Though obviously a familiar name given his hits from the 1970s and ’80s were FM staples and today are virtually ubiquitous on classic-rock radio, last month we talked with Steve Miller about his less-discussed musical pedigree. Literally raised in the company of some of the biggest names in guitar music (Les Paul, T-Bone Walker, etc.), by age 12 Miller was earning money as a musician before eventually moving to Chicago to make a living playing the blues, then attaining superstardom after releasing a string of hit singles and albums.
Though never much into vintage guitars, Miller is nonetheless a prolific guitar collector who works with some of the best-known luthiers, creating custom instruments.
We pick up the conversation discussing how he came to possess a small army of recent-issue Gibsons.
You recently went on a hunt for good Les Pauls. What were you looking for – new stuff, vintage stuff?
I was looking for both. In 2006 I was awarded the Les Paul Tech Award at the TEC Foundation for Excellence in Audio’s Technical Excellence and Creativity Awards show, and was presented a Les Paul ’59 reissue. It’s a beautiful instrument and a lot of fun to play. In fact, a lot of the solos on (Miller’s new album) Bingo! were done with that guitar.
A while after that, I was at Chicago Music Exchange looking for a Gibson doubleneck. I tried a few and wasn’t satisfied, and they had the Jimmy Page-signed version on the wall. I said, “Okay, bring it down.” So the guy pulls it down, and it’s one of 200 doublenecks that Tom Murphy put together. It was the first time I had seen one of his, and what a great guitar, especially the six-string SG section. I was knocked out. It turns out they had 11 doublenecks, and I tried them all. Suddenly, I was very impressed with what Tom Murphy and the Gibson Custom Shop were doing.
So I bought three of them and started looking for a “Murphy’d” Les Paul. Just as we were starting last year’s tour, I heard there was a Billy Gibbons Pearly Gates version coming out; I love the way Billy plays and I love his tone, so when I heard the Reverend was giving up the secrets, I jumped right onboard – his tone is so cool!
So, Scotty – my manager, who’s a guitar nut too – said, “Let me call around and see if I can find one. I played one and I think you’re gonna really love it.”
So we started looking, and I’m on the road when these two signed Billy Gibbons guitars show up – numbers 15 and 16. I tried them, and without a doubt, these guitars are the real deal. I mean they sounded so good; I started using number 15 onstage that night. I was delighted with how it felt, how it played, and especially with how I sounded on it. Then I found a couple of aged ones, serial numbers 22 and 23, and they were amazing, too. I started asking myself, “Wow, what is going on here?” Wherever we went, we started visiting whatever guitar stores were in that city.
Eventually, I ended up at the Gibson Custom Shop and met all the guys building these guitars. They were wonderful. I was so impressed by what they had accomplished. I couldn’t believe the quality of the guitars that were coming off that line. The five hours I was there, a lot of guitars got finished, and I played them all. All of them I have are really wonderful, easy to play, set up perfectly, and sound wonderful. We started recording with them, and I take four on tour with me.
You’ve also been talking with Gibson about building some customs, right?
Yes, I’m getting ready to place an order after trying a lot of different artist models, incorporating everything I’ve learned from them and have figured out playing my pearly gates for a year and from talking to Les himself over the years and his son Rusty about Les’ personal guitar.
The Gibson Custom Shop does some nice work.
I think they’re at the pinnacle of the guitar building history. I really do. This is the golden age for Gibson – it will be hard to get better than this. I’ve tried more than 30 Les Pauls and any of them would knock anybody’s socks off. There’s not one bad one in the bunch. And Tom Murphy, Pat Foley, Steve Christmas, and all the guys at the Custom Shop are to be congratulated for their hard work and the fine instruments they’re producing. There are a hundred men and women at the Custom Shop who are all very serious about their work, and they’re turning out wonderful guitars. Jimmy’s doubleneck 12-strings is priceless to me – I love them. They’re wonderful instruments, and Tom Murphy has done a great job. I prefer the Murphy guitar or a VOS, and before I tried them I just thought that was all a gimmick.
You said you have four of those on the road. What else are you taking on tour this year?
I just went through everything with Wes Leathers, my guitar tech, and we’re taking new Martin J-12-40E 12-strings that are really right on the mark. I’m using those for my acoustic sets, some different tunings – B, D, and E. I also use the D-45 and a D-41 for my acoustic set.
Are those newer Ds?
