Ernie Isley Master of the Stratocaster

A Conversation with Ernie Isley of The Isley Brothers

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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 Fender

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.

Ernie Isley Grammy Award
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.


# arless rhodes 2016-05-12 20:25
Ernie when he played out the solo lead in who's that lady that was heart felt love the sound that struck the note of the song in a prospective way that only Ernie could ever do it and make me feel the love for the most liked songs I have ever loved
# Carlis 2016-04-22 13:14
Ever since I first heard of Ernie Isley I've always called him the shadow because his licks remind me so much of Jimmy Hendrix only cleaner
# leon t hopewel 2016-04-06 10:19
i like to know many guitars do you have i am abig fan of yours.
# leon t hopewel 2016-04-06 10:17
i like to know how many guitars do you have leon i am a big fan of yours.
# Tom Rucci 2015-12-11 17:43
My brother was their roadie for a bit and got to go on a few gigs. They were all great people, treated us well and as a guitar player loved all of Ernie's playing and gear. I remember that the main gear used was fender strat modded by Roger Mayer, a Roger Mayer Fuzz and a Gibson Maestro Phaser. That was what I remember. I wish him and the family the best and will always remember the great times and memories I enjoyed
# Selena 2014-12-18 14:24
I love Ernie Isley
# Mercedes 2015-11-07 21:16
I luv Ernie (superb guitarist) too in his quiet, weird esoteric bubble. Hey do any of you guys know who made the lace shirt he wore on Oprahs' Legends at the Apollo ? I want ---- no got to have that shirt !!!! Thanks Y'all.
# julie morris 2014-12-09 05:38
I've loved the Isley Brothers since i was 12 years old and i love Ernie's guitar solos some of my personal favorites Who Loves You Better, Hope You Find Better LoveVoyage to Atlantis to name a few. In 1997-98, the Isley Brothers were in Sacramento, Ca performed at the Radisson hotel and my band was their opening act. I got to see Ernie play a memory i won't ever [blocked]et. Congrats on your Grammy life time achievement award you deserve that and more. Peace
# Gary B 2014-08-12 02:24
When Will Fender Come Out With An Ernie Isley Signiture Strat This Is So LONG OVERDUE Step Up To The Plate Fender
# Lost Guitarrero 2014-06-18 05:54
A true guitar hero, not only for his signature sound but because of versatile playing techniques.

