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Tommy Shaw-The Guitar Player Interview

by Jim Schwartz

COULD IT HAVE been prophecy? Was the fortune-teller working overtime? Probably not, but you could say that "Crystal Ball," Tommy Shaw's tune on his debut LP with Styx--augured even greater success for the Chicago-based band. Shaw's contribution to the richly textured Styx sound is rooted in his intuitive songwriting ability, vocal flair, and rhythmic sense. His singing and playing chops were honed on R&B for over a decade before he was asked to join Styx in I975. A self-taught player adept at acoustic, electric, and pedal steel, Tommy paid his dues in the bowling alley lounges of his native Montgomery, Alabama, and in the bars of middle America before ending up at last in the Windy City. As a guitarist with Styx, Shaw proved himself to be not only a good rhythm player, but also a Iead man who jumps, gyrates, and picks with the best of them. He's all over the stage--jamming with drummer John Panozzo, trading licks while bumping madly into fellow guitarist James Young, or standing alone treating the audience to some flashy instrumental acrobatics. There's a certain restlessness evident in Tommy's demeanor when he takes the stage. It could be nerves, but more likely it's pure creative energy waiting for the lights to go up so it can find release through music.


Guitar Player: Have you always been interested in music?
Tommy Shaw: Yes. When I was about three, my grandfather used to give me and my sister a nickle to sit out on the front porch with him and sing songs. We'd sing, and he'd crank out the nickels.

GP: Has your first love always been singing?
Tommy: Well, back then it was. I just didn't pursue it because I wasn't that good, wasn't polished. It was when I became 16 that I started thinking seriously about singing.

GP: What was the first musical instrument that attracted you?
Tommy: My neighbor had a big hollowbody Hofner, and the strings were about an inch off the neck. I used to look at that; I was fascinated by it, but I said, "Man, this is too painful. Why do people play these things?" It wasn't until I was nine that I picked up a nicer guitar. A friend of my oldest brother Danny left his tenor guitar over at the house. I sat down with it on the front porch, and within like five minutes I'd figured out "Ghost Riders ln The Sky." After that, I thought, "Boy, this is great."

GP: Have you ever had any formal training on guitar?
Tommy: Right after I realized that maybe I'd just spend the rest of my life doing this, I figured that I should get some instruction. It didn't turn out too well, however, because I was in a class full of people whose mothers were making them take guitar lessons, while I was doing it because I wanted to. So, it didn't work out, but I ended up having a lot more fun just sitting at home figuring out things like Beatles' songs.

GP: Were you copping licks off records and radio?
Tommy: Right. It was more fun trying to figure out "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "I Saw Her Standing There" than to take those lessons. By this time I knew my basic chords. There were some older guitarists on my side of town, and I got to know many of them. I would go and try just monkey-see monkey-do, which was always a lot easier. I was never a very good student until long after I got out of high school. It took me that long to realize the importance of having somebody who knows teach you something.

GP: When was your first paying gig--not counting those nickels?
Tommy: I remember my first moment onstage was at a 4-H contest at the Pratville Junior High School cafeteria auditorium around 1965. I had my first electric, a Silvertone with the amp built into the case, and I won first prize. What did you play?
Tommy: "I Saw Her Standing There."

GP: Did you sing it, too?
Tommy: You bet. And the guy who played with me was my friend who had the big Hofner.

GP: Were you gigging as well as holding down a non-musical job, say, at a department store?
Tommy: I never did anything like that; I always just made money playing guitar. I started working steady in nightclubs when I was I3, but before that I was jamming around. I knew a guy who was a bandleader at Troy State University, and his younger brother was a drummer and a saxophonist. The young brother and I would get together and back up singers from the university's glee club, and on weekends sometimes we'd go play with his brother's band. If they couldn't possibly find anyone else, they would hire me. Now I was playing bass: Again, a Silvertone. I was real heavy on Sears Roebuck back then. But I would do bass, guitar, whatever they needed. So, they were the ones who got me into nightclubs playing professionally.

GP: It sounds as if you've always wanted to be a professional musician.
Tommy: Well, I always made money at it, and I always enjoyed it. I've never been in a band with anybody younger than me; I was always with older people who were teaching me-practical education all the time.

