Little Feat is a national institution. The band's slinky, sinuous songs drip with style like Cajun hot sauce bubbling from a freshly boiled crawfish. From the opening strains of their sensational slide-laden jams to the final passages of their deeply rhythmic sonic explorations, Little Feat carries forward many of the best musical traditions of our collective cultures - both America's and the World's.
With three decades of great recorded work behind them, the Feat are still pouring their hearts into regular releases (10 in the past three years, including greatest hits packages!) that are as solid as their legendary early work. The most recent studio album, Kickin' It At the Barn, retains all the regional flavors the band has long been known for. Recorded in guitarist Fred Tackett's barn in Topanga Canyon (a longtime hotbed of musical inspiration and a bastion of rural life in the otherwise heavily suburbanized Hollywood Hills), it's got some pretty rambunctious playing too!
Guitar.com spoke with guitarist and frontman Paul Barrere a couple weeks ago, while Little Feat were in the opening stages of a U.S. tour in support of Kickin' It At the Barn. In this extensive interview, Paul disclosed the secret of the renowned Little Feat slide tone, including his love of the Sears & Roebuck hardware department, as well as the band's method of writing, recording, and working out guitar parts. So if you're still willin', read on:
Paul Barrere: I haven't seen much of it yet, I'm just waking up.
Guitar.com: So how are things out on the road these days?
Barrere: Pretty good. We just started, and of course our managers are trying to kill us. They had us do nine shows in seven days. We did two shows a night for two nights in Seattle, and then this is the seventh day here in Park City.
Guitar.com: Maybe they thought you needed the practice. (laughs)
Barrere: I think so (laughs). Since we've been off for three months, they wanted to make sure we got our sea legs quick.
Guitar.com: How have the shows been going?
Barrere: Absolutely great.
Guitar.com: How much of the material are you singing these days?
Barrere: I sing probably around half of it, and Shaun sings the other half. Billy sings, occasionally, two or three songs a night. Sam will sing a couple songs here or there, and Fred's got one or two that he sings. But for the most part Shaun and I are the main vocalists.
Guitar.com: And how does that affect your guitar playing? Is that an issue at all? Do you lay out on some songs while you sing?
Barrere: Actually, no. It makes me kind of zero in on a little bit more minimalistic parts while I'm singing. And of course having Fred Tackett there is wonderful, because he fills the void so nicely. But for the most part it's been pretty much my forte over all these years that you play and sing at the same time.
Guitar.com: Right, I wondered if you backed off on your guitar parts from what you might have done in the studio?
Barrere: It would have been that case early on, or even right when got back together in '88 and did Let It Roll, we did a lot more overdubbing. We've kind of taken - ever since Ain't Had Enough Fun -- we've kind of taken a live approach in the studio so that what you're playing in the studio, and singing, is pretty much what you can do live.
Guitar.com: Right, 'cause otherwise you're going, 'Uh oh, why did I do all this, which of those 23 tracks do I try to re-create?'
Barrere: Right! (laughs) Precisely. But that was kind of the way we recorded things for many a year.
Guitar.com: And your interplay with Fred comes and goes depending on what you're singing, with, I imagine, him taking on more of it sometimes
Barrere: Well, more in line of rhythm lines, rhythm parts. Most of our, underneath vocals, if there's little lead lines, they usually take place in between phrases. So we trade those off as well. Fred and I have been playing together now for so many years, it's almost second nature. We come up with parts that just seem to flow together.
Guitar.com: How much of the time, when you're playing live, do you have a slide on your finger?
Barrere: Oh at least two thirds. It's an important sound for the Little Feat sound.
Guitar.com: Right. What kind of slide do you use?
Barrere: I use a Sears & Roebuck 5/8ths inch socket wrench. (laughs)
Guitar.com: But seriously now.
Barrere: Seriously. Yeah. They work great. They never break or rust.
Guitar.com: How did you get into that?
Barrere: When I joined Little Feat I used to play glass slides, and Lowell (George) was the main slide cat anyway. But I had a couple songs that I used to sing and play slide on and I kept breaking the glass ones. And one night after I broke one he came over and plopped one of his 11/16ths on my finger, and I started using it. Then I realized it was just too big, and I used to wedge it with tape and stuff. Then I went to Sears myself and found that the 5/8ths fit perfectly. It's absolutely the perfect size. It's like a spark-plug wrench almost, but a little shorter. And they just work great.
