Chris Isaak

Chris Isaak playing his Gibson J200

Chris Isaak Talks Guitars, Scotty Moore and His New Album
by Ellen Mallernee
August 6, 2009

Itís been 18 years since Chis Isaak wagged his sand-encrusted eyebrows at you in his iconic ďWicked GameĒ music video and 10 years since Stanley Kubrick had Nicole Kidman sashay around in her underpants in Eyes Wide Shut with Isaakís ďBaby Did A Bad, Bad ThingĒ throbbing in the background. These pop culture moments have marked ó and in some ways made ó Isaakís career since inking his first record deal with Warner Brothers in 1984.

Besides the ongoing mainstream exposure (anyone catch him on the MTV Movie Awards this year?), heís maintained his visibility with relentless touring and consistently great albums. Plus, he has a great sense of humor and his eyebrows are still hot. As he puts it, ďIím loquacious and affable.Ē

Just before a promotional stop in Nashville last week, 53-year-old Isaak and his snow white Maltese Rodney set up camp in the back room of the Gibson tour bus to talk about Gibson guitars, the influence of Scotty Moore and the good fortune that has propelled Isaakís lengthy career. Though he has a really, really good new album out, Mr. Lucky, he also has another project to promote: his BIO channel TV show The Chris Isaak Hour. Despite television having occupied a larger slice of Isaakís time in recent years, hesays music is and always will be his priority.

ďIím always writing music,Ē he says. ďI never stop writing. If I got hit by a bus today you could go to my kitchen table and thereís 20 songs laying there on a cassette.Ē

The title of your new album, Mr. Lucky, is a reference to the good fortune youíve experienced. Do you believe in karma?

No, if I had karma I would be Mr. Unlucky because I donít think I deserve all the good luck Iíve had, but I have been lucky. My parents are still alive, knock on wood, and my familyís healthy and we all like each other. If I could have my parents around for another 10 years and not have anything, I would have that. Thatís the biggest thing. And I sing for a living. For godsakes, thatís so fun. My background is that my Dad worked in a sawmill his whole life. We come from a small town. We didnít have anybody in showbiz. We didnít have any friends that had money. We never really went anyplace. I remember eating Bisquick pancakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner for days on end because we didnít have any money. Nowadays I can go into a restaurant and I can order without looking at the menu. I donít have to worry about what it costs, and everytime I do that I feel so lucky. The weird thing is I never order anything expensive because all my tastes were developed when I was broke so I like liver and onions, sardines, all kinds of cheap food.

Looking back what was the most memorable part of writing and recording the album?

We did things very quick and very inexpensive. I never go places and spend a lot of money. I go places and try to record. When I go in a record studio, I walk in and the microphones are set up and people are starting to light candles and order food and I go, ĎDonít bother ordering the food. Weíre going to be done by the time we get to it. So turn the candle light off, and turn the lights up bright, and letís go.í I walk directly to the mic and start singing.

For this album, we really worked fast and it was fun to work that way. I donít like to do a thousand takes. I love Pro Tools because it can fix things and I hate Pro Tools because it can fix things. Iím a guy who likes to see the little mistakes that musicians make. I like to hear them in there; theyíre fun. You get more energy.

What was the first guitar you owned?

The first guitar I ever bought for myself was a white Epiphone. Iíd seen a picture of Elvis playing a light-colored acoustic guitar, and it was a really pale, pale Epiphone. Thatís why I bought that guitar. And I still have it. Over the years itís kind of turned yellow and had to survive a lot. A house burned down around it but the Epiphone was OK.

What guitar players most influenced you starting out?

Scotty Moore. To me, it would be OK if they put a 10 cent charge on every rock and roll record and it went to Scotty Moore directly. That would be a fair payment because without Scotty Moore none of us would have jobs. I really think he had so much to do with rock and roll. Elvis was great and heís given all the kudos that he should be given ó he deserves every bit of it ó but Scotty Moore is kind of in the shadow of that. Without Scotty, Elvis could have ended up being another Dean Martin, which is a great thing, but you wouldnít have had this brand new sound. A lot of that brand new sound was that guitar. I still play my guitar strings with real heavy gauges because I read thatís the way Scotty Moore played his Gibsons and I went, ĎWell if thatís the way he gets that sounds thatís the way I gotta play.í I can never sound as good as him, but I try.

