Jimmy Crespo

Rock Journeyman
Rock Journeyman

The career of Jimmy Crespo has spanned three decades, from his stellar five-year stint with Aerosmith to his recent work on Rod Stewart’s recent world tour. He has also gigged and/or recorded with Bernie Taupin, Stevie Nicks, Julian Lennon, Billy Squire, and a host of others. Steven Tyler calls Crespo “One of the best guitarists I’ve ever known,” and his guitar work is a textbook study in classic hard rock. More recently, Crespo temporarily joined forces with former Quiet Riot vocalist Paul Shortino in a re-formation of Shortino’s hard rock band, Rough Cutt. But shortly after that affiliation began, opportunity knocked in the form of a gig backing Las Vegas entertainer Jimmy Hopper at the famed Bellagio Hotel. There, he’s featured with a solo spot nightly, and the house is always sold out.

VG caught up with Crespo in the midst of all this action to discuss his career – past, present and future. He shared his insights on playing with of some of rock’s biggest names, and his recipes for great tone. As a veteran of the many ups and downs the music business presents, he still comes across with a youthful enthusiasm. A Brooklyn native, Crespo has lived on the “left coast” for the past 15 years.

Vintage Guitar: You’ve always been pretty busy with studio sessions. What’s the latest?

/B>Jimmy Crespo: My latest session was a Joe Satriani tribute CD. I’m also working with former Kansas violinist David Ragsdale, who plays in Jimmy Hopper’s band with me. And I’m doing an album of my own music, which I hope to release in the Spring.

How did the Rough Cutt gig come about?
I was invited to host a Monday night jam series at the Zodiac Club, outside of L.A., and on the second Monday, Paul came up to sing. We just hit it off. He’s got such a bluesy, soulful, yet totally rock and roll voice, and he knows just about every song in the world. Soon after, we started playing gigs as the Rhythm Junkies.

After the RJ gigs, we started jamming on heavier tunes, so Paul came up with the idea of re-forming Rough Cutt, which was started in the mid ’80s, and asked me to join. We put some songs together, then went into the studio to record a seven-song EP…

What kind of stuff was it?
It’s a good rock and roll record, with solid songs, a bit on the heavier side, with lots of guitars. We had a lot of fun.

How did you first get into the guitar?
My father was a guitar player and singer. We’re Puerto Rican, so we always had a Spanish nylon or gut-string guitar around. And my grandfather was a violinist. So I was supposed to become a violinist, but I couldn’t stand the way you had to hold it. But it wasn’t until The Beatles and Rolling Stones came through that I said, “I’m going to play!”

Do you remember what your first good setup was, and who really inspired you to play?
When I heard Eric Clapton on the Fresh Cream record, I was just enthralled by his sound. It was like a violin, and I never heard a guitar sound like that. That was the coolest sound, and I knew I wanted to go for that. So I bought a ’68 Les Paul Custom and 100-watt Marshall… I was about 16 years old. That sound just sucked me in. Then I researched his work with the Bluesbreakers, and that did it for me. Then, of course, I heard Jimi Hendrix, and he just blew me away. That first album (Are You Experienced?) just looked so… out of this world. It was like looking at three Frankensteins on the cover with their crazy clothes and afros, and the guitar sounds… It was like nothing that came before it, including Clapton’s stuff.

And then there was Jeff Beck. Between them, I learned there was more to guitar than just twangy chords, and that made the guitar a viable instrument to me. So I’d say that Clapton, Hendrix, and Beck, in that order, really inspired me to play.

You first came into the public eye in the ’70s, with a group called Flame. What can you tell us about that group? And what was happening, musically, at the time?
About six months before the Flame thing, I’d given up playing New York clubs because I was sick of the scene – bands breaking up, guys not showing for gigs. So like an ignorant fool I said, “I’m going to get into recording!” Like it’s that easy (laughs)!

But I was fortunate enough that Jimmy Iovine, assistant engineer for Bruce Springsteen at the time (now president of Interscope Records), was putting together a group around singer Marge Raymond, and I auditioned for Jimmy. He liked the way I played, and I got the gig. We had a two-record deal with RCA, and we played what was happening at the time – a fusion of R&B and rock, New York-style. So it was my first record deal, and I thought, “This is cool! I can do this!”

