Thursday, March 21, 2013

Doug Aldrich - The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

"He's a really generous guy, and we are mutual supporters of each other. He's been really good to me, man - I feel completely blessed just to have the opportunity to work with a legend like him, and to work with him for an extended period of time." ~ Doug Aldrich on working with David Coverdale

Whitesnake guitarist Doug Aldrich has been with the band for ten years now - much more than just a guitarist, he has become David Coverdale's co-writer, and musical director. It's no mean feat to be in that position - it takes tremendous skills, not just as a musician, but also as a human being.

Whether it's in being able to laugh when Dio fans throw beer bottles at you because you're the new guy, not rushing David Coverdale into a creative partnership, being humble enough to know why you didn't get the gig with KISS, or knowing how to ask Jimmy Page to carve his initials into your guitar. Doug has time and time again displayed the wisdom and courage that has allowed him to get great gigs and not just keep them, but to grow within them. Reading back over this interview, it becomes clear to me that while Doug is obviously a huge talent, he's also a hell of a good guy.

Made In Japan is Whitesnake's new DVD/CD package, and it shows the band at the height of their considerable talents. The band was wise to focus on some great material from their last two studio efforts, alongside some 'Snake classics - there's also a great CD of extras that displays the band in an acoustic setting, and some great rough cuts taken from various sound checks. As if that weren't enough, Aldrich also is getting ready to release the third album with Burning Rain, a band he started with singer Keith St. John back in 1998.

We started off our chat with me congratulating Doug on both projects. I mentioned that I had talked to David Coverdale just a few days previous, and that his boss was extremely effusive with his respect and admiration for his partner's skills, and that he was especially thrilled that the guitarist brought with him to the band what David called, 'An amazing treasury of awareness' of the early history of Whitesnake. I asked Doug how his education in all things Whitesnake came to pass:

Doug Aldrich: "I was in Los Angeles, around early 1984, and I had heard maybe a track or two from the Slide It In album - so I knew about Slide it In, and Slow An' Easy, and I really liked them. Whitesnake was just at the beginning of cracking big in the US and so I got this call to join this band with the ex-drummer from Steeler, which was Yngwie's first band, and this drummer, he had actually kind of helped discover Yngwie, and got him together with his first record deal with Mike Varney. 
"Yngwie had split and left Steeler, so this drummer, Mark Edwards, he said, 'Hey, I want you to play guitar - I've found the next David Coverdale,' He said it was this singer from Scotland (Kal Swan), who was really a Whitesnake aficionado, among other bands like Slade, and Status Quo, bands I had never heard of up to that time. 
"He was the one that brought those early Whitesnake records to my attention - and immediately those chords and melodies resonated with me. I felt really lucky about that, because it was very cool and very different - I was very easily influenced at that point, and I could have easily fallen into a more glam thing, or whatever. 
"Living in Los Angeles at that time, the whole thing was going big and bands like Motley Crue, and all that, but I really loved this different sound that Kal showed me. Whitesnake had these blues progressions, but done in a heavier way, and I just loved it - and that was what our band, Lion, tried to do. To have our sound be more European. Eventually, Lion broke up, and Kal and I tried some different projects, but later, when I met David - there were so many things that I remembered Kal telling me that was great information for me in becoming a member of Whitesnake."

Indeed they did - one of the things that I notice in Doug's playing that makes him stand apart most of the Los Angeles rock guitarists of that era is his slide guitar stylings which Coverdale had just called two days previous, 'that filthy, dirty, underbelly of the blues groove.' David was recalling Aldrich's playing on Steal Your Heat Away from the new live set, on which Doug unleashes some lovely slide. Doug is a little more humble in his assessment of his slide skills (I tend to agree with Coverdale on this one):

