By Adam St. James
Just in the past three days, as this article is being written, guitarist Greg Koch shot and posted a couple dozen videos demonstrating instruments for a music store in Colorado -- far from his home in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a relatively modest suburb of Milwaukee. He’s done several hundred such video demos over the past few years. The guitars are awesome, the store is pretty cool, but it’s the playing that will just knock you out. And he’s just fooling around.
Guitar Player once described the playing of Greg "Rhymes with Chalk" Koch by saying he was “fiendishly talented,” while others have called him a “twisted guitar genius.” When Koch gets serious, as he did on 2013’s Plays Well With Others, his most recent release as a bandleader, it’s guitar wizardry of the highest order, the most baddest and impressively deep geetar pickin’ you’ll hear this year… or something like that. Really, sometimes superlatives simply aren’t superlative enough to describe the many-faceted playing and personality of Milwaukee’s most accomplished guitarist since Les Paul: the inimitable Greg Koch.
He’s made quite a name for himself in recent years shooting YouTube videos for Wildwood Guitars, that store in Colorado that has racked up more than 10 millions video views -- largely from folks clickin’ in to check out Koch’s wild playing and even wilder sense of humor.
Of course his nearly two-decade long run serving as master clinician for both Fender and Hal Leonard, his many lesson DVDs, and more than a dozen stellar, shreddin’, guitar-packed albums had already served notice that the guy was not only a monster player, but a very funny man as well. If you’ve seen Koch in concert, or demonstrating guitars and amps for Fender somewhere in Europe, Asia, Australia, or North America, or you’ve seen his Hal Leonard instructional DVDs teaching the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan or Lynyrd Skynyrd, you know you can laugh, learn and be tremendously inspired all at the same time.
Throughout his recorded legacy, including the discs he laid down for Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label earlier this century, Koch channels everyone from Danny Gatton and Albert Lee to Muddy Waters and Charlie Christian. His jams regularly quote everyone from Hendrix to Jimmy Page to Dickey Betts, Roy Buchanan to Ray Flacke, Mark Knopfler to Wes Montgomery
Koch brought in friends like Robben Ford, Roscoe Beck, Joe Bonamassa, and Little Feat’s Paul Barrere to trade licks with on Plays Well With Others. In this exclusive Guitar.com interview he gives great insight into his blues and chicken pickin’ practice routines and inspirations, what he looks for in a rhythm section, and that all-important lesson for working musicians: how one gig leads to the next. Oh, he also cracks wise here and there, but then, that’s a given.
Guitar.com: Hello Greg, how are you?
Greg Koch: How's it goin'? What's happenin'?
Guitar.com: Well, in the name of full disclosure, and following FBI wiretapping notification guidelines, I'm letting you know that I'm recording our call...
Koch: I'll have to avoid saying anything incriminating because it will be cataloged for all eternity.
Guitar.com: That's true. But you're a pretty spontaneous guy...
Koch: Well, we shall see. Let us commence with the decadence!
Guitar.com: You've done a lot of guitar clinics for Fender, Hal Leonard, and others. What are you up to clinic-wise these days?
Koch: I have been doing some stuff overseas for Fender. I go to Australia every year for them, I was at Musikmesse for them (the European version of the NAMM trade show). My Fender trail has been an odd one. It has been something where obviously, I've just been out there doing a lot of high profile things for them for a long time, going back to 1995, or maybe 1994, when I first started doing some clinics for them. And then obviously with the CyberTwin thing, I was very much a part of helping them debut that [Koch was the spokesman for Fender’s CyberTwin amp for many years]. And then I started to go all over the world for them. But I have never been a full time employee of Fender Musical Instruments.
About four years ago or so I got approached by Steve Mesple of Wildwood Guitars in Louisville, Colorado. I had been out there doing a Fender clinic, and I think I did a show out there with Tom Brechtlein and Roscoe Beck. It was a clinic for that store and I first got introduced to those folks. And I was kind of dumbstruck by the quantity of Fender Custom Shop and Gibson Custom Shop -- just high-end guitars in general that they seem to go through out there. And Steve orders all these custom made versions of various different things. Like the Wildwood spec Les Pauls, and what's called the Wildwood “10” versions of Fender Custom Shop guitars. Guitars that you can only get at Wildwood.
