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Sammy Hagar: The Gibson Interview

Peter Hodgson
|
09.25.2013

Sammy Hagar has always captured everything that's fun about rock n' roll: the loud guitars and fast cars, the women, the fun in the sun… but more importantly, he's never forgotten that music is best when it's shared. The late-night jams at his Cabo Wabo Cantina in Mexico are legendary - heck, they directly led to the formation of his band Chickenfoot with Joe Satriani, Michael Anthony and Chad Smith - and it's stuff like this that helps us relate to Sammy even when he's playing arenas or making multibillion dollar tequila deals. After all, we've all jammed with our buddies, we've all blasted out a few covers just for the fun of it, and we're all sharing in this wonderful thing called music. That spirit of collaboration and fun is all over Sammy Hagar & Friends, Sammy's new album. It features appearances by a diverse range of artists: Toby Keith, Mickey Hart, Taj Mahal, Michael Anthony, Nancy Wilson, Neal Schon, Kid Rock, Joe Satriani, Chad Smith, Denny Carmassi, Bill Church and more. We caught up with Sammy to talk about the new record and his love affair with the guitar.

You always hear "Sammy had so-and-so over to jam at his club in Cabo," but most of us never get to see that. This album is like that experience being distilled into an album you can throw on in your house.

Sammy Hagar

What I wanted this record to be was my life: my lifestyle now. Because in the past when I've went into the studio I've gone in with 15 or 20 songs and I'd record them all and pick the best ones. It was kinda like a business. And this record I wanted to be exactly who and what I am today. So the first thing I thought was, I want to write just lifestyle songs. So I wrote "Father Sun" first, and then "All We Need Is An Island." And then I thought, well, maybe I should call up some of my friends to play on this stuff. And little by little it dawned on me that I was making the record that I really wanted to make but I didn't have a method of doing it. There was no manual to making a record that's who you are. But then I realized what you just said: what I've been doing for the last ten years is going to Cabo San Lucas with different people all the time. I meet Toby down there, I meet the guys from the Grateful Dead down there, I meet Slash, Jerry Cantrell, guys from Metallica. They say "Hey, I'm going to Cabo, are you around?" And I'll say "[Expletive], I'll meet you down there." I have a house, I just go down there and we play this kind of music. This is what we do. Chad Smith and I, we go down there and we play "Going Down." We jam a lot of blues stuff, and this record is exactly who and I what I am. It's what I do.

"Father Sun" is an interesting song: when I first heard it I thought it might be some kind of standard I just hadn't heard yet. It's so authentic to the style.

I was in French Polynesia going around the islands with my family last Christmas and I didn't take any instruments with me because I didn't want to be playing music. I wanted to totally relax. And I started hearing all this French Polynesian music, and these musicians would have a drum and a Tahitian ukulele which is string real tight so it's almost like percussion. And I fell in love with this sound. You're sitting on this island in a hammock having a couple of cocktails, you hear this music and you go "[Expletive] man, this music is romantic," y'know? So I bought one of those instruments from one of those musicians who didn't want to sell it, because it's a remote island with 80 people on it. The guy from another island on this little boat, and I bought the thing for like ten times what it was worth. He probably got on an airplane and went back to LA! And then I wrote this song on it. And I was so inspired, because the sound of that instrument had such deep roots. I had an accordion player on it, and I did all this crazy stuff to make it really feel like what I was hearing. I'm in love with that song. That was the whole reason I started making the record, right there."

"All We Need Is An Island" is another one in that vein …it reminds me of your song "Living On A Coastline" in the sense that even if you don't speak English, you can hear that song and understand exactly what it's about.

Haha. Wait, you know "Living On A Coastline"? You know about that? Oh, you tricky son of a gun! That record, Livin' It Up, didn't get released in many countries. It was very underground, released strictly for my fans. But it is, it's my lifestyle and this record is like Livin' It Up was, upgraded to today. But that is an amazing love song, and when I decided to put the Hawaiian guitar on there, I gotta tell ya, I don't know one person who didn't say "No, don't do it Sammy, you're going too far now." I'm going "You can't go too far! There's no such thing! There's no place that's too far!" I called up Mickey Hart and I said "Mickey, give me the Tahitian drumbeat on that mother." He dug deep and found this Tahitian drum. I said "What I want you to feel when you listen to this is that you're stranded on a desert island with a woman you're madly in love with and at night you hear these drums coming from another island that you can't get to… and I want people to make love to that song, man."

Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" is an interesting choice because even though it wasn't originally recorded in a heavy blues style, you can unlock that from it.