Doug Aldrich: "To be honest, I don't know if I'd say bad-assed, I might just say, bad! Hahaha! 
"I'm learning, and I love it - I feel it. I love that sound and I'm trying to find a way to do it that is a little bit my own, even though my technique is still in the learning process. But when you listen to the real guys, like Derek Trucks - now that guy, he's just sick! He's so good, and Warren Haynes, anybody that's ever played slide with the Allman Brothers, starting with Duane. 
"I also love all that ethereal slide playing that David Gilmour does. I didn't know that a lot of that was lap steel, but it just sounds so cool. That was definitely an influence, and when I got into Whitesnake, I actually had a reason to get a lot better, because the early Whitesnake - Micky Moody was the slide guy, and those songs are very unique because of that. I've just tried to develop this a bit."
Photo by Jon Beckel

Coverdale had just told me that the tune Steal Your Heart Away was a fantastic marriage between early and current Whitesnake, but in fact it had been written very organically, and with no prior discussion of the past. I asked Doug to recant the origins of the tune:

Doug Aldrich: "That was a kind of funny song - we were just jamming and David sang that first line in the verse, and I was like, 'Man, that is really cool,' and I thought, 'Let's see if we can get this song together.' 
"This same week, we were up at his house writing, and I got stuck on that song. I didn't know quite what to do with it, but I knew it had potential, so I said, 'Hey DC, can I move on to something else? I have something I want to work with you on,' and we started jamming on Love Will Set You Free, and I was like, 'Whoa, that one came together so fast!" He started singing and it was immediate - this is great. 
"Then we did Tell Me How the same week, so we had done two full, new songs and we made some rough demos, and I was getting done, and David was in a meeting, so I thought, 'Well, let me listen to that Steal Your Heart Away thing again.' I had been beating myself up about it, and when I listened to it fresh, I was like, 'Whoa, this is actually very cool!' So we kind of roughed up the arrangement a little bit to get through it, and we finished it up the next time we got together. 
"A lot of this stuff is like updated early Whitesnake. Love Will Set You Free is not so far away from songs like Ready 'N' Willing."
Photo by Michael Wiersch

Coverdale and Aldrich have now been writing partners for years, but it didn't start that way - Doug was a member of Dio, and had been hired by Whitesnake for a two month tour while Dio was on hiatus - I was curious as to how Doug's role evolved from hired hand to right hand man. I would advise anyone who ever thinks they may join an established band to pay close attention to his answer, as I think it addresses head-on how Aldrich has been so successful in a very difficult business:

Doug Aldrich: "Well, we would jam on stuff just for fun, but I was very conscious not to, um....David basically said, 'This is going to be a short tour, and that's it - that's all I need.' 
"I was, at the time, a member of Dio. Everything was kind of on the surface - we're doing this tour, and that's it. Once we started touring, we'd jam around on some stuff just for fun, and I thought, 'Hey, this is pretty cool,' but I never really thought about pursuing things with David, just because you don't want to push, and have anybody feel pressured - the worst thing you can do when you are new is to come in and go, 'Hey, let's write a song!' 
"Hold on - first, let's see if we have some chemistry going. It's best for things like that to happen naturally. Eventually, it did happen, and we didn't force it. 
"But to answer your question, it was probably at the end of the year in 2003 when we started banging out some songs for real. We were both getting used to how the other guy works, and obviously, I was learning a lot. David's done this a lot, so I was learning from him the whole time. What to focus on, and which melodies are more important - things like that, and I'm still learning." 
"We were both being very polite, so the first songs that we worked on, I wasn't - not aggressive - but not as honest, as to, 'This is what I'm hearing.' He was the boss, and I didn't want to push anything, and I think the same went for him - he probably heard things I was doing, and he could have suggested some improvements, but he was trying to encourage me and not to shut me down. 
"It wasn't until about 2006 that we decided, let's see what we got. Let's get together, do some writing, and see just what we've got. That's when we came up with the Good To Be Bad record - I think our songwriting improved 1,000%, and I think it's still improving!"