Guitar.com: And that was pretty much exclusively what he used too?
Barrere: Yeah, that was it. Occasionally if we're in the studio, if we're doing acoustic work, I'll use a glass slide. There's something nice about the glass on the steel. But you have to have the correct environment.
Guitar.com: I've always found that a steel slide gives me a more brittle tone than I'm looking for. You're obviously dealing with that, or adjusting your EQ or something. Since you've used both glass and steel, what are your thoughts?
Barrere: I don't find it so much as a brittle situation. The thing that I like about the socket wrench is that there's a lot of weight to it, so I get a smooth tone from it. Over the years, and still to this day, people keep giving me different slides. There are few glass ones that I like, but mostly they're from wine bottles, because it has to be that thick glass. And quite frankly, when I'm playing electric, I use a double compression situation, and I probably EQ it with the amp, so it doesn't sound too brittle.
Guitar.com: Tell me about the gear you're using. What's your main guitar these days?
Barrere: It's still my Fender Stratocasters. I have a '69 and a '72. One's tuned to open G and one's tuned to open A.
Guitar.com: What gauge strings do you use?
Barrere: .013 on the top and .052 on the bottom, Ernie Ball Flat Wound.
Guitar.com: And have you put anything into these guitars, new pickups for instance, or are they stock?
Barrere: Years ago when Seymour Duncan's place was a little shack up in Santa Barbara I took those two guitars up there because a friend of mine was working for Seymour, and we took my pickups out of the Strats, and basically took all the stock wire off the pickups. And he said, 'Here's the thickest wire Seymour has. We'll just wind it with that.' And of course we just put them on the machine and let them wind. We didn't count the windings or anything. And it just beefed the pickups up to no end. Over the years they've held up wonderfully, and they have such a fat sound. And over the years I've put new hardware on, because these guitars are now 30-some years old: Knobs, tuning pegs, bridge pieces
Guitar.com: Do you treat the guitars as if they're vintage, relic instruments, or do you just put whatever brand new tuning knob you need on there?
Barrere: I usually go with the newest Fender knobs. I like these new lockdown ones, they're great.
Guitar.com: Yeah, they are. And where does the signal go after your guitar?
Barrere: After my guitar I go into a pedal board. I used to have a real nice rack with all kinds of rack-mounted gear
Guitar.com: A Bradshaw kind of thing?
Barrere: Yeah, with a MIDI switcher and all that kind of thing. But I didn't like the little millisecond delay between hitting a patch and having it come up. So I canned all that stuff and went back to stompboxes. I use two compressors: the old Ibanez DS-10 and the Boss compressor, the blue one - I don't know the number on that one (CS-3). I used to have a Tube Screamer, but I replaced it with a Maxon Overdrive, which is just fat sounding. I love this new Maxon pedal. And I have a tap delay and a Blues Driver. And that's it.
Guitar.com: And how do you use these pedals? Are the two compressors on all the time?
Barrere: Not all the time. Sometimes, if I want to get really quiet, I'll just go with one. The secret behind the Little Feat slide sound, if you will, was developed years ago in the studio using two 1176 compressors. With one you're compressing the signal heavily, and with the other one you're driving it up. It tends to get a little noisy, so if we're doing a really quiet song, I'll click one of those compressors off and not really drive that really compressed signal as much. But for the most part, if I'm just playing, I've got the two compressors on, and then I just use the different stages of overdrive depending upon what kind of lead sound I'm looking for.
Guitar.com: And then what kind of amp are you running that into?
Barrere: I'm still playing out of the Rivera combo 120, 50 watts per side, stereo. It's got the stereo chorus built into it, which is based on the original Roland - remember that gray oblong box? And it's just a wonderful sound. And then I go from that into a Marshall cabinet that's wired stereo with Celestions: 4x12, 30-watt Celestions. And that's pretty much it.
Guitar.com: And are you using a certain kind of cable?
