Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features guitarist Steve Hunter.
In May 2011, guitarist Steve Hunter walked onstage with Alice Cooper to kick off a seven-month world tour when he was hit with an overpowering sense of déjà vu. “I felt like I’d gone through a wormhole,” he says. “Here we were, a couple of old guys playing ‘I’m Eighteen’ just like we did almost 40 years earlier. It was Twilight Zone time.”
Hunter’s long history with Alice Cooper goes back to 1973 when producer Bob Ezrin brought him into the studio to play on Billion Dollar Babies. The guitarist also played a pivotal role in the creation of Lou Reed’s Berlin and Peter Gabriel’s solo debut (that’s him playing the iconic acoustic guitar intro to “Solsbury Hill”), and he’s toured with Meat Loaf, Tracy Chapman, Mitch Ryder, and many other icons.
We called up Hunter at his home in Spain to talk about his incredible career, his rough times in the Eighties, and the vision problems that forced him off the road a few years back.
What music did you first connect with as a child?
For some reason or another, I think I was aware of music very, very young. My dad had one of those Zenith consoles you could play 78s on and it had an FM radio. It was one of those old ones from the Forties. He’d put 78s on and I’d just be fascinated by what was coming out of the speakers.
When I went to kindergarten, I had the most wonderful teacher. She used to sit down at the piano and play stuff for us every day. I was completely mesmerized by the fact that someone could do that. She was very musical. One day, she even played us “Peter and the Wolf” by Sergei Prokofiev. She explained to us how the different instruments were different characters in the story. It just blew me away.
Who were the first pop artists you heard on the radio that really captured your imagination?
As life moved on and I got into playing guitar, the first guitar player I really heard that really moved me was Chet Atkins. I was completely amazed by what he could do on guitar with Travis picking. I didn’t know what any of that was, but it just seemed like he made an orchestral instrument out of a guitar. It was pretty amazing.
When I started listening to more pop stuff, I think the first single I heard was one by Duane Eddy, which was “Rebel Rouser.” I was like, “Wow, the guitar is a pretty cool instrument. You can make all kinds of wonderful stuff with it.”
Then there was “Sleep Walk” by Santo & Johnny. That was a real key one for me because I was learning how to play lap steel at the time and it was the only single that was successful on lap steel. As you know, it’s a classic song that’s been done a million times. With all these things, I just heard guitar coming out of everywhere.
As a teenager, did you see any great concerts that really inspired you?
I didn’t really get a chance to see anyone play. The only person I saw play up until I was 18 or so was a lap-steel player by the name of Jerry Byrd. He was a very, very famous lap-steel player. He played on Hank Snow records and he was doing all the Nashville stuff. Before pedal steel was invented, he was just this brilliant lap-steel player. I got to see him live and he blew me away as a little kid. I was like, “Oh, wow. This guy is amazing.”
But I didn’t really get to see a lot. That’s the drag. I kind of grew up in the Midwest in a pretty small town of Illinois called Decatur. It was difficult, at that time, to get to a venue where you could see someone more prominent, like Chuck Berry or someone like that. It was hard for me to get to Chicago or St. Louis. It was like a four-hour drive. I never really got a chance to see anybody at a venue where they’d play. Nobody ever played my hometown. It was horrible.
How old were you when you realized you wanted to do this as a career?
That’s an interesting question, since I was drafted into the military in 1968. It was during the Vietnam War, during the Tet Offensive when the North Vietnamese army decided they were going to do one big, major push to get to Saigon. It was very bloody. They didn’t make it, of course. Everybody fought back, the Americans and the South Vietnamese. But I ended up getting drafted anyway with a huge pile of other guys.
I became an X-ray technician. They put me in X-ray school and I was stationed in Okinawa and worked in the air-evac hospital as an X-ray tech. During my time there in 1969, they had an all-military talent contest. I was invited to go for it and see whether I could win anything or not. Someone told me there was a solo instrumentalist category. I thought, “Well, OK — I’ve got nothing to lose,” and I took a shot.