Well, I’ve been using them for the last 15 years. They’re well-played-in road guitars. I’m taking six John Bolin Strats with custom pickups made by Seymour Duncan, two BillyBo guitars with TV Jones pickups, a new Custom Shop VOS Les Paul Junior that has a P-90 that sounds like it’s a foot deep that Steve Christmas steered me to, and a couple of Bolin N/S guitars with custom electronics by Haz. I introduced Ned Steinberger to John Bolin, and John built the N/S models for me. Ned’s been a good friend for years; I’ve played lots of his guitars in my shows over the years.
For more than 20 years, Steve Miller has been working with luthier John Bolin to create unique instruments – solidbody, hollowbody, basses, etc. Here are a few.
I also have two CV Guitars, they are called PG Mods; Larry Corsa puts them together using Les Paul Standard fadeds with Manalishi pickups with an out-of-phase Peter Green setup, and they are great guitars, too. They’ve got great tone.
My search for the ultimate tone continues. I’m playing a Wildwood Gibson LP mod with a double-cut maple top, and they carve both sides of the maple top, which creates a small tone chamber. They had Gibson make 25 of them. Then, I ran into a client of Bolin’s who’s owns an original ’53 Les Paul goldtop, an original ’59 Les Paul Standard, and an original ’57 Strat, and I asked him, “Would you bring those to our gig?” We were doing a tribute for (late bandmate) Norton Buffalo at the Fox Theater in Oakland in January; he graciously brought all three – the ’59 was formerly Eric Johnson’s, with “Buddy” written on the pickguard. It was great to play the real deal and see what it really sounded like ’cuz I hadn’t played a real ’59 in so long, you know? And it was this lovely, sweet, clear-sounding guitar. It had all the stuff you wanted, and its lower strings had a clearer tone. You had to crank the amp up a little more, but once you did, the thing started to sing. It wasn’t as hot as a Burstbucker pickup, but it was clearer-sounding and a little sweeter, more musical. That’s why I started looking at Les Pauls again. I thought, “Okay, I get it.” I like that sweet sound more than I like just a super-hot sound. So in the end I think it’s all about pickups, really. The instruments that Gibson is building are as perfect as I could ask for especially when they have been Plecked… I see any new Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul as a perfect platform for whatever pickups you like. I pick the instruments that feel best and the neck that suits me the best – it isn’t about finish or color or whatever. I’ll change pickups all day long just to find the perfect match. I talked to Seymour Duncan after playing the ’59 and described to him what I thought I was hearing and he sent me two sets of pickups that were not wound as hot, and they sounded really good. You just sort of have to crank your amp up a little bit more, and then there it is.
Seymour’s Antiquity humbuckers have some really fantastic overtones…
That’s exactly what I came away with, and man what a sweet, fat, hot sound And if you want to go over the top, just turn up the amp two numbers – there it is!
So now I’ve got this great bunch of guitars and I’m hoping to build one with Edwin Wilson at Gibson’s Custom Shop that has a combination of all the right parts and pieces for my tone and me.
What’s in the pedal board you use live?
The first thing is a switch that kills my microphone in the house PA but lets me talk directly to my in-ear-monitor mixer Steve McHale and the rest of the band through their in ear monitors. It’s handy for quick on the spot adjustments, messages to the house mixing engineer, or quick cues and changes to the band, the stage crew and guitar techs.
Then, for guitar there’s a Klon Centaur I use for the Gibson guitars, a Fulltone OCD for Stratocasters – it’s weird, but they always sound different in each venue; sometimes I switch guitar setups and one just feels better than the other.
Next is a Boss DD-2 set for when I play “Fly Like an Eagle.” Then there’s a Boss DD-2 set for short delays, a Keeley compressor, a Seymour Duncan SFX-07 Shape Shifter, and a Vox V847 wah. Everything’s plugged into a Voodoo Power supply and there’s a Radial SGI single-line transformer.
The pedal board runs to my Dr. Z Stang Ray, which then goes to a cab with two Celestion Gold 12” speakers.
We talked earlier (see the August issue) about how things came together so well while you were recording the songs on Bingo!. But we should also mention that you worked with renowned artist Storm Thorgerson on the cover art.
Yes, and it was a huge project! Storm listened to all the music and did 30 drawings. I picked the ones I liked, and then he went to Spain and shot the pictures (laughs)!
Certainly no half-hearted effort! His work for Pink Floyd involved some fairly extreme concepts.
