By Art Thompson | July 2014 for Guitar Player Magazine
James Burton: Alive and Kickin’
IF ANYONE DESERVES THE TITLE OF “HARDEST Working Guitarist in Show Business,” it’s James Burton, who celebrates his 75th birthday this August by launching his 10th annual International Guitar Festival, an event that raises money for his charity foundation.
A veritable Forrest Gump of the music scene since the 1950s, Burton has worked with so many famous artists at pivotal times in their careers—including Merle Haggard, George Jones, Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, John Denver, Emmylou Harris, and Elvis Costello—that his twangy double-stops and snappy runs are preserved for eternity in many of the most popular tunes from the latter half of the 20th century.
As Brad Paisley sums it up, “James Burton is the reason we all play.” That’s a fair statement considering Burton’s impact was being felt almost as soon as he came on the scene in the 1950s. Seen by millions every week playing guitar behind Ricky Nelson on the Eisenhower-era TV show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet—his licks quickly topped the “must learn” lists for budding guitar players, many of them who would go on to carve their own legends in the annals of rock history.
The cool thing about James Burton is that far from simply basking in the warm glow of being a living legend, he still maintains a steady schedule of gigs and recording sessions, has several album projects planned, and is also very actively engaged in helping to bring music to children via his James Burton Foundation. Did I mention he’s also been enlisted for a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame documentary project, has an autobiography in the works, and is planning to shovel ground next year on the James Burton Guitar & Car Museum in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana?
“I’m glad to make it to 75, but age doesn’t have anything to do with it, because we all have a birthday each year,” says Burton. “What excites me right now is doing things like giving guitars to the Wounded Warrior children. That’s what my foundation is all about. We were able to get music back in schools here by working with the school board to help children learn to play guitar. I’ve also given guitars to the kids at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and to Dell Children’s Hospital in Austin, Texas. It’s just a real treat to help the kids who want to learn music, and for everyone who comes to my festival this August, one dollar will buy another guitar for a child.”
Burton truly has earned a special place in rock and roll history. In contrast to the self-indulgent excesses that musicians of means all too easily roll into, Burton has directed his time, money, and energy to where he feels it will do the most good. Though he’s earned plenty of music-related awards over the years, it may be the potential for positive change that his efforts have on underprivileged kids here and abroad that gives Burton as much satisfaction as he gets from simply playing guitar.
What motivates you to keep such a busy schedule of touring, recording, and charity projects?
The audiences are a big motivator, and it’s truly an honor to be traveling all over playing music for people. But the great part about being a living legend is the living part, and I’m just going to play until the end because that’s my love. God gave me my talent—I never had a lesson, and I never studied music—and I just want to be there for the kids that are going to take over when I’m gone.
Having been such a huge influence on so many guitar players over the decades, what are some things you’d still like to get across to players now?
Every guitarist is interested in coming up with new licks and ideas, and I plan to focus on some runs and techniques that I’ve been working on lately. But I think that when you take another guitar player’s lick, it’s not that you have to play it exactly the way they played it—you can play it any way that it works for you. I kind of created a picking style when I was just starting to play around the age of 13, and the deal for me is, when you’re playing and doing all these slides and bent notes, it’s almost like ad-libbing a vocal. But every guitar player has a different idea of how they want to play, and whether you’re into country, rock, jazz, or whatever, it all comes together eventually. So if you play blues licks and country licks, you can combine them and maybe come up with something completely new.
What do you say to players when they ask about tone?
Well, sound and guitar licks are two different things. I love tone, but I don’t think you need a fuzz pedal to make it funky. If you can plug your guitar into an amp and make it sound good, that’s what it’s all about. The amp I really enjoy playing, especially when I’m traveling is the Fender ’65 Twin Reverb. It’s got everything you need for live playing and it has great tone. That amp just works for me and it’s real trustworthy. When I travel on the road, I do use a little digital delay and maybe a little chorus, but I just like the sound of the guitar and playing something that I think people will appreciate and understand.
