Ask what defines Rocky Athas’ sonic universe and the Texas-born guitarist will readily answer, “Tone,” which he best exploits in his weapon of choice, a 1962 Surf Green Stratocaster.
The marriage hardly happened overnight, as Athas readily explains.
“From 1973 to 1983, I used nothing but Les Pauls – I didn’t even own a Stratocaster,” he said. “I just thought [Les Pauls] were the greatest. The Les Paul is such a beautiful instrument, and a Strat is simple in design, but it has so many more tones. When you get many different tones, it inspires you to write different-sounding songs.”
The proof lies on Athas’ instrumental disc, That’s What I Know (Diamond Head Productions, 1998). In 30 crisp minutes, Athas burns through driving blues/rock (“Think About It,” “On The Move”), to gutsy shuffles (“D Boogie”), snappish rhythm and blues (“Rock Funk”), glistening ballads (“Run Children Run”), and dazzling pyrotechnic displays (“What’s That”).
“That’s the compliment I get; ‘We like it because you didn’t stick with one thing,'” said Athas. “If you listen to a Ted Nugent album, you’re going to hear the same guitar sound. That’s why I went to a Strat.”
Athas may well be the hottest guitarist working today without a major label deal. While peers like Eric Johnson, and his late childhood friend, Stevie Ray Vaughan – the subject of That’s What I Know‘s powerful closing tribute, “To My Friend” – graduated to certified magazine cover-boy status, Athas is still waiting for a wider chance to prove himself.
His best opportunity may come with the Bluesberries, which pairs Athas with ex-Band of Gypsys drummer/vocalist Buddy Miles, keyboardist Mark Leach, and Vaughan’s celebrated rhythm section of Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon.
The Bluesberries spent most of February tracking an album for shopping to major labels. “This album is saying, ‘Look, we know how to rock, but we still know how to play a good, proper blues,'” said Athas.
Athas credits Greg Diamond, who produced and financed That’s What I Know, with helping jumpstart the Bluesberries. Diamond bumped into Layton and Shannon – then working on their own project, to which Athas was asked to contribute.
“From there, it just sprang,” he said. “I’ve known Buddy for 20 years, we all connected by phone and said, ‘If we put this together, it would be awesome.’ We tracked [the album], and the magic was there.”
A re-grouped Black Oak Arkansas also put Athas’ talents and tonal explorations to prime use on its latest in-your-face offering, The Wild Bunch (Cleopatra Records, 1999). In the meantime, there’s no shortage of admirers to spread the word, including ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Pantera’s Darrell Abott, and the New Bohemians’ Kenny Withrow.
On “To My Friend,” Athas tips his hat to Vaughan. The two were friends in high school, and formed a mutual admiration society.
“It’s not actually supposed to not sound like him,” said Athas, of the track. “The main thought is, ‘You’re in my heart, my feelings, and thoughts, and I wrote this about you.'”
Vaughan’s memory is not far from Athas’ mind.
“We used to jam all the time. He taught me how to play ‘House Of The Rising Sun,’ which is hysterical – that’s how far back [the memory] goes.” But the pair hardly spent every waking moment plotting their every waking move.
“We were just friends who had the same goals,” Athas stresses. “And we picked up ideas from each other.”
Still, some funny things could happen when the drive to succeed kicked into overdrive. “We used to go to jam sessions together, and one time when Sunset High was having one, Stevie called me, saying ‘We should go…'”
There was one problem.
“‘We went to Kimball High, and they wouldn’t let us in at Sunset High!’ He goes, ‘Well, we’ll just sneak in.’
“And that’s exactly what we did,” he laughs. “When we went in, they said, ‘This is only for the Sunset guys. You can watch, but you can’t play.'”
Suitably put out, the pair was leaving.
“All of a sudden, one of the amplifiers blew,” said Athas. “Stevie had his Silvertone in my car, and we rolled it in. He said, ‘You can use my amp, but let me play.'”
And when a photo of the jam appeared in Sunset’s yearbook, there was Stevie!
