He’s a full-fledged member of the Eagles, he just played at the Grammys with Paul McCartney, and he owns an enviable collection of vintage guitars. As Joe Walsh drops his new solo album, Analog Man, and hits the road for the Eagles’ 40th anniversary tour, he’s the first to say he can’t complain.
“Hmmm, let’s see now ... the ’57 Gretsch or the ’58 Goldtop?” Joe Walsh contemplates a bevy of highly collectible vintage guitars strewn in open cases across the floor of a Hollywood photo studio. Broad shouldered and looking fit, he towers over the instruments, meditatively stroking his chin.
A Guitar World cover shoot is serious business, and Walsh brings to it consummate professionalism that has guided him through over four and a half decades as a classic-rock guitar legend.
After some deliberation, Walsh selects the “Goldtop” Les Paul for the next round of shots. His wife, Marjorie, a trim blond possessed of mature beauty and a warm, welcoming manner, suggests a garment to go with the instrument, a form-fitting blazer outfitted with rock-star silver lamé trim at the cuffs. Mr. Walsh is ready for his close-up.
In many ways, Walsh seems the living embodiment of his 1978 hit, “Life’s Been Good.” He’s been a central and influential figure in rock music ever since the late Sixties, first as leader of the James Gang, then as a solo artist and as a member of the Eagles. In the latter capacity, Walsh was the man who put rock foremost in the Eagles’ highly successful country-rock sound. His incisive lead guitar work turbocharged hits like “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Hotel California,” the latter being a track that regularly ranks high on lists of the greatest guitar solos ever.
All of Walsh’s many musical virtues are beautifully encapsulated on his new album, Analog Man. It’s rife with the concise, catchy songcraft, understated humor and “regularguy” honesty we’ve come to expect from Walsh, not to mention reams of his sterling guitar work.
Walsh is a quintessential rock guitarist as well as one of the genre’s most distinctive stylists. The choppy, syncopated eloquence of his rhythm playing is as unique as a fingerprint.
As a lead player, he knows how to make a guitar solo ignite instantly and burn hot all the way through. His slide playing is as gracefully idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable as his plaintive, high-pitched vocal style. Hear just a few notes and you immediately know it’s him.
Given the register of his singing voice, it’s somewhat surprising that Walsh speaks in a low, gravely growl. The words come out slowly. He chooses them carefully, pausing between phrases to let their impact sink in.
“It’s been 20 years since my last solo album, so I feel like the time is right,” he says of Analog Man. “I’m really happy with it, really proud of it. Jeff Lynne [ELO, Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty] produced it, which took it in a direction I never would have gone in. And I believe the music is much better for it. It’s an honor and privilege to work with Jeff.”
[[ Joe Walsh appears on the cover of the May 2012 issue of Guitar World, which is available now at the Guitar World Online Store ]].
While life has generally been good to Joe Walsh, his road hasn’t always been an easy one. Now 64, he’s suffered the early death of his first-born child, alcohol and drug addiction, and serial divorces. These trials have etched deep lines on a face framed by chin-length hair.
But Walsh seems to have come out on the other end of all his difficulties reasonably intact. He’s been sober since the Nineties, a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner of some years’ standing, and very happily married since 2008 to Marjorie Bach, sister of actress Barbara Bach, who is Ringo Starr’s wife. Ringo is one of several celebrity guest musicians on Analog Man.
The Beatles connection also led to Walsh accompanying Paul McCartney on lead guitar at the 2012 Grammy show.
“When I married Marjorie, along with her I got this very large family and a bunch of family friends,” Walsh says, laughing. “It’s a dynamic I’ve never been around. I’ve always been kind of a loner, and my attempts at domestic life failed miserably. So the family dynamic is a great thing.”
These sentiments are expressed by Walsh in one of Analog Man’s most heartfelt and direct compositions, a ballad simply entitled “Family.”
Vocal harmonies by David Crosby and Graham Nash enhance the mood of easy domesticity. “That’s a favor I called in,” Walsh says of the duo’s participation. “A long time ago, I played on a record they made, and we always talked about how we would some day work on a song together. So I kinda said, ‘I got this song, and remember when I played on your album?’ They made the song really special.”
