As Foo Fighters return with a new album, we talk to Foo guitarists Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear to find out what makes the guitars in one of the world’s biggest bands keep ticking.
“We had a lot of time for this record," Pat Smear tells us. That’s a rare statement in the world of Foo Fighters, where long tours and ambitious concepts have been a huge part of the band’s output over the last decade: the half-electric, half-acoustic double on In Your Honour, the all-analogue, make-it-in-a-garage ethos of Wasting Light or simultaneously creating a TV series and album with Sonic Highways.
For album number nine, the band have taken a step back towards the traditional, simply booking one of the greatest studios in the world (LA’s EastWest) and quietly knuckling down behind the scenes. There may be no grand concept, but if Concrete And Gold has a theme it’s one of further evolution for a band who have never really sat still.
With Adele (among many others) producer Greg Kurstin manning the desk, we get a collection of tunes with Foo Fighters’ familiar guitar sounds, but also laced with stacked vocal harmonies and greater sonic experimentation all-round (the band is now officially a six-piece, three-guitar and keys line-up).
In a rare guitar publication interview, Pat Smear and Chris Shiflett shed light on what it takes to play guitar in one of the biggest bands on the planet.
How does the writing process go for a Foo Fighters album?
Chris Shiflett: “Well, we usually do kind of a similar thing where Dave has a bunch of song ideas and he’ll usually demo them first, just himself. Then he sends us all the songs, and we’ll all get together and jam on them. That’s what we did this time, we started working on doing demos and stuff, I think last fall. It was right after I got home from doing my solo record, actually. I remember being really happy that I’d gone and done that when I did! Had I waited another couple of months it wouldn’t have been possible.
“Originally, we thought we were going to have a longer break, but then Dave had a bunch of tunes and wanted to jump into it. So we loosely started rehearsing a lot through the fall and doing lots of demos, and the songs just kind of took shape over time. That’s usually the method of this band, we just demo and demo and demo and do them over and over and tweak them along the way.
“So, by the time we actually started recording, which was right before Christmas we did the first week of recording. I don’t know how many rough ideas there were, but there was a lot of them. We never actually record all the ideas for the record. But then we worked on it into the spring.
“The normal way that we do that is to do one song at a time. That’s probably been the biggest change over the years. Back in the old days, the first few records I did with this band we’d record all the drums, then all the bass, and all the guitars and do it that way. But for Wasting Light there was a change where we just started doing one song at a time, which is a nice way to work if you have the luxury of doing it that way, because I think you have a better perspective on your record as you go.”
How do you find your space in a three-guitar band?
Pat: “It is difficult to find a spot with three guitarists. Sometimes it’s just a matter of, ‘Well, I’ll just play that part because it should be more present’. Even if I’m doubling a part, I try to play it somewhere else, like, ‘If you’re playing it there, I’m gonna play it here.’ It’s always been like that in this band, since the first album we did together. I’d watch Dave’s hands and think, ‘I’m not gonna play that part like that because he’s already got that covered.’”
Chris: “I feel like when Pat first started playing with us again, there was a lot more discussion about where everybody needed to sit in the track, but I think we just do it naturally now. I think like that anyway - if I know that Dave’s playing the chords one way, I’ll try to find an inversion that’s not just the exact same thing. Maybe it’s a little melody line or whatever, I try not to duplicate what everybody else is doing too much. I mean sometimes you want everybody chugging away on powerchords and just doing that thing, but a lot of the time we don’t.”
Do your parts change live?
Pat: “It does happen, yeah. That happens a lot where Dave might be like, ‘On the next part I really want to run around, or run out to the crowd, or go crazy, and this part’s hard so somebody else take it!’ If the part is too hard, Shifty gets 'em!
“Sometimes we all just swap parts. It’s an odd thing and I’m not really sure how it happens but sometimes we swap when we’re learning the songs for live. Which I love. I think it pretty much falls on what Dave doesn’t want to play. Then sometimes there are four guitar riffs, and with only three guitarists in the band, we’ll have to pick the three that are most important and things get swapped.”
How does playing in a three-guitar line-up shape your gear?
Chris: “It’s interesting. At the beginning, when we first started rehearsing for this record Dave said, ‘Let’s not play on our usual gear, bring something different.’ So everybody was playing not the normal amps, not the normal guitars.
“The guitar I played most on this record was actually the guitar I played most on my solo record, too. I have this old ’68 non-reverse Gibson Firebird that’s got P-90s in it. And that to me is just a nice complement, I just love the P-90 sound. There isn’t a lot of room for single coil stuff in Foo Fighters, it just tends not to work out. So usually I’m bouncing between guitars with humbuckers, and guitars with P-90s.”