Get this, man! We’re working on more projects, one where he’s digging a guitar-shaped hole in England that’s 60 feet long and five feet deep with people dressed in ’50s-style clothing pouring water into the guitar. For another, he did a drawing of vinyl discs coming out of the sky at an angle, landing in the desert. So we built the discs – they’re 30 feet in diameter!
So yeah, these are these huge, surreal Pink Floydian album covers.
And these are for your albums, like the other batch that you recorded during the Bingo! session?
Well, I started a record company – Space Cowboy Records. Perfect time to start a label (laughs)! Thank God we have our touring income, man. Seriously, though, it’s really exciting to be working with the kind of artists I’m finding. For a really a long time, I was uninspired about making records, mainly because of the business of it. It’s like, “I feel like doing a record. But I’ve got to call a lawyer and then micro manage the company,” you know? But this is different – a lot better, a lot more interesting, and a lot more fun, which is the way I want to do it. And hell, I’m 66 years old. I don’t have a lot of time!
But do you still enjoy playing live?
I never felt that way about touring. I love to tour, I love to play, I’m excited about my new stage setup, I get excited working on set lists, putting things together, working on the acoustic section of the show and figuring out this and that. I love all of that.
But the business part is too irritating…
Right. I wasn’t very interested in doing it. But working with Storm, working with (recording engineer/co-producer) Andy Johns, and having somebody like Joe Satriani come in… Having (vocalist) Sonny Charles join the band, having the band up for it, having the sounds sort of wake up after a long, long time…
And with your own label, you’re the boss.
Yes. I don’t want to be mad at a record company, so it feels really good, like it’s in our hands, not some corporation that doesn’t care. It has that feeling of the good old days, when we’d record what we wanted to record.
And of course, these days you can’t record albums thinking they’ll make you a star. It just doesn’t work that way.
No. The whole business is so… it’s sad. I feel bad for young musicians because there’s no place to play, no place to grow. Pop music today is people groomed by the Disney Company and put on television, then made pop stars. It’s a very hard way to go. People like me would never have a chance today. I’m not a video artist. I can’t dance and make it look great and keep my hair just right.
The good news is I’ve found two groups I’m working with; one is The Danger Babes – two girls in San Francisco who are 20 years old, brilliant writers, and really great performers. They sound like a combination of Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, only newer and better. And then there’s Max Marshall, a young guitarist and writer from Texas. He was 12 at the time we met, and a really good guitar player. I got him to come to New York and introduced him to Les Paul, and Les brought him onstage and he got to play with Les. He’s 16 now and burning it up; he’s somewhere between the Kinks and Led Zeppelin and the Moody Blues, and a phenomenal writer. For the last two years he has been to the Berkeley College of Music, taking guitar courses in the summer. He’s a real smart kid, and very talented. I hope to finish records with both acts next spring
So, as label head, will you be producing their albums?
I will help them produce their own albums, but they’ll call the final shots, own their own publishing, and be their own bosses. I never was interested in producing other people because they always thought if I produced them they’d become rock stars. But these two acts have the hard part down – the writing and the musical talent. They’re great musicians and writers, hard workers, and they have musical ideas, which is exciting. I’m having fun now!
Go On, Give the Money and Jam!
Steve Miller is a huge believer in a music education program for kids age 7 to 17 called Kids Rock Free. Part of the Fender Center (a 501C charity based in Corona, California), its mission is to provide free and low-cost music lessons in piano, guitar, bass, voice, drums, and combo-band.
“In my opinion the Fender Museum and Music school is the best designed and operated community music program in the country,” said Miller. “It was built for a reasonable amount of money, it’s self-sustaining and it focuses on teaching music by involving parents and children in a way that inspires and rewards good work. That’s why I’ve performed three benefit concerts for the school and donated substantially to the program. It works. It is the best community project I’ve ever seen and is a model for the rest of the country to emulate.”
Since 1998, more than 12,000 students have taken part in the program, and bands from it have performed with and/or opened for the Steve Miller Band, Bad Company, Joe Walsh, Merle Haggard, Lit, Alien Ant Farm, Bo Diddley, Etta James, Dick Dale, and others.
Fender Center and Kids Rock Free are in the midst of a fundraising and marketing effort, assisted by The John F Kennedy Center’s AIC program and designed to address the needs of 800 kids waiting to participate in the program. For more, go to fendercenter.org.
This article originally appeared in VG September 2010 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.