Have you ever gotten to meet Scotty?

I got to play with him on an Elvis special. Couldnít have been a nicer guy. Real quiet, low key and still a fantastic player. That was probably one of the most exciting things I ever got to do is play with Scotty Moore.

More exciting than singing a song about your dick being in a box at the MTV Awards this year?

Yes! Much, much more exciting. Scotty Moore is the reason I got into rock and roll. And he was playing a Gibson. Early on I looked at hollowbodies and I always wanted to get the money together to get a nice Gibson guitar and once I was able to get one, I would never go back. I started off with a Silvertone guitar and theyíre nice but once you become a professional musician and youíre playing out on the road night after night you want to stay in tune the whole set. Then the difference between a Silvertone and a Gibson is a big difference. Gibsons really hold up.

You have a one-of-a-kind Gibson. Tell me about that.

Itís the white Gibson I play all the time and itís a little smaller than some other guitars but itís nice on-stage. Itís still heavy and itís got a nice ring to it. The big thing I look for is that it doesnít feed back. It doesnít go out of tune. It doesnít break down. I play it every night, all night long and I wail on it pretty hard but it doesnít break strings and it doesnít go out of tune. Theyíre put together well.

Do you use your Gibsons in the studio too?

Yes, they have a nice sound in the studio. Epiphone has a couple of guitars that I play in the studio too ó the Joe Pass are amazingly nice sounding, but Gibsons are really the ones that hold up. Iím a musician who lives on the road a lot of the time. I play a lot and if you do that pretty soon you have different standards. Like at my house itís fun to play real goofball guitars sometimes because you can play them and tune them right in the middle of the song. Canít do that on-stage. Itís gotta be good. Canít just be junk and colorful.

For players looking to get that Chris Isaak tone, are there any little tone secrets, tips or tricks? Any gear recommendations?

I can think of a lot nicer sounds, but I guess I would start by saying listen to Scotty Moore. Thatís a much nicer sound there. Thatís what I was headed towards.

For me, I play rhythm guitar and a few leads in the show, but I donít like the sound of rhythm guitar when itís stepping all over the lead guitar. I want to be able to play leads four or five times a night and be able to quickly do it; I donít want to switch guitars. So I need a guitar thatís pretty versatile. Iím playing 20 songs a night.

For the pickups on the guitar I have right now, I set the bright pickup a little bit louder and the mellow pickup I set a little lower. I keep it set on a mix between the two, and when I play leads I throw it all into bright. Itís a little brighter, pops out, and itís really simple and itís really good. I look for a tube amp with a reverb on it. I donít have a bunch of pedals and effects. I go right into the amp directly. For me, thatís pretty simple and pretty good. I donít have a lot of time to fool around with stuff with my feet because Iím leading the band.

Youíve had some really high-profile guests, like Stevie Nicks, on your TV show. What has it taught you about yourself, having to do these interviews and stretch yourself in that way?

It always scares me to death to ask questions. Itís always difficult. Hopefully Iím not a difficult person to interview because I like to talk to people and if someone doesnít ask the right question it really behooves the person being asked to just tell a story. You know what weíre trying to accomplish here. Some people, though, are uptight and terse. But at the least you should go online and look up information about the person the night before youíre going to interview them. Iím amazed that people donít do that. If the person wrote a book, Iíll try to read it. I just never wanted to ask bonehead stuff, you know. The tough part is the questions, but the cherry on top is I get to play with the people and I get to meet people.

If your life were a pie chart, how much of it right now would be focused on your music life and how much on your TV life?

Ninety-nine percent on music, always. The TV show was me talking to musicians and playing with musicians. Trisha Yearwood came on the show and was an old friend of mine and Michelle Branch came on, and theyíre both on my new album. So one thing helps another. You meet people and go, ĎHey they would be great for this song.í Thatís how you start to know musicians. Good things happen when you get out and play music. If youíre a songwriter and youíre sitting in your house, get out and join a band, even if itís not your best band. Get out and play and meet other musicians. Thatís how things happen.

page added October 11, 2009

This article was originally published and is copyright by Gibson Lifestyles.  It is reprinted here for posterity, courtesy them.


All photos on this page of Chris Isaak are ©  and courtesy Gibson,

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