by Paul Guy
Interview for FUZZ # 2/99
© Paul Guy 1999
Official Steve Cropper website
What are you working on right now?
- Really not a whole lot! Ive done everything, everything is out there, Im just laying low, Im not doing any writing or producing or anything at this moment. Were getting ready for Thanksgiving, and after that were off to Spain and Portugal, then Switzerland and Finland and Norway for a little ten day tour.
So youre doing Finland and Norway, but not Sweden - what a shame. I havent seen you play since the first time you came to England - with the Stax tour, was that 66?
- 67. April and May of 67.
I saw the show at the Kilburn State Theatre in London - all us white boys in England at that time trying to be soul musicians, we were all so pleased to see that Booker T. and the M.G.s had a white guitar player and a white bass player! All wed ever seen was Booker T. on the album cover behind the Hammond with this big grin, we thought you were all black! So you really gave us the confidence to carry on playing blues and soul, people used to say that white people couldnt cut it.
- (Laughs) Yeah, exactly, they told me that forever. Id go to the gigs, and Id be yelled at - Youre not Steve Cropper! But after the show theyd apologise... (Laughs)
What made you choose the guitar as an instrument?
- (Long pause) Oh, thats a good question. I just - from watching people, Chet Atkins, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy, Elvis, everybody had one. Id played around with piano a little bit, but that just didnt seem like what I wanted to do. Guitar was just a little more versatile, and you could carry it everywhere. I wasnt real big on learning music real good, I liked to play more, it was more of a self-taught kind of thing.
Who are your personal favourite guitarists?
- Ive got to go back to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley - there was a guy with the 5 Royales named Lowman Pauling, he was my absolute favourite. Hes where I got those kind of flashy stabbing licks from, those little quick in and out licks. I guess he was the leader of the 5 Royales - they did Dedicated To The One I Love. And also the guy that played with Bill Doggett, Billy Butler. I loved his guitar playing - Honky Tonk, and Big Boy, and a bunch of those other things. He was a great player - Bill Doggett had several players, but I liked Billy Butler best.
Youve never really played as a solo guitarist, have you.
- Not really, no. Just a solo here and there, although you cant hear it! (Laughs)
Ive always thought that the rhythm guitar is almost more important than the solo guitar.
- Well I think probably what separated me from the rest of them, most of the Stax stuff, the songs that were hits that most people recognise and remember, there was only one guitar on there, and it was real apparent that there was only one guitar on there, there wasnt other guitars on there and covering it up and all that, so it brought it a little more to the front. So when I did do a fill or a lick, you could actually hear it, you know. I get called on sessions today, theyve got four other guitars on the session, I said, What do they need me for? (Laughs)
Well, probably none of the others can play rhythm, cause everybody always seems to want to play solos!
- Thats right, theyve brought four or five other guys on to bury it.
Recording must have been very very different back then.
- It was pretty much of a one-shot deal at Stax, cause we didnt have the money to buy a three-track or some of these other fancy machines, they were out, and built, but not too many people had them. Atlantic had one of the first eight-tracks - I think Sun had one of the first three-tracks, and thats how they were able to get that echo on the Elvis and Jerry Lee records, just by throwing it back through and letting it slap, getting it phasing against itself. We later went to a four-track, and started advancing on our capabilities and the technical side of things. Most all of the original stuff, Green Onions and all the earlier Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett and Rufus Thomas stuff was all cut in mono. So it had to be done in the studio, during the day, with everybody ready to go, and it had to be right. You could edit takes together, if you had a fade-out that was better than another one, or an intro better, you could do that and piece them together, but that didnt happen too often. Its a good thing we had Al Jackson!
Yeah, he was solid, wasnt he!
- Yes he was. He was amazing.
Is he still with us?
- No, unfortunately. He was murdered in his home in 1974. Als been gone a long time.
Oh, wow,thats really sad. Id completely missed that.
- It was just too bad, we were just getting ready to make another album, we had not made an album since 69 - the Melting Pot album that came out in 1970. We had a long dry spell there. So we finally sat down, our manager finally called every body and said Hey guys, this is crazy, why dont you sit down in a room and talk this out? So we all had a meeting out in California, we sat down and decided wed give about three months to wrap up all of our writing and producing projects, and spend time working on Booker T. and the MGs, we said well give it three years, if weve done anything well continue and talk about it then, if not this would be the last time. But we never got the chance to do that.
When it comes to songwriting, do you have any particular approach?
- Well there are two ways I do it - basically one is that I start with a title, if Im writing a song with lyrics. I like to come up with a title that pretty much says it, and then you just write about it. You just embellish on the title. The other way, if Im writing an instrumental, I just start working on the groove and a little bit of the melody, and try to carry that out, and find if its going to go to the bridge or whatever. And then I just bring that forward, and seldom ever do we title instrumentals till theyre finished. And then we try to think, well, what does it remind us of. Thats usually the way we title them.
I guess thats how Green Onions came about, then.
