Rod Price

Opens Up
Rod Price
Price’s highly modified Les Paul Jr. (shown here in ’77) has been his primary guitar for years.
Price’s highly modified Les Paul Jr. (shown here in ’77) has been his primary guitar for years.
Price’s highly modified Les Paul Jr. (shown here in ’77) has been his primary guitar for years.

Part One

It used to be that photos didn’t lie. But nowadays (as supermodels and tabloids have proven) that’s not always true.

But it is true that when Rod Price’s slide hand is in action, it isn’t easy to capture on film – as fans of guitarist and the legendary English band, Foghat, can attest. When Price straps on his modified late-’50s Gibson Les Paul Jr., he becomes one of the best slide players in the business.

And if there’s a commonality between the man, his playing, and his music, it’s that they are all “open;” Price plays slide guitar exclusively in the key of open E, the title of his first solo album is Open (Burnside Records), and then there’s the candid manner in which he discussed his musical history and personal travails in his first real interview since the death of Foghat bandmate Lonesome Dave Peverett (VG, December ’91) in February of 1999.

Vintage Guitar: You were born in London, in 1947. Did you come from a musical family?
Rod Price: Yeah; my father was deeply into classical music, as was my older brother. The radio was also on continuously, so I got a diverse listening experience. I’d heard things on the radio like Roy Rogers’ “Four Legged Friend,” when I was a child, and I’d say to myself, “That’s not it.” It was really bizarre, because I didn’t even know what I was looking for. Then one day I heard Big Bill Broonzy, and I said, “What the heck is that? That’s what I’ve been looking for!” It was an epiphany – a spiritual experience – from hearing an E7 chord. In my world, nobody had ever added a seventh to a major chord.

Was the Broonzy song on the BBC, or Radio Luxembourg?
BBC, probably around ’59. Radio Luxembourg didn’t really happen until a little later. So Big Bill Broonzy albums were the first records I got. I played those for years; he was a wonderful guitar player, and I adored his voice. His singing sounded warm, silky, and fatherly. I was sold; I knew what I wanted to do.

After that, I got a country blues album that had artists like Leroy Carr, Scrapper Blackwell, and Robert Johnson on it. There was a store in London where everybody used to go to get their blues and jazz albums; a wonderful, dusty old place called Dorbel’s, which closed a few years ago, and what was great about the albums is you could get a lot of clues about the music from the liner notes.

rice caresses a Tele while gigging with Champion Jack Dupree in ’67.
rice caresses a Tele while gigging with Champion Jack Dupree in ’67.

One of my earliest influences was Tampa Red, probably because he was one of the first guys who played single-note slide. But as far as I’m concerned, Scrapper Blackwell – the guitarist with Leroy Carr – was the man, he did some solo stuff in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, and some wonderful person found him in Indiana in the ’60s and recorded him yet again. Blackwell is truly one of the most underrated players in history; his stuff sounded like Robert Johnson before Robert Johnson came on the scene. He wrote songs like “How Long” and “Blues Before Sunrise.” If you ever get to hear him, you’ll be knocked on your ass because you won’t believe what you’re hearing.

He was part Cherokee Indian, and he’s now gone – and it pisses me off that he was mugged and murdered when he was an old man. I was about 15 when I first heard him, and he blew me away more than any other guitar player I’ve ever heard.

I went through the rock and roll thing as well; the Shadows, Eddie Cochran – in fact, on my next album, I’m doing one of Eddie Cochran’s instrumentals.

It sounds like your early interest in the blues came full-circle on Open, which sounds like purist Chicago-type blues instead of earlier country blues…and it certainly doesn’t sound like blues/rock or heavy blues.
Absolutely, and I’m glad you clarified that. I could’ve done an album of all-original stuff, but I’d started with [Graham “Shakey Vick” Vickery] back in ’65, and I wanted to pay him back.

Were you not as interested in rock and roll and Radio Luxembourg as others might have been, due to your dedication to purist blues?
It helped; I needed rock and roll to help become aware of players like Buddy Guy, who I didn’t even know existed; I’d grown up listening to country blues. But I didn’t have a big record collection; in my mind, the blues had already engulfed me, so pop and rock and roll were kind of meaningless.