Pat: “I thought: ‘Okay, I’m not gonna show up with my Hagstroms and my SGs, what am I going to bring?’ I have a couple of Les Pauls that I never play - they’re too heavy, the stupid switch is in a bad place for me and I just never play them.
“So I brought a couple of Les Pauls down with me and I was like, ‘Wow! holy shit, these things are great!’ I’m just discovering the Les Paul, it’s a crazy thing, and I’ve kind of mostly been playing Les Pauls on this tour so far.”
Picking it up
P-90s are often overlooked…
Chris: “Totally. They’ve just got such a distinct growl to them with their sound. I’m actually working with Fender on an extremely limited run of my signature model with P-90s in it. I don’t know when that’s going to come out, probably sometime in the next year.
“I’ve been playing that non-reverse so much, and also there’s this SG. I don’t really know whose it is, probably Dave’s, but it’s an old one, probably early '60s. It’s been in the studio for years with a broken headstock and Dave’s guitar tech Ali got it repaired and brought it to a rehearsal one day. I was like, ‘Whose the fuck is that?! It’s mine now!’ So I’ve been playing that a bunch, too.”
Pat, You have an unusual Les Paul Custom in the Run video…
“Yeah, that’s a weird guitar. That’s a one-off custom order from 1972 - because, back in those days they’d do that for you, you could just come up with some wacky thing - and they’d be like, ‘Sure, we’ll make it for you!’ But the guy who sold it to me said that he’s heard rumours that they might have made two, so there might be another one out in the world, he’s not sure. It’s really weird, it’s got two jacks - one’s for the neck pickup, one’s for the bridge pickup which is strange - so you kind of need two amps... or whatever, I don’t know!
“What I do is when I want to use the neck pickup, I unplug it and plug it into the other jack for that song. There’s no routes in the back either, it’s just gorgeous and the top is one-piece, which I’m not used to seeing on Les Pauls. It’s just all beautiful wood and abalone, just all the high-end shit from 1972, I guess, and it’s all maple, which is also weird. The neck, the top, the back, it’s all maple and it’s not heavy, it’s one of my lightest ones. It’s probably my favourite guitar right now - it’s got really low, flat skinny frets, like they’re almost not even there. It’s pretty cool.”
Did you swap your amps, too?
Chris: “I did! Right before we started making the record I got one of those Hardwired AC15s from Vox, and that was my magic amp on this record. I played that a lot. But I’ve been playing Friedman Brown Eyes for years and I love them. We had that in the studio with me, but I don’t think I used it on much.
“I brought in a little 50-something tweed Champ, and I have a really bitchin’ tweed Vibrolux too, and I played that a bunch. Then we had all these little funky old combos, Tweed Deluxes and stuff like that.”
Pat: “Maybe half of the stuff I did [on Concrete And Gold] I used an old '70s mixing board piped into some weird transistor amp. I can’t even remember what it was, it didn’t make any sense at all! It wasn’t even a guitar amp, it was like a PA plugged into a transistor amp, just a really cool-sounding thing. But it was something that [our guitar techs] put together. Basically, I used that, it was like a portable PA, the sort of thing you might have found in a rehearsal room in the '70s. I’d run an overdrive pedal when it needed it, but a lot of the time I’d overdrive it with the crazy mixing board.”
Chris, how do you use your AC30? Straight cleans or semi-overdriven?
Chris: “I have it set to a pretty clean tone, it’s got a little drive. I think of it as kind of like a Tom Petty sound, maybe even a little less distorted than that. Then when I put a pedal in front of it, like the Klon, it’s fucking great.
“It’s a weird setup that I have because the Friedman has a really super-clean tone, then it’s got my dirtiest tone. So I use that one for when I need my really sparkly clean with no gain in it at all, and I’ll kick it into the dirty channel and it’s my heavy rock AC/DC tone. Then I’ll go to the AC30 when I want clean with a little grit, and if I’m on the AC30 and I want it with the big grit I’ll stick the Klon in front of it.”
Pat, how did you develop such a razor-sharp, aggressive rhythm approach?
“I don’t know where it comes from! It’s just the way I’ve always played. I’m just a punk-rock guitar player who happens to be in a band that’s not necessarily a punk-rock band all the time!
“I’ve only ever been in bands where I can be the punk rock guitar player in the band because that’s all I want to do. I don’t even know if I could do anything else. I learned a long time ago with guitars and amps or anything else, whatever band I’m in, I’m just going to sound like me anyway, so I just stay true to that. Luckily, Dave likes having a punk-rock guitar player in the band!”
