Gibson recently conducted an in-depth interview with Sammy Hagar:
Russell Hall | 08.28.2009
To paraphrase a well-known ad slogan, with a name like Chickenfoot they had better be good.
And are they ever. Comprised of guitar maestro Joe Satriani, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, and Van Halen alumni Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony, the star-studded Chickenfoot is one of those rare supergroups whose whole is better than the sum of its parts. First and foremost they are a band – a well-oiled unit that sounds as if its members have been playing together for years rather than just months.
Released in June, Chickenfoot’s self-titled debut rocks with a vengeance, mixing scorched-earth metal with good-timey riff-rock in ways that bring to mind more virtuosic versions of, say, AC/DC or Grand Funk Railroad. On tour, the band has been treating fans to a well-rounded set that includes such treats as the Montrose classic “Bad Motor Scooter” and Deep Purple’s “Highway Star,” as well as all the songs from the Chickenfoot album.
While recording the studio disc, Hagar left all the six-string duties to Satriani, but on-stage the charismatic frontman breaks out his trusty Explorer Pro and his Les Paul for several songs. In this first installment of a two-part interview, the veteran singer talks about the Chickenfoot’s chemistry, how Satriani differs from Eddie Van Halen, and his go-to guitars.
What was the original motivation to form Chickenfoot?
Well, I’m a “10-year” kind of guy. After about a decade of doing something, I get kind of antsy and bored, and I want to play with other people. Of course I still have the Waboritas as my main band for the Cabo Wabo, when I do parties.
The main inspiration for Chickenfoot is that I wanted to play with the best players in the business – the best players at their individual instruments. Chad Smith is the best drummer, Michael Anthony is the best bass player and background singer, and Joe is the best guitar player. I wanted to put together that kind of group, and see what would happen.
Early on you described Chickenfoot as “like Cream, without the jazz, with funk mixed in.” Do you still feel that’s a pretty apt description?
Yes, it is. When I say it’s like Cream, it’s because Cream was a strange mix of players who you might not think would be compatible. You wouldn’t think Jack Bruce’s bass style, and Eric Clapton’s really elegant guitar style, and Ginger Baker’s jazzy, swing style would blend, but they did. The chemistry created a special sound. And I think that’s also what we have in Chickenfoot. Chad’s funky style, Joe’s shredding, blues-based futuristic music, and Mike’s distinctive style … you wouldn’t think those things would work, but the chemistry is very special
Were there any disadvantages to working with really seasoned musicians? Was anyone set in his ways?
There really is no disadvantage. We don’t have those problems, and I hope we never do. The advantage of playing with guys who are this good is that when someone comes up with an idea, everyone learns it in about three seconds. You get songs so quickly you never get bored, and you never feel like the songs are being beaten to death, to the point where the life comes out of them. The songs stay fresh.
How do Joe and Eddie Van Halen differ in their approach to the guitar and in their approach to songwriting?
As a writer, Joe is faster. That makes him easier for me to work with, because I come up with things really fast as well. As soon as I hear a chord structure, I have a melody, instantly. And then five seconds later I’m writing lyrics. Working with Joe is great. If I say to him, “Hey, let’s do something funky,” next thing I know he’s saying, “How about this?” It’s like, bang, he’s done. Whereas with Eddie, he would come back a week later and want to re-do something.
But that said, working with Eddie was great, and we wrote great songs together. The Van-Hagar stuff still holds up fantastically well, but it was a slow process. It took three years to write the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album. And when I tried to do the Van-Hagar reunion, in 2004, and we were trying to make a new record, Eddie could only squeeze three songs out. He’s just not as prolific, and not as fast. So that’s the difference between them as far as writing.
As far as playing goes, they’re both phenomenal. The innovations Eddie came up with in early Van Halen — before I was in the band – were just so unique, he gets lots of points for that. But as just a straight-up player, who can play anything, and plays perfect every time, there’s no one better than Joe.
Was there ever any consideration of your playing some guitar on the Chickenfoot album? Or did you feel that doing so might interfere with your giving enough emphasis to vocals?
I did want to put my emphasis on vocals, but had there been a need for me to play guitar, I would have played. Things were moving really fast. Joe and I would get together, and he would write some music, and I would come up with some words and melody. It happened so fast there wasn’t time for me to learn the guitar part. First thing I knew, the song we were working on would be finished, and in the can. It took just 43 days in the studio write and record the whole album.
How did you settle on your Explorer Pro as one of your main guitars? What features do you like most about it?
First of all, I like the way it looks. I also love the fact that on the Explorer I can get up to the high notes. And of course it sounds fantastic. The front pickup has a special sound. When you turn the volume back just a bit, it cleans up. It’s kind of fat and round – which I really like. I’m not a Strat player at all, but the Explorer has something that’s a bit Stevie Ray Vaughan-like when you turn that front pickup back a bit. I really love it.
You also play a Les Paul Studio guitar. Which features of that guitar – sound-wise and playability-wise – appeal to you most?