I got a couple of guys together and we just did a blues tune. I just remember when I walked off the stage, the applause and the cheering and stuff that I heard completely turned me around. There were a whole bunch of black guys in the front row that when they heard I was going to do a blues tune, kind of booed me because I was a white guy and I was going to do a blues tune. They got really kind of raucous about it. They got kind of mad at me.
After I did my song, they were cheering. That had such an impact on me that by the time I made it offstage, I knew at that precise moment that I wanted to be a professional guitar player. It was one of those huge “a-ha!” moments.
How did you wind up playing with Mitch Ryder in 1970?
After I got out of the army, which was in January 1970, I joined various bands in Decatur because I knew I had to be out there playing. That’s how I was going to learn my craft. There was no real teaching, nothing like there was today, so a lot of the stuff I learned was off records and just playing.
I was in a bunch of different bands around Decatur and I met a guy named John Sauter, this terrific bass player. We played together in a couple of different situations and just jammed. I got a call from him one day and he says, “Hey Steve. You should get in a car and come up here to Detroit. I’m playing with Mitch Ryder and they’re looking for guitar players. You should come up and audition.”
Literally the next day I threw my guitar in the car and I drove about six or seven hours to Detroit and auditioned. The funny thing is, it was the first time I actually saw a Marshall half stack in person. I had seen pictures with Jimi Hendrix and Clapton and all that, but I’d never seen one in the flesh. I plugged into that thing and it just sounded like the God of all amplifiers. I was completely blown away at how good it sounded.
I didn’t know any of Mitch’s tunes at the time, so we just jammed on Cream tunes. I think the first thing we jammed on was “Crossroads” because everyone knew “Crossroads.” It was so unreal to me how great the Marshall sounded and how great the band was with John Sauter, and the drummer’s name was Johnny Badanjek. I couldn’t believe how good the people were. It was heavenly. It was almost like, “If I don’t get the gig, OK. But I got to play through a Marshall.” [Laughs] I was thrilled with that alone. That was enough of a thrill, but I wound up getting the gig.
During the making of the Detroit record, you met Bob Ezrin. That was life changing for you.
That was totally life changing. Bob loved my playing. When we got in the studio, I was so naive that I didn’t even know what a producer was. I thought he was the engineer, or something. Then I realized what he does. He’s the coordinator and the guy that does arrangements and tries to get everything on tape that sounds good. I learned what his job was and I really liked what he did. I loved his arrangement ideas and how he put songs together and all that stuff.
He and I got along from the get-go. We got along really, really well. From that moment on, I did so much work with Bob that it was ridiculous.
Let’s flash forward to Lou Reed’s Berlin. Did you know much about Lou before getting involved with that?
I knew a tiny, little bit about the Velvet Underground. But I knew more about, like everyone else, “Walk on the Wild Side.” When I heard that, I was like, “This guy has to be one of the coolest guys on the planet.” That was just from the lyrics alone. The lyrics on that track are just unbelievable.
I got into him a little more after that. I listened to some Velvet Underground things, but I never even thought I’d ever meet him, let alone work with him. It was really exciting when Bob said, “We’re going to do an album together.”
It’s interesting that Lou was coming off a giant commercial album with Transformer and big radio hit with “Walk on the Wild Side,” but he clearly wasn’t trying to repeat any of that with Berlin.
What Bob and Lou both really discovered was that Lou wanted to do a really art record. It was an art record with a story about two people — something happens to them and what goes on in their lives and all that sort of thing. I think Lou had that story in him for a long time and I think Bob encouraged him.
When we started working on that album, that album became my album. I fell in love with that album. I thought it was the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard in my life. Remember, we recorded the songs out of sequence since we were just recording them as needed. I didn’t get the whole storyline until the end of the record. Each song, the lyrics of each one, just completely blew me away. I thought, “This man is a genius.” I was hurt as much as he was when the album didn’t do well. Critics didn’t like it.
I think everyone wanted Transformer Part II.
You’re absolutely right. Another hit. Listen, I understand the record business. I figured out that much. It makes sense. But what he put out was the most incredible piece of work I’d ever heard.
Tell me about the tour.