GP: When did you leave the formalities of playing standards for the eccentricities of rock and roll?
Tommy: There was this keyboard player who was a radical--your typical rock and roll rebel--who saw me as a good guitarist in a dull crowd. That was the way he looked at it because we were playing standard music, wearing dinner jackets and stuff like that. Since he was a rocker, he wanted me to get into that. We ultimately formed a band and wound up playing at this real rough joint on the west side of Montgomery called the Copa Club. The band was nice, but the place was crazy: women getting into fights and things like that.

GP: Were you doing rock and blues for the most part?
Tommy: We were playing popular music, but we were doing our own arrangements because we were too lazy to sit down and figure out the originals. Besides playing clubs, this band often backed up soul artists who would come into town. They might have a Sunday night layover, so they'd come in and play for the door and we'd be their backup band.

GP: Can you remember some of the artists who came through?
Tommy: Oh, the Coasters; a lot of popular black artists who had one single here or there. I was siding for an all-black group called Bobby Moore and the Rhythm Aces, and I learned an incredible amount from those guys, a lot of soulful things.

GP: Was it your R&B background that gave you an appreciation for playing behind vocals?
Tommy: When I was a little blue-eyed soul brother I learned how to do the scattin' stuff kind of like George Benson does, where you play and sing the same notes. I really got into that. It's a lot more than just cranking out riffs on the guitar because you're singing in unison, or in harmony, with your playing. It used to be a trademark of mine back in the old days.

GP: What prompted you to finally leave Montgomery?
Tommy: I made myself a promise--the young rock and roll renegade here--that as soon as I got out of high school I'd get the hell out of there and never come back. An opportunity came for me to leave Montgomery when I was about 18, and I jumped on it. I took the van and headed up to Nashville. Unfortunately, that never panned out into a single gig. But I did meet some other people who I ended up playing with for three-and-a-half years, and that's how I finally wound up with Styx in Chicago.

GP: What was the name of that band?
Tommy: It was a group first called Smoke Ring, and later MS Funk--tbe MS standing for Muscle Shoals. They were seven pieces already before I joined them. We were heavily into staying broke, and we did a real good job of it for three-and-a-half years.

GP: Were most of those guys like you--musicians trying to get a break in Nashville?
Tommy: They were already on the road and were just passing through town; so, I hopped on their bandwagon, driving around the country in a I970 GMC Suburban with an indefinitely borrowed U-Haul trailer. We cruised all around the Midwest and the South with that U-Haul before giving it back late one night. Some of my tunes, like "Put Me On" from Crystal Ball and "Come Sail Away" from The Grand Illusion came from old MS Funk songs that I wrote. And a lot of the musical ideas I had for the first couple of Styx albums I was on came from songs I wrote when I was in that band.

GP: Did you go directly from MS Funk to Styx?
Tommy: No. For a brief period of about four months between that band and Styx I had moved back to Alabama. What we wound up doing in MS Funk was finding the best places to play all around the Lake Michigan area--Wisconsin, northern Illinois and Indiana, and southwest Michigan. There were about 20 clubs we'd constantly visit, and we ended up locating in Chicago. When you'd go to, say, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and say you were from Chicago, back in those days we'd get a little more respect than if we said we were from Salina, Kansas. I'II never forget looking up at those old Coca-Cola signs where it read, "Sandwiches And Coca-Cola," and below would be the band's name in little letters. We were in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, I think, at a place called the Campus Club, looking up at that sign and seeing, "MS Funk: 50". You know, things have got to get better. And there wasn't anybody there at 50 cents. Boy, this is an all-time low.

GP: How did you finally hook up with Styx?
Tommy: Around '75 when the recession really hit, club owners started going to disco because it was cheaper for them to just buy a sound system and go out and pay $3.98 fora record than it was to hire a band. We wound up only having about four places to play, and then they wanted us to do dance music. So, it was just like, "Okay, enough's enough." I went back to Alabama, got into a band, and started playing acoustic guitar and pedal steel in this bowling alley's lounge six nights a week. I wrote "Crystal Ball" [Crystal Ball] then. One time Kiss came through town, and since their opening act had a truck breakdown we were hired on the spot to open. Were we out of place! But I was up there on that big stage--which now is our stage; we're using some of Kiss' old risers--and said, "I know they don't like what we're doing, but I sure do dig being up here." After that, I started making calls to people I met over the years. Nothing materialized until one day when Jim Vose from Styx, who was their tour manager at the time, called me. I'd met him in Chicago while I was with MS Funk, and he said, "Styx needs a guitarist." I replied, "What is Styx?" I knew they had those songs "Lady" and "You Need Love" [both on Styx II], but I just figured they were a big local band. I didn't know they were touring the world at that time.