And from there you joined Aerosmith in ’79, when Joe Perry left at the end of the Night in the Ruts sessions?
It looked that way, but actually Flame fell apart, as groups do when there’s no money coming in. So Jimmy turned me on to studio work. I did a lot of that, with Meatloaf, Stevie Nicks, and a ton of other stuff. It was a great period for me, I was self-employed and collecting checks. I was fortunate in that it seemed every decision I made worked out. But you have to make those decisions with a good heart and because you mean it, so you’re going to try your best. And it has worked.

I was also playing with whoever I could at the time. For example, if people were auditioning for record companies, I’d do it regardless of the pay because I was digging it. And that’s how David Krebs (Aerosmith’s manager at the time) saw me playing. Joe Perry was leaving, and David said, “How would you feel about being the lead guitar player for Aerosmith?” And I said, “Well, that’s a loaded question. But it’d be great!” This was in ’79, and they were finishing recording Night In The Ruts.

You were playing a late-’50s Strat at the time, right?
Right, my main guitar was a ’57 Strat that I’d bought for $300 in 1970.

What other guitars did you play in the studio and onstage?
I also had a ’57 triple-pickup Les Paul Custom. That was it, and then later I started buying and playing tons of great guitars – everything from BC Rich to what is now considered extremely rare and vintage. My favorite was a ’58 Les Paul Custom two-pickup that was absolutely mint. It was one of those guitars that was somebody’s grandfather’s, kept under the bed!

We were finding all these great guitars at the time. In fact, I found Brad Whitford the best, most absolutely mint ’54 Stratocaster – cleanest I’d ever seen. And it seemed expensive at the time – $3,000! But who knew it would have been impossible to get these today?

How did you relate to Brad, as a guitarist?
I really liked him as a player. I thought he was cool, and very strong. When I went to audition at S.I.R. Studios, in New York, it was everything I thought it would be.

What were you using for amplification at the time?
In the studio, for Night In the Ruts, I was using a ’69 metal-front 100-watt Marshall that a guy named Frank Levy had worked on, to warm up the preamp a bit. I used that amp from ’70 until ’79. But when I pulled it out for the live shows with Aerosmith, Steven just couldn’t dig that it didn’t have enough gain. He wanted the “chunka, chunka” grind, so I plugged into the Aerosmith Music Man amps, the 130-watters. These weren’t my favorites; they had no subtleties, just a blatant 130 watts of arena rock grind – just one nasty sound. But Steven just loved to hear that crunch – it moved him.

At the time, the band was in the midst of its substance abuse problems, and you seemed to breathe life back into it, at least for a little while. The live shows, especially, were an improvement…
I was sooo excited about doing it, and I really felt like I had something to offer the music. And I could say a lot because I came from the whole Led Zeppelin period, and it was up my alley. I felt I could really put something into it, both acoustic and electric. So when I joined, I was full-on! But after I worked with the group for awhile, it just took the fire out of me. The craziness has been well-documented.

From all accounts, the band was going through an awful lot of turmoil. What was it like being in the middle of it?
It was wonderful and horrific at the same time. It was wonderful knowing that you could do something and get response – they had diehard fans who were dying for something great, and I could see it. On the other hand, it was horrific because the group wasn’t delivering because of all the internal problems. It’s unfortunate, because I was so willing to work. But the spirit wasn’t there; Steven missed Joe.

You and Steven Tyler wrote some great stuff on Rock In a Hard Place, especially “Jailbait” and “Joanie’s Butterfly.” What was it like to work with him and producer Jack Douglas?
A lot of fun. Tony Bongiovi was the original producer, but he was too structured for Steven’s freeform style, so we were going to get Felix Pappalardi to produce it, but then he died. So because the group had so much success with Jack, they brought him back – everyone thought he was the greatest.

I played about 99 percent of the guitar on that album, since Brad had just left. Even though I got to play so much, I was really looking forward to playing with Brad, and to working off each other. We had a mutual respect.

