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Aerosmith

A Retrospective
 
A Retrospective

Aerosmith was formed in the summer of 1970 in Sunapee, New Hampshire, when Jam Band bassist Tom Hamilton and guitarist Joe Perry got together with vocalist Steven Tyler. Shortly after, Joey Kramer was recruited as their drummer and guitarist Brad Whitford was brought in to round out the lineup. In an effort to launch their careers, the band felt it would be best to relocate to a major city. Later that year, they moved to Boston, where they shared a small apartment with all of their equipment and, like many other struggling young musicians, found themselves starving and looking for work. Each member took on odd jobs to help pay the bills.

By 1972, Aerosmith had gained a strong local following, and a manager. At mid year, they signed a new management contract and landed a recording deal with Columbia Records. Their first album, Aerosmith, was released in January of ’73, and even with the hit single “Dream On,” it did little outside the Boston area. Still, the band continued to tour and build up a following around the college and club circuits. Then, in the fall of ’73, they recorded Get Your Wings, with top producer Jack Douglas. Despite critics’ comparisons to the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith refused to be discouraged, and continued doing what they did best, hitting the road opening for major headlining acts and gaining fans nationally. Finally, they caught the attention of critics.

The band did not achieve mammoth success until the release of their third album, Toys In The Attic, in April of 1975. It went platinum that summer. Toys was succeeded the following year by another platinum LP, Rocks, which many consider the band’s finest effort.

“Dream On” was re-released as a single and went gold in ’76, three years after its original release. “Walk This Way” was also released that year, and became the band’s second top 10 hit. In ’78, they released Draw The Line, which immediately went platinum. The following year, Live! Bootleg was released, and like their previous recordings, it earned platinum status.

1979 through 1984 were shaky years for Aerosmith. In ’79, Perry left to embark on a solo career. He was replaced by Jimmy Crespo, and that year, the band recorded Night In The Ruts, which was followed by Greatest Hits in ’80. In ’81, Brad Whitford left the band and was replaced by Rick Dufay, with whom they recorded the appropriately-titled Rock In A Hard Place, in ’82.

On Valentine’s Day, 1984, the original bandmembers reunited after an Aerosmith show at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, and in April that year they officially announced that the original lineup was back together and here to stay.

In 1985, a regrouped Aerosmith recorded Done With Mirrors and spent the following year touring in support of its resurrection. The followup, Permanent Vacation, released in ’87, gained extensive radio play and sent the band back out on tour. The tour was followed by a return to the studio, which resulted in the release of Pump in ’89 and a long world tour.

1991 allowed the band a break from the road and gave them the opportunity to write for a new album. In the interim, they released a three-disc boxed set, Pandora’s Box, which contained rare, previously-unavailable cuts. The next studio album, Get A Grip, was released in ’93, followed in ’94 by Big Ones and a complete 12-CD compilation of the band’s original Columbia recordings called Box Of Fire, as well as another world tour.

This brings us up to the current chapter and their newest album, Nine Lives. The recording sessions began in ’96 and the record was completed and will be released in March.

In retrospect, Aerosmith has worked hard to achieve the level of success they hold today, and they take nothing about it for granted. They’ve had a difficult climb to the top and know what it’s like to fall down the ladder of success and have to regain their footing.

But against all odds, the band has stayed together and has grown to be stronger now than ever. Today, Aerosmith has been together for more than a quarter of a century and show no signs of slowing down. The band plans to hit the road in May, kicking off their tour in Europe, and returning to tour the U.S. this summer.

