As one half of the best-selling musical duo of all time, John Oates may always be most widely recognised for his six-string, songwriting and vocal contributions to Hall & Oates’ vast catalogue of monster ‘70s and ‘80s hits and soulful evergreen bangers - not to mention for sporting one of the most iconic moustaches in pop music history.
But there are a great many more strings to Oates’ bow than perhaps first met the eye – via the magic of MTV – during the height of the band’s hit-making powers.
As heavily influenced by the gentle acoustic stylings of the 1960s folk revival as by the slickness of tuxedo-clad Motown groups and the infectious energy of funk pioneers like James Brown, Oates’ musical tastes are – and always have been – stylistically diverse.
“I used to make a joke that my whole musical persona has always been a work shirt, jeans and an acoustic guitar in a coffeehouse, and a silk suit with a Fender Strat on stage playing R'n'B,” he tells us, speaking from his home in Nashville, Tennessee. “To this day, I still do the same exact thing. I just go back and forth.”
On the denim-wearing, acoustic guitar-toting side of life, Oates has recently been touring select US theatres with an intimate “singer-songwriter type show” in collaboration with Nashville session ace Guthrie Trapp, while the promise of a series of fresh solo singles looks set to take care of all things sonically suave and sophisticated.
“I’m in the process of releasing pretty much a song a month for the next few months,” explains Oates, who at the time of this conversation, is preparing to head off and shoot the accompanying video for the next such single, Disconnected, which follows the late 2022 release of sleek standalone, Pushin’ A Rock.
Spoken like a true hero of the MTV era, he reveals that six-string purism certainly won’t be getting in the way of a good on-screen aesthetic: “I’m going to get a red Fender Mustang out of my locker because the theme of the video is black, white and red. I’ve got a little tiny Fender Mustang that I never play, but I’m going to use it for the video!”
Due for release on Friday 3 February, Disconnected, gives a gentle nod to the classic Hall & Oates rock n’ soul sound, boasts a groove smoother than a buttered otter and packs plenty of delicately layered acoustic and electric guitars that show off Oates’ talent as an arranger and self-accompanist.
If one thing’s for sure, it’s that the veteran musician remains a very busy man. “I know everything that I’m doing until Christmas of next year,” he laughs, as we dig a little deeper into the topic of current projects and find that he’s also hard at work on a brand new, three-part series of instructional guitar videos for TrueFire.
The series will cover the often overlooked subjects of accompaniment, collaboration and what Oates describes as “the history of the American pop song, going back to the beginning of radio and record players.”
The episode on collaboration will naturally touch on working with Daryl Hall, as well as anecdotes from time spent working with a plethora of other A-list musicians. Oates also promises to explore the “psychological implications of a collaboration” and “all kinds of deep interesting things.”
Offering double bang for your buck, he’ll be joined by his current on-stage partner, Guthrie Trapp, for the next episode. “He’s an amazing monster guitar player,” enthuses Oates. “We’ve known each other for almost twenty years and we’re going to talk about the very under-appreciated technique for accompaniment, which I don’t think – especially a lot of beginner or intermediate guitar players – really consider.”
“Most guitar players just want to show off all the time and show all the cool licks that they can play, but there’s a subtle and very interesting dynamic that happens when you’re accompanying someone.”
As a player, a performer, a teacher and a musicologist, there’s a great deal of wisdom to be absorbed from the legendary John Oates. So, before settling into the serious business of carving up the ten albums that have altered the course of his 50+ year recording career, we chatted with the great man about guitars, gear and how relocating to the spiritual home of American roots music fifteen years ago inspired him to up his musical game…
Your musical output is very diverse and covers both, but did you start off wanting to be an acoustic guitar player or an electric guitar player?
"I had an electric guitar when I was a kid, but my first guitar was an acoustic guitar - which, by the way, I still have. It’s a guitar which was made by my neighbour’s father who lived down the street from me. He was an amateur woodworker and he made a guitar, and it sat in the corner of his basement. When I’d go to their house, I’d pick it up and he finally just gave it to me.
"I started with an acoustic, but I played electric guitar and played in bands and I’ve always gone back and forth between the two. They’re like tools, as far as I’m concerned. You don’t use a hammer to put a screw in a wall - you use the right instrument for the right situation.
