Joe Walsh: Life's Been Good
Throughout his career as a solo artist, session player, and member of the James Gang and Eagles, Joe Walsh has consistently delivered exquisitely wrought solos that are as essential to the song they accompanied as the melody or lyrics. "It's very hard to do," Walsh says, "but I'm good at playing lead/rhythm, and that has a lot to do with my style."
"Basically, there are two ways I compose solos, he adds. One is to conceive what it is you want to accomplish -- you hear it in your head before you record it. That's a technical way of going about it. Then there's the absolute spontaneity of a first take -- not locking into anything, but just going for the magic of what happens when you really nail something. To do that, I try to close my eyes and try to get my intellect out of the way and let my hands play the guitar."
One of rock's enduring humorists, Walsh once submitted the following bio info to his record company: "I was born on November 20, 1947, in a place called Wichita, Kansas. I was 0 years old. Wichita is almost exactly in the middle of the continental United States, if you ignore Alaska and Hawaii. Most folks in Kansas do. Kansas is also where Dorothy and Toto once lived."
Walsh's earliest musical memories are of his mom practicing classical piano. He studied oboe, clarinet, and bass in high school. Even before taking up guitar, he was enamored with guitar solos on rockabilly records by Ricky Nelson --particularly Joe Maphis on "Stood Up" and James Burton on "Fools Rush In" --and Carl Perkins. "These guys didn't have anybody to listen to," Walsh says. "I respect those guys because they didn't cop any licks. They made all those licks up, and that's the foundation that all of us guitar players learned from."
Walsh progressed to electric guitar innovator Les Paul. To me, Les Paul is very much it." He also developed a bond for the Ventures' "Walk--Don't Run," declaring that song "one of the foundational instrumentals that made instrumentals okay to do. And with the Ventures, America discovered the tremolo bar, he continues. I was 13 when that came out, and I borrowed a guitar just to learn how to play that lead part. At the time, my mom was making me practice a stupid metal clarinet in orchestra."
During six years at Ohio's Kent State University, Walsh took up electric guitar. "I became the phantom of Kent State," he says, "taking electronics, music theory, welding -- all those weird courses nobody could understand." His woodshedding paid off in 1966 when he was tapped to replace Glenn Schwartz in the James Gang. During his tenure in the trio, Walsh worked hard on mastering the chunky chords, power riffs, and memorable solos that would become his stylistic hallmarks. In 1969, the band released Yer Album, followed the next year with James Gang Rides Again, with its Walsh-fronted hit, "Funk #49." "That's a case where the lick is the song," Walsh points out. "I also put on a lead part that's completely spontaneous." The James Gang struck gold again with Walsh's "Walk Away," from Thirds.
Soon afterwards, Walsh did, in fact, walk away from the James Gang, a group he once described as one of the second best rock bands in America. They rode West, sold a few million albums, and ended abruptly." Walsh, who'd already done session work on B.B. King's Indianola Mississippi Seeds, moved to the mountains of Colorado to record his first solo album, 1972's Barnstorm. In a departure from the James Gang's straight-ahead, power-trio approach, Walsh experimented with layering vocal harmonies and multiple guitar tracks spiced with phase shifting and other effects. Inspired by Duane Allman, he also added slide to his repertoire. "Duane and I were both born on the same day of the year, November 27," Joe remembers. "I met him a couple of times -- the James Gang, Allman Brothers, and Chuck Berry did some gigs -- and Duane was nothing but a total gentleman. He showed me the open-E tuning, which is what I use. He said, 'Look. Go to the drugstore and get some Coricidin. Throw all the pills away, and use the bottle.' That was his sound. They don't make those bottles anymore. The glass - -instead of a chrome slide - -is how he got his tone. Glass has such a wonderful texture. I have huge hands, and what works best for me is to put a Coricidin bottle or a rather large-opened slide on my middle finger."