Anyway, to make a long story short, Steve had an idea of doing these videos where people would come out from the various different manufacturers and do "serial number videos." So they have a soundstage, and he would have somebody go in and play each guitar so that somebody who was interested in buying one of, let's say 100 of that model, one could listen to multiple videos of all these different serial number guitars, and make a decision based on the sound characteristics of those guitars.
So I went out there on Fender's behalf to do a day of these videos. And after I did one video Steve went up to me and said, "Can I hire you?" And I said, 'What do you mean?' And he said 'I would fly you out here every month to do these videos.' And I went, 'You mean, kind of like a job?' (laughs) 'Are you committing to me? No one commits to anybody in this business!'
So I started going out there every month, and I would do these videos where I'd do like 30 of these things a day. And basically what it entails is I'd play my tunes, or whatever catches my fancy for five to sometimes 10 minutes, depending on the instrument. And I basically play it clean, and distorted, and I just play. I basically get paid to practice! (laughs).
And so I started doing these videos. At first I would go out there a couple days a month. And then after Fender -- it was obvious that they were not going to commit to me in any kind of long-term basis to do anything, or even give me any kind of guarantee whatsoever, which is something that -- I'm no spring chicken anymore, and I've got four kids, and I've got to think about college and all that other kind of stuff. So to get some kind of a guarantee of work is important. And Fender was never willing to do that, for whatever reason. I think it was because of my receding hairline.
But be that as it may, Steve and I started talking, and I told him, 'I played Gibson's for years. I played 335s all through college, and I'm very familiar how to get tones out of humbucker-laden instruments. So next thing you know I started going out there six days a month and doing all of his guitars that he would want me to shoot.
So this is going on the fourth year now. We've just gone over -- I think it's ten million views on their YouTube channel. But all that is important because at this point it has exposed me to so many more people, and I'm playing my own songs in these videos, and so people are like, 'Well, what song is that?' and 'Who is this guy?' and "How come I never heard of him?' So I'm currently enjoying, I'm going to say, a "Gristle Renaissance," because more people have heard more of what I do as a result of these videos than ever before. [Editors note: Double the Gristle and Radio Free Gristle were two albums Koch put out in 1997 and 2003, respectively, the latter on Steve Vai's Favored Nations label.]
I have to say that as a result of doing these videos, I'm playing ten times better than I've ever played, because I'm getting paid to practice! And when I see these videos I'm like, 'Well, that's good!' or 'That sucks!' So I'm able to expurgate myself based on those things. It's just lead to a really kind of cool place where I'm playing better than I've ever played, and I'm getting exposed to more people and my music is getting exposed to more people than ever before as a result of that. So that's one of the huge things that has happened in the last few years.
Guitar.com: That's really cool!
Koch: But then, I've still been doing Fender stuff here and there, still going overseas overseas for Fender, still playing with my band, and putting out records. The last record I did was last summer. I came out with a record called Plays Well With Others. I had written all these songs with this local [Milwaukee] guy, John Sieger, who has written a lot of songs for everyone from the BoDeans to Dwight Yoakam and Jerry Harrison -- one of his hits that he had back in the day after the Talking Heads.
So anyway, John Sieger and I started writing songs and we've written literally 70 (yes, seventy) songs together in a very short, three or four month period of time. And so we've been recording those under various guises. My record came out last summer, and I had some guest spots with Robben Ford played on three tunes, Paul Barrere from Little Feat who is a buddy of mine played on four tunes. Joe Bonamassa played on a song. And then I had John Cleary, a great New Orleans-based piano player play on a song.
And so that record came out last summer and did very well and I enjoyed putting that out. And a lot of those songs were kind of germinated on these Wildwood videos. So that's been kind of a good tie: 'What's that song?' 'Well, as a matter of fact, my friend, it is on the Plays Well With Others release.' So that's kind of piggybacked nicely.
And then I got hooked up with this Fishman thing. I'm sorry I keep on talking about all these...
Guitar.com: OK, go, go! Tell me about the Fishman thing...
Koch: OK. Last fall I was going on a tour of Europe with my band to promote this new Plays Well With Others disc, and on my way to the airport I get a call from my buddy Ritchie Fliegler, who back in the day was a big Fender guy, and we worked very closely together. He said, 'Look, Larry Fishman has approached me on the idea of these new electric guitar pickups, and we need a guy to champion them and we thought of you.' And I said, 'Electric guitar pickups? What are you talking about?' 'Well, we got a hold of this new technology and we're still fleshing it out, but it could really be a very innovative thing.' And I'm thinkin', 'Electric guitar pickups? Oh my God! I am so over it!' (laughs) You know what I mean?
