Doobie Brothers

A Discussion with Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons
Doobie Brothers
Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons
Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons.

American music rarely is more pure than when it comes from the minds, hands, and mouths of the Doobie Brothers.

A rare mix of talent, the Doobies have, since their inception, been fronted by two musicians with unique voices and distinct guitar styles, each of which has driven the band’s sound from Tom Johnston’s huge lick and vocals on “China Grove” to Pat Simmons’ fingerpicked turn on “Black Water.” Truly, the Doobies’ sound encompasses many influences, yet defies categorization. It is what it is – rock and roll.

And few bands, regardless of whatever success they achieve, survive four decades. But the Doobies have, and earlier this year released their 13th album. Replete with the vocal harmonies, notable guitar tones, and simple-yet-elegant arrangements and production that have earned it a huge and enduring following, it was welcomed by fans and a broader pop-music audience.

The Recording Industry Association of America (R.I.A.A.) says the Doobie Brothers have sold more than 30 million albums since 1970. And while numbers are swell, the Doobies are more about riffs, hooks, and songs that have become ingrained in the American musical consciousness.

We recently spoke with Tom Johnston and Pat Simmons, two of the band’s founders and artistic guides.

Tom Johnston
His parents were Dixieland buffs; his father a devout listener and his mother a pianist who, every so often, would entertain the family by playing a ditty or two. The influence helped tune his ears to music, but its impact paled compared to the day his brother brought home records by Little Richard and Bo Diddley. Less than 10 years old at the time, the sounds emanating from the turntable truly rocked his world.

Did those Little Richard and Bo Diddley songs ultimately inspire you to pick up guitar?
Well, Little Richard knocked everybody back. I like Elvis Presley, but I don’t think he was the guy. I also like Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley, but don’t really consider Bo rock and roll – he’s more blues and had his own rhythm section, which nobody else was doing. So when I picked up a guitar, that’s what it was all about, basically (laughs)! But Freddie King and Jimmy Reed got me to start playing in ernest.

What was your first guitar?
It was a broken archback Harmony with three strings missing (laughs)!

Could you even form chords on it?
I didn’t learn any chords, no. But I learned to play Jimmy Reed riffs like “Big Boss Man” and “Take Out Some Insurance,” then I got the rest of the strings and started playing other stuff. I don’t even think I learned a barre chord until I got a single-pickup Kay about a year and a half later. That was my first decent guitar.

Did you take lessons?
No, I learned everything by ear and experimentation, mostly because I played clarinet and saxophone through my freshman year of high school. The saxophone was cool, but I absolutely loathed the clarinet. At the end of freshman year, I packed that thing up, stuck it in the closet, and told my parents, “I’m not gonna play this damn thing again. That’s it!”

So guitar became my sole focus for expressing myself, and by the time I was 15 I’d learned how to play a barre chord thanks to a friend named Bill Crenshaw. I took it from there and learned by listening to blues players starting with Freddie King. By the eighth grade, I knew how to play “Hideaway,” which you had to do if you wanted to play in a band! Then I moved on to B.B. and then Albert King, who’s the most lyrical electrical blues player I’ve ever heard.

So, your bands were mostly playing blues?
Blues and R&B. I was also a complete nut for Little Richard and a huge James Brown fan – still am. I saw him in 1962, after Live at the Apollo came out, and it was a life-altering experience – beyond my comprehension that somebody could move like he did, and all the stuff – dropping on his knees and a guy throwing a cape on him. It was something else for a white boy from Visalia!

Tom Johnstons Guitars
(LEFT TO RIGHT) Johnston’s mid-’50s Fender Stratocaster has been in his collection since the ’70s.
This 1970 Deluxe has been Johnston’s primary Les Paul for 40 years.
This 2008 PRS Custom 24 is a touring backup for Johnston’s primary PRS. This ’09 PRS 25th Anniversary Custom 24 is Johnston’s primary touring guitar.It has a Modern Eagle inlay on the headstock and 57/08 pickups. Tom Johnston/guitars photos: Tyler Habrecht.

Which of your early bands came closest to being “real?” Was it Pud?
Pud was kind of a transformational band. One week, we’d play power-trio stuff like Cream or Mountain, and the next we’d be playing soul with background singers and a horn section. It was all over the map, with different players every week except for John Hartman and myself. It’s amazing how much happened in a short period – how many bands, how many gigs, how many musicians I met. It all happened while I was an art major at San Jose State and wound up living at 285 South 12th Street, which was kind of a musical center for San Jose. It didn’t matter if they played B-3 or drums, guitar, bass, or horns, they all ended up in our basement; John and I lived in a house for about four years, and once Dave Shogren joined us, we had the nucleus of the original Doobie Brothers.

What do you remember about meeting Pat Simmons?
I was playing with Skip Spence, who was one of the members of Moby Grape; Skip introduced me to John Hartman, and one night, Skip, myself, John, and eiteher Greg Murphy or Dave Shogren – I don’t remember which – played a show with Pat, who at the time was also playing with a guy named Peter Grant, who played banjo… Pat played acoustic. And we were knocked out by how good they were. Pat is an incredible fingerpicker, and they were playing folk/blues type stuff, and some bluegrass. We were playing rock and roll. So it was an interesting evening. Afterward, we asked Pat to come over and jam. He did a few times before we asked him, “Would you like to start a band?”