GP: Did you have to audition for the part?
Tommy: Not really. I flew up to Chicago the next day with some tapes, and when I got to the studio I just sat around the piano and sang. After a time I knew these guys were a lot better than I ever suspected, but I never actually picked up a guitar. What they were looking for mostly was someone who could sing, who looked halfway decent, and who played guitar. The fact that I was a songwriter, a lead singer, and a lead guitarist was just an asset, kind of gravy at that point.

GP: Did you feel any pressure concerning your replacing John Curulewski?
Tommy: No. It was new blood for all of us. I had years of energy and material stockpiled, and they had come to, like, a creative crossroads with John where they all pushed it as far as they could and then decided to go separate ways. The band and I were ready to go forward into something new, so when we got together the sum was greater than the parts.

GP: And it just clicked.
Tommy: Really, we just energized one another. A lot of people like to give me credit personally for that, but I was there and know it was a mutual thing.

GP: Did anyone tell you how you should play?
Tommy: I was given complete artistic freedom as soon as I joined the band. They were ready for my ideas: a situation almost too good to he true, since they really knew what they were doing, while I was just basically a goodtime guitar player. You know, "Let's get high and boogie." But I quickly learned that there's a lot more to it than that. Yes, you can have fun, but you also have to put on your thinking cap every day.

GP: What types of guitars do you like using?
Tommy: I've always stuck with Gibsons. I've had Guilds and Fenders, too, but I always wind up going back to Gibsons.

GP: Acoustic and electric?
Tommy: No, I should clarify that. I use Guild acoustics. For my liking they're the best. Concerning electrics, I used to use Gibson SGs, but I always wound up breaking them. I'm real rough on my instruments, and I'd separate the neck from the body on the SGs. Les Pauls, however, work out real well for me because I'll beat the hell out of them and they'll still work. The only trouble with them is finding good ones. I'm not the kind of guy who deserves to play--well, I deserve, but I don't have any business playing--a vintage guitar because I'm too rough on instruments. So, what I do is to have Rocco--our guitar guy Tom Reedy--find me newer models. Every once in a while they'll mess up and make a good one, and he's been able to find them. ln fact, I don't know if he's told you the story about my Les Pauls.

GP: No, why don't you?
Tommy: Okay. Rocco found a Les Paul for me, a brown sunburst that was made in Nashville, and he talked to the guys who made it. It turned out they really cared about the guitar. There are nice pieces of wood, the neck was real straight, and the pickups were choice. I used it on The Grand Illusion, Cornerstone, and Pieces Of Eight. Anyway, I used it a lot, so I asked Rocco if he could find me a spare. He searched for almost a year, and one day we were up in New Haven, Connecticut, and he was out cruising the music stores. He found this guitar that looked a whole lot like my brown sunburst. It was in real good condition for a trade-in, so he bought it. After we got it back to the hotel we noticed that my original and this one were almost identical. We looked at the serial numbers on the backs, and they were consecutive. It was the next guitar. The same guys made it. They might have even made it the same day. It still freaks me to talk about it.

GP: On this tour you're using a Gibson Explorer exclusively. I have completely gone to my '76 Explorer and given up the Les Paul. Why did you switch?
Tommy: I just love that Explorer. They haven't made too many good ones, but the '76 I've got is a killer. All I've done to it is put on a DiMarno lead pickup and a tune-o-matic bridge. It's kind of an ugly guitar, but boy it responds like crazy. I don't have very long fingers, and it's a real good instrument for a player with small hands.

GP: Do you prefer a straight guitar sound, or one layered with effects?
Tommy: The only things I have are a Cry Baby wah-wah and a copy of JY's preamp, the Yoshinarator. I use the latter only for leads, and I run my guitar through a Mesa/Boogie amp and a Hiwatt cabinet.

GP: In his interview, JY said everything--even effects--is controlled out at the mixing board. That's a lot of trust to put in the mixing guy, isn't it?
Tommy: Well, we have the best. That guy's also one of the engineers on our albums. Styx' show is very sophisticated, but we still depend on him to do that the same way as all of our crew depends on us to show up and sing the songs. In a small lounge you can mix your own sound as you're playing--you just go by ear. But in a 20,000-seat arena, no way. You've got to give it to your sound man and keep your level down onstage so he's able to mix what's coming out of the PA, instead of what's coming out of the amps. He has to hear what he's actually mixing.

