There’s no denying that with Tracii Guns manning L.A. Guns’ lead-guitar slot, the sleaze veterans become a different animal. Since re-entering the fold in 2016, Guns – a single-cut-wielding maestro with flash and endless-yet-affable swagger – has reinvigorated his namesake band. With an array of vintage Les Pauls and some pretty reissues at his disposal, Guns is injecting cocksure bluster into the heart of one of the Strip’s finest.
Some 35 years after the release of its self-titled debut album, the band’s lineup has evolved to include Ace Von Johnson (guitars), Johnny Martin (bass), and Shawn Drover/Adam Hamilton (drums) ably backing Guns and fellow holdover Phil Lewis (vocals).
Given their rich musical history, one might think them hard-pressed to meet the expectations set forth by their classic records. Instead, Guns and company have rattled off successive monster records that stand chest to chest with any of the group’s earlier efforts.
Their newest, Black Diamonds, has Guns feeling more effervescent than ever as he dialed in with Vintage Guitar to run through its creation, his process – and his love for vintage guitars.
What are the origins of Black Diamonds?
The day I came up with the first riff, I was in Denmark, getting ready to catch a flight the next morning, and I came up with the riff for “Gonna Lose.” Then, I came up with the arrangement, which is kind of a Led Zeppelin “Ramble On” thing, which by now should surprise no one (laughs). That was the start, and from there it flowed quickly.
The band’s previous album, Checkered Past, was recorded by sending files back and forth, but Black Diamonds sounds like it was everyone together in the studio. Was it?
No, but it really sounds like it was, doesn’t it? Adam Hamilton, who plays drums and was the producer, had a lot of discussions with us about what we were going to do, sonically. We wanted to get the band-in-a-room feel, and did it by having Adam play to a click, then send his track to me, and I’d record to a click and e-mail it back. The idea was to push and pull a bit; I’d play a little sloppier than usual to send it home. It seemed to work. I don’t know if everybody’s gonna get that vibe, but when I listen, I really dig it.
What has ignited L.A. Guns’ recent creative spark?
Number one, I have freedom. I don’t have an outside producer interjecting their thoughts. The music is purer. I’m always willing to listen to somebody else’s ideas, and I’ve always liked our records, but then again, I’d always listen back and say, “Oh, that was that guy’s idea.” I don’t mind that, but sometimes it can be too much. But now I have the luxury of not having outside influence. Me and Adam construct all the music, then kick it over to Mitch Davis, who writes the lyrics along with Phil. The process is more-straightforward, which makes all the difference.
What is your riff-writing process these days? There’s a lot of fuzz and distortion in the new songs.
I always start out writing a ’60s album with fuzzy guitars (laughs). I have a Head Rush pedalboard loaded with my live sound; it never changes. But, when I start recording, I use vintage microphones and a Tone Bender fuzz pedal, and try to record things that sound like Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page from their Yardbirds days because that’s where my heart is.
It starts there, but when I go to the Head Rush, I divert to my L.A. Guns live sound, which makes everything massive. I tailor the first rhythm track, then double-track it. Once I have the rhythm tracks, I can sit back and listen, then add touches. Once I have the scratch tracks, I can go for more-vintage sounds with super-high gain, along with more-modern sounds.
Conversely, your solos are often clean and articulate.
When I start working on solos, my ego takes over – I’m like a little boy screaming for attention (laughs). With solos, phrasing is essential because a guitar solo should speak to the listener. I know that’s cliché, but I don’t want just a bunch of notes. That doesn’t mean I analyze it four bars at a time, either. I’ll set up a tone through the Head Rush, maybe add a Fender amp with a Plus Sustain Pedal or something simple. Then I’ll improvise while going through the sections, seeing where things land. If it works, great. But if I get frustrated, I say, “Okay, I gotta simplify this.” So, it’s a lot of talking to myself.
Also, I created a patch specifically for heavy-rock soloing, and it has more midrange. If I used it live, I’d be a bit scared of it. It doesn’t have a lot of sustain or distortion. It’s just a bit of fuzz, but a lot of balls.
Early L.A. Guns music was often written in minor keys, but you now seem more comfortable with major keys.
Oh, for sure. There’s a lot of stuff on this album where the chord changes would be considered a major key. Even though the bulk of the song might be in a minor, some of the solo sections cover a major. So, instead of trying to Keith Richards my way through, I do the old rockabilly trick where I pick the notes out of the chords asnd sweep through them in different directions. This is the first time I’ve ever done that. That trick and my getting more comfortable with major keys added a new element to this record. It’s effective, and again, phrasing is critical. It defines and shows other sides of my personality. If I just shred through something – which I’ve been guilty of a million times – it’s great, fun, and exciting. But, those are the moments where, years later, I’m like, “Oh, man, I could have done this or I could have done that.” I’m trying to slow it down and try new things. But I do still want to play fast sometimes. I’ve still got a huge ego (laughs). That’s not going to change, I guess.
