Although Honkin’ on Bobo was 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, bassist Tom Hamilton, and guitarist Brad Whitford, all of whom expressed their delight with the results of their latest effort, and explained how the retro recording process strengthened the bonds of musicianship between them.
Vintage Guitar: When were you introduced to the blues?
Tom Hamilton: I was first introduced to the blues when I was playing in a band with Joe Perry called Plastic Glass. The singer, John Maguire, was a blues purist. We’d get together and show him the rock songs we wanted to learn, and he’d say, “What do you want to play that weenie music for? Why don’t you learn from the real stuff?” So he introduced us to John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, and it was then that we made the connection to Zeppelin, Ten Years After, and the Yardbirds, and understood that was where those guys got the ideas. I wouldn’t say we became students of the blues, because we were suburban kids totally into British hard rock, but it did give us an awareness.
But Joe and I didn’t want to be a blues band. We wanted to be a pounding high-energy hard rock band. When we joined Steven, he brought a little more of a melodic pop influence, and Joey brought his soul influence because he had been playing in R&B bands. So we started just mixing all those elements in our approach to songs we were learning, and when we started writing.
My playing was not influenced directly by blues music. I wasn’t seeking blues bass players. Although I had respect for the blues, when I wanted to hear music that moved me, I’d put on my British rock bands. But as we gained more awareness of the influence of blues on the music we loved, we learned blues songs. We always wanted to play a shuffle, but just give it a vibe nobody else was. So we decided to take that traditional style and master it, and we started coming up with songs like “One Way Street.” We would pick blues songs, and there’s always a blues song or two we consider for each Aerosmith record, but they usually wind up on the B list. It has always been part of our style, like “Reefer Headed Woman,” “Big Ten Inch Record,” and songs like that.
We had been talking about making a blues record for a long time, but we all agreed that we would only do it if we felt the timing was right. We had been in touring mode for two or three years, and toward the end of 2002, we realized that we had a break coming up during the first half of 2003, so that might be a spot where we could do the blues album. We had support from the record company for us just going and making an esoteric, interesting, for-the-fun-of-it album, without worrying about radio or singles. Their enthusiasm was really great and it helped us relax and just go for it.
We worked with Jack on it, and he brought a very retro way of recording, for us, and we were back to having the whole band in the room at the same time, playing all the way through from start to finish, and Steven doing vocals in real time. We cut it on 2″ tape, then the combination of tape and Pro Tools for mixing and editing.
Does the album help regenerate ideas and reinvigorate the band?
Yes. I knew that, by doing this album, we would start popping out riffs we’d want to make into Aerosmith songs, and that did start to happen. There are all these jams and riffs that are in the can, and we know where to go look for them when it’s time to come up with a new Aerosmith album. We wound up using one original – the rest are covers. There are three or four well-fleshed-out arrangements waiting to get finished. One is a really laid back song that I played stand-up bass on, which I’d never done before.
How did you select material?
When we were touring, we were getting a lot of blues music sent by the record company, and we’d choose from a lot of that stuff. We’d start working on a song in the morning, and if we thought we were getting something good from it, we’d keep going. Otherwise, we’d put it away and move on to something else. It was very much a spontaneous thing.
Steven had always been into the version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go” done by Them in the ’60s. Actually, all of us were into it. Steven was always a big fan of The Pretty Things and he’s always wanted to cover “Road Runner.” “I’m Ready” is a blues classic, but we decided to make it into a riff-rock song. Then there’s the Aretha Franklin song. I forget who had the idea to try it. “The Grind” is an original. “Stop Messin’ Around” is a song that we’ve been playing onstage for five years, and Joe sings it. We’d recorded “Baby, Please Don’t Go” last July, then went on the road. We played it onstage every night and got it so good by the end of the tour that we decided to re-cut it. “You Gotta Move” is an old classic.
“Eyesight To The Blind” was kind of a flipped-out thing for me because when we were arranging it, Jack asked me to try a couple of passes playing a simple I-III-V-III riff on all the chords. I thought it would be kind of boring, but it completely freed me spontaneously coming up with bass riffs as I went along, which is the way most of it was done. And without me realizing it, it allowed me to settle into the pocket with Joey, to create a rhythmic pocket for that song that just blows my mind. I’m so proud of how we nailed that.
Did you re-track any of your parts?
No, I managed to do it live. For instance, in “Shame, Shame, Shame,” there’s a part in the middle where I make this climb up to like the 16th fret on the G string and every time I hear it, I can hear the way I rushed it, and it kind of drives me nuts. But we left it that way.
Was there much overdubbing in general?
Not much. Part-wise, when we finished the tracks, each song was a bit more dense with riffing and guitar stuff than was necessary to really put the song across. So we brought in Marty Frederiksen, who is an extremely talented musician and a brilliant mixer and Pro Tools technician. He used a process to highlight the good stuff and de-emphasize stuff that was extra or not needed. Working with Marty, we were able to highlight the best riffs, parts, drums, vocals, and do moves that would enable Steven’s voice to really express a song better. It was like the ugly duckling turning into the swan.
What was it like to work with Jack again?