When the album was finished, I wanted to go out and play those songs. But the response was so weird that we didn’t really know how to approach the album to tour the album. It ended up just being a Lou Reed tour. We did some Velvet Underground things and we did a couple of things off Transformer and a few things off of Berlin. It really became sort of a Lou Reed tour. Of course, it was a blast. I loved it.
I love Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. Tell me about the “Sweet Jane” intro that you wrote for it.
I started working on that when I was still working with Mitch Ryder on Detroit. [Brett] Tuggle and I were sitting in the living room of our house. I had an acoustic guitar and I started working on it. He asked me, “What is that?” I said, “I don’t know, something that I’m noodling around with.”
I started working on it then and went through various permutations. I had tried it with a couple of different bands, but it never quite sounded right to me. I thought, “This is probably one of those songs that’s maybe a nice chord progression, but it’s not really going anywhere. It’s not doing anything.”
When we got to Lou Reed rehearsals for the tour, Lou’s management said we needed something to start the show with so Lou could come out onstage, maybe some sort of a jam thing. We tried a bunch of different things in rehearsal. I finally said, “Listen, guys, I got this one thing. Maybe we can take part of it or something.”
I showed them the piece and this band played it. It was the best I ever heard it. Lou liked it and we ended up using it on the European tour and obviously the American tour because it’s on the album. I wrote the chord structures and the harmony lines at the beginning. Basically, everybody sort of improvised their own part. I just soloed over it and they were coming up with such beautiful stuff. It was like, “Wow, this has turned into something cool.”
Tell me about going from Lou Reed to Alice Cooper. Billion Dollar Babies is a very different album from Berlin, to put it mildly.
Oh, yeah. It sure was. For Billion Dollar Babies, Bob called me up and asked me to come to New York to do some overdubs on it. When I got to the studio, the first thing I hear is a song called “Sick Things.” I thought, “Oh, my God, what am I supposed to play on this?” He said, “We just want you to play some blues at the ending.”
When I did that, I was really amazed at how well it worked with this Alice Cooper song. I didn’t know what to expect. Again, this was another album that was really brilliant. I wound up playing on five other tracks. Each one I did was even better than the one before. I was amazed at how good that record was. Again, a lot of great songs. Bob had put them together so brilliantly. It was a great record and a lot of fun to play on.
Tell me about the tour. I imagine that was very different than the Lou Reed tour.
The first tour I did was after the Welcome to My Nightmare album. That was, of course, one of the most amazing experiences of my life because that was playing huge venues that were sold out. I had never seen a 40,000 seater full. I’m standing onstage seeing that. That really blew me away. That tour was top drawer. It was, “We’re going to go out there and do the best show ever.” We tried to do that every night. There was great stuff. Alice was brilliant. It was one of those things were it was just a blast to go out every night.
That was a big production with costumes and lights and dry ice …
It was. It was fun, though. You get onstage and you could smell the dry ice. Every time I smell that now, I think of those shows.
What’s funny is that people picture Alice as this creepy, weird guy, but he’s super sweet and normal.
I hear that all the time. Back in the early days, people would say, “What’s it like working with Alice? He must be really weird.” I’d be like, “No, he’s the nicest guy in the world. He plays golf. He’s like Ricky Nelson.”
I’m a huge Peter Gabriel fan. Tell me about working on his first solo record. That’s a really key moment in his history.
I feel bad saying this, but I didn’t know much about Peter when I got the call to work on the album. I knew he was the lead singer of Genesis, but I hadn’t heard much Genesis. I actually felt kind of bad because I didn’t know who he was. But when we sat down to learn the first song and he sat down and played piano I thought, “Oh, boy, this guy is way cool.”
Each song we did just got cooler. There was so much substance in the way he wrote, like Lou. There was so much substance. It was like every song became this little journey everyone had to take. And I learned so much from these sessions. I could never go to school and learn it all. I learned it all from on the job training.
What I love about Peter Gabriel I is that every song is so different. “Here Comes the Flood” sounds nothing like “Modern Love” or “Humdrum.” He was experimenting and showing all of his sides.