Sonny Landreth pointed out to me recently how your approach always allows the individual melodies to come through. Like if you soloed your guitar part in a song it would be a mini arrangement in itself. Does that make sense?
Yeah, I like to play from the melody and the chord structure. When the vocal is finished and it comes time for a solo, the guitar part essentially becomes the vocal. When I first started playing behind big artists like George Jones and Johnny Horton, I had to learn to respect and not step on the vocal when playing a lick. The vocal has to be out front, and the guitar licks that surround the vocal are basically icing on the cake.
Did anyone ever tell you that?
No, I figured it out on my own. See, when I started out, I learned by playing to records and listening to everything on the record. When I would play to a Chuck Berry record, like “Johnny B. Goode,” or whatever, I wouldn’t play the same thing Chuck was playing, I’d play something completely different. I taught myself to add something different to the song, and I think that really helped me in creating my style and my identity.
That improvisational approach is quite apparent on the recently released Elvis at Stax recordings from 1973. Did you already know a lot of the cover songs that Elvis pulled out for those sessions?
Actually, I didn’t know any of them. A lot of the songs we recorded for those sessions I heard for the first time there. But we had great musicians and a pretty good singer. Elvis always worked real close with the musicians, and we would rehearse the songs a couple of times to see how it felt for him. As far as the parts I played, they just kind of came to me. When you play by ear there’s a lot of things you hear, sometimes all at once, and being able to separate them is another trick. Again, you go back to the song and playing for the artist, and making it as perfect as you can. The way Elvis liked to work was that he would listen to a record and sort of copy some of the things that caught his ear and he thought he could enjoy working with. He had a certain way of singing other people’s songs, and he could even make them sound better sometimes. It was enjoyable doing those sessions, and I think it was an important part of history for Elvis, and also a big deal for Stax at the time.
A couple of years later, you started working with Emmylou Harris. How did that come about?
The way that happened was a good friend of mine named Gram Parsons—who I met when I played on the Byrds’ record—called me one day and said he was working on getting an album project going so we could go in the studio and record. Then Merle Haggard called me to ask if I knew this guy Gram Parsons, and if he was an okay country singer. And I said, “Yeah, I know him and he’s a fine singer.” So anyway, a couple of weeks go by and I never heard back from Merle, but Gram called me to say that his project had come together with Warner Brothers, and he asked me to get some guys to record with. So we got [pianist] Glen Hardin and [bassist] Emory Gordy, and a bunch of other guys, and we went in the studio and recorded two albums with Gram, and that’s where I met Emmylou. When Gram unfortunately passed away, his manager Ed Tigner took Emmylou and made the same deal with Warner. So we did an album with her, and she was a jewel to work with—just a great lady and a great singer. It was really fun stuff. Good songs, good recordings, and great musicians. Everything clicked. We toured with her in England and it was like she became a big star overnight. She got a standing ovation every night. They just loved her.
You were actually better known than her at the time. What kind of response did you get?
I walked out on stage once in London to check my amp or something, and you want to talk about guitarists coming to gigs— there was about four rows in the theater that were nothing but guitar players! They started calling my name, which I thought was pretty funny.
Who have been some of your favorite songwriters?
I think Jimmy Webb, who did so much stuff with Glen Campbell, was just an incredible writer. I think a great songwriter can actually pick an artist and write for that artist. It’s kind of a personal thing sometimes, and a lot of artists won’t record a song unless it’s from the right songwriter. They want those great songs, and I think sometimes it’s hard for an artist to do their own songs over and over. John Denver was a great songwriter, but after he ran out of ideas, other writers brought songs to him. It’s good to do other people’s songs.
You worked with Glen Campbell, too.
Yes, I met him when he first came to California. I remember he was driving a ’61 Thunderbird at the time. I was playing in a little club out in the valley in Van Nuys [California], with this blues singer, and Glen would come and sit in with us. He asked me to play on his first album, Kentucky Means Paradise. It was a bluegrass album, and he wanted me to play slide Dobro, but actually I played a standard big-body acoustic guitar. I just raised the strings up with a taller nut and played it like a steel guitar. I played on the whole album and it was just great. I was working with Ricky Nelson at that time, and when we weren’t touring I would go out and play this club just to keep my chops up. I also started giving Glen my sessions back then because Ricky didn’t want me to play on records with other artists.
