Blackberry Smoke Interview: Charlie Starr’s Guitar Utopia

Vintage guitars and amps pushed to the edge, and captured in studio by a guitar-oriented, arena-rock-savvy, multi-platinum producer, will certainly give your new album a killer sound. So when you stick a rootsy, classic-sounding band like Blackberry Smoke in the booth with a studio master such as Brendan O’Brien, you end up with an album like Holding All The Roses -- all classic tones and big sounds and sonic familiarity.

Blackberry Smoke is sometimes referred to as Southern Rock band, but -- though they may hail from the heart of Georgia -- guitarist Charlie Starr assures us he grew up listening as much to Aerosmith and Zeppelin and Van Halen as he did bluegrass, and Bill Monroe, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. In concert, the band regularly covers Led Zep, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, and other classic rock stalwarts.

Still, the group has that thang, that backwoods vibe that can only have come about somewhere outside the big city, and away from the glittery lights of Hollywood or the Big Apple. Holding All The Roses is Blackberry Smoke’s fourth album, after two independent releases, and one album on Southern Ground, the label owned by Zac Brown. Roses resonates with the sound of classic Telecasters, Hammond organs, maybe even a fiddle here and there.

But it’s rockin’, through and through (The album hit #1 on the iTunes U.S. Top 40 Album charts). And so is the live show, as witnessed on the groups’ current U.S. tour, or if you caught them on a previous trek in support of Skynyrd or ZZ Top, or on their 2014 DVD, Leave A Scar. spoke with guitarist, singer, and songwriter Starr about all his influences, and how he melded the bluegrass he heard his Dad playing with the rock and roll swagger of songs like Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle,” to define his own style.

We also spoke about classic Les Pauls and B-Bender Teles, and minimalist pedal boards, and hanging out with heroes like Billy Gibbons and Gary Rossington, and using GarageBand to lay down home demos, and the benefits of Guitar Hero, and so much more. Hi Charlie, this is Adam with

Charlie Starr: How you doin' Adam? Pretty good, how about you?

Starr: I'm not bad. So you're up in Boston today, right?

Starr: Yeah we're in Boston. You've probably played there a couple of times before...

Starr: We have, at the House of Blues here, right across the street from Fenway. Cool. So how are things going? You've got a new album out, you're on tour. Things are good, right?

Starr: Yeah, things are good. It's good to be busy. We'll play this show tonight and a show in Manhattan tomorrow, and then go home for a few days. And then we have next week we have the Ryman in Nashville, and it's sold out, and that's just really an exciting thing for the band. Yeah, I understand. Maybe have some guests come out that night?

Starr: I think so. Yeah. A couple of them actually. Anybody you care to mention?

Starr: I'm not at liberty to say yet. I've got to keep the element of surprise.

Blackberry Smoke Video for “Too High” from Holding All The Roses Understood. So what do you have on the road with you as far as guitars and amps and pedals and all the fun stuff?

Starr: Man, I've got too many guitars on the road these days, and I always do. And I love having that problem. My tech probably hates it. But you know, to be truthful, I think he loves it too. It's a lot of great guitars for him to take care of. And if he loves them as much as I do -- and I think he does -- then there's a lot of love in the room.

I've always got this old '56 Les Paul Jr., that's been kinda attached to me for a long time. It's a beat up old guitar, but it really sings. It's got such a magical mahogany ghost in it. I got a guitar from Gibson, one of those Southern Rock tribute '59 Sunburst reissues. And it is really great. I'm so appreciative of the guitar. And first of all it was great of the Custom Shop to let me have one of those.

Do you know JD Simo? He's a really great guitar player, he lives in Nashville. Anyway, he came out to a show the other day, and he brought a '60 Burst, and we sat in the bus and played it.

There are not a lot of opportunities in my life to play a '58 or '59 or '60 sunburst Les Paul. And sittin' playin' that '60, I was like, 'This [his Gibson Southern Rock tribute model Les Paul] is very, very, very close.' It really is very resonant in the same way, characteristically. Really nice neck. They did a great job with those custom-bucker PAFs. They really just nailed it. And I finally had a guitar to compare it to the other day.