You left Aerosmith when Perry and Whitford re-joined for the Back In The Saddle tour in ’84. What did you do from there?
It’s a really sad story. Columbia Records decided it wasn’t going to give Aerosmith any more money until they heard some new demos. At that point, Steven had had it with everything, and like I said, he missed Joe. It was like, “We made platinum records for you, and this is how you treat us?”

That, combined with everything else, spelled the end. I mean, we had no money! So I started selling all of the guitars I had – great vintage stuff – figuring things would improve and I could buy them back. But they didn’t improve, and it was awful the way it ended. Music was changing, and the band wasn’t yet ready to change.

So I joined up with Adam Brenner, from Seattle, and I really liked the music we made. We got together with some guys from Billy Idol’s old band and called it Adam Bomb. We came to California to find a deal, but it didn’t succeed.

From there I kinda scattered, doing sessions mostly, and playing with Billy Squier. This was around 1990. I did some stuff with Bonnie Bramlett, she was great. I filled in the gaps, but it was a very difficult time. It’s hard to come up to the level of the Aerosmith thing.

I’ve also recently worked with a few female artists, and just co-wrote and played on a folky thing with singer Mary Dolan called Long Way From Home. Well… I think the original plan was to make it folky, but I was playing the Les Paul, so it turned out more rock (laughs).

As far as high-profile gigs, my most recent was playing on Rod Stewart’s two-year world tour in ’96. That was one of the highlights of my life!

What did you enjoy most about that tour?
It was great working with one of my idols. In England, I got a chance to do “I Ain’t Superstitious,” which was one of my favorites from the Jeff Beck Group days. Mike Fuller lent me his Vox vintage wah, and for that tour, I got a chance to use it on that one song. It was a dream come true, playing something that I listened to as a kid. That call-and-respond; he’d sing and I’d play the Jeff Beck lick. I was so into it.

In England, I’d stretch out more because he did the material I liked most. Here, it was more hits. So I really fulfilled a dream.

What equipment were you using?
Guitar-wise, I used some Gibsons, including a great ’59 honeyburst reissue. I wish I’d had some of the vintage stuff I got rid of, but let’s not go there (laughs). I also used a couple of Fender Custom Shop Strats they put together for me – they did such a nice job. For amps, I was using two of Rod’s white Marshall 100-watt Super Lead stacks loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s. They’re great.

For pedals during the Stewart tour, I used an array of Fulltone pedals, the ’69, Soulbender, Fulldrive 2, DejaVibe, and Octafuzz. Bar none, these are the best-sounding pedals I’ve ever played. They sustained a two-year tour with no problems, and they’re so quiet.

Do you still have any of the vintage gear you acquired over the years?
No. I kept a few pieces, but had to sell most of it. I kept the ’69 Les Paul Custom and a few Strats, including a great ’61 refin which I love, and a few others.

What are you playing these days?
I’m pretty much back to playing Les Pauls exclusively, especially my ’69 Custom. I know collectors might wince, but I’m a player and guitars are meant to be played. And it’s a great guitar.

For Strats, besides the ’61 I have an early edition ’62 reissue that is the only one where I’ve got the trem floating. Some Strats are so high-maintenance, they’re just like old maids (laughs). I’ve also got a few ESP Vintage model Strat copies, which have a very good sound.

For amps, I’ve been playing Soldanos recently, specifically an SLO 100 through either a 2×12 bottom with Celestion Vintage 30s for clubs, or one of my old Marshall 4×12 bottoms. The Vintage 30s are great speakers. I also have a ’63 Super Reverb and a couple of plexi 100-watt Marshalls.

Who are you listening to these days?
People like Kenny Wayne Shepard and Jonny Lang. I also like Korn, Orgy, Papa Roach, and some of the stuff coming out of the Southeast is pretty cool. It’s good to see bands like Metallica and Megadeth doing well. I also love Stevie Ray, the Stones, and Eric Johnson. I also listen to blues and jazz stations, ’cause that music has soul.

I guess, quite simply, I love what I love – and that’s the guitar rock thing (laughs)!

On tour with Rod Stewart
in 1966. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Crespo.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s April. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.