June 13, 1994
If you've been following the Rock Chronicles
, you know that I periodically have a breakdown in terms of remembering where an interview took place. Well, this is another one. I think it may have been set up at a rehearsal studio in North Hollywood, As the name of the city suggests, North Hollywood was a pretty big town just, yes, you guessed it, north, of Hollywood proper. It was a city with a lot of auto body shops, Mexican restaurants, and rehearsal facilities.
Here, we talked about his solo record and of course his work with Guns
. The thing that strikes me now, as I think about it, is just how very friendly and honest all the Guns guys were. Izzy
was a wonderful interview (you can read his story here in the 1990s section) and Slash
is one of the coolest people you've ever met. I'd interviewed Duff McKagan
when he was with Velvet Revolver
and he was a very funny and engaging character. Axl
I've never met so I have to reserve judgment on that one.
was a lover of guitars just like Izzy
and he dug talking about them. He'd just completed his first solo album and we began our conversation there.
is Gilby Clarke
's first solo album. Clarke, a native of Cleveland, finds himself in the enviable position of playing rhythm guitar for Guns N' Roses
(having replaced Izzy Stradlin
in November 1991) and just recording the band's newest, Spaghetti Incident
. On the other side of the ledger, however, is the unenviable spotlight cast upon him in trying to break away from being known as the "rhythm guitar for Guns N' Roses
" and attempting to create a world for himself separate from the juggernaut created by Axl
. His first album is a tipping of the cap to his English influences, bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, the Clash and Bowie and T. Rex. All the members of Guns appear on the album in one form or another Slash plays on two tracks, drummer Matt Sorum
is present on three, Duff plays bass and drums on the Clash cover, "Jail Guitar Doors
," and Axl plays piano and sings on the Jagger/Richards classic, "Dead Flowers
." Rob Affuso
, the drummer from Skid Row is here, the Pixies' Frank Black
shows up, Will Effertz
, Gilby's bass playing friend lays down some tracks, and a bunch of others have all come together in an effort to define s sound distinct and different from what he does with GN'R.
In many ways, the album, produced by guitar session ace Waddy Wachtel, has that loose sort of English rowdiness as espoused by the Faces/Stones/Bowie contingent. Recorded at the A&M Recording Studios, one of the finest houses in the country, the album brings together the two pieces Clarke as GNR man/Clarke as solo artist and also embodies older, elemental pieces of the type of rock music he grew up on loose rhythm tracks based more on feel and finesse than sheer technique with absolutely cutting edge audio technology. As a first step away from the fold, some of his footfalls may have been a bit unsteady, he did make it to where he wanted to go and looking at the trail left behind him, every footstep leads directly back to him and not to this group called Guns N' Roses that everyone seems to be talking about.
UG: Why don't you begin by talking a little bit about your new record?
My record? It's done and that's the good part. The main reason for making the record was I had a collection of songs, there's like 15 songs that I had, right? And knowing when we started working on the GNR stuff, they were gonna use no old stuff, it was all gonna be fresh new stuff. I had all these songs and I didn't want them to disappear or have to give them to somebody else to do. I don't write that many songs and when I write a song, I want it to be done right. I had all these songs and I knew we were gonna take a good year, maybe a year-and-a-half off with GNR after the road, and I thought I'd get a deal and go in and do my songs.
Had you done much writing with Axl and Slash?
I've never written a note with Axl; I've written a lot with Slash. He has a studio at his house, so we got up to his house and me, him and Matt (Sorum, drums) will get together, we fuck around, we write songs, record them, but that's as far as that ever gets.
One gets the impression that you maybe wish you'd been born English, grew up in London around 1968, and were hanging out with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
Maybe you listened to the record? Yeah, my favorite music is the old 70s stuff, I love the Stones and the Beatles, I love T. Rex, Marc Bolan, Bowie, and when I went in to make my record the most important thing wasn't like to show off can I play guitar, can I sing, can I write, it had nothin' to do with that. I really dug the songs and I wanted to make a record I'd enjoy listening to. I can put on my old Bowie records and I can put on my record and go, Ahh, I like this record.'
Let's talk about some of the tracks Cure Me Or Kill Me.'