Anyway, I got that, and I've got a couple of B-Benders, one is a stock Tele B-Bender from Fender. It's the Parsons-Green system, not the Parsons-White. And then one of those Music City Jrs., which is really a misnomer, because it's really a Special. It's got to P-90s. But I love the B-Bender. I'm such a nerd about it. I have one, and I don't really put it to good use. So I'm hoping to change that at some point.

Starr: Well, I worked it into a few songs that are on our records, so I kind of have to. Which is a great excuse, because it's just an excuse for me to be a B-Bender nerd. And then I've got a couple of guitars from a guy out in Los Angeles, a company called Echo Park Guitars. A guy named Gabriel Currie he makes really, really fabulous instruments. He's really an artisan. And I'm proudly playing a couple of his guitars out.

And I'm playin' this old Plexi-style 50-watt head made by Greg Germino in North Carolina. And I've got an old JCM-800 that I've had for years. And I'm swapping back and forth between those. I've got one of those Headbone [Valve Tube Head Switcher] boxes, where I can run two heads into one 4x12. I've got 4x12 green backs [vintage Celestion speakers with the green label]. It's kind of the meat and potatoes rig.

And for pedals, I've had this Analog Man Bad Bob Booster for a long time. I really love that. Just one knob and one button, and I think it's like a 30db boost. It's incredible. You press that button and it just goes ape-shit. I've always been a fan of, if you're gonna use an effective, in my opinion -- which is worth a nickel -- but I like a pedal to do something pretty drastically different than what the amp is doing. Otherwise I think it's kind of pointless. It's like, 'I like the way my amp sounds, I want this pedal to do something magical.' (laughs).

And I've got a Wampler one of their Faux Tape Echo pedals. it's really nice. It's a nice re-creation of an Echoplex kind of thing. It's got that -- you know there's a sound that happens with an Echoplex, it's kind of a swoosh sound, I don't even know what word you would use to describe that sound. This pedal seems to have that, and re-create that pretty accurately. And that's cool.

I have a Fulltone Supra-Trem, a nice tremolo. And a Cry Baby. And that'll do it. And do you play wireless or plugged in?

Starr: I've been wireless for a little while now. I was always a little wary of that. I don't know why, I mean -- hell -- the Stones were doin' it in '76, for cryin' out loud. But just thinking about the purity of the signal... But I sort of avoided it until the time came to try it, from someone else -- the opportunity. And then I tried it, and it's good. It's fine. I don't hear a bit of difference. Technology has come a long way, and this specific unit has a cable simulator function (laughs), I don't even know... I'm like, 'OK, yeah, turn that on. Might as well turn that on.' (laughs). But I really can't tell a difference. And there's no drop-outs...

Starr: No. Not that I can tell. And there's less to get tangled up in. What wireless system is it?

Starr: It is -- I would have to go in and look. I'm just not very observant about some things.

Blackberry Smoke Play “Livin’ in the Song” from Holding All The Roses No big. So you worked with Brendan O'Brien on the new album.

Starr: Yes, we did. He's great. That had to be a learning experience, among other things.

Starr: It was. And you being a person who really appreciated and loved a lot of the records that he's made, especially the Crowes records and the Dan Baird records, and the Four Horseman, and Raging Slab, and all those guitar records. And to be fair, the man's a genius with drums and vocals and bass as well.

From the beginning of Blackberry Smoke as a band, we really wanted to work with Brendan. And him being an Atlanta guy, also. We had been friends with a lot of his friends for a long time. He left Atlanta years and years ago, and I had actually never met him before. But I talked to a lot of his friends, like Rick Richards from the Georgia Satellites, who is obviously an old buddy of his, and I've known Rick for years.

And the legend of Brendan O'Brien abounds, around guitar players. He's such a great guitar player, and was when he was a teenager. He was like the guy that did the Albert Lee thing, when nobody else in Atlanta did it. He was the dude.