Thank you, Ernie Isley, for countless hours of listening pleasure and acoustic happiness from a guitar player and music lover in Berlin, Germany.
# Eddie Carmichael 2014-05-13 22:25
Ernie is and always will be my favorite guitarist. I have had the pleasure of meeting and talking with him on two occasions and he is a very nice down to earth guy who REALLY appreciates all of his fans....Continued success and blessings to you Ernie.
# Dennis Scalici 2014-04-26 04:14
Congrads to Ernie Isley. I'm 61, play a decent rthyum guitar, sing a bit and play some lead. Your licks are burned into my head. I've always admired the Isley Bros. for there Church meets the street attitude. Somewhat like the late great Curtis Mayfeid. I still have a great love for the opening lick in Who's That Lady and many others. The name Isley spells class, soul, gospel, funky RnRoll.
Keep up the great work. They don't make um like you anymore. Love your Strats also !!!!
# Mark Paral 2014-04-23 02:57
Great life experience. We share the love of music and the interesting people who create it. The instruments we use are a extension of our being. I lost our recording studio and four great guitars due to a theft and feel I may never get the chance to afford to replace them. So keep your tools safe they are truly impossible to replace.
# Chris D. 2014-04-22 21:14
I really enjoyed his album "High Wire." It's one of the few guitar-driven soul/R&B albums, and one of the best demonstrations of guitar virtuosity in any genre. Hope he makes another solo album someday. I enjoyed his playing on Joss Stone's latest album as well.
# Zeke Lingren - Gear Head 2014-03-31 23:23
Ernie’s strats are all Fender Custom Shop. Looks like a couple models are flat tops, with Quilt and Flamed Maple finishes, with custom Floral imprints, and custom Mother of Pearl Inlays which consist of a humming bird and two doves. Unfortunately, none of these are a production model. That being said, if you would like to find out pricing through the Fender Custom Shop, give me a call at 877-880-5907 - Ext: 2681 and we can discuss further.
# Robert 2014-03-31 23:13
I've been an Ernie Isley fan for a long time. I think "Hope you feel better love" is my favorite, but he has done so many great songs. I'm always surprised when I meet someone who doesn't know about him. It's always my pleasure to turn them on to him. Cheers Ernie! We love you man!
# Keith 2014-03-30 21:37
I have always loved Ernie's playing! He is one of my biggest influences when it comes to both his phrasing and his sound. I am glad to see him finally getting respect and recognition as a guitar legend. His solos on Who's That Lady, Summer Breeze, and Voyage To Atlantis are incredible! But his overall lead and Rhythm work are master classes in how to accompany and complement the musical vibe without overplaying and overshadowing the other musical elements. To sum it all up, Ernie Isley is DA MAN!
# mario 2014-03-29 21:34
I'm 68 years young and first heard the great I Bros, while living in Detroit. "Twist and Shout" was the hot tune around there at the time. Later I moved to Laguna Beach, CA and hung out at the 'Whiskey' on the Sunset Strip in West "Hollywierd" (I literally mean that) where in '66' I met Arthur Lee, and later, Jimi. The great one had a reverence for the I Bros that I never heard him attribute very many other artists, and as an avid I Bro fan, I certainly concur. Ernie, keep it alive and real, just as you always have!!!
# Andre Thompson 2014-03-29 21:28
Ernie & I are about the same age (61) & I always appreciated his smooth technical skills. Seems like we both started playing about the same time, me from the Beatles on Ed Sullivan him from, well, everything in his life! Love that he is still keeping on!
# Jim Gibson 2014-03-29 21:21
I'be often wondered who took more guitars out of Fazio's in St. Louis; Ernie or me?
# Edwin 2014-03-29 18:58
First heard Ernie in the 70's with Hope You Feel Better on the radio. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I remember thinking who is That? He can play! I always thought he never got the recognition he was due. First class guitarist.
# Charles Haymarket 2014-03-29 18:56
I love you Ernie and always will! You and your brothers show us all not just how to have killer songs and great tones, but more importantly, how to be true gentlemen and real people, despite the many possible pitfalls of fame. You are a great living example of the overused phrase "keeping it real". You simply ARE real. Thank you.
# BevYoYummy 2014-03-29 18:20
Wonderful interview and informative...Thank you for sharing it!
# steve 2014-03-29 18:09
i have allways loved the isleys music but it was when ernie marvin and chris jasper became part of the isleys in 1973 then the music is wow ..ernies high wire album is the best music i have ever herd..keep on rocking ernie....
# Mike McWilliams 2014-03-29 16:57
Are those lipstick tube pickups on his Fenders??
# Bb minor 7th 2014-03-29 16:05
wow, sucha inspirational interview. The common thread is the Fender Strat !!!....can't wait to get an eye on the specifications for the pickups. The Beatles covering Isley , the ultimate!!! I'm a strat player, so this interview is very meaningful and motivational. Mr. Isley, you are the "strat can do man". Congratulations on your Grammy.
# Larry Smiley 2014-03-29 11:29
Ernie is one of the 3 best guitarists I ever saw live. One thing not mentioned here is that he can switch to a lefty (as he did when I saw him) and play exactly what he played with his left hand. He alternated between left and right hand guitars with no drop in talent during the switch. He also plays drums on a lot of the Isley recordings. So he is multi talented.
