Most people know Jeff Watson as one half of Night Ranger's guitar tandem. But there's more to Mr. Watson than Night Ranger.
Jeff moves in upper-level guitar circles. He and his playing are held in high regard by players from all musical avenues. He's guested on albums by everyone from Tony McAlpine to Chris Isaak — not to mention his recent, and unexpected "guest appearance" as MSG's lead guitarist! Jeff also has a side project called Mother's Army, comprised of Dino luminaries: Joe Lynn Turner, Bob Daisley, Aynsley Dunbar, and Carmine Appice.
I found Jeff to be intelligent, outspoken, friendly,
and totally aware of his place in guitardom, yet
in no way cocky or arrogant. He is quietly confident
in his abilities is and doesn't need to bolster
his image with cheap, self-glorifying statements.
The guy's a class act.
For more on Jeff, visit his homepage at: jeffwatson.com.
8/26/03 Interview conducted by Axe.
DRG: Jeff, I'm gonna get right down to it. You
created quite a stir at DRG when you laid down those
leads on Schenker's Arachnophobiac.
Jeff: Oh yeah?
DRG: Yes. Even though everyone knows who you are over there, your work on Arachnophobiac made a bigger impression than your twenty years with Night Ranger. Will you talk about it?
DRG: How did it come about? Was Schenker even present?
Jeff: No he wasn't. It all started a couple of years ago when Michael was in that studio doing a record for Mike Varney. At the time Michael borrowed a couple of guitars and an amp from me. I'd met him previously in Japan. We did some photos together. I was a big fan of Michael's when I was younger.
Jeff: It comes naturally with regards to that style. Anyway, I was up there with my girlfriend just tooling around. I wanted to show her the studio and Varney happened to be there. He approached me and said: "Schenker's gone AWOL for a few days and we need to finish this album."
DRG: AWOL again.
Jeff: (Varney) wanted me to work on four songs. He said: "Do you mind? I'll give you 36 hours to do them." So I came down to my studio, plugged it in and played on four tracks. Without vocals I had no idea what I was doing. But evidently they did a real good job with the completed tracks later in their studio. I played between vocals that weren't there.
DRG: I'm sure most of us at the forum can sympathize. Many of us have done extensive studio work and everything else for that matter. As far as your style of playing, I hear a definite Schenker influence in some, not all, of your work. Example: One of my all-time favorite Night Ranger tunes Four In The Morning. (From the album 7 Wishes) Your solo in F# minor tore me up because I was in a problematic relationship at the time and your lead break spoke directly to me. Your tone on that tune is very Schenker-ish. Gibson through Marshall with wah-wah pedal partially depressed. Tasty.
Jeff: Thank you very much. I really never thought of it that way.
DRG: Were you in fact using a wah?
Jeff: I'm trying to think. That was a lot of albums ago.
DRG: Its got that nasal tone.
DRG: Les Paul through Marshall, right? I know you're a hard-core Les Paul man.
Jeff: Definitely. On Schenker's new record I use a '57 Les Paul Goldtop re-issue that Gibson just made for me. It's beautiful. Pre-aged. Those guys did a beautiful job. They just happened to send it out to me a few days before I did that album. So we plugged it in and it sounded pretty close to Michael's sound. The big problem for me was that I wasn't able to hear the tone Michael was using on the rest of the album in regard to the solo tones. So I just guessed based on what I'd heard in the past from the old Light's Out days. I've only listened to the new album all the way through once, and I'm wondering how close I am in regard to the tone he's using now. I think he's changed up a little bit.
DRG: The first time I saw Michael Schenker was on the old Don Kirshner's Rock Concert show. You remember that?
DRG: They had UFO on there, which I'd never heard of. But when I saw Schenker I knew at once he was something special.
DRG: I think his best work is, unfortunately, long behind him. I have little patience with lazy, unmotivated players. If he is going to just keep turning out lame records, either hire you to do ALL the playing, or go dig a ditch somewhere.