Walsh’s affable, easygoing manner has won him many friends among rock’s royalty. He’s famous for having bestowed on Jimmy Page the “Number One” 1959 Les Paul Standard that has been integral to Page’s work from Led Zeppelin II onward. It was also Walsh who laid on Pete Townshend the 1959 Gretsch 6120 and 1959 Fender Bandmaster amp that Pete used to create the unforgettable guitar sound on Who’s Next.
“I like to give people equipment and stuff,” Walsh says. “For me, it’s a kind of payback. Anyone who is an influence or hero for me, I’m always concerned with how I can balance the karma.”
“I don’t know how she knows what to get, or how to find it, but she does!” Walsh marvels. “She bought me a ’58 Goldtop, and she found me a ’53 Broadcaster, from before Fender named it Telecaster. And a ’57 Gretsch 6120 like the one I gave Pete! So I’m getting some vintage guitars on the wall.”
Marjorie obviously takes very good care of Joe. Analog Man is dedicated to her, and she played a key role in its creation. It was she who brought Jeff Lynne in the picture and who encouraged Walsh to complete the recording and put it out.
“These songs were kind of a Sunday project that I worked on when I was home during Eagles’ time off,” he explains. “But I never got any momentum going for the past 10 years because the Eagles has been a full-time job. We worked a lot last year. But Marjorie said, ‘You know, you ought to get your s--- together and finish this.’”
The title track for Analog Man expresses Walsh’s misgivings about the putative digital wonderland we all supposedly inhabit these days. “It’s an observation, not a judgment,” he says of the song. “I’ve always written observations on the world, and now there’s two of them. The virtual world is a new thing, and it doesn’t really exist, but people are in it a lot. People try to function in the real world — the analog world — while they’re texting in the digital world, and they run into the car in front of them. It doesn’t work to be in both.”
But Walsh is no Luddite. Its title notwithstanding, Analog Man was recorded digitally. “I learned Pro Tools, and the album is digital,” he says. “Those of us who used to record analog have had to make some adjustments.”
True to his self-conferred title of “Analog Man,” however, Walsh was able to wrest a cornucopia of warm, analog-flavored guitar tones from his digital recording rig. “I found this little Fender amp called an FM15,” he says. “It’s a digital amp with sampled amp tones. I’d come out of the headphone jack of that amp into a tube recording preamp and into a hard drive. Do that, and the Pro Tools sees tubes.”
Walsh’s guitars for the album were all analog, of course, notably the aforementioned 1957 Gretsch 6120 plus a selection of Les Pauls, Stratocasters and Telecasters. Walsh has so many guitars he tends not to be overly fussy about vintage years. He just grabs whichever one is closest to hand. His tastes in amps are varied.
For instance the remarkably crisp and present slide guitar sound on the song “Wrecking Ball” was achieved via a 30-watt Peavey amp with a 10-inch speaker.
“That’s what you’re hearing on there,” Walsh elaborates. “I like small amps, not big ones. Another one I’m really fond of is Dr. Z amps. He’s a guy in Cleveland who makes these really great amps. Brad Paisley and I are both really in love with those. And I love Fender Champs, too. An old blackface Champ is actually what I did ‘Funk #49’ on. A blackface Champ and a Tele, straight in.”
“Funk #49” by Walsh’s group the James Gang is one of his signature tracks and, to this day, a garage-band and jam-night staple. With its syncopated rhythms and unison guitar-and-bass riffs, the song earned the James Gang a prominent place among the American power trios that sprang up in the wake of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience as the late Sixties gave way to the early Seventies.
Right from the James Gang’s emergence in 1968, Walsh seemed ahead of the game as a guitarist. He was hot-rodding amps and pickups in an era when that kind of in-depth manipulation of guitar tone was far from commonplace. How did he glom onto all that stuff in the era before the internet or even guitar magazines?
“I discovered amateur radio — ham radio — when I was about 12,” he says. “My parents moved from Ohio to New York City when I was about 11, and I went from vacant lots, BB gun wars, snowball fights and kick-the-can to being in a third-story, two-bedroom apartment in New York City. We moved in the summer.
