An Interview with Tom Johnston of The Doobie Brothers

Between 1972 and well into the 1980's, the Doobie Brothers were indeed a ubiquitous presence on both AM and FM radio. The band's unique amalgam of upbeat lyrics, soaring three-part harmonies, and tight ensemble playing made tunes such as "Listen to the Music," "China Grove," "Rockin Down the Highway," "Long Train Runnin" and "Black Water "enduring classics. Co-founder/guitarists Tom Johnston and Pat Simmons played a key role in giving the band its signature sound -- a sonic treat that brilliantly combined electric, hard-driving, bluesy street rock with a sparkling, country/folk/soul-tinged acoustic rhythm base. Fifteen Top 40 singles (including a pair of No. 1 hits), seven certified-platinum albums, four gold albums, and three Grammy Awards later, Johnston, Simmons, and the rest of the Doobies (guitarist John McFee and drummers Keith Knudsen and Michael Hossack) continue to sell out concert venues around the world. In celebration of the bands stellar career, last year Warner Archives/Rhino Records released a retrospective four-CD box set called Long Train Runnin , and a new studio album titled Sibling Rivalry has just emerged. In the following interview, Johnston and Simmons discuss the Doobie Brothers unique sound, their recording gear, their songwriting process, and the role technology has played in it. What's unique about the Doobie Brothers is the bands blending of electric and acoustic instruments in its rhythmic foundation. Was that a conscious move?

Tom Johnston: Yeah, it kind of was. I came from an electric background, even though I also played acoustic. Anyway, I really got into playing the acoustic guitar when I was living in San Jose and going to college. I ended up playing a lot of clubs to make money and pay the rent. So I developed a flatpicking style that sounded sort of like fingerpicking, but I also did these rhythm things, which are kind of self-evident on most of the records. It was in '68 and '69 that I developed all that chunka-chunka kind of sound, from playing an acoustic as opposed to an electric. Plus, I was listening to so many people. You name it, I was listening to it. And there were certain rhythms that were being used by various people and I tried to adopt some of those and put them together with whatever I was doing.

Pat Simmons: We're kind of a rhythmical band. And blending the more soulful kind of licks on the acoustic rhythm guitar -- the sort of draggin-the-pick-across-the-strings kind of thing that you do with a soul riff on the guitar -- gave us a thick rhythmic sound, especially on tunes like "Listen to the Music" and "Long Train Runnin". And then I was a fingerpicker, so I would do polyrhythmic patterns against Tom's chunka-chunka, soul thing. I think the sound that people associate with us comes directly from that interaction. The band also had an amazing vocal base. You could flat out rock, and then shift gears and do these amazing three-part harmonies.

Simmons: Around the same time that we put our band together, Crosby, Stills and Nash were very popular -- coming off of the Beatles being the kings of rock. I think we incorporated some of that into our sound as well. But I think we were a little bit more rootsy in our approach. Sort of like the Allman Brothers. What are some of your favorite Doobie Brothers' tunes?

Johnston: "Take Me in Your Arms" is one. It had a great guitar solo by Jeff Baxter and it had some great strings, keyboards and horns and stuff. I also liked "Dark-Eyed Cajun Woman" a lot. That was the first time I really got the chance to do an all-out blues tune with strings. It was kind of a tribute to B.B. King.

Simmons: I always point to "Long Train Runnin" because it's got that sound where Tom's laying down a soul kind of rhythm and I'm doing a fingerpicking thing against that, which is counterpoint to the rhythm that he's setting up. It's almost another little melody going on underneath the rhythm that he's doing.

Another interesting track I always thought was cool is "Chinatown from Livin on the Fault Line." It's a little more outside in terms of all the different things that are happening on it. It's a little more sophisticated I guess, compared to what we've done on other songs. I also like "Need a Little Taste of Love" from an album called Cycles. It's kind of a Listen-to-the-Music thing, but a bit more harder-edged. How do you two work out the guitar parts when you write? Is it a spontaneous reaction to one another?

Simmons: When I listen to a track of Tom's, I'll hear something for myself that I can contribute, and that's usually how I come up with my part. I'll sit down with my guitar and try to duplicate what I'm hearing in my head. Sometimes I more or less jump in and try to play along with him. Sometimes I'll come up with a part which is over the top. [In other words] It's too much and doesn't really add anything to the arrangement. Other times I'll jump in and just double what he's playing. It all depends on what the track needs. Sometimes tracks can be full before you even know it. They don't really need anything. So I'll end up letting Tom lay all the guitar parts down. Or something that he hears. What do you like about playing in the studio?

Johnston: Well, the first time we got in the studio was like going to Wonderland or something. If you've never been in one, it's magical. It's like "Wow! I never even thought I'd get to do this." All of a sudden, we're in the studio makin a record, and it was hard to believe.

