Brad Whitford might be considered the "refined" half of Aerosmith’s guitar team – he’s a deliberate player, whose steady rhythm lines complement lead guitarist Joe Perry’s often free-form, no-holds-barred attack. But while on most Aerosmith albums Brad is credited as rhythm guitarist, the last member to join the band also solos; both roles create for him an important place in the band’s predominantly guitar-oriented rock and roll format.
Born in Boston on February 23, 1952, Whitford
first came to music through the piano and trumpet. His tenure with these instruments, however, was short-lived; his father, recognizing that Brad had little desire to pursue formal training in either, bought him an acoustic guitar for his fourteenth birthday. Soon after, Brad
acquired his first electric, "a Winston or Salem or something with a cigarette name,
" he recalls. He took guitar lessons for six months, but abandoned this approach in favor of a self-tutoring program which included listening to records by groups such at the Beatles
, the Kingsmen
, and Booker T
. And The MGs, as well as learning from friends. In addition, Brad
credits guitar work by artists such as Eric Clapton
, Jimmy Page
, and Jeff Beck
as having a lasting effect on his music – in fact, Whitford
comments that Beck
’s first two solo albums, Truth
were important style guides for him.
"A couple of weeks ago I was in New York and saw Jeff Beck and he makes you feel like you’re a beginner all over again. Oh, my God! My God. He’s unbelievable and that band was on another planet. She (bassist Tal Wilkenfeld) was just incredible. I don’t know what you say about him. I love the fact that he’s a car nut and all of that. This tour was just mind blowing. In one sense it’s a huge inspiration and in the other sense it’s, I don’t know, I guess you shouldn’t let it bother you. There’s nobody else that even comes close to what he does so it’s like why even let it get to you? You know what I mean?"
When he was 16, Brad used a Fender Jaguar which he claims had an irritating habit of not staying in tune. He quickly abandoned it for a Gibson Les Paul after watching Jimmy Page use one during a Led Zeppelin performance. Brad used the Les Paul when he played in local bands like Symbols Of Resistance, Teapot Dome, and Earth, Inc., performing at fraternity parties in the Boston area for which groups were compensated with $150.00 per gig and all the beer they could drink.
Whitford, then playing lead guitar, developed his single-note picking technique before ever attempting rhythm work: "I started backwards," he says. After graduating from high school, he went to the Berklee College Of Music in Boston for a year but, attending school by day and playing in a band, Stray Cat, at night, "Threw me all of." Nevertheless, he maintained this hectic schedule until receiving an offer to play with some musicians whom he felt were of "superior" talent. Brad then quit school and played on Nantucket Island with this band, Just In Time, and it was here his rhythm chops truly developed – the group’s lead guitarist, also an accomplished rhythm player, taught Whitford a great deal about rhythm techniques.
Other members of Justin Tyme were friends with Aerosmith – then just a local band as well – although Brad himself had never heard of the group before this time; often Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton would come to watch Brad’s band play. Several months later, Whitford received a call from Perry, asking him to come down to where Aerosmith was performing – this was the first time Brad saw the group in action. Soon thereafter, Brad, in excited disbelief, was asked to join the group. He did so in August 1971.
Now, about to undergo yet another tour, Brad talked about his life in Aerosmith and about the tour with ZZ Top.
UG: Do you think that you fell into that trap of trying to write a hit on the Nine Lives or Just Push Play albums?
"It hasn’t changed much – we’ve always recorded most of what we’ve done in a live recording situation."
Brad Whitford: Oh, absolutely! And it’s a point of contention in the band between different people about how things are approached and stuff. It’s one of those topics of discussion. But some of it was so obviously trying to write for radio and it just misses the mark completely. It becomes an embarrassment down the road, I think. “How could I ever do that?”
Nine Lives and Just Push Play represent the most recent phase of the band. Before that, there Permanent Vacation, Pump, and Get a Grip. There were the Bruce Fairbairn-produced records and a bit more modern sounding than the previous albums.