That was the last song that I wrote for the record. That's all my guitars except Slash plays the solo. For the whole album, I had my own room set up with my best Marshall 50-watt that I've had for years, and I have a million Voxes. And this old 1962 Fender Deluxe amp, the one 12, little 20-watt amp, and I had those three in a line. And for every song, I'd decide what guitar and what amp would be the best combination. On that one I think it was my burnt Les Paul which is like a '92 Les Paul through the Marshall. That's also my main road guitar; it's my best sounding guitar that I can risk taking it out on the road. Gibson came out with these 60s Classics and finally made a guitar me. I got it brand new and it sounded fuckin' great, I hated the way it looked; it looked brand new. My guitar tech at the time, took the guitar out in the back, poured lighter fluid on it and lit it and put it out, put more on, he fuckin' burnt my guitar up! And when he gave it to me you could see the toggle switch was melted, the pickup rings were melted, the knobs were melted. I said, OK, you can leave the toggle switch but fix the rest of the shit.' And people come up to me and go, God, that's the coolest looking guitar' and I'm going, No, it's burned.'
And I have a '57 Les Paul that was my birthday present from Axl. Whenever we were on the road, he used to make fun of me sometimes when I'd had my Zemaitis guitars out because they're real flashy looking. And he used to call it the tile' guitar, the bathroom tile' guitar, so he wanted to get me something really special for my birthday. And Axl spoke to Adam Day (Slash's longtime guitar tech) and Adam told him to get the '57, that I'd love that.
You got into a music store to buy a new guitar and you have to go through 15 guitars to find one good one; you can take the one only '57 that comes in the shop, and it's good. I don't understand what that is but it always works that way. This guitar was used on Black;' there's a lot of feedback and stuff and the solo was done on this guitar. And Johanna's Chopper,' the wah-wah stuff was on this. And there was the B-side, Melting My Cold Heart' and I used this. It's a good soloing guitar.
And I know you also use Zemaitis guitars?
"I can put on my old Bowie records and I can put on my record and go, Ahh, I like this record.'"
Yeah, they're made by Tony Zemaitis, an English guy, an incredible guitar maker, and I saw these guitars in 1980 when the Stones (Ronnie Wood first popularized them) and James Honeyman-Scott from the Pretenders was using them? I didn't even know what kind they were or what, I just thought they looked so cool. And I've wanted one since then and it took me like three years after seeing one before I found out who and what kind of guitars they were. And then when I got the GNR gig, we finally tracked em down and I got him to make me them. Now the other thing about Tony is Tony won't make a guitar for just anybody; you have to go through this whole thing. So I actually went to his house in England, I had lunch, his wife Anne made me lunch, and we sat down and talked blues for about two hours. And so we went in the garage and we made up the guitar that he was gonna make which is a silver one. I've wanted one of these guitars for that long and I didn't know what they were gonna sound like, what they were gonna play like, and to this day, my silver one is my best-playing, my best-sounding guitar I've ever owned in my life. Then I had a second one made, a pearl one; mother of pearl and abalone.
My favorite setup on a guitar is mahogany with ebony fingerboard and after that, all ebony fingerboard, all mahogany back, neck, everything; like a good ol' Les Paul Jr. I use Seymour Duncan's 59s in everything; every now and then I'll slip in the Seymour Duncan JB and on my Tellys I use the Telly version of the 59s. I have a '68 Telly that was really fucked up, it had a humbucker routed in it and I actually found a '59 PAF that I stuck in it.
The main guitars on the album were the burnt Les Paul, a '68 Telly, and the silver Zemaitis for the most part, most of the rhythms.
On Black,' there is acoustic guitar.
Waddy played the acoustic guitar. All the other guitars on it I played, the leads and rhythms, but Waddy played the acoustic part because I was upstairs hanging out with Matt. We had a great little side room at the studio so I'd be up there watching TV or doing whatever. But my best acoustic is a 1984 Gibson J-45.
You're a fan of the English approach to and the sound of British records and you're obviously aware of Townshend and the terrific manner in which he lays down acoustics and then puts huge walls of electrics on top and yet manages to rely on the acoustic tracks for the main thrust of the song.
