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Guitar Player 7/94

Right-Hand Man Stone Gossard Meets Steve Cropper
by Chris Gill and James Rotondi

"You just witnessed one of the highlights of our lives -- playing with Steve Cropper," proclaims Eddie Vedder from an auditorium stage just outside Nashville. Moments before Pearl Jam, with Cropper on the Tele, had played the classic Cropper/Redding tune "(Sittin On) The Dock Of The Bay" to an audience of mystified but enthralled teens. If Cropper, a 52-year-old veteran of the legendary R&B label, the Blues Brothers, and the now-reunited Booker T. & The MG's, seems an odd compatriot to the multi-platinum upstarts in Pearl Jam, consider this: Both rhythm guitarists Stone Gossard and Vedder credit their experience touring with Neil Young and the MG's in '93 with providing the inspiration Pearl Jam needed to stay together through the tumultuous, often precarious, rise to stardom. "To see some low-key veteran go up there and totally rock and have a good time with each other was a very powerful thing" Stone recalls. "It helped us through some pretty intense times." It wasn't just a personal epiphany. The MG's, described by Pearl Jam lead man Mike McCready as "the greatest band in the world," helped introduce the young ensemble to the world of seasoned grooves, what Stone calls "the amazingly deep Neil/Booker T. pocket." It's a rhythmic consciousness that imbues every track one Pearl Jam's Vs., from the scratchy funk-flavored "Animal" to the dub-core crunch of "Rats."

Though recorded the Young/Pearl Jam tour, Shame, Gossard's woefully ignored Epic album with the side band Brad, cooks with a spare, minimalist funk ethos and melodic spirit that suggests a Seattle-bred, MTV-generation update of Memphis soul. The parallels between Gossard and Cropper don't end there. Both men are self-taught musicians who've created their most meaningful workthrough tight collaboration with players who are also their close friends. Both are behind-the-scenes catalysts, quiet but determined souls who play with a similar mixture of simplicity, space and seriousness. And in a music business where a unspoken segregation often pervades, both have been outspoken supporters of contemporary black music. Gossard is an enthusiastic aficionado of hip hop, while Steve, a fan of more commercial modern R&B like Tevin Campbell, belonged to a racially integrated band in Memphis in the early '60's, a sensitive time and place in the history of American racial politics. Both have first names beginning with "St" and both sport a double consonant in their last names. Both use yellow pick. Hmmm.

During Pearl Jam's recent national tour, and on the eve of the release of That's The Way It Should Be, the first new Booker T. & The MG's album in almost 25 years, we traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to discuss the art of rhythm guitar and the many nuances of groove with two of the seminal guitarists of their respective generations. As Stone, Steve, and the rest of Pearl Jam cranked out Neil's "Rockin' In The Free World" onstage that night, the connections between the old wisdom and the young fire seemed as deep as the pocket that six musicians, regardless of age, pumped out in ecstatic unison. What generation gap?

Q: Don't you guys ever get the urge to solo?

STONE: In my mind I'm soloing the whole time.[Laughs.]I feel as excited about any solo. If the drums are knocking me out and I'm right in the pocket, I fell like I'm playing a lead. The feeling that comes through me is a sense of total power.

STEVE: A lot of people have asked me why I didn't solo more. The only real answer that I keep coming back to is that when I solo I miss my rhythm so much.

STONE: Me, too.

STEVE: If I could be both guys, if I could have a guy that just steps in when I start to solo and lock a nice pattern behind me when I've been playing behind everyone else for an hour, I'd be in heaven!

STONE: See, there is a little resentment. If I only had the rhythm section that I am, it would be all over!

STEVE: That's why it's easy in the studio, because you can keep it going and overdub later. But onstage the bottom falls out. When I'm playing this pattern and locked into it, to stop playing would be like turning the drums off. And if the drummer quits, everybody dies. He's the guy who can't quit. Stone it's good to know you have that problem. I actually feel better, I think.[Laughs.]Steve's still struggling with it, but I can learn that I don't have to struggle with it anymore.

Q: Steve, you've played with a lot of different people. What's the key to working with different personalities?

STEVE: I like to think I'm versatile enough to mix into any situation. I should be able to, I've had enough training.[Laughs.] I've played behind all different types of male and female singers and groups. I've gone from one extreme of playing jungles with 50-piece orchestra to doing Booker T. & The MG's with three other guys. I'm a very commercial guy, I love to listen to the radio. This Ace Of Base is driving me crazy. I can listen to it all day long.

