Jerry Donahue Interview 10/05/2004, N. Hollywood, California
Interview by Pekka Rintala and Rob Timmons, B-Band, Inc.
B-Band: What are you currently working on?
Jerry Donahue: Currently I'm on vacation (laughs). Actually I'm sort of in the midst of a family project while I'm here in California (I live in Hamburg, Germany now). My mother and daughter both live here and we are doing a song that my brother wrote years ago. I have to finish up a bit of work on that. My lady comes over from Germany on Friday and we're planning on doing some sightseeing, etc., visiting places like Reno, Las Vegas and some choice spots around California. She will also work with us on the family thing. Afterwards I will do some studio work while I'm here, for some other people. Will Ray wanted me to come and do something for a client of his and another studio engineer had a couple of projects he was interested in me doing - just bits and pieces while I'm in town. Most of the work, though, will be when I get back in October. I have tours to do in England and also in Germany.
B-B: What kind of acoustic guitar do you use?
J.D: I have several acoustic guitars but my main ones, favorite ones are Martins. I have a couple of the new OO-18 Vintage series guitars (small bodies) which I love. I think they sound great live. Really good finger picking guitars, they're warm and sound wonderful!
B-B: What B-Band systems do you use?
J.D: It's the new A2.2 XOM system with two pickups, the UST and the AST.
B-B: How long have you been using that?
J.D: It's fairly new, it's a little less than a year now. About a year ago I did a group of clinics for Martin, after which I gave my guitar to Pekka to install the new pickups. I tried a few B-band systems and right away I knew that they were far better than what I had been using.
B-B: What do you like about the B-Band sound?
J.D: It sounds very natural, for one thing. I also like the extra control you have with the new model. It has a special balance control enabling you to really dial in what you are looking for! That will be particularly useful since your sound varies so much from one place to another. It's nice to have that little bit of extra control. You can tailor the sound to arrive at what is right for a specific room. The system I used before didn't work nearly as well.
B-B: Have you used B-band for recording?
J.D: Not yet, but I will soon. So far I have used this new system only at the Frankfurt show, last March, and at the NAMM show in July. It's a knockout.
B-B: You are well known for your bends. How did you develop that technique?
J.D: From two guitarists that really inspired me: one that inspired me for more traditional bends (I use the word traditional as, generally speaking, bends are executed on the fingerboard itself), and the other when I witnessed him as he reached behind the nut, causing me nearly to fall off the chair! That was Gerry McGee.
Amos Garrett is great with bends - double bends, triple bends, parallel motion tricks, far more than you would have thought was possible on a guitar. Normally if you play two strings, you'd just bend one and let the other one ring. But he'd bend both, always perfectly in tune. When I first heard him play, I actually thought about giving up the guitar! But after I recovered from that setback, his unique style became an inspiration, and it became fun to try to find some of that on my guitar! He was my main influence as far as that style goes.
I actually heard a behind-the-nut bend first (I think I was only 14 at the time) from Gerry McGee, while walking past an LA bar where he was playing. He was in a trio: Telecaster, Precision bass and drums. They were playing through the old tweed amps then. There were just the three of them and they were truly remarkable! The sound was so full because Gerry used a thumb pick and fingers, which I'd never ever seen up to that time. The bass player was great too - Larry Taylor, later to become the original bassman for Canned Heat. I can still remember how they played together - they were awesome!
Though I was underage, I begged my dad to take me there (the Sea Witch club. He was a musician, too, a big band leader. Being very supportive of me and my interest in music, he was more than happy to take me back there where he talked the manager into letting us in! During the break my dad asked Gerry if he'd stop by once or twice a week to give me lessons, before work - we were only two blocks away. To my delight he agreed! I remember watching him this one time when he casually reached behind the nut and bent the B string up a full tone! I later learned that he was basically emulating Scruggs pegs on a banjo. On Earl Scruggs, Flint Hill Special or Earl's Breakdown he would do all this fancy five-string type work and then slow it down to do these behind the nut figures (On Earl's banjo one of these pegs was preset to a full step and the other one to a semi tone). When Gerry captured that style on his Tele by simply reaching behind the nut, my whole world changed - for ever! I'm still able to relive the effect that that moment had on me.