So, did the Doobies then have a permanent lineup?
Yeah, but when we started, we didn’t have a name until we had to play a gig one night. We were saying, “This sorta sucks… we need to think of a name.” Keith Rosen, who was my roommate in the house, suggested we call ourselves the Doobie Brothers. We said, “That’s stupid!” (laughs), but we didn’t have anything else, so we used it.

And why, pray tell, did he suggest that one?
Well, because of the lifestyle in the house (laughs)! Back then, we used to tell people we got the name from watching “Romper Room,” but I don’t think anybody bought it!

What are some of your fondest memories from the early days of the Doobies?
A lot of the music made in the basement. Skip was always around; we’d spend hours practicing and writing. Pat would write a song and I’d write a song, and we’d sit with the other two guys and work them out. We played with no intention to get into the music business as a profession. I studied graphic design in college, and that’s what I planned on doing. But Skip got us into Pacific Studios, where we did our first demo, which was sent to Warner Brothers, and on the strength of that demo, the band got signed. That’s when everything started moving forward. Until then, we played shows around the Bay area, every place we could, sometimes two or three shows a night, from San Jose to as far as Fremont. And I’d have to say some of the shows were absolutely part of that era and what was happening in the South Bay area only at the time. A great example would be the Chateau Liberté up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which was truly one of the wildest places I’ve ever played with a combination of “mountain people,” Hell’s Angels, and students.

You and Pat were the songwriters in the band. Was that by design, or just sort of organic?
That’s just the way it was. We basically wrote whatever came to mind, and and brought it to our rehearsals to work up. I was playing a lot of acoustic guitar at that time, which helped me come up with my rhythm style; I tried to figure out how to play guitar and drums at the same time on the one instrument, so that’s what my “chucka chucka” thing is all about. All the rhythm structures behind “Long Train Runnin’” and “Listen to the Music” were sort of written on an acoustic guitar, then I applied them to electric. Pat was writing both pickin’-style stuff and straightforward rock tunes. Then we’d figure out complementary guitar parts, harmonies, and lead-guitar parts for each tune, along with drum and bass parts.

Did the band set out to write radio hits?
We mostly weren’t thinking that far ahead in those days… well, John was, but the rest of us were content. We were having a hell of a good time, first of all, and that was a large part of it – we were having a lot of fun. We really enjoyed playing and some of the places we played were just flat nuts. So it was very entertaining! We were entertaining people, but we were being just as entertained by the people who were watching as they were being entertained by us playing!

Places like the Chateau Liberté, for instance, where we had what we used to call “mountain people,” combined with hippies, combined with college students, combined with Hell’s Angels. It made for a really interesting crowd. And everybody was pretty bombed most of the time, as I recall… I’m talking about the crowd here – the band might have been stoned, but the people we were playing for were gone. It was always wild.

Were the Doobies alone in having that sort of mass appeal to various audiences?
No, not at the Chateau. So many people played out there – Hot Tuna, Mountain Current, Chris Raimey, and a lot of others. It started gaining a better reputation when Hot Tuna played there.

What do you remember about the band picking up steam in terms of popularity beyond California?
Well, because the first album didn’t have much success, the thing that got us going was “Listen to the Music,” which was on our second album, Toulouse Street.

What do you recall about writing your first hit, “Listen to the Music”?
I was sitting in my bedroom, banging on acoustic, and I called [producer Ted Templeman] at three in the morning with chord changes to that song pretty much finished. I even had a lyric idea, which was unusual for me – lyrics were always the last things I did, and I think I came up with a lot of it all at once.

And when did you first hear it on the radio?
I remember first hearing it in my Volkswagen – we were pretty much living on foodstamps and brown rice, paying 40 bucks a month rent and playing as many gigs as we could. But when that song hit, we started getting a little bit more money for gigs, started playing organized shows, and started becoming a professional unit. Then “Jesus Is Just Alright” came out, then “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” both from Touluse Street. And then The Captain and Me came out the next year and had “China Grove” and “Long Train Runnin,’” which was a jam song we played every night even though we hadn’t written words to it – I’d make them up every night and the song would take on the names of “Rosey Pig Mosley” or “Parliament” or whatever the heck else! I finally wrote actual words to it. I finally wrote words in Amigo Studios in L.A. after the track was completely done.

When you write a song it, do you hear a melody in your head first?
Sometimes it’s the chord progression or a rhythm structure and chord progression. I’m kind of a rhythm guy, so I always write with that part in mind. But about 15 years ago, I started writing songs using computer software, which allowed me to go places I never could when I was just writing on a guitar or piano, where you’ve got chord changes and the rhythm idea, then you go into the studio and work up parts for the song – bass, drums, Pat’s part… This allowed me to flesh-out the song with rhythm and lead guitars, keyboards, lead and backround vocals, B-3 parts, any string or horn ideas, and drum loops. It’s a complete widening of the writing process.

For our new album, I actually wrote three songs on keyboards, and the rest were on guitar… one on slide guitar, which was the first time I’ve written on slide.

