John Fogerty’s music has always been unique. As a singer, songwriter, and guitarist that has been in the international spotlight since the late ’60s (when his band’s cover of “Susie Q” thrust them into prominence), the veteran performer is almost without peer when it comes to his abilities, and the reasons his songs have always had such staying power (in bar bands and on radio) include their simple-but-irresistible hooks and riffs, as well as their singalong sensibility. There’s probably no way to determine how many combos are playing tunes like “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” or “Green River” every night in clubs across the U.S.
But Fogerty has been a solo artist for over two decades, and he recently contacted Vintage Guitar when his newest effort, Blue Moon Swamp, was about to be released. We’d crossed paths with the legendary musician at more than one California guitar show, and he’d promised us an interview when his new album was ready to go. In a preliminary conversation to set up the interview, Fogerty was amazed at the growth of the magazine (he’s been reading it for many years); when informed of the newest figures regarding VG‘s circulation, he noted with a laugh: “I thought we were a cult!”
Once we were wired up for our on-the-record conversation, we figured that talking mainly about Fogerty’s love of old guitars as well as his new album would be appropriate as the main focal points of our dialogue, and as it turned out, he used a lot of old instruments on Blue Moon Swamp:
Vintage Guitar: You’ve been known to sing the praises of brands and models of guitars that aren’t as collectible as, say, custom-color Strats; examples of instruments you noted include Danelectros and Supros. Do you still feel that way about such guitars?
John Forgerty: Very much so! My first guitar was a Silvertone by Danelectro; the typical Masonite-and-lipstick-tube-pickup type. I got a Silvertone amp to go with it; they cost $88, including the interest over 10 months. That’s an American bargain! I played that outfit all through high school, and then I got a three-quarter scale Supro with one treble pickup. It was my first wood guitar, and I played it up until the time of the Golliwogs.
That Supro kind of “hooked” me into a 3/4-scale mode that I stayed in for six or seven years. I could really bend notes on the Supro, and it sounded so cool. I put light-gauge strings on it; I’d move all of the strings over and would put an E string in both the ‘E’ and ‘B’ positions; I’d throw away the biggest string. I could bend the heck out of everything, and it sounded real bluesy.
I was going to ask if you still had a predilection for shorter-scale guitars these days, or if it’s a nostalgia thing.
It’s a nostalgia thing. I stuck with that size because I could bend the strings so well, and somewhere along the line I must have gotten it into my mind that I had small hands, so I was thinking I’d never be able to play a full-scale guitar, but I also felt like I was cheating or cutting corners (chuckles).
When I was around 19 or 20, I became a Golliwog, and I got a 3/4-size Fender Mustang, then I got a Rickenbacker 3/4-size guitar; it’s a model 325, and it’s famous as the John Lennon model.
The first Les Paul I got was a Custom, and the first thing I recorded with it was “Bad Moon Rising,” in 1969. But later the same year, it got cracked by the airlines, so I got a luthier in Oakland, named Hideo Kamimoto, to repair it, and at the same time I got him to make it into a 3/4-scale instrument. That was the guitar that did the lead on “Up Around the Bend,” and it’s now in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. So all through the so-called “Creedence career,” I was into a 3/4-size mode.
Interestingly, I’m currently rehearsing for a tour, and I dug out my old Rickenbacker and my old Kustom amp, because I wanted to play “Suzie Q” and “I Put A Spell On You” on the exact equipment that got that kind of sound. And I’m having one heck of a time figuring out how my fingers ever fit into those frets. It feels like a mandolin! So I’m going to refurbish a “proper scale” Rickenbacker; the old Rickenbacker worked great in those days, but now it’s very constraining and limiting.
Many aspiring guitarists considered your guitar tone awesome on your first album, and even today it’s one of the most unique sounds in rock guitar history. Were you aware back then that your sound was that unique?
