Steve Hunter

Fans of classic rock know Steve Hunter best for his brilliant guitar work on such legendary albums as Lou Reed’s Berlin, Alice Cooper’sWelcome to My Nightmare and Peter Gabriel’s self-titled solo debut. Last week, we spoke with the veteran guitarist about his new solo album, The Manhattan Blues Project—including a discussion of the guitars he chose to play on the disc and how he captures his distinctive tone. In this second installment, Hunter looks back at key moments in his career, discusses the epic intro he wrote for Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” and explains why he could never be a shredder.

You mentioned earlier you were playing an SG when started your career with Mitch Ryder. Had you switched to a Les Paul TV Special by the time you played on Lou Reed’s Berlin album?

Actually that guitar--the SG--got stolen right when we were about to do overdubs for Berlin in New York City. It was stolen out of the Record Plant. The owner was furious about it, really angry. I took the insurance money and bought the Les Paul TV Special, a 1959, for $240. But I did use the SG for most of the basic track stuff on Berlin.

And you did nearly all the electric guitar work?

That’s right. I think Dick Wagner may have played on one of the tunes. As far as I can remember, I did all the basic tracks on Berlin—the electric stuff—in London. Gene Martynec, an incredible acoustic player from Toronto, did a lot of the acoustic work. He did some beautiful stuff.

There’s a real orchestral element to that album. How much did that work affect you, going forward?

Oh, let me tell you. That was just my second album. I had never been to London, and here I was waking up every morning in this nice hotel. I got picked up by a Rolls Royce and driven to Morgan Studios. I was still just a kid, and I was in heaven. I would go into the studio and there’s Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Aynsley Dunbar--all these incredible players. As regards the orchestral component, [producer] Bob Ezrin has this wonderful way of hearing an album, the end product, before you even start recording. He knows at what point he can let “basic-track” musicians run with something, and when it’s time to rein them in, depending on what he’s going to put over the top. “Sad Song,” for instance, has an enormous amount of orchestral stuff. The basic track was bare bones, but [drummer] Aynsley Dunbar sat down and wrote out a chart based on what Bob had in mind for the orchestra, even though the orchestra hadn’t been recorded yet. Dunbar wrote out the chart with cymbals and drums that would fit the orchestral parts when they were put on later. Later, when I heard the parts, everything he did fit perfectly. I was amazed. But most of the time we just improvised on a framework.

Your guitar playing on “Sad Song” has such lyrical lines, really beautiful broad strokes.

That came from Bob. Bob heard guitars as if they were orchestral instruments, in a lot of ways. When we layered things, or when we put things together, it was all very Wagner-esque. The guitars took the place of the brass in an orchestra, in some ways. The power was coming from the guitars, rather than from brass, and that carried over to me, because I like to do the same thing. It builds a nice wall of sound, without things becoming too cluttered.

Your guitar melodies are also incredibly strong.

Melody has been my great love since I started playing. That’s what led me to the blues, the fact that it was all very melodic. I learned how to play by listening to B.B. King records, and out of that came melody. Writing and inventing and improvising melodies has always been my first love.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the “Sweet Jane” live intro, on Lou Reed’s Rock N Roll Animal. The intro was your composition?

That’s right. It’s sort of a long, weird, convoluted story. I actually started writing that piece when I was in Mitch Ryder’s band, in Detroit. I wrote a couple of bits of it, and then put it on the back burner, and then kept returning to it every once in a while. My intention was to write a whole song. It became an intro because Lou’s manager came to us while we were rehearsing the tour, and asked if we could play something would serve as an opening for Lou to come on-stage. We messed around with a few things, and finally I said, “You know, I’ve got this piece I’ve been working on. Maybe we can make something happen with it.” I showed it to the band, we all started playing on it, and it just sounded great. While we were touring in Europe, the intro actually opened “Vicious.” It was only when we got to America that Lou wanted to open with “Sweet Jane.” It just so happens that both songs are in similar keys. “Vicious” is in E Minor and “Sweet Jane” is in E Major, so the intro worked without having to change anything. We just adapted it for “Sweet Jane.” I had written the framework and the opening lines, and from there we improvised our parts. We played it differently every night. Some nights it was better than others, but it was always a lot of fun to play.

