter-million dollars, worried that I’ll ruin it if a straplock breaks. I don’t want to be the guy telling people, “Don’t even look at it!” So, most of my guitars are beaters. They have personality, and that has always been more important to me. When I walk into a pawn shop or a guitar shop and find a guitar that speaks to me, I don’t care if the bridge is different or if it’s not stock tuners or whatever. I just want something exciting, something I play better because of that guitar.
About eight years ago, I moved back to California; moved my whole operation – home, studio, 50 vintage guitars, 40-some vintage microphones, vintage drum kits, everything. I had a massive recording studio in Atlanta and moved it all to this house in Malibu that I was renting from Flea, the bass player in Red Hot Chili Peppers, because it was beautiful and had a studio. I loved it. Then, the whole dang thing burned to the ground. Everything. (Ed note: the house was one of more than 1,500 destroyed by wildfires in Southern California in October of 2007.) I was in New York City at the time with my wife, Nora, and son, James. I had an acoustic show, and came back with two just two guitars to my name, including the ’62 Hummingbird that has been my baby and I’ve used to write most of my songs. I lost amazing ’60s Gibsons, hollowbodies, basses – all kinds of stuff. I couldn’t replace all of it, but I’m back up to 20-some guitars – all stuff that I play a lot. After the fire, I told myself, “You’re not gonna get guitars that will sit on a shelf and be a trophy.”
Have there been instances where, as a producer, you had greater input in regard to the instruments used on a project?
Well, I’ve gotten lucky enough to produce a lot of different styles of music. I’m currently working on three records; one is two girls out of Nashville who sound like the White Stripes meets En Vogue, some Harry Connick, Jr. stuff for his new album, and I just did this new album for Frank Turner, who is huge in Europe and the U.K.
I try to always, especially on a pop record, to do more organic recording than anybody in that world. Most of the music made in pop is laptop drums and laptop instruments, and there are not a lot of microphones used except for the vocals. I’m more hopelessly old-school; I still have a big, analog console, my 24-track Studer Mark III, and lots of old outboard gear. I run ProTools through my old console.
I do a bit of it all, and there’s guitar on almost all of it. As a guitar player, I can’t just get rid of that. I enjoy working on records where there’s a lot more enthusiasm to play “organic” instruments with mics on them, just going for it.
So, yeah, I’m pretty hands-on. In the studio, nine times out of 10, the project ends up using my guitars, my amps, and my drum kits – and everybody’s happy.
As you see it, is the music more “real” when it’s made that way?
I think that’s probably psychosomatic. I don’t know for a fact that at the end of the day, many people can tell when someone uses instruments from “the box” – a laptop. Much like people can’t tell if something was recorded on tape or in the box. Technology has gotten really convincing. It’s a “mind over matter” thing, maybe. But, using real instruments makes me feel better inside. It might be a different approach in a time when people are so used to hitting a button to correct pitch or timing, which suck the human element out of it – the little cracks, pops, wheezes, and mess-ups that make a record interesting to listen to more than once. Our brains quickly grow tired when listening to synthetic sounds – a perfect sound wave or something played in perfect time. I like to hear the rustling of the pages from the lyrics in the background, or maybe hear someone coughing. That, to me, keeps it interesting.
The kick-drum pedal squeak on “Good Times, Bad Times”…
… is incredible! I love that. Or how you hear the tape bleed in the middle of “Whole Lotta Love.”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s April 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.