Steve Hunter Takes the Spotlight for The Manhattan Blues Project
There's a lot of Steve Hunter in your CD collection. If you read the four-point type, you'll see that he's played (with and without guitar buddy Dick Wagner) on three of Lou Reed's most revered RCA albums and over a half-dozen Alice Cooper albums, as well as albums by Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Bette Midler, and David Lee Roth. He's even ghost-played on albums like Get Your Wings By Aerosmith and the original Cooper band's Billion Dollar Babies.
Hunter, who lives here in the Valley o' the Sun, recently completed a labor-of-love album called The Manhattan Blues Project that he qualifies is "not so much bluesy in the traditional sense. It's blues guitar playing, which means a lot of bending and a lot of vibrato. All the songs are not traditional blues. There's only one shuffle on the record, and that's the 'The Brooklyn Shuffle' that has Johnny Depp on it and Joe Perry."
That's right, that Johnny Depp plus Marty Freidman and Joe Satriani. Hunter wrote most of the songs, but there are two covers, Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and "Solsbury Hill," the Peter Gabriel classic on which Hunter played originally with bassist Tony Levin who also guests on The Manhattan Blues Project. We spoke to Hunter about the new album, the blues, his work with Dick Wagner, his failing eyesight, and the worst thing he ever did to a guitar.
A Steve Hunter CD Release Party is scheduled for tonight at The Rhythm Room.
Up on the Sun: Would you say that blues guitar is the backbone of how you play guitar? I'm not a traditional blues guitar player. The stuff I've done -- I've worked with Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and Peter Gabriel, and David Lee Roth, a bunch of people. It's all what we call blues rock; it's rock 'n' roll guitar playing, but it's all based in blues.
I was able to pinpoint the first time I'd ever heard your guitar playing. it was that intro to Mitch Ryder and Detroit's cover of Lou Reed's "Rock and Roll." I was living in New York and they would play that intro over Raceway Park's Funny Car radio spot. It took me years to find out what that piece of music actually was.
That's the first time I recorded an album, when I was in Detroit. That was my arrangement of "Rock and Roll." Somebody told me that, too, and we didn't even know it had been used for that. They heard it on the radio. I met Leslie West a few years ago and said people used to come to him and say that they really liked he new mountain song. They thought it was Mountain.
Raceway Park used "Mississippi Queen" in their commercials, too. Both songs have that loud cowbell going.
It kind of had a Mountain feel. I was a big Mountain fan back in those days, so it probably had a big influence on how I approach arranging a song. And Leslie said I got tired of telling people it wasn't us. I think Lou Reed first heard it that way, too. He heard it as a commercial. And that's how he found out who we were, Bob Ezrin and I. Bob produced the album.
When Bob Ezrin brought you and Dick Wagner in to play guitar on albums where the guitar players were incapacitated at the moment -- those Alice Cooper albums like Schools Out or Billion Dollar Babies -- was there any lingering resentment from the band? You have Joe Perry on your album, so I guess not.
I don't think so. Back in the '70s, especially the mid-'70s, there was a lot of what we called "ghost playing" going on. Drummers, too! A lot of the labels got angry about bands being signed who couldn't play their instruments, but sometimes you brought a guitarist in because it added a new flavor.
A recorded album is different than a live show. When it's recorded, it's cut in stone and it's going to be there forever. Sometimes you just want to bring something new to a track, and I think that's why a lot of people got hired to do that sort of thing.
With Aerosmith it was especially odd, since "Train Kept a Rolling" is like a faux live track that's etched in stone.
Bob was executive producer. Jack Douglas and Ray Colcord came up with that arrangement; they wanted to make it sound like it sort of morphed into a live version of The Yardbirds' version of "Train Kept a Rollin."
I've spent many years setting the record straight as to who played what. I'm soloing stuff on the studio version and Dick Wagner played the solo on the live version. I think they did that as an artistic thing that added more color to the album.
Then you played on the Lou Reed live albums, but Berlin as well?
I played all over Berlin. I was the lone guitar player except we had this guy Gene Martynec, a brilliant guitar player from Toronto, playing all the acoustic stuff. Wagner came in and may have played something on "Sad Song." I wasn't there at the time he did it.
Did Lou give you and Dick Wagner carte blanche to do things like that beautiful three-minute introduction at the beginning of "Sweet Jane" on Rock and Roll Animal?
We were rehearsing to do the European tour with Lou when his management called and said we need you guys to play something instrumentally so we can bring Lou onstage, so he just doesn't show up, We tried a couple of things, and I had this little piece I'd been working on for a long time and I had finished part of it.
I showed it to the band, we started playing it and it sounded pretty good. Everyone was happy. It gave Lou time to get onstage. It turned out to be a pretty cool part of the show.
Is it true that Lou was resentful that you guys got all the critical attention on those records?
I hear this stuff all the time and I never got that sense from him at all. He's not really like that. I know Lou pretty well and he likes to keep changing things all the time, keep things fresh. Even when I toured with him over the last few years, from night to night we wouldn't do a song exactly the same way. We couldn't really do that when we did those early tours with him, 'cause we locked in these arrangements.
And I think he just likes to change every tour he's done since then. The last time I toured with Lou, we had done a live recording of the Berlin show at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. We took that out on the road after we'd done the DVD. We went to Australia, did four nights there and Lou enjoyed it so much we did a tour of Europe. Then we did a non-Berlin tour, mainly an East Coast tour.