What do you remember about writing “China Grove”?
“China Grove” was also written in my bedroom on 12th Street, and involved another early-morning call to Ted. I came up with the chords – the bow bow… I didn’t have the repeat on the opening chords – the Echoplex came later, in the studio. But I grabbed John, who was asleep – he wasn’t real happy about it (laughs) – and I said, “Let’s go downstairs, now!” I plugged into the amp and started slammin’. He dug it, I dug it. So we went in the studio with the chord changes and the rhythm structure, and I really owe Billy Payne for the words because he played this wacky (sings a portion of the keyboard melody Payne played on the song’s bridge) that started the thinking process with this wacky sheriff, samurai swords, and all that.

How about “Rockin’ Down the Highway”?
There’s not a huge story behind that; I just liked the chord change and built around that, combined the bridge and, like a lot of songs, found other chords to to enhance so it’s not just a straight I-IV-V. It mostly wrote itself, including the words, which is always the most fun. When that happens, to me, somebody else is doing the writing and you’re just sitting there, channeling it.

The same thing happened with “A World Gone Crazy” on the new album. I just sat there, and don’t know where it came from.

“A World Gone Crazy” has a very old-school Doobies feel, so that makes sense…
It’s a New Orleans feel. This band has been influenced by that city a great deal, both Pat and myself – Fats Domino and Lee Dorsey, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, the Meters and the Neville Brothers – all those guys from New Orleans on the radio. Theirs was a very distinctive sound, like Stax/Volt had a very distinctive sound. I absolutely loved it. I wasn’t aware where it was coming from. I didn’t get to New Orleans until 1970, but when the band first played there, everybody was blown away – by the music, the food, the feel of the town. You walk the streets or ride the street cars out to those old type cemetaries and everything’s got Spanish moss hanging off of it… it’s another world. And I’m still writing about it, so obviously, it had a huge impact. I wrote a couple of songs about it, and for Pat, it was the impetus behind “Black Water” and “Toulouse Street.”

Speaking of “Black Water,” did you play guitar on that song?
No, I didn’t play a note on that song. I just sang on it. That wasn’t unusual in those days, actually – you could say the same thing about “China Grove,” Pat didn’t really play on that song, I just went in and layered guitars. “Black Water” was an unusual song – a place we’d never really gone before, with that round in the middle with the singing. Obviously, we’d been using fingerpicking for awhile but, but not with that kind of a rhythm behind it. It was pretty cool.

Through the years, the Doobies have undergone their share of personnel changes. Who do you see as the key players in various eras?
Well, initially, we were a good band, but we played too fast and we were a little sloppy. I think when Mike Hossack came in, we got much better in the rhythm section; he was a really good drummer… But then he and Keith Knudsen switched bands, and Keith was a great dummer, as well. And having Tiran Porter on bass made a huge difference.

After that, there was a lot of players, like Jeff Baxter, who added great guitar ideas and, of course, Mike McDonald, who changed the sound of the band’s musical style. There were other drummers – Chet McCracken, who took John’s place when he left, John McFee on guitar and vocals, Bobby Lakind on percussion and vocals, and Willy Weeks on bass at different periods.

In late 1975, you took a hiatus…
Well, I had a bleeding ulcer and ended up in the hospital, so I couldn’t tour. But I went out with them in the spring of ’76 for the album Takin’ It To the Streets, and then stayed with them until ’77, when we were working on Livin’ On the Fault Line. I had four songs ready for the album, but I pulled them off and said, “I have to go for a while,” and I left the band in ’77 to get away from the road scene. Because basically, we were either on the road or in the studio all the time. There wasn’t any time at home, and I’m a homebody. So, I left. And all I did was play baseball and lift weights. I didn’t really pick up a guitar for about six months, then I started slowly drifting back into it. That led to the two solo albums I did, Everything You’ve Heard Is True, in ’79, and Still Feels Good, in ’81.

You’ve played a pretty wide range of guitars through the years. Back in the day you played a Les Paul goldtop, an SG…
I’ve got that 1970 goldtop sitting right here. It was the first thing I bought when we got some front money.

Were you much of gearhead back in the day?
I wasn’t educated enough to be a gearhead! As far as amplifiers, guitars, and stuff, I didn’t have the money to go out and get this, that, and the next thing. I was still mostly playing my ’55 Bandmaster, but – just to show you what a gearhead I wasn’t – I bought an Ampeg SVT and a Stratocaster. If you want to hear “terrible,” try a Stratocaster through an SVT. It just wasn’t working!

Johnston Martin
(RIGHT) Johnston uses this Martin Doobie 42 signature model on tour. It has Indian rosewood back and sides, Engelmann spruce top, ivoroid binding, pearl herringbone trim on the top and soundhole, ebony bridge with pearl hands making the “OK” sign in the wings, and a bound headstock with an inlaid Doobie Brothers winged insignia.

But it got good and loud…
Oh god, it was definitely loud! In the confines of the 12th Street basement, it was deafening. Which is why my hearing is what it is today – almost non-existant! Thankfully, I discovered the Ampeg V4 not long after that, which was an incredible guitar amp.

I went back to that basement years later, and couldn’t believe how much it shrunk! It had a ceiling height of roughly six feet, maybe six and a half. It was cement and it was dinky. It seemed much bigger back when we crammed so many people in there. Drums, amps on 10… Man, it was loud!

