Interview: Foo Fighters' Chris Shiflett on the Evolution of His Guitar Tone

Chris Shiflett. Photos used with Permission.

Near the start of his career, when Chris Shiflett was with No Use For a Name and Me First & The Gimme Gimmes, the Santa Barbara native was playing Bay Area punk with an '82 Les Paul through a gained-up Mesa-Boogie.

Fifteen years later, with his band The Dead Peasants and as a solo artist, he'd be playing Bakersfield-inspired country with a Telecaster and Fender combo. There was also, of course, plenty of stadium-filling rock in between, with Chris having joined the Foo Fighters in 1999, and continuing with the massive, globe-trotting rock band to this day.

Chris Shiflett
Hard Lessons

His latest solo record, Hard Lessons, was released June 14 and is his second with Nashville's Dave Cobb serving as producer. The songwriting and deft guitar work on display bisects the current country stylings of his most recent solo work with some louder rock 'n' roll.

Throughout all this time, Shiflett has remained a student of guitar, starting numerous side projects and cover bands, interviewing peers and heroes on his Walking the Floor podcast (now on its 142nd episode), and continuing to learn new aspects of his instrument.

Speaking with him before the new record's release, we talked about the evolution of his guitar-playing: his first recordings, his tonal explorations with the Foo Fighters, and how hard he had to work to make a simple country rig sound great.

To learn more about his work and his upcoming solo tour dates, check out his website here.

Let's go back to your earliest days.

The early days would be my first bands in high school. At the time, the sort of gold standard for recording, just doing little home recordings, was the Fostex 4-track. It seemed like there were a few of those around. I never owned one, but I definitely got my hands on one here and there. And I remember my band in high school—it probably would have been about 10th grade—was the first time we started messing with those things.

They were funny, because we didn’t know about recording to a click or anything. We didn’t have that as an option. So, you would just record a drum track and hope that your drummer more or less remembered how the song went. Put a bass track on there and put a guitar track on there. Then, you’d almost be out of tracks. So you’d have to bounce all those down to one track. Then, once you start layering stuff over that bounce track, you’d realize that you hadn’t really bounced it with a very good mix. And so you start losing stuff.

With those recordings—you’re recording on a cassette tape—they'd always be really thin and have a lot of tape hiss. But that feeling when you first hear yourself back, even when it’s that poorly recorded, is like, Yeah, this is for real.

The first time I went into a studio was in high school, and there was this guy that had a home studio in his garage out in Goleta. I’m sure if I were to listen to those tapes now, it would probably sound pretty bad, but it sounded fucking amazing at the time. That was a huge step up from the Fostex 4-track.

Beyond that, when I turned 18, I moved to LA. I played around Hollywood in a bunch of bands. And I remember the first time I went into like a real studio—I want to say it was maybe Cherokee [Studios, which closed in 2007]—and this engineer that one of my bandmates knew was working on a record over there. We went in after hours and recorded two songs on the fly, real fast.

I remember just being really nervous—and it wasn’t like sitting down and experimenting with different tones. It was just: Turn your guitar on and get it as fast as you can. You know what I mean? Just get something recorded as fast as you fucking can. At that age, I was probably in my very early 20s, right around 20 years old, and that sounded incredible. That was a big step up from the garage, which had been a big step up from the 4-track. Because it was in a real studio, with an engineer that really knew what he was doing and all that sort of thing. Even though it was fast—and probably kind of a mess—it was great.

It wasn’t until I joined No Use for a Name when I was actually in a band that started making records. It’s funny now looking back on those times, because again, it wasn’t like this time of tonal exploration at all. It was like: Get in the studio, get a sound, and fucking go. And you would do all your guitar tracks in, like, a day. You'd get all of your drum tracks done as fast as you can, get all of your bass tracks done as fast as you can, all of your guitar tracks done as fast as you can. And so forth and so on.

There was not a lot of time spent on those For No Use For a Name records or those early Gimme records, like noodling around with different amps, different guitars. You just kind of went in with what you had. I only had one guitar for most of that time, one amp. Just went in with that. It wasn’t like we were, "I’ve got my cool tweed Fender combo, vintage..." There was none of that shit. It was just like: Get in, turn your amp on, and go.

No Use for a Name - "Growing Down"

What was your guitar and amp in those days?

