Earl Slick landed his dream gig back in 1974, when a friend referred him for a gig with David Bowie, replacing Mick Ronson. During this period, Slick recorded three monumental albums – David Live At The Tower Philadelphia (1974), Young Americans (1975), and Station To Station (1976). He went on to collaborate with other major artists including John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Ian Hunter, David Coverdale, Phantom, Rocker and Slick, and release several solo discs.
Now, nearly three decades later, Slick has reunited with Bowie, appearing on Heathen (2002) and Reality (2003). Additionally, Slick invited Bowie to accompany him on a track for Zig Zag (Sanctuary, 2003), his first solo record in 12 years. Along with Bowie, the disc features collaborations with several guest vocalists, and an assortment of instrumental tracks.
While on a short break back home in New York, VG chatted with Slick about his incredible career and the gear he has chosen along the way. Slick recalled his early days with Bowie and Lennon, and spoke about the experience of making his latest solo disc, noting the changes in his playing style and musical preferences. Furthermore, Slick offers up some valuable advice on becoming a better songwriter.
Vintage Guitar: What inspired you to play guitar, and who were your earliest influences?
Earl Slick: Everybody from my generation saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and that was the beginning of it. That was the inspiration. As far as the influences go, it was very much Keith Richards and Brian Jones at the beginning because of Brian Jones’ slide stuff and Keith’s sort of twisted Chuck Berry thing, and then the Yardbirds. It would be very early on, so it would have been the Clapton and Beck period. That’s the Having a Rave Up, For Your Love period.
As a player, I developed into a hodgepodge of all those guys, with a little bit of Hendrix. But I had a hard time trying to pick out what he was doing. But what ended up happening was I took all of that in, and I never actually sounded like any one of those people.
In what ways has your approach to playing changed over the years?
The biggest change has probably been in the last six or seven years, because I started writing a lot more and I’ve been much more conscious of what’s going on sonically, as opposed to what’s going on with chops. I don’t like using my chops anymore. It bores me. I approached David Bowie’s stuff a lot differently way back than I do now. I’m playing less, but I think my playing is a lot more intense and I’m playing more to the sound of things. I’m playing simpler and a little more thematic, and a lot less jammy and bluesy than I used to. Because I write so much now, I’m approaching the songs more like a songwriter.
So, to me, onstage and even in the studio, it’s playing specific parts that have different sounds and sonics that is more interesting to me. I prefer playing rhythm more than doing all the cool-guy solo stuff. I found myself playing things and then thinking it’s boring. If it’s not doing anything for me and if I’m bored, the audience must be hating it. I think that if you just keep doing something long enough and doing it the same, you’ve got to get bored. You wouldn’t want to keep wearing the same clothes you had 10 years ago.
Which players were most influential in your gear choices?
That would have been more getting into Clapton and Beck. In the early years, my first real guitar was a Tele because I saw a picture of Beck with a Tele. I think it was on the Rave Up album.
My next real guitar was an SG because of Clapton in the Cream period – that old beat-up painted SG. From the SG I went to Les Pauls. I still used the SG, too.
The Strats probably came in around 1975, then it was Strats and Les Pauls in the studio. But live, I was pretty much using Gibsons because I hated using any kind of pedals to get the fat sound, and the Les Paul did the trick. So I tended to use the Les Paul because of the fat factor.
By the ’80s, I started going for modified Strats and Teles, and pretty much didn’t use much humbucker Gibson stuff at all. That went on for a long time. In the ’90s it was the same, and I was using beefed-up Teles.
Now I’m back on Les Pauls. I’m back to fat again. I’m using the Strat on about four songs out of a 30-song show.
Which guitars do you currently have on tour?
I’ve got a cherry sunburst Les Paul Standard with a Bigsby, and a black one with a Bigsby. Those two cover most of the show. Then I’ve got a double-cutaway goldtop Les Paul Classic. They are so cool. It’s got a thinner ’60 neck, and that’s what I have on the other ones, too. I don’t like the old ’50s neck as much. It’s an interesting guitar and it definitely sounds different from the others because it’s chambered. It’s a very warm-sounding guitar. Those guitars are all stock. It’s the first time in years that I haven’t had to modify my guitars.
