Interview: Eric Gales, more than just a blues guy
Since he was anointed the ‘next great bluesman’ while still a teenager, things have been far from smooth sailing for Eric Gales. At one point, it seemed as though drug and legal problems would derail his career but in 2017, he returned in stunning form, reminding listeners everywhere that he remains one of the most devastating blues guitarists on the planet. Now, refreshed and reinvigorated, Gales has decided it’s time to show the world how broad his horizons can be…
Image: Mathieu Bitton
Eric Gales has something he’d like to get off his chest. “I’m going to say something for the record,” the 44-year-old exclaims. “I have been labelled as a blues-guitar player, or a blues-rock guitar player… I am a whole lot more than that.” It’s a concept that the Memphis-born guitarist returns to again and again over the course of our conversation, his passion and conviction evident even down a crackly phone line from his recently snowed-in North Carolina home.
And to be honest, who could blame him? Gales supported Santana at Woodstock ’94 at the age of 20, he’s been releasing albums for very nearly 30 years now, and along the way he’s battled addiction and spent time in jail. If after all he’s done and all he’s been through, people are still trying to pigeonhole him as just a blues guitarist, it’s understandable that he’d want to set them straight once and for all.
“There are more vantage points to me than just being a blues guy,” Gales continues.
“During my show, there might be one song that you’d class as a hardcore, I-IV-V blues thing, but other than that… Yes, you hear the blues influence in everything that I do, because that’s what I am at my core, but there are influences, inspirations and other styles that I also like to visit. Blues, funk, rock, pop… all of it will entail things that are part of me. So it’s difficult for me to say what kind of guitar player I am, because I like everything from gospel to funk to classical to jazz.”
Gales’ forthcoming 16th studio album, The Bookends, is his most overt example of that. If 2017’s Middle Of The Road catapulted him back into the top strata of blues-guitar players, The Bookends is the sound of him stretching out and showing what a versatile and eclectic guitar player and musician he can be. “On this album, I feel like I’ve really let the world know that I’m much more than a I-IV-V blues player – there are many facets to me,” he insists.
“I haven’t really shown that basic blues side of me in years. It’s more rock, it’s more pop, it’s more new. New stuff! There’s elements of blues, rock, funk, gospel, a little bit of country, and everything in between.
“Because I’m influenced by a lot of different things, I can’t predict what will come to me at the time, it’s just how I’m feeling. I try to transfer that from my brain to my hands and try to give it everything I have. It just all depends on the mode and the mood I’m in as to what comes out. I can honestly say that I’m never disappointed with what comes out, and it winds up speaking to where my heart is at that moment in time. I just try to dip in and out of different worlds and how I fuse them together is still unknown to me, but I’m glad it works out!”
This diversity is something that Gales obviously is hugely passionate about, so much so that it leads right back to the album’s title… “The Bookends is about how I fit everything in between them,” he explains. “It’s about how I was trying to fit these different styles in between two bookends. I’m influenced by a lot of different things, and I just wanted to make a record that gave much more to the song content, the lyric content and my singing, as well as pairing up with people who I’m really influenced by, such as B.Slade, Beth Hart and Doyle Bramhall. All three of them contributed to the record in really powerful ways that made the album what it is.”
The aforementioned Doyle Bramhall II is a guest on the appropriately titled Southpaw Serenade – a laid-back number that sees the two guitarists weave their contrasting styles together to produce one of the album’s most enjoyable moments. “I’ve known Doyle since he was in Arc Angels, a long time ago, and we have to stick together as we both play left-handed!” Gales jokes.
“So I figured, why not get my good friend Doyle to give me a hand? And it turned out wonderfully. It couldn’t have turned out no better than what it did! It was great! He did his thing – he came and he brought it, and he gave it, and it gave the song a feel that was like a D’Angelo vibe, and that was another of those things between the bookends that I wanted to touch on.”
Speaking of lefties, Gales’ style of playing guitar is famously idiosyncratic. Despite being naturally right-handed, he plays the guitar lefty, but upside down, with the strings going from high to low – a style that was also used by his uncle Dempsey Garrett Jr, a righty-playing southpaw who jammed with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. We ask if his unconventional style helps him approach the guitar in a different way than he would if he played right-handed.