Unlike Allman, Walsh learned to play slide with a pick. Both guitarists, though, went for vintage Les Pauls with a slightly raised bridge. "I'm partial to a '59 or a '60 -- it depends on the guitar," Joe says. "My '58s are fun too. My all-time favorite way of routing my guitar is into a wah-wah pedal and then into an original tube-model Echoplex. That would go into a pair of Fender Super Reverbs with four 10s, except only one top. I would connect the other four 10s to the external speaker jack, so that I was using one top and eight 10s. That way I had a spare top. I would put them on metal folding chairs that are about knee-high. Standing about eight or ten feet in front of those, you can actually move around and find different areas to sustain any note you want. It's also incredible because eight 10s pull the impedance of the amp down to like 4 ohms, and that's where you really get your sweet sound -- when the amp is screaming before it blows up. My other favorite thing is a pair of Vox AC-30s. That is tremendous for Fender guitars. The Super Reverbs are tremendous for humbucking configurations, like on the Les Paul."
Soon after touring to support Barnstorm, Walsh released The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get. "Rocky Mountain Way," a big FM hit during the summer of '73, delivered an exhilarating, Allmanesque slide ride in open E. "I did that in one take," Joe says with pride. "I was sitting on an old tweed Fender Champ at Criteria Studios, just warming up. I didn't even know that they were recording. I figured they were just getting a headphone mix. At the end of the song, I said, 'Okay, let's try one.' The engineer said, 'Hey, man, you're done.' That's an example of a spontaneous solo."
"Rocky Mountain Way" also introduced the voice box to stadium rock and roll. ("After that, Peter Frampton asked me how to use it," Walsh claims, "and he went and got rich with it and never even thanked me.")
By 1975, Joe had become a stoner's favorite. His studio masterpiece, the magnificent So What album, pulled together his strengths as a songsmith, guitarist, arranger, and sonic visionary. He made guest appearances -- often on slide -- on albums with Stephen Stills, Rick Roberts, Michael Stanley, Rick Derringer, Dan Fogelberg, REO Speedwagon, Ray Manzarek and Keith Moon. His much-anticipated appearances on late-night TV concerts culminated with the Don Kirshner's In Concert set released in 1976 as You Can't Argue With a Sick Mind, with its scorching remake of "Rocky Mountain Way."
Soon afterwards, Joe soared higher still, joining the Eagles. His first project? To orchestrate the solo climaxing their title-track-in-progress, "Hotel California." "I pretty much had to deal with the planning and organization of that," Joe recalls. "Don Felder brought in the descending chord structure, and I was commissioned as a specialist to arrange the order of the solos. I had free run of the arrangement and progression of the solos -- who played what where, who went up high. It was tough figuring out how much momentum we needed to start with compared to what we were going to end up with at the end of the song." Walsh also co-wrote "Life in the Fast Lane."
Off the road, Joe continued to play sessions and work on solo projects. By decade's end, he'd recorded behind J.D Souther, Rod Stewart, Bill Wyman, Dan Fogelberg, Randy Newman, Spirit's Jay Ferguson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. 1978's But Seriously Folks! became his most successful solo album, with his goofy yet sage "Life's Been Good" reaching number 12 on the Billboard singles chart. The following year, Joe played guitar and piano on the Eagles' final studio album, The Long Run. He then announced his candidacy for President of the United States, but was soundly defeated by former Hollywood heartthrob Ronald Reagan.
During the ensuing decade, Walsh worked as the band leader for his pal Ringo Starr and released the solo albums There Goes the Neighborhood, You Bought It, You Name It, The Confessor, Got Any Gum?, Ordinary Average Guy, Songs for a Dying Planet, Night Riding, and Future to This Life. He played alongside Graham Nash, John Entwhistle, Karla Bonoff, Don Henley, Steve Winwood, Wilson Phillips, and Andy Gibb, and in 1994 rejoined the Eagles for their hugely successful Hell Freezes Over album and tour. Since then, he's worked with Carl Perkins, Ringo Starr, and Etta James, among others, while MCA has tapped his vaults for Look What I Did! The Joe Walsh Anthology and 1997's Greatest Hits: Little Did He Know.
Of all the records hes made, what are Walsh's favorites? "I would think the overall guitar work in 'Rocky Mountain Way,' especially the talk box," he responds. "I suppose that 'Funk 49' has a certain uniqueness to it -- the opening lick and the middle lick and the percussion break. I guess I'm known for that. I'm also proud of having been part of Hotel California. Besides the royalties and everything, just the fact that it was a special album for a lot of people on the planet [is very rewarding]. I feel that I was part of a true band, and that we made a very valid musical statement for the generation that we represent." Outside of music, Joe points out, his passions are amateur radio, blacksmithing, arguing, and drinking beer. Life's been good, indeed.