Had Steve Hunter done nothing more than compose and play the legendary live intro to Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane”—featured on the 1974 album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, with accompaniment by his good friend, Dick Wagner—his place in rock history would be assured. Truth is, however, Hunter’s monumental career has seen him collaborate with a number of high-profile artists—including Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel, Aerosmith, and Mitch Ryder, in addition to the aforementioned Reed.
Lesser known is the fact that Hunter has released several solo albums that further attest to his six-string prowess. His latest, The Manhattan Blues Project, pays homage to New York with a collection of beautiful guitar-based compositions inspired by the great city. Guests include Joe Satriani, Joe Perry, Marty Friedman and Johnny Depp—but make no mistake, the disc is Hunter’s show all the way.
In this first installment of a two-part interview, Hunter talks about the concept for the new album, the guitars he chose to play, and the importance of capturing a tone that mimics the human voice. Later, in Part Two, we’ll discuss his rich history playing on such classic albums as Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare and Lou Reed’s Berlin.
How did you develop the concept for the new album?
The idea sort of gradually came together. A friend of mine who’s a photographer had taken a beautiful photograph of a sunset in Central Park, in Manhattan. When I saw the picture I started getting an idea for a song. I went into the studio and roughed out a demo, a chord progression. Coincidentally I was also working on a version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” There’s something in the production and the arrangement of “What’s Going On?” that brings to mind New York, for me. So I had those two things going on, and then I went out on the road with Alice Cooper. During a break in the tour, I listened to the new song again, and very slowly I started to think it might be a cool thing to write an entire album about Manhattan. I had been in and out of Manhattan many times in my career, for studio work and live performances and all kinds of things. I was familiar with the city. There’s a bluesy, soulful side to Manhattan that I could always feel. As I thought about that, that’s how the concept came about.
Did you have a template in mind, an album from the past?
No, I didn’t, I just let things happen. When I’m writing songs, especially instrumentals, the vibe of the song is everything. Some of these songs developed from a title, and for others, the title came from the song. But once you have a concept in mind, once you know you want to write about a particular thing, that idea subconsciously directs you. You instinctively know when something doesn’t fit, or when something’s not working. There were a couple of songs I recorded with the intention of putting them on the album, but I ended up pulling them. When I listened to the songs in sequence, it was clear they didn’t belong.
Were you trying to evoke visual images with the music?
No question. Debussy is my all-time favorite composer. One of the things I love most about his music--especially the orchestral stuff--is the way it evokes imagery. If you listen to La Mer, for instance, you can’t help but see a stormy, windy ocean and crashing waves. There’s also a symphony he wrote called Afternoon of a Faun. When it opens, you see in your mind this image of an elfish fawn in a forest. I’ve always admired that kind of instrumental writing. Peter and the Wolf is a great example of that as well. The songs on the new album are snapshots--snapshots of Manhattan, except that you hear them rather than see them.
You played a Les Paul on much of the album. Which model did you use?
It’s a Lou Pallo model. Pallo was a guitarist-friend of Les Paul. They did a lot of work together for many years. I got the guitar from a friend of mine, one of the other guitar players in Alice Cooper’s band. It’s one of the most unique-sounding Les Pauls I’ve ever heard—just amazing. Maybe it’s because there’s a P-90 in the neck; I’m not sure. I used it a lot on this album. It’s a very soulful sounding guitar. I don’t think they made very many of them. It’s a really beautiful guitar.
What is it about a composition that dictates which guitar you turn to?
It’s not so much the composition--it’s really just the melody. A lot of times I’ll try several guitars until I find one that just seems to speak. I realize that sounds ambiguous, but there’s no other way I can describe it. I might try four or five guitars and think, “These just aren’t cutting it. When I try to play the melody it doesn’t sound right.” But then I plug in that one guitar and it’s like, “Yes, that’s it!” Sometimes I’m able to narrow down the sound that I want beforehand, but as far as the guitar I use, that’s trial and error.
You started out your career playing an SG?
Actually the first guitar I ever bought myself was an ES-345. I played that guitar for many years. I bought it because B.B. King played one, and he was my hero. He still is my hero. But you’re right, when I went to Detroit and started my career, I had a ’64 SG. That was a great guitar. It got stolen, unfortunately, but those things happen. The next guitar I got was a Les Paul TV Special, which had one P-90 pickup in the bridge position. I’ve been using Gibson guitars throughout my career.
Photo Credit: Mark Latham
You’ve talked in the past about how you try to make the guitar mimic the human voice?
I do try to make the guitar sound like a human voice. One of the highest compliments I’ve gotten in my life was when somebody told me my guitar tone sounded like black woman singing in church. That’s the best compliment someone could pay to my tone. There’s nothing more powerful and soulful than that; it goes right to your heart and soul. The very first time I heard Aretha Franklin, I thought, “I would be in bliss if I could make my guitar sound like that.” So yes, the guitar is my voice. I use it to sing.
You’re also playing more these days with your fingers, and less so with a pick?
That’s something that’s happened gradually. The tone actually comes out of your fingers, more than it does from the amp or from any pedals, because you can make that same sound with the guitar unplugged. That’s something I’ve always loved. Albert King never used a pick. There’s something special that happens when he plays with his thumb. It’s the same with Wes Montgomery. There’s a certain tone the string makes when it’s plucked with the flesh of your finger, as opposed to the hardness of a pick. I do still use a pick about half the time. For certain types of rhythm guitar you have to have a pick. But when I’m working on melodies, lots of times I find myself starting with a pick, and then slowly but surely the pick disappears. As I play with my fingers, I start to think, “Ah, now it’s sounding the way I want it to sound.” It’s something that’s evolved.
(Check back soon for Part 2 of our interview with Hunter, where he talks about writing the legendary intro to “Sweet Jane,” his rich history playing with Mitch Ryder, Alice Cooper and Lou Reed, and why he could never be a shredder.)
Photo Credit: Amy Beth McNeely