I would agree. That was an interesting period for us. Bruce Fairbairn was so fabulous to work with. He understood that and of course that’s what attracted him to the band and why he wanted to do it. And he tried to stay faithful to a lot of that; there’s a lot of good stuff on there. It was a good experience. We were out of our element; most of those records we recorded in Vancouver. Get out of your own element a little bit sometimes helps the situation. And we just spent a lot of time on the sounds; a lot of good hard rockin’ guitars and stuff on there. Even the stuff that became sort of hip kind of music, it wasn’t contrived; it didn’t seem to be contrived. It wasn’t like we were trying to hard and sometimes I think it just comes down to the writers and the material and everybody being on top of it. And being honest, being honest right upfront; no bullshit.
We just started working on this new album with Brendan O’Brien. If he heard something that vaguely seemed to be going in that direction, he would just say so right away. And it was like, “Oh, yes, please.”
And I think Bruce was really good at that. It was a good period that made for some great period.
Then before that was Night in the Ruts, Rock in a Hard Place, and Done With Mirrors which was that sort of transition period. There were some problems going on and the band just couldn’t find its footing and there was no cohesion. Would you agree with that?
Most definitely! People were drifting in and out and just getting the whole band to show up for anything, it just wasn’t happening. Things started drifting apart. On Draw the Line, we actually just started recording with myself, Joey, Tom, and Jack Douglas. We just started rollin’ tape and kind of doing our own things for several weeks before we could even get Joe and Steven into the room. Yeah, it was a strange time. It produced some interesting music; yeah, it was a weird period.
And then we get to the early phase of the band with the first record, Get Your Wings, Toys in the Attic, Rocks, and Draw the Line. That was the period of the band really finding their way and you honing those twin guitar riffs with Joe.
That was definitely my favorite period. It was a whole different approach to making records then. Rocks and Toys, those are 16-track albums so you had to figure a lot of things out before you even got really going. “Where are we putting the drums?” And you had to be very creative with your overdubbing and stuff like that because you didn’t have a lot of options as far as 24- and 36- and as many tracks as you wanted. Which has become a curse; this sort of infinite approach to it.
It hasn’t changed much – we’ve always recorded most of what we’ve done in a live recording situation. But getting those great live performances and being creative with the overdubs and all of that. Mixing was fabulous because it was done by hand and each mix was a performance. Sometimes you’d have four guys on the board operating faders and memorizing it; you didn’t have computerized mixes. So, I don’t know, it was so much more organic which I think made it so much more fun and creative. You had to be creative all the way through.
Back in ’79, the band released their first live album, Live! Bootleg and in 2005 you put out Rockin’ the Joint. You covered some of the same material like “Walk This Way” and “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and “Draw the Line.” Did the performances of the songs change over the years? Had you grown as a player over the years?
The band has gotten so much stronger; there’s more confidence. It’s a lot easier and a lot more fun since then. I think generally the musicianship is just better. The rhythm section has just gotten so honed; it’s really fun to be part of that. Just layin’ it down with Joey and Tom. We just get a laugh out of it because we feel like we’re really nailin’ it. It’s a lot of fun for us to be able to do that.
When you listen to some of the more recent records, can you hear parts that maybe you wouldn’t have been able to play back in the day?
I don’t know. Each record has been so different and such a departure from those old days. I really enjoyed those early days, that approach, and I feel like it’s kinda gotten maybe too far away from it. We used to work out everything. Everybody has got everything from GarageBand to Pro Tools now and so ideas get developed on an individual basis where we used to sit for hours and hone that stuff out actually playing it. Which I prefer; I think a lot more stuff comes out of that.
But I’ve seen people say, “Oh, have you seen this bit of you on YouTube?” and I’ll go look at this thing. And, “Holy shit, wow! That was pretty good that thing I played there.”