So to get to meet him and work with him, and when it came time for guitar day, he was like, 'OK, let's go down to my warehouse and pick out a bunch of stuff.' And he's got two of everything. So it was definitely a kid in a candy store type situation. I bet. So did he have some '58 Les Pauls and stuff like that too?

Starr: He did. And he actually did most of the choosing. He was like, 'We're gonna need this, and this, and this.' And he told me before going -- I mean, we used our gear as well. He really liked the marriage of some of the things we already had going, with guitars and amplifiers.

But he had told me about this '64 330 that he has, and he said, 'I played it all over a couple records.' And so he brought it. So I picked it up and plugged it in to -- he's got a great Bluesbreaker, a real Bluesbreaker. And I plugged it in and strummed a chord, and immediately was like, 'Ahhh, I know that record! I know this guitar! I hear it and I feel it.'

So I played that guitar, and it was hard for him to get that one out of my hands. I played it a lot. It was really just alive. It was howling in the control room. A truly hollow-bodied guitar.

And a '53 Gold Top of his, I played that a good bit. And a couple of great old Teles. He's just one of those guys. He's got it all. So you worked with him in pre-production before you went into the studio, right?

Starr: Not really. He and I just had conversations over the phone. He came out to a show in Los Angeles, at the House of Blues, and met us, and watched the show, and hung out. And he had actually seen us on Palladia, a show that they ran, a live DVD that we released.

So he was like, 'I know your band. I've been in your band. This is where I come from.' But as far as pre-production, we were on the road, and he was making the AC/DC record. So before he actually went to go do that, I sent him all the new song demos -- 18 or 20 songs. And they were mostly just acoustic, home demos of mine. Exactly the things I give to the band. And then a couple songs we had recorded the band playing live.

So that was it. He listened to those, and he picked out sort of a short list of what he thought the record could be, out of those songs -- 12 or 13 or so. Which kind of mirrored my list. And that was it. He was like, 'OK, just play 'em like this. The guys in the band, if this is the arrangement, play 'em.' And when you're in the studio, you just make changes when necessary, as far as arrangement changes, or tempo, or whatever. All that will sort of work itself out. But he didn't jump in and drastically change any choruses or anything?

Starr: No, not really. There was one -- the song "Payback's a Bitch" -- we had already actually released that on a live record six months before. And we started to record that song, and it was just one of those things where it just wasn't going to tape well, so to speak. And we were like 'OK, this is not really feeling right.' And that will happen. And you adapt.

And we kind of stopped at one point, and said, 'Let's just move to something else, since this song has already been recorded...' There's different reasons why something won't feel right, but it just wasn't really working.

And I kind of went back to the drawing board, and worked out a different way to get into the song, and I changed the riff a little bit. And then it opened up. And that's where I think, as a musician, you have to be open-minded, and just let it go where it's gonna go. It wasn't a drastic change. It really turned out well, I think. It gave the song another muscle, almost.

But he was great in that type of thing. He's not heavy-handed. He works with you, and not against you. He had said before, in another interview that I saw, 'As a producer it's my job to capture the band at their best, and to not make a band wait. I have to be ready for them...' he's very much about passion and the moment. And that's great. His energy is endless, and very hands-on. So when you're writing at home, how do you lay down ideas?

Starr: I just use Garageband. It's just so easy. But I make lo-fi demos, I guess you could say. I've got a couple of shakers and an acoustic guitar, and that's it. The other guys in the band -- after you play music with a group of people for so long, you almost start to hear, as a songwriter, you start to hear, or you can visualize what they're gonna play, almost. I know that might sound silly, but it gets that way. It's like being married, you know what your wife's gonna say before she says it. Yep. And usually that's "No."

Starr: Exactly! Maybe "Hell no!" even. (laughs) Right. So when you lay down demos, do you ever lay down drum loops or anything? Do you use EZDrummer or anything like that?