Did you get the SG for any particular reason?
I had an SG Special before I got the Les Paul. My first good guitar was a 335, and I ended up getting rid of it early on to get a J-50, and I can’t remember why that happened, but it did. So the next good electric I got was the SG Special, with P-90 pickups, because they were inexpensive. Then, when we got some front money from Warner Brothers, I bought the Les Paul, because I’d always wanted one. In time, I switched to the SG Standard with humbuckers, because it was so much lighter than the Les Paul and you could get up higher on the neck more easily. I used both for recording quite a few songs on many albums, along with a couple of other Les Pauls with humbuckers.

Later, I ran into a B.C. Rich Seagull, and I’ve been seeing that thing in more old videos, so I guess I played it more than I thought! I played that on the road and in the studio… and I also had an L-5 solidbody at the time.

Which guitar did you use on “China Grove”?
That was the SG Standard, and I think I ran it through either a Bandmaster or the Bassman with four 10s.

How’d you find the Explorer?
There was a place in Mill Valley called Prune Music, and every year they’d have a guitar show. People from all over the Bay area would come there buying Flying Vs, Explorers, Les Paul Juniors, Firebirds, old Stratocasters – anything you could imagine. And they sold Mesa equipment when Randy (Smith, founder of Mesa/Boogie) was just getting started. So at any given time, I would have 20 or 30 guitars sitting around the house that I absolutely had no use for (laughs)!

I did play the Explorer a lot, as well as the Flying V, but not until the late ’70s. I also played the Firebird a lot; I got it from Johnny Winter. That was a killer guitar, but unfortunately, it was stolen.

Which of those do you still have?
None. The L-5 was stolen when somebody broke into my house in Fairfax, stole that and the J-50, which I had used to cut everything acoustic up to that point. I think that was late ’75.

When did you start playing PRS guitars?
I picked up my first PRS in 1985 – the year they came out – and took it on a U.S.O. tour I did with Kansas, David Jenkins from Pablo Cruz, a band called Red Seven, and Leon Medica, who was the bass player from Le Roux. I took the Explorer and that first PRS. Shortly thereafter, I bought another PRS that became my go-to guitar. I’ve been using PRS guitars ever since.

What did you like about PRS guitars?
It was no great secret that PRS was a combination of Les Paul and Stratocaster – that’s what they were about. I was playing the 24-fret version rather than the 22-fret, so I could get pretty high on the neck. The fret width isn’t the same as an SG, but the weight and balance is great. And it wasn’t as heavy as a Les Paul. I could do more on it than I could with a Strat. And of course, the pickups in those days – everything was hand-wound and they changed all the time. Every time you put on a new guitar, the pickups were different.

I bought a few more PRSs around ’89 when we got the band back together and did Cycles. I started playing several PRSs, and just never stopped. I just retired one I’d been playing for five years, and started playing a 25th Anniversary Custom 24 with binding on the neck and a headstock with a Modern Eagle inlay. The pickups are 57/08s, they’re just incredible.

On the video for “World Gone Crazy” you’re playing a Tele…
It was the only thing available (laughs)! We did the “performance” footage in Printer’s Alley, in Nashville. Originally, we were going to do the video in New Orleans – I wanted to do it in the French Quarter and get people from the area to be characters in it. Instead, we ended up playing a big event for Wal Mart in Orlando as part of our distribution deal, then we were in Nashville for a week, doing press and everything, and played the Grand Ole Opry, which was a once in a life time experience I’ll alway treasure.

So we did all the performance footage in Printer’s Alley. The guitars were borrowed, and he had no PRSs; John was playing a Strat, Pat was playing a 335, and I was playing a Tele, which seemed to fit seeing as how the song was released to country radio. I don’t play Fenders a lot, but they have a distinctive sound that works well for rhythm on certain tunes, like “Old Juarez” from World Gone Crazy.

Do you use the same gear live and in the studio?
Not necessarily. If I have access to my guitars on the road, I play PRSs. But amp-wise, for four or five years now, I’ve been using two Fender Super Sonics – one for rhythm and another dedicated to lead. For the studio, I have a wide assortment of amps and guitars, including the Super Sonics.

That’s a nice amp.
It is. It sounds really good and screams with the PRS. It works really well. Lately, I’ve also started using the new PRS 2 Channel H amp for soloing, and man, that is a great-sounding amp!

Pat Simmons
Though his father knew a few chords on guitar and his grandfather played the violin, two older sisters and a record collection left to his family by a friend were key to Pat Simmons’ introduction to pop music – Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, Bill Hailey, and some R&B all combined to inspire him at the age of just eight years old.

Did any particular artist inspire you to pick up a guitar?
Well, my friend across the street actually inspired me to pick up the guitar. We moved to a new neighborhood in Los Gatos, he invited me over one afternoon. His mother had a Harmony archtop – she and his dad had a country band. It was a nicer model, with a glossy finish. And I flipped when I saw it – an instrument I’d seen Ricky Nelson, Elvis, and Chuck Berry play on television. I put it on my knee, and he taught me a G chord.

After that, I had an incredible desire to play guitar. I’d go to his house every day.

Did you get a guitar for your ninth birthday?
Actually, I got it for Christmas the next year! It was horrible, with a 2×4 for a neck – it was, literally, untunable. I don’t think there was a brand name it; it just said “Made in Mexico.” But it looked cool, and I played it for a couple of years.