That’s what we all loved about him. We never knew what the next song was going to be like. As a musician, I just live for that. It gives you this thrill like, “Oh, my God, what am I going to come up with? I need to come up with something. I’m the guitar player. I gotta come up with something.” I love that challenge. That challenge fires me up every time it happens.
Tell me about the “Solsbury Hill” acoustic guitar intro you played.
The interesting thing about “Solsbury Hill” is that it was the last song we did on the album, the last song we recorded. Peter was having some trouble with one of the lines in the lyric. Bob and Peter both didn’t like the line, and Peter was trying to come up with a new one. Peter would come in and they would talk about it. I almost got the feeling we weren’t going to do the song. I hadn’t even heard the song. I just heard the title.
All of a sudden, Bob said, “We’re going to do ‘Solsbury Hill.'” Now I’ve got to learn how to play it and I don’t know what to expect. I go into Bob’s office and he’s got a piano there. Peter sits down and starts playing the song. I go, “Oh, cool. It’s a beautiful song.”
But then I realize it’s an odd time signature. At the time, I had never played anything in 7. I had played a couple of things in 5, but I had never played in 7. I was petrified, like, “Oh, my God, I’m going to have to sit and count every beat so I don’t get lost.”
Bob said, “We’re thinking about an acoustic guitar and having a Travis picking-type thing.” Then I had to figure out how to play Travis picking in 7. But the song is so extremely well-written that doing that wasn’t difficult at all. The song just lays on the fret board perfectly. What’s funny is he wrote it on piano, but it transfers so well on guitar for that Travis-picking thing.
I think that Robert Fripp had already gone back to London. He had some sessions to do. Our New York guys were going to go back the next day. They had some sessions to do. So the last night of our recording basic tracks, we recorded “Solsbury Hill.” I recorded three acoustic guitar parts. One was in tune. One was slightly flat. One was slightly sharp. You put them all together, they have this beautiful chorusing effect. That’s how I did the acoustic part. Then I played some heavier part on the end.
The tour must have been exciting. Peter was so eager to establish himself as someone different than the lead singer of Genesis.
Yeah. What I wanted to do as a musician was play as many different things in as many different environments as I could. That’s how I learn different techniques and stuff. Going out on the road with Peter was like, “Oh, man. I gotta do this.” I didn’t even think about it. His manager asked if I wanted to go on the road and I was like, “Yeah, of course.”
Your tenure in his band was just a few months.
It was just the first tour because I then went out with Alice Cooper. There were other things that were going on. Peter was kind of experimenting with music and musicians, too. I think he was trying different guys out. It was all good, creative stuff. Peter and I are still good friends. I just saw him with Sting in America. That was an amazing tour.
Going back a couple of years, tell me how you wound up playing on Aerosmith’s “Train Kept-A Rollin’.”
Well, that’s another thing that is hard for me to answer. I was sitting in the lobby of the Record Plant in New York, having a cigarette. Bob Ezrin and I were going to do some overdubs in Studio A. But Bob had to do a very critical edit on two-inch tape. The best thing you can do when he has to do that is leave him alone because he’s got to cut tape. It’s tedious and very nerve-racking and it’s easy to mess up the tape.
I got out of the room and let him do his edits. I was sitting in the lobby and right across from me in the lobby is Studio B and Jack Douglas sticks his head out and he said, “Do you feel like playing?” I said, “Yeah. I’d rather play than sit here.” He said, “Let me talk to Bob.” He asked if it was OK to borrow me for a few minutes.
Bob said “yes” and Jack grabbed this old tweed Twin, which was my favorite amp. I went into Studio B and there was Aerosmith. They were all there. I met all of them. They were very nice guys, kind of quiet, but nice. I went into the studio, plugged my guitar in, got it tuned up, and put the headphones on.
He runs a pass. I thought he was just checking the guitar tone, preparing for me to record, but he goes, “That’s the right idea, but you’re kind of stepping on the vocals.” I said, “I don’t hear the vocals in the headphones.” He goes, “Sorry. I’ll turn them up.” He turned them up and I did another pass, just played. He goes, “That’s it. I love it. You’re done.” I thought, “OK.”