Doug Aldrich has had the opportunity to work with two of the greatest vocalists in the history of rock, and I was curious as to both the similarities and the differences in working with, and for Ronnie James Dio, and David Coverdale in Whitesnake:

Doug Aldrich: "It's weird - there are a lot of similarities about them because of the structure of the bands - like you said, Whitesnake is looked upon as a band, and it is a band, but David is the leader, founder and in the end he's the only non-replaceable person in the band. It's his band, and it was the same in Dio. 
"There is that mentality of we've got a leader, a captain of the ship, so I knew how to handle that situation from working with Ronnie already. When it came to the stage, Ronnie basically said, 'Look, I'm going to give you the stage, and you take it over - do whatever you want, it's your time. Ronnie was very supportive, and he set me free on the stage - I learned a lot and got a lot of touring and performing experience. 
"Watching Ronnie, and being on the road with him - it was the first really big tour I had been on, and it was a little late for me. I was in my late 30s and we started in May and we toured all the way to Christmas. I learned a lot, so when I got into Whitesnake, my chops were definitely together. I had been through everything that I thought was possible as far as what I thought could happen onstage - an amp going down, or somebody throwing something at you, hahahaha."

I stopped - What, what do you mean someone throwing something at you? Doug's answer again gave me pause to realize the importance of cool, poise, and calm:

Doug Aldrich: "When you join a band like Dio, or Whitesnake - there are going to be some fans that go, 'No - I don't like this guy, I liked the other guy.' 
"We were doing a festival in Germany with Dio, and somebody chucked a beer bottle at me. I happened to catch it out of the corner of my eye that it was coming - I bobbed my head and it went right past my ear, and I laughed. I was like, 'C'mon, try it again!' That's the mentality - where people go, 'Yeah, that guy's all right!' You can't get flustered by that - of course, Ronnie set out to find the guy, and get him thrown out, but I thought it was funny! 
"So, in Whitesnake, I was prepared for anything like that, because Whitesnake had some great guitar players, like the original guys, then Sykes, Vandenberg, Steve Vai - and it's hard to please everybody! 
"I think, though, it's different in a lot of ways, because Whitesnake is a different kind of band, a different kind of music."

Bringing things back up to current events, I told Doug that I had been listening to the new record, Whitesnake - Made In Japan for the last week and that I was mightily impressed by both the power of the band, and the attention to detail throughout. I asked if there would be some intensive rehearsals before the band set off for Japan in May:

Doug Aldrich: "Cool - I'm really happy to hear you say that, Tony - I haven't listened to it since we finished it, and I felt it was pretty cool, but you never really know. 
"Yeah, we'll be rehearsing - obviously, we have a new drummer (the legendary Tommy Aldridge). I say new, but he's been in the band before, so it's exciting to get him back. 
"We've got Tommy coming back, so he and I, along with Michael Devin are going to spend a few days jamming together before we start the Whitesnake rehearsals to get our feet wet - I want to be sure that Michael and Tommy start locking in, and get to know each other before we jump into hardcore rehearsals. 
"Rehearsals with Whitesnake - it's exciting, but it's like mayhem. You've got crew guys running around, and this guy's trying to get his gear together, and David's coming in and saying, 'Hey, try this guys!' We're all trying to find our ways for a few days, so I think it might make sense to Tommy and Michael Devin to spend dome time together and get to know one another. 
"That's the backbone of any band, the rhythm section - it's so important, and I'm very excited about the possibilities of hearing....I've played with Tommy a lot, and I've played with Michael a lot, so I'm very excited about the two of them together, because they are both obviously fine players - Tommy is a legend, and I think Michael is a legend in the making. He is just so solid, and such a natural, amazing bass player."

I wondered what, if any, difference it made to play with a drummer who has such a different style than his predecessor:

Doug Aldrich: "It's definitely different, but it's going to be fine, because I know how he plays. 
"It doesn't really effect me - it will get me off in a good way, when I hear somebody do something that is their signature thing. We know that Tommy does have his signature sound, and he has these things that he'll do with the kick drums that are very 'Tommy-esque,' you know? 
"By the same token - Brian Tichy is one of my favorite drummers of all time. I think he is an extremely talented musician all the way around, and when he plays the drums it is just so natural. It feels great - I guess I'd say he is a little more of a pocket player. A little more simple in style, and he plays a little heavier, and Tommy has a little more finesse in certain ways, but they are both amazing."

