Keeper of the keys to the kingdom of hard rock
By Marty Paule
Against all odds, as a keyboardist in a world dominated by guitar, bass and drums, Dizzy Reed forged his career in the bright lights of L.A.’s ‘80s-era hard rock universe. A tireless gigger and student of the piano and organ, Dizzy became a fixture on the club scene, sitting in and jamming with the luminaries of the Sunset Strip.
A club band Dizzy helped found, The Wild, fortuitously found itself rehearsing in a studio adjacent to one occupied by Guns N’ Roses. A connection with GNR frontman Axl Rose ensued, with Rose promising to call on Reed when a keyboardist was needed.
Good to his word, Axl’s call came as the recording sessions for Use Your Illusion began taking shape. Since then, Dizzy has continued to record and tour with GNR and he now has the distinction of being, apart from Axl Rose, the longest-tenured member of the band.
While he continues to tour with GNR, he also fronts his own cover band, Hookers & Blow, and also is an in-demand keyboardist for other projects. We spoke to Dizzy as he completed an east-coast swing with The Dead Daisies, an all-star aggregation touring in support of Kiss and Def Leppard.
The HUB: I understand you started out playing organ. Do you think keyboards are a good place for the beginner to get a start?
Dizzy Reed: For rock music, it’s not the greatest place to start. It worked out for me—there were still a lot of the classic rock bands [using keyboards] like Deep Purple and Uriah Heep at the time. My grandma had a Lowrey organ that I started playing when I was real little. About the same time I began listening to rock music. I listened to Booker T. and the MGs and put the two things together, thinking ‘I can actually do that someday.’
It’s an unusual place to start. The piano and the organ are not as personal as the guitar. With a guitar you can carry it around and have it with you for writing. That said, I think it’s also important that anyone who is starting out on keyboards should pick up a guitar once in a while to see if it helps you to communicate with other band members. A lot of the music I liked listening to was guitar-based, so that was important.
The HUB: You’re also a percussionist and I gather that has to do with making yourself useful on songs that don’t lend themselves to a keyboard part.
Dizzy Reed: That’s exactly it. When I joined Guns N’ Roses, some of the guys weren’t ready to hear keyboards yet. At that time I was doing what I always wanted to do: I was keeping it very organic-sounding—something you really couldn’t do in the ‘80s. They thought it made things sound “dated.”
Matt Sorum, the drummer at the time, he had a deal with LP [Latin Percussion] at the time, and they brought down some congas and he said ‘Here,’ and put them in my corner. I started just beating on them and basically taught myself how to do that in a very short period of time. I definitely wanted to add something to the music. But I didn’t want to just be like a monkey beating on a drum. So I listened to a lot of older rock that had percussion on it and tried to emulate that. I worked on fitting it in where it would serve some sort of purpose.
The HUB: You mentioned Booker T. and I wondered if you’ve spent time behind a real wood Hammond B3. How do the new Hammonds compare? They’re obviously much lighter and more portable, but from a sound and playability standpoint, what do you think?
Dizzy Reed: The really nice B3s are going to be in the recording studios. They’re all pretty much bought up. They’re either in storage or in a recording studio. I never really played a B3 until we recorded the Use your Illusion records. I didn’t even know how to start one up. I couldn’t afford it, and I certainly couldn’t lug it around. When you’re living on people couches, which I was in the ‘80s, you don’t want to have too much gear to lug around. I had a couple of little keyboards and that was it.
Dizzy’s a big fan of the Hammond XK-3 and its ability to reproduce the sound of the legendary B3. Photo: Katarina Benzova
But the new ones are fantastic. And they actually started making stuff again. Suzuki bought them in the early ‘90s and came out with the very first new Hammond model—the XB2. I had one that I played on the two Illusions records. They’ve come a long way now. The one I play now—the XK—is fantastic. They sound every bit as good as the old ones and they have their advantages: they’re digital so you can use less controllers and they’re a lot more versatile. And a lot of it has to do with the Leslie speakers.
The HUB: I’m blown away when I close my eyes and listen to the new Hammonds. They even emulate the key “thunk” of the old B3s.
