Although Honkin’ On Bobo has been labeled by some as a blues record, Aerosmith views its new release as being a true rock record – and perhaps the most rockin’ record they’ve made in years! Bobo marks a return to the high-energy blues-influenced rock sound that launched the group’s career over 30 years ago. Featuring covers of 11 blues classics and one new original tune, Bobo captures the essence of what Aerosmith is all about.
A primary part of reviving the group’s uninhibited sound and attitude was bringing back producer Jack Douglas, who collaborated on many of Aerosmith’s earliest works through the 1970s, as well as the ’98 live release, A Little South Of Sanity. By tracking the bulk of Bobo in a live studio setting, Douglas helped rejuvenate Aerosmith’s early energy and renew the carefree improvisational interplay between the musicians. A winner with fans and the group itself, Bobo keeps the Aerosmith train a rollin’.
“This was a record we needed to make, and we waited a long time before we were finally able to do it,” acknowledges guitarist Joe Perry. “And the single most important aspect of making this record was that we were playing live, with everybody putting out their best on every take.”
VG spoke with Perry whom expressed his delight with the results of their latest effort, and explained how the retro recording process strengthened the bonds of musicianship between them.
Vintage Guitar: You were introduced to the blues through British rock artists covering traditional blues songs. What was the first album that turned you on to the blues?
Joe Perry: Definitely the [John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton]. That was the first stone-cold blues record I bought. Some songs sounded kind of hokey, like people played when the band was going to take a break. But others are absolutely incredible! There were these modern tones – it didn’t sound old. Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Robert Johnson and those guys sounded like old man’s music to me. There was little that was exciting in the rock sense. I was a 19-year-old wanting to hear wild electric guitars, and it didn’t occur on a lot of those blues records.
So, for me it was the Bluesbreakers, then the Yardbirds’ Having A Rave Up, a couple of Stones records, then Chuck Berry Is On Top. Then I started listening to Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy.
Were there techniques or tones you referenced for this record?
No, not at all. I used everything at my disposal to change it around, to deconstruct and unlearn a lot of stuff, because I didn’t want it to have big, “plastic” solos. I just wanted good tone. I had this image of playing rhythm with a ’50s Gibson ES-350 through a GA-40 amp. I thought that if I could get that sound to work on the record, then we’d have something. So that’s what I was going for.
Was that your foundation tone?
An Epiphone Peacemaker and a Fender tweed Champ that I split with a VHT splitter box with a tube in it. I had a couple of pedals, and a Fatman compressor. I also had a César Diaz Vibramaster reverb and an old Fender reverb. For the pedals, I used a very hairy fuzz tone – one of those old red British Supa Fuzz pedals that’s kind of like what Townshend used. I used either that or this modern pedal by Chicago Iron called Octavian. It’s supposed to be an octave box, but it sounds like a cross between a really good Gibson Maestro and a Vox Tonebender. It’s got more bite and a tighter sound. It’s very close to that “Satisfaction” kind of sound. I also used an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, a Digitech Whammy pedal into the Fatman, out to the splitter box, and then to the two amps.
So that was the rig. Once in awhile I’d switch from the Epiphone to a Fender Deluxe Reverb because it was cleaner and had a little more bottom.
I wouldn’t use the Diaz or Fender reverb in the line at that point. I used the Deluxe for the clean echo reverb, and I’d get all the dirt from the Champ. I have several Champs. I think I have two blackface and three tweed. The blackface seem to have a little more sustain, and the tweeds each have a different stage of dirt.
I wanted to use the Peacemaker or the Deluxe because they give a cleaner tone. When you play, you can hold the chords together, and when you mix it together just right, you get the sustain and the nastiness from the Champ, but you still get that cohesiveness of the chords and the definition from the clean amp.
My main guitars for the record were a ’66 Epiphone Casino and a late-’50s ES-175 with two P-90s, and it has a big crack in the neck. I think I used a Les Paul on “Stop Messin’ Around,” for old time’s sake. It was my original ’60 that I use onstage. I wanted to go with that one just for Fleetwood Mac’s sake, because that was how it was done. I had my Champ on a stool next to me, blowing right into the vocal mic.
I played a lot of the record with fingerpicks or no pick. “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” “Temperature,” “I’m Ready,” and “Back Back Train” were done without a pick. I did “Shame, Shame, Shame,” “Road Runner,” and “Never Loved A Girl” with a pick. For “Jesus Is On The Main Line,” I used fingerpicks. I use them on three fingers – the thumb and the first two fingers.
Playing without a pick makes you think a little differently about how you’re going to play things, and you can certainly play things right off the top different than you could with a pick. If you get real adventurous, you put fingerpicks on and you really realize that there’s a skill that you’ve got to spend some time learning. Jack had encouraged me to do that. So I got some metal ones and started working on it. But for a lot of the songs, I really wanted to get that sound where if you strum lightly, it’s just barely distorted. But when you start slapping the strings and pulling on them, it makes the speakers jump. It really contributes to the tone in a big way. You get a lot more dynamics when you use you fingers. And when you play an electric guitar without a pick, it’s a lot easier to get to the controls. My favorite thing is playing a Strat without a pick because then you can really go for it. You don’t have to worry about what you’re going to do with the pick when you go for the whammy bar or the controls and switches. All that stuff is just so much more automatic, so it’s a lot of fun.
Did you do much overdubbing on this record?
I did two overdubs – one for the slide lead answer-backs on “You Gotta Move” and a couple of leads on “The Grind.” That’s it.
What was it like to be working with Jack again?
It was great. He’s the only guy that knows us well enough to say things and push us in a certain direction. So it was great to have him there. I think he knew what we wanted. He’s been pretty outspoken about what he didn’t like about what Aerosmith has been sounding like over the last few years – much to the dismay of a few of the members of the band – but everybody’s allowed their opinion and he was really excited to get in there and make a record with us that was in the direction that he thought we should go.
In what ways has your tone evolved over the years?
I’ve kind of constantly gone cleaner, as a rule. When master volume amps came out, I thought it was wonderful, and now you’ve got an amp that you can get more hair out of without having to be cranking volume. But I think that what ends up happening is you trade off tone, at least for the kind of tone I like. To some people, the more distortion, and the fatter and richer, and multi-harmonics hairy tone, that’s tone. To me, hearing the strings and the organic sound of the guitar – the wood and all that – that is tone. In order to get that, you go with a lower output pickup and a cleaner amp. Then, if you want to add to it and get that kind of sustain and some distortion, you go with a little less distortion and you add a little compression in there. The guitar amp is a compressor, just by the nature of it. But I think that adding a little bit of compression can bring out some of that sustain without having to add distortion.
So that’s how I’ve been changing over the years. I still like to let it get really hairy, especially when we’re playing some of the songs that call for that. There’s nothing like that ripping distorted guitar sound, but my basic setup is a lot cleaner. When my rig is turned up without my foot pedals plugged in, it’s a very clean, round sound, whereas five years ago, it would be a very dirty sound.
What advice would you give to other musicians on developing their own style and tone?
Try not to think about it too much and do what feels good. The best playing and the best sounds I get are when I’m not thinking about it. Take your mind out of the equation and let your ears go right to the subconscious, and right to your fingers.
Joe Perry on a Gibson Les Paul flametop reissue. Photo: Lisa Sharken.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.