Burning Rain, another of Doug's ongoing projects, has been on the shelf since 2004, due to the guitarist's Whitesnake commitments, but in mid-May they will see the release of their third album, Epic Obsession, on Frontiers Records. It's a barnburner - more metallic than Whitesnake, and far enough afield that there should be few comparisons that make any sense, beyond the very basics. I told Doug that I thought it was the best Burning Rain yet, and I asked if he and Keith St. John had been stockpiling material, or if this batch was au courant:

Doug Aldrich: " I appreciate that! Pretty much, it was all of the above! We had a few songs like Ride The Monkey which is one of my favorites on there - it was something that was really old, and we re-worked it several times over the years. I wanted the lyrics to be right, I wanted the music to be right, and I feel like now that it's a really cool song with dark, crazy lyrics and I really like the guitar work on there a lot. 
"My Lust Your Fate was the last song we wrote when we did it, and it was a pretty rough demo, but it turned out really nice on the record - much better than I thought it would. We actually have just started shooting a video for that song - a very dark, sexy thing. 
"I wanted this Burning Rain record to sound different than Whitesnake. I didn't want it to sound like Whitesnake junior. We tried to maintain the sound we started with, which was a little more towards the metal side, melodic based metal. Of course, I'm just a blues based guitar player - my roots are that, but I wanted it to sound different. I didn't want there to be any cross-collateralization between Whitesnake and Burning Rain other than the fact that I was playing guitar on both. 
"I'm really glad that you got it, and are digging it!"

One song in particular has kept me going back - and it was the huge guitar tones on Pray Out Loud that did it - time to switch to guitar talk, and I was guessing there was some heavy-gauge string action going on:

Doug Aldrich: "I was using 11-50s on that guitar, because it was a slide tuning and it needs a little thicker strings to stay in tune, but the real combo I'm using is the same one I've had since you were in Hollywood (we had earlier discussed the fact that we were both living in Hollywood in the mid-80s) - I had bought a 1979 JMP Marshall from Guitar Center that was on the other side of Sunset. I don't know if you knew it, but the Guitar Center used to be across the street from where it is now."

I laughed, and explained that actually, I was working at that store when we moved it across the street, and there was a good possibility that I had sold him that very amp:

Doug Aldrich: "Hahaha, so you and I might have some history there! I bought the amp at that store. It's a JMP Master Volume, and this amp is just awesome! 
"I've used it on every record I've worked on, and loaned it to Satriani for The Extremist record, he used it on that. Then Godsmack rented it for some records they were working on, and everybody that hears this amp loves it! I used it on Dio, on Whitesnake, and Burning Rain, too!"

On both the Whitesnake records and Burning Rain, one consistent factor is the hugeness of Aldrich's guitar tone - I asked if he was still making great use of his signature Majik Box Overdrive and Boost pedal, the Rocket Fuel:

Doug Aldrich: "I do use that. In the studio, though, I do things a little differently because I want to use the shortest amount of cables and connections as possible. I'm a little bit, I guess I wanna say anal - but there's no reason for me to go through any box - it's better for me to go straight into the amp when I'm cutting rhythms. 
"When I'm tracking with the band, I might go through something like the Majik Box and a wah, and I'll keep the solo parts with that setup, and end up replacing the rhythm part, because I want to be sure that it's as clean as possible for my main rhythm tracks. In other words, unless I'm doing something super heavy, I don't use any boxes. For solos, I definitely use the Majik Box - it's a really cool box. I've never found any one thing that I could rely on so much. 
"I had been using for years this Furman PQ-3, I don't know if you remember that from LA (in fact, I do - it was the de facto secret weapon in every guitar rig on the Sunset Strip at one point), but that was the kind of go-to thing back then, and it's got a great sound, but I wanted something in pedal form - but was like that. The guys from Majik Box - we did a prototype that was super cool, but it was noisy and kind of unusable, because it had so much hiss to it. Then they said, 'Hey, we've got this other thing we've been working on that's a different idea, but we can arrange it so that the bottom end stays. That was what I wanted, so they showed me a prototype, and we started tweaking that, and added the bass shift switch, which is really nice for solos because you don't lose so much bottom end - it still boosts the mids - it's still big sounding. I'm really glad you like that guitar sound!"

