Claude Johnson from GuitarControl.com interviews Kenny Wayne Shepherd:
Dec 19, 2010
CJ: How are you doing, Kenny?
KS: I’m good. How are you, man.
CJ: Pretty good. So Kenny, how did you get started playing guitar? What was your inspiration in the very beginning?
KS: Oh man! Well you know, I grew up listening to all kinds of music. My dad was in radio. I was going to concerts and going to the radio station with him and hearing all kinds of different music over the course of my childhood, man. So, I was exposed to just about everything: Rock ‘n’ roll, country music, R & B, funk, gospel…whatever kind of music, you name it, I was exposed to it. But I was always drawn to southern rock and blues music. Even at a very early age, I remember listening to a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughn, listening to a lot of ZZ Top, just stuff like that.
I got my first guitar… Well, I got a toy guitar when I was four years old and I learned my first notes on that guitar actually. It was one of those little plastic guitars with nylon strings on it and it was probably around the age of seven when I had the chance to meet Stevie Ray Vaughn at a concert and watched his show from the side of the stage. And basically, that was a turning point for me, man. I saw him play and all I wanted to do from that point forward was to get a real guitar and get serious about learning guitar.
CJ: Wow! That’s amazing! What kind of practice were you doing when you first got your guitar?
KS: Well, just trying to figure out the instrument. I mean, that in itself is a huge obstacle just trying to make sense of how to play the instrument. So, just strumming, trying to figure out chords, and at some point after you’ve been playing long enough, I can’t remember how old I was, but there’s that point of where you make this transition from trying to figure out the instrument to where a light goes off in your head and you kind of understand the concept of it.
And then you start really knowing how to play and it kind of frees you up to try new things and to explore the instrument. I would learn people’s music one note at a time. I play by ear. I can’t read music. So, I would listen to whatever my favorite song was and I would start at the beginning of the song and sound it out one note at a time. And you learn other people’s music and that’s how a lot of people really get started is just by learning other people’s songs.
But then at some point, you start trying new things. If you’re playing along with their music, but maybe you want to mix up the solo a little bit and try something different to see what it sounds like. And that’s how I started branching out and trying to figure out the stuff that I like to play on the guitar.
CJ: So, it was a process for you like anyone else. You didn’t just pick it up on day one and you were wailing.
KS: No, I don’t think anybody can do that. I don’t think anybody just picks up a guitar and instantly can play.
KS: It definitely requires a lot of work. It takes a lot of practice. I mean, I spent a lot of days in my bedroom playing guitar when all my friends were out running around at the playground, or riding skateboards or whatever. But all I wanted to do was play guitar. So, there was a lot of time and effort invested in learning how to play the instrument for sure.
CJ: At Guitar Control we always tell people to play from the heart and you’re so good at that. Can you share a secret or two with us? What’s the mindset behind being able to play what you feel in the moment?
KS: Well, part of it to me is really you just kind of have to draw from within. I try not to map things out too much in my head or before I play them, you know? I really like to be spontaneous and if you put yourself on the spot like that, really the only thing you have to draw from is your heart and your soul. So, you kind of put yourself in that position to have to go and withdraw from within. And then you see what starts coming out.
I mean, another thing that I do is I reached a point when I was touring early on in my career where I realized that for a minute there I was playing the same show every single night the same exact way and I realized. I was like, “Hey man if I keep doing that I’m not going to progress”
And a lot of people do that, you know? A lot of people go out and they play the same show note for note every single night. And sometimes that can make for a great concert because everything’s very well rehearsed. But for me, I want to be trying new things every time I hit the stage. So, I kind of made a promise to myself that even if I was playing the same set list two nights in a row, I’m going to switch up my solos and play some things different each night so that I’m trying new things constantly. And it keeps me learning and it keeps it interesting as well.
CJ: Right on… So, did you start out building a blues repertoire of some classic tunes, or did you start out writing your own songs, or how did you evolve as playing songs?
KS: Well yeah, I mean it definitely started with playing other people’s music. I mean, like I said you learn other people’s music at first. I mean, that’s what inspires you to play the instrument in the first place is hearing somebody else that gets you excited about the instrument.