As time went on, it was fun learning how to use the studio, even though I can't say I truly learned a lot about the board because I was just busy doing the playing and the singing and Donn [Landee, the bands studio engineer] was doing all the work behind the knobs. Teddy [Templeman] was doing the producing.

Nowadays, almost all of us have a studio in our homes. John [McFee] has a 24-track studio in his home, plus tons of computer stuff, so, in essence, we've got a lot of tracks. That's where we've been working on our latest album. What kinds of guitars and gear are you using in the studio?

Simmons: All the guitars that I play are custom-made Strat copies. A friend of mine who was one of our techs made three for me, and they're a little bit different from your normal [Fender] Stratocasters. The bodies are made out of spruce instead of maple or mahogany, so they're a little lighter. They're easier for me to play. He did a little custom stuff. As you get up towards the 12th fret where the neck is connected to the body, he narrowed the body, making it easier to play up high. He also added an extra fret. And he put some custom EMG pickups on them. I also use a guitar that I bought when I was 15. It's an Epiphone Texan and I've used it on every record -- usually for the acoustic parts. I've also got a Martin D-35 and a Gibson Hummingbird.

John [McFee] has a Roland virtual guitar that I've used in the studio. I've been using it a little bit more lately because it's convenient. It's there and anytime I need a sound, I don't have to plug it into a different amplifier or anything. I just dial it up with the Roland VG-8. I'm also a real big fan of vintage guitar amps. I've got a tweed [Fender] Bandmaster that I've used a number of times in the studio. It's got three 10's. It's kind of an oddball amplifier but it sounds really great. It's got a real good bluesy kind of sound. And I've gone away from pre-amping to the DigiTech system. I also have a rack-mounted gold Roland unit. It's got about 200 pre-sets on it.

Johnston: Basically, I do most of my stuff on Paul Reed Smiths. I also have a couple of Strats that were made for me by Mark Brown. He's our guitar tech from the '70s and he's an incredible guitar maker. In the studio I'm also using a 1965 Martin 00-18 and a 1975 Martin 00-28. What's your songwriting process like?

Johnston: My songwriting process has changed radically over the years. What it used to be was a lick on a guitar, or an idea of how chord changes went. With "China Grove" or "Listen to the Music," I remember calling and waking up Teddy [producer Ted Templeman] in the middle of the night and saying, "I've got this great idea. Listen to this," and I'd put the phone down and start blastin my guitar. Poor guy. I'd wake up his wife and kids. But that's how the songs got started back then. Players would add their parts, and Teddy was amazing. He had tons of ideas, as did Donn [Landee, engineer]. Teddy had arrangements that went on for days. They were all good. Great drumming things, because he was a drummer. Some of the songs stayed the same and some got added to. That's what happened with "Listen to the Music" and "China Grove." The lyrics always came last. In fact, we'd get to the point many times where a song couldn't really go any further without the lyrics and Teddy would say, "You gotta write the words, man." So I'd go in an office or a bathroom or something and write them in about 15 or 20 minutes sometimes. Or I'd spend a night in a hotel room and come up with some words. The words for "China Grove" were actually written around a piano lick by Billy Payne [of Little Feat].

Simmons: I basically sit down with my guitar and come up with changes that sound good to me. And then I go lay them down on tape. Has technology altered your songwriting process?

Johnston: The last two albums we did were cut on a 48-track digital unit. We used computers, which I knew nothing about at the time. In fact, they had to drag me kicking and screaming into the modern age, but once I got there, it made a big difference in my songwriting. I've been using Performer [software] for about three years and it's wonderful. Instead of coming up with just a guitar idea, I now get the chance to flesh out the whole damn tune -- from start to finish -- with not only guitar parts, but also with drums, bass, and keyboards. And sometimes even with horn parts. And I'm writing a lot now because of it. I've got something like 32 unfinished tunes that are sitting up there on the computer.

Simmons: I write songs exactly the same way I always have. The computer doesn't change anything for me in that respect. About the only thing that's changed is when we first started doing tracks, they didn't have drum machines. If you wanted something to keep rhythm, you used a metronome. That was about as good as it got [laughs heartily]. And I didn't even use that. But finally, they came up with a drum machine, and within a year or two from the time we got together, I ended up using one to come up with tracks. Now drum machines are much better and they sound like real drums, so you can get a little more inspired.

To me, different people use different approaches. But I think songs come from within you. They come from your heart. You can't use a computer to write your song for you. You use a computer to maybe cut a track or enhance an idea. But mainly that's in terms of coming up with drum tracks or other instrumental tracks -- after you have the song. But the song has to say something first before any of the other stuff is going to be meaningful.

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