STONE: You're not into the new Snoop Doggy Dogg, though?

STEVE:[Frowns.] I don't think so.

STONE: "Gin And Juice," the baddest groove in years. Lately I don't listen to rap that much but I did when NWA, Public Enemy, and Ice Cube came out. That's probably where I got my funk grooves... My playing is either second generation via Jimmy Page ripping off black artists, or it's rap grooves that are sampled from the '70's and '60's.

Q: Both of you have a great sense of space.

STEVE: Well, my sense of space came from really listening to everybody else instead of being concerned with who I'm going to impress. I'm listening to what the bass player, the drummer, and the singer are doing, trying to learn the song as they run it down. When you're really thinking and listening, you don't have time to play a lot. What you refer to as "spaces" is a hand-to-hand kind of thing. We've always said that it's what you don't play that counts. When you do play, the idea is to be in the right place at the right time. And it seemed to help sell records, at least in the'60's.

Q: You've both played with keyboardists: Steve with Booker T. and Stone with Shawn Smith in the Brad project. What does that teach you about making space?

STONE: There's probably more space on Shame than anything else I've done. Temple Of The Dog has some good space. But there's certainly more room for that sort of growth in the way Pearl Jam writes. We have a tendency to play all the time. Getting in the studio has really helped us, and maybe that's had an effect on Steve too. When you're in there to play and then listen back to what it was you played, rather than just playing clubs every night, you're more conscious of trying to create space and dynamics. That's always a priority for us--whether we've actually achieved it or not has yet to be determined.

Q: Do you play more with the drums or the bass?

STONE: I tend to groove with the drums mostly. The way we play together is strange; I don't think it's typical of rock bands. The dynamic between instruments is unique, if I can use that word.

Q: You're both closet drummers.

STEVE: That happens a lot with guitar players. They love to play drums. Maybe it's that it's doing two things at one time.

Q: Do you ever find yourself imitating drum patters on guitar?

STEVE: Oh sure--horn parts too. I'm aware of several occasion where I would be called in on a date, play the date, then they'd pull my track up and have the horn arranger notate what I did and give it to the horns. I grew up in an era when the bass was as tight as you could get it with the drums. In almost every case the kick drums would make the same hit as the bass. But if you grew up in the last 15 years or so, you grew up in an era when the bass players, Fender-type bass players at least are more or less playing guitar. I mean they're not just playing bottom; they're playing notes all over the place. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not so good. But in terms of recording dates, it leaves a lot of looseness around, instead of that tight groove that was drilled into my head from day one. That's the first thing you'd change on a date. If the bass player wasn't really with the drummer you'd go. "Okay, guys, let's take a break," and you'd sit down with the bass and drums until they worked out a pattern that really clicked. Then you built everything else on top of that.

Q: ow do you go about constructing your rhythm parts?

STEVE: I just play what I feel, so a lot of the time it's tight where the keyboard wants to play. We're just masking each other; one of us needs to do one of the other. Every now and then you listen bad and say, "Whoops--we're having fun, but we've got to separate the sound." That's happened to me a lot. I tend to think in that range. I play a very middle, sort of meaty sound. I learned inversions that twist the voicings around so that you don't have to keep going up the neck in the standard progression. I turn it around, and I'll play a C down low instead of up high so I get that meaty sound. There are ways to split those chords around and voice them differently so I still get that middle-of-the neck chunk.

Q: You tend to incorporate single-note lines into double-stop and tritone riffs.

STEVE: It was bestowed upon me. When I started out doing sessions in the early '60's they couldn't afford another guitar player. So almost every session we did was one guitar, if that. I hear some of the Stax stuff today that doesn't have guitars, and I love it, but I was right there wishing I could play guitar on those cuts rather than producing and doing everything else. Even my own record with the Mar-Kyes, "Last Night," didn't have a guitar on it. I played guitar on those songs onstage, and nobody ever knew the difference--I just doubled the bass line. I developed that style of throwing in a little single-note fill every now and then to weave in and out of the vocal to make it feel more lyrical with the vocal line. But I always jumped right back into the rhythm. I never liked to get away from the rhythm too much. The whole bottom falls out.