"Right now, I’m playing almost exclusively acoustic guitar because of the show I’m doing, which is a singer-songwriter type show, where I tell stories and it’s really more orientated towards the acoustic. I’ve been working on the never-ending quest to find the perfect amplified acoustic sound, which is something that’s not easy to achieve!"
What gear are you using for that right now?
"I’m using a whole bunch of different guitars and each one speaks in a different way. I’ve found this new TC Electronic pedal that does sustain that’s very unique, and I’ve found this other small pedalboard that allows me to use delays, reverbs, choruses and all sorts of things.
"When you’re playing by yourself, sometimes you need a little bit more variation and firepower. Even though I play and understand how important it is to be a purist, I’m not really a purist when it comes to that - I just want to serve the song. Whatever the song needs, I want to be able to do, and a lot of times when you’re playing on your own, you need the help of something.
"Having delays, reverbs and choruses expands the sonic palette, so to speak. It allows you to do more."
When you play electric, you’re known as a Stratocaster player and you have a rather special Strat. Could you tell us a little bit about that guitar?
"It’s one of those things, it kind of fits my body. The Stratocaster has a belly cut in the body and I like the way that feels against my ribs. I hate the way a Telecaster feels. It feels like I’m putting a two by four against my rib cage!
"I bought my ‘58 Strat in 1972 for a hundred and twenty-five bucks and I’ve played it ever since. It’s part of my body – literally – and there’s just something about it. It’s also got a lot of really unique features."
What are some of the modifications you’ve made to that guitar over the years?
"First of all, in the 1970s, it was very rare for people to take out the pickups and replace them with substitute pickups, which I did. I took out the three traditional Fender Stratocaster pickups and replaced them with Gibson humbucking pickups. Back then, nobody did that! In fact, Seymour Duncan – who is one of the great pickup manufacturers in the world – said to me that that was one of the things he noticed about me in the early ‘70s.
"He actually restored my Strat back to its original condition. The rear pickup next to the bridge is a 1957 Gibson Patent Applied For Humbucker – a real one, which are extremely rare and very valuable – and then he replaced the one near the neck with one of his replicas of that same era.
"The other thing about that guitar that makes it very unique is that the guy who did the work in order to make the pickups fit routed out the entire body of the guitar. So, if you were to take the pickup cover off, I would say two thirds of the guitar is hollow. They took a Dremel tool and basically gouged out all the wood under the pickguard. So, under the pickguard is a complete cavity, and there’s something about the resonance of that cavity with those pickups that makes this unique thing happen."
Did a particular player or guitar sound inspire you to make these fairly radical changes?
|It just was dumb luck! It was the seventies, everybody was stoned and people just did things - they didn’t think about it!
"I also replaced everything - the nut, the bridge, the backing plate - with brass. That was a very, very unique thing that happened in the seventies – people bought brass substitute bridges, nuts and plates.
"The other thing is, I never use the whammy bar on my Stratocaster because it would always go out of tune, so I have the bridge blocked, and that way it stays nice and in tune. There’s aftermarket tuning machines – I have Schallers on there – because the original Fender tuning machines were not that great, to be honest with you! It’s a Frankenstein, in a sense, but there’s something about it that’s very, very unique.
"Now that I think about it, that was my first Stratocaster. The guitar I was playing prior to that was a Les Paul Junior with P-90s and a Bigsby, and it was okay. I bought that guitar for a hundred bucks from a friend’s older brother who had it sitting in his attic. The guitar I had before that was a red Gibson SG Standard, which I bought in high school and I had kept.
"I’ve got a really crazy story about that guitar!
Please do tell…
"I bought the guitar in 1966, so it’s a ‘66 Gibson SG Standard in red. In 1970, when I moved to Philadelphia, I had a good friend who was an amateur guitar player, who didn’t have a guitar. He and I palled around all the time and I said, “Look man, I’ll lend you the SG on permanent loan. Just play it and one of these days, I’ll get it back, so don’t worry about it.”
"Well, I never got it back from him. Time went on and we lost contact, but about three years ago, I got to Philadelphia to do a show, and there was a note at the hotel for me that said: ‘Hi, I’m Roger’s sister. Roger passed away and his last words were, ‘Make sure John gets his guitar back’, and there was a phone number.
"This was in the afternoon and it was a Friday, so I called the number and she picked up. We talked for a bit and I said, 'Can I get it from you or can you drop it off?' and she goes, 'No', and it was because she was an Orthodox Jew and she couldn't go out on a Friday and give me the guitar! But she said, “The Rabbi will drop it off to you.”
