In 1971, John “Polar Bear” Sauter called Steve Hunter, asking him to join Mitch Ryder’s band, Detroit. Soon, the 22-year-old guitarist was loading his little blue Datsun fastback and leaving his hometown of Decatur, Illinois, headed north and east to the Motor City.
Hunter, along with his friend and guitar partner Dick Wagner, would go on to make big noise, first as part of Lou Reed’s touring band, then with Alice Cooper.
Since then, Hunter has toured with Tracy Chapman and Dr. John, among others, and been creator and executor of some of rock and roll guitar’s most memorable moments. It was Hunter who came up with the storied intro to Reed’s “Sweet Jane” on the Rock And Roll Animal album and the mesmerizing acoustic guitar part in the FM-radio staple “Solsbury Hill,” from Peter Gabriel’s first solo/post-Genesis album – a song that, if you judge by the internet, is challenging to properly transcribe. What do they miss?
“The chords are more voicings than chords,” Hunter said. “There are chords, but I was thinking in the key of A except I used a capo on the second fret. There’s nothing outside the key at all – just the way the voicings work with the keyboards makes them sound unique.
“I borrowed the guitar [used on the track] from an assistant engineer named Jim Frank – a really nice guy who’s no longer with us. He had this really wonderful old Martin – I don’t know if it was a D-18 or a D-28, but I played it on a few songs because it sounded great and played wonderfully.”
Hunter’s favorite acoustic now is a 1994 Taylor 410. “It has a set neck and projects well,” he noted. “I don’t think the top is as thick as a Guild, Gibson, or Martin. It sounds lovely.”
The Deacon released two albums in 2008 – the rock instrumental Short Stories and the acoustic Hymns For Guitar. And this year he’ll release an album with his wife, Karen, former vocalist with Gary Numan.
The Taylor 410 was the main guitar for your Hymns album, but you actually played lap steel before you took up Spanish-style guitar. How old were you when you started playing lap steel, and who got you into it?
That was my father. I was eight, and I started taking lessons about a year or so after. I got to see Jerry Byrd – who played with Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, and Red Foley – play with a small trio. He was amazing, of course, and a very nice fellow.
Does your lap steel background play into your technique?
I was maybe 12 or 13 years old when I got into guitar. The main difference is that with lap steel I use finger picks, but on guitar I prefer the sound of flesh on the strings – no picks. Ted Greene taught me to use all five fingers to make a chord sound more piano-like, since you could sound all five strings at the same time, as opposed to strumming. So I’ll sometimes use all five fingers on guitar, but rarely on lap steel.
Do you pluck the strings or use a pick?
I pluck. Of course, I use a flat pick in the usual manner, but do the finger stuff, as well. It just depends on what sound I want.
You hit Detroit at a time when the local blues/rock scene was waning. But many Detroit acts – Bob Seger, The MC5, Ted Nugent, Parliament Funkadelic, Grand Funk, The Stooges, Brownsville Station, Alice Cooper – had just broken or were about to break nationally.
I got to Detroit about the time Motown had pulled out. I think the MC5 had just broken up and reformed a few times. It was kind of winding down a bit when I got there, so I don’t remember a lot of Detroit bands, though there was a band called Sky, which was led by Knack founder Doug Fieger (VG, January ’08), and I thought they were great.
We did a lot of touring with Mitch Ryder, playing a lot with Johnny and Edgar Winter, the J. Geils Band, and Ted Nugent. We all thought Ted Nugent was a wild man, but I really loved his stuff; he’s the one I remember the most. Teagarden and Van Winkle… I couldn’t believe two guys could make as much noise as they could! They were amazing. I never got to know them well, but I was knocked out by how much noise they made.
You used an SG with Detroit. Was that what you were using when you played with Alice Cooper and on “Train Kept a Rollin'”?
No. That was after the SG had been stolen at the Record Plant; I went back and bought the ’59 Les Paul TV double-cutaway. It was one of those guitars I loved to play as soon as I put my hand on it. Unfortunately, its neck broke all the time; it was an awesome guitar, but it’s long gone.
When did you go from playing primarily Gibsons to Gretsch?
In early ’08. I’ve always been a fan of the Country Gentleman and White Falcon, but I was excited when I heard about the G-Love Corvette.
Did Gretsch customize it for you?
Yes, I had them move the neck pickup closer to the neck, because I like the sound. Also, because I am sight-impaired, they painted larger fret markers on top of the fretboard so I could see them better in stage lighting. The only other thing was I asked them to disable the Bigsby because I didn’t want the guitar to go out of tune when I broke a string or if I did a complex bend. Other than that, it’s stock.
How do you string your electric guitars?
I use a Rotosound .009 set with a plain third because I do lots of bending and can’t budge a wound third! I use Rotosound acoustic strings, usually 12s, but if I’m going to be tuning down a step I’ll use 13s. And depending on what I’m playing, I use a wound third or a plain third.
You’re a fan of Gretsch amps, too.
The amp I used for this last European tour with Lou was a Gretsch Variety. It has three 10s and I think it’s 40 watts, hand-built and wired, and I use it in the studio, as well. Fabulous tone – old-school amp, no master volume, and of course all tubes.
Do you have certain essential pieces of gear you use in the studio?
Not very much. On most of Short Stories, the guitar is pretty much straight to an amp, or I might use a Cornish pedal. I have an isolation cabinet with a single 12″ Celestion that I can stick a mic in and crank up.
