Over the course of the Hold Steady’s seven-year career, they’ve earned the status as the best bar band in America. Some groups might bristle at that blue-collar assessment, but guitarist Tad Kubler says the reputation actually affirms what the Brooklyn-based band originally set out to do.

“At the time we started, indie rock seemed like an exclusive, trendy thing,” he says. “It seemed like people weren’t having fun any more. We wanted to be inclusive with the audience, and create more of a rock show experience. It’s about being in the moment, on-stage. We entertain people and have a good time in the process.”

That classic rock aesthetic extends to the Hold Steady’s studio recordings as well. Taking its title from a line by Beat writer Jack Kerouac, the band’s third album, Boys and Girls in America, teems with a big, brawny toughness that’s at one with the American heartland. The main muscle in the band’s sound is provided by Kubler, who uses his Les Paul Standard to create thick, full-chord riffs and the occasional stinging slide. Coupled with frontman Craig Finn’s Beat-influenced lyrics, the effect is often akin to a beefier, more guitar-intense version of Bruce Springsteen.

“We just relax and go with the notion that if something sounds good, it is good,” says Kubler, when asked about the band’s no-frills approach. “It doesn't have to be clever. We’re not reinventing the wheel; it’s just five guys in a shoddy rehearsal studio drinking beer and talking about baseball, and the songs just sort of come to us.”

One day prior to jetting off to Ireland—where the Hold Steady were set to open a show for the Rolling Stones—Kubler took time to talk about his guitar influences, the band's forthcoming album, and his love of Gibson electrics.

How did you first take up guitar?

I grew up in southern Wisconsin, and a lot of the kids in the neighborhood were older than I was, by a couple of years. I was always borrowing records from them. They had things by Queen, and Led Zeppelin, and Kiss, and AC/DC.

Cheap Trick was one of the first bands I really got into. Ken Adamany, Cheap Trick’s manager at the time, had two daughters who lived with their mother right across the street from me. So I got to meet Rick Nielsen when I was just seven years old. He had a big impact on what I do, especially when playing live. I bought a cheap Les Paul copy for about $120, and sat with those records and kept backing up the needle and learned how to play.

Who are some other guitarists who influenced you?

I’ve always liked Ted Nugent. And I’ve always liked Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. The tone Gibbons gets from his guitar is amazing. The rumor is that he uses a peso as a pick, so maybe that’s part of it. I use really heavy picks and fairly heavy strings, which I’m sure contribute to the sound I get from my guitar. And as much as I hesitate to say it, I also have to go back to Eddie Van Halen, although he’s certainly gone way beyond what I feel comfortable with him doing at this point. Other bands I was really into growing up were Judas—the K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton duo—and Thin Lizzy. The Thin Lizzy era with Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson was great. Adrian Smith and Dave Murray from Iron Maiden were another great guitar duo.

Most of those guitarists are known for having great riffs.

Yeah. Riff-heavy bands tended to have the greatest impact on me. But I also think Willie Nelson is an amazing guitar player. And Junior Brown is another favorite. There are so many great country players. Obviously in hard rock and heavy metal you’ve got volume and distortion and overdrive that you can kind of hide behind, that are great at masking imperfections. But with country players, you’ve got that clean, country twang, where there’s nowhere to hide. You had better know what you’re doing.

What is it about the Les Paul Standard that especially appeals to you?

It really resonates. It’s such a heavy piece of wood. If you can’t get a Les Paul through a tube amp to sound good, you might as well hang it up. I really like the feel of that guitar. I’ve also got a 335 that I love, and a Junior, and an SG that I really like a lot. And I’ve been thinking about getting an Explorer. But I always go back to the Les Paul. To me it always sounds like rock music should sound. From an aesthetic standpoint I like the look of it as well.

Did you approach your guitar-playing on Boys and Girls in America any differently from how you played on the first two Hold Steady albums?

Yes. On the first two albums I did lots of overdubs and a lot of layering of guitars. But on Boys and Girls in America I wanted to try a less-is-more approach. I was listening to the first song on the first Led Zeppelin album—“Good Times Bad Times”—and I was thinking, ‘This song sounds enormous, and the guitar sounds so great, and yet there are really just two tracks here—one of which is only on maybe 50 percent of the song.’ I told John Agnello, who produced our record, that I wanted to get a really big guitar sound. But I also felt I had been shooting myself in the foot in the past by trying to layer stuff and add so much. I had been accomplishing the opposite of what I was trying to do. So he helped me a lot with that. There are just one or two guitar tracks on a lot of the songs.

Do you still practice guitar, in a conventional sense?

I do. Especially when we start writing for a new record, I try to come up with a couple of exercises that will help me focus on an area of my playing that maybe I’m not yet comfortable with. I talk to different people about what they do. A lot of times those exercises morph into a song at some point, although they start out as just methods to help me improve my playing.

In what ways will the next Hold Steady album be different from Boys and Girls in America?

We want to try some different instrumentation, and some different approaches to writing songs. I’ve been listening to those old Faces records, where you’ve got a lot of songs that are 12-string acoustic songs and yet they’re absolute rockers. You don’t always need a loud amp behind a song to make it move. “Black Mountain Woman” is another great example of that. The groove to that song is great, and I don’t think there’s even any bass guitar on it. We want to step outside our comfort zone and try new things and experiment. And hope to God that it works.

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Weinberg