Not until after he turned 40 did it occur to Steve Miller that he never really needed to fear whether he’d “make it” in the music business. That may sound like an odd bit of neurosis coming from the mind of a rock superstar whose hit songs saturated airwaves in the early days of FM radio, and continue to do so today on classic-rock formats
Miller’s new album, Bingo!, is a set of covers drawing from the songbooks of Jimmy Reed, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Jimmie Vaughan, and others. Working with longtime friend and engineer/producer Andy Johns, Miller transforms classic rhythm and blues songs into noteworthy rock bits spiced with tracks of Latin percussion. Guitarist Joe Satriani also appears on the disc.
Looking back, it certainly seems Miller was destined to live a life in music. His mother, Bertha, was a gifted singer who came from a musical family that included a son who played jazz violin with the Paul White orchestra. During the Great Depression, when gigs became scarce, the boys in the family quit playing music and attended medical school. But their love of music never died, and their passion rubbed off on young Steve.
“When I was four, my uncle, Dale, came by with a little Gibson archtop, and as soon as I saw it, I wanted it!” Miller said. At the same time, his father, whose days were spent working as a pathologist, took up tinkering with electronic gadgets including an early recording device. His hobby would lead the Miller family around some fortuitous turns.
“We lived in downtown Milwaukee,” Miller recalled. “And when Les Paul was rehearsing his act with Mary Ford, they played at Jimmy Fazio’s Supper Club. My dad had just bought a professional reel-to-reel tape recorder and went down there. He told Les, ‘I’ve got a Magnacorder, and I’d like to record you.’ Les said, ‘That’d be great.’”
Paul and Ford then visited the Miller home to hear the tapes, and that encounter led to a close friendship. “Mary would show me chords on my little Gibson,” Miller recalls, laughing. “And Dad would take me down to see them play.”
1. This ’60s Gibson Les Paul Special was given to Miller by Leslie West. 2. This mid-’60s Guild 12-string was made for a NAMM show and became one of Steve Miller’s most prized guitars. It was stolen from him during an airline flight and returned three years later. 3. 4. 5. This Gibson Les Paul Custom and this John Bolin guitar and bass are part guitar, part autograph collections, featuring some rather high-profile names! 6. This custom-finished Fender Stratocaster has been one of Miller’s primary live guitars on recent tours.
When Miller was seven years old, the family moved to Dallas, where the recording continued and brought a different set of legendary guitar players to the family’s living room – the Magnacorder acting as young Steve’s pass to see Charles Mingus, Tal Farlow, Red Norvo, Thelonious Monk, and more. And they usually visited the house afterward. One such visit created a particularly indelible memory.
“When I was nine years old, T-Bone Walker taught me how to play lead guitar. He showed up in a pink Cadillac convertible with leopard-skin seats. I took a look and thought, ‘When I grow up, that’s what I wanna do.’ He had a suit and a tie and that big blond Gibson, and he and Dad played from 6 p.m until 5 a.m., recording everything. T-Bone was sweet as can be.”
Under such tutelage, Miller progressed rapidly and by age 12 had formed a band called the Marksmen, which played material by Bobby Bland, Jimmy Reed, Bill Doggett, and the other R&B stars of the day.
“You think, ‘Yeah, sure.’ But that band played every Friday and Saturday night. When I was 14, we backed Jimmy Reed at LouAnn’s Bar. We were definitely working, playing rhythm and blues covers. Then we started doing Motown stuff. It was a really good band – four of us were very good singers. It was a lot of fun.”
After high school, Miller left Texas to enroll at the University of Wisconsin. During his freshman year, he spent the Christmas break teaching his high-school buddy, William “Boz” Scaggs to play the blues and rock Miller was playing in his band, the Ardells, back in Madison. The following fall, Scaggs joined the band.
Miller’s third year of college proved pivotal. Studying Comparative Literature while living in Copenhagen, Denmark, he recalls, “It was the first time I hadn’t been in a band since I was 12 years old, and I really didn’t like it. I’d go to see bands, go to festivals and concerts, and I couldn’t sit in with anybody. Everybody was real protective about their stage time, and didn’t want to share. I had a hard time, and when I got back, I just thought, “I have to play music.”
