Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #128. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s long and storied career could serve as a definition for the successful modern guitarist. Australian Guitar caught up with him to talk about his new album, upcoming tour dates and feelings toward the controversial delay pedal. Words by Alex Wilson.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd doesn’t cut any corners – as is to be expected from the outspoken blues icon as he nears his third decade in the spotlight. “I think you’ve got to aim high,” he says of his aspirations going into the studio for his most recent full-length offering, Lay It On Down. “You want to achieve greatness. 20 years into my career, my goal is to make the best album I have so far.”
Despite all the albums that hit the charts at #1, all the top 10 singles, Grammy nominations and a secure spot as one of his generation’s premiere guitarists, Shepherd won’t allow himself to rest on his laurels.
With previous records either paying deep tribute to his traditional blues roots or exploring his considerable skills in rock, 2017’s Lay It On Down features tracks that contain some of his most accessible and most diverse material to date. Having his first taste of success as a 16-year-old Louisianian signing an album deal with Giant Records (R.I.P.), Shepherd has grown musically at the same time as he’s racked up millions on millions in record sales.
Naturally, this gives him an easy and amiable confidence about his music, mixed with the humility to think that his best work might still be around the corner.
“We don’t really have a definite roadmap when we’re going into the studio,” he says, “Just very basic demos; an acoustic guitar, vocals – stuff like that. But soon, everything comes alive, and that’s when we start discovering all the directions that the songs are going to head in.”
Hunkering down at his home studio with top-level Nashville producer Marshall Altman, Shepherd was able to conjure up the horn-driven soul of “Diamonds And Gold”, the driving AOR (album-oriented rock) of “Nothing But The Night” and the country stylings of “A Hard Lesson Learned”.
While Lay It On Down foregrounds his formidable skills as a band frontman and singer-songwriter, fans of Shepherd’s peerless blues guitar chops will not be left feeling empty-handed. His trademark solos pepper the record all over, with the title track in particular featuring some especially tasty licks.
“When it’s time to solo, I just go out into the studio, clear my mind and play what I feel is appropriate in the song,” he tells us. “With some guys, it’s all about melody. For me, it’s about the energy. It’s about what kind of vibe you want to convey with the song, and that can be anything from an aggressive shred to a tender strum. I’ll play to that mood.”
Shepherd also has some advice for the less experienced among us, who are still building their solo chops: “I think of a solo like I’m climbing a hill,” he explains. “I go up, I reach a peak, and then I want to get back down smoothly. I learned early that you need to take the listener on a journey and keep that in the back of your mind.”
In terms of the guitars and amps he often lays his talents into, Shepherd has a favoured ’61 Strat, but also plays models from ’58, ’59 as well as his own signature series and custom shop models, and an assortment of guitars from other companies. Important to note as well is that many of his Fender amps have been custom‑wired by Alexander Dumble, a one-man powerhouse behind some of the most prodigious amps in the game (all of which are 100 percent handmade, of course).
Despite having so many guitars at his disposal, it’s the diversity in amp options that makes the most difference to Shepherd’s tone.
“You can have one guitar and four different amps, and you’ll get four entirely different sounds,” he says. “90 percent of my playing is the guitar and the amplifier.” Among the many pedals he owns, Shepherd singles out the Analog Man Queen Of Tone and the Roger Mayer Octavia as particular favourites. But overall, he expresses some reservations about the overuse of pedals – particularly delay.
“I use it very sparingly,” he admits. “I feel like some guys need to lay pedals on all the time to cover things up a bit, and having that delay off forces me a better player.”
Coming to Australia later this year for some of his first shows in six years, Shepherd will have his crack band in tow. American blues and American rock aren’t exactly tearing up the charts at the moment (unless found on Shepherd’s albums, of course) but he believes the live experience can bring something extra special for the punter.
“We guarantee a good a good show,” he asserts, “So we hope that people will come out and we hope they’ll be people that have never seen us before – maybe we can make them fans!”
Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Thursday October 4th - Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Friday October 5th - Eatons Hill Hotel, Brisbane
Saturday October 6th - The Forum, Melbourne