I had to get him to show me how he did that, and he did. I practiced all week, finally managing to get it close enough in tune so that when it was time for the next lesson he'd be happy with me. When I asked him to show me some more of those, he just said "Oh, I don't do any more - I just arrived at that trick to emulate the Scruggs pegs".
I was a bit disappointed at first but soon found a way to expand on the technique myself. My family was soon to relocate to England, so I simply had to move forward off the memory of Gerry's inspirational style. I was able to develop more of a finger style approach after watching him play, although in those days I couldn't get used to a thumb pick. Instead I would use a regular pick and the remaining fingers. More recently, though, when thumb picks became available in the shape of flat picks, I was able to make the switch. For me, it was the best of both worlds then.
Gerry is also the first guy I ever saw using an unwound third. Back in those days, strings came as in the acoustic sets - the third string was always wound and the whole set was considerably heavier. Even the lightest strings available at that time, Black Diamond, wouldn't be considered light by our present day standards. But they were the best then. Since they still came with a wound 3rd, he would throw that away and use two seconds! He was way ahead of his time and I was fortunate enough to have been around to see him - it just opened a whole new world for me. Had I not seen him at such an early age I probably would have continued along the lines of a more traditional approach to the guitar.
B-B: Do you approach the acoustic much different from the electric?
J.D: It feels different but my approach is not so different since I still do the bendy stuff. And to whatever degree may be possible, I still find myself bending behind the nut. I try to make full use of whatever is available to me. With my present set up, I can do a whole step on the G-string and the B-string. While setting up my 0018 for me in Nashville, a fine player and luthier, Richard Starkey, wound the strings upward around the peg shaft, rather than winding them down, as would be the expected manner in restringing. That afforded me the needed extra "play" on those strings to be able to execute the bends.
B-B: Are there any musicians that you haven't played with that you would like to play with in the future?
J.D: I have played with all my heroes except Chet Atkins. And now, as you know, that's no longer possible. A few years ago, though, Ray Flacke brought me over to his office to meet him and when we talked I was delighted to find that not only did he know who I was, but that he'd already had one of my albums! I'd been told how in touch he was, and that he'll often go and buy an artists' album if he enjoyed his playing at a show. Well I was just over the moon! This was really Chet Atkins - and he actually had an album of mine! But what a wonderful man he was, a great guy! I would have loved to share a stage with him just once.
Recently I played with Duane Eddy at the Nashville NAMM show. That was a treat. Along with Chet and Duane, The Ventures were also a big inspiration. Though Bob Bogle played lead on "Perfidia" and "Walk, Don't Run" it was, in fact, Nokie Edwards who handled most of the leads with them, generally speaking. He was also on that stage that night, along with James Burton! Man, was I in Heaven!
Others in that category that I've played with include Danny Gatton, Amos Garrett, Albert Lee, Tommy Emmanuel, Hank Marvin (of The Shadows) and Robben Ford. They're all huge idols of mine. There actually are others with whom I would love to share a stage, but sadly, many are no longer with us.
It might be that I'll be doing something with Joe Satriani at the Anaheim NAMM Show this January. Peavey and I are working on a new guitar to be released at that time and Joe and Steve Cropper will also be participating there. Peavey is organizing a 40th anniversary party on the Saturday night (at the Grove in Anaheim) and a few of us may be doing a spot in Joe's show, returning again later to do a jam at the end. That's the plan as I heard today and I'm pretty excited about the new guitar.
B-B: What inspired you to play the guitar?