So, when I put my band together, we were out doing three one hour sets in these bars every night, with 15 minute breaks in between. And essentially we were doing blues cover songs, but I always tried to choose the more obscure songs. I didn’t want to just go out and play the same old blues songs that every blues band plays. I wanted to find something a little more obscure so that people still kind of felt like they were getting an original experience.
So it started off with that and I was writing songs around the age of 13 – 14 years old writing music and stuff. And then when I signed my record deal and started getting ready for my first album, I really started getting serious about writing songs. And I mean I’ve always tried to write as much material as possible for each one of my records because that’s why I can call it my music. I mean, I’m involved in every aspect of my career from the writing experience, the production standpoint, the business aspect of it, you know, playing the guitar onstage… all of it.
So, the writing is very important. People always want to know, “How do you write?” Well, I mean for me it can happen one of two ways. It can either start with a guitar riff, when I’m sitting at home jamming at home on my guitar just playing around and an idea will come or sometimes a lyric will come to me and I’ll write that down. And it may be a great song title. So, you just start with a song title and build off of that. Those are basically the two ways that, you know, a song is initiated with me.
CJ: Do you ever write with a band or do you mostly write on your own first?
KS: Well, you know, Noah, he’s been my lead singer now for about 14 years. And he and I have written some songs together. And we did a couple in the studio on my second record, “Trouble Is” and the title track for that record is an instrumental. And we all came up with that in the studio, me and all the guys from Double Trouble, from Stevie Ray Vaughn’s band. So, we just kind of started jamming and wrote that instrumental on the spot together.
But I’ll write with whoever is down to put in the effort to write the best song possible. But I remember one time in my early days when I was like 15 years old and I had my band back then which was all different people. We tried to write a song collectively as a band together. There were six of us in the band at that time and it proved to be very frustrating, because you’ve got so many people weighing in opinions and stuff. That can kind of hold up the process to the degree. I mean, I’m not saying it’s impossible, but when I tried it with that many people it didn’t seem to work for me.
CJ: It’s like too many chefs spoil the broth, right?
KS: It can!
CJ: These days, do you still practice and try to take your chops to the next level?
KS: Well, I play as much as I can. I feel like every night that I get on stage that’s the best practice. I mean, you can sit around and play guitar. One thing that I found is that I can sit around and play guitar around the house. But when I get onstage, man, you play with a different level of intensity. I found you just don’t get the same workout at home that you do on the stage. It’s kind of like training for a fight or something. You can go in the gym, and you can lift the weights, and stuff like that, but it’s in the ring that you get beat up. You know what I mean?
KS: So, best practice that I ever get is when I’m on stage and in the studio. We’ve just been working on a new record and that’s really great practice for me because that’s where you can really analyze everything that you’re doing and you can try new things, and try and go into different directions, and the creative process is just in full effect there.
But yeah, I play around the house as much as I can. But there’s also a lot of things going on. I don’t get to practice as much as I did as a kid, but I tell you one guy who practices… I’m just totally blown away by the amount of practicing he does and that’s Eric Johnson. We were doing the Experience Hendrix tour together and he practices so much, man! It’s just amazing! And his dexterity the amount of stamina that he has, like he just plays guitar all day long. It’s pretty amazing.
CJ: So, that’s another guy that plays as Strat which kind of brings me to my next question. I just wanted to talk tone for a second. My experience is that you hear all these great Strat players like Hendrix, Clapton, Stevie Ray, and they had such incredible tone, but when I try to go and play with a Strat it just seems way harder than a guitar with humbuckers. So, what’s your experience with getting good tones from a Strat?
KS: Well, the bottom line in my opinion is that 95% of all the tone comes from the player.
KS: That’s just the bottom line. I mean, here’s the thing – B.B. King can play his guitar and it’s going to sound one way or I can pick up his guitar and it’s going to sound a completely different way. The amp, and the guitar, and that is all there, but I feel the majority of what you’re really hearing is coming from the player. And you know, obviously the guitar and the amp are two huge pieces of the puzzle, but I can pick up Eric Clapton’s guitar and play it, and it’s not going to sound like Eric Clapton just cause I’m playing through his rig. It’s not going to sound like Eric Clapton.