Jeff: (Laughs) Well maybe he just needs motivating, maybe he needs love or something. Maybe a musical kick in the ass. Who knows? I don't really know him that well. He's somewhat temperamental. I got asked to go do a show with him, and sit in as a guest. It was to be in San Francisco. And by the day of the show I hadn't heard anything. He'd gone off and decided nobody was going to guest with him, and it just became one of those . . . messes.
DRG: Michael is a mess. That is to say — I respect the fact that he's a sensitive artist and all . . .
Jeff: He's one of my all-time favorite players. I still hold him in high regard as I do all of my influences.
DRG: Speaking of holding someone in high regard, I want to tell you that I think your playing is at or above the level of all the guys I normally listen to. Be it Malmsteen,or you name it. There is such quality and diversity in your musical output. You touch on a lot of bases. Obviously I like some of your stuff more than others.
DRG: And then I see guys like Allan Holdsworth and Steve Morse come out to play on your records. And, of course, you've been playing alongside Brad Gillis for about twenty years.
Jeff: Twenty-five years. Night Ranger is a band of brothers. It's not like being in a band, but a family. We've been out playing all summer, and Japan is coming up. The band is back, and looking and playing better than ever.
DRG: You and Mr. Gillis compliment each other's style of playing, to say the least. I once saw a quote from you saying "He warbles . . . "
Jeff: (Laughs) That was Jack's (Blades, Night Ranger bassist) quote. He told an interviewer "Brad warbles and Jeff burns".
DRG: I was driving somewhere in my car the first time I heard Don't Tell Me You Love Me. It was the early 80s and I hadn't heard of Night Ranger. After hearing the guitars on that number I went and immediately bought the record (Dawn Patrol) to find out who the guitar player(s) were. I liked the band's hard rocking approach to what is basically pop music.
Jeff: Yeah, I liked that approach myself. Unfortunately over time it became harder and harder to get the label to keep releasing the rock tracks.
DRG: Of course. Ballads sell better.
Jeff: Once they found the million-selling formula with Sister Christian and When You Close Your Eyes it was hard to go back to Rock In America and Don't Tell Me You Love Me.
DRG: That song has fantastic solos on it from both you and Brad.
Jeff: When Don't tell Me You Love Me first came out , everybody thought I was tapping it. It was a picked solo. They assumed that because of the 8-fingered stuff it was tapped.
DRG: Funny you should mention that because I never pictured it as being tapped.
Jeff: I remember when Steve Vai was working for Guitar Player magazine he'd call me and say: "I want you to go over this with me." So we'd spend 45 minutes on the phone going over exactly how I played every solo. Even he thought I tapped it. It was pretty funny.
DRG: That whole album hit a lot of guitarists right between the eyes. Even people who didn't particularly like the band grudgingly admitted to the superb guitar playing.
DRG: Sorry, but I have to ask about Sister Christian. Some of us at DRG were wondering what that tune is really about. The term "motoring" — are you describing a speed freak?
Jeff: No. It's about a "Sister Christie." That's what it was originally called. But when Kelly (Keagy-NR drummer) sang it, it sounded like "Christian" so we kept it. It's about a girl growing up in Oregon. She was cruising and looking for guys, and being frustrated about it. Motorin', what's your price for flight in finding Mr. Right. It's about taking your time and finding the right guy.
DRG: Gotcha. I've been hearing that song for 18 years and now I finally know!
Jeff: It's actually about a nun who sells heroin to school kids.
DRG: Oh okay, I'll tell them that then. We actually had it right all along. (Both laugh)
DRG: What guitars are you using on stage these days? Is it all Les Pauls?
Jeff: Yes. It's all Pauls. Except for a Hamer DuoTone, which I use for our acoustic set. It's a semi-hollow guitar and I use it on songs like Goodbye. The Pauls are my '68 Goldtop and my '69 black Custom.
DRG: How many Les Pauls do you have?
Jeff: I've got a few Les Pauls! Too many to count.
DRG: Do you have any guitars you don't play? Flying Vs, Fenders . . .