What did you think of “Wichita Lineman” when you first heard it?
That was a big change for country music with the strings and everything. I didn’t play on that one, but I did play on “Gentle on My Mind,” and a bunch of other stuff with Glen. He and I would always flip a coin to decide who was going to play 12-string [Laughs]. When I met him he could sing like anybody, and he was doing all these impersonations of other artists, like Johnny Cash and Johnny Mathis. So when he went to do his record at Capitol, he had a hard time at first because he didn’t know who Glen Campbell was. But he is a great artist, a great singer, and a great friend.
How did you get involved in recording with Tom Jones?
Tom was a big fan of Elvis, and he would come and see us every night in Las Vegas. One night, at a party after the show, Tom went over and asked Elvis, “Do you mind if I borrow your guitar player to play on some records for me?” Elvis said, “There he is, go ask him yourself.” In truth, he’d already asked me and I’d agreed, but I guess he wanted to make sure it was okay with Elvis. Tom’s guitarist for many years was Big Jim Sullivan, and he once said to me, “I used to teach guitar in England and do you know who my students were?” I told him I had no idea. He said, “Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck— and these guys wanted to play like you.” I felt pretty honored by that. I mean I wish I could play like them.
What can you tell us about your upcoming recording projects?
There are a lot of things I want to do now because my whole career has been so busy working for so many artists—especially after I went into studio work full time, which included television and movies. I was doing five sessions a day, seven days a week, and it became so unbelievable. I didn’t know there was that much work in the world.
I understand one of your upcoming albums will be titled Burton Plays the Blues.
Yes, I’m working with some people now to get some new material in the blues feel to record. I always loved the old records by Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, and Howlin’ Wolf. Matter of fact, I got to play on Shindig with Howlin’ Wolf. The Rolling Stones brought him along when they were invited to play the show. To this day Keith Richards always says, “Man, you’re the guy who played with Howlin’ Wolf on Shindig!” But those old blues records had a lot to do with me being able to play all the licks I came up with on different songs—blues, country blues, or whatever—so I just love that music.
What era of tunes are you planning to cover for the Elvis tribute album that’s also coming up?
I’d like to go back to some of the early stuff he recorded, like “Don’t Be Cruel,” and do them completely different. You can take a guitar and come up with incredible arrangements for a lot of those songs—like “Mystery Train,” which is a great instrumental that I recorded on my album for A&M in 1971 [The Guitar Sounds of James Burton]. But I won’t know until I get into the Elvis project, and that’s when I’ll pick out the songs and figure out how I want to do them.
Is it true you’re going to break out your old paisley Telecaster for that one?
Have you ever heard a guitar that sounded any better? [Laughs.] The story behind that guitar is Fender called me and said, “James you must come down here because we have a guitar with your name on it.” I asked if they could just send it to me, but they insisted that I come to the factory. So I went there, and when I opened up the case and that pink paisley Tele jumped out I said, “Oh no, that’s not for me, man!”
It took you a while to start playing it, right?
Yeah, I took it with me to Las Vegas when we opened in 1969 with Elvis, but I played the Tele that mother and dad bought me for the first two weeks. I was afraid to bring the paisley out onstage because there was no telling what Elvis might say—especially in front of the audience, which would have embarrassed me. I finally took it out one night and I played it on the first show and Elvis didn’t say anything. Then I played the second show with it and he still didn’t say anything. Later that night I got a phone call to my room. It was [Elvis’s assistant] Charlie Hodge, and he said, “James, Elvis wants to see you—can you come upstairs real quick?” So I went up to his room and Elvis said, “Hey man, I saw you were playing a different guitar onstage tonight. I really like it.” I told Elvis that I’d been afraid to bring it out because of how he might react, but he said, “No man, it looks great and it sounds fantastic. Play it all you want.”
So having passed the Elvis test, the paisley Tele essentially became your signature guitar?