"So, either later that day or the following morning, the concierge from the hotel called me and said there was a package for me. I went down, and there was the guitar – exactly the way that it was when I gave it to him. It even had a set of strings from the 1970s!"
Since you’ve been residing in Nashville rather than Philadelphia, have you been finding fresh inspiration in all of the incredible contemporary musicians who inhabit that city?
"In the Americana world, I love what Molly Tuttle is doing. Molly is amazing and I’ve watched her develop from the time she first started here in Nashville, and we’ve played shows together.
"I have such respect for people like Sam Bush and his mandolin playing, and Marty Stuart - not only for his mandolin playing, but his guitar playing is just unbelievable - and people like Jerry Douglas on dobro and Béla Fleck on banjo. These guys are modern masters, and I’ve had the good fortune to be able to record and play with them.
"One of the most important things that’s ever happened to me was - when I first came to Nashville - I started recording with some of these people and I realised how high the bar was set musically, and I started practising really hard!
"‘Uh oh,’ I said. ‘I’ve been coasting a little bit here in the world of Hall & Oates!’ Really, it’s the God’s honest truth. I began practising very, very hard, and to this day, I’ve never stopped.
"When I first came to Nashville, it was like an old boys’ club, and my name and my reputation might – just out of curiosity – have got me in the door, but to hang at the party, you had to be able to deliver. I learned that very quickly!"
John Oates: 10 albums that changed my life
1. The Temptations – Temptations Live! (1967)
"This came out in the mid-sixties when I was a Temptations fanatic. They were one of my favourite Motown groups without a doubt. The vocal harmonies, the personalities, the songs – many of them written by Smokey Robinson – were just so, so good. The original group, with Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin, was the epitome of everything that I considered to be professional. They looked great, they had choreography, they were all the same height, they had these amazing black tuxedos and their vocals were incredible.
"They came out with a live album that they’d recorded at a nightclub, and it had this immediacy because you could hear the people in the audience and there was an excitement to it. In those days – unlike today – there was no Pro Tools and all the technical wizardry that we have at our disposal. There were no fixes, no repairs - this was real. It was exactly what happened, exactly how it happened.
"It showed just how good they really were. There was an excitement and an energy that I grabbed from that, which – to me – was really what a live show should be like. That’s the type of excitement that you want to be delivering from the stage to the audience."
2. Mississippi John Hurt – Folk Songs & Blues (1963)
"I got the chance to see and meet Mississippi John Hurt when he was recently discovered during the folk revival in the sixties. He came to Philadelphia a lot. He had friends in Philadelphia and his manager actually lived a few blocks from where I was living, and his manager’s girlfriend was Bonnie Raitt. That’s why Bonnie’s so damn good at what she does – because she actually learned from the masters!
"Mississippi John Hurt – to me – was very unique. A lot of people would lump him in the Delta blues category, but he really wasn’t a Delta blues performer. He was more of a Piedmont or hill country performer, and his influences were more aligned with ragtime than they were with Delta blues in the way he played guitar. His fingerpicking style was very much taken from the stride piano style, with alternating bass notes and things like that.
"I devoured his very first album. I learned every song. Fortunately for me, I had a guitar teacher and a mentor named Jerry Ricks who became Mississippi John Hurt’s road manager and would travel around with him, and learned everything exactly the way Mississippi John Hurt played it.
"I actually have Mississippi John Hurt’s guitar – the Guild F-30 that he played at the Newport Folk Festival – sitting right here in the closet.
3. Doc Watson – Doc Watson (1964)
"I devoured this record too. I know every song on it and I can play every one. I still play Deep River Blues in my shows – it’s a staple of my live shows and I play Mississippi John Hurt songs as well. I got a chance to meet Doc Watson a number of times, and then I actually got a chance to play with him once in the dressing room of a Philadelphia folk coffeehouse called The Main Point when he was there, which was probably around 1971.
"He was there with his son Merle who he was performing with, and I got a chance to play briefly with him, which was the thrill of my lifetime. As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the greatest – if not the greatest of all time – when it comes not only to acoustic fingerpicking, but also to flatpicking as well."
3. Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)
"To me, Joni Mitchell is the ultimate. The album Blue, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the greatest - if not the greatest album ever made, especially in rock history. Everything about that album is perfect, even down to the cover. The cover looks exactly like the music inside.