Jeff: I've got a lot of guitars I never play, which is kind of sad but I just can't bear to get rid of them. So I stockpile them. Some of the Flying Vs though have gone to Hard Rocks. There's one at the Rainbow in L.A. and others are floating around the world at Hard Rock Cafes.
DRG: When they take your guitars do they give you anything in return?
Jeff: In the past I've been offered a lot of money for like my double-neck Flying V and some of those custom ones I used to play and I won't get rid of those. But others I've taken and donated to the Hard Rock for charitable events and in return I get a few t-shirts and a jacket, you know?
DRG: Now, what about amplification on stage? Are you still using Marshalls?
Jeff: No, in fact I was always a Boogie guy in the 80s. But I have any kind of amp you can imagine. Over the years I've just collected them. Marshalls, Hiwatts, Fenders, Boogies, Rolands, Peaveys. But currently onstage I'm using a Triaxis with Rocktron effects rack and a twin UHF Shure wireless into Boogies which power the backline, which is Marshall cabs loaded with 30 watt Celestions.
DRG: Do you and Brad pretty much use the same kind of amplification?
Jeff: No. Brad uses Soldanos.
DRG: Researching you on the internet was interesting. You've been on the cover of dozens of guitar magazines. I didn't even know there were that many guitar mags! And those websites by women professing their love and whatnot for you. Have you seen them?
Jeff: No. You'll have to send me the URLs for those. (Laughs)
DRG: Must be that Nordic thing you have going on.
Jeff, Brad was touring for a while with a three-piece version of Night Ranger that didn't include you, Jack, or Fitz (Night Ranger keyboardist).
Jeff: We like to refer to it as "Not Ranger."
DRG: Were you hurt by this?
Jeff: I was quite busy when that happened. I was doing my solo albums. I was in the studio with Chris Isaak, and other stuff. So I wasn't as bothered by it as I should have been. Had I known that the outcome was gonna be a deflation in the impact of the resurgence of the real Night Ranger, I probably would have spoken up. Jack, Fitz and I just said: "Aw, the hell with it. Let 'em go do their thing." But unfortunately, they were just playing clubs and it dragged the name down a bit. Not to embarrass them in any way, they were just out earning a meal — but it hurt the impact of the band. When we got back together we found out that some of the club owners had been advertising it as the original Night Ranger and even using old 8x10s that showed all of us. So when we finally did get back together we discovered that some places were a little bit shy because they were afraid of being bamboozled again.
DRG: I don't know you that well, Jeff, and I'm not looking for controversy here. But I would have gone to pieces if my band had gone out like that and not even bothered to check with me to see if I minded or not. You know, when it comes to human beings I think a lot of us get so caught up in things that we forget to show each other as much respect as we should, and we sometimes forget that the other person can be really hurt by something that is NOT said. I'm working on that myself.
Jeff: I think it was one of those situations where the guys just wanted to go out and keep making money. We were gonna do it together, but I guess Brad and Kelly decided that I didn't fit the bill right. I was a little more concerned about the direction the project was going to go, and how we were gonna be presented and portrayed, and to me it seemed that it wasn't going in the right direction. They caught onto that early and said: "We don't wanna work with you, Jeff." But in the long run it worked out much better. Jack and I talked and said "Hey, you wanna do this thing in Japan?"
DRG: You guys are big stars in Japan.
Jeff: We were. It comes and goes. It's like a roller coaster, you know? We're going back over there in December to try to build a resurgence in that country and southeast Asia in general. It's a tough market out there. They're much more interested in their internal music now. In the 80s it was all American. Now Japanese artists are getting respect they didn't get twenty years ago.
DRG: I want to ask you about your 8-fingered tapping technique, and how you pull that off on a Les Paul with its difficult upper register access.