I can’t say that I was. I thought what I was good at doing was playing real simple guitar licks, since I’d cut my teeth on what Duane Eddy was doing; licks that were simple but had staying power. Even though James Burton was my idol, I didn’t think I could carry his shoes back then. I went pretty much for one tone, and I knew at that time that I wanted to play a Rickenbacker. In those days, I didn’t know how guys like Clapton and Beck were getting that searing blues lead sound, so I developed my style to be rhythmic and chord-based, with simple lead lines that you could almost hum. I think that’s one of the secrets as to why some of the songs back then were memorable, and why every bar band or garage band in the world could play Creedence songs.
In his own interview with this magazine, James Burton said that the first time you two met, you treated him like God because of “Suzie Q.”
(laughs) Well, it’s true, and I still feel that way. James was only about 15 when he recorded that, and he was already bending strings all over the place. What a sound! I’d like to think I’ve gotten better in my playing, and I’ve been woodshedding for a few years, and I’m still amazed at how many times I cross over the footsteps of James Burton. I’ll realize that I’ve pulled off something that James did years ago, and I’ll just smile and shake my head.
Considering that his main instrument has always been a Telecaster – and I’m aware that you admired another Tele player, Don Rich, as well – have you ever gravitated towards that particular model?
Yeah, recently. Right now, my favorite guitar in the world is the Custom Telecaster; the 1959 or 1960 model that had binding on an alder body and a rosewood fretboard. I think the alder body gives it more of a subdued tone, compared to a run-of-the-mill Telecaster. The ones I have got great necks; of course, all of the Fenders from that era are incredible.
The Telecaster doesn’t really sound that good for the kind of rock and roll that a lot of people played. It sounds kind of thin and without balls; I don’t think it would sound good on songs like “Louie, Louie” or “Wipeout,” for example. But if you sit down with it for a few years, thinking about the shadow of James Burton, you realize that it’s a great guitar, but it makes you work. It doesn’t sustain too good, but when you get into things like chicken pickin’, there’s no finer model.
One of the first live performances you did for a long time was the first Farm Aid concert; it appeared you were playing a walnut-finish guitar.
That was actually an off-the-shelf Washburn I bought around 1982. It’s got a wonderful, funky, “swampy” sound, and it’s still with me. I used it on the opening and the middle solo of “Swamp River Days” on Blue Moon Swamp. About five years ago, I was planning on touring with that guitar, and I tried to find a backup model; I haunted vintage stores and pawn shops, and I even got the company to make me another one, but I never found another one that sounded the same.
Washburn’s an old American name, but this one was assembled overseas. In the last two years or so, I’ve made a conscious decision to play American guitars; I don’t know of a more subtle way to say it.
Was that the Mellencamp band backing you at Farm Aid?
It sure was; the band included Kenny Aronoff, who’s playing with me now.
Of your four previous solo albums, which ones were “one-man band” efforts?
The Blue Ridge Rangers, John Fogerty, which is the one I call “the Shep album” because my dog Shep was on the cover, and Centerfield. On Eye of the Zombie, I had so-called studio musicians. If you were to ask for a value judgement about my one-man band concept, I think I probably took it to its zenith on Centerfield, but ultimately it isn’t a good idea. You should play with real musicians; the best music comes from real people interacting with each other.
And that must have been your attitude about making Blue Moon Swamp, considering the caliber of studio musicians you used, including Aronoff.
That’s one of the reasons it took so long. On Eye of the Zombie, I just got some studio musicians who were competent, but some of them weren’t right for what I was trying to do. When I made Blue Moon Swamp, there was a lot of trial and error; I was trying to find people who would be simpatico with my style, and with what I had in mind for the album.
I understand that another way you prepared for the new album was to make several pilgrimages to Mississippi.
People have always asked me: “Why is your music so ‘Southern’?” I was at the first Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, and of the 10 people who were being honored, nine were from the South; I wasn’t sure about Sam Cooke. I rest my case! Those trips to that area were really inspiring.
