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- Posted on Jan 29th 2010 1:30PM by Lonny Knapp
In the '60's, Bachman emerged from Winnipeg, that frigid Canadian prairie town, to blaze a trail to the top of the American pop charts. As guitarist for the Guess Who, Bachman co-wrote rock-radio staples such as 'These Eyes,' and 'American Woman,' before leaving the group to form Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO), the arena rockers responsible for the ultimate ode to the workingman, 'Taking Care of Business.'
Almost five decades into his career, Bachman continues to rule the airwaves, not only as a performer but also as a radio DJ. When not staging concerts with former Guess Who singer Burton Cummings, or working on an upcoming album with BTO's Fred Turner, he spins tunes, offers insight to classic recordings, and relates stories from a life on the road and in the studio on Vinyl Tap, his weekly show on CBC Radio One and Sirius Satellite Radio, Channel 137.
Spinner caught up with Bachman to talk about his love affair with the guitar, his reincarnation as a radio DJ, and the cultural importance of 'The Beatles: Rock Band.'
Obviously, you are no stranger to radio. But how does it feel to be on the other side of the microphone?
It's quite a switch. All my life, DJs have been my conduit to the public. Now I realize what a tough job it is. You have to be on all the time, especially those guys who do morning radio. And then there are those guys like David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Oprah, who are on TV everyday; they got to be on and look good doing it. At least with radio you can show up in your pajamas.
So does that mean you do your radio show in your boxers?
Sometimes I do the show in shorts and with bed head. My wife will ask me, are you really going to wear that? And I'll say, well, no one can see me but you.
Paul McCartney used to live a block from Abbey Road and he'd show up to the studio in his dressing gown and slippers in the middle of the night if he had an idea, then go back home to get dressed. So it's okay.
You have a massive collection of guitars. What is so intriguing about the instrument?
The guitar is the most popular instrument in the world. There is currently one or two for every household. For those households that don't have any, there are households like mine that have a few hundred.
It's portable and relatively easy to play. It's the only instrument that you put your arms around. You hold it right to your chest and it becomes part of you. To be a guitar player is the most fantastic and exhausting thing. I sit down every night and practice an hour or two. Creatively, it's a well that is so deep.
You came up at a time before the invention of stomp boxes and digital studio effects, but as a guitar player you were sonically innovative. I've heard artists such as Lenny Kravitz, Bry Webb (Constantines), and Gordie Johnson (Grady, Big Sugar) rave about your tone on 'American Woman.' How did you achieve that sound?
I used to plug my guitar into this old tape recorder and then the tape recorder into my guitar amp. When I turned it up loud, the amp would distort. Doing this would cause the amp to burn and smoke, but it sounded great for ten minutes.
Every week I'd take the amp into this guy named 'Gar' Gillies who owned a radio and TV fix-it place. The next Monday I'd bring it back in covered in smoke and burn marks. Finally, I asked him to build me something that could create that sound, but wouldn't burst into flames. He built a prototype tube preamp that is responsible for the guitar sound on 'American Woman.' At the time I was reading a book by Werner Herzog, and this thing became the Randy Bachman Herzog.
He went on to establish Garnet Amplifiers and supplied amps to the Guess Who, Bachman Turner Overdrive, and Neil Young. I'm cutting a record now with Fred Turner and we are using a Garnet head because nothing sounds quite like it. I actually blew it up yesterday because I was driving it too hard, and the smell made me nostalgic.
'American Woman' is included in the videogame 'Rock Band 2.' How does it feel to have a new generation exposed to your music while mashing coloured buttons on a plastic guitar?
Actually, for Christmas this year my wife got 'Beatles: Rock Band.' Everyone who came over played it. And it's amazing to have three-year-old kids singing 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' with me, a guy who is in his sixties. It's just an absolute thrill. It proves that rock and roll is here forever.
Fans think of you as a rock player, but early on you received lessons from Lenny Breau, the legendary jazz guitarist.
Lenny was my guitar mentor. I skipped school for two years so we could hang out and I flunked grade ten and eleven because of him. He went on to become a great jazz player. I went into rock and became what I became. But I am so grateful to him for those years.
He told me, there will always be a better guitar player than you, but if you can write a hit song, it will last forever. This is from a great guitar player. So, I took it upon myself to try and write great songs and out of the thousands I've written, I've a couple of dozens that have stuck around.
You've written a few hits in your day. Did you know when you wrote 'Taking Care of Business' that it would become a working-class anthem?
No. I had no idea whatsoever. I thought it was an album cut. The ones that I think are great, where I feel I've worked out great lyrics and interesting guitar hooks, nobody likes. They are too contrived.
But the songs I wrote in five minutes, like 'American Woman,' 'Taking Care of Business,' and 'You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet' became number one records and are known all around the world.