“That was so funny because all the guys who put it on didn’t get a picture in their own annual.”
Athas has never had any dearth of admirers, starting at 23, when Buddy magazine ranked him among Texas’ hottest guitarists, with the likes of Gibbons, Bugs Henderson, Eric Johnson, and Jimmie Vaughan. Such endorsements, and a strong word-of-mouth reputation, were enough to attract Gibson’s interest in ’79.
“Me and Eric had the same manager, so we used to do all kinds of dates together, and became real good friends,” said Athas. “We weren’t making much money, but were definitely getting our act – and our chops – together. From what I understand, we were the first to get signed without a record contract” (the deal is still apparently in effect, though “[Gibson] doesn’t actually give away guitars – you get it for endorsement price, which is awesomely low,” he adds).
Athas’ local profile mushroomed in the late ’70s with his band, Lightning, which became one of Texas’ hottest draws, and supported a host of heavies (including Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Rick Derringer, Peter Frampton, The Kinks, Ted Nugent, and Pat Travers).
Yet fate played its share of cruel games; a 1977 deal with United Artists soured when Lightning determined its signing had been treated as a tax write off. The band had no better luck with Capricorn Records; an album had reached the mixing stages when the label went bankrupt.
“We never got a record deal, but as far as playing was concerned, we had a pretty good buzz going,” he said.
A helping hand arrived in ’82, when Black Oak Arkansas vocalist Jim Dandy Mangrum invited Athas to tour with him, yielding its Ready As Hell album (Capricorn, 1984). Unfortunately, a smattering of approving nods meant nothing at the box office, so Ready As Hell (which ended a six-year recording drought) stiffed.
“That actually is a good album, and you know what’s really weird?” said Athas. “We didn’t think in terms of song structure. We just felt we could put out anything. The whole thing was sort of a letdown, because the label didn’t put any money behind it.”
On the heels of that experience came another endorsement deal from an unlikely quarter.
“I was playing in Dallas, and this guy came up and said, ‘What do you think of Guild guitars?’ ‘Oh, they suck,'” Athas recalls responding. “He goes, ‘Oh, I’m the rep for Guild.’ I didn’t know what to say.”
Guild sought to improve matters with the $1,300 Rocky Athas I, pulling out all the stops with a campaign that included print ads and an MTV spot. “Damn thing used to [air] four to five times a day, which was cool,” he laughs. “It made my price go up, even with my local band.”
However, as Guild soon discovered, in 1984, kids weren’t ready to pay $1,300 for a guitar.
“No one told me that, and we ended up selling very few of them,” said Athas. “I should have done like Jimmie Vaughan, where you can buy one for $349 and have a great guitar with your name on it.” Guild chose not to renew the contract.
Athas still holds an endorsement deal with Van Zandt pickups, but has ended one with Crate amplifiers. Otherwise, he has kept his setups remarkably consistent, yet never completely predictable.
“I do a lot of rhythms on the Les Paul, because they have a really thick sound. I do all my leads on the Strat,” he says.
Athas returned to the Black Oak fold in ’97, again at Dandy’s invitation.
“He says, ‘We’ve got 40 dates with Foghat. Can you get to practice in two days?’ It was just like we hadn’t been apart. He always said I was his favorite guitar player.”
The tour, which also included Grand Funk Railroad, helped to cement a deal with Cleopatra. This time around, however, “We thought more about song structure, instead of us just playing crazy,” said Athas.
A greater depth of arrangements, including updates of several Black Oak standbys (“Jim Dandy To The Rescue ’99,” “Mutants Of The Monster ’99,” “Happy Hooker ’99,” and “Hot ‘N’ Nasty ’99”), gave Athas free reign to explore his tonal philosophy.
Most of the tracks stemmed from jams, which were handed over for Dandy’s lyrical input. “If I have a riff, like on ‘No Time,’ that could be real strong, I immediately record it on the four-track and give it to Jim,” said Athas. “He adapts the words.”