Oh, yeah, he's great, but you know what that was? It was not doing too much and letting them be their own instruments. I never double; I like the left/right approach. Actually, that's not true because Cure Me ' is almost doubled so there goes that theory. I hate doubled guitars and on Cure Me ' I did the right and left and stuff but on Black,' there would always be a different guitar playing a different rhythm or I'd just have somebody else do it. On acoustics, I don't play 12-string, the necks are too big and the strings are too I can never play them real cleanly so what I'll do is take a 6-string and then the other side is Nashville which is just the high strings of the acoustic.
That's me left, Slash right and that's it. All 100% live; there's another guitar that I put in the middle that I beefed up a couple of chord sections and stuff? But for the most part, Matt goes, One, two, one, two, three, four' and we did it. What blows me away is in GNR almost all my tracks and stuff were what I cut on the basic tracks; on my record, I say 90% is what I cut on the first run through. It blew me away that Slash did it because Slash usually lays it down and usually fucks with the soloing, but this was, On your mark, get set, go.' He fuckin' cut that solo with me, Matt and the bass player in the room and that's unbelievable. And there were blunders here and there but it was rock, we can do whatever we want.
The approach on Pawnshop Guitars was the same as what Guns did?
We try to cut it as live as possible and then you patch up what you don't get; basically if you make a mistake. But I tell you, there's something about, especially a song like Tijuana ,' is we cut it live and when I cut my guitar live I sing, too. I have a 57 so it doesn't bleed and I sing so everybody gets the cues, so that's what's really strange. When we come in, I'll go, OK, let me tighten it up' and we'll do it and it's tight and everything, but there's something about when you're in the room and Matt goes bam, and you go bam with him, and mistakes or whatever, it always works better to keep that version.
Did you use Waddy because of his work with Keith Richards?
And Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks
Still, Waddy seems an odd choice for you.
I had to have a producer on the album and if I was gonna have a producer, I was gonna have a guitar player produce the album. And it was suggested to me and I thought it was a great idea although when I got Waddy I thought that maybe we'd take a lot of time with the guitars and have fun and stuff and then vocals, we'd just fly through em. But it was the opposite he let me go wild on guitars, we did it all in like the first take, and then the vocals would kick my ass, man, made me work.
Are you comfortable as a singer?
Yeah; I don't consider myself a good singer but it doesn't bother me to sing or anything. I've made records before where I sang and I try not to get to involved in it because I can't compete with the good guys out there. I'd rather be a guitar player who sings and that way I think I'm alright.
Did you sing in the group Candy? Did Kim Fowley want you singing (Fowley produced Candy as well as The Runaways and many other bands of note)?
No, in Candy I played guitar but in Kill For Thrills I sang and played guitar. Kim never had me sing; Kim only had me playing guitar.
Hollywood was an interesting place during that period? What do you remember of that era?
"We did the Spaghetti Incident to hopefully buy us some time and sh-t and I think towards the end of the year we might like re-group and see what's gonna happen."
Hollywood was a wild place; there were a lot of great underground clubs we used to all hang at and everybody knew everybody. There weren't that many bands back then and there was maybe only three or four that could, like, headline say, the Troubadour on a weekend, and we just happened to be one of those bands. People like Kim, and I think Kim is fantastic, he'd always find the good bands before anybody else saw them. He was always on the street and we didn't have any money, we were all poor back then, and he used to have me go in at midnight and cover up other people's guitar tracks and stuff. I'd sneak in after midnight and re-do their guitars and using their guitars and their amps and the next day they'd go, God, I played that good.' They didn't remember but it was me and we just wouldn't tell anybody.
That type of camaraderie you were describing has sort of disappeared in today's world of corporate music.
It's completely died; I don't think anybody knows anybody anymore. It's kinda sad but in a way what's kinda cool about that it that's one of the reasons why I got the GNR gig was because they remember the old guys. I knew them from the old club days. When I was in Kill For Thrills and Matt got his GNR gig, I was one of the first guys to go, Matt, that's so awesome' because Matt and I had been fucking pounding it out in clubs for years and everybody knew Matt was the best drummer around. Sure, he was in The Cult and stuff but he never got that big break.