This is a band with two guitar players. Why didn’t one of them do it?
I have no idea. I heard all sorts of horrible things, but it didn’t seem like that’s what it was. It seemed, to me, that Joe [Perry] and Brad [Whitford] had been working all day long. They had sort of a deadline. They had to finish everything on this particular day and start mixing the next day because the label was getting a little irritated. They were behind schedule. They were just beat. They just played and played all day, and stuff wasn’t coming out. That’s happened to me. It happens to everybody. Jack said, “Let’s try Hunter. He’s here.”
Tell me about the 1982 European tour with Meat Loaf.
I got a call. This is what happens to guys like me and Tuggle and [Gregg] Bissonette. You’re sitting watching TV and the phone rings. They go, “Are you doing anything right now? We need someone to play guitar for us on a tour.” [Laughs] You go, “Oh, yeah. OK. Who is it? Meat Loaf? OK. Can you send me the records and tell me what tunes to learn?”
That was basically it. It was out of the blue. I think Shep Gordon called me. He knew Meat Loaf’s manager. Shep said, “Would you like to tour with Meat Loaf?” I said, “Yeah, sure. No problem.” He put me in touch with Meat Loaf’s manager. We talked and he told me what songs to learn and he sent me the songs. Next thing I know, I’m out in Connecticut rehearsing the tour.
It was an interesting time for him. He had fallen off in the States, but he still had this big European following.
Oh, my God. I think we had to add two shows to that tour because it sold out so fast that there were people really mad they didn’t get tickets. He was incredibly popular in Europe. It was unreal.
He had so much stage presence.
Oh, yeah. It sort of fit along with the other stuff I had done in that it was entirely different. I had never done anything quite like this stuff. His stuff was much more theatrical, but still really hard rock & roll. It was great, but a different way of doing it.
It was with a pretty different band. There was another guitar player, this guy named Mark Doyle. There were two keyboard players and three background singers, bass player and drummer. It was a big band and a different thing for me.
Did things feel different in the Eighties when drum machines and synthesizers and MTV came around? Did it get harder to find work?
Yeah. To tell you the truth, that’s exactly right. There was a time in the Eighties where I was almost hopeless. I could not get arrested with a guitar. I could not get any work at all. It was like the kind of guitar playing that I did, literally overnight no one wanted anymore. It was horrible. It was painful. I lost a house. It was one of the most painful times in my career. I could not get work.
To give you an example, I got a call one time to do a session. This was in the early Eighties. I went in there and the producer … I don’t remember his name, but I probably wouldn’t say it anyways. But he said, “Yeah, man, I’ve always loved your playing. We have a solo in this one tune and I’d really like you to play a guitar solo.” I said, “Great, that’s wonderful.”
And so I listened to the track and was like, “OK, I’m not sure what he’s going to want.” I said, “What do you want exactly?” He said, “Don’t worry about that. Just go out there and play. Play the way you play.” I said, “OK.” And I played the way I play. He said, “That’s great, but it doesn’t sound very modern. It sounds kind of dated a little.” I said, “OK, let me try something else.”
I tried a different approach, which is not the thing I was known for, but I tried a different approach to the solo, that’s all. And he said, “Well, that’s more modern, but it doesn’t sound like you.” Well, how am I supposed to win?
It was just a drag. This was the playing I knew how to do and I’d worked so hard to learn how to do. I tried to be as versatile as I could because that’s what you have to do when you’re in sessions. But suddenly when the Eighties came around, my type of playing was completely taboo. Nobody wanted to hear it. It was a real struggle.
It seems like things started changing in the Nineties when music got more organic again.
Yeah. The grunge era and the garage era, that really helped. And so did bands like Guns N’ Roses. They were a big help in bringing us old guys back. It had to come around again, but it was tough there for those few years.
How did you start with Tracy Chapman?