You’ve played with some amazing drummers; does that have a bearing on your playing?
Pat: “Well, I guess that answers where the aggression comes from. I’m gonna say it must come from the drummers, because in the Germs, Nirvana and Foo Fighters it was all amazing, aggressive drumming. Not all the time, but that’s the overriding thing.”
Greg’s background is very much in the pop world, did you feel that coming through making the album?
Pat: “That was where it came through, the vocal harmonies. That was pretty amazing to watch. He’s definitely a guy who can visualise it because he’d go into the big room on the piano with Dave with an idea for a vocal harmony.
“He’d play this part on the piano and Dave would sing it perfectly first time, always good - just a weird, doesn’t make- any-sense melody, then Greg would say, ‘Okay, here’s another line I want you to sing.’ It’d have nothing to do with the first one! It’d be different notes, different timing and he’d keep doing this, he’d have five or six layers and none of it made any sense.
“Then when you hear it played back it’s like, ‘Oh!’ His brain’s weird, he’s a funny guy. He’s crazy, man! He’s crazy with vocals, he’s crazy with effects and sounds, he just has a lot of crazy ideas that worked really well with us.
“He can play any instrument, and whenever I was just sitting there in the room unprepared, as usual and just stuck on something, he’d always have a great idea. We laughed a lot too, sometimes his idea would be too crazy. ‘Really Greg?!’
“I had never heard any of his records before we started, so I didn’t really know where he was coming from. I’d never heard even an Adele song. Even his big pop hits are really crazy sounding, whether it’s a weird drum sound or some effect going through it you’re like, ‘You can’t do that in a pop song, man!’ But I guess they can do that now!”
There’s a lot of texture to the guitar sounds with modulation this time
Chris: “That’s all Greg, man; he’s like the flanger, phaser, Memory Man king. Which was really fun because a lot of the time when you’d be tracking a guitar part, he’d be sitting there manipulating the effects as you go. He’s great with all that stuff; he’s a tone genius. He not only has all the bitchin’ gear, but he knows every nook and cranny on how to use it and make it do cool shit.”
Did Greg use the room at EastWest to manipulate the sounds?
Chris: “Well, the secret weapon in EastWest is the [echo] chamber, and we used that all over everything. It’s on a lot of stuff. It’s probably the best part of that studio, I think. But we had the big room and it was just jammed with gear. Five or six drumsets, all our amps and guitars all over the place and keyboards. Just everything you could imagine. So it’s a great sounding room, but the chamber there just makes everything sound really sweet. You know, I never actually saw it!”
With this much production, will you have to take a different approach to play the new stuff live?
Pat: “It’s like when there’s too many guitar parts, just pick the most important ones, so Taylor will do the most important harmonies.
“I remember when I was a kid and I used to go and see Queen play live. It was like there was Queen the album band, and then Queen the four dudes on stage playing the songs on stage, and it never lacked anything to me when it was just the four dudes playing the big songs. I don’t know if my brain was filling in the things that weren’t there or not, but the energy was always there. They might change it by speeding it up or making it heavier or something that would make me never miss what wasn’t there from the actual album.”
Chris: “Yeah, I thought about that a lot when we were recording like, ‘Fuck, how am I going to recreate this live?’ I do have a ginormous pedalboard these days and it’s got a lot of stuff on it! I just try to get it in the ballpark for some of the songs. But I think there was a mindset in the band before we even started rehearsing to go out on tour that we wouldn’t try to recreate it exactly.
“Just try to do the rough version for live, because there’s so much layered vocal harmony stuff going on on this record too that it would have been challenging. Or really impossible to recreate! And with the guitar stuff too it’s tough because the way our sets go live, it’s just ‘Bang, bang, bang’ there’s just no time for making adjustments a lot of the time outside of kicking into your clean tone or adding a delay or whatever. So, to do that properly for me, would require a lot of guitar changes and a lot of switching around my setup.
“I have an AC30 and the Friedman on stage. But to really recreate what we did in the studio, I’d probably need maybe one or two amps. So we talked about it and decided, ‘Let’s just play this the way we play, and not try to make it sound just like the record.’ But I did add a couple of good pedals into my setup that I used on the record.
“I have one of those JHS Muffulettas with a couple of Big Muff sounds on it, which is great, that’s lots of fun. I have a Moog chorus thing, and then the Ryan Adams VCR chorus pedal. Then also, there’s the sort of reissue of the Klon, the red one. And I think I used all those on the record, so I’ll try to recreate it as best I can. The rough and ready version!”