KS: So, for you, I mean I can’t speak for you, but what I would say is it’s your comfort level probably. You’re comfortable with the humbuckers. I mean, you are familiar with how to get what you want out of that particular piece of the puzzle.
For me, I’m much more comfortable playing a Strat than I am a Les Paul. That’s just how it is because I’m much more comfortable with that instrument. It feels like an extension of my body. When I pick up a Les Paul and play it, it feels much more awkward to me. And because I’ve been playing a Strat for so long, I’m much more familiar with how to get what I want out of the single coil pickups. When I pick up a Les Paul I love the sound of the humbuckers and stuff, but I’m certainly not as familiar with how to get everything that I want out of those pickups because I’ve been using single coil on everything that I do.
CJ: That’s insightful. Thanks.
So, as far as your favorite players, besides the obvious, you know, Hendrix and Stevie Ray, who are some other guys that maybe people should check out that have maybe influenced you or that inspire you?
KS: I would say that obviously Stevie Ray, obviously Jimmy Hendrix, and some of the more traditional or the earlier guys of the blues… Albert King has been a huge influence on me, B.B. King, Muddy Waters Billy Gibbons (ZZ top) is I think a really great guitar player. Clapton has had a big influence on me, Jeff Beck to a degree, Hubert Sumlin, and even for acoustic guitar playing going back to the Delta days of Robert Johnson, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Lead Belly, and all those guys had a lot to do with me playing the way that I play.
And also, growing up listening to James Brown’s band over all the different eras, and the guitar players that he had, and the different rhythm parts that those guys played. Just incredible guitar playing and I feel like a lot of times I don’t know if guys focus enough on their rhythm playing. I mean, I try and play a lot of rhythm because I want to be better.
I feel there’s not a lot of guys like that. People want to focus on how many notes they can play, and they want to play solos and all this stuff. But it takes a lot to be a really great rhythm guitar player. It really does. I feel like they’re really kind of underrated. So listening to a lot of James Brown did a lot for me as far as playing rhythm guitar.
CJ: Do you find that it helps you as a lead player having really tight rhythm chops?
KS: Well absolutely! Especially for my setup because I don’t have a rhythm guitar player in my band. So, who’s going to do it if I’m not going to do it?
Right now my setup is bass drums, keyboards and guitar with vocals. But over the course of my career there’s been several times where I’ve gone out and not had a keyboard player, and it’s been like a power trio with vocals. And you’ve got to be on top of it both lead and rhythm guitar in order to make a trio work. Period. I mean, because there’s no room for mistakes. Every instrument covers a different bandwidth of sound. And so, they all stand on their own. There’s nothing to kind of cover up the mistakes. A lot of times you can get an organ that creates this high bed of sound which can hide some flaws if they exist. But you get into a trio situation, man, there’s no room for mistakes. Or if you’re going to do it, everybody’s going to hear it.
And I actually like to switch it up like that because it really makes you kind of rise to the occasion. And if you’ve been getting lazy at anything, you’ll figure it out pretty quick.
CJ: So, is that the best way to develop rhythm chops? Just get into a power trio… and just see what the mistakes are?
KS: Well, if you like to play lead guitar I would say, yeah, get into a trio because then you get to do both. And really, that’s a tremendous job for a guitar player. There’s lots of guys that can play solos all day long, but there’s not a whole lot of guys that can lay the entire freaking thing down, both the rhythm and lead, and make it all work and do it seamlessly.
You can go in the studio and overdub all you want, but you got to pull it off in front of a live audience as well. And one guy doing it — there’s something to be said for that.
CJ: You just mentioned a couple of minutes ago about these older blues players. You did a project called “10 Days Out” which I don’t know if a lot of people know what that is. You want to tell us about that?
KS: Yeah, well we went out and I wanted to go and do something unique. Basically show my affection for the blues and the blues community that has embraced me for my entire career, and go back and play with some of the people I’ve looked up to over the course of my life and my career. And also go and play with some blues players that I’ve never met before.