But I really trust Ritchie and we go back a long way, and he said, 'Listen to me: You're gonna dig these. Just come out here and take a listen.' So I went on my tour, I came back, and last November I flew out to Boston, and got into a room with Ritchie and Frank Falbo who used to be with Seymour Duncan, and Larry Fishman, and some other engineers. Gary Hoey was there too. And we started listening to these pickups, and after a good day of messing around with these things I felt, 'Well, holy shit, these could really be something that would be totally...' I mean, just from a selfish point of view, they were something that I would totally want to use.
Because, I remember back in the day when I was doing stuff for Fender, I wanted a pickup and I approached them on an idea, and I said, 'Look, I want a pickup that looks like a single-coil, it sounds like a single-coil, but not kind of like a single-coil. That if you blindfolded someone they couldn't tell the difference...' And I wanted it to look like a single-coil and I want to have some ability to have some incremental increase in gain. Just a little something where I pop up on something or I hit a button… I just want a little bit of incremental push over the top. Not like the classic pre-amp where it's like turning it into some kind of harbinger of the apocalypse. I just want something that just gives me a little incremental bump.
So low and behold, that's what these pickups do. They're basically voiced.... Are you familiar with these Fishman Fluence pickups at all?
Guitar.com: I've seen them but haven't played them yet.
Koch: Basically, it's a whole new way of constructing pickups. It's not modeling. It's that the coil is being made by these stacked circuit boards, aerospace circuit boards. And they have to be active in order to make that actually sound like something. But the way they dealt with the active.... it's totally revolutionary and they sound f'in awesome is all I will say. So the single width Strat pickups are being shipped as we speak. The humbuckers are going out sometime later this summer, probably in August. But I'm working with them on a signature Telecaster set, which should be out, hopefully at least be able to be heard at the Winter NAMM.
So as a result of that trip, I got hooked up with these Fishman folks. So now I'm doing a bunch of different demos and trips for them as well. They're all great guys. It's just such a refreshing, cool company to deal with. So I'm doing that as well and that is glorious!
Guitar.com: I know that you're always playing a lot, or at least I believe over the past years you seemed to be playing a lot. Don't you play at Milwaukee's Summerfest every single day?
Koch: I used to do it every day back in the day. But now it's gotten to the point where we just play once and I make more money in that one day than I used to for the whole week. (laughs). But I do play out quite a bit with the band. And certainly hoping to do more of that. Actually, my original line-up, my band back in the day, my first original project -- which most of the tunes that people know me by are from that era -- was a band called Greg Koch and the Tone Controls. It was a trio. The drummer sang great. The bass player was a great bass player and also sang background vocals. And I sang, so we had this vocal thing happening. The tunes were, there was still a lot of guitar playing going on, but it was more of a... It was a blues band, but it was jazz and funk and certainly chicken pickin' in rockin' form.
So I started playing gigs with these guys again, that original trio, and man that is an awesome thing to behold. So we're gonna record. We have a bunch of tunes that we never recorded from back in the day. And then we're also going to re-visit a lot of those old tunes because, when we recorded those songs in the early ‘90s we were working with an engineer who had a very stringent view of how he wanted to present things. And there were a variety of reasons of why we worked so closely with this guy, but they sound dated at this point. And a lot of those tunes deserved a more organic treatment. So we're gonna re-visit that.
And then I still have this band that I'm doing with my son, who is a drumming beast. And as a matter of fact we're doing a gig in a couple of weeks. He goes to school at a place called McNally Smith College of Music up in the Twin Cities. And he's not studying drums, oddly enough. He's really into electronic dance music [EDM], so he's going there to try to get more technically astute on that whole thing.
I refer to that music as -- some of it is really cool, but a lot of it could be a soundtrack for a porno, with robots and dinosaurs kind of going at it. And so (laughs), oddly enough, right before you called I was hearing said music from upstairs.
Guitar.com: Which porno was he watching?
Koch: (laughs) It was called "The Velociraptor Takes C-3PO from Behind." That's basically what was going on there. But be that as it may. It sounds kind of dirty. Actually, it is. But now I'm affiliated with that school up there and we're finalizing the deal, but I'm going to be kind of a permanent artist in residence.