Dizzy Reed: They really have it down to a science the way they model them now. The squeaks and the clicks—it’s pretty incredible. Right now I’m playing through one of the 3300s [Hammond Leslie 3300 Rotary Speaker] that has a tube in it. The XK organs also have tubes so you get a lot of that warmth that was missing initially when they first came out with them. They were pretty digital-sounding, but now with tubes and everything you can have the warmth and you can also crank them to get the grind that you need. You don’t have to modify anything. So yeah, they’re killer.
The HUB: Switching over to piano for a moment, do you feel the evolution in digital stage keyboards is similar, or if there’s a great acoustic piano on hand do you prefer to play that?
Dizzy Reed: When it comes to recording, I’m always going to want to play a real piano. I don’t think you can truly emulate the feel, the dynamics. If it’s miked properly, nothing is going to sound like that. But that being said, Roland in particular, as well as some of the soft synths you can use, they sound really good. But nothing compares to a real piano.
The HUB: In approaching an instrument like say the Roland Fantom for example, it’s got so many voices, sounds and effects, do you ever find yourself getting distracted with all the possibilities, or do you appreciate having all that versatility on tap?
Dizzy Reed: I appreciate the versatility, but it absolutely can get you distracted. I think that a lot of times what you try and hear first is probably going to be the thing that’s going to work in recording. In a live situation you can make adjustments. It can definitely be a distraction with the soft synths too. Too many choices can be bad.
The HUB: With all the focus on guitars, drums and bass in rock, what do you see as being your role in that musical environment?
Dizzy Reed: The most important thing for me is to always take on the song as a whole. Not to focus on what you’re doing—your parts—but rather the whole song. To look for ways to make the song better. And if that means laying out, then it’s time to lay out. If it’s fighting for a certain part that you think is going to make it better, you’ve got to try that too. When a song’s guitar-based, there’s a fine line between what’s going to make it sound better or make it sound too cluttered or take away the emotion or the heaviness; the drama. Sometimes you think adding something heavier on top of the guitar is going to make it sound heavier, when it’ll actually lighten things up. It’s just finding the right tone. If it’s laying out, that’s important too.
The HUB: The keyboardist’s role in genres like jazz, blues, R&B and so on has been pretty clearly developed over the years. But that wasn’t the case in the L.A. hard rock scene where you got going. How did you go about making a space for yourself in that scene?
Dizzy Reed: When I first moved to L.A. hair metal and pop were pretty much the dominant thing, and if you heard any keyboard it was usually on a ballad or an intro. It was usually a DX7 [Yamaha synth] or something like that. Most of the bands, producers and fans would say that keyboards made the song sound dated. But my dad always told me that everything goes in cycles, so I was patient. In the meantime, I did what I could. I experimented with a lot of synth sounds. I was playing with a band called The Wild and we were doing sort of funk-pop, so sparsity and textures were good. I’m glad I went through that; now I can usually add something to any song if need be.
With GNR, I knew that Axl always wanted to add a keyboard player. There were keyboard players around L.A., but they were doing a different sort of thing—more like classically based music. Not so much blues based. I think I might have been one of the few guys in town who was doing that at the time. Axl heard me play while I was still with The Wild and I think it was sort of a relief that someone was still doing that. So he told me, ‘When we add a keyboard player you’re going to be that guy.’
The HUB: During that era, I imagine you did a lot of sitting in with bands. Do you have any tips for our readers on how to get invited back to jams and shows?
Dizzy Reed: I think one of the main things is to have your chops ready, which means practice. And when you’re done practicing, practice some more. And when you think you’ve learned everything you think you need to learn, try to find something else to learn. When it comes to jams or auditions, the most important thing—and this goes for everybody: check your ego at the door. Go in knowing you want to be a part of a band and don’t overplay.
The HUB: Sounds like sage advice. In recording the Use Your Illusion records, were your parts arranged going in, or did they evolve organically in the studio?
Dizzy Reed: Everything was written at that point in time. There were a lot of songs that Axl had written and played on the piano. That was part of his wanting me in the band so he would have someone to play his parts. But with everything else, I just tried to play along and add what I could. I don’t think I had a lot of set parts; I just added what I could. You know, with a lot of those songs I don’t think I ever played them twice the same. It’s that kind of music. It’s like with the Stones—they do the same song so many different ways. Obviously there are songs that are based around a piano part that has to be there, but otherwise it comes from years and years of playing along and jamming that lets you approach a song different ways each time. Everything I came up with, with the exception of a few songs like “Live and Let Die,” I just went in and kind of went with it. It’s important to get feedback in those situations from the control room about what does and doesn’t work. In a lot of ways that’s how I still operate.