What was the first song you learned to play?
“The Crawdad Hole” (sings melody…“wanna go fishin’ in the crawdad hole,” laughs)! Finally, for my birthday one year we went shopping for a better guitar.

What did you get?
A Harmony classical. I started taking lessons from a lady in San Jose who was a traditional folk player. At her house, I saw a stereo system made from a kit her husband assembled. And she had Josh White, Pete Seeger, and Appalachian folk records. She wanted to teach me traditional American songs. She played a nylon-string guitar, so she suggested I get one. That’s how I ended up with the Harmony.

Simmons Guitars 01
(LEFT TO RIGHT) This ’62 model was Simmons’ first Fender Stratocaster, and set him down the path as a “Strat guy.”
This 1982 Westwood was built by Simmons’ guitar tech, Joe Vallee. It has been on every Doobies album since 1990.
Simmons bought this ’34 National when the Doobies reunited in 1989.
“Living in Hawaii, I’m more appreciative of its wonderful Hawaiian motif.” This ’22 Gibson L-4 was given to Simmons by a friend for whom he posted bail. Pat Simmons/guitars photos: Nadav Benjamin.

How did things progress from there?
In junior high, I saved money and bought a Silvertone, and I’d plug it into this cheap tape recorder, cross the output and input signals, and sound would come out the recorder’s speaker.

If I was playing with somebody else, I’d borrow an amplifier. We learned to play charts and instrumental stuff like the Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run,” “40 Miles of Bad Road,” “Rumble,” and “Night Train.” That was my introduction to playing electrically.

What was your first band that gigged?
The surf bands I played in were short-lived, but we played at my school and at parties a couple of times. My first real band happened in high school and was called The Unrelated Brothers. I had friends who were part of the psychedelic scene and we were into the stuff coming out of San Francisco at that time – the first Jefferson Airplane album. We did some Byrds songs because I really liked that stuff. The other guys were more into the Stones and the Beatles.

Did you do any original music?
Not with the band. I actually played in a club when I was 15, in Saratoga, and did some originals. It was a coffee house kind of a thing where I’d make five or ten bucks in a night doing what I loved to do. I also hung out a lot at a place where Jorma Kaukonen played, and I really loved Jorma’s music. So, at 16 or 17, I was watching these real masters. Jorma is one of the masters of blues guitar – a fabulous player. Watching him play had a huge impact on me.

I continued to play into my college years, and always had a gig. I had been influenced by Chet Atkins early on, and heard John Renborn, and began to experiment with my own guitar instrumentals, open tunings, and different fingerstyle techniques. The only unfortunate part was my parents were not supportive of my lifestyle; it was the late ’60s and I was hanging out in San Francisco…

What do you remember about first seeing Tom Johnston and the guys in Pud?
At the time, I was playing with Peter Grant, who played banjo and for years was Hoyt Axton’s steel player. We played the north coast of California, and one night we were playing a gig at the Gaslighter Theater, in Campbell. They had hired Hot Tuna, and asked if we wanted to open. But when Peter and I walked in, Hot Tuna wasn’t there. I asked, “What’s going on?” The owner said, “Skip Spence, from the Moby Grape, is gonna play. He’s got a band with another guy.” Well, Skip showed up as we were finishing our set, followed by John Hartman, Tom, and bass player Greg Murphy. So they walk in with their amps and set them onstage. I was very curious to see what was gonna happen. Well, they started playing and Skip started doing what he did – kind of spacing out onstage. But the other three were playing their hearts out; Tommy was playing and singing, and they did some original tunes. I was blown away. I thought, “Wow, this guy can really sing and play.”

When they finished their set, I walked up and asked Skip, “How’re you doin’?” He said, “Hey, Pat. Let me introduce you to the guys.” So he introduced me to Tom and John, and they said, “We saw you playing, you guys were great.” Then Tom told me, “You gotta come by the house. Bring your guitar, and we’ll jam.” But I didn’t go over. I don’t know why, but I didn’t.

Then, one day I was standing in my yard, and up walks John. He goes, “You gotta come by the house, man. We’re trying to put a band together. It’s me and Tom and we got another bass player, and Skip’s gonna play, and maybe Peter Lewis (another member of Moby Grape). We want to do some harmonies and some cool guitar interplay.”

So, a few days later, I went by. There was no jam going on, but Tom and John were there and we played some acoustic guitar at a table in the backyard. We played for hours, jamming on some of my tunes and some of his stuff.

That was how we started getting to know each other, musically. After that, I’d go over every so often with my Epiphone Texan with a DeArmond pickup – my acoustic was also my electric! I wasn’t sure I wanted to do the same thing they did; they were doing Cream stuff, Who, and some things Tommy had written that were pretty heavy rock at that time. So I wasn’t really sure about it. Finally, he called and said, “We have a gig, we’d love to have you play a gig with us. We need somebody to sing harmonies and play rhythm.”

So, then we started rehearsing, and we’d go three or four days in a row to get a couple sets. We didn’t have a name, but one of the guys living in the house said, “You guys smoke so much pot, you should call yourselves the Doobie Brothers!” We said “That’s really stupid.” But we needed to call ourselves something, so the Doobie Brothers were born.