Starr: Just percussion. I've got a little conga. I never use any of the other stuff. And I'm probably just a little ADD about a lot of things. I don't have the attention span to try and do something like that. And really it's kind of like 'This is the riff, and this is the chorus, this is kind of a loose arrangement. The song goes like this' And then it's on to the next thing. But that's the easy way to do it. And then when the band gets together you just go through the song a bunch of times, and everybody starts feeling it and putting their parts in...

Starr: Yeah, pretty much. As a guitar player first, all the songs -- they're really riff oriented. I probably write riffs first when it comes to most songs, and then marry lyrics and the melody to a riff. As a guitar player, that's kind of where it all comes from. And so then if you're in the band, you just play the riff, basically.

There are certain times though, where we'll hear something that's a very ensemble type breakdown, or parts. And then we get together and say, 'How should we do this? Let's half-time it here, let's do this.' You know, the ins and outs of a band. That's the beauty of it. So you grew up playing Skynyrd and ZZ Top and some country and some blues and stuff like that, right?

Starr: Yeah. At first it was bluegrass. My Dad is a bluegrass guitar player. He taught me the chords. I was about 6 years old, and he had a couple of nice Martins, and I don't think he wanted me bangin' those around, so he bought me a cheap little guitar. And I learned how to play, you know, "The Wreck of the Old '97," and "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and things like that.

And then I kind of lost interest. And then at about 11 years old, I heard Aerosmith and Van Halen. Or I really paid attention, I guess you could say. And I had some friends that were really into Zeppelin and Sabbath and Aerosmith and Van Halen. And those friends of mine, at that age, they didn't want to hear Bill Monroe. So I didn't grab a guitar and go 'Hey, check this out, I can play." I wanted to play "Iron Man," or "Back in the Saddle."

But then I kind of married the two unknowingly. I was like, 'OK, well these chords I'm playing, I already knew those, from those other songs. It's the same." I wasn't really differentiating between the two kinds of music. I think I really noticed at one point when I was listening to "Honky Tonk Women," and I was like, "This is a country song, but it's loud." It was kind of an eye-opening thing. Did your Dad play in bands or tour?

Starr: No, just a hobbyist. He would get together with friends. So I saw a video of you and your son jamming on "Jessica."

Starr: Yeah! He's a ripper man! I didn't force a guitar into his hand. He was around it his entire life. He was slow to even seem interested in the beginning. And then he just did, at some point. And I was glad. But he's a very quick learner. I really have not had to sit down and say, 'No, it goes like this.' He comes to me and plays me "Diary of a Madman," and things like that, and I'm like, 'Oh, wow! OK. Good job!' That's cool. I'm in Chicago, and I play in an Allman Brothers and Southern Rock tribute band.

Starr: Oh wow, that's great man! I've been doing that for 15 or 20 years.

Starr: Let me ask you this: When you're doin' Brothers songs, who's part do you play? I don't play slide, so I tend to play more of the Dickey Betts stuff. My other guitar player plays all the slide stuff. I'm also the lead singer, so I'm kind of busy with that. But I'm the dude who gets to play the whole ending solo on "Jessica." It's my favorite solo.

Starr: Oh my God. And it's just perfect. So it was good to see your 16-year-old son playing it.

Starr: Yeah. I have to acknowledge the value of that game Guitar Hero. I would say that had more to do with getting him interested in learning how to play rock and roll guitar than I did. He and his friends picked it up. He wanted me to play the game years ago, and I tried, and I was like 'This is just bullshit. This is not right. You're not learning how to play the guitar." Because he beat me, is why I said that it was bullshit. (laughs) Yeah, my son would kick my butt at that too. I couldn't get the hang of it.

Starr: Right. But yeah, I've got to admit.. in fact, they've announced that they're gonna start production again, after five years, so I think the whole guitar industry is probably happy about that, to be honest.

Starr: Yeah, totally. He actually came to me -- I think he was about 11 or 12 years old -- and he'd been playing that game and he came to me and said, 'I didn't know that Eric Clapton was the guitar player in Cream.' And I said, 'Yes, absolutely, he was.' And he learned that from that game. So good for them man, that's great. Yes, it is. So you've gone out and toured with Skynyrd and ZZ Top and bands like that. What does that feel like to you, having grown up with stuff like that?