- Yeah, I sort of liked that! We had it cut, and we were listening to it, and somebody said, Man, that is stinky! So I said, What are we going to name it? Whats stinky? Well, how about onions, onions are stinky. And I just sort of said,Yeah, I like onions, but onions is kind of a negative, theyre so stinky, but *green* onions, people put them on their plate and eat them! And they said, Yeah, youre right, Green Onions sounds better. So thats what we went with. Stinkin green onions. (Laughs) Somebody suggested Wild Onions, but I just said no, I dont think Wild Onions sounds as good. Actually, I think somebody put one out called Wild Onions, a copy kind of thing.
Its still a great track even today.
- You know, Booker said one day, we were up in New York doing a sound check, and he got through and he turned to Duck and said, You know, Ill never get tired of playing that song. That kind of says something. Theres a lot of artists, theyre really sick of their hit, theyd rather be doing anything but play their hit one more time, but we dont have that problem.
Youve got a solo album out now, havent you?
- Its a compilation of stuff that I wrote and played on, mainly the hits - its all the ones you know. Of course Green Onions is on there, and youve got Knock On Wood, 6-3-4-5-7-8-9, Sookie Sookie, 99-1/2... What else have I got in there? Youve got Soul Man... Oh, I cant remember right now, but its about 16 songs. It sounds good, its all been digitally remastered, it really does sound good. And then we have a companion, the one that comes with it - you can buy both, or you can buy them as singles - its the same lineup, and I talk about how the songs were recorded, what we did the day we recorded them and how we wrote them the night before, and a little something about them.
Im looking forward to hearing that! All this modern studio technology, do you think there are any negative sides with it?
- Well, you know, Im an old... (laughs) Being an old analog audio engineer, it does. It bothers me, but what we do, we work around it a lot... I like the fact that you can get more presence on things, but when that digital thing just sort of filters out all the nice wavy distortion, and natural distortions, and just squares the wave up and makes it real clean - what we do, when we get ready to do the final mix we take it and compress it back through some tube compressors. And that really helps warm it back up again, it sort of meshes the signals back together somehow. It does in fact warm it up a bit - everybodys doing it. If youve got a good mastering man he can really do a good number with it.
You were saying that Green Onions and everything was done straight to mono, everyone had to play together - do you think you lose some of the spontaneity when everything is laid down one track at a time?
- Well - I think you lose a lot of the emotional energy. I call it overkill - by the time youve done it so many times and all that, youve just made it sterile. Youve literally made it very sterile. But then these young guys, they put a lot of their heavy drums behind that to boost it back up, so somehow they come up with a formula that works, it gets people moving. But I think just like everybody else, theres new equipment thats better, especially theres some new mikes that really work for acoustic guitars and electric guitars, they just make them sing. Theyve really got some up-front presence, a good thick sound. Theres a lot of EQ stuff - theres one called a Manalee(?) that I used on Joe Louis Walker, and it really works well.
Theres a real good sound on that album.
- I used it on Buddy Guy, on his thing too, it just brings it right up there. Cause hes just screaming anyway, but it kind of warms him out. I like Buddy - hes fun, but hes on full bore, man - hes just like, put it on eleven and go!
Buddys a great guy. Hes so humble!
- He really is. Hes a really really humble guy.
I met Jonny Lang a couple of weeks ago.
- Oh, good! I havent heard the album yet, but I heard the video, it sounds really good.
I didnt have any sleeve notes when I first put that album on. it was a promo copy, but the first thing I said was, Is that Steve Cropper playing rhythm there?
- (Laughs) Yeah, and Buddy, too... Aint No Midnight Train, thats got a pretty neat little rhythm lick on it (sings), we were pumping it up loud in the studio. (Laughs)
What advice would you give to young players who want to learn to play rhythm guitar?
- (Pauses) - Wow, thats a toughie, because thats asking them to step backwards, thats almost like being the water boy! Ive preached it for a long time, but there aint nothing like being the main guy, standing out there in front. It was just, I liked not to do that - course I cant sing that good anyway, if I could maybe I would have taken another approach. I can sing, every now and then, but I cant do it for 90 minutes. Thats my big problem! (Laughs)
Tell me about your Peavey signature model guitar.