Barrere: Monster cables. Well, Monster cable as far as wiring up the pedals. Going into the guitars and things, Ernie Ball has been gracious enough to supply us with cables and straps and strings all these years. They've been a great supporter of the band.
Guitar.com: And how does your gear and your tone mesh with what Fred has going on? Does he run a similar rig?
Barrere: No, he runs a whole different kind of rig. He's running through his old Fender Deluxe. It's probably a late-'60s, early-'70s Deluxe that Red Rhodes - who was the amp guru back in the '60s and '70s in Los Angeles - had kind of hot-rodded it for him. And he goes through a whole different series of pedals. I think he's got two Tube Screamers, and a compressor, and a delay, and a tremolo. So we try to get completely different kinds of sounds.
Guitar.com: So when the band is writing, and/or in the studio, is there a goal or a standard that you guys set for yourselves as far as the interplay between yourselves?
Barrere: No, we just kind of let it happen. We take it song by song. This last record, for instance, Fred brought in some wonderful string instruments: two different kinds of mando-cellos, and his mandolin, and of course guitar. We both played acoustic and electric. We take it song by song and figure out what's going to complement the other best. And we do the same thing in divvying up solos and rhythm parts. It's a give and take on a song by song basis.
Guitar.com: Do you have harmony runs that you're working out here and there?
Barrere: We don't do a lot of that. The old bands like the Allmans or Lynyrd Skynyrd would do it. We don't do a lot of lead lines together with harmony. We've actually kind of shied away from that.
Guitar.com: You did it regularly on the older material, why have you shied away from it?
Barrere: It seems like a dated sound to us now.
Guitar.com: At the time you were doing it, was there a kind of trick you had for coming up with your harmonies?
Barrere: Well, Fred being the master musician and me being the have-at-it kind of guy (laughs), I would play a lead line and he would figure out a harmony to it.
Guitar.com: You've been playing together for 30 years, what would the influences be at this point? You've probably influenced yourselves as much as you've been influenced by anybody else.
Barrere: That's part of it. But these days we're kind of influenced by the different musical genres that we attack. This latest record that we put out, Kickin' It At the Barn
Guitar.com: Which I do not have yetyour publicist said he sent it
Barrere: Oh! When you get it, you'll hear what I'm talking about as far as all these acoustic instruments.
Guitar.com: OK, I'm listening to Live From Neon Park right now, which I've had for years, and love
Barrere: Oh, you've got to get something more current than that!
Guitar.com: Yeah, I'm looking forward to that package!
Barrere: The influences of Little Feat have been pretty much the same for all the years that I've been involved with Little Feat. We bring to the table this sort of history of music, if you will, whether it's blues
Guitar.com: Gospel, jazz
Barrere: Exactly. Country. Folk - there's even a folk song on this new record.
Guitar.com: Which of those do you bring in?
Barrere: I bring in more of the blues and folk, and then the jazz. Although my ear hears jazz, I just don't play it as well. And Billy - our wonderful keyboardist - brings everything from classical to Bill Evans style jazz, to Latino music, Third World music. He's quite amazing.
Guitar.com: And Fred?
Barrere: Fred brings a wealth of knowledge. He's amazing to me. He was a couple of classes short of graduating with a degree in music from North Texas State
Guitar.com: And they've got excellent music and guitar programs at North Texas State.
Barrere: They certainly do.
Guitar.com: And he did a lot of studio work before he became a full-time member of Little Feat.
Barrere: Oh yeah, an unbelievable amount of studio work, you can see his discography on our website (www.littlefeat.com ).
Guitar.com: And yours is pretty full too, guesting with a lot of the friends you've made over the years, I imagine. Do you still do some of that?
Barrere: Yeah. I do. Last year I actually played on Jack Casady's record, and Melissa Etheridge's record.
Guitar.com: Oh wow, cool.
Barrere: It was extremely rewarding. I got called in on Melissa's record. I knew the engineer and producer, and he needed someone to come in and overdub one acoustic part and one fat rhythm part. So he called me up and I was jazzed.
Guitar.com: Well I'm looking forward to hearing Kickin' It At the Barn' and seeing the band live here in Chicago real soon. Take care Paul.
Barrere: All right Adam, thank you.