What was it like when Guns N' Roses approached you?
Well, I got a phone call; it wasn't even like an approach thing. Slash had just called me and said, Do you want to come down and play with us tomorrow and I said (in skeptical voice), Yeah, alright.' And I came down and I just played with them and two weeks later I played my first show with them; I was the only person that they physically auditioned. Everybody else Slash kind of talked to them over the phone or met them in person but I was the only one that they actually asked to come down in person.
What was that like playing with Slash? Was there room for you to express yourself as a guitarist?
Oh, it was great; to me, Slash was, for me, the ultimate lead guitar player because I come from the old school and stuff. I don't know anything about whammy bars unless Jimi Hendrix did it and all that real fast approach, it's all wonderful and it's fine but I don't understand it. I'm from the old like blues school, very slow, like Keith, bending, and make it sound like a slide. And Slash has got that old blues style but he combines it with the metal thing and I hate soloing. It's like, give me one solo a night and I'm fine, I'm very happy, I don't have the attention span. We'll play 18 to 20 songs a night and I couldn't do it; and I love playing rhythm guitar and for the two of us together, even when Slash does side stuff, he always gets me to come along and play with him. It's a really good match between the two of us. Because I'm like everything he's not and he's everything I'm not but it's all within the same style.
So, when you mentioned earlier that the Stones were one of your favorite bands, you were really keying on the way Keith played alongside Brian Jones and the way they'd create those sorts of seamless rhythm patterns?
Mick Taylor I think was the best Stones guitar player. Even Woody, Woody does a great job taking it to a new thing. I don't really like country music but I love the way the Stones took that country/rootsy rock feel. Just put a little more distortion on it, a little more fuzz.
You touch on Hendrix and T. Rex as artists you listened to. What was it about them that so attracted you?
I was a little kid and what I thought was cool was actually the way he looked and then I started understanding the music a little bit more. But back then there was so much great shit, that the standards were so different than they are these. You had people like the Stones and Hendrix and the Beatles and nowadays you can't say that. When Bowie came out, it was no big deal that he was wearing makeup or Kiss, it was just another rock band. I remember trading my stereo speakers for Ziggy Stardust and when I first heard Mick Ronson, that was another one of those guys.
You use a Dan Armstrong clear plexi-guitar which has always had this sort of strange fascination for a lot of players.
It's a '71 and this is a strange story: my mom took me into a music store in Cleveland, where I'm from, and my parents said, Well, if you're serious about it, we're not buying you a guitar until you take guitar lessons.' And the teacher said I had to start on acoustic and not electric and when I walked in, the very first electric guitars I saw in a music store was the Dan Armstrongs and they were clear and ever since then, I always wanted one of those. What I didn't come to realize over the years was they were only made for two years, '71 and '72. And I used this guitar on the GNR tour; I had it in open G so we'd play like Bad Obsession' and any other songs we had in open G, I'd play it. It's a great open G slide guitar.
You've toured, obviously, with GNR, and the only album you've recorded so far is Spaghetti Incident?
Yeah, and the main guitar was the burnt Les Paul, the Telly, and the Zemaitis. And for the most part, through my little Fender Deluxe. People go, You're in this big heavy metal band with Marshalls,' and I use this one 12 fuckin' old Fender amp. And on Spaghetti Incident Slash and I are out there playing the parts live and I'd say 98% of my guitar tracks were the live track that I put down. And it's easy to tell because once again, I'm left, he's right. And then he always fills in the middle; I don't get to fill, I get one track and that's it. Some of the songs were already recorded and I went in and took Izzy's (Stradlin, original rhythm guitarist) track off and put my tracks on and a lot of stuff we re-cut live. We'd learn three songs in a day, then go in and almost record it the same way. We don't spend that months in the studio thing; we play it to get the magic of me, Duff, Slash, and Matt in the room together and if there's keyboards, Dizzy (Reed) would be with us. And we'd cut it live and like I said, whatever was bad would be replaced later. But me and Duff are really good about keeping our tracks that we actually lay down. They don't give me much time; if I spend more time than the others, they'll find somebody else.