When I was in No Use for a Name I had—I still have it, actually—I bought a Mesa-Boogie Mark III when I was about 18 years old, and I had that amp for a long time, through most of the time I was in No Use for a Name. But at some point when I was in No Use for a Name, I bought a Dual Rectifier. And I’m sure I used that to record some of the stuff.

I had an '82 Les Paul that I got for my 15th birthday. That was really the only guitar I had for a long time. At some point toward the end of being in No Use for a Name, I bought a Goldtop as well. And I’m certain that those were pretty much the only guitars I ever played, and I probably mostly just played my '82 Les Paul.

I know you still often play a Les Paul with the Foo Fighters, and you've been known to play Friedman amps too.

Yeah, I still use those now. My live rig is: I'm going through a Friedman through a 4x12. And then, I’ve also got a Vox AC30 going through a 4x12, and I sort of go between those two for live.

For making records though, when I joined Foo Fighters and then we were going to make a record, that was the first time that I ever got to record in a more relaxed environment, where you’re really getting way more involved in playing around with pedals and different amps and different guitars and taking different approaches to it. The way that we make Foo Fighter records is way more relaxed than it was in No Use for a Name.

Was that an odd thing to become familiar with? Did it feel excessive at first?

No, it was never really excessive in that way. It’s kind of how you want it to be. You get in there and you’re going to do your guitar track. It’s like, let’s find the tone that fits into the song where it needs to fit into the song. Prior to being in Foo Fighters, I never played around much with pedals. I was never a gear guy—I was really never a gear guy even for a long time after joining the Foo Fighters.

Chris Shiflett

So, it wasn’t until I joined Foos that I started playing around with delay pedals, flangers, and phasers and doing some fun stuff with all that. But I love that when we make records. I love coming up with different tones on different songs and just playing around with as much stuff as you can to find the thing that works.

Just looking back for a second on the No Use for a Name era, was there anything about making records at that time that you just kind of shake your head at now?

I mean, god yeah [laughs]. Of course. It would be great to go back and do all that shit over again knowing what you know now about how. I think it’s a mistake that a lot of people make, especially when you’re younger and inexperienced—and I was very guilty of this—just recording everything way too gained up, way too hot.

When you do that, I think it makes your guitars sound kind of small and thin. And you realize when listening to the guitar tones that I consider to be great guitar tones—somebody like Angus Young or Malcom Young—you listen to what they sound like on record, and it’s not that it’s super gained up. That’s not the thing that makes it sound big and crunchy and powerful. Overly gained, overly saturated guitars just sound thin.

I have an aversion to gain saturation nowadays that I did not have when I was younger. If you compare a Friedman, which is really like a Marshall Plexi—it’s like a souped-up version of that—versus a Boogie Rectifier, those are very different guitar tones. I love big, crunchy rock guitars, but the big, crunchy rock guitars that I like lean more in the Marshall direction than the Boogie direction.

Foo Fighters - "Rope"

Getting into the pedal exploration, I think I probably heard that more on Wasting Light [Foo Fighters' 2011 release] than some of your previous albums with Foo Fighters, particularly the "Rope" solo. Do you remember what you had going on there?

I do, yeah. I think it was just a wah-wah pedal, actually. I remember Dave came to the studio and was like, "Do something crazy, nasty, fucked-up-sounding shred solo kind of thing. We’ve never really done that before. Why don’t you do something like that?" And I remember that day, I recorded that solo, and it’s funny, because I had a very different idea coming into it. I had even demoed it and played it for everybody and it didn’t fly [laughs]. But it was very different. It was super chorused-out, delay, this sort of wacky tonal thing. And so, I wound up doing what I did and that was the one that stuck.

Wasting Light was made in Dave's garage. Comparing that to some of the more historic recording studios that you guys hit for Sonic Highways and then doing Concrete and Gold at EastWest Studios, how much does the room affect what you're playing or how you're recording your parts?

I think it affects it a lot, probably as much the sound as the overall mood. Like, when we were recording at Dave’s house, his house isn’t set up to be a recording studio. It’s where he lives, you know? So there was very limited space in the control room, because the control room was just a little room above his garage. He actually set up a big tent thing out in his yard and that was sort of like the lounge. But it was very different than your usual recording studio setup. You’re just kind of walking around Dave’s house all day, which puts you in a very different mindset than when you’re going somewhere to a recording studio.

