Pete Anderson: Pioneering Roots Guitarist
Pete Anderson is a multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning Producer and groundbreaking guitarist, who melds blues and country to forge a style all his own. Known as a pioneer in the roots-rock genre and an early champion of the Americana movement, he had a hand in introducing the world to artists such as Michelle Shocked, Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Rosie Flores and perhaps most famously, his musical partner of 20 years, Dwight Yoakam. Pete recently released his seventh solo record Birds Over Guitarland, on his own label Little Dog Records, I got to chat with him on tour in Austin Texas and get to the heart of this guitar player’s guitar player.
Rick J Bowen: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We are supposed to talk about some guitar stuff and your new album it is your seventh ,tell us about the title “Birds Above Guitarland.
Pete Anderson: Sure. Birds above guitarland is the new record and it came out September seventeenth and that’s what happens when you ask your ten year old daughter to name her father’s record.
RJB: Her name is Grace right? I saw her listed in the album credits.
PA: Yep, she named it she drew some art work on it and she has a little guest appearance on the end of “36 Hour Day.” She was in the vocal booth with me and she was shouting out when I was doing the vocals during the breaks we were dancing and doing the funky popcorn and shouting out like James Brown. “Do the popcorn.” I’ll tell you what, she only ten but she is savvy enough to know that the mic was on and she designed it so she would get on the CD.
I had her do some art work for the album, some birds and stuff. I love the title it’s kind of like one of those old jazz records where it doesn’t have anything to do with any of the songs, but it is descriptive in its own strange way. I am a pretty guitar centric musician so it’s a lot about the guitar. It started with the last record when I decided to start my career as a guitar player artist. I’ve been a guitar playing producer for many years and I wanted to change the paradigm from being a producer who played guitar to being a guitar player who produces records. So my main function on a daily basis is to play the guitar. I was turning my day job around. Guitar has always been my passion. All I really want to do is play guitar in front of people. You know there a lot of things that go into that, right, especially if you don’t want to do it at the corner of your street and hope people show up. So you gotta make a record, put a band together, and travel, there’s a lot of things. But the end result is I get up in front of people and play guitar and for me the hour and half two hours on stage washes away everything else I had to do, that would be something I wouldn’t choose to do you like drive a thousand miles and sleep at the motel six, or whatever.
RJB: All the glamorous stuff.
PA: Yeah exactly the glamorous stuff. I get young guys who want to go on the road, and it’s like if you can’t ride twenty hours in the van and have a couple hours on stage make it worth your while you shouldn’t be a musician. All the guys I looked up to that hit the road ,ya know like B.B King and Ray Charles and Freddie King all those cats played night after night at hundred seats clubs all over the country and drove in cars and station wagons. I’ve gotta van they only had small cars. It’s the life I’ve chose.
RJB: Back to the album. You are the lead vocalists and guitarist, but the album doesn’t feel guitar centric it feels bigger than that with all the horns and keys on it.
PA: Well you know the type of guitar player I am and the guys I follow behind are more the Cornell Dupree, james Burton, Steve Cropper, and of course B.B King types.
RJB: The album has a very B.B King feel to it.
PA: You know surprisingly enough I talk to people and I say “play me the record where B.B plays three or four solos in a row.” It never happened, they played one chorus and they were done, and it was beautiful. Play me the Muddy Waters record where he lets the harp player go on and on it doesn’t happen. The lessons are out there for us to learn if we want to learn them. I’m one who thinks that songs come first. I ‘m song centric.
I found out the songs and I found the best key to sing it in. That was one of the big lessons for me with this record. I worked very hard to find the right keys for myself to sing in. I’ve worked with some great singers who knew their keys and it was easy to shift the key for me as a player. I found out that for myself, a half step was huge and that keys can be socially relevant to the song and the information I was singing. If there was a message I wanted to get across , I may want to sing it lower in my range and I may have something up tempo and I want to compete with the band so I need to be up higher. All of the psychology of it, that as a producer I didn’t know about. I always felt that if I came up with good songs and found the right key that I was good enough of a guitar player to sit down and figure out something really cool to play. This record is an extension of that. It’s making the guitar fit in a way that is exciting and fresh.
RJB: You feature some other great musicians on your album, some great keyboards and horns tell us about them.