Vintage Guitar: Who were some of your earliest musical influences?
Brad Whitford: I’d say the Beatles were the initial firestarters for me, along with a lot of the English stuff, like the Dave Clarke 5 and the Stones. As I started to play the guitar, the influences became Clapton, Hendrix, Page, Jeff Beck.
Joe Perry: I do remember the girls in school when I was around six, seven or eight, and I remember everybody making this fuss about a song called “Hound Dog” and all the older girls were flipping out about it. It was the first time I ever saw girls react like that to music. I don’t know if I remember that it was a good thing or a bad thing, but I remember it. Later on, I remember, some of the first songs on the radio that really blew me away were by Ike and Tina Turner, and Roy Orbison. That’s when I started to get that fascination and feeling about music. Then, the next big thing was the Beatles, and that really did it for me. But all those early English bands were a big influence, too.
Tom Hamilton: The Beatles were the biggest for me, then the Stones and the Yardbirds came along.

VG: Was there any specific song, album or band that changed everything for each of you?
BW: In between ’67 and ’69, I saw Zeppelin and Hendrix play live, and those definitely made major changes in the way I felt about music – major, life-changing experiences.
JP: When I actually started getting into the music and started to see bands like the Jeff Beck Group play live, I think those were the bands that really started making an impression on me. When I saw The Who play at the Boston Tea Party doing “Tommy” in front of 500 people, that’s when I really heard loud guitar and it wasn’t just some distant thing coming in on the radio. These guys were doing it live and doing stuff that was incredible. Also Peter Green. I must have seen Fleetwood Mac about seven or eight times because they used to play in Boston all the time.
TH: There was one song on Fresh Cream called “Sweet Wine.” It was a great song and I thought it was incredible and just so overwhelming. I saw Cream live at a club in Boston. The whole experience was mindbending and so was the first time I saw Led Zeppelin live. For so long, people had been trying to do their versions of that style, and when that band came out there had never been anything like it. There had never been any bands recorded like or that sounded like them. There had never been any albums that had drums like that or vocals like that. It was so much stronger, juicier and more powerful than anything that anybody had ever done, and it had a lot of feel in it. On the records, you could really hear the drums and hear each sound separately, instead of just “drums” in general.

VG: Which players influenced your choice of instruments when you started playing?
BW: For me, it was the same players, really. I bought a new Les Paul the day after I saw Led Zeppelin. It was before their second album was out and they were so on and so good that night. Nothing against Jimmy, because I love the man, but I don’t think that I ever heard him play that well ever again. It was one of those nights that he was in tune with the cosmos and it was absolutely mindblowing. He was playing all those great solos note-for-note, like “Communication Breakdown,” and it was just devastating. I swear, I bought a Les Paul the next day. I didn’t have one at that point, I had a Jaguar. The next thing was to get the amplifiers. He had two stacks of Marshalls and it was like no sound I had ever heard before.
JP: The first time I saw Jeff Beck, I think that’s when I turned around and said “…I have to have a Les Paul.” I saw them when they were touring on their first record. I actually sat in front of his amps when they were doing “Plynth” and “Shapes Of Things” and I had to have a Les Paul after that. It sure didn’t sound like the Yardbirds. But it was really those same guys who influenced me to play – Beck, Hendrix, Clapton, Page and Peter Green – that influenced the gear.
TH: As far as my basses go, what I used was whatever the guys I listened to were using, but I was always a Jazz Bass freak.

VG: In what ways has your own style evolved over the last 25 years?
BW: I think it’s becoming a little less complicated and very straightforward. I feel like I never stop learning how to approach it. From the time I first started playing, I’ve always thought that you could learn from anybody, whether he was a good or a bad player. There’s always something they did or some aspect of their playing you could look at and pick up, and I still find that true. I still watch people play and there are little things that you can pick up.

The way it’s evolved for me is, I think I’m just trying to be more straightforward by trying to think more in terms of melody and looking for those special notes. What still works for me is not how many notes, it’s that single-note thing and the space between the notes, and finding just that right note, that seems to be more important than how many are in there. The air and spaces around it are really important because that’s the dynamic of it. I’ve always loved the shredding, it’s very impressive, but there’s never a breath in it. That’s cool for certain things and I still like it, but the things that really get me off are the soulful approaches of players like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jeff Beck. You can’t beat that, it always puts you back in your seat, at least for me.