What led you to deploy the old rockabilly trick?
That’s the origin of rock-and-roll soloing, for me. I try to keep my deep influences available in my toolbox. I guess with the rockabilly thing; it was a “break glass when needed” deal. I finally felt like I needed it. And because I wrote some of the solo sections with that major feel, it allowed me to not just hint at it. But while I used that trick, the solos don’t sound like rockabilly. It’s just a technique or a way of playing a solo. I think it worked.
When playing guitar, how do you find that middle ground between the head and the heart?
I’ll often blow through a solo, and it’s like, “Wow, here comes Speed Racer.” I’ll get excited about it and think, “Damn, that’s so badass. I f***ing love that!” But then I’ll wake up the next day, listen to it a bunch of times, and see how it hits me. Inevitably, just like when I’m listening to one of my old records, I’ll be like, “Nah, never mind.” And that’s when I start to take things seriously and put a bit more feeling in there.
Realizing that 99 percent of the people who listen to my music aren’t guitar players reminds me that some of the crazy s**t is unnecessary. If I dial it back and add more feel, it speaks louder. It hits harder when a guitar solo is like an opera singer’s voice, where it’s just expressive. I have that skill and enough emotion and feeling to push that out without relying on speed and gimmicks. Gimmicks are part of it, but playing with a lot of texture and nuance holds more value at this point.
Is there a song on Black Diamonds that best represents the player you are today?
I’d have to go with “Diamonds.” The production, soloing, chord inversions, and arrangement represent who I am at this point. Most of my songs are done in three parts, but “Diamonds” is a little bit different. I hate the term “epic,” but for lack of a better word, I guess “Diamonds” is epic. It’s big, the solos are phrased well, and the tone is amazing. So, if you’re a 15-year-old guitar player and want to learn something from the new L.A. Guns record, “Diamonds” would be the one.
Does it bother you that L.A. Guns is perpetually lumped in with hair metal?
I’m actually proud to be associated with hair metal. From my perspective, we’ve proven how great hair metal can be. L.A. Guns has shown that the term doesn’t limit a band’s musicality and exposure. People love good songs, and we’ve got good songs. But our image is still very important to me. All the guys look great; me and Phil are older, but we still do it, and people dig it. I wouldn’t change anything. I just want the music to be f***ing awesome, and 35 years later, it still is. I think we’re pretty lucky to be associated with that genre.
How many guitars did you bring to the party for Black Diamonds?
In Denmark, where I recorded most of the guitars, I only have three guitars, but I mainly used two. The first is a 1960 Cherry Red Les Paul, and it’s on 75 percent of everything. I used that for the more-midrange stuff and some of the solos. But a lot of the solos were recorded using my ’57-reissue Black Beauty with three Bare Knuckle Riff Raff pickups. I love that guitar because it has such a throaty Jimmy Page sound, no matter which amplifier I use. In the middle position, it’s classic ’60s. All of the guitars I record with have Bare Knuckle pickups except the red one. They just sound right. The tonality of the guitars on Black Diamonds is the best I’ve ever had. I’ve got it down to, “Okay, these are the things that sound the best when I play my songs. I’m gonna do those things.”
What do you love most about vintage guitars?
Well, I like new guitars if they’re built like vintage ones (laughs). But one of the things I like is that vintage guitars are lighter. With a vintage guitar, the wood should be pretty damn dry. If you’re holding a guitar from the ’50s or ’60s, it’s probably light and resonates really well. But if you can get something like those pickups from Bare Knuckle, they have that vintage sound, too.
So, my reissue ’Bursts can sound the same and give that same vibe. It’s all about vibe for me. When I strap a guitar on, I want to feel like I’m in England in 1968. The best way to get there is with guitars. I love the way they look when I play live, too. They look as old as me, and I think that’s important.
How many guitars do you have, and are you hunting for more?
I’ve nixed the addiction to gear and guitars, so I’m under 100. I had a vault built, and most are there. I use reissues as my main live guitars, and the rest are scattered throughout the studio, living room, bedroom, and hallways. Of course, there are the special ones that I’ve named – some after my kids, and I even have one named after my ex-wife (laughs). Some have silly names and they’ve become old friends. They’re always around and I’ll pick them up at different times. A lot of players say, “Every time I get a new guitar, it inspires me to write new music.” That’s true, and it’s part of the addiction.
Is that what inspires you most?
If you’re a guitarist and a songwriter, you crave inspiration. You want to get excited, right? Getting a ’59 reissue… man, nothing’s gonna inspire me more than that. But I have a lot of them, so when I sit down to write, I’ll grab a guitar I haven’t played in a while and I go for it.
Inspiration is funny. This is all I know how to do, so I have to make sure I’m good at it. I keep it simple. I’ve got a gorgeous girlfriend, my kids are healthy, and I’ve got a great new L.A. Guns record that I’m looking forward to promoting. I’m into it.
This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.