BY COLLEEN CAVANAUGH//
Welcome to Just Riffing. Every week I pick a guitar player I admire and write about them. It has also been pointed out to me that so many great guitarists have “J” names… and then I realized every column I’ve written so far has reflected that. Josh, Johnny, James this week, and another Jonny (no “H” this time) next week. I’m not going to touch extremely well-known legends like Jimi or Jimmy, pretty sure I wouldn’t be telling you anything you didn’t already know. Anyway, I found that amusing.
The Stooges. The godfathers of punk. The blueprint for so much that came after. They were consistently 30 years ahead of their time, but that came with the consequence of not being particularly well-liked in their day. That “what modern day thing do you think would kill a Victorian era child?” meme is what I imagine hearing “I Wanna Be Your Dog” for the first time in 1969 was like. But now to James Williamson.
Williamson was not the original guitarist for The Stooges, that would be Ron Asheton. He was invited to be a second guitarist for the band’s live shows in 1970, but shortly after they disbanded due to struggles with drugs and lack of success. When Iggy Pop got a solo deal and went to London to record with David Bowie, he invited Williamson to come collaborate with the intention of finding some other British guys to fill in the rest of the band. Long story short they couldn’t find anyone sufficient, Iggy brought the Asheton brothers back, and the Stooges essentially reformed. Thus, the album Raw Power was born in ‘73. Williamson now took the role of lead guitar, and let’s just say there was a lot of resentment between he and Asheton, who was then relegated to the bass.
Williamson’s guitar parts on that album were extremely influential. A lot of downpicking and fast, aggressive rhythms that would become hallmarks of 80s punk. He said his writing is very much riff driven, still channeling the self-taught guitarist figuring things out in his bedroom. But for all the bravado of songs like “Search and Destroy” there are more melodic and psychedelic elements in others like “Gimme Danger” and “I Need Somebody.” His leads, especially in the Iggy Pop mixes (my apologies to David Bowie but there’s like 3 people in the world who prefer the Bowie mix over the Iggy one) are so loud and blown out it feels like jagged glass. Or maybe getting punched in the face. Violent, but like, in a good way? Iggy said he actually had to sing higher than normal to find space not taken up by Williamson’s guitar. Last week’s subject, Johnny Marr, cites Williamson as one of his biggest influences. Marr said, “He’s both demonic and intellectual, almost how you would imagine Darth Vader to sound if he was in a band.” I’d say that about sums it up.
Like any player that’s been around this long, Williamson has used a lot of gear over the years with some dependable favorites. But, because this Raw Power era is so important, I’d like to focus on that. Surprisingly he wrote the whole album on an acoustic guitar, specifically a Gibson B-25. I don’t know, just go listen to the song “Shake Appeal” and imagine writing that on an acoustic. The acoustic actually used on songs in the studio was a Martin D-28. And as long as we’re talking acoustics, Williamson is a fan of Nashville tuning. On a 12-string there are your normal gauge strings in standard tuning, and a much lower gauge string tuned one octave up is paired with each of those. Nashville uses just those six thinner stings tuned up the octave. You can see him use that here. For most of the guitar you hear on the album his main rig was a 1969 Les Paul Custom, emphasis on some very technical stuff happening in the bridge pickup that I don’t understand, and a Vox AC30 with top boost and the bass rolled off. No pedals needed.
After the Stooges, who have since reunited for gigs like Coachella, Williamson went on to work in Silicon Valley. So not only did he lay the foundations for punk rock, but he also oversaw the development of the Blu-ray Disc as Sony’s Vice President of technical standards. Honestly bizarre if you think about it too much. When asked about his colleagues knowing who he was, Williamson said, “These guys are by and large nerds and geeks. They don’t listen to The Stooges much.”
If I had my way, everyone would listen to The Stooges.