I’m trying to fine-tune by bringing more of that soulful approach into my own playing. That’s where I want to focus, and not be concerned with trying to play like someone like Edward Van Halen, because I can’t, and I never will. Part of it is getting in touch with what your style really is and then being true to it, because that’s the thing you’ve got to sharpen and hone. If you’re trying to do something that’s not really you, it doesn’t work. For me, what’s real is a very bluesy R & B kind of approach and that’s what lights my fire. Also, fine tuning that whole approach to rhythm guitar, which is a lot more of what the younger players are recognizing, and I think that’s great.
JP: We’re still playing rock and roll, but I think sonically, we’ve moved into some new spaces, and some new places, melodically. As far as my own style, I just kind of like playing what the song calls for.
TH: It’s kind of a continuum. One thing that really has contributed to my just being able to adapt as a bass player is that a lot of songs get presented to us as a demo where generally either Joe or one of the co-writers will have done a bass part, and a lot of times it’s a damn great bass part. So my challenge is to capture the spirit of the song and if there’s a certain direction the bass needs to go, I respect that, while at the same time have it be me, playing it with my ideas and my feel. That’s very challenging and sometimes very scary, but I think that it’s good for the way I approach things and how to come up with the best possible bass part for a song.

There’s an old expression, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” and I think it’s just made me have to reach further into myself in terms of coming up with interesting parts. I can’t really hear the evolution of my playing because it’s such a gradual thing and it’s not something that stands out to me as being really obvious. I do notice that I seem to be more willing to shoot from the hip when we’re doing takes and throw stuff in, whereas before I felt so pressured by the studio environment that I would go in and have everything completely organized and just play everything that I had planned in advance. This time I felt a lot more comfortable and better prepared so I was more able to make up a fill on the spot.

VG: What are the main guitars and amps within your own collections?
BW: I’ve got a pretty nice ’59 sunburst Les Paul. Actually, the first time I used it to record in the studio was on “Fallen Angels” on our new album, Nine Lives, and I couldn’t believe how good it sounded. I also have a pretty unique piece that you never see; it’s a white ’65 Stratocaster with a bound fingerboard, and there were very few of them made. As far as I know, there are less than 50 of them in existence. I’ve only seen mine, but I know that Ry Cooder and Jeff Beck both have the same ones, but I’ve never seen any others. Twenty years ago, I had some really nice vintage pieces, but I sold most of them over the years. I think the very first really nice vintage piece I ever bought, which I hate to even think about because I don’t have it anymore, was a ’57 goldtop Les Paul with a Bigsby, that I bought from Robb Lawrence. I paid him $1,000 for it, which was the going price at the time. I had that one and quite a few others, and I think it’s a terrible thing that I don’t have them anymore, but that’s just the way it is.

But for now I’ve got a couple of very nice guitars and I figure that’s all I really need. I especially like my ’59 Sunburst and black ’59 triple-pickup Les Paul Custom. I’m not really so concerned about how they look, either. It was nice to have some of the premier cherry tops, but when it comes down to buying one for tone, you’ve got to be like Ray Charles when you buy these things – put your darkest sunglasses on and put on your best set of ears, because in the end you don’t see the guitar when it’s coming out of the speakers of someone’s stereo and some of those guitars just sound amazing, but they don’t necessarily look that pretty. The other side of that is that there are some really beautiful ones out there that really sound incredible too, but you’ve got to listen with your ears. That ’59 triple-pickup Custom is one of the most amazing sounding Les Pauls that I’ve ever owned and it’s not in great shape, but boy does it sound unbelievable. It still has the original fret wire on it, and I love it.