Our story picks up there…
Why did you go to Europe?
Well, I didn’t think there was a future for me in music. And while I was there, it sort of pissed me off that the Rolling Stones were considered such a great band, because I’d seen so many good blues bands in Texas. And then, just as I was about to finish college, Paul Butterfield was starting his career in Chicago; he had a recording contract and they wrote about him in Time magazine… That was when I thought, “Maybe I can do this…” Plus, at school one day I was talking to my advisor and watching these 30-year-old guys in the Creative Writing department arguing over the size of their desks. I just thought, “This sucks.”
So you quit, just two classes shy of finishing your degree…
Yeah. I realized I really didn’t want to do anything else. I had the conversation with my mom and dad. They asked, “What are you gonna do?” I told them, “What I really want to do is go to Chicago and play blues…” My father gave me that look, like if he’d a two by four he would’ve hit me with it! But my mother said, “I think that’s a great idea. You’re young, you don’t have any responsibility…” And I left the next day to Chicago, saw the Butterfield band – Elvin Bishop, Jerome Arnold, and Sammy Lay. Later, Mike Bloomfield showed up with a Twin amp, playing all this goofy super-loud guitar – just totally blew the Little Walter right out of the Butterfield Blues Band (laughs)!
How long did you chase your blues career in Chicago?
I spent three years there. And if you weren’t any good, Junior Wells would steal your gig. In Chicago, we competed with Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, and James Cotton. There were five nightclubs and six bands! So I was like trying to get Howlin’ Wolf’s gig at Sylvio’s while he was trying to get my gig at Big John’s. It was graduate school for the blues.
IBANEZ TO THE RESCUE: In the ’70s, Steve Miller approached Ibanez’s Jeff Hasselberger, asking if the company was interested in building guitars for him. The partnership resulted in Miller using these Artist Model guitars and Iceman guitars. They also built for him an 8-string Iceman bass. “They were the first to take me seriously as a guitar player,” Miller said. “So we built a bunch of guitars and they were great. The Artist models… are amazing instruments, they really sound good.” Much of Miller’s music was recorded using the instruments, including the mega-hit “Jet Airliner,” which featured one of the Iceman models.
Aside from the cut-throat nature of scoring gigs, you must have seen the benefit in being among those legends?
Sure! I got to see Buddy a hundred times and Howlin’ Wolf at least 50 times in an area the size of my living room, kitchen, and dining room. And I became good friends with Wolf and James Cotton, of course – he and I toured together a lot. I played rhythm guitar with Buddy Guy – that was my last gig in Chicago before I moved to California. I learned a lot. Big Johns was where you went to see Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, James Cotton, or Junior or Buddy or whoever. It was a really hot scene.
You scored a recording contract while in Chicago, right?
Yes. We signed with Epic – Barry Goldberg and I. And while on a promotional trip to New York City, we were put on “Hullabaloo” with the Supremes and the Four Tops and then we took over at a club called the Phone Booth from the Young Rascals. Then the Lovin’ Spoonful and Bob Dylan were hanging around, and the Young Rascals were taking off.
When we went back to Chicago, it was like the whole scene had left town. Everybody had gotten successful and didn’t have to play the blues clubs anymore. They were all playing on the East Coast or West Coast, playing colleges, and the Chicago scene dried up.
So you left for California?
Yes. Out there, we could play at the Fillmore, where there’d be 1,100 people. Playing in Chicago, I was making $125 a week, working from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m, six days a week. It was enough money to rent a room, eat, buy gas, and maybe pay for insurance for your car. But in California, you could make 500 bucks a night. And the nightclub scene in Chicago – other than the people who came to hear blues or see Muddy Waters – was full of drug dealers, mafioso, police on the take, felons, and gangsters. It was very rough, very grainy… just very hard. So, fast as I could, I wanted to get the hell out of the nightclub business and get into the rock-and-roll concert business.
