American Steve Hunter
(14 June, 1948) first played with Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, before working
with Bob Ezrin, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Peter Gabriel, Aerosmith, and Tracy Chapman, among many others. He played guitar on Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill and wrote and played the
introduction for Reed’s Sweet Jane on
Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal for example;
few others have contributed so much to rock music.
Hunter has also released seven solo albums and has travelled extensively on many large-scale tours. He now lives with his singer/songwriter wife Karen in Altea, Spain, but was happy to take time out of his busy schedule to chat with Guitars Exchange about his favourite moments with the stars, why Lou Reed’s Berlin album made him joyous, and what recently made him sell nearly all his gear…
GE: How did it all start?
SH: I started on lap steel but the first guitar I played, I didn’t actually own; when I first took lessons I simply rented a guitar for a dollar. But the first guitar my dad bought for me was a double neck lap steel, then a Harmony, but I can’t remember the make, I ordered it out of a catalogue.
Later I got an SG , I think it was a ’64 or a ’65 - of course this was back in the days when it wasn’t called a vintage but a ‘used’ guitar - and it was plugged right into a Marshall 100 watt half-stack.
GE: How and when did you get the nickname ‘The Deacon’?
SH: It’s a funny story actually. I had been working on several projects over about nine months with Bob Ezrin and one day he called when I was back home at my parents’ house - I hadn’t really figured where I was going to land at that point, so when I got off the road I just went back home - and he said ‘hey man, I’ve got a project for you… but listen, don’t tell me you’ve got into drink and drugs out on the road!’ and I replied ‘No, I am still the Deacon of Rock n Roll’ - I said it as a joke and he thought it was really funny. And after that in sessions he would always call me ‘The Deacon’; then he added some weird stuff, like asking me to bless tapes and stuff [Laughs]. And the nickname just stuck - it’s been with me since the mid 70s.
GE: Regarding Lou Reed, he famously had rather a grumpy relationship with the music press – how did you find him?
SH: I absolutely loved him to death. When I first started working with him in 1973 he was quite quiet, but when I was called to do Berlin live, around 2004, for some reason or other he and I just hit it off the second time, we were more like brothers, I just had such a wonderful time with him. I didn’t realise what a great sense of humour he had, of course I knew he was intelligent, you can tell that by his lyrics, but I didn’t realise how funny he was; he and I had a blast together.
GE: Is there a moment that sticks out for you now?
SH: It was more the rapport we had. We would go to a venue and do a sound check and invariably Lou and I would be the first on stage. We’d have 10 or 15 minutes together and we would just talk and it was the greatest thing because sometimes really funny stuff would come out, and sometimes serious stuff. I have lots of photos of Lou and I talking in front of a completely empty house, laughing and having a great time; so it wasn’t any particular moment for me.
GE: 'Berlin' is a magnificent album, and you play on many of its songs, like ‘Men of Good Fortune’, ‘How Do You Think it Feels’ and ‘Sad Song’; do you remember the gear you used for those solos?
SH: It is difficult to recall because we would try different things and I sometimes don’t remember which one we ended up landing on. I do know I recorded Sad Song at the Record Plant in New York City, and that particular studio had the most amazing Tweed-twin amp; I ended up using that on the solo for Sad Song. It was a beautiful sounding amp; unfortunately it blew up, it’s not there anymore.
On How Do You Think It Feels I think it was just an SG and a Marshall again. We didn’t have a big bunch of gear, back in those days you didn’t roll in with 14 amps, it was more like you brought your favourite amp and guitar, and ‘go!’
GE: Do you find ‘Berlin’ a depressing album?
SH: Of course we didn’t record it in the sequence in which it was written. I guess you would call it a concept album, though that is not how we thought of it when we were doing it, but it does tell a story. Bob Ezrin called me while I was in New York at 10 at night and asked me if I wanted to hear the album in order, because he was sequencing it, and I said ‘I’d love to’. So I started listening to it and I was just blown away, I just thought it was the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard in my life. I can understand why it might seem depressing, but to me it was real, somebody was finally saying that drugs might not be a good thing, for example, and saying this is what happens to these two people’s lives; I thought it was fantastic.
It has never depressed me. There are pretty depressing moments like when they are taking her children away, and there are a lot of poignant and weird moments like when Caroline commits suicide on the bed, but to me it was brilliant. Bob and I sat for about 20 minutes when it was over and didn’t say a word. I think we were amazed about what a brilliant piece of work it was.
GE: Do you listen to it now?
SH: Not recently. In 2004 or so we did it in St Ann’s warehouse, which is in Brooklyn, and then toured it, so I had kind of heard it enough! [Laughs]. Not to take anything away from it, it was absolutely gorgeous, we had strings and a choir, but I just thought afterwards, ‘now I’m going to leave it alone for a while’.
GE: How did you come to write the famous 'Intro' to 'Sweet Jane'?
SH: I actually started writing it while I was working with Mitch Ryder. I was living with the guitar/keyboard player, Brett Tuggle and the bass player Ron Cooke. We had rented a house together: actually, it was a summer house but it was cold, so we always had the fire going, and I was sitting in front of it with an acoustic guitar, and I just started working on this piece that ultimately ended up becoming the intro to Sweet Jane. I didn’t feel the urge to finish it, I just kept it as a little sketch, and many years later I toured with the Chambers Brothers and they needed a little intro piece, so we ended up playing a part of it as an intro to one of their songs. I added things to it and so by the time I got to Lou it was pretty much finished, although I didn’t know where it was going to go, which ended up being cool, because where I hadn’t finished it, it went into Sweet Jane. So I ended up working on it for three or four years before it ended up on the Rock n Roll Animal album.