I guess we’re guitar players who get hyper-critical of your stuff so sometimes it’s fun to go back. YouTube has been great with that. You can go back and, “Oh, it wasn’t as bad as I thought.”
Talking about guitar players who keep playing great, Aerosmith is going out with ZZ Top. Billy Gibbons is someone you must dig.
It’s nice to have a show you can be really proud of and for me that’s a real musically-filled show. And I think that’s what you’re gonna get. Billy is somebody I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for and been such a huge fan of. And it’s just gonna be great to have those guys on the same stage. I think it’s gonna make for a great show.
You did play with ZZ Top way back in 1975. Do you remember any of those shows?
Some of them. I remember when they had all the animals and the water buffalo and the this and that out with them.
Will there be any jams with you and ZZ Top?
Man, I hope so; I don’t know. I guess the biggest issue would probably be time constraints whether or not we can work it in. It needs to get done.
Aerosmith has really moved from being a very successful rock band into the hallowed halls of icons. Do you ever feel removed or beyond what’s going on in the rock world? Way back when, you were fighting for every inch and it’s not like that now. Do you know what I mean?
"You had to be creative all the way through."
Absolutely. I guess you can never get that back. In the early days, you were so dependent on each other for everything: How we put food on the table and paying our rent. We were all in it together and you come at it from such a different space. I guess you have to find different ways to get that inspiration. But nothing wrong with revisiting the early days and talking about that and how special that was.
One of the things, at least for us, having played together for so long, we have such a good musical chemistry and that ignites something inside you. When you hear it and you’re standing there and playing it and hearing the other guys playing and it’s being done so well, it makes you jump right back into the fire. I think that’s what drives me is we get such a hoot of playing with each other. I guess that is the basis for the inspiration that we have.
Which means you’ll be pulling out some of the old classics to perform on this tour? In fact, weren’t you supposed to revisit one of the older albums and play it top to bottom?
That is our plan and we’re looking at Toys in the Attic and Rocks. Now whether we do both of them, I’m not sure; that’s kind of the plan. So any given night you’ll either hear Rocks or Toys …
Nobody knows those songs better than you obviously but will it take some time sort of relearning the material? Listening to the rhythm parts and pulling out the exact voicing and things like that?
Oh, yeah! There are certain things I just don’t have a clue until I hear I listen to it and go, “Oh, yeah, yeah.” And then I’ll think, “What guitar was that? Oh, I think it was this guitar.”
Are you actually going to try and match songs to guitars?
Well, we’ll see. I’m sure we’ll get pretty close. As far as some of the things I may not nail, maybe a certain solo or something, but I think the rhythm stuff we should have pretty well figured out. A lot of times for me it’s like, I put it on and listen to it; I pick the guitar up and play the first couple of chords and then it’s, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Now I know what I did here.” A couple of these songs we haven’t visited in years and years and years. Rehearsal is gonna be fun; we start rehearsing in actually just a little less than two weeks. So, workin’ on this stuff is gonna be fun.
Do you know what your guitar and amp rig will be on the new tour?
Umm, I’m goin’, on this tour, I’m takin’ a step back a little more; just old-school approach. My plan is to be using two of my vintage 50-watt Marshalls and two 4x12s. Which a lot of times I’m out there playing with different things and messing around with stuff and I go, “Why aren’t I just using my Marshalls that are sitting there?” It’s like what the hell am I doing? That’ll kinda be the basic setup and I have a couple other amps I’ll be bringing out in case I get bored or need to do some other things. One amp is called the 3 Monkeys. My guitar tech Craig Howard has been working on this for a couple of years and it’s a pretty interesting amp. It’s just another one of these boutique guys and we’re in an ocean of boutique amplifiers. That’s a good thing because they’re all pretty cool. But this is a very cool amp. And I’ll be bringing also a Two-Rock amplifier which I’m quite fond of.