You had a hand in getting your Chicago/blues cohorts some nice gigs out west, right?
Yeah, we invited them out. I told (concert promoter) Bill Graham, “Man, you gotta get Howlin’ Wolf out here.” “You gotta get James Cotton,” and “Have you ever heard of Junior Wells and Buddy Guy? You need to bring them.” And they’d come out and play the Matrix, the Fillmore, the Family Dog. And most of the time, they’d stay with us – we had a house with seven bedrooms and a big attic. James and his band became good friends. Then we started making records and touring.
Your first albums were blues-rooted stuff and straight-up blues. What do remember most of making them?
Well, the early albums were tough because it was about learning to make records, number one. There were a lot of rough lessons; like how the Capitol Records engineering staff didn’t like us and walked out because we were “hippies.” A whole lot of weird s**t like that went down.
So I went to London, which was much more friendly. There, we were recognized as artists – swinging London, 1967, at the Olympic Studios, where the Rolling Stones just worked. Glyn Johns was gonna record my stuff. I did my first four albums in London.
How did they do in terms of helping you build a following?
We were selling a lot of albums – but we couldn’t get on the radio. We were a progressive underground rock band and AM radio wouldn’t touch us. But FM… at the time, you could go to any town, call the local station and program it yourself for five hours after your concert. It was just wide open, so every place we’d play, we’d go to the local FM station.
So, your transition from blues to rock was really about getting on the radio?
Right, I wanted to make singles. I wanted to have a hit record just like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles or anybody else. I wanted to be in the record business, because that was the way to bigger production and bigger shows.
Speaking of bigger shows, the rock concert as traveling spectacle, so to speak, got its start in San Francisco, right?
Right, we were developing a new way to do concerts. The stadium, the show with lights, the big PA – all of that stuff was developed in San Francisco. Before us, a big concert – in ’65, Paul Revere and the Raiders played an auditorium in Chicago that held 19,000 people, and they had two theater speakers, one on each side of the stage. You couldn’t hear a word, you couldn’t understand anything! I remember looking at those speaker boxes, which were five feet high, going, “My god these are huge.” That’s when the Family Dog people started saying, “Let’s build a special PA, let’s make this bigger, louder…” So then when we came to your town, we brought this wave of culture. People had never seen a PA like that or a light show like that. We were changing everything.
Your first big hit single happened with the title song from The Joker. What was that like?
When I made The Joker, I was at the end of my rope, I’d been arguing with my record company about promotion until I was blue in the face. Then one day a kid came by my house, delivering firewood, and he said, “Mr. Miller, I’m a songwriter. Would you listen to my cassette?” I went “Yeah, sure, kid.” I put it on and thought, “Christ, this kid writes better than I do, and I’m sitting here whining about my record company.” I was mad – frustrated – that I couldn’t get ‘em to come to the party and help us.
So I went to L.A. to make the album – I had no idea what it was gonna be. I was doing R&B tunes, doing “MaryLou,” stuff like that. And of course I didn’t know the title song was gonna be a hit – had no idea. It was the first record I produced myself, with nobody telling me what to do. Some kid at the label said, “I think ‘The Joker’ sounds like a hit single.” I said, “I’m getting ready to go do a 60-city tour, and the last time I was out, you guys didn’t have any of my albums in half of the towns I was playing. I’d go to a record store and my albums weren’t in the bins. I don’t care about singles, and I don’t care about your agenda. If I’m going to go take 12 people on the road for three months, I want you to have my records in the stores in the towns where I’m playing. If you want to sell records, you have to do that.” And I left. I was pretty much giving them the finger (laughs)! But I’d had it!
So I went out to the East Coast and started playing “The Joker.” Then suddenly it was the number one record in the country. And by the time I got back, we had sold a million albums. I remember getting back to San Francisco, driving home from the airport and hearing “The Joker” on four radio stations, and being pissed it wasn’t on a fifth (laughs) – and there was a check in my mailbox for $380,000. All of a sudden, I had the resources to take some time off. Which was good because I was exhausted.