Did you take any formal guitar lessons?
I played for about a year on my own, and then told myself I’d like to know what I was doing. I left school at 15; they wouldn’t allow me in the musical appreciation society because I was one grade below. I took what were “music lessons” more than “guitar lessons,” including music theory, and I started listening to Davey Graham, a wonderful player who did an eclectic mix of blues, folk, and jazz. I played some of his songs for my music teacher, who said it was crap, so that was the day I left (laughs)!

Tell me about some of your earliest instruments.
The first one was some sunburst no-name thing with f-holes. I had a couple of Höfners, and the first good electric I had was a Gibson Melody Maker, which I used with Shakey Vick’s Big City Blues Band and Dynaflow Blues. I thought I was following Eric Clapton and Keith Richards down their “guitar roads,” but I didn’t realize they had more than one guitar! I’d see Richards with something like an Epiphone, and the next time I saw him, he was playing something else. I went through a period playing a Tele, which was mainly from seeing Clapton in the Yardbirds. Then I tried Strats. When I was in those two bands, we worked a lot because we’d open our own clubs. It was a great time to experiment with guitars and get your chops together.

When did you start concentrating on slide guitar and open tunings?
When I heard Robert Johnson, I told myself I’d never get that good, but I thought it might sound interesting on electric guitar, and that was before I heard Elmore James. Then there was a plethora of other influences; believe it or not, the first person I ever heard play electric slide live was (the Rolling Stones’) Brian Jones.

I went home and got an old piece of brass tubing, and found I could be far more expressive in my playing. I remember thinking, “If I can get this down, I’ll be a much better player,” but I put it aside for a while. I didn’t really begin concentrating on it again until I could afford more than one guitar. When I first got with Foghat, I only had one guitar, so on the first album I played in regular tuning. I also played in regular tuning on the second album, but I’d bought a new guitar, so after that album I started concentrating on slide in open E. I don’t know why I chose it; there were very few books around. I might have gotten it from Elmore James, although I think he tuned down to D a lot. That’s the only open tuning I’ve used.

Details about your “pre-Foghat” bands?
When I was 17, a friend told me he had a band for me; they were doing Elvis Presley, rock and roll stuff. I didn’t know if I was ready, but I did it for three or four months, just for the experience. Then I went to the old, reliable Melody Maker, by that time, I was hitting the blues clubs in London, checking out Clapton and others. The magic of those times is indescribable. There were times when you could see American blues musicians like Bukka White, Little Walter, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, all on the same bill! And I’m sure people like Eric Clapton and Peter Green would have been in those audiences, too. We were totally engrossed in this American music that had so much feeling and was so true and real. I wasn’t interested in something like psychedelic music at all.

Dynaflow Blues gigs at the Sunbury Blues Festival, August ’68.
Dynaflow Blues gigs at the Sunbury Blues Festival, August ’68.

I was an original member of Shakey Vick’s band, but I was the last guy to come onboard. I found out by reading Melody Maker that they were looking for a guitar player, went for the audition, and got the job. Graham (Shakey Vick) really knew about all of this wonderful music, so that was when my education really began. The first rehearsal I did, [Savoy Brown singer] Chris Youlden was there. It turned out Graham and Chris co-owned a Robert Johnson album, a Blind Boy Fuller album, and one other, and each week when we had rehearsal, I’d steal one of ’em to listen to (chuckles). I’d replace it the next week, but steal another one.

Chris used to sit in with the band, and we couldn’t play very well, but we had feeling and raw emotion. Dave Peverett sat in with us, as well – he’d met Shakey and Chris years before I did. We also got to play with Champion Jack Dupree, which was a big thrill, of course.