For amps, I’ve primarily been using setups of the 50-watt Wizard Metal head and Bogner Ecstacy 100 head, which is what I used on the new record through a 4 X 12 cabinet. The Wizard amp came directly from Rick St. Pierre and it’s really one of the nicest amps I’ve heard. I also have an old Fender Super 6 and a Vibroverb, which I used on the record, too, but I’m not sure if those tracks ended up on the final mix. I still use the Fender Tone Master and Peavey 5150s, too.
JP: I think my Vox AC-30 was a real find and I like my ’60 Les Paul a lot, although I also play the new ones. I think the new ones have more bite. The old ones have a mellow, rich sound and that’s sometimes not what a song calls for. I think I’m getting less and less hung up on finding the ultimate amp and guitar. My collection is always kind of shifting around, but what I’m playing today is really a lot different from what I was playing three years ago. I always try to boil it down to a situation where if I was going to do a gig and all I can carry is a guitar in one hand and an amp in the other, what would I take?

Of all the amps I have, I think the Fender Tone Master would be the one, although I couldn’t carry a Tone Master and a 4 X 12 in one hand. I would probably have to choose the Tone Master and a Les Paul, whichever guitar it would happen to be that week. Every amp colors your sound to some degree, but some more than others, and I like an amp that’s what I like to call “transparent” because you can tell what kind of guitar you’re playing. The Tone Master is probably the most transparent amp, with the best qualities of the Marshalls, the Wizards and those types of amps, meaning that when you plug into it, you can still tell that it’s a Strat, a Les Paul, a Silvertone, or you can tell it’s the Hofner 6-string that you’re playing.
TH: I have a lot of stuff and I’m always wanting more. I have an early-’60s stacked-pot Fender Jazz Bass, which I used a lot on the earlier recordings. I also have a couple of Music Man Sting Rays from the late ’70s, and they’re pretty awesome. Additionally, I have a Hofner Beatle bass, a Sadowsky 5-string and a Sadowsky 4-string that I recently got while we were recording the new record, a fretless Fender P-Bass, a newer Fender Jazz Bass with active electronics, a couple of Gibson basses, a Yamaha TRB-5, some Tobias basses, a custom 8-string, and some others. For amps, I just started using an Aguilar preamp, which I used in the studio on the new record with a MESA/Boogie Bass 400 power amplifier through a Hartke 1 X 15 cabinet. I usually use Hartke cabinets live, too. For combos, I have a Hartke RS1200 wedge combo, a Gallien-Krueger 200MB and a few other ones.

VG: What do you feel are the major differences between new and vintage instruments in regard to the tone, the feel and the reliability? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of using each?
BW: Well, with some of the vintage stuff, you don’t have to look for the tone, it’s just there. For vintage amps, I have a pile of old 50 and 100-watt Marshall heads, which I didn’t even use on the new record, but all you have to do is plug them in and they have amazing tone and they’re unique. They may have a little more buzz than the new amplifiers, but who cares? Some of the newer ones I’ve heard are going about getting the sound differently and I don’t really know much about what goes on inside them, but I guess it’s just in the way they put them together and in the parts they use; but those [original] Marshalls were made in a different era. I don’t know if the old parts were low-grade or high-grade or what they were.