“I had no friends, school wasn’t in yet, and there was a guy in the apartment building that had an antenna on the roof. I followed the wires to his window and knocked on that apartment’s front door. He let me in, and he was a ham radio operator. So that’s what I did the rest of the summer until school started. And I’ve been a ham-radio operator since 1961.
“Anyway, part of that was learning about electronics. So by the time I really got into guitars and stuff, I already had a basic knowledge of what was going on in terms of the signal — amps and how to fix them and how to tweak them. I’ve kind of always been like that. And I strongly feel that if you’re gonna be a guitar player, you should open yourself up and know about it. I firmly believe that makes you a better musician and a better guitar player.”
Walsh also got in early on what we now call the vintage guitar market. Touring around with the James Gang in the late Sixties and early Seventies, he had access to all kinds of bargains in out-of-the way places. It was a time when guitars from the Fifties and early Sixties commanded very modest prices, often less than the cost of a comparable new guitar.
“The fun for me,” Walsh says, “was being on the road and going to a little pawn shop or music store — not a big chain like Guitar Center but an actual little music store — and seeing what they had, and collecting guitars that way. And then opening them up to see why they sounded the way they did.”
But for all that, Walsh has never been much of a vintage snob. He has a much more utilitarian view of the instrument. “It doesn’t make sense to me to have an old Martin that’s valuable because it’s an old Martin, but the neck is so warped you can’t really play it,” he says. “Or you have a Fifties or early Sixties Stratocaster that you can’t take on the road anymore because it’s too valuable. I’ve never really gotten into collecting that way.”
This lack of preciousness about the instrument is one factor in Walsh’s easygoing ability to give valuable guitars away. Out on the road, friends like Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend came to him as readily as guitars. So why not lay a few axes on his pals?
“The James Gang opened for Led Zeppelin a couple times right at the end of the Yardbirds when Led Zeppelin was together,” Walsh recounts. “Before their first album really hit, they came over and played shows. It was Jimmy Page’s new band. So I started a friendship with him at that time.
“A little bit after that, when the first album really took off, Jimmy was still playing the Telecasters that he played in the Yardbirds. He was looking for a Les Paul and asked if I knew of any, ’cause he couldn’t find one that he liked. And I had two. So I kept the one I liked the most, and I flew to New York with the other one. I laid it on him and said, ‘Try this out.’ He really liked it. So I gave him a really good deal, about 1,200 bucks. I had to hand-carry it; I flew there and everything.
“So whatever my expenses were, that’s what I charged him. That guitar ended up being a significant part of Led Zeppelin’s body of work. But again, I just thought he should have a Les Paul, for godsakes!”
That 1959 Les Paul Standard, Page’s beloved Number One guitar, would go on to forge a considerable chunk of rock history. One thing about the instrument that especially attracted Page was its relatively slim neck contour. Walsh had had the neck shaved by Virgil Lay of Lay’s Guitars in Akron, Ohio.
"He’s kind of a master luthier, with a wood shop and all. So I had Virgil shave the neck of that Les Paul a little. It was a big, fat neck originally, and I didn’t like that. And I think the shaved neck is what Jimmy liked about the guitar. It was kind of a custom neck on a Les Paul.”
It was during the same period that Walsh gave Pete Townshend the 1959 Gretsch 6120 and Fender Bandmaster amp that became the cornerstones of the powerhouse sound he forged on the Who’s landmark album, Who’s Next. To the best of Walsh’s recollection, the Gretsch came from an acoustic guitar shop in Columbus, Ohio, across the street from the World Theater, where the James Gang would often perform. But it was during his time in Europe that Walsh first got friendly with Townshend.
“The James Gang opened for the Who when they performed Tommy in England and in Europe for the first time,” he remembers. “So Pete and I started hanging out. After Tommy, he was playing a Gibson SG and Hiwatt amps. That was his vehicle to present and perform Tommy.
“But he was kind of stuck in that, and I think he wanted to move on. So I figured, Well, a Bigsby should f--- him up pretty good! And that Gretsch was a great guitar. I always found that with an old Gretsch with a Bigsby, when you sit down with it, there are songs in there that will come out that you wouldn’t write without that guitar. And I’m kind of superstitious that way. So I gave him my 6120 and a 3x10 Bandmaster, an old Fender amp that I had. And said, ‘Here.’ And Who’s Next is that.”