J.D: Well, you won't believe it. It was actually a record that came out by a Swedish band which, I didn't know at the time, was called the Rocketeens. This is early on - late fifties, maybe '58 or '59 and it was called "Woo Hoo". It was a boogie type, 12 bar sequence. That guitar was hammering out, on the bottom strings, a blazing boogie riff with such an amazing tone. I'd grown up playing the piano up until then but I was never really into it. I was made to learn Rachmanino Tchaikovsky, and other wonderful classical composers - but I was just this six year old kid! Apparently I played it quite well, but my heart was not in it. It was all work and no play - I wanted them at least to give me a couple of boogie woogie things - something to make it all worth while and fun. After four or five years of that I heard this single and I thought, wow, that's it, that's my instrument, I'm going to learn to play the guitar! I begged my parents to buy me a fender - I had heard of Fender guitars and I loved them as soon as I'd seen one, but I was told that I had to begin on an acoustic first. They wanted first to make sure that I was serious about this, as I had never been serious about the piano. For that Christmas they bought me a Goya guitar. Though the Goya was a classical, I actually loved playing it. It was actually a pretty good guitar costing only $80.00 at the time. Back then, though, that was a lot of money! Well anyway, I just never put the thing down, I played it constantly - and if not constantly, several hours a day - any time that I wasn't out with my friends or studying or whatever. One way or another I always managed to get in at least three or four hours every day. By the end of the year I had apparently surpassed the level that my parents had expected of me and so they had to live up to their end of the bargain! They both made good and I got my Fender guitar in the end - and a Fender amp to boot!
B-B: Was it a Telecaster?
J.D: No, it was a Jazzmaster because that was what the Ventures played. The lead guitarist played one, at least that's the way it looked from the album covers, and from the sound too, you really can hear it. Shortly after that, the family moved to England, where the Shadows happened to be a very big thing. They played Stratocasters, the tone of which was incredible. I hadn't known in the early days how different one Fender sounded from another. But you can really distinguish a Jazzmaster sound from a Stratocaster sound from a Tele. I got into Strats because the Shadows played Strats. In 1962 I traded my Jazzmaster for Geoff Husson's Strat (we were in a semi-pro band together called The Zephyrs) playing that till the late sixties, at which time I started to work at Selmers, one of the prominent music stores then. All the very best guitars were available there so I had the opportunity to sample them all. Though I had never been drawn to the Telecaster aesthetically, I happened to plug one in and I was amazed at the sound from that bridge pickup, which I had never heard from a Strat. I thought man, that's really a smokin' sound. Ever since then I've been into Teles Strats. I find that one's strength is the other's weakness and vice versa (on the pickup selector switch) - they don't seem to overlap in that regard.
B-B: Do you have a main Electric guitar?
J.D: No, not really. That's because I have residences here (L.A.), England and Hamburg. I kept my apartment here when I moved to Germany because it's been in the family since '53, a great place and still very cheap. If I were to put my stuff in storage and then stay in a hotel for two trips here it would most likely cost me more than keeping the apartment all year around. I also have a studio setup so it's nice to keep that going. I have a rig in each on those places and favorites among my guitars, too.
B-B: What kind of amplifiers do you like to use?
J.D: Different all the time, I had been using a Sessionette (popular in the UK) for many years. It's a solid state amp that somehow has the touch sensitivity of tubes. It's wonderful but more recently I've gotten into the Peavey Classic 30 watt, which delivers the sound I strive for over and above the others. I used one for my last tour in Norway, which I Just finished a couple of weeks ago and I loved it.
B-B: Do you use many pedals?
J.D: I have few that I stick on a pedal board with Velcro. I have a Vesta Fire R1-X digital reverb. It has cool presets with three rotary controls to modify each of the selections offered. Nobels make the best overdrive that I've heard with their ODR-1 model. They also offer a very nice digital delay. In the studio I use a JD-10 amp emulator by Award/Session. It was designed in the UK by the guy that makes those Sessionette amplifiers. When plugged straight into the studio board, it can be set to sound like your favorite amp. That's what I usually use at shows, too. I can go straight into the PA if I want. Normally, though, I use it at the front end of my amp. It's equally good for clean, or full overdrive. Or any stage in between: Everything from Duane Eddy to Korn! That's about it - not too many pedals.