You talk about you and Slash working together perfectly, cutting parts live, and generally making everything work. But the fact that you both play Les Pauls could prove difficult in not making all the guitars sound like Gibsons. Have you run into that situation?
"To me, Slash was the ultimate lead guitar player because I come from the old school and stuff."
It used to be a problem when I first started with the band, I used to use Marshalls. And we almost sounded the same. I mean, I'm a little more percussive of a player than he is but it just sounded like one big fuckin' wall, one guitar. So, what I did was, I said, I can't do this anymore' and so I got the Voxes and I had a Vox years and years ago but it was too loud to play clubs in because there's only one thing you can do you have to turn em on 10 and they're fuckin' louder than shit. So, I talked to the Vox people, before Korg bought them out, and they sent me down 9 of them, the AC-30s with top boost and no mods, and I was trying to get a guitar sound out of it and I was having a really hard time because I didn't remember what I used to do years ago. And Brian May was rehearsing with us, this was in England, because he was going to jam with us and he goes, The key to the sound is this little box.' He had this little, it's called a treble booster box, right, and I hooked it up and I went, Wow, that's it.' So I couldn't take Brian May's box, let alone he wouldn't let me do it, so I kinda figured out how to do it with the amp and what I never thought of and the last thing you think of is turning a knob to zero and not using a knob. These amps have tone, bass, and treble; I took the bass all the way off and I fuckin' found my sound. And what's great about the Voxes is they're very midrange-sounding and now I can play a Les Paul, Slash can play a Les Paul through his Marshalls, and they sound completely different. And it really was just a matter of finding what would blend well with him without sticking out too much. So, what I do live is, I have 9 Voxes, the bottom row are just Vox cabinets; everything is loaded with Celestions and what I'll do is pump my Marshalls through the bottom ones for live and they're not miked. But on stage, in a stadium thing, sometimes you really lose your sound, so I'll pump up the Marshalls to give it a little more punch but we only mike the Voxes.
I have a wireless and a rack-mount Cry Baby so I can have more than one pedal on stage; I can have three pedals out there so I don't have to be in one spot to use it. Just a Hush to keep the noise down and that's it. If I want a boost box, if I'm soloing and stuff, I use one of those MXR Micro-Amps, the little white guys? I just pop it on and I get a little more fuzz. We're very old fashioned.
I've always just plugged right in and it's just my preference you can make it do it yourself. Even for me to use the 59 Seymours? They're very low output pickups and I love just driving the shit out of the amp.
We're pretty simple guys, huh?
I'd call it boring. I'm just kidding. The great appeal of GNR and what you do is the organic approach, the reaching back to the original sounds and trying to bring them forward and make them work in today's musical structures.
It's a little more personal; we put a lot of work into writing the songs and making him personal so when you get it you can actually do a story like this, like you're doing, where I can go, This is my favorite guitar and that's why it's on this song.'
Now that it's all over, what do you feel from the experience?
When I heard it, the first thing that I said is, Man, I can't believe it came out exactly like I thought it was. We said, The songs are the most important, the way I play guitar, and the way I sing,' and if we get those three things on record, we're gonna have a Gilby record. And we got it. I'm so happy with the record that I don't wanna just release it and say, I'm the guy from GNR.' I want this record to come out, I'm gonna do a six-month tour, and I want to do it with my friends.
And what are the plans with Guns N' Roses?
I don't know! We did the Spaghetti Incident to hopefully buy us some time and shit and I think towards the end of the year we might like re-group and see what's gonna happen. But right now I don't think anybody's in the right state of mind to make a Guns N' Roses record. And I gave them my notice as to the next six months and I said, So, wait!' That doesn't mean they're gonna wait, you know, but I made a commitment to myself and my record company and people I play with. I think GNR is something that will be around for a long time so if I take a little break for now, I think it's OK.
Note: With the advent of Gilby's solo album and the recording of Spaghetti Incident, Guns N' Roses would never again perform with this lineup of Slash and Clarke, Axl, et al. For all intents and purposes, GNR ended with the beginning of Gilby Clarke's solo career.
Interview by Steven Rosen