The HUB: I gather that apart from Axl, you’re the longest-standing member of the Guns N’ Roses lineup. What do you attribute that to?
Dizzy Reed: [Laughs] I don’t know, maybe it’s half craziness. But I got a great opportunity from Axl and I’m very appreciative of it. I think we had a mission and we still have a lot to prove. So I didn’t really have a desire to go anywhere else; not on a permanent basis. When other people quit, it was like we were going to hold down the fort and keep it going. Obviously, the Chinese Democracy record took a longer time to make than we had planned, which has something to do with it. But we still have things to prove and show people. I don’t like to quit; let’s put it that way.
The HUB: Fair enough. Speaking of Chinese Democracy, there’s been a lot of speculation about stuff you guys have in the can that’s supposed to come out as a sequel. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
Dizzy Reed: Not much more than you know unfortunately. There is a lot of stuff in the can and a lot of stuff that needs to come out and will come out. I think it’s just finishing touches on a few things. It’s getting the right songs to put out in the right package. It’ll come out when it’s ready to come out, but it’s definitely there.
The HUB: Well, GNR fans have learned to be patient over the years, so I guess we’ll stand by for that.
Dizzy Reed: And thank you to all of them; no one appreciates that more than I do.
The HUB: I wondered if you had any particularly good war stories from either the GNR sessions or touring.
Dizzy Reed: One of the banes of my existence as a keyboard player has always been the fact that bands like to tune down the guitars a half a step. Which I was unaware of when I first went in to work up a song called “Civil War,” which was recorded by the original [Guns N’ Roses] lineup. They asked me to come in and do that. They had an old Yamaha CP80 electric piano that they tuned down a half step. I don’t have perfect pitch, so I didn’t know that we were playing in E flat and they had tuned the whole piano a half step down rather than transposing as some of us do. So after these rehearsals, they called me one night to come in to lay down the track. There was a big Steinway piano set up and the track’s almost done. It’s about two in the morning and I sat down to play it, and Slash, Duff and Axl are all in the control room. Went to play it, and it was all a half step off.
The HUB: That’ll drive you crazy!
Dizzy Reed: Suddenly it all became clear—that they had tuned down the rehearsal piano—or they were playing it in standard [tuning] just to mess with me. So I figured out really quick how to play that song on the black keys.
So Slash comes out with his his guitar and says, ‘Okay, here’s how the song goes.’ And I say, “No, I know the song bro, I’m just trying to figure out how to play it in the right key.’ So he says, ‘What do you need?’ And I say, ‘You know what? A bottle of 151 rum.’ And never having been part of a major recording session, I didn’t realize the turnaround on a request like that. Literally within five minutes there was a bottle of 151 rum sitting on the piano. I took a couple of swigs off that, which is like drinking gasoline, and away we went, and the rest is history.
The HUB: So you transpose better on 151 rum?
Dizzy Reed: Absolutely. The black keys are a little bit closer.
The HUB: Can you talk about your involvement with The Dead Daisies and the tour you’re currently on the road with?
Though Dizzy’s uncomfortable with the term supergroup, that’s a pretty apt description of Dead Daisies. Photo: Katarina Benzova
Dizzy Reed: We put out an EP which I was happy to be a part of—writing and recording those songs. It’s a great band, an all- star supergroup. I don’t really like either of those terms, but there’s really no other way to describe it. I got involved kind of sideways. Richard Fortus from GNR and had done some shows with them and I had met the singer Jon Stevens some years back and he was awesome. I was also good friends with the sound guy Tommy Dimitroff who worked with Guns for a while in the early studio days on Chinese Democracy. And Marco Mendoza was playing bass; he and I had jammed together a few times. So my name came up and they called me to come do it, and I said, ‘Hell, yeah!’ I hadn’t heard any of the music, but just based on who was in the band I said yes. And it’s been a blast.
We went in and recorded seven songs so far and just put out an EP. And most recently we were out with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company for two weeks and that was a great fit. And now we’re in the middle of a five-week tour with Kiss and Def Leppard.
The HUB: That should make for some pretty interesting shows.
