Music, in its many forms, touches lives in various ways. For some, it’s background — something to be listened to recreationally, socially, enjoyed now and then. For others, it’s an obsession — the soundtrack of our lives, each defining moment connected to a song, an album, an artist, with specific memories of where we were “the first time we heard …”
Elton John. The Elton John Band. Music that has inspired countless people to pick up an instrument or become a part of the music industry in some way. Touched countless hearts. Literally saved the lives of youngsters who lost themselves in the songs to escape the pain of adolescence. Longtime fans who have remained true to the man who is easily the greatest artist of all time, and the musicians who have been there to create and translate his message.
At the very core of that sound is guitarist Davey Johnstone, the multi-talented musical director and highly underrated guitar hero whose immense contributions to Elton John’s recordings and live performances simply cannot be stressed enough. Johnstone was 19 when he first recorded with Elton John; their friendship and professional relationship have seen them through overwhelming success and equally overwhelming personal tragedies. Through it all, the love and respect remain unbreakable — between the musicians and with their fans.
Forty years — can you really fathom the scope of that?
I didn’t realize the actual length of time until a fan sent something via the office and I looked at it and said, “This is kind of deep.” I was aware of it and always felt great about it. Elton and I would occasionally chat and say, “Wow, we’ve known each other for this long,” and it was kind of freaky. We were in Caracas or something and someone said, “It’s forty years today.” Elton actually announced it onstage. It was a nice moment. These numbers keep coming up. A couple of years ago I reached my 2000th gig and that was kind of weird too. Somebody’s counting, so that’s great. I’m glad that someone keeps track. I tend not to do that because I still look at it like we’re in the middle of doing a lot of stuff, so I’m not writing my memoirs yet, as it were. I know we’re kind of in the twilight of what we’re doing, but I still appreciate what we’re doing now.
You were 19. You all grew up together. To ask how everyone has changed and stayed the same is a broad brushstroke, but do you see those kids in yourselves sometimes?
I was a baby. Yes, because it’s like when you haven’t seen somebody for a long time, you see a person that you knew quite well and you go, “Oh my god, what happened?” And it’s kind of scary. But we don’t realize that so much because we’ve been together most of the time. There were periods of time when we didn’t see each other; Nigel [Olsson] wasn’t involved for a long time, many years, I think it was 15 or 16 years that he didn’t play in the band. There was quite a long time period that I wouldn’t see him too often, so I would notice things like that. Of course, now again we’re tighter than ever and great friends and all that’s wonderful. I get more concerned about my buddies, about stuff that you would get concerned about at our age, the amount of work we’re still doing when maybe we should be taking it a little easier, and I know I’m right about that because Elton got really ill and we had to cancel two dates. I feel that if we took it a little bit easier, perhaps that wouldn’t happen. I know people get sick and you have to cancel occasionally, but we don’t do that very often, so whatever happened I think was partly to do with exhaustion as well.
At the time you joined Elton, you already played guitar, mandolin, sitar, banjo and slide. To be that young and that accomplished, that level of talent is a gift. When did you know you had it?
It is a gift, but I was really driven and I was so passionate about various forms of music that I was into. Like every other kid growing up, I was totally into the Beatles and the Stones. You couldn’t avoid it, especially growing up in Britain, so from the age of 10, the Beatles blew my mind, and before that it was a group called the Shadows. I was totally passionate about music from a very early age and wanted to play all that stuff, and just like any other normal kid — well, maybe not normal kid, sorry! — but growing up with that kind of love for it, you spend a lot of time shedding and practicing. So between my love of music, art and sports, especially soccer, that was my thing. I developed on a lot of instruments, but that must have been part of God’s plan, because I became proficient. When I moved to London, people were calling me up, and saying, “This kid plays all of this other stuff, not just guitar.” If I got booked to play a session, I would be able to say, “Maybe this would be cool on a track,” or “Maybe this would be fun.” That’s why I think Gus Dudgeon, Elton’s producer, who I knew already, was a real champion of what I did. He would book me on all these bizarre things because he knew I could come up with something different. That’s really the key: If you have something original to offer, people are going to be interested. They’re going to say, “Oh, we haven’t heard that before or thought about that aspect before.” So I was very fortunate that I did all that stuff, because it was leading me to this great palette I had to be able to start painting across everybody’s work, and it was something that I’ve always enjoyed doing.