Even after your next album, Fly Like an Eagle, produced a couple of huge hit singles, you still had issues with the label…
Right. Fly Like An Eagle was selling 40,000 copies a week and they wanted to stop advertising. Meanwhile, I played 240 cities that year. After the third single had run its course – we released “Take the Money and Run,” “Rockin’ Me” “and Fly Like An Eagle”– “Wild Mountain Honey” was going to be the next one. The album sold 41/2 million copies, but the label said, “No, we can’t release another single. It would press our credibility with radio.”
So they released the next album, Book of Dreams, one year and one day after Fly Like An Eagle was released. We had three more singles off Book of Dreams, and again they wouldn’t go farther. Our success was achieved in the face of that kind of incompetence.
The next album, Abracadabra, and the single, saved my bacon when Capitol wasn’t doing anything. I released it and did a sort of end run around their indifference, and the “Abracadabra” single became a hit.
Were you obligated to X number of albums on the Capitol deal?
Yeah, The Joker was the seventh record, and the last one from the original deal. After it became a hit, I told the chairman of EMI, “I just sold a million records, why don’t you raise my royalties a nickel.” He said, “Steve, much as I love you, I’m not in the business to make you happy. I’m in the business to sell records and make profits for my company.” And I said, “Well then you’re gonna just wait.” That’s the way we had to work with them – they were always stingy, mean, and stupid. They waited 18 months to get Fly Like An Eagle and by then a whole new deal had been negotiated, with my royalties doubled.
When I released Abracadabra, they didn’t think it was any good, either. It was 1982, and radio was changing. They thought we were a dinosaur rock act.
7) Guitar by Ned Steinberger. 8) A vintage Coral Sitar with Vinnie Bell pickguard. 9) A guitar by John Bolin’s House of JB. 9, 11) Two Modulus instruments from the Steve Miller Collection. 12) Replete in bright colors and mother-of-pearl, this guitar sports a photo of Miller in the Joker mask from the ’70s album. It was builty by Jim Triggs.
Fortunately for you, they were proven wrong given the song was went to number one. But we should talk about guitars. How many do you have?
The most I’ve ever had at one time was about 450, and I’ve quietly sold half of those over the last couple of years.
Why did you have 450 guitars?
Well, in the early ’90s I told myself, “I’ve been wanting to buy a really great archtop forever!” And my guitar guru is Dick Boak at Martin, who is such a great guy. So I started chasing down archtops, and got the book on James D’Aquisto. A few people told me, “Don’t even get started with that guy, his waiting list is seven years long.” Or, “Every time he finishes an instrument for somebody, some other guy slips into his shop and offers him $5,000 and he sells it.”
So, with a recommendation like that I went right down to the NAMM show and met Jimmy, you know (laughs)? And he was just the sweetest guy in the world, I just loved him, It was kind of like talking to somebody on the “Sopranos” (laughs). He had a guitar there and I said, “Jimmy, I can’t hear this on this floor.” He said, “Don’t worry I’ll ship it to you, you can try it out.” And I thought, “Wow, this is great.” So now I’m talking to the guy who’s making the kind of guitar I want. The following week, a package arrives and I open it up there’s a D’Aquisto Advent with a peghead snapped off. But he said, “Don’t worry, just send it back.” I did, and it came back four days later and I swear I couldn’t tell with a magnifying glass where he fixed it. The guitar was amazing, and I started buying guitars from him. The first one was a $30,000 guitar. Before that, the most money I think I ever spent for a guitar was $3,000.
Did you ever visit Jimmy’s shop?
I did, and it was like this little doll house – spotless – there wasn’t any sawdust. There were three guitars – one that looked like a Kay that had been sandblasted or some child has sprayed it with purple paint… I mean, it was very weird. And over in the corner was my D’Aquisto Solo, which was just amazing.
Working with Jimmy sort of spurred you to work with other builders, right?