Like, recording at EastWest was super fun. We hadn’t recorded in a traditional recording studio like that for quite a while and you have that thing—where you’re in there but there’s a bunch of other artists in there too. So, you walk down the hall and there’s Lady Gaga. In the other room, there’s Lukas Nelson. And then Wolf Alice comes in for a week. So, there’s that thing that happens that’s kind of fun and just adds to the overall mood of it.

And of course, EastWest is an amazing fucking room. We’re in there with an amazing producer and amazing engineers and everybody’s like really high-level and great at what they do. I think both ways are super fun. It’s just very different.

I read an interview in Guitar World around the time of Concrete and Gold, and you were talking about the stranger tones you were going for with producer Greg Kurstin. On "Dirty Water," there are these percolating fuzz lines midway through the song. What was going on there?

I had gotten a pedal. There’s a crazy Jack White/Third Man pedal called the Bumble Buzz. I love that pedal because there’s no knobs on it. There’s just a button. It’s just on or off—there’s no way to adjust it. So, it just does what it does, and it’s just a super duper crazy fuzz. I believe that’s what I used on it, but I can’t speak for everybody else.

Foo Fighters - "Dirty Water"

Let's talk about the move to Bakersfield country with your solo and Dead Peasants records. How'd you go about making that change?

I think a lot of it comes down to you just having to get used to it in your own head, because it’s so radically different. The way a guitar behaves through a single coil into a low-gain, little Fender combo amp is just so radically different than what I spent my whole life playing through. I’m so much more comfortable, even still, playing through humbuckers through a gained-up amp. But I love the way a Tele through a Fender Deluxe sounds. That’s one of my favorite sounds in the world.

I spent two or three years with the Dead Peasants just playing old honky tonk cover songs—and the whole reason I went out and did that—was exactly to do that, to wrap my head around tone and try to get comfortable with it. Because when I first started doing that, I couldn’t figure it out. I was like, I’ve got my Tele and I'm going into this '65 Deluxe Reverb, put a little reverb on it and maybe a little slap—that’s the whole thing—so why do I play so shitty when I play through this thing? [Laughs.] And it’s completely in your head. And it’s just being comfortable with it and doing it more. I mean, for me, I’m the type of player I just have to rehearse a lot. I have to gig a lot. I have to really kind of live in something to get there a hundred percent with it.

Chris Shiflett

I did a gig last year or about a year ago, when I was wrapping up making my new record. I got to be in a house band out in Nashville for this gig that Dave Cobb was putting together that was sort of a celebration of outlaw country stuff. And all these crazy people came, all these unbelievable—Tanya Tucker, Jessi Colter. All these folks. Jamey Johnson. Just a big long line of incredible players and I got to back them all up, which was unbelievable. But I remember we were just playing on a backline and there were a couple little Princeton Reverbs up there. Playing through a little Princeton Reverb, low volume, super-low gain, and it was very much out of my comfort zone, but I was digging it.

And then Jason Isbell walked up and he sat in for half a set. He literally plugged straight in to the exact same amp that I was playing and just annihilated it. No pedals. No gain. No nothing. No help. No delay. No anything. Was just moving between playing slide, playing regular lead, and he just owned it. It was really inspiring. It was like, He’s just going straight in with this Strat. And that was it. Granted, Jason Isbell is an amazing guitar player. Like, world-class. One of the greatest guitar players of the moment. But it really perfectly illustrated: You don’t need all that shit to play, to make this thing. You put a Strat through a Princeton Reverb, you can make that work. It should work. And if it doesn’t, it’s you. It’s not it.

It sounded to me like you really nailed that classic Tele twang on All Hat and No Cattle, maybe more so than the first Dead Peasants release. Was that just a matter of, like you said, playing it so much and getting more familiar with it?

Yeah. We went in there and we recorded the music for that record, all done live. Just in the room—we were all set up together. It’s sort of my more ragged version of that tone, because I tend to play the amp a little louder than probably Don Rich did or whatever. And it’s a maybe a little more broken up. But yeah, it’s pretty much just that. Tele right in. Maybe a little slap thrown in there, but not much.

And was that the '65 Reverb or something different?

Yeah. I have two of those things. I would use one and Luke [Tierney] that played with Dead Peasants would play through the other.

