Reverb Interview: Randy Bachman, Still Takin’ Care of Business

Beginning with The Guess Who in the late 1960s and continuing through the late ‘70s with Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Randy Bachman’s songs have graced the airwaves for more than five decades, energizing concert halls, car radios, office supply commercials — and even The Simpsons.

Today Randy Bachman is one of the busiest classic rockers and one of Canada’s most revered musicians. He released Heavy Blues, an impressive new solo album that features songs inspired by ‘60s-era Cream, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, with a cast of guest guitarists including Peter Frampton, Joe Bonamassa, Neil Young, Robert Randolph, the Rival Son’s Scott Holiday, and a posthumous appearance by fellow Canadian Jeff Healey. Bachman also hosts “Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap” on Sirius Satellite and Canada’s CBC radio every Saturday night, as he has for more than 10 years. And he continues to tour.

Having just completed the 2015 tour to support Heavy Blues, Bachman will cross North America with a semi-unplugged multimedia show that offers stories about the inspiration behind hits including “These Eyes,” “American Woman,” “Takin’ Care of Business,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” and others, much like his Every Song Tells a Story DVD release from 2014.

Even with all that going on, Bachman made time to speak with Reverb about his love of vintage instruments, his gear collecting habits, and nailing the singing, violin-like lead guitar tone from his 1970 No. 1 hit “American Woman” and others.

You spent a lot of 2015 on tour, and you’re getting ready to go out again…

I’m getting ready to go in April. I just finished the Rock and Roll Cruise with Frampton and Gregg Allman and the Outlaws. That was really fun. We went from Fort Lauderdale to Turks and Caicos. I’m glad I got off the ship though (laughs). It’s probably my last cruise for sure. But the music was great, and it was fun.

On some dates you’ll be playing songs from Heavy Blues, and others are your multimedia history show…

Yeah, that’s a different show. That’s called “Every Song Tells A Story.” That’s the story behind my big hits with The Guess Who and BTO — how I wrote them. And it’s got a video backdrop. And as I talk about writing a song, it shows me and the band in the 1960s, where we were, in San Francisco, or L.A., or Vancouver, or wherever. It’s kind of a history lesson with visuals. And then we play the songs. There’s a DVD that came out and went Platinum in Canada, and people are starting to get into it in the States.

So what guitars do you bring on the road these days?

Supro Val-Trol

Supro Val-Trol

If you Google Heavy Blues, you’ll see a YouTube clip with me playing an old Supro Val-Trol. It’s a big-bodied guitar with these incredible Supro Nashville pickups. That’s the guitar I used on the whole Heavy Blues album, for the rhythm and lead. There’s no other guitar on it. It’s just that guitar.

I heard about it, how great it was, and that Ry Cooder was using one for slide. And I thought, “Gee, if I use it for a real guitar, let’s see how it is.” And I was lucky to find one on the Internet, because they didn’t make many; from the late-’50s to about ‘62.

In doing my blues album, I didn’t want the standard Les Paul and Marshall, or Strat and Marshall, sound that everybody else has. I wanted something different, and a little more powerful and older. And so I got this Supro guitar. I ended up getting three of them.

The last time we talked, you told me that you pick up a new guitar almost every week. Is that still the case?

Maybe I’ve dwindled to one a month, although I got an incredible offer recently: Some guy inherited his uncle’s collection, and he’s not a guitar player, so he doesn’t know what they are. And he got in touch with me to see if I wanted to buy it. So I said, “Can you tell me what’s in the collection?”

And he said, “A ‘54 Strat, a ‘56 Strat, a ‘58 Strat. All with tags. All with bills of sale. All in the original cases. And also a ‘59 Les Paul.” And I said, “What? Are you kidding?”

They also have two Gretsches signed by Chet Atkins — two 6120s, and one is a prototype. George Gruhn offered the guy huge, huge money — in the million dollar range. And the guy said, “Well, I’d rather sell it to you in Canada.”

And I told him I would rather look at buying the whole collection. I don’t want to buy just one. So it had dwindled to about one a month, but if I get this collection, I’m good for about a year and a half!

Photo Courtesy of Randy Bachman

Photo Courtesy of Randy Bachman

Yeah, I bet. That’s like striking gold.

Yeah. So kind of like when you’re all done, and you think you’ve got everything, an opportunity like this comes up and you go, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Six Strats, two years apart — a ‘54, ‘56, ‘58, ‘60 — that kind of thing. And he’s got a ‘54 Les Paul, and a ‘59. So I figured, “Oh my God, it’s time to take out a loan and get these!”

So what do you do today to recreate the amazing tone from the Herzog effect on your “American Woman” solo?

What made that sound was that the Herzog had two pre-amps in it, one against the other. Where most guitar foot pedals have one input stage, this has got two. So you can put them against each other and get that long, long, long, drawn out “American Woman” guitar sound.

Gar Gillies, the original builder of the Herzog, built me about 12 of them before he passed away. I think I gave one to Neil Young, Bob Rock, Steve Cropper, Lenny Kravitz. I’ve got four here myself and I took them into my amp tech who fixes and restores all my old Fender amps and things like that. And he said the thing about these old Herzogs is that every single one — it’s like getting a ‘54 Strat direct from Leo Fender — every one is built differently.

So do you use your Herzogs on the road, or do you leave them home?

I leave them home. What I use instead, which I found on the Internet, and which are quite fantastic, are the Boss Blues Drivers. It's very, very close. And then I found this lunatic on the Internet who mods them, puts in better germanium transistors and boosts the output maybe 25%. And it gives the harmonics [a sound] like it's coming through a tube.

So I use two of those on stage. One is set on about half for really great crunchy rhythm, and the other is set blotto — full out. When I put the two on together — because it's two stages — it's my "American Woman" sound.

About the Author:

Adam St. James is a long-time music journalist who has written for most of the major guitar magazines, and is the former editor of Guitar.com. He has authored numerous titles for music publishers Hal Leonard and BackBeat Books and still plays the rare Gibson Les Paul Artisan he purchased at age 16, primarily in his Allman Brothers tribute band.


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