I’ve also got an Epiphone Jorma Kaukonen model which has a Bigsby, too. It’s got a great neck, with a 335-style body. It sounds good acoustically, but it didn’t have the type of electric tone I wanted. So I gutted it and put in a pair of DiMarzio PAFs.
I’ve got an ESP that’s highly modified, with DiMarzio Fast Track pickups, and a modified tone control with capacitors that change how the tone control works. When I roll it off, it doesn’t get muffly. It actually sounds like a wah wah in a half-cocked position. It’s very honky and midrangy, and very sustainy. I also had a Fernandes Sustainer installed. I use that guitar on “Heroes” so I don’t have to use the E-Bow. Jerry Leonard, the other guitar player, and I are doing a very similar thing with that sustain, but he’s using the E-Bow and I’m using the Sustainer. I also use it on the second half of the solo that’s at the tail end of a song called “Sunday” from Heathen and for a song called “The Motel.”
I’ve got my Ampeg Dan Armstrong on the road with me, too. It’s a reissue. It’s actually as good, if not better, than the originals. They’re way cool. I pull that one out on the encores. I’ve also got a Tacoma dreadnaught 12-string.
Which amps and effects are you using?
I’m using Ampeg 50-watt Reverb Rocket half-stacks with Ampeg 4×12 cabinets. I love them. For effects, I’m using the Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, and Ibanez DE7 Stereo Delay/Echo, which is a cheap-ass pedal and it’s really cool. I think it’s digital because you can get really long delaysthat you can’t get with analog pedals. Then I’ve got an Ibanez CF7 Stereo Chorus/Flanger that does some very cool stuff, and a Voodoo Labs Micro Vibe. I’ve also got a Dunlop Dual Distortion, and I’m using two Tube Screamers – one original model and one new model. I’m using the older one for the more cutting tone and I’m using the newer one for more bottom-end stuff.
Do you have a collection of vintage instruments?
I’ve got a great ’69 Gibson J-45, a ’65 SG Junior, an old Strat and an old Tele. I couldn’t tell you the years, but they’re both ’60s. I bought the SG and the J-45 new, and I don’t remember when I bought any of the other ones. The J-45 gets used a lot in the studio, but I haven’t used the SG in a long time. I won’t take it on tour because I’m afraid something will happen to it.
Tell us about your experience working with David Bowie. How did you initially hook up?
I hooked up with David in 1974 through a friend, Michael Kamen, who just passed away. I’ve know Michael for 30-some years now and we had once worked together in a band. At the time, he had scored music for the Joffrey Ballet, and David was there. Mick Ronson had just left the band and David mentioned he was looking for a guitar player, so Michael threw me right into the mix.
What circumstances brought you back together after all these years?
You know what? I don’t know! I have the slickmusic.com website, where we do some CD reissues, and my webmaster got an e-mail from David’s office saying that if this is Earl Slick’s website, please have him contact us. So that’s how the whole thing started. That was the very end of ’99 or the first week of January, 2000.
What do you consider your best work with Bowie?
A lot of the reviews said David Live At The Tower. I think it’s Station To Station and Reality. On Station To Station, the title track and “Stay.” On Reality, “New Killer Star” and the title track.
Tell us about some of your studio work in the mid ’70s, after leaving David’s group.
There’s a lot of stuff, and to be honest, I don’t remember a lot of it – nor do I care to. But I can’t forget that I did two albums with John Lennon and had the time of my life.
How did you connect with John Lennon?
It was just another one of these weird things. I get a call from Jack Douglas, the producer, saying he’s putting together a band for John. He said John was in the studio and he wanted me to play on the record.
So John hand-picked you?
What was that like?
It was amazing. As different as they were artistically, and given the fact that John came from a band and David has been a solo artist his whole life, they operated in the same way, from an artistic point of view. When you were brought in to do something, they knew what you did and they capitalized on that.
What do you consider the highlights from the Lennon period?
The whole process! The whole damn thing – waking up every day, getting into a cab, going to the studio, and being in the studio with John. It was just like one continuous “Wow!” In a way, it was surreal. But actually, right now it’s even more surreal because it was so long ago. Sometimes I’ve got to look at the album and go, “Yeah, I’m there.” It’s funny how we’re like little kids sometimes. They put together a box set a few years ago which included outtakes from the Double Fantasy period and outtakes of some stuff that ended up on Milk and Honey. There’s one song – I think it might be “I’m Stepping Out” – and right before he gets to the solo, he yells my name. When I got it, I just kept playing it back in that one spot to hear him say my name!