Exactly what I liked about that guitar sound is the fact that even though the tones are thick, fat, and beefy, it does not mush out - they retain the articulation of Doug's right hand. It's a great right hand full of power and precision - I told Doug that, in fact, his right hand reminded me of that of one of my favorites, the late Gary Moore:

Doug Aldrich: "Hey - thanks, man! Anytime I get mentioned in the same sentence with Gary Moore, I'm pretty happy! He's one of my all time favorites, and he was a huge inspiration to all of us rock guitar players - I definitely miss him. 
"In fact, Somebody asked me the other day, 'If you could have a guitar lesson from anybody living, or passed on, who would it be?' I said, "You know what, that is a great question!' I just picked who came to mind, and it was Gary Moore. 
"It's funny - in 2003 Gary supported Whitesnake in the UK, and he was very quiet! I thought he didn't like me, but he was just very quiet and very shy. We had this little exchange at one point, and I realized, he's just shy! 
"The thing that was cool was he'd be warming up backstage, Reb and Me would be sitting there - we'd be in our dressing room, and he'd be in his, and we'd be listening to him play, going, 'No way!!' I think Reb actually recorded something on a little cassette player, and it was awesome because he was just playing off the cuff stuff that was just so sweet!"

I told him I knew exactly how that felt - when I worked for the McAuley/Schenker Group, my favorite part of every day of the tour was sitting on the bus beside Michael Schenker as he practiced for two or three hours each morning:

Doug Aldrich: "Man - I'll tell you what! You and I are definitely on the same page as far as these guys go. I love Michael Schenker - he's so inspirational to me. As far as that whole wah thing - you find the sweet spot - right in the middle where you find that Schenker tone!"

One of my favorite moments on the Burning Rain record is one of the bonus tracks, and what a bonus it is - the band does a great version of the Zeppelin epic, Kashmir. And they do it justice - where many bands might assassinate it with too much, Burning Rain nails it. I asked Doug how they came to record this one:

Doug Aldrich: "Uh.... we needed another track, hahahaha! 
"We had a jam of that track, Keith put down a vocal, and I put on some backwards guitars - and you know what's really interesting about that? I didn't want to mess up the song with a bunch of shredding - I wanted it to be more ethereal, I wanted it to sound like Burning Rain, but to keep the integrity of the original in some way. So I'll do some backwards guitar parts. 
"Eventually, that track was cut on a 2 inch tape machine that I have - we cut it at my house, so I ended up getting that out and putting it down on tape - then I chucked it onto Pro Tools so I could edit it, and clean it up. 
"Then I noticed - when I listened back to my playing when it's backwards? It sounds like George Lynch. A lot, hahaha! 
"It was really funny, I was like, 'That's where George got his style! He flipped the tape over!' There are some moments where I'm doing my normal 'Doug' things, and I'm like, 'Whoa, that sounds just like George now!' 
"You know, I got to be friends with George about ten years ago, and he's a great guy. Sometimes at Christmas he'll have a party, and we'll jam, or I'll see him at the NAMM show - I can't wait to tell him this story, he's going to crack up, man! 'I can sound just like you, George - all I gotta do is flip the tape over!'

When I'm able to stop laughing, I remember what I'm doing, and comment that the orchestration he chose to lay upon the Led Zeppelin classic was most appropriate:

Doug Aldrich: "Thank you, man - that means a lot to me, because the worst thing I could ever do is to ruin something. We had just done that for the fun of it, and we needed a bonus track, so that's what we did. It wasn't originally for the record, but it turned out to be just that, a nice bonus. 
"But I really appreciate your comment because if I had to pick my favorite all time guitar player, it would have to be Jimmy Page, even though I don't sound like him, I absolutely love his writing, his playing, his everything - the whole package - pound for pound, Jimmy Page is my guy! 
"I hate to say it, but I'm sure that Jimmy would hear that and just go, 'Yeah, man, that's.......'"