From there, we kept gigging. And we really connected with audiences from the get-go. Within any community, there are two or three bands people talk about, and we ended up being one of those bands. There was something there from the beginning that we didn’t really recognize.

But you probably recognized some chemistry…
We knew we had something cool. Most bands might have one guy who can really sing and one good guitar player, and everybody else was kind of excess baggage. But we had three singers – myself, Tom, and the bass player at the time, Dave Shogren, whom I went to high school with. So we had three-part harmony – the John, Paul, George thing. Tom, likewise, understood that great harmony singing and great guitar playing brought something extra to a performance.

So your role was to go side by side with Tom’s guitar playing, be the primary harmony singer, and let Tom be the “front man?”
I think so. Tom would defer to me a lot because he wanted to have somebody else do some songs, he didn’t want to have to take on the entire load. I had written several different country songs and had been doing a lot of covers anyway, so I took up as much slack as necessary. The band’s dynamic has always had us singing harmony for each other and taking turns on lead vocals, likewise with solos and so on.

As the Doobies rolled through the ’70s racking up an impressive array of hits, what were the high points for you?
The most recognizable high points, for me, involved touring with some people we really admired. Our first tour was with Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth, with John “Toad” Andrews and Bob Arthur, who’s a great blues guitar player and a vintage-guitar addict. Later with Lynrd Skynrd, Steeley Dan, Rod Stewart and The Faces, The Stones, Huey Lewis, Chicago, Little Feat, Alabama, man the list goes on and on…

Another interesting point was when we backed Chuck Berry! At one point, every band in America has done that (laughs)!

How did that go down for you guys?
Pretty much the same way you hear it does with every band. He abused everyone a little – told us all how terrible we were playing and how if we didn’t lay back, we’d have to leave the stage. Then, when we thought he was coming back for an encore, he left us standing there by ourselves in front of the audience.

When and where was your Chuck moment?
At a college in Chico, California, I think it was.

Were you using the Doobies name at the time?
Yeah, we played a set and then he came out. I had listened to every song on his greatest hits album over and over, and they’re pretty simple songs, but there are subtle things you’ve got to figure out. I also learned that he always plays in F or Bb (laughs)! Of all the horrible keys for guitar players! It was interesting, and of course he doesn’t play the songs like the original arrangement.

Who was responsible for getting the first decent electric guitar in your hands?
I saved and I bought a guitar from a bartender at The Chateau, a club in Los Gatos where we played our first paying gig. He said, “I’ve got a Gibson guitar I think would be good for you, and I’m lookin’ to sell it.” It was a Gibson ES-330, and I bought it for 200 bucks or something like that. He let me pay him over time, so every time we played The Chateau, I’d give him money.

Was it a big change, going from your acoustic to the 330?
What I had been using was working fine. It was just hard to play solos high on the neck on the acoustic. And the guys would have to turn down a bit when I soloed because I could only turn up so much before it started to feed back (laughs)! Once I started using the 330, they didn’t have to turn down.

Simmons Guitar 02
This ’66 Epiphone Texan was Pat Simmons’ primary guitar before he joined the Doobies, and until he finally bought his first electric guitar at the band’s urging. He used it to write and record “Black Water,” “Slippery St. Paul,” “Larry the Logger,” “South City Midnight Lady,” “Slack Key Soquel Rag,” and many other songs.

Tom is credited with writing most of the band’s songs, but “Black Water” is your baby. What’s the story behind that song?
I was into folk blues, and had that riff (sings the fingerpicked melody) – kind of a lazy delta blues thing – to start. Soon after, I was in the studio, recording a part, and while they worked on something in the booth, I start playing that riff, just tweaking around. Our producer, Ted Templeman, said, “What is that? There’s something about that riff that’s really cool.” So I continued to play with it. Shortly after, we were playing some shows in New Orleans when the song started to come to me. I think it was all the wonderful experiences – the food, walking along the Mississippi, the French Quarter, Dixieland music in the clubs. For instance, I wrote the second verse while riding a streetcar up St. Charles Street to the Garden district to do my laundry. It was raining – one of those summer showers where it’s sunny. It was a magical moment for me. So I jotted down the lyrics. “If it rains I don’t care, don’t make no difference to me, just take that streetcar that’s going uptown.”

So, inspiration came in bits and pieces…
It’s always kind of been that way for me. I don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write this kind of song, or that kinda song.” I either come up with a musical idea that’s suggestive of something like a rockin’ riff and rockin’ lyric, or something more plaintive or sensitive.

What other Doobie riffs are yours?
I played at least something on most of songs… “Long Tain Runnin’” has a signature kind of lick Tom and I do together.

Yes, that one sort of defines the interplay between you…
I think so. But I usually try to find something that works in that manner. On a lot of tunes, we play similar riffs. A good example is “Jesus Is Just All Right,” and on “Rockin’ Down the Highway” I’m playing pretty much the same kind of riff. I play banjo on “Listen to the Music” (laughs).

How did that happen?
We were working on the song and I thought, “What if we had banjo here?” I knew it was off the wall, and I’m not really a great banjo player, but wondered what it would sound like. Ted looked at me sideways when I said it (laughs)! He said, “What? Nobody plays banjo on rock and roll records!” But he was always cool about letting us try stuff, even if we didn’t use it. So I gave it a try, and afterward he said, “Man, that’s so cool.” So we kept banjo on the chorus.