As far as the standout tracks, I think “I’m Losing You” on the Double Fantasy album. I was very happy with that because I got to play a very cool solo. For some reason, playing acoustic guitar on “Beautiful Boy” was really cool, too. The material on Milk and Honey was actually recorded at the same time. The tracks we originally finished came out on Double Fantasy and then the other ones ended up on Milk and Honey. Some of it was kind of cool because it was like live. Some of the solos were live.
You also worked with Yoko Ono after John passed away.
You know, the woman has taken more beatings in the press… I found that at the time, approaching Yoko as Yoko, the person, that you know at the moment, and not the person everybody likes to slap around, that she was cool. She treated me very well. I enjoyed playing on the records. And considering that it was after John was killed, there were some emotional days, but she treated everybody just fine. I think she was viable musically, but abstract people scare the public. That’s just a fact of life.
Tell us about the formation of Phantom, Rocker & Slick. Had you known Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker before then?
I’d just finished a tour with John Waite. He went in to do another record and I decided I didn’t want to do the album. So I went back to L.A. and was supposed be going to the NAMM show, but I didn’t want to go. My ex-wife said I should just go because I’d enjoy myself, and who knows, something might come out of it. So I went.
At the show, a guy comes up and says that Slim Jim and Lee from the Stray Cats want to meet me. So I go talk to them, and we hit it off. They said they had this little project going on and they wanted a guitar player for it, and they asked me if I’d like to do it. So we got together and jammed a couple of days in the studio. We had a really good time, and just went from there.
Was it difficult when some perceived you as Brian Setzer’s replacement?
Oh, I got plenty of that. We’re very different players, plus, I wasn’t the lead singer. But I really didn’t pay much attention to what people were saying. I was having a good time.
What are the best examples of your work from that period?
I thought the first album had a lot of good stuff on it. I thought “Men Without Shame” was a really good track, and it did quite well. The video did well, too. I also like “My Mistake” because Keith [Richards] plays on that with me. Then we did another record, and that was a disaster. The drugs had taken over by then and it was about a year before I got clean.
Tell us about your experience making Zig Zag. How did the songs come together?
I started writing, and got inspired to make the record. I started recording in March, 2001, then other things came up. Then I went on the road to Japan for awhile. When I came back, I did some more writing, then I went on the road with David again. I came back and did more writing and recording.
It started as an instrumental record, then having cut the track with David, I thought it didn’t have to be an instrumental record, and I didn’t have to hire a lead singer. I thought I could just bring in some people I really like. My producer, Mark Pilati, was working on a track for The Cure. I went into the studio and did all the guitars for it, then Mark went back to London to mix it with Robert Smith. While he was there, Mark played him some of the stuff I was doing, and Robert wanted to get involved. So it all kind of happened organically.
When you’re writing, how do songs typically emerge?
It’s usually just me hitting on some kind of chord progression I like. Sometimes I’ll actually get a vision in my head where I’ll hear something, then I’ll sit down with a guitar and see if I can actually play what’s in my head.
Do you favor a particular guitar for writing?
When I get into writing mode, I have a floor full of guitars laying around, upside-down, under chairs, hanging over here and there, and there’s no particular one. It’s whatever the flavor of the day happens to be. Sometimes I’ll just put the guitar through a bunch of pedals and step on one and go, “Wow, that sounds cool.” Then I’ll start playing and all of a sudden something comes up that inspires an idea.
How do you document your ideas?
This time I was using a Tascam 4-track. I would throw down one rhythm track and one melody track, then I’d leave it alone and write another one. I also have a friend who had a rig set up at his house. I’d go over and write and record. We’d make two-minute demos with a drum machine, so they were a little more cohesive. So there was a combination of both really rough stuff and some stuff that actually sounded really good.
How did you select tracks for the guest vocalists?
The guest vocalists chose the tracks. In David’s case, I had these seven really rough pieces and we sent them, then he picked one. We did the same thing with Robert Smith, but at the time, I was recording more elaborately, meaning there was a drum machine and a bass on it, and maybe a keyboard.
