The legendary Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 35-year history includes more than its share of tragic losses and personnel changes, but the one constant has been guitarist Gary Rossington, a dyed-in-the-wool Gibson Les Paul Standard player whose beefy tone and silken slide remains at the core of the group’s six-string signature.
Over the years Rossington has crafted classic guitar lines like the slide introduction to “Free Bird” and the brawny blend of feedback and overtones in “That Smell.” And he continues to create masterful parts and brass-knuckled solos after 21 live and studio Skynyrd recordings, including the soon-to-be-released Last of a Dyin’ Breed.
Recorded at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio, the album features Skynyrd’s current three-guitar line up of Rossington, Rickey Medlocke (who once led hard-core Southern rockers Blackfoot) and Mark Matejka. The tunes range from the defiant, blues simmered title track to the sweet ’n’ poignant ballad “Ready to Fly” to the blues-rock anthem “Mississippi Blood” to the inspirational closer “Start Livin’ Life Again,” which features dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas. The disc also marks the debut of new bassist Johnny Colt, an original member of the Black Crowes.
When Rossington picks up the phone at his home in rural Georgia, he’s just returned from a European tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd and is getting ready to bring the new music on Last of a Dyin’ Breed to the group’s stateside fans through this summer and fall.
Are you trying to make a statement in titling the new album Last of a Dyin’ Breed?
We all had a hand in co-writing that song. There are not a lot of bands out there these days touring and on the radio and on television that are real gritty and started out as a bunch of guys in the garage trying to find their sound. Those bands don’t get opportunities anymore. All you see are pop acts and dance acts and acts that make singles, not great albums. Rock ’n’ roll bands are kind of a dyin’ breed these days.
It’s kind of too bad there aren’t any more great rock or blues bands comin’ up. Where’s a new generation of people like Keith Richards? It’s a different culture now. Nobody does solos anymore. I like the old stuff. In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, people would stretch out and take solos.
What guitars did you use on this album?
I always use my ’59 reissue Les Pauls. I’ve got one that’s a sunburst and one in black that I play slide on. I’ve got the action a little higher on that and the strings a little lighter, so it’s dirtier. As usual, I just played all Gibson Les Pauls and I left the other models of guitars to the other guys for contrast.
I love Les Pauls. Most of the time I use standard tuning for slide. Early on, we didn’t have the time to change tunings on stage, plus I only had one guitar back then, so I learned to play slide in standard. But I like to play in open E a lot. I use that on this CD a lot, and open G. Duane Allman was real fond of open E and played it great, and he was a big influence on all of us. We were still teenagers when we’d go to see the Allman Brothers. When I first heard Duane he was tuned to open E and I didn’t know what the hell he was doing until I discovered open tunings for myself.
I use a Marshall and I still use a Peavey Mace in the studio. I have a signature amp for myself that’s kind of like the old Peavey Mace, which they don’t make anymore. Back in the ’70s I started playing the Mace. We all got a Peavey amp endorsement back then, and until that time we were playing Marshalls. When we would do sound checks, one of us would always go to the back of the hall and listen. Often the Marshalls would sound tinny way out in the halls, but the Peaveys kept the balls in the bass more, so we switched. But nowadays all the good amps sounds about the same. If you’ve got tube and analog gear, it’s all gonna sound warm and good.
How do you keep it fresh after 35 years in Lynyrd Skynyrd?
It’s always fresh because we have different crowds and when we see these faces we’re making happy every night… There’s a lot of mood at one of our shows. People have big feelings about some of our songs that they’ve grown up hearing. They’ve been played at weddings and funerals and parties… It’s like when I go to a Rolling Stones show and hear all their songs that have been part of my life. It’s the people and their excitement that keep it new. Sometimes we try to play the songs people really know note for note, but we try to keep a song or two that’s new in every set to surprise people and let them know we’ve got somethin’ left to prove, too. And of course we make new albums, which we always enjoy and hope the people do, too.
You decided to record old school, live in the studio?
We went in the way we used to in the old days – the way we recorded the first three or four Lynyrd Skynyrd albums. Everybody learned the parts and we went in and set up and played live. We overdubbed a little bit of vocals and guitar here and there. It was fun. We even did the solos live. All three guitars, drums and bass would just go for it, and Johnny [Van Zandt] sang as we played. Anything that wasn’t right we’d just touch up with an overdub. It’s easier and more real that way for us.
With three guitarists, how do you map out the arrangements for the guitars?
We’re known as a guitar band, we like big sounds, and we’ve got three guitars, so there’s a lot to play to and off of. It’s really cool. Whoever’s style fits the song best plays the solo. In the old days Allen Collins would play all the fast and frantic parts, because he was good at that. But if it was something like “Simple Man,” slow and mellow, I’d take it. I play slide on a lot of this album and live, but all three of us play slide in the band. I just happened to do it on this CD.
That slide at the start of the album, on “Last of a Dyin’ Breed,” that’s me. I was just messing around, warming up, and they recorded it and it became the introduction. I love playing slide. Old blues is my favorite style of music. We were all raised on old blues, country, rock ’n’ roll and the British thing, but old blues is really what I love to listen to.
We admired John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers a lot. We did some of their songs and Cream when we were first starting out. Also some of the stuff Clapton did before he joined John Mayall, in the Yardbirds. That’s music we loved and were influenced by a lot.
What compelled you to start playing slide?
Back in the day when the band had just started, Duane Allman influenced us a lot. We used to go hear the Allmans in parks and “be-in’s” and “love-in’s”… that’s what they called it in the ’60s. And there was a guy in Canned Heat called Blind Owl [Al Wilson] that used to play slide who was really cool. And Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones recorded slide a few times, and we always used to hear old blues cats playing it. I loved it, so I picked it up. I try to use it to play melodies and make the songs sing a little bit.
How long have you been playing guitar?
I was 14 or 15 when I heard The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, like all the other guys who started garage bands. I used to love Elvis, too. My mama said I used to stand in front of my mirror with a broom and pretend I was Elvis. And I taught myself, after hearing The Beatles and the British blues things.
How do you think your playing has evolved over the years?
Honestly, I don’t think it has, much. I’ve gotten a little better and I know more. And the songs, we play ’em so much that I’m always in my comfort zone. What I aim to do is just play my own style and don’t listen to what a lot of other players do. I like to play when I want to play and what I want to hear. The most important thing is having a different style. Everybody can learn somebody else’s licks, but to have your own style and voice as a player is best. That’s what grabs people’s attention.
How has Johnny Colt joining the band affected the sound?
He has a lot of energy. He’s a great bass player. He plays all the songs the way we used to do ’em, just like Leon [Wilkerson, Skynyrd’s original bassist], who was a big influence on Johnny when he was coming up. He is a real high energy guy and smart and interesting. We’re all kind of wild and crazy, so we all fit in together really good.