Yes. I talked to Dick Boak and talked to my accountant, who I told, “I want to build a lot of guitars. My interest is working with luthiers, building new guitars. I’m not interested in buying a Stratocaster for 25 grand or something like that.” I went on to build seven guitars with Jimmy, and they’re phenomenal instruments.
Then I ran into Jim Triggs and had him build me a couple of jazz guitars; I started out really wanting archtops. Then I tracked down Steve Anderson in Seattle, and built a lot of instruments with him. Then Tom Anderson, in Southern California, and Steve Grimes showed up, and Steve Klein.
The next thing I knew, I was really building a lot of instruments and really loving the people I was building them with. Each luthier was an amazingly warm, wonderful person. I just really got hooked.
But 450… there must be some vintage stuff in there.
Sure, when I was traveling, maybe in New York, and I’d go to 48th Street and come out with four Telecasters and a Strat because they looked cool. So there was a lot of stuff in that 450 guitars that were $800, $1,200 guitars that were cool.
You’ve also worked with former Fender Custom Shop builder John Bolin, who also does a lot for Billy Gibbons.
He is just so much fun to work with; we’ve become really good friends. He’s such an interesting guy to build guitars with – I probably built 100 with him. And we’re always fooling around with Seymour Duncan, trying to get him to build a different pickup.
Anyway, I’ve narrowed my collection to where it’s mostly cool custom-made instruments. I’ve never been an obsessive collector, but at one point I had three rooms full of guitars in three buildings, all hanging on the wall, not sitting in their cases. I could walk through and play ‘em or yell at ‘em to make ‘em vibrate (laughs)! I knew them all. And I went, “Okay, I have a phenomenal collection.” I’ve learned a lot. I’ve taken pictures of them all… Now I need to knock it down to the guitars I really need.
Do you have a “goal” in mind, in terms of number?
I’ll probably always have about 200 guitars. But I’m really at a point where you know, the D’Aquisto is one that I play all the time, that I’ve beat the hell out of. The others are like sacred holy grails. Jimmy always told me every time he gave me a guitar, he’d say, “Steve take this thing and beat the hell out of it, play it.” And that’s why he’s built me so many guitars ’cause I was using them on the road, I wasn’t buying and selling and all that stuff. But you know, some are just so beautiful.
Do you have a handful of classic solidbodies?
Well, my old Strat, I’ve got a few old Gibsons – the guitars I played in the ’70s. I’ve got a Gibson Les Paul Special that was given to me by Leslie West when I was about 25 years old in New York – 1967 or ’68. Leslie was just this monster guitarist, I was hanging out watching him play “Leslie, show me how you did that” or “How does this work?” And he gave me one of his old guitars. And then I started playing it. And then I had it painted and it’s become a real classic; it’s the one with the real psychedelic paint job. I used that one, and I think I cut some stuff on an Iceman – “Jet Airliner” was probably cut using that Iceman guitar.
“Jet Airliner” was played on an Ibanez Iceman!?
Yeah. I went through a period where I played in a trio, using a Les Paul goldtop, and the damn thing was just no good. It didn’t sound good, didn’t work right. There were two guitars I’ve smashed in my lifetime… I just got so frustrated, one day picked it up and broke it. I think there was cardboard in the peghead. I went, “No wonder…” It’s from when Norlin owned Gibson.
Okay, this was a ’70s goldtop?
Yeah, and it sucked (laughs)! About then, I ran into Jeff Hasselberger, who was working for Ibanez, and we started talking. He said, “We’ll make you some guitars. What would you like?” They were the first to take me seriously as a guitar player. So we built a bunch of guitars and they were great. The Artist models I have are amazing instruments, they really sound good.
But most of the stuff I recorded on my hits was on an upside-down left-handed Stratocaster I bought from Henry at Manny’s. I was in New York and wanted some left-handed Strats; I wanted to set them up like Hendrix had his set up, so the controls were on top. I’d watched Jimi play so many times and went, “Hmm… maybe there’s something to having your controls on top, maybe it’s quicker to reach up there and have it, better than down and back up…”
I’ve known Henry since I was 20 years old and bought lots of guitars from Manny’s. He had two guitars that Hendrix ordered but never picked up. He said, “You can have them.” One was black, one was white. So I took them, had them set up with the strings flipped, and recorded a lot with the white one, which I still have. It’s an amazing guitar, with a rosewood fretboard. I may have recorded “Fly Like An Eagle” with that guitar.