Forty years as a touring musician — it takes a certain personality, a certain character. Let’s talk about that. A lot of guys dream of touring, but they aren’t cut out for the gig.
That’s very true. It’s very hard, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to anybody because it’s a very hard life. Whether you’re healthy or not, it can really hurt you. My dear friend whom we lost a couple of years ago, Guy Babylon, my absolute soul brother and best friend in that period of time in my life and had been for about ten years when we lost him, a lot of that was down to the fact of pure exhaustion. Guy wasn’t a drinker, never took drugs, didn’t smoke, he was an Olympic-class swimmer. How does a guy like that die? You know, the road really takes its toll and there’s very many things you have look out for. You have to watch your diet, obviously the drink and drugs and all the dangerous stuff that’s going to come up that you’re going to be subjected to, and I was no different. I was into it as much as anybody else was. We are all very lucky to be alive, and that’s another thing that Elton and I talk about on a regular basis. We’re very fortunate that we’re still here, because we did get involved in that whole scene and it’s a very dangerous, Russian roulette type of deal when you’re playing with your life like that. So yeah, you’re right, it takes a different kind of character to survive in this business, no question about it.
At the same time, you’re also a successful studio musician. Once again, not a gig for everyone. What does it take to be the one that gets the callbacks?
I know very many wonderful studio players and they tend to be more like specialists, guys who play a certain type of thing. They either play keyboards or guitar or bass, obviously, they play one specific thing. When I do studio stuff, all through my career, whether it was in the beginning or now, for anybody, they hire me because of what I bring to the room, not necessarily because of what I play. They hire me because I bring something a little bit different to the music that they’re trying to interpret. It’s not just that they’re hiring a guitar player or a banjo player. They’re actually hiring me, so that’s an interesting thing. I tend to get away with a bit more when somebody wants me to play on something. I can perhaps listen to it and say, “What about this instead of just playing what’s written down on the page?” Instead of somebody saying, “We need a banjo on this, here’s the notes you’re going to play, play that,” I don’t do that. I listen to what the piece is and then I interpret it my own way.
How much of that comes from playing not only with Elton but across the board with artists in numerous genres — which you have also crossed with Elton.
Another example of that, when I was asked to play on the first thing I played with him, on Madman Across the Water, Gus Dudgeon had called me for the gig and at that point Elton wasn’t that well known. There was a buzz about him. “Border Song” had been released and it was a minor hit. I’d heard him play that song and I thought he was really talented. So I went to the studio and Gus had said, “We think this song would be great with banjo on it.” Elton played the song “Holiday Inn” on piano and I said, “Well, actually, I don’t think banjo’s going to work on that at all. I think it should be mandolin.” I played two or three tracks of mandolin and there was some sitar and other stuff because I was basically bringing my own obnoxious personality to it, saying, “I don’t think it should be banjo. I think it should be something else!” I have always done that. I’m not really good at taking orders, if you like, even in music or whatever. I tend to think that if they want me for something, they’ll get me. Otherwise, they can just get somebody else who’ll play what they want them to play. I think that’s why I’ve been able to progress over the years is that I basically kept my own artistic integrity alive. That’s what’s important to me, and hopefully it’s what I pass on to my kids. I’ve got kids who play great music and that’s a great thing to watch — the way people develop over the years. To play music with your kids is the best. I’ve always loved that.
Your personality can’t be that obnoxious if (a) you were hired, (b) you get the callbacks and (c) you’ve lasted forty years with an artist who isn’t going to take any bulls–t.
He’s also very obnoxious! That’s probably why we get on so well. It probably is. It’s funny, we laugh about it all the time, because he’s just a classic belligerent, but then again, ten minutes later he’ll be mister shy, quiet and sweet. He’s just one of those personalities, like a bunch of us are who do this kind of thing for a living. It’s a kindred spirit you see in somebody else, and like you said earlier, it takes a special kind of person to be a road dog. It’s not just somebody who’s a pirate-looking guy with a ring in his ear that goes through towns raping and pillaging and drinking and whatever else. It really is down to a whole set of different things entirely. It’s like being able to go to, for example, Lima, Peru, for one day and then fly to Costa Rica the next day and then to Caracas the next day, and be in hotel rooms every time, so therefore you have to have a bit of discipline. You’re living in a relatively small space wherever you go, so you’ve got to be careful. Unless you’re a complete slob, how are you going to live under those conditions? It takes a lot of character to develop those kinds of instincts.