This sounds like the same story every time, but I was sitting at home and I got a call from Tracy Chapman’s management. The guy who called me had a girlfriend who was a percussionist and I had worked with her on a lot of sessions. She knew me really well. Apparently, Tracy had decided she was going to do a few shows on Lilith Fair. She was putting a band together and already had a bass player and a drummer since she’d worked with them before. She needed a couple guitar players. She got Larry Campbell, who has worked with Bob Dylan and lots of other people.
They needed another guitar player, so he called his girlfriend and asked if she knew any guitar players. She says, “Yeah, this guy Steve Hunter. I’ve worked with him on lots of stuff. Give him a call.”
He gave me a call and asked me to send over a résumé and maybe a tape of what I’ve done and that’s what I did. Next thing I know, I’m on an airplane to San Rafael to start rehearsing.
Lilith Fair was really an amazing time. There were so many great artists on those bills.
It was unbelievable. It was all women and they were just brilliant. It was like, “Where have these women been hiding?” It was just amazing.
Tracy is really underappreciated.
I have to agree with you. When we went to rehearsal, we learned about 35 or 40 of her songs. She liked to change the set every night, so we learned a lot of songs. There wasn’t a bad song in the lot. She just writes amazing songs. Every one of them was a gem. I think she’s one of those kind of writers. She doesn’t say the song is done until she loves it. “Fast Car” was the first thing I heard, but there’s so many others.
I’m on her album Telling Stories. It’s the same thing. I went in there and there’s so many great songs. The whole album is full of great songs. As a musician, you live for things like that. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve gotten to play with the most amazing artists that wrote the most phenomenal songs and I get to play them every night. It was really wonderful.
How did you first learn that Lou Reed was going to do Berlin again on that 2006 tour?
Again with the phone. My wife Karen was with me and I was in my apartment in Hollywood and the phone rings. It’s Bob Ezrin. I hadn’t talked to him in a while. I thought he was just calling to touch bases. The first thing he said was, “We’re going to do Berlin live.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We’re going to do Berlin from start to finish, the whole entire album live. We’re going to have strings, horns, and children’s choir, just like on the album.”
I was completely blown away. We had wanted to do that for 40 years and here we finally got the chance to do it. It was like a fulfillment of a dream to get onstage and play that whole album in order with the horns and the strings. Oh, my God, it was heavenly.
You’re finally doing it properly and seeing it appreciated.
When we did “Sad Song” for the first time and the children’s choir was behind me, it was all I could do to keep from crying. It brought tears to my eyes. It was so amazingly beautiful. I had never felt anything like that. It was so emotional to hear this huge, emotional song Lou had written with a choir right behind me and the strings. It was just ridiculous. It was the most wonderful time.
I loved the encores of “Candy Says” and “Rock Minuet.” Both performances just give me chills.
When I heard “Rock Minuet” for the first time, I thought, “Oh, my God. This guy is seeing the world in a way no one else wants to see it, but he’s seeing it and he’s making you look at it. Then you’re looking it and you won’t turn away.” It’s the most intense mental and emotional thing. The guy’s lyric sense and poetic sense is just beyond words.
How did you wind up back with Alice Cooper again?
I lost touch with Alice through the Nineties, but I don’t think we’ve ever really faded out of each other’s lives since we were such a part of each other’s lives. From 1975 to 1979, I did so many shows with him and four or five albums.
What happened was Bob Ezrin called and said, “I’m going to do this Alice album. We’re doing Welcome 2 My Nightmare, the sequel. You gotta be on it.” I said, “Absolutely, I gotta be on it.”
I flew out to Nashville and started working on it. Next thing I know, I’m onstage with Alice. Shep Gordon asked me if I wanted to sit in. I grabbed a guitar and sat in on “I’m Eighteen.” Next thing I know, I’m on tour with him again.
How long did that last?
We went out for seven months. It was a world tour. And I’ll tell you what, it beat me up. It was a really, really hard tour. I took Karen with me and it took us about three months to recover from. It beat the crap out of me. I hadn’t done a really hard tour like that in a hard time.
When I went out with Lou, it was maybe four weeks at a time. When I was touring with Tracy, to save her voice, she would never do more than two shows in a row. And we took time off. We’d do three weeks and then take two off.