That’s pretty much what we did with everyone; we let them pick one that inspired them, then we let them run. The lyrics and melodies were written by the singers.
How were their vocals recorded? Did you bring them into the studio with you, or send them the tracks?
With David, for instance, once we figured out the form he was writing in, we cut the track, then he came in and sang. With Robert, I sent him a stereo disc with the demo. He put that into Pro Tools, sang on it, and sent it back to see if I liked it, and I did. When he finished off his lyrics and melodies, we took the form that he did, and then we recut the track. We sent that back to Robert, then he sang on it and sent it back to us.
With Martha (Davis, of the Motels), we actually wrote the song together, in the same room. I had the basic guitar riff and stuff, and then she wrote the lyrics. The track was cut, then she was flown in and sang it. With Roy (Langdon, of Spacehog), we gave him the “Zig Zag” track and he gave us his lyrics. Then we put everything into Pro Tools and cut it up so it matched where he was. Plus, we did some changes to it with drum loops and other things. With Joe (Elliot, of Def Leppard), it was the same thing. It was great. The track was already cut, so all we did was get his files so we could mix it.
Was it strange, giving direction to David?
It was funny, actually, sitting there while he was doing the vocal. It was coming out great. He asked what I thought about the ending and I said, “Well, what if you tried this on the harmony…” It was ****ing weird giving him direction! I was stepping back from myself the whole time, like there was one of me at the console and one of me just watching everything in the room.
Which guitars and amps were used on your tracks?
The early stuff was all cut with a custom Peavey and Gibson ES-335. Then, when I came back in, I used the Peavey on some of it and put on more Les Paul. For amps, there were the Ampegs and some Line 6 Pod Pro and Amp Farm software. Mark might have used Amplitude, too.
Was the recording was done entirely in Pro Tools?
It was done in Logic (Emagic recording software). I just call everything Pro Tools. I guess it’s becoming a generic term these days like Band-Aid or Kleenex.
How many guitar parts did you record for each song?
It would depend on the song. On “Believe,” Robert Smith’s track, there are acoustic guitars on the left and right, a subtle slide guitar that goes through the track, and the ESP with the Fernandes Sustainer for texture, and for the solo. “Zig Zag” is all over the place. I just had these ideas popping out, and they all worked. So there are all kinds of guitar tracks on there.
Did you use a variety of guitars, or more variety in effects?
Different effects for different sounds. On “Pike Street,” the main thing is a Les Paul through this weird preset on the Pod XT called “Kiss The Sky.” It’s a Hendrixy sort of thing. It’s on the solo, toward the end.
Something funny about that one; I’d just gotten the new Pod XT after the basic track was cut. I told Mark I was going to mess around with it, and told him to just roll the track. So I’m playing along, and while I’m playing, I’m dialing sounds up and playing things, and dialing up more sounds and playing, all at random. That’s what became the lead track. He was rolling the tape because he knows I’m like Mr. One-Take Willie. So that’s how most of the lead track on that song came together. You’ll hear the sounds change, and that’s what happened. I had a new guitar and a new toy.
What advice would you give others on becoming better songwriters?
That’s just a matter of doing it and learning that sometimes you’re going to get these things from inspiration, and sometimes from making yourself play it until something pops out.
The trick that’s made me a better songwriter is that I don’t necessarily finish these things when I start them. I go for the inspiration. When I get the inspiration, I record it real quick, then I leave it alone and move on because while the inspiration is there, I would rather spend the time on another piece of music than pissing around trying to make the last piece perfect. I’m not one for being perfect, anyway. You can spend an awful lot of time once you come up with the main idea of putting on additional tracks here and there. By that time, you’re kind of tired and your inspiration is gone. In that few hours, I could come up with the beginnings of the songs that I’ll develop down the line. I try to catalog the ideas and then go back to them later and weed them out.
What do you listen to for enjoyment?
This week I’ve had Innervisions rolling – I’m getting back into Stevie Wonder of that period. I like a band called the Marvelous 3, and I’ve been rolling the hell out of that one. There’s a Canadian band I love called Starling, and I’ve been spinning them a lot. I’ve also been listening to the Dandy Warhols’ Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia. It’s a good album. I enjoy the hell out of it.
This article originally appeared in VG March 2004 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.