Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s latest album – and his first for Roadrunner’s Loud & Proud imprint – is a labour of love which sees him sharing stage time with greater and lesser-known blues heroes. Live! In Chicago. The album is the exclamation point on a project which stretches back to 2007. Shepherd has performed with a lot of legends – he participated in G3 tours with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, after all – but when you listen to Live! In Chicago you’ll really hear a man in his element.
Could you tell us about the project that led to this album?
My last project, which I released back in 2007, was called Ten Days Out: Blues From The Backroads. That was a documentary film and a record where we went down through the south of the United States looking for the real deal blues musicians and wanting to go to them in their own environment and play with them. So we went to these guys’ houses, got set up on their front porches or in their back yards, and just played the blues on site and made an album and a film doing that. So basically there were a lot of my heroes on that, and also a lot of blues musicians that I was experiencing for the first time as well. So I put that out, and then we went out to do a tour in support of it, so we asked some of the musicians to go on the road with us. So we had Hubert Sumlin from Howlin’ Wolf’s band, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith who was in Muddy Waters’ band came out on the road with us… Buddy Flett, who was a guy from my home town who I watched growing up as a kid – he was like the hometown guitar hero – and this guy Bryan Lee, a blues guy from New Orleans who let me get on stage with him for the first time when I was 13. Then we had Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. We were on the road supporting that project and we recorded this show live at the House of Blues in Chicago.
What’s it like working with a legend like Hubert Sumlin?
Hubert Sumlin has influenced so many people. He’s probably one of the most influential guitar players ever. And he’s one of the greatest guys. If you ever get to meet him, he’s just one of the sweetest men you could ever meet. One of the greatest things about getting to play with him was developing a relationship on a personal level. We became very close, and that’s really one of the most valuable things I could take away from meeting and playing with him. It was a wonderful experience to stand there and hear him play all these guitar riffs.
What was the particular show like, as a performer? I understand from the liner notes that you almost had to cancel the gig?
Yeah, that was the first time that I could ever remember actually feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to play. I think I just came down with an overnight flu virus, a 24 hour thing, but it was horrible. I was on the couch in the dressing room just really sick, almost debilitating, and I just forced myself, picked myself up off the couch and got out on the stage, and I felt the power of the music and energy of the band. When we were listening back to the show I couldn’t believe it. I was really anticipating the worst from my performance but I was really thrilled. It was a great night. We actually recorded the night before when we were in Milwaukee too, but Chicago was actually the better performance of the two shows, which is kinda remarkable after how bad I felt.
What gear did you use for the live shows? The tone on the record is amazing.
The basic setup was two Fender Vibroverbs – the 1964 Blackface Vibroverb reissues with 15″ speakers, handwired – they’re built in the Fender Custom Shop. I’m running those in stereo, and then for the majority of the show I’m playing my Fender Kenny Wayne Shepherd signature Stratocaster. My pedalboard has a Dunlop wah wah pedal, then I have the Analogman King Of Tone pedal. I had the Ibanez TS808 hand wired Tube Screamer, then I have a chorus pedal that Analogman makes called the Bi Chorus, which is like two different chorus pedals with two different settings. Then I have the TychoBrae Octavia pedal and an Analogman delay pedal. That’s about it. Most of the time I just use the Tube Screamer and the King of Tone pedals. The other pedals are just there for one or two songs throughout the show. I’ve got one song I might use the chorus on, a couple of songs where I might use the Octavia, and maybe a couple of songs where I’ll use the wah wah pedal. But the primary sound is just the guitar, the Tube Screamer and the King of Tone pedal.
What were you after when you designed your signature Strat?
I modelled some of it after my 61 Strat, although the neck on my signature Strat is a lot thicker than the 61, but the rear profile is kinda similar, and the headstock and the way it kinda tapers towards the headstock. I went to a 12″ radius fretboard because initially I was having a problem with the 9″ radius when I was bending like a five-note bend which was just dying, so they said I should try a 12″ radius, which is flatter. Then we went for the jumbo frets because I play really heavy gauge strings, and those big frets really help you get a grip on the strings. I worked with them for like a year and a half trying to develop the pickups, trying to develop a big, fat round sound. Also trying to get the second position and fourth positions, where you’re using the combination neck and middle pickups, I wanted to get those sounding the way I wanted, because I’ve never been entirely happy with those sounds. So the pickups were something we worked a long time on. Then Graph Tech saddles – I’ve been using Graph Tech saddles since I was 17 or 18 and they really helped me with string breakage. It’s an alder body – my ’61 Strat is an alder body. Then we just went for a couple of different appearances. I’m a big car guy so I wanted to do one with racing stripes on it. I wanted a sunburst as my ’61 Strat is a sunburst, then we did this white guitar with a painted chris that my wife hand painted, then they transferred that to the guitar. I was a real pleasure doing that, a big honour. I’m looking forward to hopefully designing a couple more in the future.
And you had a replica made of your ’61?
Well basically I just got a little too paranoid about bringing my guitar on the road any more. It’s irreplaceable, and things can happen when you’re travelling – things can get lost on the flight, sometimes things get stolen – so I’m not too comfortable about bringing that on the road any more. So I asked Fender to build me a clone. They’ve got so good at this over the years, building guitars to look like the original. So I sent them my ’61 Strat, and they had it for about a year, and they sent me my original back along with the clone. I think only I would be able to tell the difference between the original and the clone. They really captured the soul of it. So I’ve been using the clone on the road now, and it’s like the best of both worlds, because it allows me to keep my original at home. Actually it’s supposed to go stay at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but at the moment I have the original at home and the clone on the road.
Well you know what you’re going to have to do is, if the clone gets dings and scratches on the road, you’ll have to get Fender to replicate them on the original.
Yeah right! Hahaha. That’s bound to happen!