When we did the seven months with Alice, it was relentless. It was around the world twice. The traveling just kicked my butt. Getting onstage is the fun part. It’s all that other stuff, the traveling, that just beats you up.
Were you flying commercial?
Yeah. They were good to us and put us in business class as often as they could, but I don’t care if you fly first class if you fly that much. It just beats you up. It’s going to the airport and going through the airport, all that stuff. It seems like when you get onstage you’re like, “I can take a breath now.”
You also toured with Mitch Ryder in 2005. You really brought your career full circle in the 2000s.
I said that my résumé started over. I did some tours of Germany with Mitch Ryder and then I did some stuff with Alice Cooper. I was waiting on Peter Gabriel to call me.
When did your vision start to become an issue for you?
On the 2011 tour with Alice, I started realizing that my eyesight was becoming a burden. I had to be very careful trying to see the fretboard through the stage lighting. It was becoming more and more difficult for me. The way the glaucoma has effected my eyesight, I was losing depth perception. I could look on the fretboard and think I was on the seventh fret and I’m actually on the fifth fret.
I had to be very, very careful and pay attention to what I was doing, otherwise I would play in the wrong key. I didn’t want to do that standing in front of an audience. They deserve me to play my best. During that tour, it was nerve-racking every night to go onstage because it just felt like I couldn’t see the fretboard accurately and quickly enough.
I kind of learned to play without looking, but there are times when you really need to get your bearings, like before a song starts or something. It just got more and more difficult. I managed to make it through OK, but when I got off the tour with Alice, I decided it was best that I don’t tour unless I can figure out a way to do this so my playing is more accurate.
It was really, really bothering me. I wanted to be able to play at my very best every night that I went onstage. I always felt nervous about it because I couldn’t trust my eyes. It sort of helped me decide that maybe I shouldn’t tour again.
How is your vision now?
It’s pretty bad. I’m legally blind. I can see maybe 40 percent in my right eye and maybe 10 percent in my left eye. My depth perception is just shot. It’s really hard for any depth/stereo vision.
I still play. I work in the studio. The great thing about working in the studio is that if you make a mistake, you can just do it again. I spend all my time recording. I do that more than anything. I try to get onstage every once in a while, but it’s still scary.
Do you miss the road?
I think at this stage in my life, I’m happy I’m off it. I enjoy playing onstage when I can play my best. When my eyesight started interfering, it took the fun out of it for me. It became really work to keep myself focused on where I was. It’s not fun for me to be onstage anymore, so I decided, “Once it’s not fun, you gotta get your ass off.” And that’s what I did.
It sounds like you’re really happy in Spain.
Spain is fabulous. I have a great place here and a little Pro Tools studio. My wife and I work in there all the time. She’s a singer and I do some instrumental stuff. I try to go in there every day and I have a blast. I try to do music every day.
Do you think it takes a certain personality to do what you did all those years? One that doesn’t crave the spotlight and is content to contribute to the broader picture of what’s being created?
I think it takes a certain kind of personality to just plain be a musician. One thing about Tuggle I always liked is that not only is he a good player, but he’s a great musician. Those things can sometimes be separated. There can be great players that are terrible musicians. And great musicians that aren’t great players. Gregg Bisonnette is another one. They are incredible musicians and incredible players. Working with them is a joy. You know when you work with them, it’s all going to be on the same table.
That takes a certain kind of personality. You have to ego out of the way. You can be confident, but not over-confident. You can be sure of yourself, but not egotistical and not arrogant. There needs to be balance amongst it because that allows you to do what you do. I think I’ve tried to learn how to do that my whole life.
My whole life has been about trying to be a good musician. That’s been the most important thing to me.
Before I knew your name, I knew your work. I just had no idea the same guy was playing on “Solsbury Hill” and Berlin and Welcome to My Nightmare. It’s pretty amazing.
That makes me feel good. Even though you didn’t know who it was playing those parts, you eventually found out. I never want to be pegged as one type of guitar player. I didn’t want to be a rock guitar player or a jazz guitar player. I just wanted to be known as a guitar player. That makes me feel good.