The Isley Brothers guitarist talks about his gear, career, and living with Hendrix
By Marty Paule
When it comes to acts with both staying power and the chops to rule the rock, pop, funk, and R&B charts, it would be difficult to top the Isley Brothers. Since their formation in the 1950s as a gospel group, the Isleys in their various lineups have had a huge impact on the American music scene.
From the heady excitement of early '60 pop tunes like "Shout" and "Twist & Shout" (both covered by the Beatles) to the soulful Grammy Award-winning single "It's Your Thing," to the smooth sophistication and gritty funk of their '70s and '80s output typified by "Who's That Lady," the Isleys have shown an uncanny willingness to adapt and incorporate new elements into their sound. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, the band's six-plus decade career was recognized with a 2014 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in February.
A critical part of the Isley's evolution was the inclusion of rock-flavored guitar early on. In fact, The Isley Brothers were among the first to recognize the fiery skills of a young guitarist from Seattle called Jimmy (later known as Jimi) Hendrix. Hendrix, while a sideman with the band, lived in the Isley home for nearly two years-a stay that enormously influenced the subject of our interview: Ernie Isley.
Though he recorded as a multi-instrumentalist with his older brothers at age 16, it wasn't until 1973 that three younger Isley brothers including Ernie on guitar were brought in as instrumentalists making the band a self-contained musical unit. The new lineup proceeded to release a series of top-selling LPs including 3 + 3, The Heat is On, and Between the Sheets. Drawing on a mix of soul, gospel, pop, and rock elements, the band generated strong crossover sales. Through it all, Ernie's multifaceted guitar work became an Isley Brothers signature.
We talked to Ernie Isley during a recent visit to Fender:
The HUB: In one form or another, the Isleys have been on the soul, R&B, funk, and pop scene since the 1950s. What do you think is the reason for your longevity and crossover success?
Ernie Isley: We've always loved all kinds of music, and of course you have to factor in divine grace. We are not locked into any musical category; we have changed with the musical terrain and climate. With songs like [sings] You know you wanna make me… we were an influence on others too. The Beatles did "Shout" and also "Twist & Shout." It was in their repertoire before they came to America. Our influence has managed to cross generations too.
The HUB: Your soaring guitar work on "That Lady" put rock guitar sounds in the spotlight-and that was pretty revolutionary for soul-inflected music at at the time. How did you get that sustain-drenched sound?
Ernie Isley: We were working with the same engineers Stevie Wonder was using on what would become Innervisions. We were working on the record that became 3+3. There was a fuzz box and a phase shifter by Maestro, and that was pretty much it.
Ernie Isley with three of the "Zeal" Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters that brought his artistic concepts to life, together with with his 2014 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo courtesy of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation.
The HUB: That solo had a huge influence on '70s guitar sounds in several genres.
Ernie Isley: We cut it before the lyrics had been finished, and there was a strong rhythmic guitar part that tied in with the congas-very funky, very rhythmic. But when I plugged in for the solo and hit that first note, the track went from black and white to 3D technicolor. Recording it, there were two takes; the second take is what's on the record. On the first take I was playing all over the place. My eldest brother, Kelly, was looking at me through the glass; he did not blink for like 25 minutes. The engineers were going nuts, and I was going nuts. When I got done, they said play it again to fit with vocals. I was really ticked off that we had to do a take two.
The HUB: Your appearances during the 2011 Experience Hendrix Tour caused a sensation; did you spend a lot of time getting up to speed on Hendrix's licks, or were they already a part of your repertoire?
Ernie Isley: Something a lot of people don't know is that he was hired in March 1963 by the Isley Brothers and he lived in our home for approximately two years. He was 10 years my senior-I'm an 11-year-old kid and when I'd hear him playing, I'd take a social studies book and go on in where he was. He was not an icon in March, 1963. He just played very well as he later demonstrated with the records he recorded. His first recording session was with the Isley Brothers in '64 on a song called "Testify."
He played that signature E chord that was later in "Purple Haze." I think of Jimi Hendrix as a person-not an icon-because that's how I knew him. I have a problem relating to him in the mythology. If he had still been around when "Who's That Lady" came out, he probably would have given me something between a bear hug and a tackle. I can hear him saying 'How the hell did you learn that?' and me saying, 'Listening to you!'
You never know who you're rubbing elbows with. In 1964 my brothers were in England and they happened to be in an elevator with Ringo, George, John, and Paul, and The Beatles told them how much they liked "Twist and Shout"-this was before they had released a recording of it. When they found out we lived in New Jersey, they said when they came back to New York they wanted to come by our home. I think it would have been a bit much: because under the same roof it would have been The Isley Brothers, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix. And they would have heard him play.
But it wasn't his time yet. The Beatles needed to do what they did and grow. But when it was time; when the stars and planets lined up in a certain way, then Jimi came to the fore.
In study hall, later on, kids would say, 'We didn't know you knew Hendrix!" And I'd say, 'Yeah, if you'd come by the house a year and a half ago, you'd have seen him coming in and out the front door on a regular basis. It was like my mom saying, 'Jimi, it's time for breakfast.' He was a part of the household and also a part of the Isley Brothers band.
The HUB: When you went out on the Experience Hendrix tour in 2011 what kind of gear were you using to get the sounds associated with Jimi?