Who do you see as the key players in the evolution of the Doobies?
Well, of course, Tom and Mike McDonald. But Tiran Porter is an under-appreciated hero – such a great bass player, and key in so many hits. He’s not afraid to step outside the basic pattern if needed, but he can certainly get in the groove so you get that low-end that propels the song. Willie Weeks played for us near the end of the first era, and he’s obviously a great player, as well. He was really key to what we were doing. John McFee, in the latter era, when Mike was in the band, became a key player, and continues to be. John is a fabulous player, super-talented, and an imaginative guy on multiple levels. He can play guitar, dobro, fiddle, a little banjo, a little mandolin, and he’s a great singer, as well.

Which guitar do you play most onstage?
I have three Westwoods I play quite a bit. They were built by Mark Brown, and he gave me exactly what I was looking for in terms of neck profile, the neck joint, and the body, which is ash, I believe.

I also play a koa Strat-style guitar built by my guitar tech, Joe Vallee. When we’re not on the road, he works at the Roberto Vinn School of Lutherie, in Phoenix. and he used EMG pickups with active electronics and a Washburn vibrato just like the guitars Mark built for me. Joe’s a fabulous craftsman, and has helped me create a wonderful amplified setup using a Mesa Mark Five for my live shows with the Doobies.

You own a handful of nice vintage instruments, including a Gibson L-7.
I bought that in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina. I had heard so many horrible stories, I thought “I’m going down there and spend some money to support the local economy.” So I went into a music store, looking at guitars. I had always wanted an older Gibson archtop to use in the studio, so bought the L-7.

It plays pretty well?
Plays like a dream, and sounds great. It’s a funny guitar because the pickguards off-gas, so I have to keep cleaning the frets and replacing the strings, but it’s worth it.

Have you recorded with it?
I used it a little bit on the last album; I used it on “I Know We Won,” which I wrote with Willie Nelson.

How about the ’34 National?
I stumbled across that guitar in a vintage shop in Texas. It was set up for fretting, as opposed to a slide. It’s a great guitar – sounds good, plays good. And it’s so beautiful – it’s one of those guitars I just like to sit and look at. I used it on “I Can Read Your Mind,” from Cycles.

National resonators are pieces of art.
Yes. It’s got the Hawaiian-motif engraving.

How about the Gibson L-4?
That has a much more interesting story. I had a friend in Las Gatos in the early days… I was into motorcycles, and got to know this hardcore biker through a mutual friend. Eventually, he moved away. But one day years later, I got a call. “Pat? This is Dave.” I said, “How’s it going, Dave?” He goes, “I’m in jail and need to get out so I can get back to work so I can pay an attorney.” I thought, “Well, he’s a good guy.” So I sent him bail money – then didn’t hear from him for about 10 years, until the Doobies were touring again in the early ’90s. We pulled up to a gig in Denver, here’s this guy standing in the parking lot, holding a guitar case. He goes, “You remember me?” And I go, “Of course,” He said, “I’m here to pay you back. I don’t have any money, but I got this for you.” So he opens the case, and here’s this Gibson. I’m thinking to myself, “I’d rather have the money.” But he’s really enthusiastic. “I got it especially for you,” he said. “It’s a fantastic guitar. I showed it to Taj Mahal and he really wanted it, but I told him I’d promised it to you.” I told him, “I’d really rather you sell the guitar and give me the money. Pay me 10 bucks a month if you want.”

Finally, though, I relented. So he went backstage while we played the gig. But at some point after the show, he disappeared with the guitar. Gone! I asked, “Did anybody see Dave?” Well, years go by again before we’re back in Colorado, and there he is again, with the guitar. I asked him what happened at the previous gig, and he goes, “Somebody came over and asked to see my backstage pass. I didn’t have one, so they threw me out.” Anyway, he gave me the guitar.

How many years passed between when you bailed him out and when you finally got the guitar?
Twelve, maybe 15. He passed away last year, I believe. Quite a guy.

How about the ’61 SG?
The SG I bought years ago. We were on the road with Pablo Cruz, playing in Chicago, when Dave Jenkins, myself, and Cory Lerios, the keyboard player, drove to a vintage-guitar shop in DeKalb, where I bought that one and an Epiphone Texan similar to the one I already owned.

I had never owned an SG. But Tommy had one in the early days and I always liked it – loved the tonality. I also loved the stuff Eric Clapton played with an SG, and Pete Townshend played one and I always loved his tone… Carlos Santana played one and I loved the tone he got.

I played it a little on the road, but the tuning instability bothered me. I did use it in the studio because I love the sustain and the tone those P-90s get. There’s something about the sound of those pickups on particular guitar that’s kinda unique. It’s different from a Les Paul Junior. I still love that guitar. You can hear it on “Dependin’ On You,” on Minute By Minute.

And your ’62 Strat?
I got that from a friend in Santa Cruz. I had never owned a Strat and thought it would be good to have one in the studio. It sat for a while, then while we were working on Minute by Minute, I started using it. From then on, I was a Strat guy. I played that guitar for a while, but recognized that it was collectible, so I went to Mark Brown, but that guitar was the beginning of Stratocasters for me.