I’m not 100 per cent sure what I’ll be bringing out. I’ll be bringing some of my reissue Les Pauls and a couple Strats. And I think I’ll have to bring my Jeff Beck Strat having just seen him and I’ve got to play that guitar. And a couple Gretsches; I’ll probably bring one of my Melancons. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. Another one of these guys that I ran into down in New Orleans and he was sort of a friend of a friend. He brought three guitars to one of our shows and I left with all three of ‘em. Just really nice stuff. But I tend to want to stick with the more traditional Strat, Telly, Les Paul. A lot of times when I see photos, I just want to see that and I just want to hear that. Sometimes I get off on these tangents and I’m playing some of these more modern guitars and they work and they sound great. But I don’t like the way they look. I guess it’s just all these years of looking at my guitar heroes just playing a Strat or a Les Paul and making it do everything it had to do. Sometimes these hybrids visually don’t cut it.
Back in ’79, you had mentioned you were tossing ideas around to do a solo record. You mentioned working with Danny Johnson and Vinnie Appice. I believe Joe is working on a solo record at the moment – do you still have a desire to record a record on your own? It seems like there might be a lot of music in you that doesn’t find an outlet in Aerosmith.
Yeah, I think I would. In a way, I end up piling up all these different sort of licks and ideas and they’re all just sitting around and eventually I’m gonna have to do something with them. Yeah, it’s just gonna have to be the right time and the right inspiration which I guess hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s something I’ll look into after this next tour and next Aerosmith album.
The band has done dozens and dozens of tours. Do you still have the fire in your belly when you go out?
Umm, yeah. Probably the most enjoyable moments I’ve had musically most of them happen with Aerosmith. And I just love playing with those guys. I wish we could do it every night. I do look forward being able to play and being able to play with those guys.
Aerosmith has been doing it over so many years now and you’ve seen other bands come and go; styles appear and disappear. Do you have any sense that here in 2009 there is an active and creative guitar population?
"The most enjoyable moments I’ve had musically most of them happen with Aerosmith."
I think what I see that is very cool and exciting are a lot of really good young players coming up. But more often than not I see somebody in a band and I have no idea who it is and he’s got some nice vintage guitar and look, “He’s plugged into a Silvertone! Right?” It’s like, “Man, is this cool or what?” Some of these young kids, that’s how far they’ve gone and they’ve got one of those Silvertones and they’ve managed to get it to a point where they can use it on a nightly basis. But that’s just such a classic sound that we all knew about; well, maybe didn’t know about ‘cause we didn’t have anything else to play. But here they are using some of the stuff and I just think it’s amazing.
One of my sons is, they’re all very musical, but the 17-year old who is just an amazing guitarist and what they listen to and stuff I find very interesting.
What do they listen to?
They’re listening to Hendrix and stuff like this and I guess it’s sort of a validation for us older guys that it was truly a magical era that we were part of and to witness some of. You know what I mean? And it’s still so powerful. These young kids, a lot of ‘em, their inspiration is some of the same exact music that sent us spiraling out of control.
Do you have any sense that younger kids are looking at Aerosmith in the same way they may have looked at Jimi Hendrix?
Occasionally we might see a little bit of that. It might be a little harder for me to be objective about it. You hear it mentioned in interviews and stuff like that. It’s cool. You kind of get embedded in the culture after a certain point; songs that are in movies and this and that. It’s a pretty cool thing. You left a big stain that’s gonna be there long after you’re gone.
For me, a lot of great music was made sort of back during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and it’s difficult to find modern music that stands up in the same way.
I have that same problem; I don’t listen to too much new music. I always end up going back; I listen to a lot of Hendrix. I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of that.
Actually, Billy Gibbons spent a lot of time with Hendrix. You should break out one of Jimi’s songs, “Purple Haze” and jam on that. That would be cool common ground.
That probably would be a good common ground.
Interview by Steven Rosen
Ultimate-Guitar.Com © 2009