Chris Shiflett - "Goodnight Little Rock"

I wanted to ask specifically about the "Goodnight Little Rock" solo on West Coast Town. It kind of has that Marty Robbins' "Don’t Worry" bass fuzz solo vibe going on. Was that intentional?

Yeah, right. This is funny, because this is how all this stuff works. It’s kind of why I do my solo stuff, in a big way. Because I had recorded "Goodnight Little Rock" on West Coast Town in 2016 out in Nashville with Cobb. And he had the Bumble Buzz, right? And so, I used his Bumble Buzz on that solo. So, that’s the same tone [as heard on "Dirty Water"]. And then, when I went to go make that next Foo Fighter record, I loved that Bumble Buzz so much that I bought one. And I was like, I’ve got to get this on this record somewhere. That’s what having fun with pedals does. You get a new guitar, you get a new pedal, and it’s like, I’ve got to put this somewhere on this record. Where does this fit? And that’s where it fit.

That’s funny. I didn’t quite hear those guitar tones as the same, but I guess they really are. It’s just a matter of the type of song that you’re playing.

Exactly. It’s the context. Because in "Goodnight Little Rock," there’s nothing else that’s all revved up like that. That’s the only thing in there that’s all revved up. Whereas, on the Foo Fighters' track, everything is revved up around it. That’s something I think about all the time. So much of guitar playing is context and tone. If you took an Angus Young guitar solo and you cleaned it up and put a little slap on it and surrounded it with a rockabilly band, it’d sound like Chuck Berry, or something of that era.

Did you make Hard Lessons with Dave Cobb too?

I did, yeah. And most of the same folks played on it. I think it’s more of a rock 'n' roll guitar record, for sure. A little less twang. A little more crunch. It’s definitely louder.

What was it about him and about that room [RCA Studio A] that made you want to go back there?

Oh, man. I love making records with that dude. It’s so fun. It’s a real adventure. And I love the results that I walk out of there with. I had made West Coast Town, like, summer of 2016—I just wanted to get in there again quick. I loved making West Coast Town out there. I really learned so much, I felt like I really grew a lot, and I just wanted to go again. And I wanted to be able to get the record done in time to be able to get out and do some touring while Foos were less busy this year.

You’ve already started that tour, right? How long is it going to continue?

I’ve done a bunch of touring already this year. I’ve got a few dates lined up in July. I’ve got some stuff going on in the fall. We’re just trying to figure it out, see what’s out there, line up a couple of festivals here and there. Route some dates between them. So, we’ll see.

One more question for you. When you did your Reverb artist shop with us, you said that your plan was to basically take those 20 guitars and turn them into two. Did you succeed?

Not quite. I took those 20 guitars and turned them into one [laughs], but it’s a really good one. I mean, it’s a really, really good one. The Reverb store blew my mind. I was so—I did not expect it to go like it did. I mean, you guys did such a good job of getting the word out and hyping that up that the whole store sold out in like 45 minutes or something, which was mind-blowing. I was getting real-time updates while it was going on. I couldn’t believe it.

And it just happened to be a couple weeks after that, I was going through Chicago. I went into Chicago Music Exchange to look at a bunch of guitars. I had a couple things in mind that I wanted to get, one being a late-'50s Les Paul. And that’s what I wound up getting. I haven’t put that thing down since. It’s absolutely amazing. I got a '57 Goldtop that somebody at some point removed the gold from. So, it’s blonde. And it just sounds and plays like—it’s unbelievable.

So, is that on Hard Lessons? Or, I guess that timing wouldn't have lined up.

Yeah, it’s definitely not on Hard Lessons. But I did play, ironically, a '57 Goldtop on a lot of Hard Lessons, but it was one that belonged to Dave Cobb. And as a matter of fact, when I was at Chicago Music Exchange looking at guitars, I took a picture of the Les Paul that I wound up getting and I texted it to Cobb and said what it was. And he was like, "Dude, get that thing."

There’s a few people—I’m not super knowledgeable about vintage gear—so I have a few people that I tend to run that stuff by. And so my buddy Jeff, Pat Smear, and Dave Cobb are the three people that I tend to ask questions. I sent each of them a picture of that guitar while I was sitting there. They all responded pretty quickly. "Get that thing. You need to get that thing."

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