Do you remember Lou’s reaction when he heard it for the first time?

I don’t. All I remember is that he knew, from his management, that we were going to play this bit before he came on-stage, and that he would recognize the song “Sweet Jane” – or, in the case of Europe, “Vicious.” Of course he recognized those songs when we started playing them, and that’s when he would come on. As best I recall he didn’t have much reaction. I never saw much of Lou when we were touring, except when we were on-stage. He kept very much to himself, which I tended to do as well. I actually saw more of Lou on the later Berlin tour we did just a few years ago.

Were you and Dick Wagner both playing TV Specials on the intro?

Dick was playing a Les Paul, although I’m not sure which model. But yes, I was playing a TV Special.

You went on to play with Alice Cooper not long after that—including 1973’s Billion Dollar Babies and 1975’s Welcome to My Nightmare. When Bob Ezrin and Alice brought you back for the Welcome 2 My Nightmare album, in 2011, was part of the idea to recapture the sound from the original album?

Maybe in a loose sort of way. You can’t really recapture something that happened 35 years ago. But, having said that, we knew what was going on then, and we knew what we felt then, so we could bring that into the picture. My playing has changed enormously since 1975, and Bob has done countless records, and Alice has toured and done a bunch of albums. Still, because we had all been there together, there was a certain feel we could capture. It was the same with Alice and the other members of the original group. Alice stepped into the room and they started playing, and it sounded like it did 40 years ago, except that everyone was older and more mature. That part of my life is always under my fingers.

How did you go about selecting the guest players on your new album? You play differently from most of the guys you brought in.

Oh, for sure. That’s the reason I wanted them, because we play differently. When I wrote “Twilight in Harlem,” I was talking with [my wife] Karen, thinking, “Boy, it would really be great if I could get Joe Satriani and Steve Vai to play one of those big, shred-y solos right at the end of the song, so that when that stops, and it goes back to me, there’s a huge contrast.” Well, I couldn’t get Steve--he was on the road, touring--so I asked my friend, Jason Becker, who he would recommend. He said “Marty Friedman,” without even thinking. I said, “Of course! Marty Friedman!” So, we got Marty to play the part following Satriani. Those guys played exactly what I thought the track needed. I wanted “shredder angst” in that part of the song, so that when those solos were finished, and I came back in, there would be a huge contrast.

Did you ever try to implement shredding into your own style, maybe back in the ‘80s?

I did! I tried like crazy, but my fingers just don’t want to do that. I hated the fact that I couldn’t do it. I was so envious of guys like Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, who were doing such extraordinary things on guitar. No matter how hard I tried, I always reverted back to blues and melody. I love shredding--I really wanted to incorporate some of that into my playing--but I couldn’t get my fingers to behave themselves. It bummed me out. I just had to accept the fact that it wasn’t me.

What’s next for you?

A couple of things. My wife Karen is a singer. She sang on the album, doing all the background vocals. We also did an album together called Empty Spaces--all her songs--where I produced it. We’re thinking of doing another project together, probably an EP type of thing with maybe five or six songs, just for download. We’re thinking of covering songs we really like, along with maybe a couple of originals. So that’s the immediate future. I’m also starting to think about another solo album.

Anything more you would like to say about the new album?

Just that it’s snapshots of my feelings about New York--the soulful, bluesy side of New York. And that I love the guests I had. The reason I had them is because I wanted the contrast between me and them, except for “Brooklyn Shuffle,” which features Johnny Depp and Joe Perry. They both play a little more in my realm. I asked them to play because I thought it would be a gas to have those guys playing on a 12-bar blues, just having fun. And that’s exactly how it turned out. It was a blast. They plugged in and had fun and that’s what it sounds like.

Photo: Michael Woodall