Simmons Guitars 03
(LEFT TO RIGHT) Simmons bought this ’61 Gibson SG Special in the mid ‘70s because he wanted a Santana-like sound. “It was so fun to bend those strings and feel the Latin soul ooze from the frets! It’s just a great blues instrument in the Les Paul Junior tradition. Growing up, I [saw] many great players use this kind of guitar, and I never forgot how good it sounded.”
This early-’70s Gibson ES-335TD was Simmons’ main guitar for more than a decade. Bought in ’73, after the Doobies got an advance on their first album, Simmons says it was “my dream guitar, and worked well in many genres… I could cover all the bases.” It was painted to match an Indian motorcycle Simmons owned, and he used on it on every Doobies album through 1982.
Simmons bought this ’48 Gibson L-7 in New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina.

Do we hear it on any prominent guitar parts from back in the day?
I used it on a lot of stuff – Minute By Minute, most of One Step Closer, “What a Fool Believes,” maybe, the chorused guitar part on that song. I’m sure I used it on “Real Love.” It became my go-to guitar. I was still using the 335 kind of equally, on both albums.

You mentioned the 335…
I played that particular guitar from around the time we were doing What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits – the mid ’70s. Like I say, I had a lot of other 335s, but that became my favorite. It started out as a 350 stereo, with the Veritone. It played well and I changed the pickups and threw that crazy paint job on it. I told the guy I wanted it to look like my 1941 Indian motorcycle. It was another of my go-to guitars from ’75 up to ’83.

What’s the story with its white Volume and Tone knobs?
Those are something he found to give it a ’50s look.

In our photo, it looks like the headstock is darker than the body…
It was on display in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a long time, and I think the headstock didn’t have a light hitting it as much.

That’s a shame.
It is. Originally, it had a sort of Gretsch orange color, but when I got it back, it was almost pink.

Next, we have the ’66 Epiphone Texan.
There was a guy who played folk blues around San Jose when I was 15 or 16. He played a Texan, and I loved its tone, I loved the look of it, and I loved the feel of it; he let me play it a couple times.

So, one day I went to a music store and they had one. A friend from high school was working in the store, and gave me a good deal. That guitar has been my companion forever. I’ve played it on every album we’ve ever made. It’s my buddy.

Do we hear it on “Black Water”?
Yes, it is the guitar on “Black Water.”

Are the stickers on the case the real deal, or were they applied for cosmetic purposes?
They’re holding the vinyl on the case (laughs)! I started putting stickers on it as the vinyl started peeling off. But it has been around the world.

How did the new album come together?
We had been thinking about doing an album for a long time, but kept getting offers to tour, so it kept getting put on the backburner. In fact, we were getting ready for a tour at a rehearsal hall in L.A. when, lo and behold, in walked Ted Templeman. He asked, “Are you guys writing or doing any recording?” We said, “We’ve been writing and talking about recording, but we haven’t started.”

We gave him some demos, and he came back and said, “I love some of these tunes. Would you be interested in going in with me to lay down some tracks?”

That was the beginning the album. We went to John McFee’s studio first, laid down a few tracks, then went to Sunset Sound, where I think we laid down 11 tracks in 10 days.

There must have been some pent-up creativity.
I think so. For the most part, we were set to go so that by the time we got to Sunset Sound, so we knocked ’em out pretty fast. The first single was “Nobody,” which was a track from our very first album that we re-recorded. We weren’t going all-out to make a big hit out of it – it was more a signature song. We wanted to reintroduce ourselves after being away for so long. It had the iconic sound we were known for, with the rhythmic guitars, fingerpicking, the harmonies we’ve employed throughout our career.

We also did a video that included footage we filmed in the early ’70s, used as a montage with current stuff.

Was the first single, “World Gone Crazy,” targeted at country radio?
For the most part, yes, which made me scratch my head because it wasn’t a typical country song. But it really connected with our audience – that 40-to-60 age bracket. They don’t listen to Lady Gaga, they don’t listen to rap. They listen to classic rock, adult contemporary, and country, which has shifted gears into a more pop category.

Speaking of, what was it like being on the “Crossroads” show with Luke Bryan?
That was fantastic, and a great opportunity to connect with not only a younger audience, but the country audience, as well. And Luke really gets our music. He sang with conviction and I don’t think he felt funny about what he was doing. And we felt the same about his music. And Luke is such a talented guy – great songs, with great playing.

There’s a lot of country music these days that uses rock and roll rhythm combined with country lyrics.
Absolutely. And I’m one of those guys who likes it all. I’m not a big rap fan… I appreciate the finer points of hip-hop, but it’s not something I necessarily listen to. I appreciate its worth.

The second single, “Far From Home,” spent a good bit of time on the Top 20 adult contemporary chart. What was the band’s reaction when it charted?
It kinda blew our minds. It was not an obvious track to release as a single, in my opinion. But I think it’s one of the better songs I’ve written. We were pleasantly surprised it charted, and doing the video was really cool. It was appropriately done, and reflects the contents of the song. It’s great to have a new album, and some new music to perform for our audiences. We’ve been getting a great response to the songs in our set, and I feel we’ve added to our legacy, and gained new fans along the way.

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This article originally appeared in VG November 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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