I've gotta tell you, as I studied that lick I went "That is a blues fricken' lick." For an electronic band, some bizarre alternative electronic band, that's a badass blues lick. And I played it on guitar and said, "This is it." And Neal Schon, the intro on that thing, the licks Neal's playing, it's in high gear. I can't wait till the Depeche Mode guys hear it. I think when they hear it they're going to say, "Sammy Hagar, that [expletive] rock and roll freak?" Haha. They've gotta like it. It's a blues song and it's a great lyric, a great deep, dark lyric. I can't write lyrics like that. It's too dark for me.

I dunno, you got pretty dark on Van Halen's Balance. When that album came out I was like "Is Sammy okay?"

Yeah, you're right, you're right. That's because it was a dark period! I knew that was the end of that rainbow, man!

I've always wanted to ask you how you rank yourself as a guitarist. It takes balls to stand up there with Eddie Van Halen or Joe Satriani. I've been lucky to jam with Satriani and Vai, and to a certain point it's intimidating but also at a certain point you've just got to tell yourself "Screw it, this is what I do."

I'm a little bit intimidated if we go too long, but in Chickenfoot and Van Halen I just put the guitar on and got a big cheer always, and then I'd burn for a little bit and then take it back off before I ran out of chops, y'know? I rate myself as a guy that can play, and I can express myself extremely well but only in one language. I can only play blues-based guitar. And when a guy like Joe steps up there, he can play. Once he finishes with my repertoire he can go into French, Spanish and Russian on the guitar! He's just so versatile and fluent. Eddie's not as fluent and versatile. Eddie's got a style for himself and he's very much in that pocket but Joe can play anything. He freaks me out. When Joe and I start to write together he'll show me some chords and I'll start singing, then I'll pick up a guitar just mainly to figure a lick out: "What chord is that? What are you playing?" so I can know what notes I have to choose from to sing. Then he'll go "That was a cool lick, what did you play?" and I'll go "[Expletive], I don't know!" I don't get it. I just play.

There were so many great guitar players to come out of the 80s where you knew they'd kind of fade away, but even early on it was apparent that we'd still be hearing about Joe Satriani in 40, 50 years.

Oh Joe's here to stay. I think he's going to have a kind of Jeff Beck career. He's going to have these little windows where he gets a little bump, a little more publicity, a little more recognition, and then he kinda just cruises along, then all of a sudden somebody's gonna say "Wow, Joe Satriani's the best guitar player in the world" and everybody gets hip again. He ain't going nowhere. The thing that amazes me the most about Joe's guitar playing over any other musician is he knows exactly what he's playing and he can play it twice, three times exactly the same. He works his parts out but he does it really quick. It's not like it takes him forever to come up with a part. He comes up with it, BAM, instantly, and he knows every note he's playing and I don't know how he does it. He's too smart for his own good. But you're a lucky man if you stood up and played next to Joe Satriani. What I do is, I learn. He immediately makes me better because it makes me aware of what I'm playing, because if I see him solo I think, "I don't know what I'm doing." So I start to think a little more, like "Oh I know why that note works." So he just enlightens. He's enlightening to play with. I don't know if that works for you but that's how it works for me.

Sammy Hagar explorer

Definitely. It's like a dialog, like you're communicating about music through music …now, you're a man of impeccable taste in guitars. What do you look for in a guitar like your Red Rocker Les Paul or Signature Explorer ?

When I pick up a guitar and put it on, sometimes I put it on and go "Gah, this isn't me. I feel like it's a wrestling match. But more than any other guitar, when I put a Gibson guitar on, it feels right to me. The neck feels right, the setup, I don't know what it is. The Gibsons, the way they sound, they just work for me. It wasn't my choice, it's just the way it is. And now I'm such a Les Paul guy, even over the Explorer. One of my most famous guitars is my old Explorer from the Danger Zone record. That guitar's so famous that in concert, if I bring that guitar out on the road and put it on, it gets a standing ovation. It cracks me up! I usually put it on if I'm going to play "Love Or Money." But my Les Paul, man, when I look at it, my Les Pauls look like my guitars. I just see them and think "I'm a Les Paul player." They do that, man. And what I look for is comfort. It's not going to resist me when I try to do something. And I don't know what that is, if it's the shape of the neck, the frets, the action - I don't like high action, I like it low but not so low that it's hard to bend notes - so there's a lot of things that really matter to me. And I like simplicity. I used to only play one-pickup guitars with a toggle switch, on and off. I didn't even have a volume control, because being a singer I can't be bothering around with adjusting my volume and tone controls. Just give me a big long cord, plug it in to my Blackstar, crank it up, put it onto the rear pickup and go. If I'm taking a long solo I might flip it to the front pickup and turn it back just a little bit, play with a little more finesse and a little more soul, but in general I'm wide open, rear pickup. It's just my style, y'know what I mean?

Sammy Hagar & Friends is out now on Frontiers Records

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