- If you like Telecasters, if you like that form of the old, good solid Telecasters that arent too heavy - I always liked the ones with the light swamp ash bodies, and the rosewood fingerboard - and that neck, we spent a lot of time trying to get that neck just right. Its a little more of a half-moon, but its not too fat. It has just a little bit of a curve on the fretboard, its not completely flat, just to make it more comfortable. It feels really good - Ive had a lot of people play it, and they always say, Wow, I had no idea this guitar was that good! Its got a little design on it, where you can play a little higher up on the neck - where the neck joins the body weve put in this little aluminum plate and set it in there, and it really tightens and strengthens it. Ive always been - you get these guitars from Fender and everybody, and I guess the wood hasnt aged, and theyre trying to make the necks a little skinny, and you can just barely touch the end of the neck, and you can pull the strings right down against the fretboard. And I play really hard, because I play rhythm - I need to beat on the guitar every now and then! So I have to have that high action so I can play it without that neck bending, I want it to feel good, but I also want it to be solid. I think thats the thing. Weve done a little contouring so you dont get poked in the ribs too much like the old Telecasters, weve kind of 45 degree bevelled the edges. So it makes it really comfortable to play, and everything is right there in your hands. We like what weve got, but we are thinking about putting out an alternative model with a different pickup setup. Theyve got those Hot Rails in there, and theyre just too hot for me, cause I like a cleaner sound cause I like to play rhythm. But rocknrollers, they like to fuzz it up, and thats got the perfect pickups in there! If theres been any negative reactions, some of the guys who are a little more cleaner players would like to see a different pickup setup. Now what I play, I play the active pickups from the old Generation series, and those work just perfect for me. Thats about it - Im still a Fender man at heart, in terms of Leo Fenders Telecaster that he built, I have several - but I think weve streamlined this one. Course youre allowed to do that these days, in the patent world you can get away with some things that you couldnt twenty years ago. Thats where it kind of came from, I think well probably stick with it, cause its so good. I dont see any real need to design another one - we may come out with some wood options, maybe some more customising options, and plus the pickup options. We may start that next spring. Im going to go out and do a litle mini tour, starting after the first of the year, going out to some of the outlets and maybe doing some kind of a talk clinic, not so much playing but talking about the guitar, why we did what we did, showing some of its versatilities and that sort of thing.
What gauge strings do you use?
- Im still using Ernie Ball Slinkies, the green packet with the black writing - 010 through 046.
What about amplifiers?
- (Laughs) Well, Im still using a Fender The Twin, the one they came out with several years ago that they have now discontinued. I like that amp, it works for what I am doing. It gives me the old thick Stax sound and I really go with that. Not too many other amplifiers match with that configuration. Now weve got one that Hartley (Peavey) put together for me that is a great amp, but is a big, big outdoor theatre amp. Its a modified Eddie Van Halen 5150, and they built me a big 2 x 15 inch woofer cabinet. It is just great. Now this is the time when we had just come off the road with Neil Young, and I had a great setup with Neil Young. I was using an old Webb amp, which is basically a steel guitar amp - its like a 150 watt amp. And we warmed it up on the bottom with one of the little Fenders, just to get some warmth out of it, because the Webb is a solid state amp. So I took that down to Peavey and we started listening to the sounds, and he said, What youre really into, you like the old Altec big speaker, and I said, Thats exactly what I like! So he went and got one, and come in and found out that they had, without him really knowing it, redesigned it and shortened the cone, so that they could make the cabinet thinner - it changed the whole sound! And he went, Whoah, wait a minute, this aint right! When did they do this? And he told me, man, heads were rolling after I left down there! So anyway, they got the old speakers, and they redesigned the cabinet, and piggybacked it with this 5150, and God, is it incredible. But I havent had a big tour to go out and use that. The Blues Brothers is kind of a little bit more low key, we kind of meld as a band. But if I was out with Neil, we like to pump it up and get loud, get that Pearl Jam sound and all that, its perfect for that.
Do you use The Twin in the studio?
- Sometimes I still use my old Quad Reverb - I still use an old Fender Harvard with one ten-inch speaker sometimes, you can hear it on all the old Otis Redding stuff - its got a volume and a tone control, and thats it. It works great for studios. I used to use it - when we didnt have PAs, when we were in college playing, I used to put a Green Bullet (mike) in it and set it on a chair and sing through it! (Laughs) And that was our PA... And one day I said, I wonder what this thing would sound like playing the guitar through it, and man, so I took it down to the studio, and they all fell in love with it. It almost sounded like it had paper in it, it had this natural rich fuzz. I used it on a lot of albums. So every now and then Ill pull it out on a ballad or something. Ive got a Roland too, the new Roland Blues Cube that they gave me to try that is a real good amp, Ive used it a lot. So I mix it around quite a bit.
Youre not a tube snob, then.
- No, not at all.
Do you ever use any effects on the guitar at all?
- Very little. We try em every now and then. A little bit of fuzz, or sometimes a bit of waving, chorus sound, but very little. I used to use a noise gate, but with the new guitar there is no noise, so I dont need that anymore. Back in the 70s when we did that One More album we were trying to get cute and I used an Echoplex on some of the Booker T songs. And everybody liked it, but I got tired of carrying it on the road!
Have you tried the Buzz Feiten Tuning System at all?
- Ive seen that in action on an acoustic guitar, and it really keeps the acoustic guitar in tune, its great.
Have you ever had any real problems with tuning on guitars?
- Well, Ive always said that you cant really tune a Telecaster! Its almost impossible. No matter how you adjust the bridge and all that, its really difficult to get it in tune.
I read somewhere that a lot of Nashville players leave certain notes out of chords, because they cant get them in tune.
- Its true, yeah. (Laughs)
© Paul Guy 1999