I think the Les Paul Studio guitar is the most versatile, all-round, out-of-sight guitar there is. First of all, I don’t use any effects – no pedals, nothing. I plug that guitar directly into the amp. When you hit a big power chord on that guitar — through, say, a Marshall that’s really cranked up — the Les Paul has a grunt and a growl that’s unbeatable. And when you turn the volume back, on the amp, and play with a clean sound, it’s got a nice rock and roll punch. If I were allowed to have just one guitar, it would be the Les Paul.
[End of Part 1. Part 2 follows]:
“I think the Les Paul Studio guitar is the most versatile, all-round, out-of-sight guitar there is,” says Sammy Hagar. “When you hit a big power chord on that guitar … [it] has a grunt and a growl that’s unbeatable.”
That comment was just one of several six-string assessments offered by Hagar in the first installment of our exclusive interview with the veteran singer. In the second half of our in-depth Q&A, the Chickenfoot frontman talks about his influences, his very first guitar, and what he does to keep in voice in tip-top shape. He also gives the scoop on the future of Chickenfoot.
Who did you first try to emulate when you began playing guitar, as a teenager?
Dick Dale was my first big influence. And then I tried to learn every solo Eric Clapton had ever done, going back his work in the Yardbirds and in John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. I learned the blues solo for “Have You Heard” note-for-note. And then when the Fresh Cream album came out, I learned those songs. The same was true for Disraeli Gears. I was more into Clapton, and Peter Green, than, say, someone like Hendrix.
Do you remember your very first guitar?
I do. A guy I knew had a Guild. He had broken the neck off it, and it was in a pawn shop, getting fixed. It was for sale for 25 bucks, and he told me I could have it if I went and got it. It didn’t have any pickups or anything. It was just the guitar body. So I got it, and I painted it white, and I saved up enough money to put some humbuckers in it. (laughs) Basically I turned it into a Gibson – a Les Paul or an Explorer – inside a Guild body.
Are there other favorite Gibson models you’ve played through the years, besides your Explorer Pro and your Les Paul Studio guitar?
I used to play SGs, and I used to play Les Paul Juniors. I’m just a Gibson kind of guy. I also had an ES-335. I played the 335 with the toggle switch in the middle position, using both pickups, with a semi-clean – but not totally clean – amp sound. That’s one of the best rhythm sounds you’ll find anywhere on the planet. I also have my little ’59 Les Paul that I used for lap slide, on “Bad Motor Scooter.” That’s just one of the meanest-sounding guitars ever.
Let’s talk a bit about Chickenfoot. How did the songwriting process play out between you and Joe Satriani? Was it a big adjustment for him to write for a band, as opposed to writing strictly for himself?
In some ways, the way Joe wrote for Chickenfoot was the same way he’s always written. He always comes up with a chord structure. But then, as an instrumentalist, his next job would be to come up with a melody. In Chickenfoot he didn’t have to do that. He just came up with the chord structure, and then I wrote the melody and the lyrics. And then Chad [Smith] and Mike [Anthony] played the rhythm section, the way they heard it and felt it.
Every time we wrote a song, Joe would go, “Wow, that’s so much different than what I was thinking! And better!” That’s the great thing about good chemistry, and writing with guys who are great on their instruments. And that’s exactly what I wanted from this band. I wanted Joe to bring in amazing pieces of music – something like “Soap on a Rope” – and I wanted to write words and melody to it. My goal was to make it something more than what he maybe originally had in mind.
Some singers’ voices get better with age, and others get worse. Your voice has definitely gotten better. How do you keep your voice in top form?
I would never smoke cigarettes, and I try not to smoke anything, especially when I’m on tour. Also if you eat really hot, spicy food before you sing, that’s not good for you. But really the only time I can’t sing is when I have a cold, or an allergy. It’s important to keep your voice in tip-top shape. Singers can’t take five or six months off. It’s like being a marathon runner. You don’t just jump out of bed one day and run a marathon. When I was a teenager, I wanted to sing like I sing now. I wanted my voice to be rough and scratchy, and I wanted to sound like an old black guy. Today I’ve got the tone I’ve always been looking for.
A strange question, perhaps, but does being proficient on guitar make you a better singer?
No doubt about it. If I wasn’t able to play the melody structure of a song on piano, or guitar, or something, I wouldn’t be as good a singer. I wouldn’t have the chops. Sometimes I’ll sing the melody for a song, and then I’ll go to the guitar and play the melody there. By doing that, I’ll find extra licks I can add to the vocals — things that makes them more intricate, and more complex.
Will there be more Chickenfoot albums?
I can’t say, “Definitely,” but we want there to be a bunch of Chickenfoot records. We would like to stay together forever. There are some other things that are pulling at us. For instance, Chad has to go back to the Chilis, but hopefully these things won’t dissolve the band. Hopefully the Chilis can give Chad enough time off, between his responsibilities to them, to continue doing this. I don’t want to wait too long, and I can’t wait two or three years. Meanwhile, I’ll just go back and play with the Wabos, and have fun doing that.