We always hear about the bass and drums being in the pocket, the guitarists working together, the band working with the vocalist. It’s rare that the guitarist works with a piano player. Was that a learning curve?
I think it was a mutual attraction between Elton and I. When I came into the studio and started working with him, I was offering ideas from a guitarist’s standpoint, or different musical standpoints, and that was immediately attractive to him because he’s such a brilliant piano player but he’s useless on any other instrument! Forget about playing guitar or anything! He loves guitar, but he’s a complete dork if he tries to play anything. I’ve tried on many occasions to show him chords and it’s so funny; we end up in stitches every time. I play a little bit of piano by ear, but nowhere close to what he does. So I think coming from such opposite points of view we were able to really show each other different textures and ideas. I would come up with stuff like on “Saturday Night,” and all these different guitar riffs that would shape the song and that would kick him in the butt, “Oh wow, this is so cool! Let’s go for it, let’s do guitar, bass and drums!” I think I brought a lot of things to him, not just the rock and roll side but also the folk side, and that embraced the stuff he loved, because he’s a huge fan of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and that whole organic side of music, which I also love, so that’s been great. We’re just a couple of huge music fans. I love so many things about music in general and so does he, and I think that shows in the music we’ve brought over the years and the vibrancy that we’ve brought to everything.
This is really about playing for the song, because this isn’t a gig where it’s all about the guitar solo.
Oh, absolutely, and I think that’s been the beauty of our whole thing. I’ve never had a problem with that. I never wanted to be a front guy. My strength has always been in helping and shaping other people’s music. No matter how great it might be when you first hear it, my opinion has always been, “That’s great, but what about this?” I’ve never had a fear of attacking that kind of thing because I love collaborating with people. My role in this thing has always been totally perfect for me. I’ve been able to stretch myself and play really complex, unbelievably shredding guitar-type things that have made me friendly with a lot of guys who I would never have thought would be into my kind of music, like Slash or Eddie Vedder or Kirk Hammett, guys that I just say, “Wow, they like our stuff?” They come to our gigs because they grew up on our music, and that always gives me a real buzz because I love these guys. They’re digging on us, so that is probably the most really cool thing about this whole thing is the respect from our peers that we’ve gotten over the years. That feels really good.
You and John Jorgenson recorded an album, Crop Circles, and performed at the NAMM Acoustic Café in 1999. Will there ever be more of that?
I’m always doing stuff that reminds me of my roots and stuff that takes me back. As far as John is concerned, quite possibly. We’re always threatening that we’ll get together again and do other projects and that’s definitely something that’s on the cards. It’s really finding a time slot, because when I come off the road now I basically want to spend the time with my family. We tour so much; it’s really incredible and insane at the age we’re all at. I’m very grateful for it, but it’s very time-consuming, so when I’m home I tend to spend my time with my family. I do as little outside work as absolutely possible anymore, unless it’s like James Newton-Howard or Hans Zimmer, who is another close friend. If it’s a movie thing for one of those guys, I’ll do something like that, but for the most part I keep away from it.
Back to two guitarists — how was that different for you? Is it something you’d like to revisit? Having been “the guy” for such a long time, and the guy coming in when they didn’t even have a guitarist, again, testament to character, flexibility, adaptability.
I get to hear all my parts that I created with harmony, or if I track multiple parts, which I usually do when we’re recording, and it’s great to hear all those parts live. I was getting off on it so much. John loved it because he’s been aware of my playing for many years and we’ve known each other for a long time, so for him it was a lot of fun to play “Funeral For A Friend” double guitars and stuff like that and all the other fun stuff. We had an absolute blast. We have a similar background in some ways, that country, folky, bluegrassy kind of background, and he very much comes from that school as well, so we would just tear it up on just about any instruments. He was the perfect guy, actually, to be a foil for me in a band situation because he played electric, acoustic, mandolin and steel, so it was perfect. Also he plays a bit of sax and he’s a great clarinet player. John is just a kick-ass musician. I love his work.
You also did an instructional DVD. Are there others in the works? Is this something you want to pursue?