What about the black one?
The black one… there’s a cloud of mystery around the black one!
I’ve had two other guitars stolen from me. One was a magnificent Guild 12-string made for the ’65 NAMM show by the master builder at Epiphone, who had been hired by Mark Dronge, and this was one of the last three guitars he made. I wrote a lot of songs on that guitar. Then one night I went to play a gig for one of my roadies who was getting married. So, on New Year’s Eve I fly from Seattle to San Francisco – the guitar is in one of those giant Anvil cases. I buy a ticket for the guitar, and carry it with me on the plane; there’s nobody flying – it’s New Year’s Eve! I go to the wedding, play, and leave town at 11 p.m. I’m flying back – the only person in San Francisco getting on a plane and the only person landing in Seattle. I mean, it’s empty. So I think to myself, “What the hell, I’m gonna just check the guitar.” I get to Seattle, and the guitar isn’t there. I go to the counter and file a complaint. I call United Airlines and say, “Somebody who works for you stole this guitar.” They denied everything and rejected the insurance claim. I said, “This isn’t about a $3,000 insurance claim. This is about a really great one-of-a-kind instrument. You guys have to find it.”
I called the FBI, gave them the number of the guitar. Three years later I get a phone call, “Steve, got your guitar…” (laughs)! Sure enough, some guy who worked for United had stolen it and kept it in Alaska for three years. He had given it to his nephew in San Diego who tried to sell it in a pawn shop. And when I got the guitar back, it looked like no one had touched it. It was a miracle.
The other one, I was playing at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin in the ’60s and had this really nice old Gibson ES-335 I played a lot until it was stolen after the gig. In those days, it was my only guitar. I went back to Houston three months later, and was doing a show in a theater with James Cotton. I went on stage, and there was my guitar, all cleaned and polished, sitting up on a music stand on the stage (laughs)! Someone got it back for me.
Which amps are you taking on tour?
I’m a Dr. Z Stang Ray guy. I’ve tried and tried to use other amps, but I can’t do it (laughs)! For my money, a Stang Ray with a couple of Celestion Gold speakers is just about as cool as I can hook up.
You must have a nice variety of vintage amps, as well?
I have had every amp known to man. I just had my favorite Marshall rebuilt, and I love that sound; I’m like everybody else – give me a Les Paul and a Marshall and I’m a pretty happy guy. But when I’m recording and using the effects I need, I’ve got a 30-watt Stang Ray and a little stand, and man, it sounds great! It doesn’t matter if we’re in a football stadium or wherever, it sounds great. Honestly, if we were sitting in a room and had my favorite Marshall head, my favorite Fender amps, my Tone King, and whatever else, and you plug into the Dr. Z, you just kinda “Wow!” That’s the way it happened to me. It’s my taste – the amp appeals to the way I play. I still tour with the first one I bought – I’ve probably played 300 gigs with it and it sounds like it did the day I bought it. And I just bought three more.
Do you have any favorite vintage amps?
Probably the Fender Concert I got in ’59, brown tolex. It’s got cigarette burns and the back is off, the inside looks like a bat cave or something – it’s just filthy. It has my high school address written on the side! I hadn’t turned it on in 25 or 30 years, but I looked at it one day and said to my tech, “Wes, just for fun, let’s see if it works.” We turned it on.. best-sounding amp I own. So good! I didn’t think it would even power up. But honestly, we were speechless, it sounded so good. I bet the tubes got changed in 1967 in San Francisco. I played every high school gig, every college gig, and probably half the gigs in San Francisco with that amp, and then just put it away because it was gonna fall apart. I don’t know why these things happen, but man… So there you go (laughs). I should take it to Dr. Z and say, “Just wondering… Could you duplicate this? And make it look real big and cool?”