And one of the things that I'm involved with is this guitar festival that they're doing up there. So on August 9th  we're doing a show up there. It's my son on drums, Roscoe Beck on bass. We're gonna do a set, and then David Grissom is gonna come up and play with us. We'll do a set of his songs, we'll do some jam songs. And then that particular line-up will be the backup band for Robben Ford who will come out and do a 90-minute set. And earlier in the day Jim Campilongo is on the bill, and Rosie Flores. So it's going to be a guitar-gasm of the highest order.
My personal feeling and hope is that it goes so well that we'll actually do more with that particular triumvirate. I get along real well with Robben, I get along well with David, and of course I've worked with Roscoe for years. So I hope that kind of goes so well that we might actually do more. But if it doesn't, I guess that would be sad. But that gig will be glorious regardless. So that's coming up soon.
Guitar.com: That's in Minneapolis?
Koch: Actually in St. Paul. It's called the Lowertown Guitar Festival. It's on August 9th, in Mears Park in downtown St. Paul. And Willie's American Guitars, which is a great shop up in St. Paul, they're sponsoring it. The City of St. Paul and this McNally Smith College of Music are all involved. So it's going to be a good time. And they have an acoustic stage and they've got a bunch of cool acoustic people too. I'm not even aware of that, but if you go to the website, I'm sure you can see all of the various different guitar mutantry which will be playing up there.
Guitar.com: Sounds like a really cool event. It's interesting that you mention that your son is a drummer but is more interested in electronic dance music. My son is 13, going on 14, and he is a piano player primarily, and showed a lot of musical promise early on. He was figuring out Mozart on the piano by ear when he was 4, on his own. But all he cares about right now is writing electronic dance music. I guess it’s their generation...
Koch: (laughs). Well you know what I think it is, is that, like with my son -- he toured with me last year when we went to Europe. And what's really great is that he gets the roots music, because he's been listening to it his whole life. He genuinely is into everything from the Meters to stuff with Steve Gadd, and he loves everything from Cream to Hendrix to Zeppelin and Little Feat and the Allman Brothers, and all that kind of stuff.
But he's in this van, this sprinter van going all over Europe, and he looks in the vehicle and says, 'Let's see here: The closest guy in age to me in this vehicle is my old man.' And then he goes and plays the gigs and he realizes that there's usually four or five chicks in the crowd, and the rest is all of these guitar goons. And then conversely he'll go to one of these DJ gigs, which now he's doing some where he's the DJ, and he goes up in front of the room, the place is packed with young, writhing nubile vixenry, and all of his friends are into it. And he goes, 'Ya know what? That scene is a little bit more my cup of tea!' (laughs heartily) Which I can understand!
So he composes a lot. I will say that my understanding of it more from being around him and getting into the minutiae of what goes into creating that music. There is a level of improvisation and spontaneity when they're doing those things, and I get it. But of course there's also the fact that, dynamically speaking, it's kind of, more and more (laughs).
So I have a limited threshold for my appreciation. But I'm sure it's probably commensurate to my dad's limited threshold from listening to, 'You know, Led Zeppelin is great and all, but I'll take Duke Ellington.' (laughs)
Guitar.com: What is your son's name?
Koch: My son's name is Dylan. Dylan the Villain. He actually played on the last record. There's a bunch of YouTube clips of him and I playing together that have been... there's one in particular where we did this thing at NAMM -- I think it was two or three years ago -- anyways he was all of 15 or 16 or something. And he came along with me because we were ostensibly going up there, I was doing stuff for Wildwood and I was gonna play at the Fender booth with Roscoe Beck. We were going to do a duo because in usual Fender fashion they were like, 'We can't have any drums in the booth. We can't have the volume.' And sure enough by Saturday there's a kick, snare and a hi-hat there. And as we're gonna go up and play, we're like, 'Well, there's room for a drummer. Dylan, do you want to play?' And Roscoe had never played with my son before, and didn't know how he could play.
And I'm like, 'Trust me, it'll be fine.' So we went up there and of course Dylan knew all the tunes that I used to play with Roscoe from observing them. So we ended up playing a set with Dylan on drums having never rehearsed with him. And Roscoe had never played with him. And of course next thing you know it's on YouTube and people are viewing it.
But it's been pretty highly viewed. So that was kind of fun. Here is this young punk on snare, bass drum and high-hat playing with Roscoe and I and then being shuttled out to humanity on the Inter-Google. But, the kid's got skills. And he's not about the chops thing. He's a groove guy. Which is cool. Pretty wild stuff.