It was great. Jack brought a work ethic that made it possible for us to record enough material in a very short period of time. Jack had us in there six days a week, all day long for four or five months, and as we piled up more and more material, we got better at our studio chops, guitar chops, drum chops, singing and everything. Jack has a combination of a good work ethic, a great sense of humor, and a sense of fairness about everybody getting their licks in. It really helped us do what we wanted to, which was go back to recording with everybody in the studio at the same time, as a band. It was such a great feeling.
What was your setup for the recording?
I had an Ampeg B15 and a Hartke Kickback combo, plus a DI. I had a group of basses that I would try out at the beginning of working on a song, then between me and Jack, we would decide which one fit the best. I had an old Kay, a Höfner, Gretsch, Mosrite, Parker Fly bass, Sadowsky bass, G&L ASAT Bass, and a stand-up bass. I was avoiding the twangy, stringy bass sound and going for the old vintage sort of thump, almost subliminal sound. So the tones of the different basses aren’t quite as apparent as they would be if it was a regular Aerosmith record.
My basses are set up with .045-.105 flatwound strings. I used a pick on a lot of the recorded versions of the songs on the album, but onstage, I only use a pick for “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” I use a Herco picks – the gray ones. I’ve loved them since I was 14 years old!
Did you use any effects?
I used some SansAmp and that was probably the most common effect I used if we wanted to put a little hair on the bass. I used Joe’s rackmounted one, and a SansAmp plug-in for mixing, which we used a couple of times for a little roughage.
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.
Vintage Guitar: What was your setup for the record?
Brad Whitford: I recorded almost all the tracks with a Fender Super Champ – the Rivera-designed blackface, and it worked great. I had it semi-isolated, mic’ed with a Shure SM57, and I was very close to it. Most of the basic tracks were done in Joe’s basement, and it’s tight in there! If I wanted feedback, it was easy to make happen.
The nice part about this record was that it was very loose, so a lot of the stuff was just improvised on the spot. The basic tracks are live, and I was able to do whatever I wanted. A lot of the stuff I played was for the first time.
Were other amps used for overdubbing?
There was very little overdubbing. I did one solo on “I’m Ready” with a Germino Classic 45 and an ES-335. And I did an overdub with my Divided By 13 on “Stop Messin’ Around.” We did two versions of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” the first with the Super Champ and the second with the Divided By 13. The second version made it onto the record. I also did a rhythm overdub with the Divided By 13 on “The Grind.”
Did you choose older instruments to capture more of a classic vibe?
Sometimes. I have a ’53 goldtop and the newer ES-335, which sounds killer. I also used a new G&L ASAT Special, which is a nice guitar that sounds incredible. I used that on the basic track on “You Gotta Move” and on “Temperature.” I also used a ’53 ES-295, but I honestly don’t recall where. I used an Olympic White ’66 Strat with a bound neck, but a couple other Strats and some newer guitars. I used a new Lace for a rhythm overdub on “The Grind.” It sounds great. I also had a Melancon Artist, ’58 reissue Les Paul, Tom Anderson T-Classic, Fender Telesonic, a new Floyd Rose guitar, an SG, a Dobro, a Taylor acoustic, and Martin DM12.
What was your approach for crafting tones?
My same old approach; I try to find something that complements what Joe’s doing, something to give us good variation, and that’s appropriate for the track.
Did you use any stompboxes?
Most was pretty much straight ahead. I experimented, but almost everything was just straight into the amp. I can’t think of anything I used. I might have used a little bit of a boost. I had all kinds of neat toys to play with. There was a great box that was the ultimate Hendrix box with three effects.
But as much as I experiment, I tend to go as transparent as possible. I like to get the guitar and the amp sounding like it doesn’t need anything. To me, that’s just a more powerful sound.
How are your guitars set up?
On Les Pauls, I use .009-.042s. On Strats and Teles, I basically go with a .010, or in some cases a little heavier. If I tune a guitar down, I might go to an even heavier gauge. It helps if you can tune it down, because it gets a little slinky, and with that big meaty string, there’s nothing like that sound. The action is nominal – I don’t go super low or super high. I keep it high enough where I’m getting nice ring, but fret noise drives me crazy.
What type of picks are you using?
Dunlop 1 mm black nylon. I used to use a Herco kind of like it, then I was just using standard plastic picks, but I found that I like these Dunlop nylon ones. They are kind of like the Hercos, which are hard to find. I have a bunch stashed away, but I’d kind of like to hold on to them.
Did making this record bring Aerosmith full circle, maybe closer to its roots?
I think it’s beyond that. We went through periods where I barely had anything to do with the creation of albums or the creation of guitar parts. But this time, I didn’t have anybody in my face, telling me what to do.
Although this is called a blues record, I think it is much closer to what Aerosmith is about – and we’ve spent years getting away from what Aerosmith is about.
This is the kind of stuff that really lights our fire. For the last 15 years, I had a tremendous problem with having to write a “radio-friendly” song. In my mind, there’s no truth or honesty in that. Hopefully, we’re getting back to what turned us on from day one, and that was the Yardbirds, the Stones, Muddy Waters. I think that’s what people want to hear.
So much of our audience don’t like “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’ or “Girls Of Summer,” and they ask, “When are you going to do an album like Rocks or Toys?” Well, this is it. This is about us having fun and playing the kind of music we love. I’m hoping it translates.
Photos: Ross Haflin.
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.