As the Foo Fighters proved with their album Wasting Light, the garage doesn't stop being a place of creativity for musicians. It's a sanctuary for most of us. It's where we get our start as musicians and truly hone our chops. The new signature instruments from Chris Shiflett, Nate Mendel and Taylor Hawkins are all based on early guitars and drums from their garage days that helped pave their musical paths. These instruments pay homage to the originals that created a signature sound and helped develop their personalized sounds. Although most of us won't sell millions of records like the Foo Fighters, they continue to make music that inspires us, moves us and reminds us that even from the humble beginnings of a garage band can come first-class musicianship and worldwide success.
Flip on any rock station right now, there's a good chance you'll hear a Foo Fighters song. You'll probably know the words, and before long you'll be screaming your lungs out and banging your head. For nearly two decades they've packed arenas around the world and topped the charts, cranking out hook-heavy rock anthems with distortion-drenched guitars and bold, brassy basslines. In late 2012, Fender teamed up with bassist Nate Mendel and guitarist Chris Shiflett to recreate the instruments that give them their distinct sound. We sat down with both at the band's base of operations, Studio 606, and talked about their new signature Fender instruments, their evolution as musicians and how they spend their time when they're not selling out stadiums with the Foo Fighters.
Chris Shiflett & Nate Mendel
Musician's Friend: Tell us a little bit about your relationship with Fender and how your signature P Bass and Tele Deluxe came to be?
Nate Mendel: The P Bass that this signature model is based on was my first real instrument after the gear that I had when I was first starting out-a 1971 P Bass. It has a weird neck that Fender did for six months or so in '71, which is halfway between a Jazz Bass and a P Bass neck. It's really fast, but it wasn't as thin as a Jazz neck so it was easier for me to play than a P Bass neck. I figured out pretty quickly that I just stumbled on the right combination for playing punk rock bass, and used it almost exclusively up until the 2000s.
I got the idea to approach Fender and say, "Hey, maybe we could do one that other people could buy that would be based on this."
Chris Shiflett: Well, it's a long tale, but I traded somebody for an old Tele Deluxe. I think it's a '72. I made a record a few years ago called Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants, and I used it a ton on that. But that music was a lot more jangly, not like Foo Fighters.
For Foo Fighters I really need humbuckers. So I got some parts and just assembled a version of a Deluxe with humbuckers in it. I used that when we made the last Foo Fighters record and when we were touring. I actually loved it so much I made another one.
Then I got a call one day from Nate White over at Fender and he said, "Hey, I notice that you've been using the parts guitar. Would you want to just make a signature model?" So of course I jumped at the chance.
MF: What are some of the key features aside from the humbuckers in the Tele and the special neck in the P Bass?
CS: I think the main differences between, say, an old '72 Deluxe and mine are the humbuckers, a four-bolt neck, rosewood fretboard, the jumbo frets, and the color.
NM: The neck is going to be the main thing but there's the Badass Bass Bridge and Quarter Pounder pickups. I used a swamp ash body, which is not what was on the original. I don't really like the look of new instruments so we found a way to distress the hardware, lacquer and paint in a way so it looks like an older instrument, but without the artificial feel. I wanted it to be an instrument that people could pick up and make their own.
MF: Chris, you're involved in a number of projects. What are some of the gear adjustments you make between those different projects?
CS: With Foo Fighters, I pretty much just play my signature model now because I designed that guitar to be exactly what I needed.
For Chevy Metal (Shiflett's side project with fellow Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins), I got an EVH 5150 combo, one of the small ones. And I have a Strat with a humbucker in it and a Floyd Rose. You kind of don't want anybody to see you playing it [laughter], but it's perfect for that. Because we were doing all these Van Halen songs, I had to get something with a Floyd Rose. But I could not figure out how to work that thing for so long. [laughs] I couldn't even figure out how to tune it. I had to watch somebody on YouTube explain it.
For the Dead Peasants, we've been doing old honky-tonk covers for the last year or so. It's all Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and stuff like that. I use an old- fashioned Tele with a single coil pickup in it through an old Deluxe Reverb. There's something about a Tele through a Deluxe Reverb. They're just made for each other.