The beauty of that was that no two were ever alike and I don’t think that situation really exists anymore to the degree it did back then. Out of all the Marshalls that I have, there aren’t two of them that sound exactly the same and I think that’s really cool. All the older stuff was like that, like the HiWatts I have. You pick up two of them and they’re just two completely different animals. I think [with modern technology] they’ve unlocked some of the secrets of that old stuff, as far as the sound, but because they’ve studied it and turned it into a science, magical amps don’t “just happen.” Those old amps “just happened,” now it’s like a science of how to make a new amp sound like those old 100-watt heads. That’s how we’ve got the Bogners and the Wizards and some of the other high-end hand-built amplifiers. They were a study of a particular amplifier, like some guy’s killer plexi or some guy’s killer 50-watt, and someone had to figure out how to get that sound every time.
JP: I think that you’re always courting danger when you rely on an old Marshalls to sustain you through a gig. The newer ones are better for that. That’s the thing about vintage gear; do you really want to beat the out of a museum piece? It’s the same thing with old cars. You get a really pristine, beautiful car and you don’t want to be driving it around unless the sun’s out. That’s the way I feel with some of my vintage stuff, too. I don’t want to take some of it out on the road, not so much because I’m afraid of it getting stolen, it’s just the visible wear of it being out on the road for a year and getting loaded in and out of trucks. It can get really beat up and companies aren’t making that stuff anymore. But for now, I’m glad to say that some of my favorite gear is the new stuff. I think companies like Gibson and Fender are coming around again and coming out with such great-sounding stuff that I don’t feel you have to be a slave to the old gear anymore.
TH: To me, the main difference is in the output levels. A lot of the old stuff is just not usable for the sound I’m going for now. I really liked that sexy, growly Jazz Bass sound, but my new Sadowsky basses have got far more output and just more of everything. I go back to my old early-’60s Fender Jazz Bass and plug it in, and although it still has a particular sound, there are so many great basses available now, and there have been for the last 10 years or so, and the quality and the craftsmanship have actually gotten much better over the years. But there’s still something to be said about the wood of the old guitars.

VG: Do you think different gear affects your style and your approach to playing?
BW: Definitely. Playing a Les Paul and playing a Strat is totally different. For me, it changes the whole way I hear, and what I do. It’s nice to be able to mess around with the different textures of different instruments and amplifiers. There’s nothing like plugging a good Strat into a Twin Reverb. Using that kind of setup makes me play a certain way and you can have a lot of fun with the classic, simple approach.
JP: Definitely. When you hear a clean-sounding Strat, or when I play a guitar like my greenburst Washburn that’s super-clean and that sound definitely has an affect on the style that I play. And in the same token, if I go the other way with my Les Paul and Wizard rig, it does a different thing.
TH: The thing that affects my style is the tone quality of the sound. If the sound is punchy and clear and really gives back what I put into it, I play a lot better than if something doesn’t sound good to me. If it doesn’t sound right, I wind up playing too hard and trying to compensate by just digging into it.

While we were in the studio, I noticed that with the Aguilar preamp and the Sadowsky basses, I can do a slide from the twelfth fret on the G-string all the way down and when I would go back and listen to the tape it would all be there, instead of just the first seven notes. That’s what has been my dream in the studio for a long time, to have gear that would send everything I’m doing to the tape and have it register. And it was a function not only of the gear I was using, but also of the actual recording gear and whoever was recording it.

VG: If you could choose any guitar to add to your collection, what would it be?
BW: Interesting question…I think if I could, I’d like to own one of Jimi Hendrix’s Strats, one that I knew he played onstage, like the guitar he played at Monterey, before he broke it, or any one of his guitars. I think that would be very cool, and to me would be the cat’s pajamas.
JP: For me, I think it would have to be the guitar that Chuck Berry played on all those old recordings. I’m sure he had a bunch of them, but I’m sure there’s one or two that were on those early recordings and I would love to have one of those, like the one that he played on “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Maybelline.” I would just love to have one of those guitars.
TH: I think I’d really like to have a nice old Les Paul and an old Gibson Firebird. I used to have an old Firebird and I don’t see too many of them around anymore. Those are the guitars I always wanted to own and the ones I think it would be cool to have now.

VG: What’s your all-time favorite Aerosmith track?
BW: I think one of my favorite overall tracks would be “Back In The Saddle.”
JP: It’s hard to say because we’ve done a lot of cool things I really like. I think it would have to be one of the tracks on this record, but I don’t know which one yet.
TH: I don’t like to be cheesy and pick one, but I’d have to say “Back In The Saddle.” I get such a rush from hearing that song. I have this connection to it because I love it when we do something and it turns out that it does better than we expected.



Joe Perry photo: Gene Kirkland, courtesy of Columbia Records.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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