A.J. Shakes: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

AJ Shakes Interview

Photo courtesy of Nick Russo

He’d never admit it, but young A.J. Shakes has a handle on stripped-down blues guitar in ways that many who label themselves “guitarists” don’t. That’s probably because he’s a piano player by trade, but make no mistake—Shakes knows what he’s doing.

If you wander over to his Instagram (@a.j.shakes), you’ll find an array of incredible covers by vaunted greats intermingling with Shakes’ original work, which is nothing short of inspiration in terms of texture and songwriting approach. Shake’s bio via Instagram says it all: “Playing music from a lost kingdom.” Indeed.

During a break from his many activities, A.J. Shakes beamed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to give us the rundown on his origins in music, thoughts on the guitar, approach to piano, gear, and more.

What inspired you to pick up the guitar?

So, I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a guitarist; I feel like I’ll offend those who can really play the instrument. I’m more of a keyboardist, but yeah, I picked it up when I was in middle school. I kind of taught myself a few chords here and there but still played the keyboard mostly.

I think from playing blues and classic rock on the piano at that time; it just seemed to make sense to know how to play some guitar. I didn’t play it much for a while but got increasingly into the 30s blues, so I picked it up again.

Who were your most significant influences? How do they remain within your sound, and how have you diverged?

Man, there are so many across every genre. But when it comes to guitar, definitely Robert Johnson. Honestly, what was really inspiring wasn’t necessarily him; I always loved his music but hearing for the first time the artists that he heard and loved. I had never heard of Peetie Wheatstraw, Leroy Carr, Memphis Minnie, Lonnie Johnson, etc., and when I heard them, I was like, “Wait, who came first?”

Then, I saw him in a completely different way. I could picture him loving, listening, and learning how to play their songs. And that, along with new experiences, being mistreated, getting cheated on, you know, all that fun stuff, and having the lyrics really mean something for the first time, made me want to play and sing it back.

Do you remember your first guitar and amp? What did that rig teach you that stuck?

I don’t remember it that well, but I do remember that it was like some like half-cracked beater acoustic and that it was really hard to push down on. But honestly, I think it’s good to learn on a difficult instrument. I grew up playing a pretty poor piano, and I remember struggling to get the sound I wanted out of it.

I kind of enjoyed that because I knew that when I played a great instrument, it would be so much easier to play, kind of like taming a beast. If I can get this wild thing to speak, then other instruments will obey easier, I guess.

What was your first professional gig? What did you learn?

Yeah, it was when I was in high school. It was at a nursing home, and I played the Moonlight Sonata. I remember it was on a detuned upright; people were coughing, wheelchairs on the carpeted floor, air conditioner hummin’ in the back, and some sniffling here and there; I remember that. I learned that I was gonna be poor. No, but music has always been personal for me, so I suppose it was nice to be able to share it.

How do you view the way you play today versus the past? What has changed most?

When I was younger, I played a lot by ear and by memory, especially blues and rock music, but then, getting serious about classical music, you have to develop another skill, which is more about reading and seeing music on a page in a different way. So, I just try to keep in touch with that original spirit of listening and playing by feel while still being tied to that other side. I’m just trying to balance those both of those worlds and keep both muscles fresh, I guess.

Tell me about your riff and solo writing process.

I try to knock out a few songs when I write on one particular instrument because I find that when I write on an instrument, sometimes they come out in a certain and similar way, which can be nice, but it can also become monotonous, especially if I’m picking up some bad habits which I tend to do. I’ll try to write a few on the guitar, then some starting from the piano, which will be different, maybe just on a desk or singing or something, and hopefully, I’m improving on the way.

How do you view guitar solos in the modern era? Do they need to be deconstructed and changed from being overblown?

I am not a great guitarist and certainly not an authority on guitar solos, but I love a good one. I think it depends on the piece, the style, and the taste. I mean… we’re in this environment now where the landscape is shifting, or has already shifted, away from a place where songs were born from the guitar to this kind of electronic, computer, digital, keyboard sound world, and the guitar has taken a backseat.

But I think solos and being able to improvise have always been and will always be a part of music. I also love supremely organized music, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nice to have certain pieces where there’s space open for great performers and great improvisers. If they’re wilder or restrained, I think it depends on the piece and style.

Tell me about your gear: guitars, amps, pedals. What goes into those choices?

So, one of the other reasons I got into playing blues guitar is because years ago, a close family friend asked us to hold onto his father’s old Gibson when he passed away. It was just sitting in a closet for a long time, and then when I started to get deeper into the blues, I remembered it was lying around somewhere. I picked it up, and it was inspiring. I’ve also been using a Harmony H-165 that I love.

With gear, I love tube amps, delays, reverbs, and all that, but there’s this certain kind of joy and gratification I get right now from just playing an acoustic instrument in an acoustic space and not having anything interfere and color the sound. I’m not knocking effects or amps at all; I mean, I love them and use them, how can you not, but just recently or maybe from doing piano.

I’ve been enjoying playing acoustic blues and folk. It’s kind of like you’re your own orchestra or band in a way, and there’s this intimacy of sound, which I like. But then again, you can’t really mess up with an Ampeg V4 and a Les Paul, ya know?

What are your short and long-term goals? How will you achieve them?

I don’t know if I have any long-term goals, but short-term ones are just writing, playing, learning, studying, and hopefully improving, the same thing I’ve always been trying to do. I’m gonna have a single out soon; I have an EP that’s finished and then an album that’s about halfway done after that.

A.J. Shakes: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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  1. Avatar Otis Manousakos March 10, 2024

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