That’s right! That was a while ago. I was talked into that by Bob Birch, our bass player. He had some kind of deal going with a company and I did it really as a favor to Bob, but I still get calls about it. I’m not big into that kind of thing because I’ve found that if I did any of that again, which is quite possible, I would do it in probably a very different way. That whole instructional was very much around stuff I’d done with Elton and how I played certain parts, but I think I would go in a different route if I were giving a lesson to people, because I’m basically self-taught. Even though I had classical training as a violinist and other areas in orchestras and other stuff, as far as guitar, mandolin, banjo and these other instruments, I’m totally self-taught. So I’m a great believer in there is no set way of doing something. You can play a chord a multitude of different ways. Hendrix played his guitar upside-down, left-handed, but he didn’t change the strings. He actually played upside-down. My son Tam does the same thing. He plays guitar left-handed without changing the strings. There’s one way that they say is right, but I don’t agree with that method. I think there’s millions of ways of doing it. As long as you get a great sound out of it, you’re doing something right.
When you take on a project like that one, when you meet fans, talk to people, do you realize the legacy and how many musicians picked up an instrument because of you?
It’s great to hear that and I must admit I have been increasingly aware of it over the last ten or twelve years, where people have come up to me and said that kind of thing. That is just great! How cool is that, when people become so inspired by what you do that they want to play or they want to do something? To me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s kind of like what we were talking about earlier. I’m not the guy who wants to stand front and center, ripping off big, flashy solos and doing that whole fist-pumping thing. That’s one aspect of rock and roll that to me is hilarious and quite caricatured. I don’t do that kind of thing. My thing is more the big picture, all aspects of music, and it’s great to hear people actually being inspired enough to want to do something. I think it’s also nice that we have people who like our music across the board. They’re not just one particular kind of music fan. They like all kinds. I have people who are real hardcore jazzers or folkies or heavy metal guys who like our stuff, and I love that.
Elton has always crossed over genres and audiences. He performed on Soul Train years back.
Yes, he certainly did. And it’s so very sad about Don Cornelius. Very sad. And poor Whitney Houston and all the people that we’re losing. That’s a really sad state of affairs. The thing I’m trying to teach my children more than anything is to be weary of that kind of crap that’s going around. I’m very fortunate that I had enough people to help me out and get me through all the stuff that I was involved in, and I’m thankful that I was strong enough to listen. That’s the big secret. A lot of kids won’t listen to the advice that’s given them, and God knows there’s an awful lot of advice that should be given because of the dangers. Alcohol, drugs, whatever, it’s so dangerous. It would also be nice to see kids spending their time doing other things than just playing video games. That’s very high on my list of things is getting kids active, be it sports or whatever, because I think too many kids get away with sitting on their asses and playing video games or hanging out at the mall with their friends. What kind of existence is that? You have to have a passion in life. If you don’t have a passion, how do you expect anything is going to happen? Any parents who are smart enough, strong enough and care enough to actually make their kids take piano lessons and try to make them stay in those lessons, as painful as it is when they’re learning, it’s a big deal, because I’ve met more people who have said to me, “I wish I’d carried on with those lessons. When I got in my 20s and 30s I realized I could have played as a hobby.” It’s a discipline. You’ve got to have a passion, and if you don’t, it’s very difficult to follow anything through. I think there’s not enough great influences out there for kids right now.
You are self-taught, and the learning curve then was moving the needle back, over and over, to learn the parts. Did that make for better playing?
Possibly. Again, I think it stems from that diligence to hang in there and want to do it. For me, that’s what it was. Someone like John, whenever you spot some kind of excellence in somebody in anything, it’s usually because they have a passion for it. That’s what they’ve gotten really good at. That’s what they wanted to do, and they found out everything they could about that particular subject, or in my case, instrument. I would have to go to the record store and decide which album I could afford. I would pick an album, go home, play the s–t out of it and learn all the songs and all the chords and the background parts. That’s how you get it, I think. There’s a lot of instant gratification these days, and unfortunately, not as much structure and hard work involved. I think it would be great to see more live bands play more to develop a fan base, rather than just relying on television spots and Auto-Tune and all the other s–t that they do these days. There’s still great, amazing talent out there, but I think a lot of it gets lost in the mix because of this instant gratification and stuff like American Idol. It’s really a nightmare. Don’t get me wrong — obviously there’s some great people on American Idol, too, but that’s a whole other ballgame. If that’s what it’s become, what a drag, you know? You’ve got to be on American Idol to get a record contract? That’s a really sad state of affairs. But that’s what it is in many ways. It’s become the decade of reality television, which right there I just want to blow my television up. I love film, I’m a huge fan of movies, and I love being involved in composing for movies when I have the time. It’s really enjoyable because I see people who are great at doing what they do and they’re involved with touching a lot of people. A couple of things I’ve been involved in, I’ve been fortunate that they’ve done really well and it makes you feel great, it’s a good thing. But it’s difficult to watch the bands or the artists who come in for six months or a year and they’re gone. I think a lot of that is because of the fickle public that change favorites. That’s why it’s very fortunate for us that we’ve been around so long, but again, that’s where the hard work comes in. I don’t think Elton would be as visible these days if he didn’t tour so much, because a lot of people say, “I’m done, I’m over it, I’m too big to do this stuff now,” and that’s when it’s over, really.