PA: The Horns done by Lee Thornburg. He was the trumpet player on the Tonight show a few years back with Kevin Eubanks. Lee has played with Tower of Power and Chicago and everybody. When I started producing records in 1985 whenever I had horns on a record it was Lee Thornburg arranging and playing. Him and I go way way back. My record has a complete open palette for him to be open sonically and be as exploratory as he wanted. There were some complex chords that I was playing on the guitar that he could latch onto some of the intervals. He is so skilled he would say “oh is that a flat five thirteen? Oh yeah it’s beautiful I can do this or that,” a real tapestry. Then there was a young girl named Dona Oxford who played a jump swing boogie piano on “Talkin My Baby Down,” she’s been in L.A. for a while, she is from Brooklyn but she lived in Chicago and took lessons from Johnny Johnson towards the end of his life. She terrific at this stuff, when I heard her play I said “I’ve got to get you to play something on my record.” Of course Mike Murphy plays most of the keys and produced the record. Jack Meaby is another guy from upstate New York who has played with a lot of blues guys, he did the whole chitlin circuit I had him play some organ. I had james Cruce play drums on two tracks, he played on the J.J Cale Eric Clapton record “Road to Ensenada,” and then Herman Mathews and Jeff Sorenson who is in my band played a couple, and Jesper Sorensen from Norway and Jeff Donovan from the Dwight Yokum days. It’s a cast of my favorite drummers who give me specific feels. Steve Nelson played upright bass and I played the rest. Oh and Bekka Bramlett sang on a track.
RJB: How did you pull that off she’s real hot right now.
PA: She sang on my last record, Even Things Up that came out three years ago. There’s only one, twenty four hour blues station in the world B.B. King’s Bluesville on Sirius XM and I had a number two on the charts there. It was Bekka singing my song “Still In Love.” I said “well let’s reprise that.” I wanted to bring her back so I picked a song that we both sang, not as a duet, I sang a version and she sang one as a bonus track. I’ve worked with Bekka off and on over the last fifteen years. She sang on some of Dwight’s stuff and I worked with her mom. I’ve been a big fan of hers, she is a blessed singer, she’s one of the best in the world.
RJB: Was the record tracked live or more pieced together?
PA: Well we track everything live in that the way we do it is; we’ll have drums and Mike will plays keys and I’ll play guitar and sing. We’ll get the feel right, the tempo right, the key, and the arrangement and basically get it all boxed in where we want it to be and where we want the drums, so it has a live feel. On this record I wanted to play electric bass, cause the last record had key bass, but the electric bass puts a little more air into the microphones. Then Mike and I will redo the keys and then we brought in some guests and I sat down with the guitars and fixed those, then I went into the booth and did some singing and we had a record.
RJB: You make it sound so easy.
RJB: It was all done at the Nest studios is that your own studio In L.A.?
PA: I had a studio in Burbank Called the Dog Bone for ten years. We were leasing the building and nine years into it we said “man I wish we would have bought the building.” A family owned it and it was going to be difficult to buy. So we said it’s time to go home. I have a four car garage and we built a hundred thousand dollar studio in the garage, its’ the best studio I’ve ever had it’s a great work space so now we work from home in the backyard. We’ve got a garden with orange trees and lemon trees and my daughter’s there every day. We’ve got our little fortress there in Glendale.
RJB: Amazing. That is how the whole industry is now. It is a do it yourself business. You also have your own label. Little Dog Records.
PA: Yeah I‘ve had the label for a long time but it has really been distilled down to a digital download site for my catalog. I don’t venture out putting other records out on Little Dog, we are really concentrating into moving to the new world of digital down loads as the product that is pressed up disappears it will be available in digital. I‘ll always make CD’s to sell off the bandstand at least until that disappears.
RJB: It’s time to get to the guitar questions. I’m’ sure you’ve heard them all but let’s give it a go.
PA: Great. Let’s give it shot.
RJB: What was your first guitar and do you still own it?
RJB: Next big question. Why did you choose to play guitar?