So, we went down and we went to these guys houses. Like, we loaded up a bus with a bunch of recording gear and we had another bus with a film crew. And we went out along the south of the United States and we wanted to find these musicians, and we wanted to go play with them. So, we went to their houses and we set up in their living rooms or on their front porches, or in their backyards or whatever, and we would just play the blues on the spot, and made a record doing that and we made a documentary of the entire journey playing with so many great people like B.B. King and Pinetop Perkins, and the guys from Muddy Waters bands, and Hubert Sumlin and the guys from Howlin Wolf’s band, and Jerry “Boogie” McCain and Clarence “Gate Mouth” Brown.
But then, there was also a handful of blues players that we played with that I was meeting for the very first time myself. And they’ve been playing the blues their whole lives, but they just never got a huge mainstream record or whatever. Some of these people you may have never heard of, but they’re tremendously talented individuals.
So anyway, we released it in… I think it was 2007. It was a CD with I think 15 songs that were all live, recorded on site and then the DVD that accompanied it. It came as a CD/DVD package together and the DVD was like the full length documentary film of our entire journey meeting up with these people.
CJ: So, that’s on DVD. People can get that. It’s just called, “ 10 Days Out”, right?
KS: Yeah, “10 Days Out: Blues From The Back Roads”. It was nominated for two Grammys and won several awards. It’s just one of the things that I’m the most proud of. I think it’s a really unique project and it’s something that I was very proud to be able to do.
CJ: So, what are you working on today? Do you have a new album in the mix?
KS: Yeah. Well, we just put out our very first live record like three months ago and fans have been waiting for a live record from us for a long time. So, we finally gave that to them. It was live in Chicago and we’re actually just starting the mixing process of my next studio record. So, that’s basically… we’re all finished recording it, and we’re just getting ready to mix it, and master it, and get it out in 2011. So, I would say be on the lookout for that.
CJ: I was really excited when I went to G3. I’m sure a lot of people are curious, what was it like playing with Satriani and Vai… You know, especially being so young… What was the experience like for you?
KS: Well, I think it was killer, man! What guitar player wouldn’t want to do that? I thought I was an interesting addition to the tour because of my blues roots. I can play fast, but that’s not really what I’m all about. And I just thought it was an interesting mix, you know, to have those two guys. They’re real shredders, but they also have their own unique style.
I mean I’m like a shredder, but I have this blues background. So, it’s very aggressive blues playing. But it was cool. I could see the audience was pretty interested by it and by the end of the set every night I feel like we won a lot of people over. And at the end of the show each night they had an encore, and the three of us got up and jammed together. I had a really great time became really good friends with Joe and Steve because of that.
And then during this Experience Hendrix tour back in March, Joe came out and did that part of the tour. And we hung out. It was great to see him again. Just back in November Steve Vai jumped on the tour and obviously, you know, it was great to see him again as well.
CJ: How did you develop your own sound on the guitar?
KS: Just trying to go for that sound in my head man… There’s things that I hear my heroes do that I like to try and do and then I like to try and take what they do and change it up a little bit, and make it my own. Really that’s kind of the biggest part of it.
Like I said, playing solos and just trying different things every night. And just seeing what works and what sounds good to me. You really just kind of draw from the heart and I feel like your personality will come through in your playing.
CJ: Right on, man! So, what do you like to do for fun when you’re not shredding on the guitar?
KS: I’m into cars. So, I like to wrench on cars and customize cars, and stuff. But right now, my biggest thing is just spending time with my family when I’m not on the road.
CJ: So, if you were a musician what would you see yourself doing?
KS: I’d probably be some kind of a race car driver, man. I love to drive cars.
CJ: Very cool. Is there anything else you want to say to the world?
KS: No man, just if you’ve been a fan of mine over the years I appreciate the support. And if you haven’t heard the music, give it a shot. I think you’ll dig it. We’ve got this new record coming out and I’m really excited about it. And if there’s any questions about or you’re on the fence about whether or not you like me and my band come to the live concert and then make your decision.