Despite the moderate level of success that the James Gang achieved with tracks like “Funk #49,” and “Walk Away,” Walsh decided to leave the band in 1971 and strike off in more of a solo direction. Moving to Colorado, he formed the group Barnstorm, although the band’s recording would be credited to Walsh as a solo artist.
“When I left the James Gang, I wanted a fresh start,” he says. “I didn’t want to stay in Cleveland, where I’d been. Bill Szymczyk, who produced the James Gang and a bunch of other stuff, was in Colorado. So I went there and started the Barnstorm days. Nobody really understood why I quit the James Gang, because we were doing really well, but I didn’t want to be in a three-piece rock and roll band anymore. I thought I was painting myself in a corner, in terms of being a musician. And I wasn’t really crazy about being a grandparent of heavy metal!”
The first release under this new arrangement, 1972’s Barnstorm, didn’t exactly set the world on fire. But the follow-up, 1973’s The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get, became ubiquitous on Seventies FM “Album Rock” radio, buoyed by the signature track “Rocky Mountain Way.”
“That song was just about, ‘Okay, it’s gonna work that I left the James Gang to pursue a solo career,’” Walsh says. “That line, ‘The Rocky Mountain way is better than the way we had’ — it was like, ‘This will be all right after all. It’s not the end of Joe Walsh.’ I didn’t know if it would be or not, but I had to take a shot.”
The track was also a showcase for Walsh’s distinctive slide guitar style, something that would become a key element of his work from that point forward. “Duane Allman had showed me open E tuning and given me a Corcidin bottle, the glass bottle slide that he used,” Walsh says. “So I had been practicing slide guitar for a long time. And ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ was really my coming out song on slide, having learned all that Duane taught me and practiced for a year. That was my ‘Hey, I play slide too!’ song.”
While Walsh started his slide journey with a Corcidin bottle — a receptacle for Corcidin cough syrup, infamous for its potential misuse as a narcotic — he had moved on to a chrome slide to record “Rocky Mountain Way,” applying it to an open-tuned Les Paul through a tweed Fender Champ amp. A consummate slide stylist, his choice of slide materials varies according to the tone he’s after.
“The glass slides are my favorite for George Harrison-y stuff,” he says. “You get the best tone with a glass slide. It’s very sweet. But for harder edged stuff, when you gotta cut above another Les Paul, a big metal slide is the way to go.”
“Rocky Mountain Way” also popularized another key piece of guitar gear: the talk box. Later mass-produced by Bob Heil as the Heil Talk Box, this device would become prevalent in Seventies guitar rock, adopted by everyone from Jeff Beck to Peter Frampton. But on “Rocky Mountain Way,” Walsh played what is arguably the first talk box ever.
“I was friends with Dottie West, the country singer, and her family,” he explains. “And any time the James Gang played Nashville, we’d go over to Dottie’s. A bunch of songwriters and people like Chet Atkins would come over and we’d pass the guitar around and everybody would have a play. It was a traditional Nashville kind of a thing. And Dottie’s husband was Bill West, a great pedal-steel player but also an inventor.
"Then he wrapped the cardboard box in electrical tape. A guy named Pete Drake used it once in the Fifties for a song called ‘Forever,’ and then it went back in Bill West’s garage for 20 years. So we were at Dottie’s with her family and all, passing guitars around.
“Bill came out of the garage and gave this thing to me. I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘Well, just take it home and plug it in, put the tubing in your mouth and plug it into your speaker jack. I don’t know exactly what it is.’
“Of course, I had to see how it was built, so I took it apart. And I was hanging out with Bob Heil at the time, ’cause he’s a ham operator. He had a sound company back then. He did all the Who shows in the U.S. And so we had a look at this thing, and Bob decided he had a good way to make ’em, so he put out his version of it. But the real one I still have — except the tube smells so horrible that nobody can use it.