"The quality of the engineering, the tone of the guitar, her unique guitar style using these very strange and unusual tunings, her voice - what do you need to say?
"The songwriting is so good. Every song is a masterpiece of a musical painting. She’s a painter. There’s so much going on on that record, and there’s so much perfection.
"It must have been a time in her life when obviously there was a lot of inspiration and a lot of experience. She was travelling, there’s songs about her being in Europe, and she always managed to have this female vulnerability – like she was not afraid to bare her soul as a woman, but she also remains strong and never gives in. It’s a very unique quality that she’s always had. "
5. The Band - The Band (1969)
"I’m not a soloist. I can solo, but that’s not my thing. I’m an accompanist to myself. I use the guitar as a tool to accompany my voice and my songwriting, and that’s my job.
"Robbie Robertson is a great example of that. He’s not a great soloist, but he’s an amazing songwriter and his role in The Band was obviously that he became the leader along with Levon – but they all were so interesting and they all contributed in such a unique way.
"Robbie’s guitar style was very, very lean and compact. What he did so brilliantly was serve the songs and play the part that was needed for that song, and that’s a very distinct talent that not a lot of people are able to really do."
6. James Brown – Live At The Apollo (1962)
"I had the good fortune of being able to see all the great R’n’B performers perform live in the ‘60s. I went to The Uptown Theater and The Apollo Theater in New York and got to see everyone – all the greats. From the beginning of his career to the very end of his career, James Brown’s live show was nothing but excitement. They called him Mr Excitement.
"If you listen to the records and then you hear what he was doing on stage live, the first thing you notice if you’re a musician - or if you pay attention - is that all the tempos are jacked up! They’re way faster than the record. It’s all about excitement and this energy that just never stops.
"One song would end and another would immediately start, or it would segue from one to another, and the groove never ever ended. Of course, he had one of the greatest bands of all time, but he was this incredible bandleader who could - just with what he could do with his feet or his head or his hand – lead the band into a new section of a song in this way that was just magical."
7. Sam & Dave - Hold On, I’m Comin’ (1966)
"Even though I had a love for Motown and a love for folk, a love for blues and a love for a lot of traditional stuff, I think I was more highly influenced by the records that came out of Memphis during the Stax and Volt era, with Booker T. & The M.G.’s as the rhythm section.
"There’s just something about those records they did with Otis Redding and Sam & Dave. I think it had a lot to do with the studio they were using, but it had more than anything to do with the rhythm section with Steve Cropper - who I became friends with in later years and got to play with - and Al Jackson, Duck Dunn and Booker T.
"That rhythm section was so unbelievably good and they were so in sync with each other, and I wanted to make records like that!
"All the records I’ve made in Nashville have all been with bands, with live rhythm sections in the room playing together. That’s essential for me at this point in my life."
8. Any/every album by Billy Strings
"Billy Strings is really amazing. I love that he has a total knowledge and grip on the very traditional side of bluegrass and Americana, but he’s not afraid to stretch the boundaries.
"I think he’s taken a page from the jam band and Grateful Dead world, but, at the same time, at the core of what he does is a really, really fluent and very articulate way of acoustic guitar playing."
9. Hall & Oates – Abandoned Luncheonette (1973)
"Hall & Oates’ first album, Whole Oats, was an album that changed our lives because it was the first album and it was this breakthrough moment of entering the world of professional music. But I was making records in 1967, so I would say that the first single I made with my high school band was more important because it was the first time I’d literally got the chance to go into a recording studio.
"By the time Daryl and I made our first album in 1972, I had already made multiple records. I’d been in recording studios as a studio musician playing with other people, so it was an exciting moment from a business point of view to have a record contract with a major label – with Atlantic Records – but quite frankly, most people don’t even realise that Whole Oats was our first album!
"Whole Oats was just a collection of songs that Daryl and I happened to pull together to make a record. It wasn’t conceived as a project.
"It was really Abandoned Luncheonette that was conceived in a shorter period of time, with a point of view. That second album was the one that really put us on the map."
10. Any/every album by Tommy Emmanuel
"After you listen to Tommy Emmanuel and his records, you have two choices: you can either start practising really hard, or you can burn your guitar. There’s no in-between and that’s all I’ve got to say!"
- The new John Oates single, Disconnected is out 3 February. For more info and current tour dates visit johnoates.com