How did the Dynaflow Blues band differ from the Shakey Vick band?
Well, Shakey Vick (laughs)…one time when at a Tuesday night gig, we asked Graham about the money from Saturday night, and he said, “Well, I spent it on the horses.” So we said, “Screw this,” but Graham and I still can have a good laugh about it, and he doesn’t mind me telling that story. We formed Dynaflow Blues with another harp player, and that lasted for about a year. The original harp player went off to college, and I was in a music store one day, and ran into Duster Bennett, who was a one-man band we had seen with Fleetwood Mac. He played kick drum, hi-hat, guitar, and harp. He did a few gigs with Dynaflow, but I’d go to his house to learn. He bought a cheap Harmony from me just so I could get a better guitar. He was a real sweetheart; he was killed in a car wreck in 1976. I thought he was the best harp player in England. My next album is dedicated to him.

Black Cats Bones came after that, and definitely wasn’t a purist blues band. The Barbed Wire Sandwich album was heavy blues/rock.
It was, and that’s where Paul Kossoff and Simon Kirke were before Free. I did that for about a year also, and didn’t get much out of it.

By that time, what instruments and amps were you using?
Prior to that, I was using a Vox AC-30 with Shakey Vick and Dynaflow, and a Tele, for the most part. I was playing a Strat in Black Cat Bones, through an Orange amp; they had just come out.

I played with some other folks for about a year, but we never really gigged. It was, however, a year of learning for me. We had jams that went all night; a lot of them were based on the stuff Sugarcane Harris did with Frank Zappa. Although it wasn’t what I wanted to do, it was great to jam on it. That band broke up, and blues was actually waning a little bit around that time, 1970 or ’71.

One day, I looked in the Melody Maker, and an ad said, “Wanted: Blues guitarist/pianist for blues band.” I made the call – although I wasn’t a pianist and spoke with a gentleman for a long time; he was being very secretive, and eventually I said, “Dave? Is that you?”

Graham “Shakey Vick” Vickery and Price in ’67.
Graham “Shakey Vick” Vickery and Price in ’67.

Yeah, and he said, “Rod? Is that you?” (laughs). Three of the members of Savoy Brown were forming their own band, and even though we had already jammed together back in Shakey Vick, I still had to do the audition. I was kind of surprised I got the gig, because there were some great players there.

Who played which guitar part on the call-and-respond intro to “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” on Foghat’s first album?
(chuckles) Dave did the first one, I did the second – where the note kind of bends down. That was a new black Strat through a Hiwatt.

What do you think caused Foghat to break away from other bands back then?
(pauses) Incessant touring certainly helped. I think we had a good foundation with our dedication to the blues, and we played with every ounce of emotion and energy we had. Pure, raw excitement and energy. We wanted to play, and I think if you’ve got that attitude, you’ve got a better chance of making it. None of us ever said anything like, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to have a gold album,” or “Wouldn’t it be great to work $20,000 gigs;” we would talk about how we could do a Willie Dixon song we liked. I think it was actually a type of innocence that gave us that edge, plus just a passion for music.

A lot of players cite the band’s ’77 live album, which ends with a rave-up version of “Slow Ride.” Your slide guitar is shrieking on that track…
The album does seem a solid favorite; I think it captures the essence of what was going on. During that period, I was using a Sunn Model T 100-watt amp, an SG for slide, and a Les Paul for regular lead.

Any memorable gigs you’d want to cite?
Actually the most memorable experience wasn’t a gig; it was having dinner at Willie Dixon’s house. Around ’76 or ’77, we were in Chicago, and Shirley, his daughter, came down to the first show, and the next night, Willie came down. We were going to be based out of Chicago for a few weeks, and he invited us for dinner. It was probably the most special evening of my life. He was so humble and kind; he said, “I know what it’s like being on the road – you boys need a real good home-cooked meal.” We had a big roast, and were stuffed! That was when he’d just had his leg amputated, and his son was telling him he was needing to watch his weight. Willie looked down at his stomach and said, “I’m watchin’ it, son” (laughs). We talked about his record royalties and he pulled out all of these old 78s we were drooling over. He noted that regarding royalties, “You guys paid me,” and I think he was grateful that we hadn’t done what some others did. He really liked our version of “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and I was really touched. Dave and I had dinner with his daughter a couple of years after he’d passed away, and she told us Willie always asked about us.