Guitar.com: I watched a video of your’s that was a Wildwood video, I believe, where you talked about what you look for in a rhythm section.
Guitar.com: it was interesting how you talked about drummers needing to be open-minded to understand the styles of, say, a blues player like Willie Big Eyes Smith, or a jazz drummer, and to be able to move from one genre to the other. To understand a rock groove. I know you cross all those boundaries very interchangeably and reasonably rapidly, sometimes.
Guitar.com: Can you tell me a little bit about what you look for in a drummer, what do you look for in a bass player? What should guitar players be looking for in their rhythm sections?
Koch: I will say that it depends on what kind of music you want to play. For me being more of a... I'm not a roots Nazi -- and I hate to use the word Nazi -- but there are people who function in environments where they want to faithfully re-create what was done in the past. Blues guys obviously. I'm thinking of a friend of mine who is a really, really good guitar player but is all into trying to -- his recordings -- everything has to sound... he does original music based in the style of various different eras, and re-creates that stuff. That's a whole other thing.
For me, I like to have someone -- a bass player for instance -- who can function in that he has at least paid enough attention to those rootsy styles to be able to play with a tone and a sense of space and discipline to play very simply when it's time to play that stuff. But conversely, if I want to do wilder material that calls for more dexterity and processing that they can actually play that stuff and memorize it in a way that is functioning at a fairly high level -- that they can do that as well. But know how to turn it on and off. And that's a very unique thing.
I've got kind of a cache of different bass players that I'll use, and the guy that I toured with last year was a friend of mine who is a really good blues bass player. He understands that tone and that thing, and that amount of space. But he could never play more of my more complex stuff. So I had to stick to that grab bag of stuff, which is fine. But in the perfect world, I look at a guy like Roscoe Beck as a guy who can function in those different realms. When he does straight blues and jazz stuff, he really speaks in that vernacular, with the right tone and right approach. But he also has the technical wherewithal to play the most complex stuff that you would need him to play, and he would be able to function in that regard.
And my bass player Tom Good is another guy that functions in that regard. And my bass player from the old Tone Controls days, Kevin Mushel, he also can function in that regard as well, which is great to have.
And drumming, it's a whole 'nother thing. Drummers, they have to have that sense of that roots stuff for me. Shuffles are a big give-away. When you say, 'Let's do a shuffle,' and they're doin' the [mimics a straight shuffle drum beat and then a more swinging shuffle drum beat], that gives it away right there. Luckily I've been very fortunate in playing with a number of different drummers who understand the roots aspect of things. Everyone from Gary Taylor my original drummer in the Tone Controls. I had a drummer named Johnny Calarco from here in Milwaukee who was able to function in a variety of different formats, and was a little bit more incendiary in his ability to go off on odd-measure stuff.
And playing with Brechtlein was fantastic. Brechtlein was a real mentor to my son in showing him cool stuff, and just his ethos in how he looks at playing music, and so on and so forth. He was very influential on my son. And now my son is to that level where he can play a variety of technically advanced stuff, but he can play decent jazz, and do the brush thing, and know how to function in a jazz environment. But when it's time to do a Zeppelin or a Cream song, he can function where you think it's Ginger Baker. He's not doing the songs verbatim, but he can speak in that language. And Mitch Mitchell and Bonham and that kind of stuff. Which is really cool. And that's been a lot of fun.
So it depends on what kind of stuff you're playing, but I like to have a guy who can draw from those different places. If you get a guy -- for me personally -- if a guy is more of a rock guy, where his dynamics are loud and louder, and when he does a shuffle he doesn't quite get all the minutiae of that stuff, and yet can do all this kind of odd-measure, crazy, Dream Theater stuff -- well that's all well and good, but I probably wouldn't have much use for it, in terms of doing my schtick. But I hope that was insightful in some way, shape, or form? As you can see, the caffeine is flowing freely here at the Koch residence. (laughs).
Guitar.com: You've certainly heard the mantra that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. I've calculated that I've probably put in close to 30,000 or 40,000 hours on a guitar, in my life. But with that said, I'm estimating that you must be somewhere around 60,000 or 70,000 hours, or something like that...
Koch: Yeah, it could be.
Guitar.com: What do you do on a daily basis, at this point in your life, do you still have a guitar in your hands a couple hours a day?