Athas collaborated on “Dark Purple Blues,” the anthemic “This Is Our Time,” “No Time,” and “Top Heavy Dallas” in such fashion, except “Talk To The Hand,” which he co-wrote with brother-in-law Glenn Miller. “He brought that melody line to me – that happens from sitting around, practicing runs on guitar,” said Athas.
Athas split the 15 tracks on The Wild Bunch between his ’92 Strat and a ’79-neck Strat. “But that’s the ’62 on ‘Post Toastee,'” he notes.
“If you listen, it’s just got more bite on that song. Since I do an intro, I wanted it to cut through.”
“Post Toastee” and “Shake The Devil” (which features an ominous Jim Dandy spoken intro) are originals by Tommy Bolin, who died of a drug overdose in ’76, following stints in Deep Purple, and before a promising solo career could take off.
For amps, Athas stuck by a Lab L-5, a Fender Tonemaster, and a 4 X 12 Fender cabinet.
“Black Oak is just ‘get-in-your-face, let’s-rock-and-roll’ [music],” he avers. “If I used a Fender Twin, I don’t think it would match what we’re doing.”
The trusty ’62 Strat held sway for the Bluesberries sessions, except a ’79 cherry-colored Les Paul, which Athas used on two rhythm tracks. Otherwise, “…[the choice of guitar] is a no-brainer,” he laughs. “When you find an instrument that becomes an extension of you, you use it.”
For amps, Athas used a Fender Twin on bluesier numbers, followed by a Fender Bassman, Fender Tonemaster, and Lab L-5, as well as a Lab bass head.
“I found the Lab in a pawnshop for $50, and it just sounds great!” Athas enthuses. “It really sounds good. I used it on two tracks.”
Athas hopes the resulting album will help all the players reach a wider audience. Band photos featuring the boys trying to snatch a blueberry pie away from Miles, their vocalist, have already been taken, and tentative tour plans are in motion, depending on who picks up the recorded results.
“We’re taking [the Bluesberries' approach] a step at a time – I don’t have any plans to quit Black Oak,” said Athas. “If this is a hit record, we’ll deal with that accordingly!”
Athas shifted gears completely for That’s What I Know. He and co-writer Clark Findley – who played bass, keyboards, and programmed MIDI drums – considered making the album more vocal-oriented, but decided the tracks stood up well enough by themselves (only two outside musicians – drummer Johnnie Bolin and bassist Kenny Parker – were used).
“I basically did it because I wanted people to see what my guitar was all about,” said Athas. “Also, when we reviewed the songs, we decided these things should have a lot of melody, even as instrumentals.”
As on the other albums, Athas’ Strat carried the day, except on “Run Children Run,” which features a 1980 Les Paul. “I was going for a different sound and it seemed to fit,” he said. “I did a track with the Strat, and a track with the Les Paul, and I liked the Les Paul better.
“For amps, I used a Lab L-5 head on a 4 X 12 Fender cabinet – and on the other half I used a ’59 Bassman head, which is just awesome, but it belongs to Greg,” laughs Athas. “We don’t take that on the road. He won’t sell it to me – I have to borrow it!”
Athas makes sparing use of effects, sticking mainly to an Ibanez Tube Screamer. “I put the settings at two o’clock; that’s the secret to anyone’s good lead tone, because it adds the perfect amount of sustain,” he declares.
Athas also uses a discontinued DOD digital delay pedal.
“It gives me that slight slap – the only pedal I’ve heard that does that.” He also uses a Vox Wah (not a vintage model).
“I can’t find one that sounds good anymore,” he said. “I found one for $220 at a guitar show. I might as well get a new one.”
Athas uses Ernie Ball strings, .009 to .042 on his Strats, and .010 to .046 on the Les Pauls.
His picks tend to be Dunlop-style thins, flipped so the round edge strikes his strings. This gives him a more precise, robust attack.
“You can fold the pick, and you’ve got total control. It’s right there in my fingers.”
Athas has found time for other one-off projects between his Black Oak, solo, and Bluesberries albums. In ’93 he toured with Ace Frehley before Kiss reunited, did a bill with Warrant and Dangerous Toys.