On the cover of the advance CD of Blue Moon Swamp, you’re holding a Stratocaster, but at one time you had sort of an aversion to that model, didn’t you?
I now have an awesome amount of respect for Leo Fender, but at one time I identified Strats much too closely with surf music; although I love surf music now, at the time I tended to put sort of a “wimpy” adjective on it. Guys singing through their noses about a “little GTO” didn’t impress me back then, because I was more into Chicago blues. Now that I’m older, I like almost anything that’s done well, even surf music and instrumentals; I really enjoyed the interviews with the Ventures in your magazine. And I now think that Stratocasters and Telecasters are way cool.
Let’s talk about some of the instruments and songs on the new album. There’s a great-sounding steel guitar on “Southern Streamline.”
That comes from my learning how to play the dobro. When I say learn, I don’t mean I’m a master, like Jerry Douglas, who’s my idol. I was bitten by the dobro bug about four years ago; I’d get up at three o’clock in the morning to practice, and I tried to apply what I’d learned to a lap steel. I loved Western Swing and Hank Williams’ music, and I now know that it’s a 6th tuning that gives you all of those classic licks.
I needed a specific sound for “Southern Streamline” on this album, and I even went on the Internet, talking to people about steel, and I finally worked my way into “the inner sanctum of mystical tunings” (chuckles). There’s just not a lot of guys around playing like that these days; a lot of steel players are plugging into stomp boxes, trying to sound like Jeff Beck on a steel guitar.
That’s an old Oahu Tonemaster on “Southern Streamline;” it’s got rope binding and is the coolest one for that tone.
The guitar break riff on “Hot Rod Heart” is reminiscent of “California Sun,” which is a great “cruising song” itself, in my opinion. Could there have been any subliminal inspiration involved?
I don’t really think so, but it was pointed out to me later that the notes on my solo are similar to the melody of “California Sun.” Coincidentally, the Rivieras are from the South Bend, Indiana, which is where my wife is from. I think both songs have kind of a pretty, “open” melody.
Isn’t that the Fairfield Four on “A Hundred and Ten in the Shade”?
How’d you hook up with them?
As a matter of fact, I’d gotten to be this old and hadn’t heard of them, and I’m sort of ashamed to admit that. On two separate occasions, I was talking with other players about cool singing groups; one time it was with Jerry Douglas, the other time with Bob Glaub, my bass player. And both of them brought up the Fairfield Four, so that told me that I’d better check them out.
When the sound of that song came to me, it was the reason I took up the dobro. Bluegrass dobro can be very pretty, and I knew I wanted that sound instead of a Delta blues, National steel-body sound. But I also think that song is way better than me (chuckles).
How did you manage to get a dobro and a Farfisa organ on one tune, “Bring It Down to Jelly Roll?” The organ reminded me of the Swingin’ Medallions!
That’s me playing that thing, and that’s all of my keyboard chops; I just let it all hang out (laughs). I knew for two years I wanted to do a song like “Mendocino” or “96 Tears.” That may indeed be the first time the two instruments you cited have been on one song; it might make a good trivia question!
The first single is “Walking In A Hurricane.” Was there any particular vibe you were going for?
Just loud, “almost-sinister” rock and roll; something that would hopefully get someone’s attention the first time it was heard, like “Satisfaction” did. “Satisfaction” has been heard so many times that it’s now a cliché, but the first time you heard it, it was pretty awe-inspiring.
The song has what I might call “a mild amount of distortion” on it, like “Satisfaction” did.
Yeah, but I’ve heard that a certain category of radio programmers wanted to clip off the front part, because of certain sensitive adult ears (chuckles). I used a great old ’52 Les Paul that’s been converted with PAFs on that song; there’s nothing else that sounds like that.
You used a tremolo effect on songs like “Blueboy;” ZZ Top used that effect on their latest album.
Right; Rhythmeen. It’s still one of the coolest effects ever. That’s my Danelectro, and a ’62 brown Concert amp. Some of the Concert amps sound different; the “Vibrato” circuitry is different in a ’60, compared to a ’62. But we all know Fender’s “Vibrato” circuit is really a tremolo effect.