Koch: Well, for me, when I'm not on the road, it's hard -- hold on, my daughter's calling me [as if to prove his point...] OK, I'm back. When I'm not traveling, I try to play as much as possible. Usually in the morning, I get up, I go downstairs, I get my marching orders....
Guitar.com: You mean you get your marching orders from your wife? I can relate to that...
Koch: Yeah, exactly... (laughs) Then I'll come upstairs and practice a little bit. It's different, the stuff that I practice. I go from practicing songs... usually I'm writing songs, or there's a different little stylistic thing that I will learn. Lately I've been... I'm really into these Gospel guys, that I'll go on YouTube and check out, guys like this Isaiah Sharkey is a demon. There's another guy, Erick Walls, he's great. And there's a lot of Gospel stuff in my playing because, to me, the modern Gospel stuff is kind of the logical use of jazz harmonies. And it's still evolving in that realm because it's a music form that is still, probably, generating sufficient revenue that it's still advancing...(laughs).
I hate to be cynical about that, but let's face it: Jazz, right now, is not exactly selling a lot of records, and not trying to be cynical, but where there's money, there's advancement. (laughs). I find that a lot of that contemporary Gospel stuff is really cool and soulful. So I try to incorporate a lot of that into what I do. Usually I'll learn a couple different little chord shapes, or little maneuvers, and then I will immediately try to recycle it in my own way.
So that's stuff I might work on. Or it might be a country thing I might get into, but I'm always listening to the old blues guys just because I find that unless my -- as they refer to it as my foundation, my ground zero in terms of vibrato and phrasing -- if that's not always at a high level, I find that you can stack as much stuff information wise, technique, chops, all that kind of stuff, but if the foundation is erroneous, all that other stuff is insignificant as far as my personal way of looking at playing.
So vibrato and phrasing and tone and space and all the kind of stuff -- that's got to be at the forefront, and then I try to add all this other more advanced stuff on top of that. So it's kind of a two-pronged way. I like to play along with blues records, anything from B.B. King Live at the Regal to Bloomfield with Al Kooper at the Fillmore, to Cream stuff, to Magic Sam and Otis Rush and Johnny Winter playing with Muddy Waters, or occasionally -- I've been working on my slide a bunch and I'll play with old Elmore James stuff to Duane Allman. I love Jack Pearson.
I mix it up quite a bit, but it's always kind of a combination of learning some new technically advanced stuff, but always trying to keep that intrinsic foundation solid. Does that make sense?
Guitar.com: It certainly does. And so when you’re practicing, will you just put on an album or a single song and just play along with it?
Koch: Yeah, pretty much it's just my computer, and a lot of times I'm on the road. When I'm at Wildwood, I'll play all day, and then I'll play all night, because I don't have kids around. Sometimes they rent a house for me out there that's owned by a mutual friend of ours’ so I'll bring an amp to the house, and I've got a guitar stashed out there, and I'll just sit and play along with YouTube videos, or on the iTunes library I have on my computer, and just play along with stuff. And a lot of times I'll have something in the back of my mind, 'Oh, I've always wanted to figure that out!'
So like when I was in Australia, I was travelin' and I went, 'That Stevie Wonder tune "Contusion" from Songs in the Key of Life -- I've never figured out that song.' So I just turned it on and found it, and proceeded to woodshed it until I got it. Now I can't remember it now, but I learned it. And I'll go back and re-visit it. And with something like that, I'll use. Like, 'That part of that melody is kinda cool, I could use that in leads, or maybe if I just changed it like this, or if I chicken picked it, or if I add some open string pull-offs, then that could become something completely different.' Stuff like that.
Guitar.com: I know that you had been playing in club bands for a long, long time, so you got a lot of playing time in there, and you got a lot of classic rock under your belt, and a lot of blues rock...
Guitar.com: So where did you start venturing off toward chicken pickin'? How did that first come to you, and what do you do these days to keep up with that?
Koch: That started pretty early. Pretty early on I was exposed to Albert Lee, and Albert Lee playing with Eric Clapton on that Just One Night live record which came out when I was in 8th grade, or a freshman in high school. That was completely perplexing to me because there's a solo he does on -- they did a version of "Further On Up the Road." And Albert Lee does this solo and it was like, 'What the hell is THAT!" because he's playing over the changes, and that totally fascinated me. And I remember my guitar teacher at the time, I was like, 'Who is this guy playing on this song?' And he's like, 'Oh, that's Albert Lee, man . He plays with Emmylou Harris and he's done all these other records, and he's got his own solo records, he's on this Dave Edmunds record...'