STONE: I retain groove more that anything. My body will swing first, then I'll play a riff that swings at the same time as my body does. The riff is almost incidental. If I can get two riffs that go together in a cool way that makes sense, that you wouldn't typically hear, then I've got a song. I probably have tendencies that I'm not aware of, but for me it's definitely just close your eyes, go for something, and if someone looks at you funny, maybe go for something else.[Everyone laughs.] But generally when I do go for something, I'm pretty adamant about keeping it. "That's my part, and that's what I'll be playing for the whole song."

STEVE: I'm sort of that way too. I get locked into something and defy everybody to tell me it's wrong. [Laughs.] I want everybody to build around me.

STONE: We had the luxury of having gone through punk rock, which really showed you that it doesn't matter. As long as you're juicing and grooving, it's okay. A classic example of that is Mudhoney [the Seattle grunge pioneers who's singer Mark Arm and guitarist Steve Turner played with Stone in the band Green River.]. If you see them live and individually pick out everybody's parts and listen to them they're jumping around and the crowd's going crazy. If you're felling it, other people will feel it too. So we play in the same register all the time. [All laugh.]

I've got a lot of years ahead of me to get all that "working things out" bit down. But we're excited about becoming a better band. Watching Neil and MG's play together was a revelation for everyone in Pearl Jam. Everythone's grooving, the bass line is playing on this precise hit of the drums, the guitar is here. There's all this room, but everyone's lines and parts are perfect and have their won space. And that just has to do with everyone being able to swing and weave stuff in and out of that swing. It certainly was inspiring to us, and I think we've written at least three songs that are pretty Neil Young-esque.

Q: Steve, with Otis you occasionally tuned to an open E chord. Are there any other open tunings you've used?

STEVE: No, not me. Everybody else always had that stuff. I just tuned to an E chord. Maybe we did a couple sessions when I tuned to a D chord for a lower, kind of church sound, and put tremolo on it. There are a few songs like that: "Every Ounce Of Strength" by Carla Thomas. Do you mostly play in standard tuning, Stone?

STONE: For the last two records I've had a lot of weird tunings that I made up by tuning the guitar until it sounds cool to me[see "Blood On The Tracks," Jan. '94, and "Alternate Tunings: The New School," Dec.'92], and just play the same chords I always play until something new comes out. But lately I'm getting over it. Watching you not change your guitar all night is like, "That looks great." In our band, everyones's got so many weird idiosyncrasies that we're all changing guitars on every song. But we've been writing differently lately, doing a lot more jamming. Eddie has been writing, and he tends to write in standard tuning. So I'm finding a different niche. I'm leaving more holes. The drums tend to be much straighter these days so the bass can groove easier. It's been a treat for everyone. All of us are gaining wisdom.

Q: Steve, what makes the Telecaster an ideal rhythm instrument?

STEVE: Being able to combine fills and rhythm without having to drastically change your sound or go through a bunch of pedals. If I'm really going to blow out a solo, I've got to have a little help. I'm going to hit a fuzz switch or something to give it a little goose. The Tele's only going to take so much when you do something like that. But you get a lot of distinction with a Tele. When you play a chord you don't hear one sound; you hear individual strings as you hit them. And as you mentioned, I don't hit all six strings. Most of mine are half-muted. I'm usually only playing on four strings--but I hear the tones.

On the other hand, the Tele has its drawbacks, because the way it's designed, it's very hard to keep it intonated and in tune. It just goes out so easy, especially if you're going to use an unwound third string. I still use the unwound third, and I have to adjust it all the time. You can't just move all the way up the neck and have it dead in tune. It's always getting out, and I play pretty hard anyway. But for what I play, sort of in the middle of the neck, it really works.

The guitar I'm playing now is really a Telecopy, the Peavey Generation Series. I can solo on it a lot easier because it's not as stiff as the old Teles and the '50s Esquires, which are great for stage, I seem to have more versatility with the Peavey. But as far as the weight, the body style, and all that, it's still a Telecaster.

STONE: I always wanted a guitar that took up the biggest spectrum of the EQ. I play Les Pauls because Jimmy Page played one and it sounds really meaty. I wanted to do it all. I just started playing one and got real comfortable with it stylistically, playing a lot of bassy riffs, low-E chunk, and pull-off stuff on the low strings. The Les Pauls just sounded good. Everything else was this twang-fest. I'll definitely switch it up. I'm interested in finding new sounds for the new songs, but I still think the Les Paul will be a standard.