So, what’s the story with Bingo!
Well, Bingo! is a real serious guitar effort, with great songs. I picked my favorite, favorite, favorite songs and got together with Andy to really do this right. The project started when I played the Fillmore two years ago, and jammed with Sonny Charles, Robben Ford, Joe Satriani, Brian Nobel, and Danny Caron – some really great players. It was just a three-day jam at the Fillmore, for fun, a little tune-up before we went into the studio.
Then we went to Skywalker Studios, which has one of the last standing real recording studios. We went in and started recording, and right away we just had a great sound. So I said “Let’s just keep the tape rollin’.” So went in and we cut 42 tracks… I think we did 140 takes in 11 days.
I hadn’t worked with Andy in long time except to mix a DVD project. And something happened, man… It just got exciting! I’ve been recording constantly on my own for the last 17 years. I just don’t release records because I don’t want to hassle with record companies. And I didn’t need to sell the records – my tours were going fine. So I was recording lots of jazz and blues projects and this and that, but nothing I really felt compelled to release.
When we started working on this project, Andy’s enthusiasm for guitar is so old-school that it felt just like it did when I was in London at Olympic Studios in 1968, cuttin’ those first albums. And Andy is the kind of engineer that like at 10 p.m., when the engineers were whining and about to quit, Andy says, “No, no, no. Let’s go to the truck. I know you have a Marshall cab in there with 75s. Let’s get that out, change the setup…” His enthusiasm was so great. And we’d be working on this stuff, mixing, and get to this point where everything’s sounding pretty good. Maybe we want a little more guitar, but then it’s not working – it’s too loud, it’s too this, it’s too that. Andy would just sort of walk up to the console and fool with a few knobs, and all of a sudden, boom – we’d be into the next realm! Then you felt like playing some lead guitar! It was working, everything sounded great.
So many times you’re in the studio and you just feel… I mean, all musicians feel like, “Aww… I’m just gonna play this solo and they’re gonna do this and they’re do that and it’ll sound like s**t when they’re done, anyway.” But it wasn’t that way with Andy; he started really inspiring me. In fact, I got a team of people who were inspirational, and I said, “Okay, you guys wanted an inspired Steve Miller. Now you’re gonna have to deal with it. Let’s go.” And we took off after this stuff.
We did all the sessions at Skywalker, then went to Paramount in L.A., which is a big old room with these monster speakers that hang down on the top of your head – it’s a great place to overdub and do guitar work. So we did a bunch of work there, then moved to my studio to do final mixes. It turned out to be a really great project.
But 42 songs is a little much…
Well, we really, really dialed in 28 of them. I picked the 28 I thought fit together best, and we started working. As time went on, there were a few times we’d be playing something and suddenly a solo would get a lot better. We asked Satch (Joe Satriani) to kick in a couple solos, and we did some harmony guitar parts together.
Sounds loose, enjoyable…
It became, really, a labor of love. And I wasn’t gonna let go until it was exactly the way I wanted it. I drove Andy crazy a few times, and he drove me crazy a few times, but we ended up laughing about it. “Getting things the way we wanted.” That’s the story of Bingo!
And you’ve got plenty more material.
There are two albums in the can – and I wanted to make them like albums; I didn’t want them longer than 32 or 33 minutes. I didn’t want to go “Here’s 28 songs jammed on a CD.” I wanted it to be an old-school record – the real deal. I kept insisting on 10 tracks, 32/33 minutes. I want to put it out on vinyl…
I’m totally happy. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted and I’m real excited about it. And you know how guitar players are – every time you do a solo, you want to do it better; you want the tone, you want to get the solo just right, get the energy, and make it feel as exciting as when you first thought about doing the tune in the first place.
We’ll conclude our talk with Miller next month, discussing his hunt for great new Gibson Les Pauls, more about his work with some of the best indie luthiers, is work with the music-education initiative Kids Rock Free, and his new record label.
This article originally appeared in VG August 2010 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.