GP: How do you approach writing songs?
Tommy: I write them however I can get them, though most of the time I wind up writing them in my head. But things are different now that I've become a professional songwriter. In the old days it would just come; if it didn't happen, then no big deal. I wasn't out anything. Now that I'm a professional songwriter, people expect me to write songs--depend on me to write songs. So, I've had to get into a different way of thinking about it: not in a mercenary sense, but as pressure to drive myself creatively. Once you start thinking about it in a mercenary frame of mind, then you're finished. You're a joke, because there are too many mercenaries out there already. I wake up in the morning, and if I have an idea I write it down--although I usually carry a little dictation machine with me because I'm too lazy to write.

GP: So lyrical ideas arrive before melodies?
Tommy: Or I'll hear a riff in my head, and if I can't get to a guitar, I'll say in the machine, "Well, this is going to be a C: The bass will stay on C, and I'll just go to a G chord, then A minor, and I'll do it in this many counts." I'll write it down phonetically, not musically, just to get an account of it somewhere. Otherwise, I forget. I wish I had a nickel for every song that I've left in the bathroom, written down on a matchbox, or just totally forgotten about.

GP: The curse of the compulsive musician.
Tommy: Yes, that I've definitely become. If music became extinct now, I don't know what I'd be good for. I guess just walking around in circles a lot. But fortunately I have this artistic freedom with Styx to walk around in circles and write songs.

GP: Do you have any favorite keys?
Tommy: On acoustic guitar I tend to stay in the key of D for some reason. On electric guitar I keep basic: C, G, D, and A. The key of D minor is also real good for me, like in "Blue Collar Man" [Pieces Of Eight], just for the range I like to sing in. I want people to be able to relate to songs and to tap their feet to them, because I like to be Ioved and I don't want to confuse people. I think most entertainers do that; there's an insatiable desire to be loved by millions of listeners.

GP: Do you like miking amps or going direct in the studio?
Tommy: The only time I've ever done a direct electric guitar was on "Castle Walls" [The Grand Illusion]. The kind of jazzy guitar on the end of the song I played direct with my Les Paul.

GP: Occasionally, false harmonics crop up in your tunes.
Tommy: Well, that's partially intentional and partially accidental. The worst thing that I do--and while I know it's responsible for the way my playing sounds, it's still a technical mistake--is I wind up resting my hand in a kind of cup shape on the bridge. A lot of times I do that to get the harmonic effect off the joint of my thumb. While picking, you get the guitar to sing a little bit with the flesh, creating harmonics. I always call it the "Billy Gibbons effect."

GP: Do you listen to other guitarists?
Tommy: Not intensely.

GP: How about other musicians in general?
Tommy: The person I listen to the most is Dan Fogelberg. I enjoy his songwriting and his voice; it's good therapy for me to sit down and listen to him when I'm fatigued. But when I'm on the road, I'm really into rock and roll. Even though we do ballad-type songs, my motivation is to get out there and rock. I think the group I've probably related to the most on this tour has been AC/DC, because while they're a lot more basic than we are, it amazes me how they do so much with such a basic format. But they have a lot of real, raw energy that I respect and can relate to.

GP: What's Tommy Shaw going to be doing ten years from now?
Tommy: I'd better be on the road, or I'll be going nuts. I'm not the kind of guy who sits around with a pipe and slippers watching soap operas. I like being on the road, living in hotels. While I've got a real nice house, I go crazy when I'm there. So ten years from now, unless I go completely bald and gain a hundred pounds, I'll be playing music. I'll probably just wear a hat and some baggy clothes and still be out there.

GP: How does one make it in the music business?
Tommy: You always have to remember: If you ever want to do anything and make a career of it, you first need an audience. And you have to play for that audience while also finding the point where you can fulfill your own artistic desires. So, my advice is to go out and entertain the people, and satisfy yourself. I remember when I was 13 or so and I started reading Guitar Plaver, I thought that if I read all the stories I'd find the secret to success. But you know, even though Styx has made it and all that, I still don't know what the secret is.

Copyright Guitar Player, July 1981.


Last edited by Kristi Wachter, Racer Records, December 11, 1999.