In the convoluted history of Foghat’s personnel changes, you departed on more than one occasion.
I’ll be glad to tell you the whole story. Around the time we did the Stone Blue album, I was exhausted. We’d been touring constantly, and the album was a struggle to get done correctly. I remember lying on the floor in my house, asking myself, “Why am I doing this?” I had a nervous breakdown, and one thing that made it more sickening was when I walked in the Foghat office one afternoon before we had to leave for a show that evening, and I collapsed on the floor.

The doctor came over and said I’d had a very severe anxiety attack; my body was telling me to stop. The doctor said, “I want Rod in the hospital right now. He’s exhausted, he’s dehydrated, he’s shot.” And I remember the manager saying, “We’ve got a gig tonight,” so he took me down to a local bar, got me a couple of shots, and put me on a plane. That was really the beginning of the end.

I made it through the recording of Boogie Motel, and I was drinking way too heavily, but I thought of it as self-medication. I went to a lot of doctors, trying to find out what was wrong with me, and this was at a time when nobody really knew much about anxiety and panic attacks. I was looking for help and I couldn’t get it. Specialists would go through me and couldn’t find anything wrong.

All I wanted to do on the road was play, then go to my room with some alcohol and leave the planet for awhile. I don’t mind talking about it, because I think it’s important for your readers to understand what happened. The point is, the rest of the band seemed to be riding the wave okay, but I was taking my soul, cutting it open, and showing it to everybody else. I did that onstage every night, and I realized later that I couldn’t do it for five months at a time.

I wasn’t that involved with Boogie Motel, and I wasn’t that happy with the direction of the music. There were problems with producers, and it seemed everyone was getting tired. What I didn’t realize, until recently, is that I wanted the band to fire me, and they did. I was gone in early 1980.

I shut down in the ’80s, and was pretty lost. I’ve found out since that I had clinical depression, which is why I was trying to self-medicate. It took a long time for the medical arts to catch up with what I had, as many people have found out.

An all-star blues jam, featuring Muddy Waters – that’s Rod on the far right; he described himself as being “in ecstasy.
An all-star blues jam, featuring Muddy Waters – that’s Rod on the far right; he described himself as being “in ecstasy.

Part Two

In part two of his straightforward conversation, he discusses the solution to his maladies, his other affiliations with Foghat, and his new solo album, Open.

At one point, there were two versions of Foghat, one fronted by Peverett that was based in Orlando, and one featuring (drummer) Roger Earl that was handled by a PR company out of New Hampshire. You had an association with Peverett’s version in the early ’90s.

I went to England to visit my parents, and one of the people I spent time with was Colin Earl, Roger’s brother. I was feeling a little better, and told Colin I wanted to get in touch with Dave, because we’d split up, but had never really talked about what happened. Colin told me Dave was living in Orlando, so when I got back to the States, I called; I didn’t think any problem should have destroyed our friendship; we’d spent 10 years on the road together making some great music. I had no plans on getting back together with Dave. I spoke with his wife, and Dave called the next day; he was out on the road with his Foghat. We had a wonderful talk. Before you knew it, we were discussing Robert Johnson and Elmore James.

He came to Boston about a week later, and asked me to come sit in with the band. I’d started to play again, and was doing some demos. When I played with Dave, he told me I was better than I used to be, and asked me to join the band. He also had a guitar player named Brian with him, and didn’t want to let him go. I toured for a little while with them, but three guitars were too much. We did a tour in Germany with Molly Hatchet that was actually one of the most enjoyable times I ever had with Dave, but when we came back, I was still tired and still depressed, but I didn’t know it, and that’s when I left again.

I don’t know what happened with Roger going out as Foghat; I understand that at one point, Roger had wanted to use the name of one of our publishing companies, but I really wasn’t around.

When did you finally get in the clear, health-wise?
Not until three years ago, when I truly found the right doctor. I’d put on a great deal of weight and my M.D. decided, after I’d tried just about everything, that I should try Prozac. I said, “I’m not depressed” – or so I thought – but he said it would help cut my appetite. I started taking it, and for the first time in my life, I felt normal. You’ve probably heard a lot of nightmares stories about that drug, but the truth is that it was one of the first really good drugs for depression. Then I got on another prescription called Paxil, which totally saved my life, my marriage, everything. At that point, I’d started working out, and the irony was that when I really started feeling better for good, the band (Foghat) was back together.