Ernie Isley: I believe the amp was a Fender Twin. But you know, when you plug in, I'm all over the place. If you examine the resumé, there's no one signature sound-there's no one Isleys sound either.
When it was agreed that I'd do the tour, I said I wanted to do "Manic Depression." No one had played that song on the Hendrix tour up to that point. When I first heard the Are You Experienced? album, "Purple Haze" was the first song; but when I heard "Manic Depression," I said that sounds like him-like the way he played when I knew him. So that was the song I wanted to do. If you can play it with your feeling while acknowledging the original reference point, then you get your point across. People were surprised, and I ask, 'Didn't you hear "Summer Breeze" or "Hope You Feel Better Love"?' If you hear that, then you'll know what I'm playing. We have an appreciation for all kinds of music including so-called rock.
The HUB: What do you attribute your big ears to?
Ernie Isley: When I first started playing guitar it was because of hearing Jose Feliciano's version of "Light My Fire." I also wanted to learn the 12-string part on "Love is Blue," [sings the riff] and Mason Williams' "Classical Gas." Another inspiration was this guitar player, Charles Pitts. He played the guitar part on "It's Your Thing." I played the bass part; I was 16 years old. He was also the guy playing the wah-wah guitar on Isaac Hayes' "Shaft." He was very rhythmic and funky.
The HUB: Who are some the other guitar players you respect?
Ernie Isley: Well, you end up calling the same names: Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton- these are the guys who in addition to knowing how to play also had the hits. Some of the others are Wes Montgomery and Curtis Mayfield. You know, I don't listen to guitarists per se; I'm listening to the song. Because I liked Jose Feliciano's version of "Light My Fire," the first guitar I got was an acoustic. I'd be talking about Feliciano in study hall with my fellow musician friends, and they'd say, 'He don't play!' and I'd say, 'You don't have an appreciation music.' If you just listen to what you like, you don't grow. But if you have a broader appreciation of music, it gives you a bigger space to swim around in.
It's like that with Hendrix. He was not confined to a category either. That's one the things that made him so unique. Because you hear a little Wes Montgomery in there and you hear a little Curtis Mayfield.
The HUB: You wrote or co-wrote some of the Isleys' biggest hits including "Fight the Power" that clearly draws on the mood of the times. What's your songwriting process?
Ernie Isley: You try to write what you feel, which is always a challenge because those feeling are often bottled up. Sometimes you have a little melody fragment, or a phrase, or a bit of a lyric that works like a flashlight to lead you on. I was usually more into the songwriting aspect than the guitar solo. If the song is there, then anybody can play the solo.
The HUB: You said you started out on an acoustic. What was your first electric guitar?
Ernie Isley: It was a Fender Stratocaster I got on Christmas Eve 1971.
The HUB: So you've been a Strat guy all along?
Ernie Isley: Pretty much from the age of 19 when I got that Strat. I did have a Guild before that. But as I started to show a sincerity and improvement, my brother Ronald called me and said, 'I've got a blank check for you to go to Manny's Music in New York and get yourself a Stratocaster.' Wow, that was a very memorable day.
The HUB: More recently, the Fender Custom Shop has built some Strats to your specifications. Can you tell us about some of the modifications and features you asked for?
Ernie Isley: The Fender Custom Shop was like a personal dream come true. Of course I wanted them to give me the best in terms of equipment and pickups etc., but I also wanted the guitars to look a certain way. They were able to capture as best as is humanly possible what I was imagining.
The first was a honey brown, and then there's a grey-silver one which was the second, and then there's the white one with the lavender roses. It has a g-string and a diamond in her naval, and has a rose tattoo on her back. You know I have a regular white one, but I don't play it any more. They spoiled me because of both the technical aspects and the way they look.
I refer to them as the "Zeal" of Fender. That word has any number of meanings, but I mean it in the sense of a burning desire. So when I hit the first note of say, "Who's That Lady,"-that's the burn-a pleasant burn, but a burn nevertheless. Regardless of what you play whether it's keyboard or sax, you want to play it with a certain amount of spiritual zeal. And that's what I get with these Stratocasters. They are unanimously beautiful-they create a sense of awe in everybody I've shown them to. I wouldn't be mad if other people were to have access to copies of them.
Strapped into his Custom Shop "Zeal" Strat, Ernie shows off his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
The HUB: When you go out on the road these days, which Strat or Strats do you take with you?
Ernie Isley: I take Zeal #2 which is the silver-grey one and I take the white one with the lavender roses. My Facebook page has me standing on the red carpet with my 2014 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and that guitar. From what I understand I might just be the first person to be stepping on the Grammy red carpet winning an award with a guitar on.
The HUB: To get back to your signal chain when you're out on the road, is there a particular amp that you play though?
Ernie Isley: There's usually a Mesa-Boogie and a Marshall. There's pretty much two tones that I try to get: one of them is the straight rhythm tone like you hear in "Who's That Lady." And the other is the lead tone; I don't play with either tone exclusively.
I think that the Strat is an ideal instrument because it's not locked into one particular tone. It lets you speak through it any way you want. The best things I do rhythmically are those that when people hear it, they say, 'Ah, that sounds like Isley.' It's a great thing to be able to have your own identifiable sound. 'Its hard to get that, but when you do it's like manna from heaven.