What compels you? What makes you get up every day and want to play that instrument? Can you even put that into words?
I don’t know. I think it’s kind of like what I mentioned before — it’s that passion that you have that is all-important in anything you do. Otherwise, if you don’t have a passion or a project per se, then a lot of people will argue, “What’s the point of getting up in the morning?” My other main passion and project is my family, and so I have to get up every morning. They’re the reason I get up every day. Not only to get their asses up and to school, but to show them the right path, hopefully. That’s what my parents did for me. I was lucky to have a good upbringing. So just getting out of bed in the morning really is a case of kicking your own ass, I think. I was talking about this to a good friend of mine. People who suffer from depression, who spend most of their time in bed, it’s a really sad thing, because the more time you spend in bed and trying to dull that depression with anti-depressant drugs, it’s such a vicious circle. You’re supposed to have stress in your life, you’re supposed to have things that f–k you up and piss you off, but you still have to get up and deal with it, so for me it really is just mainly about life. It’s about the whole thing. I don’t wake up thinking about music and what I’ve necessarily done. That’s part of my life, that’s what I do, but getting up every day is really just about being there for my family.
Was there ever a point in your playing when you knew your heart wasn’t in it?
Yeah, that can happen. I think it happens to everyone occasionally, through circumstances or whatever. I get down like anybody else. When you get depressed, or maybe we’ve been traveling too much, we played three or four gigs in a row while we were traveling through different countries, that can get really tiring and it can really get you down and affect your mood, obviously. Live music definitely tests you in that way because things can go horribly wrong. You can have equipment breakdowns, and I’m not talking about just breaking a string. I’m talking about amps blowing up and pianos blowing up, and you’re going, “Oh God, this is the absolute end, how can we ever recover from this?” But you always do, you usually do. I think it boils down to character. And obviously, there are terrible events, like when I lost my son. There was a point where I thought, Well, what is the point? Maybe I should just give up. If this kind of s–t can happen, why am I even doing this? But I slowly realized that there is life after death, and life after terrible situations, and you have to really pick yourself up and go on or not. Many people don’t. I was fortunate enough to find that faith somewhere to carry on and that’s mostly what it’s about. It’s all wrapped up in that — going on again.
Everyone says, “Tone is in your hands,” but if the heart isn’t in it … heart seems so obvious, yet it’s often left out of the equation.
It’s all got to be together, the picture has to be together. To me, there are so many tones and that’s the point. It’s not just one tone. I chase millions of tones. There’s not one particular tone that will work in every case. A great guitar sound can be a great guitar sound, but it might not work on a particular track. That’s why I’m always chasing different sounds and different instruments and different textures, because that’s what you have to do. You can’t expect your tone to fit all the other s–t. I think it is what some players do and then they may get quite surprised, “I wonder why that didn’t work.” It’s because everything’s got to have its own sound. You can’t apply the same set of rules to lots of different tunes. It’s all going to be totally different and maybe in disguise — that’s a very good question you ask because it’s a very wide answer. You’ve got to keep the whole thing in your head. You can’t just expect that it’s all going to come to you because you played great on one particular track. It’s not about what you just did; it’s about what you’re going to do in five minutes. It’s kind of like watching great athletes. I adore Kobe Bryant. If he has a bad night, you’ll see people giving him the bird and whistling from the bleachers because he’s shooting poorly. But in ten seconds he might do something ridiculously great again. You have to keeping chasing that stuff you do, but it’s multi-faceted. It’s definitely not one thing. It’s the whole package you’ve got to have.
What does the role of musical director encompass?