Starr: Well in the beginning it was very surreal, especially with Skynyrd and ZZ Top -- getting to speak with Billy Gibbons. The first time I was pretty star-struck. And then to watch them operate was just great. They are legends. Gary Rossington -- in the days we toured with Skynyrd -- I would always go and stand on his side of the stage and just watch him work. And then to become friendly with all of them, and have them come to our shows, or to give us a compliment in the press, anything like that is huge. Billy has actually sat in with us a couple times, and that's just great. How could it be any better?

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top sits in with Blackberry Smoke

Gary -- I actually got to play Gary's rig a couple of times now. He plays these Peavey Gary Rossington signature heads and cabinets, and they're really great. I never really thought that I would play through a Peavey rig -- no offense to Peavey -- but never thought that I would play through a Peavey rig and think, 'This is fabulous!' But it's great. You probably shouldn't print that, I don't want Hartley Peavey to come and try and kill me. (laughs) I met Gary recently at the Peavey 50th Anniversary concert at the NAMM show a couple months ago.

Starr: Oh yeah, OK. And it was very interesting because they had Skynyrd -- they had Gary and Rickey and their keyboard player, playing with Michael Anthony from Van Halen on bass...

Starr: Oh yeah! I saw pictures of that. And they had Robert Randolph jamming, and Kenny Aronoff on drums.

Starr: You know what, I'm pretty good friends with Rickey Medlocke and he told me about that, and I thought 'How Strange..." well I don't know about 'Strange' that might be a heavy way to put it. But that Michael Anthony was hanging around playing "Sweet Home Alabama," and then that Gary Rossington was playing "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love." (laughs) Exactly. It was really cool.

Starr: Well that kind of thing is great to kind of pull people out of their band's bubble, or whatever you might want to call it. Well I'm sure Michael used to cover all that stuff before Van Halen hit it, you know?

Starr: Yeah, I'm sure. So what is the state of Southern Rock at this point? Your band is helping to bring it back, right?

Starr: I don't know man. There are a handful of bands that share the same sort of sensibilities, maybe. We definitely don't have a club or anything like that, where we hang around and practice being Southern Rockers. In our case we're just a band of five guys, and that's just the way we sound. And we definitely didn't set out at the beginning to be a quote-unquote "Southern" rock and roll band. We just are a rock and roll band from Georgia.

And we do love that music dearly, and are heavily influenced by it of course. But we're just as heavily influenced by the Stones and Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. Our generation grew up with such great music. It runs the gamut from all those bands to great singer-songwriters. It really just is a happy accident. I know some people might not believe that, but that's what it is.

And at the same time, to be compared to the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, and the Allman Brothers -- that's a huge compliment to us, because those bands are great. I would say that we are definitely the same musical freedom as those bands had. They did what they wanted, and it worked.

There are a lot of bands out there, I think, that are a little plastic, when it comes to it. They throw the name Skynyrd around like it gives them some sort of authenticity. And I would say that it doesn't. But people will be the judge of that I guess. It's not up to me to say. But if you have to tell somebody what you are, then you might not really be that. Yeah. So is there a strong music scene in Atlanta right now? Are you home often enough to know?

Starr: I don't know. We're not there enough to know, really. There are some great musicians there. Always have been, always will be. But there's not an Atlanta scene that we're an active part of. So you've got a long road ahead of you this year. You're going to be touring all through the summer I'm sure.

Starr: Yeah. We're going back to Europe at the end of May as well and playing some festival shows there. It's sort of the way it shakes down for us every year. It's busy, and that's good. Better than being idle. Yep. I hear ya. All right, well I really appreciate your time Charlie. I look forward to seeing you when you pass through my part of town.

Starr: Thank you man. And when we do, come and say hello. I will do that. Take care.

Starr: Have a great one. Bye.

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