Graham “Shakey Vick” Vickery and Rod Price, together after 30 years.
Graham “Shakey Vick” Vickery and Rod Price, together after 30 years.

And this time, it was the original foursome.
(Producer) Rick Rubin wanted to put the band back together, but he was also in the middle of recording an album with Johnny Cash. Rick got in touch with our old manager, and ultimately we didn’t end up recording with Rick; we recorded for Paul Fiskett, who had been president of Bearsville Records, and who now had Modern Records, Stevie Nicks’ label.

Were you satisfied with the way Return of the Boogie Men and the live album recorded in the mid ’90s turned out?
No, and let’s take one at a time: I thought Return of the Boogie Men was a wonderful opportunity for Dave and me, because we’d gathered a great deal of material independently. So when we got together, writing the album took 10 minutes (chuckles)! Dave and I believed we should have waited on Rick, but we were coerced into this other deal, and the other producer only had a certain amount of time to work with us, because he had other projects. So to a certain extent, we were rushed; however I do believe that some of our later best work is on that album.

When the Boogie Men album came out, I said I thought we should do another live album, and a video of it. At a meeting early in the tour, I said we should do it within a month, because by that time we would’ve gotten the cobwebs off and would’ve started to get hot. But as a tour goes on, you tend to get a little tired. Unfortunately, due to finances, we couldn’t do it ’til the end of the tour, so we were a little exhausted. A lot of the material we wanted on the live album didn’t end up on it. It was okay, but…

Do you still prefer the mid-’70s live album?
I never listen to them. It’s funny; whenever I do something and get it done, I go on to the next thing.

Do you feel like talking about Lonesome Dave’s passing?
Another bit of irony is that when I started getting my head really clear, I told myself that I didn’t think I could record and tour like that for another five, 10 years – that’s what they were talking about doing. I had two other projects I wanted to do; one was the blues album, and the other was the next album I’ll be doing.

We were taking a break, and Dave’s wife got ill, then Dave got ill. It was truly a dark time. I have a five-year-old son – my only child – and the thought of leaving him at home and not educating him in the ways of the world was too much for me. My wife is a very caring and loving woman, and she’s put up with a lot of crap over the years. It was a horrible time to leave the band, but the point is, there was never a good time to do so.

Being on the road can take a lot of the important parts of your life away from you. My son totally changed my life, and I think my music has actually improved since he was born; by giving, you get. Dave and I had talked about doing a blues album together, but it never came to pass because Dave was happy doing the Foghat thing, and he had in fact done a lot of recordings I think will eventually be released.

I spoke to Dave, basically telling him, “I don’t want to bother you with this while you’re ill, but I’ve got to take care of my family.” The good thing is there were no hard feelings; we talked a time or two afterwards.

One Sunday night, I was at (producer) Tom Dawes’ studio, putting the finishing touches on the Open album. I’d spoken to Dave about a week before, and he wanted a copy of the album. That night, my wife called and said there’d been a call from Orlando; that Dave had been told by the doctors that he only had about six weeks to live. So that night, I left New York and drove back to New Hampshire; the next morning my wife woke me to say he’d already passed away; he didn’t have six weeks after all.

What can you say? It was unexpected, because he’d been fighting it for a while.

So now, you’ve come full circle in more ways than one – back to Chicago-type blues, with Graham Vickery once again. Some will hear it and say it’s authentic, but with an English interpretation.
It’s got that type of edge, and I think it represents a part of me that was always there. 

I never wanted, for example, to perfectly copy an Elmore James solo. But I wanted to do everything I could with his spirit. Some people said the album has too many covers, but I don’t like that word because I was paying tribute and homage to all of these wonderful people who’ve inspired me my entire life. One of the things I hoped is that the money for the writers of those songs will get to their families. Their music has kept me alive all these years.