MF: Is there any new gear in that you guys are really into?
NM: I've played Ashdown amps for a long time-the AMB 400, which was a solid-state/tube combo. On the last tour I switched over to their all-tube head, and it's great. It's the closest thing I've found to an early-'70s (Ampeg) SVT.
MF: Those vintage SVTs are hard to take on the road, huh?
NM: Impossible. You switch one tube and oh-now it's just a modern amp.
CS: Probably the newest thing that I've added to my rig is a Friedman Brown Eye.I just love that amp; I can't rave enough about it. It's just outstanding. It's bold and it gives you a little more leeway. Plus there's a lot of definition.
MF: When you go into the studio to make a Foo Fighters record, do you experiment with different amps and sounds, or just dial in a few tones and say, "This is what I want for this record?"
CS: I think we experimented more on the last album than I really remember doing before. We always have a bunch of amps and pedals and different guitars. And from song to song it's going to call for different things.
We made that last record on tape, and I hadn't made a record on tape in a long time. The only records I ever made on tape were back in the days when you had half a day to do all your guitar tracks, so there was no experimentation. It was just getting something that works, and going as fast as you can. So it's nice to be able to have the time to enjoy it.
MF: Nate, when you record in the studio do you use a combination of direct and miking your amp?
NM: It's funny, I'm putting a studio in my house now and recording some stuff on my own, so for the first time in my life I'm paying attention to that stuff. I never did before. It was like, you write the songs with your friends in a practice space or whatever and then you go into a studio and you let professionals handle how it's recorded.
Nine times out of 10 the bass sound that I heard in the control room I didn't like, but I trusted these guys. I've come to realize that it's not the instrument solo that's really important, it's how it fits in the mix.
MF: How is your home studio coming together?
NM: I'm trying to figure out whether the room's going to be able to get drum sounds that can work. So at the very least I'm using it for demoing, and then hopefully something that's releasable. I want to be able to have people come over and hang out and have a barbecue and then go make a song. That's what I want it to be. Who cares what happens to it? Let's just make music and record it.
CS: I have a Digi 002 at home, a drum set, some amps, mics and a little mic pre. It's funny, I was just thinking about this on the drive in. I have never spent enough time really getting to know how to operate Pro Tools, and every time I do, which is pretty infrequently, it just gets in the way of being creative. The thing that I use more than anything else is the Voice Memo on my iPhone.
MF: Chris, you've been with Foo Fighters since '99 and Nate, you've been with the band since the beginning. What are some of the ways your playing has evolved?
CS: The longer you play with the same group of people, the more comfortable you get and the more you all know each other. If you want to see something funny, watch us playing "Learn to Fly" on Saturday Night Live. It's right when I joined the band. It's the most horrendous thing you've ever heard. I didn't know what to do with myself on stage. A few years ago I made the conscious decision that I can't really play very well if I'm jumping around, so maybe I should just chill out and try to actually play the song the best I can. I'd like to think that I maybe settled down a little bit.
NM: I came in from Sunny Day Real Estate, where I had a lot of free reign to write whatever kind of bass line I wanted, because the guitar players were just layering these kind of soundscape guitar bits that weren't very riffy. So a lot of times the drummer and I could lay down the foundation, almost like you would with a different genre of music, like R&B or something like that. But not at all like that. [laughs] I liked trying to make things interesting and melodic. So I would concentrate on making a melody rather than a rhythmic foundation.
I came into Foo Fighters with that mentality. I remember hearing the first album and my thought was "I can do a lot with this," because the bass was just all root notes. So I thought it'd be this wide-open thing.
Then the next eight years or so was basically a process of me figuring out that that was not at all the approach in this band. So I just concentrated on really locking in with Taylor and being more of a propulsion kind of bass player.
MF: Do you guys have any advice to bands that are still trying to make a name for themselves, hammering it out in the garage?