“And then Peter Frampton came to me and said, ‘How the hell did you get that sound?’ I explained it to him, and he used it on his song “Show Me the Way,” and big things happened for him. He trademarked that sound.”
By 1975, however, Walsh had tired of being a solo artist. He was ready for another momentous and risky career shift. As when he left the James Gang, he found himself in a time of change, uncertainty and trepidation.
But once again, everything would work out fine: he joined the Eagles. “When you gain an amount of success,” he says, “a lot of nonmusical things come along that you don’t really think about before the success. You’re too busy trying to survive. It’s
nice when you get some money, get famous a little bit and get recognized. But as a solo artist, that comes with a lot of nonmusical things.
“There’s the business side of it — the hiring and firing, payroll and all of that. Not to mention the pressure of writing something that’s gonna make the next album as big as the one that got you there. And I found myself feeling alone and creatively a little stagnant. I’d had a good run as a solo artist, and I was thinking, God, it would be really good to be in a band again.”
Walsh had become friendly with the Eagles on the road, having shared bills with the hugely popular country-rock group on numerous occasions. They also shared the same manager, Irving Azoff.
Around that time, Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon, a country purist, had become uncomfortable with the more rock direction that the band’s principal songwriters, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, wanted to take.
“So when Bernie decided that he just wasn’t interested very much in continuing,” Walsh says, “Don and Glenn thought I would plug in really well with where the Eagles were eventually going to go. And at the time I was going, ‘Aw f---, it’s time to do another solo album. Oh s---. Anybody got any ideas?’ You know? So it all just kind of came together, I joined the Eagles and the result, of course, was Hotel California.”
A landmark album, and arguably the Eagles’ greatest ever, Hotel California offered an eloquent depiction of the decadence and ennui of L.A. culture in the late Seventies. Walsh’s hard-edged rock sensibility was integral to the album’s aesthetic and appeal. Among his songwriting contributions was the signature guitar riff for the hit “Life in the Fast Lane.”
“That was actually a coordination drill that I’d come up with on guitar to warm up to play live,” he says. “I was just playing it one time and Don Henley goes, ‘What the hell is that!’ Well, it was just an idea floating around. With the Eagles, we would all bring in bits and pieces of music, throw them in a big pile and sort through them.
“Don and Glenn got a hold of that ‘Life in the Fast Lane’ riff. Glenn kinda arranged it, and we did a demo of it. Then Don had the idea of ‘life in the fast lane.’ He put the words together, and we recorded it for real. And then Don Felder and I figured out the guitar work. Once we knew it was an Eagles song, they turned me loose a little bit.”
Walsh and Eagles co-guitarist Don Felder coalesced into a formidable team. “We worked really well together,” Walsh says. “It was competitive. We brought out the best in each other. He would play something, and I’d get an attitude like, ‘Oh yeah? Listen to this.’ And he’d go, ‘Wow, listen to this!’ We would work that way. You can kind of hear that.”
The apotheosis of Walsh and Felder’s guitar magic with the Eagles is unquestionably “Hotel California.” Central to the symbol-laden epic track’s mood of desperation and la dolce vita gone slightly sour is the artful tapestry of intertwined guitar leads that Walsh and Felder weave throughout the track, bursting into Technicolor brilliance in the extended outro solo section. They trade licks for a while, then merge in glorious harmony. “Hotel California” had begun as a 12-string acoustic demo that Felder had put together.
The Eagles began to craft an arrangement, using the working title “Mexican Reggae.” After Henley came up with the song’s masterful lyric, Felder and Walsh were once again let loose.
“Don had his distinct part and I had my distinct part in the body of the song,” Walsh recounts. “And we thought, What if we merged those together? And that was the dual guitar work that develops during the course of the song. Felder had a lot of ways to go with it, and I tried to focus on that.”
The track’s unforgettable dual-guitar harmonies were played live in the studio by Walsh and Felder. “We took a couple of hours to work all those harmonies out and put them on,” Walsh says. “But over that we did individual solos. Like I said, Felder and I were competitive, but in a good way.”
To the best of Walsh’s recollection, he played a Telecaster on “Hotel California,” while Felder played a Les Paul, and of course the 12-string acoustic part. “We always tried to have a single-coil and a humbucker as the personalities of the guitars,” Walsh explains.