It’s a big job because there’s a lot of music. We have a very deep catalog spanning forty-plus years! I’m also blessed with a very good memory. I can literally remember almost every song. Elton called me and there were a couple of old songs that he wanted to try out. One of them was “Teenage Idol,” and he said, “I can’t remember how it goes.” I said, “Oh yeah, I know it.” We played it through the other day at rehearsal and it sounded great. That song is also forty years old, but I remember how to put it all together, so I have to show the rest of the band what it is. It’s not just showing somebody the chords. It’s the whole deal, the whole atmosphere of the song. In the last couple of years, he’s been recording with T Bone Burnett. I told him right at the offset, “You go ahead and do whatever it is you want to do,” because I know T-Bone uses his own people. He has maybe a dozen musicians that he likes to use and that’s the way he works. As far as I’m concerned, it’s like, “Hey, whatever. You’re the artist, Elton, and he’s the producer; you better do what you want to do.” My role has been more restricted to live stuff, and it’s pretty busy when you’ve got four extra background singers and two cello players, because instead of five phone calls or texts, now I’ve got to make eleven to get people on the same page and get them over to my home for a vocal rehearsal and then rehearse onstage. It’s a lot of stuff. So there’s been no recording for me, and I say, “God bless you, go for it, and I hope you get what you want out of that part of your career.” He’s still a creative artist, and I think that all artists should be allowed to pursue things in their own way. Too many people split up and get disillusioned with themselves from jealousy or “Why am I not involved with that?” I came to terms with that kind of stuff a long time ago. If you have those kinds of feelings, I don’t think you should be in this business.
Your tech, Rick Salazar: How did you find each other? What is that working relationship like and how key is the tech to what the audience hears every night?
He’s fifty percent of what I do onstage, as far as I’m concerned. Rick is a huge part of my gig. We talk every day we’re on the road or in the studio and discuss little tiny things that might have been weird or that were great and we can monopolize on. He’s a massive part. If I’m wondering how I can get past a certain issue, Rick is the guy as far as my progression. I don’t decide that I’ve done it on guitar or any instrument; there’s always something else to learn, so I’m always wide open to something that might happen. Rick knows that, so he might bring me a new idea. The other day, he brought me a guitar with some kind of a tuneomatic bridge. It’s brand new. You can beat on this guitar for two weeks and it will never go out of tune, and I’m going to give it a shot onstage. Rick is just amazing. He understands me, we have a great rapport. I didn’t steal him from Madonna, but he did a tour with Madonna and their accountant was also our tour accountant. He mentioned Rick if I needed somebody and a spot came up. Rick came onboard, I think it was 1986, and aside from a couple or three years when he was with Bryan Adams again, who he’s been with on and off, apart from that we’ve been pretty much together the whole time. He’s great.
You are both a Gibson and a Fender man, a longtime player of both, for your electrics. How do they differ for you? Do the songs determine the guitars or do the guitars determine the songs, or your parts within the songs?
I like them all for the different sounds and qualities. They’re all great; they’re all really interesting. I think the Les Paul spoke to me, the Flying V first of all. Elton got me a Flying V in Chicago in 1972 in the middle of a tour and I immediately liked the humbuckers, against the single-coil pickups in the Stratocaster I’d been using until then. I was immediately, “Wow, this sounds like the kind I like!” I found that the Les Paul was very similar and was really the prototype of all those kinds of guitars, so I got a couple of Les Pauls. One in particular that I got in Nashville was an old 1962 Goldtop and I used it on “Saturday Night” and a bunch of songs and suddenly that became my axe, “This is my guitar.” That guitar and a few others and the Flying V were stolen a few months later in a hall. The thieves got three of my guitars and a very old mandolin, which really pissed me off. When I had that loss, Elton gave me a Les Paul that I’d picked out for him. He wanted a guitar for his house. He saw this Les Paul in Manny’s Music in New York one day and he said, “That’s the guitar I want in my house!” So I tried it for him and I said, “It sounds great and feels great.” When I got those instruments stolen, it was right in the middle of a tour. He turned around and gave me that Les Paul and I’m still using it to this day.
Do you still practice?