# ROBERT E. DREWITT 2014-03-29 11:25
# Jerry the Saxman 2014-03-29 06:59
Great article. I started out as a lead singer doing Young Rascals, Animals, and Stones about the time Jimi moved in with the Isley family. Now that I also focus on saxophone in our Old School R & B group, Blue Mirror, I can relate to Ernie's comment about the spirituality that comes into play during gigs and recording sessions. Great interview and responses by a living legend.
# Andre Thrift 2014-03-29 06:23
I went to this church in Los Angeles on Adams@ Arlington were Ernie Isley was a member to my surprise the pastor asked him to come up stage and play something . Ernie start playing it sounded like a joke.
I heard Ernie Isley play his electric
Fender Stratocaster without any effect
Padals and he sounded retarded . Ernie i wonder if uou can go toe to toe with G[blocked]e Benson or Earl Klugh?..
# Douglas Hunter 2015-10-29 21:36
you're the one who sounds retarded. 30 seconds of Ernie's solo on "Hope You Feel Better Love" is better than anything Carlos Santana has ever done. If what you say is true, why is Ernie's playing so different on so many types of songs? kinda sorry for saying it but you're an idiot/ NOT!! ( sorry for saying it!!)
# Darryl Stone 2016-02-06 06:33
Douglas I feel you. Look here some people like say stuff just to upset you - throw a wrench in it. He could have kept that. Nobody hearing that anyway. No need to respond really. Notice I'm responding to you bru. Everybody knows better. Chris, Ernie, & Marvin - them some bad dudes. They're my favorite group of alltime. The way they arrange their melodies and rhythms together along with lyrics - the joy in listening to their stuff - Man I really can't express how much I like it. I was a teenager when those 70's albums came out. Ernie is top shelf. You can hear the Hendrix influence and see it with the bandana he wears. Ernie's "highwire" solo album is nice also
# T. Byrd 2014-03-29 05:06
When I got to the part that mentions the guitar solo in "Who's That Lady" I heard the beginning of it in my head! That's how much of an impact it has on me. I'm going to go listen to it after I'm done here. Thanks for the post of this interview. Very cool story. Thank you Ernie Isley and the rest of the Isley Brothers.
P.S. Now I know the name of the guy that played one of my all time favorite guitar solos(Who's That Lady). :]
# j Starshadow 2014-03-29 02:05
I always love the Summer Breeze and Who's that Lady, though I never played like Ernie, I did us a Big Muff for about a year, before I found my own sound!
# Ernest J. Walker 2014-03-29 00:46
One of the best Guitarist ever to pick up one!
# Frank 2014-03-29 00:18
Jimi Hendrix, played a Fender Duo-Sonic when he was with The Isley Brothers.
# rockinstephen 2014-03-29 00:16
I've always liked Ernie's playing since about '74 when I first heard "Who's That Lady?". I have a cassette of his 1990 solo release "Highwire", an excellent effort. It's too bad that Ernie hasn't released more material over the years. As good as he is, he remains somewhat obscure and under appreciated...
# Jimmy May 2014-03-29 00:10
Love the interview ..I remember the album " Go for your Guns" and it blew me away and still does. God bless you Mr.Isley.
# Teacee 2014-03-28 23:55
I have seen the Isley Brothers several times in the 1970's and 80's and they have been one of my favorite bands, the slow jams, the harmony of their vocals and my favorite is the sounds from Ernie Isley. It is because of Ernie I started playing guitar and later started listening to some Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page. All three in their own right have a unique style and are my favorite guitarist, but when it comes to that soulful sound Erine Isley will always be the best.
# Gary T 2014-03-28 22:46
Great interview ! It would have been nice if Marty would have asked what type of pedals Ernie is currently using.
# Joseph Saulsbury 2014-03-28 22:23
Great article and very informative.
# Pete Smith 2014-03-28 22:03
What a blast of information and the memories of the first years of playing just flooded back. The Isley Brothers were a big part of inspirations of that era, and of course Ernie's killer lead tones.
# Ivory E. Mobley 2014-03-28 21:43
I've always love his work. And, for years I wondered about his philosophy. This interview was great. And, it satisfied my curiosity.
Thank you Ernie, for keeping the funk and for your admiration of Jimi.
You are among the best!
# Pete Connell 2014-03-28 20:07
Nice shout out for the late great Skip Pitts!
# Teddy 2014-03-26 02:48
Where can I get one of those Ernie strat? How much it cost? I have seen him performed many times and he is awesome!
# Anthony Paule 2014-03-21 11:48
What a great interview! I found his bit about the song writing process especially interesting. I never knew about Hendrix living with the family and found that fascinating as well.
# Hester 2015-01-12 02:05
His rhythm guitar is killer as well. No one drops down a beat like Ernie's ultra crisp and snappy rhythm guitar. Listen to coolin me out and you will be amazed. And then say "Ok- I'am getting my money's worth with this guy". Did anyone get to see Ernie perform on South Street in South Philadelphia In the early 90's after the release of high wire?

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