NM: Not to get mired in recording- after talking about making my own home studio that seems hypocritical. [laughs] I've spent time playing with other people and working on songs and every time somebody has just the germ of an idea, it's like, "Let's record that." And then what you have is this huge backlog of recordings. I think that can turn into a real mess pretty quickly. Write the song. Remember what it is. Use a dry-erase board if you have to, and play it. Have the song sorted out so it sounds good, and then record it.
It's a pretty small piece of advice, but from what I've seen it could be something that people need to hear.
CS: I wish somebody had given this advice when I was in high school and playing in garages, although we probably wouldn't have listened. [laughs] I wish my band had been a cover band in high school. That's the smartest thing you could do. I have so much fun learning other people's songs now. You learn so much from actually sitting down and playing your favorite songs. You can see how they're constructed. You learn the craft and what the mechanics are behind it.
Musician's Friend: Tell us how your new Gretsch signature snare drum came about.
Taylor Hawkins: Gretsch came to me and said "Do you want to do a signature snare?" And I was like, "Well, I guess." I didn't really have a "signature" snare, but I did find one that I liked that I used all the time. So basically we modeled it after that. I just liked the way it sounded. They sent me a couple of prototypes based on that snare. Well, me and my drum tech, Yeti. His name's actually Chad, but we call him Yeti because he's a big man, big dude.
MF: What is it about Gretsch drums that you like? What made you decide to switch back in 2007?
TH: I used them in the studio all the time, whenever we would do session work or something. There are all these different people that do drum rentals for albums, basically a bunch of older, classic kits-'60s Ludwig kits, Gretsch kits, that kind of thing. So I just found that I kept using these Gretsch kits. I liked the way they sounded. Phil Collins plays Gretsch. I always thought that was cool. But I just kept going back to Gretsch every time we would record. So I was like, f**k it man, why don't I just play Gretsch?
MF: Do you experiment a lot when you go in to record or do you find your sound and just roll with that?
TH: It depends. When we did our last record I was just one of three drummers in the room. There was Butch Vig, who's a drummer and a producer, Dave Grohl, who's the guitar player, singer, writer and, first and foremost, a drummer, really. So I'll tell them if I'm hearing something. There have been times where I've said, "Let's try this" and it really works. But when you're a drummer and you're in the studio, for the most part your job is to make the songwriter happy and somehow get to his vision. When your chief songwriter is a drummer as well, he's even got a slightly more in-tune version of what he might want to hear.
MF: How does your setup in Foo Fighters differ from Coattail Riders or any another project you're a part of?
TH: That usually comes down to economics to a certain degree, because with Foo Fighters I can bring anything I want. I can bring f*****g timpani drums. You can do anything within reason.
When you're doing something like the Coattail Riders or other little things I do for fun on the side like Chevy Metal, I usually go really small. Small four-piece drum kit, two crashes and a ride, maybe a cowbell. I always like to have a little something to kind of throw people's ear off for a second. Some little bit of color.
MF: Somewhere between when Wasting Light came out and when you were doing Sound City Players you decided to go without the bottom head on your toms.
TH: That was kind of a progression. When I started the Wasting Light tour, it was kind of like Neal Peart's kit. My main toms had bottom heads and the other ones were just concert toms. I got a perverse sort of humor out of it because most people look at them and go, "Why are you doing that?"
But I will tell you our sound engineer, he loves it because it basically subtracts one element of the tuning process. A lot of times when you're out there line-checking you're going "duum, duum," and you're getting a "wwwrrrrm." You have to adjust and tweak and tune the bottom head. Maybe the bottom head's too loose, whatever. I don't know s**t about tuning. I wish I did, but I still don't after all these years. I'm too ADD for it. I'm like, "All right, f****r. Just crank it up. Let's go." Sound City I did it and made all the other drummers play it. I know all the other drummers and they all kind of laughed. They just know it's me, you know.
A lot of my favorite drummers came from a period where they were playing concert toms and I like the way those drums sounded. I love Phil Collins' drum sound. And I'll tell you, you sit behind them sometimes and you go, "These sound like s**t," but then you go out in the house and they just cut through. Just one note and it's all punch. When you've got walls of guitars and difficult rooms, big echo chambers and s**t, what you really need the most is just a direct punch. So they really work that way.