He next tried to lead another local original band, which folded. In the process, he was introduced to ex-Trapeze/Deep Purple vocalist Glenn Hughes. The connection came through former Lightning manager Morris Price, who’d also road managed Trapeze.
“Glenn came to Dallas, and Morris called and said, ‘Can you come out to this club?'” recalls Athas. “We got up and played, and we instantly clicked.”
Athas and Hughes collaborated on five unreleased songs, but were unable to sort out the business aspects.
However, a greater opportunity came from the Tommy Bolin Archives, which has reissued the late guitarist’s unheard material; when their phone call came, Athas learned that Hughes had recommended him to play on the resulting Live 1997 album. “It has done real well in Japan, and, from what I understand, on the internet. Of course, Glenn is still big in Japan.”
Athas and Hughes followed up the Live 1997 effort with a six-date Texas tour last summer, which also included Johnnie Bolin on drums. “We’re putting out another album of [Tommy Bolin] songs, all new, all arranged. Johnnie has all this stuff his brother did. We wrote new stuff around Tommy’s demos,” said Athas. “Some of this is stuff the public never got a chance to hear.”
Athas’ instrumentals may also find another outlet, in Hollywood, where Greg Hampton, who engineered The Wild Bunch (“…one of the industry’s best ears”), has established a flourishing soundtrack career.
Two tracks from That’s What I Know may surface in Jimi And Me, which is told from the viewpoint of the late guitarist’s younger brother, Leon.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed, because the movie isn’t complete and a lot of things can happen, but that’s the talk,” said Athas.
Suitably inspired, Athas has also completed a 12-track compact disc of surf instrumentals, which may also end up in movies.
“If not, I may put it out, like the [solo instrumental] CD, and see what happens,” he said. “If you’re looking for hot licks, this ain’t the place,” said Athas.
The surf project has forced him rethink many of his trademark techniques, because, “You can’t get a good tone – you gotta get a ****** tone,” he laughs. “Which is hard as hell, and you’re not allowed to bend notes!”
Athas hopes this plethora of projects showcases his versatility.
“That’s what made Clapton last so long,” he declares. “You can hear him play a blues, but he also can rock it up – ‘Crossroads,’ ‘Badge,’ or ‘Sunshine Of Your Love.’ There’s just so much to be expressed. I want everybody to appreciate me for continuously growing. I don’t want to bore people.”
As a result, Athas’ suggestions to young players are as direct as his approach to sculpting the ultimate tone.
“First, just try not [to] get sidetracked with drugs, because then the guitar is not your main instrument.”
For players hoping to scale the same seismic heights as Clapton, Hendrix, or even Stevie Ray Vaughan, Athas believes style and tone cannot be divorced.
“When you have a lot of different tones, you end up getting up a lot of different styles. That’s good to let people know, because if a young guitarist will actually try for a different sound, it’ll make him play a little different. A lot of times, if you’ve got that overdriven, sustained thing, you’ll end up playing the same licks that fit that mood, but the song may be calling for something pure, clean, real soulful, and less notes.
“Stevie showed a bunch of different tones, and he does jazz licks, rockin’ blues licks, and pure blues licks, and then, just ‘Stevie’ licks, ’cause of the tone he got,” laughs Athas. “There’s just no mistaking Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
So Athas’ thoughts circle back to how to get a variety of colors on his guitar to move an audience which, he contends, has wearied of a industry-driven, monochromatic expression.
“Even young kids like my son; on his own, he’ll grab a Cream CD and play it because he likes it,” said Athas. “But he also will play Korn because he’s into that clique. That’s what I would like to have happen 30 years from now with stuff I leave behind – people can actually go, ‘Yeah, that **** still sounds good’, like with ‘Sunshine Of Your Love,’ ‘Crossroads,’ or any Hendrix cut.”
Rocky Athas with his custom color ’62 Fender Stratocaster. Photo courtesy of Rocky Athas.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’00 issue.