Q: Steve, what influences contributed to your distinctive rhythm approach?

STEVE: The first time I heard black gospel in Memphis, it was like, "What is this?" I mean, I grew up in a church that had an a cappella choir and all that sort of stuff, so I knew about church music. But to hear this more sanctified groove really inspired me. So the gospel influence came before the rock and roll influence, which came from people like Little Richard and Chuck Berry. But I never actually set out to copy anybody. That's probably why I'm still closer to rhythm than anything else. Back then, guys were mostly trying to cop Chet Atkins or B.B. King licks. They were more into soloing than rhythm.

I learned a lot from Scotty Moore. Teenie Hodges is a great session guitar player--he played on all that Hi Records stuff with Al Green. There was a guy that we all got a little influence from named Clarence Nelson. A lot of people don't know much about him, but he did a lot of stuff in Memphis. He had a neat way of feeling the rhythms. Reggie Young is a super session player; he plays the fills and the rhythm--songs like "Drift Away: and "Memphis Soul Stew." Nowadays it's guys like The Edge. T remember B.B. King one night said he thought Edge was one of the greatest rhythm guitar players alive.

STONE: He's got a deep pocket. He can play guitar and piano at the same time too, which is a pretty bitchin' trick. We saw him live and he would play the guitar part, turn his guitar off, end on the one with no feedback, and go into this funky piano line. Then he'd come back out, and his guitar never squealed. I don't know how he did it!

Q: Stone, you've never really been interested in playing screechy leads.

STONE: Well, I was interested. I think "incapable" is the term. [Laughs.]

Q: Were you inspired by proto-punk players like Johnny Thunders?

STONE: Johnny Thunders was pretty inspiring--punk rock in general. I was weaned on '70s rock like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Boston, Queen--all the stuff on the radio. I was late listening to punk rock. I got my punk influence more from seeing local bands who were influenced by it. It was all loud guitars. None of those guys could really play. I was around 16-years-old, and I said, "I'm going to get a guitar and start a band right off the bat." That's how you did it. There was no training or anything. You got right into it.

Players like Johnny Thunders were incredibly inspiring because they played these[intimidates primal punk guitar riff]. They were just bad-ass. What they were singing about, their image, and what they represented said, "You don't need to be Tom Scholz to be in a band." That's why punk is so great: It inspired a lot of people to pick up guitars. It was what it must have been like when rock happened the first time. There was no precedent of these phenomenal, technical players. It was all about the groove, dancing, and having a good time. Punk rock was the key to me feeling comfortable going out and saying, "I can do that."

STEVE: If I was coming up today, and my competition was someone like Steve Vai or Yngwie, I'd probably have to take up tambourine. Thank God I already had a career when those guys came around.

STONE: But are players like that influencing a generation? Not really. Steve Vai is an amazing musician who will always have a niche as an eclectic, wild player, but I think bands are the things that truly change people's attitudes -- people working together.

Part of the reason you love a band is that it's a group of friends that are playing together fpr a reason that's more than rock licks or ego. The combination of talented, artistic people is what creates this synthesis, something really brand-new. Certainly there are very original, individual solo artist, but compared to being in a band with other equally talented individuals, it's just never going to be as original. You'll always hear the influences more obviously in the final output. Originality comes from this collaboration of souls. The band makes music for people, not just musicians.

STEVE: I have experienced that music that's played from the heart and not necessarily from the brain tends to last a lot longer and have more millage.

STONE: Maybe it's the horse before the cart. People who play from the heart tend to be in bands because they want to play with their friends. Maybe it's not because they're in bands, but it's a by-product of that. Knowing that you and Duck have played together for as long as you have is proof of that. When we saw you guys playing together, still grooving and having a good time, that was incredible. Neil Young, the Grateful Dead, all these bands have lasted though the dark ages of rack when we weren't quite sure whether rock was really suck a great thing, in the '70s or '80s, where it became less important, or at least less spiritual. To see you guys having lasted through, we could all look back and go, "God, these guys knew the whole time what it was about."

STEVE: Neil came back one night after we'd been out for a few weeks and said, "I've got to tell you guys, I really feel like a member of the band. I'm having a ball." That was good for all of us to hear. When we got into it, we were all working together--it wasn't just us backing Neil. It felt like a unit.