So next thing you know I start searching out this Albert Lee character. But right around the same time I was listening to Dire Straits, and I loved the sound of that clean Strat with the fingers. And so my first actual chicken pickin' stuff was from listening to Mark Knopfler. And I never learned all of his stuff note for note, I wasn't interested in that. I was just interested in the sound and that technique of that chicken pickin' and what he did with chords that kind of percussive, chicken pickin' stuff that he would do.
Little did I know that most of that stuff was from J.J. Cale. I had attempted to listen to some J.J. Cale records that were in my sister's record collection at that point, but it was way too laid back for my teenage mind at that point. I have since grown to love that stuff, and listen to it regularly, but back then it was waaaaaaayyyyy too laid back for me. So that's how it first began.
And then right around the same time I heard Ray Flacke playing with Ricky Skaggs, on a record called Highways & Heartaches. And I went out and got that. And I pilfered all those licks. And then I was really into Roy Buchanan. So I heard Roy Buchanan right around that same time, and so going into college I had a pretty good grasp on -- and then I was really into Dickey Betts. A lot of my first chicken pickin' things I would do Dickey Betts licks with chicken pickin', all of his kind of fiddle licks that he did on his solo record, and like all the licks that were on the [Allman Brothers] Brothers and Sisters record, like on "Jessica," and all that kind of stuff.
So it was kind of a hybrid of all that stuff. And then once I started reading about all these different guys, that they listened to. So I'd read about Jimmy Bryant, and I'd hear Jerry Reed, and I would think of him as more than just that goofball that was in those Burt Reynolds movies. And then Chet Atkins, and Merle Travis, and all that kind of stuff.
So I started gradually getting more exposed to these guys. And then I was playing in a band with this guy who was older than I was, and his brother came to town. He was a music writer by the name of Bill Milkowski. And Bill heard me messin' around with this chicken pickin' stuff and he goes, 'Well have you heard of this Danny Gatton guy?' And there was a Guitar Player magazine article in 1983 talking about all these different rockabilly guys.
And so he actually sent me a tape of the first two Danny Gatton records, Unfinished Business, and Redneck Jazz. He sent me a cassette of those two, and I raped the be-Jesus out of those two records! And that was really before anyone other than diehard guitar geeks and East Coast residents had ever heard of Danny Gatton. So I started getting into that stuff pretty seriously.
But what I would basically do was I would ping-pong between being on the blues patrol, and then I was really into Larry Carlton and Mike Stern and Robben Ford, and Scofield was a huge one. And I also started getting into Grant Green. And Charlie Christian was kind of a gateway -- the gateway drug for me -- to jazz, because that was stuff that I could understand. And Wes Montgomery, and these guys.
So I would kind of ping-pong, immerse in the style of whatever, and then I would go 'Aw shit, I'm neglecting my chicken pickin' chops!' And then something would send me on that train of thought for awhile. And then the whole time I always had my own bands. I never was kind of a sideman type of character. I always wanted to have my own band. So I was always spoiled by the option of putting songs in the set list that spoke to whatever style I was trying to master. So that's why I really think I had a leg up, is that I always found ways to make money with bands in which I was calling the shots, so I could throw stuff in the set list that catered to all these different styles that I was trying to learn.
And that just continued on throughout college, and after college. And I did play in various different bands where I was a sideman. But for the most part, I always had an outlet to do my own thing.
Guitar.com: The bands you called your own, were these original bands, cover bands?
Koch: Well, in college I had a blues band with horns, and we just covered stuff. We would do kind of my own versions. And then after college I played for a year with this keyboard player/singer who used to play with the Bodeans. She had her own band that was highly touted, and I thought she was gonna hit a deal. I played with her and started writing some songs with her.
But after about a year I realized I really needed to have my own band. That was back in 1989, so I basically had my own band since 1989 or ‘90. The only other diversion was that I played with my buddy Willie Porter. I played on two of his recordsand toured with him. Other than that I've always done my own band.
Guitar.com: As we come full circle back to Plays Well With Others, your most recent disc, where do you go from here? I know you've been writing a lot with John Sieger.
Koch: That is correct.
Guitar.com: Did he write all the lyrics on Plays Well With Others?