Jeff: In the 80s and early 90s I was doing a lot of stuff on my Hamer Jeff Watson model which has 27 frets. So it was easy to get some of the high stuff I was doing then. But now that we're playing stuff mainly off of the first five MCA records, it's always in the range available on a Les Paul without having to kill myself. I just did it so much it became second nature. To me it was just the means to the end because I didn't realize I was gonna get so much recognition for it and such a big deal made out of it. It was just a way of playing a part I wanted to play.
DRG: I see.
Jeff: I guess it was a blessing in disguise. But it's not my proudest style of playing, you know?
DRG: Tapping is a beautiful, legit thing as long as it's used appropriately. Like so many things it was done to death in the 80s.
Jeff: I know it. I try to use it in the right spaces. I'm much more proud of my flatpicking skills and acoustic skills than I am of my tapping skills. But my tapping got a lot of attention so I guess that helped the band. There is no such thing as bad press.
DRG: I get so damned mad listening to you play, Jeff. I'm like, is this guy ever gonna make a mistake?
Jeff: Just for that I'm gonna make a mistake tonight! (Laughs)
DRG: How do you feel about playing while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol? Have you ever played a show wasted?
Jeff: In the 80s...uh, you know what? We didn't get high BEFORE we played, but we would get high after the show. But the residual effects would be apparent the next day. And after being up very late that night we'd have a long bus ride and having to do interviews, in-stores, radio stations, and sound checks and it built up, the residual effects. But these days we're not doing anything. I'll have a sip of beer before I go on sometimes, and the worst that I'll do is I'll have an Excedrin, because it has caffeine in it and it thins your blood as you get older. It gives a little kick before you go onstage, and that's it!
DRG: You scored a movie, Vertical Frontier. How long did it take you?
DRG: It tool me a few months. It was my first movie. I did like 50-something pieces of music for it. It's available through Peloton Productions.com. The movie is about the history of climbing with Tom Brokaw narrating it. I haven't released the soundtrack yet, but I will do that at some point.
DRG: You sure do get around. We wanted to ask you: what would you recommend, apart from Night Ranger, as good Dino listening when it comes to your works?
Jeff: Lone Ranger, without a doubt. It's got some acoustic stuff, but with the guest line up including Carmine Appice, Allan Holdsworth, Sammy Hagar, Brad Gillis, etc. it's a hard rocking album. And then the other side of that is Mother's Army, my band with Joe Lynn Turner, Aynsley Dunbar, and Bob Daisley.
DRG: That's an active band as well, isn't it?
Jeff: Well, we have a fourth album in the can. But we don't have a release date and we're pretty lazy about it. The third one came out really well and is called Fire On The Moon, and is available through my website, jeffwatson.com. The hard rock crowd will go for it big-time.
DRG: One more thing and I'll let you go. Give me your thoughts on these guitarists: Leslie West.
DRG: Uli Roth.
Jeff: Nice guy. I know him.
DRG: Yngwie Malmsteen.
Jeff: Masterfully, technically brilliant.
DRG: Gary Moore.
Jeff: Emotionally, technically brilliant.
DRG: Steve Morse.
Jeff: One of my best friends. My brother. Steve is the best guitarist in the world, period. In fact, last night my girlfriend and I were watching videotapes of Steve and I jamming in various clubs over the last twenty years. With the Dregs, too.
DRG: Any way I could get a look at that?
Jeff: (Laughs) No. Steve would get a baseball bat and beat me up for that. Steve Morse is the best and one of my dearest friends. He stays here when he's in town and I stay at his house when I'm in Florida.
DRG: In closing, let me just say this: Isn't our instrument amazing? It's something different in everyone's hands.
Jeff: It can express any emotion a human is capable of feeling.
DRG: And no one has ever really, truly mastered it.
Jeff: The more you learn, the more you realize you don't know.
DRG: Jeff, thanks so much for calling. When the interview is posted I'll let you know.
Jeff: Yes, send me the URL. It was a nice interview, and I appreciate it a lot. See you down the road!
We at Dinosaur Rock Guitar would like to thank Jeff Watson for taking the time to answer our questions. Copyright ©2003 All rights reserved.