“I wouldn’t know!” he exclaims. “I have no way to compare it with how you’d approach things as a right-handed player! I just do what it is that I do and it’s unique to everybody else… but to me, it’s normal. That said, there definitely is a different approach to how I’m playing compared to people who play right-handed, and that in itself may give me a unique thing in the way that I voice chords or the way that I strum, coming from the top down. But all I know is that it works for me!”
However, despite being in the game for nearly 30 years, Gales still has a few guitar tricks up his sleeve that even his most dedicated fan will never have heard before, most notably on the track It Just Beez That Way, where Eric plays slide guitar on record for the first time.
“It Just Beez That Way is a great example of some new stuff, because if people thought they’d heard it all from me, now I come out with the slide, and then incorporate that with the beatboxing and the off-tempo backbeat behind it, it’s a really interesting song,” he explains.
It’s not like Eric had been woodshedding new techniques, though – he’d just never really felt like he wanted to use it on record before. “It’s kinda been there in the bag all along,” he confirms. “I was trying to think of stuff that I wanted to do that I haven’t done before. People have never heard me play slide before, so I gave it what I thought was kind of a Robert Randolph-y, Derek Trucks combination, and I was pleasantly surprised how it turned out!”
Mark of quality
Despite the varied stylistic places that Gales visited on The Bookends, when it came to the gear side of things, he leant on his most trusted and familiar tools. Primarily, it was his Magneto Sonnet Raw Dawg II signature model and a PRS McCarty (“For those humbucker tones”) doing the heavy lifting, with a selection of simple pedals including a Tube Screamer, wah and delay, all running into his all-important DV Mark Raw Dawg EG head.
Using a hybrid micro-head made by an Italian maker more famous for its bass gear than scorching blues amps is another unconventional decision by Gales, but he can’t speak highly enough of it. “The solid-state is only the power, but the tone is coming from the preamp tube and I think that hybrid thing is just an ingenious,” he enthuses.
“I’m really in love with the amp, man – it’s sounds great, it’s lightweight, it’s affordable and it’s selling off the shelves really well – so much so that we have a new signature combo amp and cabinet coming out soon as well, along with some new Eric Gales signature gear.”
Using your voice
If creative variety is a musical constant of the record, from a thematic point of view, pleas for social justice, equality and a better world are prominent on the likes of Something’s Gotta Give and Reaching For A Change. In a society that seems to becoming more divided every day, it would be easy for Gales to avoid such polarising sentiments in his music, but his broad influences emboldened him to be more overt.
“Seeing how other artists are vocal about things that they want to talk about and don’t play it so safe, I took pages from those books,” he elaborates. “You have to be deaf to not hear and blind to not see the things that are going on in the world today, these things that are very prevalent and need to be spoken about. And I think as artists we have a very powerful platform that reaches the masses, and I definitely tried to put it in a way that’s just, ‘Hey, I’m not preaching, I’m not trying to tell everybody what to do, but I’m just making sure that people are aware that something has got to give’.
“And I think that if that song [Something’s Gotta Give] is listened to and understood by the right amount of people and the correct people, then that song could make a very powerful statement. Something’s got to give… with all of the wrongs that are going on in the world today, something has to be done differently. I hope that song can be relatable to people.”
Best foot forward
It’s been nearly a decade since Gales was sent to prison for 18 months for violating his parole for an earlier drug conviction: he’s come to appreciate the success and revival he’s experienced since even more. “I do, I really do man, it goes without saying,” he affirms. “You can tell in my playing and the energy that I put forth on stage every night. I’m just trying to put one foot in front of another and make today a little bit better than yesterday, and it seems to be working for me. If I’m leaving a legacy, I want people to know that this guy liked touching on everything that inspires him. I’m a wide-open person when it comes to music, and I just wanted to start that process of showing the world I’m not just stuck in one style.
“Blues, roots, rock and gospel is what I am, but there are aspects of other music that I like to touch on and I feel like I’m pretty competent at showing that now, and it’s all right there for you to hear on the record. I just tried to give it all, man. I said that I’m going to go all out and really give the world where my head is right now, and hope that they accept it.”
Eric Gales’ new album, The Bookends, is out on Mascot/Provogue now.