“We found that with two Les Pauls, you couldn’t really hear either of them, and two single-coils was too thin. So I ended up being the single-coil guy on ‘Hotel California.’”
From the late Seventies up to the present, Walsh has alternated between work with the Eagles and solo projects. In 1978, he was back in the limelight with another signature solo track, “Life’s Been Good,” a comedically understated account of stardom that went a long way toward establishing his persona as an ordinary guy who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.
The song’s verses also bear witness to an abiding interest in reggae on Walsh’s part. But Walsh might never have recorded or released this classic had it not been for the intervention of some friends.
“Sometimes musicians write songs just for themselves,” he says, “and they don’t really intend to record or release a song like that, or necessarily have anybody even hear it. That’s how it was with ‘Life’s Been Good.’ I wrote these words. They were lying around for a while and I just happened to show them to Bill Szymczyk and my friend Joe Vitale, who was the drummer for Barnstorm and now plays with Crosby, Stills and Nash. Joe and Bill both said, ‘You gotta make a song out of this!’”
Walsh’s new album, Analog Man, contains what is essentially a sequel to “Life’s Been Good,” a song entitled “Lucky That Way.” It is one of several songs on the new disc that the guitarist co-wrote with tunesmith Tommy Lee James, who has penned numerous country hits for artists like Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Trisha Yearwood and Taylor Swift. Walsh and James were brought together by Barbara Orbison, widow of rock and roll legend Roy Orbison.
“Tommy and I got along really well right from the start,” Walsh says. “And he actually brought in a verse for ‘Lucky That Way.’ He said, ‘I don’t know if you’re gonna like this, but I kinda wrote it with you in mind.’ From there, I just filled in the verses with situational stuff that was relevant to my life. But that really was a gift from Tommy Lee James. And, you know, the last verse is really true. In my experience in the music business, if you kind of pretend that you know what you’re doing, everybody thinks you know what you’re doing. So I have been kind of lucky that way. I haven’t been busted yet.”
With close friends like John Entwistle, Keith Moon and others long since dead of alcohol- and drug-related causes, Walsh is indeed lucky simply to still be around. He got sober in the Nineties, and two songs on Analog Man — “Wrecking Ball” and “One Day at a Time” — deal with the themes of addiction and recovery.
“I used to do all that stuff,” Walsh says. “Those of us from the Seventies who are still here just outgrew all of that. But in the music business, and in Hollywood in general, the party never stopped. A lot of these young celebrities are on parole. So ‘Wrecking Ball’ is addressed to the people who are partying in the 21st century.
“And in ‘One Day at a Time,’ I just wrote about my experience of getting sober. The one thing that made a difference in my life is Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s a tradition of AA that you don’t flaunt the program in media, records, television and stuff. But I had to make an exception in writing about getting sober and what happened to me. I kinda thought somebody should.”
Of course, many of Walsh’s rock and roll peers are still around and doing quite well, including Paul McCartney. At their Grammy appearance, they played “My Valentine” from Sir Paul’s new album, Kisses on the Bottom, as well as the three-guitar rave-up “The End,” from the Beatles’ Abbey Road, for which they were joined by Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and, from McCartney’s own band, Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray.
“For ‘The End,’ it was just two-bar phrases,” Walsh points out. “So there wasn’t time to think. Just be ready. ’Cause as soon as you say something, you’re done.”
Given the roster of legendary musical artists with whom Walsh has worked, is there any one left on his wish list? He ponders the question a while before answering.
“Gosh darn, I really would have loved to play at a Ray Charles session,” he says. “Opportunities still come up for me to play with musicians and singers I really admire. But I don’t have anyone specific in mind at the moment. About what’s left for me now is to work at my craft. I’m blessed to be able to play my music, instead of somebody else’s music, in front of people. And I always try to tell young musicians that there’s life after addiction and it’s good. It’s been a great journey for me so far. I’m just this analog guy gettin’ used to this digital world. And I’m not done yet!”
Photo: Ross Halfin
Joe Walsh appears on the cover of the May 2012 issue of Guitar World, which is available now at the Guitar World Online Store.