Koch: He wrote all the lyrics and I wrote all the music, which is weird because I usually write the lyrics as well. But I just needed a break from that, and John's brilliant at it. It was very easy because lyrics come easier to him than music, even though he writes great music as well. And I'm a decent lyricist at certain type of lyrics. But it was just nice to go, 'OK, I'm writing the music, here it is.' He would turn around and write the lyrics, he'd send it back, I'd go, 'Done!' It was very liberating for both of us I believe.
We wrote about 70 tunes and it felt good to have him sing his own lyrics on Plays Well With Others. And then we came out with another record, under John's name, that featured all of our co-written songs. That was a record called Walk In The Park. And that just came out in April .
John is much more of a folky than I am. I like to air it out a little bit. His record is far more laid back. It's great, but it's definitely more of a singer/songwriter effort. It's more textural stuff on that record, and more parts -- which I enjoy doing. It's an aspect of my playing that most people don't know about, especially with all the stuff I've done over the years that is more pyro-technicky. But when I played with Willie, when I did sessions, when I play with John, it's much more parts and layering textural stuff.
So that was fun, but I think the next thing I'll probably do is under the guise of the Tone Controls band. And we might tackle a lot of the songs that I wrote with John, and I'm writing a bunch of new songs, and addressing a lot of those old songs too.
Guitar.com: Do you have an ETA for that record?
Koch: We're gonna try to get it done in the relatively near future. We've got 20 tunes that it would be hard to narrow down. Plus I'm not 100 percent sure of how I want to go about it, because we've been tossing around the idea of going someplace out of Southeastern Wisconsin, to record at a place where we know it's gonna sound great, and have a little bit more of a different take on what we do. But by the same token we have talked about recording in town here where we can really get a great live recording, and just go there every Sunday and run different songs, and record them live.
And then we can pick and choose what we want to release, or maybe just have some incremental releases of this material. There's so much stuff, it's hard to figure out. So I'm trying to get my brain around that. I'm not in any extraordinary hurry. We'll see what happens. But I think we're going to go on this European tour after all, even though I thought I just canceled it. But the agent came back to me and said, 'Look, why don't you come over and do these dates with just your band.'
So I might go with the old Tone Controls, and then my bass player Tom Good has been on a lot of my solo stuff. So we'll probably go over there for two weeks at the end of September. And then I think probably in the fall I'll end up recording the record, and hopefully getting it out first part of next year.
Guitar.com: Any other instructional stuff coming out?
Koch: I'm working on a standard tuning slide book and DVD that will come out. I'm already overdue, but I'm going to get that done before the end of the summer. And that will hopefully be shown at Winter NAMM. I'm also doing a bunch of regular content for GuitarInstructor.com, which is a Hal Leonard enterprise. I've got a bunch of stuff on there already, but they're kind of changing their paradigm of how they deal with stuff, and that's gonna be revamped and refueled. That's gonna begin relatively soon. So that's what's going on there.
Guitar.com: I was watching the appearance you did on a Milwaukee TV news morning show recently...
Koch: With those two chicks! (laughs) That was the NBC affiliate here in Milwaukee, WTMJ.
Guitar.com: They asked you who would you play with if you had a chance, and you said the Allman Brothers Band.
Koch: Yes! That is a true story. I've always loved the Allman Brothers. Obviously I was a Duane and Dickey fanatic. And I love Warren Haynes and I love Derek Trucks. They're absolutely unbelievable. There's just something about that band. The tunes are great, and the jam aspect is really cool. I think it's much more honed in than a lot of the... the Dead thing or whoever you else you want to mention, the turbo-jammers. And there's a real faithful blues element that runs through that band. That's why I think I dug them so much, that blues quasi-jazz, country-infused thing.
But obviously they're not the same band as they were, but they're still a f'in great band. I always thought in the back of my mind that at some point I'd sit in with them, at least sit in. But I don't think that's gonna happen. It would have been cool, but I'll find other ways to occupy my time.
I will say that what has been kind of a dream come true is that I've been able to play with Little Feat many times, and I've got a good sense of those guys, particularly Paul Barrere. So I have sat in with Little Feat on many occasions. And that's been a huge one for me. But of that ilk of band that would have been fun to play with, it would have been the Allman Brothers. I'd still love to jam with Dickey Betts, as controversial of a character as he is, he's still Dickey Betts. I'd love to jam with him. So we'll see what happens.