GE: ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal’ is a legendary live album, and your partnership with Dick Wagner was a special one, do you remember what he played and what you played? Do you remember the gear you used for that Lou Reed tour?
SH: Dick was really partial to Les Pauls, so I think he had a Les Paul and I had an SG, but it got stolen and so I ended up getting a Les Paul TV special 1959, and that’s what I used on the album. We were playing through Hiwatt half-stacks, they were beautiful amps, I had one for about 10 years.
GE: Do you remember what songs you played on Alice Cooper's 'Billion Dollar Babies'? And what gear you used on that album?
SH: No! [Laughs] but if you look on my website Karen has done a great job of listing them all out. I think I played six solos, six tracks, I think Generation Landslide was one, but I can’t remember the others.
GE: Can you tell us something about the recording of ‘Welcome To My Nightmare’ and how you got on with Alice Cooper?
SH: It was an absolute blast, I’ll tell you that. There is something about working with Alice, as he is such a witty guy, and we had such a lot of fun recording that album. Don’t get me wrong, when the red light went on we got down to some serious work, but before and after we had fun doing goofy stuff, you know, and I think that translates into how the album sounds because it is very soft, but also tough at the same time. If you can relax your mind you can end up coming up with much more creative stuff. There was a wonderful camaraderie among all of us, Bob, Alice, the engineers, all of us, and I think it ended up making that album very special.
And again when we did the tour it was a blast to play those songs on stage, I had never done a world tour on that scale, and it was just fabulous.
GE: What do you think of Alice Cooper’s new stuff with the Hollywood Vampires?
SH: I haven’t heard it to be honest.
GE: You and Dick Wagner played on Aerosmith’s version of ‘Train Kept A-Rollin', do you remember that session?
SH: It was a most bizarre session. I was sitting in the lobby of the Record Plant, having a cigarette, and Jack Douglas poked his head out of Studio C and asked me if I wanted to play and I said ‘Yeh!’ So I went into the studio, plugged in and played a couple of solos and I was done – that was it, it was pretty quick. He just told me to play along with the track but unfortunately I didn’t have the vocals in the headphones, so we did it again and he put the vocals in, and of course I played around the vocals then.
GE: ‘Solsbury Hill’, by Peter Gabriel, is another of the big songs you have played on, do you remember the acoustic that you played that day?
SH: I think it was a Martin D28. A great guy called Jim Frank had a wonderful sounding Martin; we recorded triple track and VSO’d [variable speed oscillator – a chorusing effect] the machine. So we slowed it down a little bit on one pass and sped it up on another pass, and when we put the three together a beautiful thing happened.
GE: Did you climb up Solsbury Hill with Peter Gabriel?
SH: [Laughs] No, he didn’t even tell me where the hell it is! I’d like to go and check it out…
GE: It is near his Real World studios in Bath…
SH: This was before he had Real World studios, it was recorded in Toronto. It is a great song man, it is one of the most perfectly written songs ever, I think.
GE: Turning to guitars, if your house was burning down and you could only take one, which would you take?
SH: I’d have to take two! I have a beautiful Gretsch Black Falcon, and a Jeff Beck signature model Strat, which is my workhorse guitar, I love it; I use it all the time. The former is called Blacky, and the latter Betty.
GE: Would you grab any gear?
SH: Well, the only vintage thing I have that I would grab is an old red MXR Dyna Comp that I absolutely love. Everywhere I go I take that thing with me because I know exactly what it’s going to do when I plug it in; it is the best compressor I have ever had on my guitar.
GE: I understand you decided to sell some of your gear; how did you decide what to sell and what to keep?
SH: That was easy, I just sold damn near everything! [Laughs] Karen and I had decided to move to Spain for a variety of reasons: her mother and father were getting up in years and it was just too difficult to get flights back and forth, so we came over for 10 days or so and I just fell in love with the place and I didn’t want to leave. So when we returned we had to figure out a way to come here. So we had to sell a lot of stuff; I had 30 guitars and now I have eight, I had a Marshall and a couple of other things; I ended up selling just about every bit of gear I owned. I sold about 60 pedals but I kept my favourites – a Strymon TimeLine and a Peaktronics Evolution II. We needed to raise a lot of money to be able to afford to move over here; we just decided to start over.
GE: When was your happiest moment playing?
SH: That’s kind of tough, because there have been many moments. The first that pops to mind is when I was playing with Alice on the Welcome To My Nightmare tour in Madison Square Garden and it was sold out in four hours or something; that was a wonderful time. Another was playing with Lou Reed at the Ryman Theatre in Nashville, which is where the Grand Old Opry used to be, and that stage is just full of history; we sold out and that was a wonderful show that night. The response to Lou in Nashville was unbelievable. Another was when we played with Lou Reed at the Royal Albert Hall, that has to be one of my favourite shows.
The last one I can think of is when I played with Tracy Chapman and Pavarotti. That was the most intensley beautiful night ever; I was standing in front of an 80 piece orchestra and in my monitors Pavarotti was coming out and I thought ‘oh my God, this is ridiculous!’
GE: I know you have some health challenges; does that affect the plans you have for the future?
SH: The real problem is my Glaucoma, I’ve had it for about 30 years and its slowly eating away at my eyesight. I use ‘zoom’ a lot on the computer and that means I am able to work, and that is all that I care about. I don’t tour so much because when I’m on stage it is difficult because of the lighting and all that kind of stuff, I can lose my place on the guitar if I’m not careful, so it is not so much fun for me, but I still have a lot of fun recording. I have a Pro-Tool set up here and spend a lot of time recording and messing around with stuff.
The interview closes with Guitars Exchange thanking Steve for his time and - because we know our readers would love to hear more - inviting him and his wife out the next time they are in Madrid. ‘Great, we’d love to take you up on that!’ Steve generously replies.