As for slide guitars on this album, did you use any particular guitars and/or tunings?
The only sliding I did was on the kind of instrument that you put on your lap; no Spanish electrics. “Rattlesnake Highway” has a slide part that almost sounds like a weird sitar.
Speaking of sitars, “Rambunctious Boy” has an electric sitar and a mandolin on it; another odd combination that works.
The mandolin is a 1923 or ’24 A model, but it’s not a Lloyd Loar. I picked up several instruments in North Carolina a while back; a few guitars and that mandolin. That song has the full extent of my mandolin abilities; I’m not a good mandolin player at all.
That’s a Jerry Jones sitar on “Rambunctious Boy,” but there’s actually an old Coral sitar on “Rattlesnake Highway” that’s somewhat subtle; you can almost smell the patchouli oil on it (chuckles). Those instruments have got great necks; you can play the heck out of them! I played one in a studio for a couple of days, and found that a little of that sound would go a long way.
“Joy of My Life” is a bit of a rarity for you, in that it’s a romantic song, but it’s still sort of a no-frills song with a dobro.
Well, some big Hollywood producer might say: “It’s bee-yooty-ful,” but his idea of “bee-yooty-ful” would probably be a whole bunch of keyboards, a chorus, a string orchestra, a huge drum sound, and arena echo, which would make almost any song sound really pompous.
Yeah, syrupy. But I think beautiful is simple and elegant, like a ballad with simple harmony. I wrote that song for my wife, and it’s what some guy who’s sitting under a tree would be singing to the woman of his life, telling her how wonderful she is. To me, that’s more lasting than something that sounds like it belongs on a movie soundtrack.
“Blue Moon Nights” has such a Sun Studio feel that it’s obvious that you went to Memphis while you were on those Mississippi pilgrimages.
Well, I go way back with that influence. I started going to Memphis in 1968; I met Knox Phillips, Sam’s son, and we talked about things like slap-back echo. I’ve since gotten to know Sam pretty well; Sam knows that I’m a big fan of his. The word “genius” gets used too much in the music business, but Sam Phillips certainly qualifies as one.
You’ve been using and collecting older instruments for quite some time; is there anything you’re still seeking?
I’m still looking for a good 6120. I have a Duo-Jet with DeArmonds, which is the way I like them; before the Filter ‘Trons. A ’57 6120 is the ultimate rockabilly guitar.
What are your tour plans to support Blue Moon Swamp?
We’ll be starting off with clubs and other smaller venues, including the House of Blues here in L.A., and the old Fillmore in San Francisco. The idea is to keep it small and work up to larger places; I think I’ve got a lot of explaining to do (laughs). For a time, people knew I wasn’t playing the older, so-called “Creedence songs,” but I am now. Those are my songs, though, so it’s almost like I’m atoning or doing some kind of penance.
I think you showed a lot of class by finally opting to renew the live performance of those songs at the “Welcome Home” Vietnam veterans benefit.
Well, thank you. That made a lot of guys feel pretty good, and it made me feel pretty good, too. I’m now comfortable playing a lot of the old songs, and I’ve gotten out a lot of the old equipment. But I think the new material from Blue Moon Swamp will show that I was taking my time to get it right; maybe if I show those songs off the right way, somebody will say (affects a Southern drawl) “It sounds like you been practicin’, boy” (laughs)!
It’s probably not inappropriate to opine that John Fogerty writes, sings, and plays “quintessential American music.” His compositions are permanent fixtures on the American music scene, because their simple melodies and lyrics are identifiable to the average person. Fogerty’s material is as “comfortable” to music fans as the flannel shirts he favors. For all of his decades of success, Fogerty still knows how to write memorable songs, and Blue Moon Swamp should simply reaffirm such.
Photo courtesy of Bob Fogerty and Warner Brothers Records.
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’97 issue.