When you first toured with Alice Cooper for Welcome To My Nightmare, were you playing in a pit? It wasn't on a pit -- we were sort of in back of the stage. The stage had two levels. The first level was in the front, where all the dancing and where Alice had all the room to do what he wanted to do. Then mid-stage was the magic screen and the spider web that would come down on hydraulics.
And in the back of the stage was the band, on a 10-foot riser. I was always worried about slipping off and falling. It's like you're at the top of the building and you're looking over and you have this urge to jump. I wouldn't do it now because my eyesight's so bad I would probably slip off.
How is your eyesight these days?
My main concern is being able to see the fretboard of a guitar well enough to see onstage. I'm trying to work out ways of doing that. One of the ways is trying to practice without looking, which does help, but when you move around the fretboard a lot it isn't hard to get lost, and I don't want to lost in the middle of a performance in front of an audience.
I learned how to play guitar by sight. It's an intricate eye-and-hand coordination. Had I been born blind it would've been far easier. So I'm finding some ways to make it easier [now].
So at your release party you're going to get up and do some blues playing with The Chuck Hall Band?
We're hoping so, What it's going to be dependent upon is whether I can see the guitar onstage, setting it up with a guitar and some tape. So hopefully I will be able to come up and play some songs with him.
Luckily the most wonderful thing about blues -- even if you're in Finland, Poland, anywhere in the world, it they can just say it's a 12-bar in G. Everyone in the world knows what that is and they can play and make music together.
Do you feel like guitarists coming up now skip the fundamentals of the blues and just go straight to shredding? That they come in playing like their hero and maybe don't explore Albert King?
I think we all did that. The thing that really bummed me out was that I didn't know where Eric Clapton when he was in Cream and Mike Bloomfield -- where those guys were getting all those ideas was from marvelous black musicians who were right in my neighborhood who I didn't know existed. I had to have an English guy tell me, "You ought to listen to Albert King or B.B. King, that's where I'm getting all this stuff."
That really angered me, that I didn't know that. So I went back and rediscovered those guys, I listened to everything I could get my hands on And luckily, B.B, King is very prolific, he has about 100 albums. There's plenty to pick from and I bought as many as I could afford back in those days.
I'd never noticed that B.B. King never plays any rhythm. He never plays a chord.
No he doesn't. A lot of those guys are like that. Albert King is like that, they just play solos, Back in the late '60s early '70s -- in that era, you had to be as good a rhythm guitar player as you were a soloist, which was fine with me.
Eric Clapton was a great rhythm guitar player in Cream. Jimi Hendrix was one of the most phenomenal rhythm guitar players ever, on top of the fact that he was an amazing soloist. It's gratifying. It's not just whether you can play 4,000 notes in a second. It's what you contribute to the song. That's the way we thought in the '60s and '70s.
I was just listening to "No More Mr. Nice Guy" and those licks are so tasty. There are a few licks that sound like background vocals.
That's cool! Those parts are very orchestrated and worked out. It's almost symphonic how some of those parts were put together; I think Dick and I are both on that track. I don't think I play any rhythm on it. By the time I came in, al the basic tracks had been finished, I did put a part here or there.
Are you on Muscle of Love at all?
I think Dick Wagner did; I think I was doing something else, so I never got called in to do that one
There's all those conflicting stories about what happened between that album and Nightmare, but he basically took the ghost guitar players and made you guys the band, because the original guys were wanting to scale back the theatrics, but when they put together a new band, they were playing in a boxing ring . . .
There's no point in asking me because I never understood what happened. [laughs] I just know I found myself walking in the studio one day and [then] in the band. I just stayed out of it. I didn't really want to know.
How do you tell people how to differentiate your style and Dick's style?
Maybe it's just a theory, but when we came together to work as a duo, both of our styles adapted themselves. When you play phrases together, you had to adapt the style to fit those phrases, so we blended right.
Over a year of playing together, our styles morphed together. I tended to get a warmer tone overall, and Dick tended to go for a brighter singing tone. That's great because you can sort of differentiate the two notes. If we were both playing the same tone, I don't think there'd be the same distinction.
Did you gravitate toward different guitars to get those tones?
He played Les Pauls and so did I. I played a Les Paul TV Special. I like to use the neck pickup on a guitar more than Dick does. It's a warmer sound to me. A little later we ended up getting the first BC Riches built. We both loved them the tone is really in your fingers.
Johnny Depp is on the record, how did you hook up with him?
I toured with Alice in 2011; we did a seven-month tour all over the world, and one of the places we played was this great club in London called the 100 Club. It's a little tiny club, everybody's been there -- the Stones have played there -- and we did a show there.
Alice was working on the movie Dark Shadows with Johnny Depp. They met. And, of course, Alice is a great guy, so it's hard to think you're not gonna get along with him, [and] he invited Johnny down to play with us. And Johnny's a great guitar player.
And I loved the guy. I knew he had a band called The Kids that was doing gigs in L.A. They were just trying to get a deal going, but nothing happened, so Johnny concentrated on acting. We had a lot of fun when he sat in; I just asked him and he said he'd be honored to play on the record, because he was a fan of mine from the old days. It just blew me away, so I'm very happy to have him on my record He's blues-rock based.
What was the worst thing you've ever done to a guitar?
One time I smashed an acoustic guitar. I put my foot through it just to see what it was like. It was a cheap guitar, I didn't like it. I tried to cut the nut; one string was too low, so it rattled. So I laid it on the floor rather gently and stomped the hell out of it.
It felt so good. In fact, it looked so good I almost hung it on the wall like a sculpture.
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