MF: Because you were playing behind, what, four guitar players at a time for Sound City? And in Foo Fighters you've got three.
TH: Dave likes to add a guitar player every tour. [laughs]
MF: Right before you joined Foo Fighters you played with Alanis Morrissette.
TH: I did? [laughs]
MF: What were some of the adjustments you had to make with that transition, if any?
TH: When you're a kid-I don't know about everybody else, maybe only I was like this-but when I first started playing drums I set my drum set up like Roger Taylor. I wanted to be Roger Taylor. I wanted to wear my hair like Roger Taylor. I wanted to BE f*****g Roger Taylor. After that, I discovered early U2, the first couple of U2 records, War, October, Boy. I wanted to be Larry Mullen, Jr. I set my drums up like Larry Mullen, Jr. I played-thought I played-like him. Then I wanted to be Stewart Copeland somewhere in there. Set my drums up like Stewart Copeland. Played like Stewart Copeland. That's the one that really fit me personally. I mean, I'm not by any means as creative or as amazing as Stewart Copeland, but that was probably the one that stuck with me the most.
After that I got into Neal Peart. I set my drums up like Neal Peart. Tried to play like Neal Peart. My point is I tried to be all these drummers for a year or whatever and then I would get into something else. Then in high school I discovered Jane's Addiction and they saved rock and roll, man. They're like amazing musicians, yet they'll f*****g burn your house down, too. And they looked like freaks. Your parents would hate this band. They're everything rock and roll should be. So I wanted to be Stephen Perkins. I got into that sort of syncopated, tribal-y kind of funk thing.
That kind of spread over to when I joined Alanis. With Alanis I adopted that sort of style for her music, which actually fit good because her music was sort of dance-y or had like-I don't know what you would call it. Hip-hoppy little drum beats under her poetry and whatever.
After that I joined the Foo Fighters and it was just so completely the other way around. It's like one second you're doing funky, syncopated little groovy beats. Next thing you know you're doing slamming, fast-paced straight, tight, crisp punk rock-pop. At first it was a major adjustment. But Dave had the foresight to know that I could eventually get there and make it comfortable, but it took me a long time. It's funny, though, when you look back at all of the things that you loved and you tried to be when you were a kid, all of that's in there somewhere, rolled into one with whatever natural instincts I have. I think that's what everybody is to a certain degree.
I'm still such a super fan. I still get really excited about a drummer and almost try and see what I can steal off him, you know what I mean? I see Jon Theodore play drums and I'm just like, "I'm going to steal something. Sorry, bro." [laughs] "I don't know what I'm taking, but I'm taking something." The guy from The Killers (Ronnie Vannucci Jr.), I love him. I think he's a great drummer. He's like the new Bun E. Carlos to me. You don't really hear it on the records, either. They're buried under a lot of keyboards. But when you see him play live, you're like, "Oh, you're great."
MF: Do you have any advice for those bands still jamming in the garage, hoping to get a name for themselves?
TH: One thing I always tell kids starting bands is learn as many songs as you can and play live as much as possible. Write songs all the time and keep writing and learn that craft, but part of learning that craft is learning other people's stuff. I remember seeing this picture of these lists of songs that Van Halen used to have in their practice room, because they played everybody's backyard party and shit back in the early '70s. They would do everything from current rock hits, Deep Purple or whatever, to Frank Sinatra songs. You can imagine David Lee Roth doing that. They would do them their own style and they literally had like 350 songs on the wall. That's how they got so good, I think, because they were just playing all that.
If I could go back to my 13-year-old self right now I'd say, "Keep working on songs with your buddies. They're going to be really bad. They're going to be lame. You don't know s**t about anything yet, but you can learn the craft and while you're at it, learn every song that's on rock radio right now and then go learn some of your parents' old songs. Learn all the stuff so you can play every dance, every birthday party, every Bar Mitzvah, every whatever." That's how you get good.