Any personal favorites on the album?
“Sittin’ On Top Of The World.”

…which is an instrumental version of the Howlin’ Wolf song…
I’ve always wanted to do an instrumental version of it, to show people where it came from. I think it’s one of the most beautiful melodies in the world. The band was real hot, and we had no rehearsals 

“Sittin’ On Top Of The World” is my personal favorite, but I wanted to take all of the songs Graham knew inside out, and I wanted people to know what I used to do 35 years ago.

The slide guitar on “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” gets so high up, some might think it’s a lapsteel.
(chuckles) That’s the highest I’ve ever been on a slide. I remember after the take, Tom Dawes said, “Hey Rod, I think you were a little flat on that last note,” and I said, “Listen, there’s no room between the pick and the slide! Whaddaya want me to do?”

The great thing about Tom, though – he produced (Foghat’s) Rock and Roll and Energized – is he really lets me go, but makes sure I don’t stray, y’know? He’s a gentleman and a wonderful all-around musician. I’m grateful we rekindled our friendship; he gave me a great deal of guidance.

You brought a highly-modified double-cutaway Les Paul to a Texas guitar show some years ago, and that appears to be the same one in your current publicity photo.
Greg Morgan has been my guitar tech for years, and back when I was using that SG (with Foghat), we had Grovers (tuning keys) on it, and they can tend to pull the neck down a bit due to their weight. When I’m playing slide, I don’t hold onto the neck very much, and that SG was too top-heavy. We even tried altering the strap, but it wasn’t working. He told me to try Dave’s guitar; Dave, as you know, always played Juniors. I liked the way it felt, so when we were in Nashville, Greg picked out a beat up Les Paul Jr., and basically rebuilt the entire thing. He re-routed, re-fretted it, and painted it. When I got it, I’d never played another guitar like it. It has two PAF humbuckers; I like their warmth, and I feel like the slide is my voice, so those pickups help.

You see, when I used to take solos in the early days, I used to sing different lyrics to myself while I was playing the guitar, and that was how my slide playing developed.

Did you use any other guitars on the album?
That’s a ’62 reissue Strat on “Elevator Woman,” and it’s got Texas Special pickups. I also used an SRV Strat, but that Junior has been my main guitar for many years. What’s interesting is that I don’t play it whenever I’m just sitting around, but when I get onstage, I have to have that guitar. I’m not a big collector, and as the Junior pretty much defines my voice, I follow the saying about “If it ain’t broke…” The only thing I’m needing in my collection in a good dobro, and Liberty Guitars makes some magnificent ones, so I may get one of those. Otherwise, I’m happy with what I’ve got.

What about current amps?
I’m using Soldano. I’ve got one made for me without reverb, it’s like one of their Atomic models, but it’s set up like a (Fender) Twin, which tells you something about wattage – it’s totally irrelevant. This thing is an absolute gem. Mike is really into his amplifiers, and they’re magnificent. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve met.

It sounds like you’ve become more of a homebody – and for good reason – but players usually do have to tour to support a new album.
I will be touring, but in a modified way. I prefer to play clubs, and I love to meet the fans. I’ll be playing on a permanent basis on the New England circuit, including New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. I’ll also be going to Chicago and the West Coast, but I just won’t be doing incredibly long tours. Playing live is still the joy of my life.

This is almost a philosophical finale given the type of music you love; do you think it’s possible, these days, to write new, purist blues music?
Well, the next album I’m doing is still very blues-based, but not necessarily in I/IV/V songs. I would not want to do another Open, although I’m very happy I did that album, of course. On the next one, I’ll be singing some of the songs myself, and there will be horns on some of the tracks. I’ll be doing a few covers, but I’ve already written more new songs. I think it’s the next natural step for me, and to explain that verbally would be very hard (laughs). All I want to do is be a better player.

Price’s conversation about his musical and personal history didn’t pull any punches, nor does his guitar playing. The legendary guitarist now knows his priorities in all facets of life, and looks forward to making his own music on his own terms. He has certainly earned the opportunity.

This article originally appeared in VG June and July 2001 issues. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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