PA: Sometimes things choose you. I don’t know that we choose it. When I was a little boy growing it was the popular thing to ask “what do you want to be when you grow up?” back in the late fifties there wasn’t a hell of lot of options. The last thing my parents wanted to hear growing up in Detroit was”I want to be an auto worker.” They wanted something better for me. I saw Elvis Presley on television and I thought,”man now that’s a good job.” The symbol of that guitar I saw Elvis holding was the coolest. I loved the sound of the guitar; of course it was Scotty Moore. Really about eight years old I started my quest for guitar. I told my mom I want to learn guitar and she took me to the East Detroit conservatory of music and the guy said “your too small to learn guitar, we’re gonna put you on Hawaiian guitar, then when you get older you can play guitar.” It was a scam to get my mother’s money, right. They gave me a Gene Autrey Stella with a flip nut that was really high like a Dobro and the guy gave me finger picks and a steel slab not a slide. I played Goodnight Ladies on this guitar for about three weeks on the coffee table. After a while I just put it around my neck and started beating on it. When I was sixteen I said “I’m gonna get a guitar damn it.” I went and got my money out of the bank and walked down to the same place the East Detroit conservatory of music, looked around and saw this gut string guitar. I didn’t know shit about them, fortunately it was German made, so I bought that fifty dollar gut string acoustic and a Bob Dylan song book, that’s how it all started.
RJB: Are you a guitar collector? If so how many do have and what is your favorite?
PA: Well you know I’ve only bought guitars to play. When I moved from the studio to my home I had to downsize which was ok. I had a lot of guitars from touring with Dwight; you had to have two of everything just because of the nature of touring. All my instruments are tools.
RJB: What amps do you use?
PA: I have an old black face pre CBS twin with two EV’s that’s heavier than all get out but a great amp. I have a tone master that Fender made. I‘ve got two Silvertone fourteen eighty nine’s with knobs down the side. One vintage black deluxe that is all beefed up with a bigger transformer and 6L6 in it. On tour I have old vintage line Six pods that go into a tube fifty watt stereo per side power amp made by Steve Fryette. So I run the pods into the stereo amplifier and then I go out into two little one twelve cabinets, one wet, one dry, that is what I use on stage.
RJB: So the other ones are just used in the studio?
PA: I’ve been in the digital world so long that it’s kind of confining with an analog amplifier that I can’t alter per key or per song. I hate to turn around every ten seconds and change the amp.
RJB: Then that is all the pedals and effects you use are to change the pod sounds?
PA: Yeah I don’t use effects per say. I can alter the drive and have it drive harder but not get loader. But we play to a click track and I changed my delay times to the click, and I change my reverb. Other than that when the solo comes I just hit it harder.
RJB: Hit it harder! Now you’re sounding like a drummer.
PA: Yeah I don’t really have to turn up, just hit it harder and do my thing ya know.
PA: Why? Well I had it because I had sonic necessities that I was chasing, I was chasing Holy Grail. I‘ve gotta have a sunburst Tele with a rosewood finger board because they sound the best and I searched and searched. I’ve gotta have a black face pre CBS twin because they sound the best. So that was my thing and then once I established a guitar and amplifier for me personally I didn’t wonder very far. I was only trying to make my stuff sound better and work better.
I think it’s become a boutique industry. And a lot of the boutique guys are making stuff better than the vintage stuff. Acquisition becomes part of that. I’m not sure that acquisition is as big to the majority of professional guys. I think it is more tools, I want the best tools. For me it was “I want my stuff to sound great.” I ‘ve always got my dream of getting this and that set up, but it’s been a long time since I’ve said ‘man I need a 56 Strat.” That’s stuff is way in my past.
Guitar is a unique instrument. If you really distil it down there are only two instruments in the world that you can accompany yourself on; piano and guitar. That’s it. You can’t accompany yourself on the saxophone. Guitar is like playing one handed piano, it’s very unique that you can get up to speed fairly easy and accompany yourself. You could on piano too but it’s hard to drag the piano around to parties and out in the field or in your car. Guitar goes anywhere, guitar is a beautiful instrument it’s a great friend and it’ll stay your friend forever. It’s attractive that way to everybody who wants to play it. Depending on your level of interest you always want to get something that looks better or is better to play or you saw somebody play something and you gotta have it because you think you’ll sound like them.
RJB: The best answer ever. That says it all; your Doctoral thesis on the guitar.
Rick J Bowen