I think everybody needs to practice, but we work so much that I don’t get enough time to practice. My practicing is usually onstage. Bob Birch and I do a lot of riffing onstage and develop little things and develop jams onstage. I find myself playing at home, and if I’m doing something particularly demanding, maybe for one of my music-scoring buddies I was talking about, things could get quite technically hard to do, difficult to play, very challenging, and I like that, so I’ll spend a couple of days really shedding a piece. People always expect you to be on and I don’t like to disappoint, so I do practice and it’s great because you never know everything about an instrument like the guitar. There are so many aspects about it and so many people who have different techniques that are so wonderful. You watch somebody like Jeff Beck, who to me is one of the masters; he’s just amazing in feel, tone and the whole spectrum of everything. And someone like Eddie Van Halen, who basically brought in all the finger-tapping techniques that are just wonderful. It’s not necessarily what I like to do, but it’s brilliant. I liken it to Bach or Mozart; I love that stuff. There are so many different styles that I love and listen to and admire. And Van Halen — God bless them, they’re out there doing it and it’s fantastic and let’s hope they continue that! Yeah!
What determines greatness in a musician?
I know many people who play great, who play really, really well, but can’t get arrested in a commercial sense or in a performance sense. I guess there’s a gene somewhere missing, or in my case I’m very fortunate to have whatever that missing thing is. But there’s lots of brilliant players I know who actually don’t want to be professional or play for a living or can’t do it simply because they can’t get up onstage. As soon as they get in front of people, they choke. Then there are some people who are OK or average players who can get out and make it look great and people think they’re amazing, and that’s fine too because that’s maybe their way of conveying their message. I think it’s all pretty valid. I think you’ll hear people being disdainful, saying, “Well, they’re not very good,” but the point is that’s not the issue. If they’re able to convey something that’s really cool, then they’re getting it across. It doesn’t matter that they don’t have all the technique of John McLaughlin or somebody brilliant. They can actually convey their message with a few chords and a bit of strut and their own kind of passion. It’s a funny old world, but it works that way. So I think when people get envious or disdainful of other players, it’s a sad thing, because they’re missing the point again. It’s all part of the mix. We have to remember that there’s all different kinds of players, all different levels of expertise and all different kinds of music that that will fit. Some of the best players that I’ve ever heard are in bluegrass music. That, to me, is the real country. Those guys can pick! They are players. A lot of people don’t hear that and aren’t aware of how good those guys are. They’re on fire, those players!
How does your role as guitarist in the Elton John Band — and for some of us, it’s always been a band, from the beginning — change from one tour to the next, sometimes with just the band, sometimes with orchestras and so forth?
Well, it’s been exhausting and unbelievably fulfilling and incredibly creative for me all the way around. I’ve played with just about everybody on the planet that you can imagine. I’m glad to hear you say about the way people feel about the band, and I know that to be true because it’s a very special band and always has been, so thanks for that; I appreciate you saying. That’s the way Nigel and I feel about that magic that we had and we still have when we play. We miss Dee [Murray, original bassist] so much as a presence because that was the original band that did most of those great records. I think there’s always a feeling that whatever Elton may do, that was the band that created all the great stuff. It’s as simple as that. Many people say, “Oh, I grew up with you guys,” and that’s what I get if I see somebody when I’m coming out of a venue or meet somebody in a hotel: “I grew up with your music.” I love that. That is the highest compliment someone can pay me. It really means a lot to me. “Thanks for the music” — that’s everything, that means that I’ve done my job. It’s changed a lot, the whole thing we do has changed over the years, but you can’t ever take away what we did back then. That’s the great thing. That’s the beauty of it. We’re still doing it and bringing the music to people, and we try to do that as genuinely as possible so that people can still have that experience when they come and see us. My biggest concern is that we don’t do too many dates, because, quite frankly, it’s exhausting on an aging body and I’m worried about my boss. I’m concerned for him. OK, you have those New Age idiots saying that “80 is the new 60” and all this bulls–t, “60 is the new 40,” and they’re all idiots as far as I’m concerned, people who are pushing all kinds of new health remedies and all this kind of s–t. If you look after yourself reasonably well, get some exercise and eat fairly cleverly, then you should be OK. But the age we’re all getting to, I’m just grateful that we’re still enjoying it. That’s the main thing. As long as they don’t put in too many dates, I’ll be happy. I think when Elton falls off his piano stool, we’ll know that’s it, we’re done. He loves it; he’s one of those guys who realized the value of having a project in his life a long time ago. Being Elton John has been his passion since he discovered it, and God bless him, he’s still Elton John. He’s still exactly that and there’s certainly not another one like him.