I disagree, telling Doug that I had recently heard Dave Kilminster of Roger Waters band telling me a story of his having played his version of The Rain Song, only to discover that Page was not only in the audience, but wanted to meet him - turned out that Jimmy was quite laudatory about the rendition, as I'm sure he will be if he hears Burning Rain's Kashmir:

Doug Aldrich: "I hope so, but I'm not going to play it for him! 
"We see Jimmy every year when we go to England, and I fully expect to see him this year when we are over there. And I guarantee you I will make no mention of this! I would be way too embarrassed to bring it up to him, but I'll tell you a funny story.... 
"On that tour we did with Gary Moore back in '03, when I first met Jimmy and just happened to have a Les Paul backstage - he was gracious enough to, I asked him if he would scratch his initials in it. And he did it with a fork! He scratched his initials in it in 2003. 
"He was there to see David, and David was in the shower, and there's Jimmy hanging out in the hallway! I'm going, 'Jimmy, what are you doing in the hallway? Please, come in with us and hang out in our dressing room.' He came in and we just had a nice cordial chat - he's super nice, just really nice. 
"You know, for basically being rock 'n' roll's god - he was just very down to earth. So I said, 'Hey, Jimmy, I hate to do this, but would you mind scratching your initials? I hate to do this, but I'm going to anyway.' And he said, 'Yeah, man, I'll do it - never done that before!'
"And then two years later - we were playing at Hammersmith, and Jimmy was at the side of the stage, and I came off stage at the end of the show - David was doing Soldier of Fortune a cappella, and it's a great moment in the show, because David's voice is just huge, and by itself. So, I pulled out the guitar, just to show him that I still had it - of course I still have it. 
"I handed it to him, and he kind of grabbed it like he was going to go onstage with David! 
"I kind of wish that he had, it would have been so cool, you know? Maybe someday we'll get to jam with him."

After that riveting story of a meeting with a rock god, I thought it best to wind down with another story of a meeting with some rock demi-gods - Aldrich's audition for KISS at the young age of 18. I approached the topic by asking what track he was playing on the upcoming KISS 40th Anniversary Tribute record, A World With Heroes, being produced by Mitch Lafon to benefit a Cancer Care Hospice:

Doug Aldrich: "Actually, I haven't done my track yet! I don't know which song it will be. They were going to send me the track, but I'll play on any of the tracks! 
"I'll tell you what I'd love to play on - something like Shock Me, or Christine Sixteen - I love those songs, or Hotter Than Hell
"Black Diamond - I only know these songs because after all these years, I've really come to appreciate how cool early KISS was. When you get past the image, it comes down to great songs, but one song I know the guys in KISS really love, it was kind of like their Stairway To Heaven at the time - that was Black Diamond - now that would be great to play on! 
"I auditioned for KISS back in the early '80s"

I stopped to tell him that in retrospect, not getting that job was probably the best thing that ever happened to him, on many levels:

Doug Aldrich: "I agree! The thing that was great about it was that, had I gotten that gig, and obviously, I was not the right guy - I was very young (18), and inexperienced. But had I gotten it, I wouldn't have gone through a lot of things which helped me be a better musician - if you get picked up, and join a big band without having any experience, who knows, you may miss out on a lot of things. 
"The thing is, they said, 'This song, Black Diamond, is very important to us, and it comes down to how you play it, really.' And I played it pretty good - well enough that they called me back for a second look, but I agree with you. Things do happen for a reason, and you just have to roll with it."

Thanks to Doug Aldrich, David Coverdale, Whitesnake, Frontiers Records, Carise Yatter at Hired Gun Media, and Peter Noble at Noble PR (UK). 

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