Dizzy Reed: Yes. We go on early and play for a half hour and we’ve been very well received by the audiences, and they’re big ones. We’re diggin’ it and we’ve got about two and half more weeks of this and it continues to be fun.
The HUB: I was curious who your favorite keyboard players are.
Dizzy Reed: Well, there’s a few. Obviously, I mentioned Booker T, I still think he’s the king of the Hammond without question. Jon Lord obviously. With him, it took me a while to actually realize that what I was hearing was a Hammond organ when I was listening to Deep Purple. I went ‘Wow! I can compete with the guitars!’ But then I realized that no one else has been able to get that sound, and control it. He was in the perfect band to do that. He was definitely a huge influence on how I play and write.
As far as piano players, the guy who played for the band I just mentioned, Lynyrd Skynyrd—Billy Powell—I really took a lot of his riffs when I was a kid. Listening to that stuff was a big part of it. And then there are all the guys who played with The Rolling Stones—they’re amazing. Nicky Hopkins, Ian McLagan, Ian Stewart, and Billy Preston. Then there’s the singer-songwriters too like Elton John and Billy Joel; those guys are amazing. I’m leaving out a whole bunch, but those are the ones off the top of my head from my formative years.
The HUB: If your wish list were to come true, are there any artists or bands that you’d like to play with that you haven’t so far?
Dizzy Reed: That’s pretty much everybody. All the bands I just mentioned would be pretty cool, but at the same time, the experience of just listening and watching those guys from this end has been wonderful. I’ve been able to play with amazing musicians over the years, sitting in and jamming with them. And that’s been a wild ride. I’m very happy about how things have been for me.
The HUB: Who are the acts that get heavy rotation on your music player?
Dizzy Reed: I have a huge load of Rolling Stones. But most of it’s from the Mick Taylor era. I have a lot of Danko Jones because he was kind enough to give me his full library. Then there’s The Faces, a lot of classic stuff. But also early ‘80s new wave like Joe Jackson—that’s some amazing stuff. I like The Clash—they come up a lot. Weird stuff also like REO Speedwagon. That’s another keyboard player I should have mentioned—Neal Doughty. I listened to their live record as a kid and learned a lot of riffs from that. A lot of my own demo stuff—some of that comes up way too often; I should get rid of it. [laughs]
The HUB: Do you have any advice for musicians aspiring to make the leap from garage and jam bands to a more professional level? Any ideas on how to take your game to the next level?
Dizzy Reed: These days there no clear cut answer. It’s hard; it’s always been hard. I think it’s just keep hustling. And get whoever you can to hear your music, and don’t stop. Build your fan base through social media. And get out and play in front of people—that’s the most important thing. Get that feedback, learn from it and use it to your advantage. Anyone can make a video now. Anyone can make a quality-sounding recording. But you’ve got to play in front of people, that’s the most important thing. You’ll get noticed that way and you won’t have to use any gimmicks—you won’t need a naked drummer or anything.
The HUB: That makes sense. Do you have any solo projects in the works at the moment?
Dizzy Reed: I do. Starting about six years ago, I had some demo stuff I was playing for people. My good friend, Del James, who is a jack of all trades with Guns N’ Roses, and who is also a tour manager and co-writer and one my closest friends for about 30 years listened to it and said, ‘We’ve got to get this stuff recorded for real the right way.’ I had ground loops; I was just demoing it for when the time was right. So we found a situation where we could actually go in and do that and recorded 12 songs that I’d written or co-written with Del. A whole bunch of great musicians were kind enough to come in and play on it.
I had to put that on the back burner for a while though. It was getting expensive and I had to pay the bills. I was out with Guns and started doing cool things like The Dead Daisies. So I just recently dusted it off and it’s getting mixed and is going to be out soon. I was kind of worried to go back and listen to it thinking I would want to change everything, which I did at first. If I was allowed to go back and re-record my very first recording in junior high, I’d still be there trying to get it right. You have to move on at some point.
Then I’m still doing my infamous cover band, Hookers & Blow. We just celebrated our 10th anniversary and we have a few shows coming up. September 5th at the Whiskey where we did two residencies last year and September 6th in Las Vegas at Vampd. Then we’re doing an east coast tour so there’ll be lots of fun.
The HUB: So as the piano man you’re keeping busy despite, as you say, keyboards not being the most natural fit in hard rock. You’re to be congratulated for carving out and sustaining your career.