Those who say that rock ’n’ roll is in a parlous state and has in some small way been housetrained by modernity should have been here at the Gibson HQ in London’s Fitzrovia.
It’s only just gone 11am, and Ryan O’Keeffe, drummer of the Australian four-piece rock dynamo Airbourne, has got a little confused after an all-nighter has been sent back to the hotel after near taking the front door off its hinges. Of course there is a door bell, but you know what drummers are like.
Guitarists Joel O’Keeffe and Matt “Harri” Harrison didn’t exactly have a warm glass of milk before repairing to the hotel room at 9.30pm but at least they are vertical, noodling on a couple of ’59 reissues, and in the mood to share some guitar wisdom in advance of their latest album, Boneshaker.
Boneshaker, hmm. Burn Out The Nitro, Sex To Go, Blood In The Water . . . Was O’Keeffe aware that his song titles all sound as though they’re named after cocktails, or hotrods maybe?
It’s all about telling a good story, he explains. “You’ve got to create a scene. You’ve got to get involved and live in that world. I mean, that’s what you do when write a song.” You can’t overthink them, he adds, or explain the mystery away. “With the song Lucille, [Little Richard] just sings the word Lucille, the whole chorus!”
Simplicity is crucial to rock ’n’ roll, and it’s a big part of Airbourne’s sound. But simplicity invites its own pressures. How you play it is everything, says O’Keeffe. “Like you said – an AC/DC song, there might be three chords in TNT but it’s the way you play them that makes the difference.”
For Boneshaker, Airbourne found themselves in the legendary Studio A, on Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee, working with producer Dave Cobb. The photographs of Elvis, Johnny Cash and other greats who recorded there all staring down at them.
“The amount of times we came out and just had a joke, ‘Oh, yep, just used Elvis’ shitter!’” laughs Harrison, who was making his debut on record for Airbourne having replaced David Roads in 2017. “We sat on Elvis’ couch. Like, literally, in the control room, Elvis’ couch is in the corner, and that’s the one you are sitting on as you are listening to your music being played back.”
“Johnny Cash was on the wall,” says O’Keeffe. “Elvis was on the wall. Dave Cobb gave us a great history lesson of the people who worked there and recorded there. You have those little moments where you look at a picture of someone like Johnny Cash and say, ‘Have I done the best I can do today? Can I do any better?’ Y’know?”
In the studio, the band set up live as much as possible. Everyone together is how Harrison describes it, and you’ve got to enjoy it. With rock ’n’ roll, you have got to. Capturing the energy is central to Airbourne’s rock curriculum, but you've got to create it first, and their first tip they’d like to start with your guitar and amp . . .
1. Get the best gear you can afford
O’Keeffe: “I guess the biggest tip for any guitarist out there who’s starting out is to go out there, get a job, and save all your money to buy a big fucking Marshall stack. When you do that, it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world, you can block the whole world out by playing through a Marshall stack.
"When you get a Marshall stack it’s like your weapon, your full-on wall of sound. And then do the same thing and buy yourself a great guitar, a guitar that you really want to play, a guitar that you love. Don’t fuckin’ settle for an Epiphone or something like that.
"Go save your money and go buy that guitar. Buy whatever it is that makes you happy, and when you get that guitar, whether it is a Gibson or whatever.”
2. Learn to play clean with high volume
Harrison: “There is no use trying to get through anything in life let alone playing in a fucking rock ’n’ roll band with the comforts of having mistakes masked by anything – whether it’s gain or effects, whatever.
"As a guitarist; there is no feeling like bashing an A chord and literally feeling the air of a big set of amps moving behind you – up your backside! – and nearly pushing you off the stage.
"One thing that I would have done when I was 13 years old was probably a mistake that a lot of younger players would make in terms of learning an AC/DC song and thinking, ‘I’ll crank up the distortion.’ That often sacrifices the the punch of a riff. Don’t be afraid to put your balls on the line and play clean.”
O’Keeffe: “Feedback is a thing that’s going to happen, and if you’ve got your gain all the way up, you’re fucked. It’s always going to sound shit. But working with volume, definitely. Work with volume before you get onstage. Sit at home with your amp on 10 and work the guitar around the feedback and see if you can get it to work, because you can hold notes that will resonate more, and sustain more, through the feedback.”
3. Then learn to play under pressure, onstage
Harrison: “You’re gonna bust a string in the middle of a song, onstage, at your third gig, and being able to cope with the inevitable issues and shit like that. It is a good lesson in improvising and just dealing with the unknown and on the stop. That ties into the broken strings.
"That ties into Joel running into the crowd, getting into the middle of the crowd, and sometimes we are onstage and looking at this surge of people squashing into the mosh-pit and his trip back to the stage becomes a little bit harder, then it’s like Joel’s sitting there, stuck in the middle of the crowd, getting his legs pulled, his guitar pulled and still soloing, and we’re on the stage going, ‘We’ve got to lock it down and give him a platform.’ Even if it’s for 10 minutes we’ll keep going.”
O’Keeffe: “The only way to do that is to be onstage and keep playing. Do whatever you can to play. The only way to learn all that sort of shit is to break a string onstage when you don’t have a guitar tech. ‘Oh fuck! I’m going to have to play the solo now with five strings.’ You learn new things. You are forced into a box.
"So, you bust an E string? Well you can find the same note on the B. You learn different ways of playing. You are forced to. Then you burst another string, you’ve got four! Fuck! But then you hold that one note and you fucking make it work. BB King made one note work and it’s the most beautiful note ever. Learn to play under pressure and do it live and in front of people.”
4. Join a band ASAP!
O’Keeffe: “Get your guitar and get your stack then go get a band. It’s not just about being a guitarist; go form a band. If none of your friends can do it or no one can do it, doesn’t matter. Find people who will. Go find people who want to do this, and then if no one is going to be the fucking singer learn how to fucking sing. Drive it that way.
"You don’t have to be a great singer to be in a rock ’n’ roll band. That’s not what it’s about. You just have to have the heart, the soul and the passion. If you’ve got a guitar and a Marshall stack and you can fucking scream, and you’ve got a band with you, then you can go and see the whole fucking world. Learn three chords, a couple of solos, the pentatonic scale, and that’s all you need.”
Harrison: “Just have that attitude to do it yourself. If you want to chase that rabbit down the hole, chase it with blinkers on and no rear vision mirror. Trust yourself. It comes down to studying the instrument as much as you can.”
5. Play hard, dig in, and work on your picking dynamics
O’Keeffe: “Our whole thing has been to always hit hard, no matter what instrument it is. Guitar or drums? You should be hitting the fucking thing hard! And then when you sing, you scream hard! That was always the thing from day one, just to be louder and harder than everyone else but always still playing three chords. You just hit a big fucking A chord and it’s like whoah! You whack it and it’s fun.”
Harrison: “[When recording anything] do it as similarly to the live show as you can, and ultimately that is just the 13-year-old kid in all of us still having the time of your live, enjoying every chord you play.”
O’Keeffe: “Working your volume knob can do so much. Even if you get it down there at 1 or 2, depends on the guitar, pickup and the amp, you can get great sounds and you do notice the difference then when you back the volume on the guitar off. The harder you hit it the more the amp distorts.
"When you hit it softer the valves don’t react the same way. You have to really punch it and that creates a really cool dynamic for when you are coming up with a riff or playing live. Then you can bring the volume up and when you hit that chord and everything’s up, you bring the crowd with you. The whole band goes up.”
- Airbourne's new album Boneshaker is out now via Spinefarm records. Order it here.