I used Pro Tools with a fabulous plug-in called Guitar Rig 2 that has an enormous array of cool effects simulators. In fact, the slide part in “One Night In Baghdad” is done through Guitar Rig 2. The other guitar – the solo guitar after that – is through the Celestion.
Who played keyboards on the album?
I did. I don’t play them very well, but with the computer, there’s a lot of forgiveness. But now I have a guitar synth, so I prefer triggering things like piano. It’s just more natural for me.
How about bass?
I played that, too. I’ve always loved playing bass, and I’m looking for another one just like the made-in-Mexico fretless Fender Jazz I used on the album. It was really nice and played great. I also sometimes used bass samples and drum loops with a really good plug-in by Stylus that sounds more natural than any other I’ve ever used.
Which guitars do we hear on the record?
I didn’t have the Gretsch G-Love when I recorded the album. So you hear my Fender Jeff Beck Signature Strat on some cuts, a Gibson SG on some… there’s a huge array.
On Hymns, 95 percent of it is my Taylor. I played autoharp in a couple of places and a Baby Taylor with “Nashville tuning” (Ed. Note: using the octave strings of a 12-string set tuned an octave higher than standard A440, sometimes with the G string left at standard pitch). I love the way it sounds.
Do you do anything special while recording guitar tones?
I have an Ampex tube preamp from the ’60s that warms up anything. And Pro Tools is terrific for its editing power, but when it comes to recording, if you treat Pro Tools like a tape recorder rather than doing a verse and then copying and pasting, it sounds less like Pro Tools in a weird sort of way. When I mix, I think analog more than digital. The beauty of computer recording is that you can get it all in a very tiny space and the maintenance and upkeep are far cheaper and less time-consuming. Analog sounds better, but digital is getting closer all the time.
Producer Bob Ezrin put you and Peter Gabriel together, and was a really big part of your life and career. Was the Gabriel album the first thing you did after being with Mitch Ryder?
After Detroit I was with Lou Reed; we did Berlin and then Rock and Roll Animal and Lou Reed Live. Bob produced the Detroit album – that’s how we met – and we just got along and when I was in Detroit of course I met Alice. And before “I’m Eighteen” became a hit single, I kind of knew all those guys and they’d become good friends before they got a deal, and we stayed friends. And then of course Bob co-produced “I’m Eighteen” with Jack Richardson, then went on to produce the next one and that’s how I met Alice. I didn’t actually work with him until Bob called and asked me to do some overdubs on Billion Dollar Babies.
Didn’t Bob give you your nickname?
Kind of. He called me one day after we hadn’t worked on anything together for three or four months and said, “I’ve got some work for you.” It might have been Peter Gabriel’s solo album. He started kidding me, saying, “You haven’t started drinking or doing drugs or anything?” And I said “Nope. I’m still the Deacon of rock and roll.” That cracked him up, and from that moment on I was The Deacon. I worked on one record with Dr. John – Hollywood Be Thy Name – and that’s all Dr. John calls me now. He calls me “Deke.” I hadn’t seen him for about 20 years and he goes’ “Hey, Deke!”
Bob also hooked you up with Dick Wagner…
While on the road with the Chambers Brothers, we went to a club in Florida, and Dick was playing with Ursa Major. It was a trio, and Dick was great. I never knew him until Bob told me about him. I asked him once, “Who’s that guitar player?” He said, “That’s Dick Wagner. You gotta meet him – he’s really good.”
Did the hookup with Lou Reed come on the strength of the great version of “Rock And Roll” on the Detroit album?
Well, that’s what Lou told me. It was being played for some speedway or something in New York and he heard it and thought, “Wow! What is that? That’s really cool.” He tracked down Bob and found out that I had done the arrangement and he loved that arrangement and he really wanted to work with us and what came out of it was the Berlin album. He told me that just last year.
The Detroit album is a very underrated.
I think so. There are some really cool things on it, and I was proud of it, especially since it my first record. I loved our version of “Gimme Shelter,” which never made the vinyl, but did make the CD.
There’s a good bit of lore surrounding your involvement on Aerosmith’s Get Your Wings album. Can you clear things up once and for all?
I was in New York to do some overdubs on, I believe, an Alice Cooper record – I can’t remember exactly what it was – but I was in the studio and Bob had to do some edits on the 2″ tape before I started doing the solos. So I was in the lobby, when Jack Douglas poked his head out of studio C and saw me sitting there. He said, “Do you feel like playing?” I said, “Yeah, Bob’s doing edits and I can’t do anything until he gets that done.” So we grabbed this wonderful old tweed Fender Twin and brought it into the studio. The Aerosmith guys were there and they looked really tired; they’d been busting their butts to finish the record. We walked into the studio and I plugged in and started warming up, trying to get a sound. So I was just kind of noodling around and having fun and playing whatever I felt like playing. Well, after a second take Jack said, “That’s it.” And I thought, “Wait! I was just warming up!”
There’s two versions of it on the record. The straight studio solo is me, and then there’s a version that sounds like a live version. That’s Dick Wagner. It’s really obvious. You can hear the difference. I think Joe and Brad are playing the rhythm guitars – I’m not sure. I was there literally a half an hour and I had no idea what was done before or what was done afterwards.
So there no overdubs or anything on any other cuts?
I had nothing else to do with the record. I think Wagner did some other things, but that’s the only thing I did on the record.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
Fender at NAMM 2008: Steve Hunter on a Gretsch White Falcon