Well, it didn’t have my name on it, but I really did want to do a signature pink paisley guitar. The problem was that Fender made a deal with the Japanese to make copies of it. They offered to do a JB signature version for me, but I told them I didn’t feel good about that because I wanted my guitar to be made in the USA. There’s a lot of great stuff coming out from China and other places, but I like to keep it in my own town if I can. Many years ago, I asked Leo Fender about having my own signature guitar, and he said, “Son, let me tell you something—if you put your name on a guitar, be sure that it’s exactly what you want.” I thought that was good advice.
What do you remember about Leo Fender?
Leo was just a wonderful man. He was always excited to talk with you about music and hear your ideas, because he was always searching for ways to make something better. I told him one day, “Leo, I think you’ve built the two best guitars in the world with the Telecaster and the Stratocaster.” He said, “Well, you can always keep experimenting, and I think the best one’s yet to come.” Jimmy Bryant and I were good friends, and we played together at places in the area, like the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. He was such a great player—real fast fingers and just amazing speed. Anyway, Leo would build guitars and take them to clubs where Jimmy was playing, and Jimmy would give him feedback on them. So Jimmy was actually the very first guy to play a Telecaster, and I was the second. Leo wouldn’t do endorsements, but he probably gave more guitars away than some companies have sold. They gave me guitars from ’55 onward—anything I wanted.
You pretty much avoided the Stratocaster. Why was that?
It wasn’t really my cup of tea. The neck is almost flush with the body and the pickups are real close to the strings. I like using fingerpicks for banjo rolls and that type of thing, and I never could get into the Strat because the middle pickup always got in my way. Also, when you sat down and played it you had to have a strap on because it would slide off your leg. Sometimes a producer will ask you to play a certain guitar, and when they would ask me to play a Strat or a Gibson or whatever, I would do it. But I always found it uncomfortable to sit down and play a Strat without a strap. And even when you stood up and played it, the neck had a tendency to fall forward. I just preferred the Tele because it was so well balanced and had a such a great neck.
What about the Les Paul?
It was a little too heavy for me. It also has a flat fretboard, and the Tele has a little round taper on it, so there’s a lot of difference in playing feel. Les Pauls have a really good blues sound, but I just like the Fender’s single-coil sound more.
You have a limited-edition Fender Signature model coming out soon. What can you tell us about it?
Well, it’s for my 75th birthday and they’re planning to introduce it at my guitar festival, which is coming up soon. I’m working real close with Fender on it, and it will be a little different than my signature JB guitar—but if there’s one thing you don’t want to do with a Telecaster it’s take it away from being a Telecaster. If you can add to the Tele part, then you’re way ahead. So we’re doing some things to improve the playability, and it will also have a wider range of sounds with three pickups and a 5-way switch.
I hear there’s an unplugged album in your future too, so what kind of acoustic guitar would you be using?
I play Taylor acoustics. I love Bob Taylor, and I was with them back when they first started. I have several different models, including a T5, and they all sound fantastic. There are a lot of great acoustic guitars on the market, but I just enjoy what the Taylor does for me. They have great pickups too, but for recording I prefer the sound with a mic up close to the soundhole. You can even use two or three mics and switch between them to see which one sounds best, or just use them all. For live playing, though, I just run the pickup through a direct box.
What is your proudest recording achievement in recent years?
I’d say that last record I did with Brad Paisley, where we won a Grammy for an instrumental he wrote called “Cluster Pluck.” I was the last guitarist to record on that song. I had just come home from a trip to Europe, and Brad’s producer Frank Rogers called me and said, “James, we can’t mix this song until you come play on it.” So I went up to Nashville, and when they played the tracks for me I said, “Man you don’t need me on this—you have Vince Gill, John Jorgenson, Steve Wariner, Brent Mason, and Albert Lee.” Brad insisted, though, and when it was done I was the first one to play the opening line on that song. When I asked Brad why that was, he said, “Because you’re my main influence and you’ve got to kick it off.” That was really great. Those guys are all killer players and I’m just so happy to have them as my friends.