Kirk Fletcher: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Kirk Fletcher Interview

Feature Photo: courtesy of Kirk Fletcher.

If you’re a purist when it comes to the blues, you might have a hard time venturing out with the intent to explore new music. And sure, the likes of B.B. King, Hound Dog Taylor, and Howlin’ Wolf are iconic, but if you’re feeling bold, and looking for something new to feast on, look no further than Bellflower, CA native Kirk Fletcher.

Over the course of six studio records and one outstanding live effort, Fletcher has reminded fans that the blues are indeed in good hands as we move further and further away from the genre’s earliest hours. Of course, his membership within the ranks of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Mannish Boys hasn’t hurt the cause, either.

Ultimately, it would be unwise to bet against a guy who has ably stood beside the likes of Joe Bonamassa and Eros Ramazzotti while also being nominated for four Blues Music Awards and one British Blues Award. To that end, Fletcher’s most recent record, Heartache by the Pound, may well be his best yet, as it shows yet more expansive guitar sounds while still managing to harness the unladen energy of classic blues music.

Amidst the chaos of yet another busy year ahead, Kirk Fletcher dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to dig into the people, places, and sounds which have shaped him as a guitarist to this point, as well as what he has on tap as he moves forward.

What first inspired you to pick up the guitar? Who were your primary influences?

My oldest brother Walter inspired me to pick up the guitar at first. My surroundings growing up around a lot of music in the church is what really got me on my musical path. My primary influences early on were again my brother, the gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds, Prince, B.B. King, and Jesse Johnson from The Time. Stuff like that. A lot of radio in those days.

Who influences you most today?

I’m mostly inspired by the players I listened to in my mid to late teens, Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, and mostly blues. I just listen to that stuff in a different way these days. More of the composition side of it now, though. It could be the guitar solo or the arrangement of a song, or what the rhythm section is doing. Most of the time, I listen to great songs and singers these days, like Bobby Blue Bland or Joni Mitchell and Karen Carpenter. I’m so drawn to melodies and heartfelt delivery.

What new music are you working on, and how has your approach to the guitar changed since your earlier years? 

Currently, I’m mostly brainstorming and thinking of different things. I will always stay close to my gospel and blues roots but do it in a fresh and tasteful way. I look at my music as in the tradition of a bluesman like Albert King. Albert could do a ballad like “The Very Thought of You” or a soul tune like “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and you wouldn’t think for one minute Albert wasn’t a bluesman, or at least I wouldn’t [Laughs]. I try to play tastefully and appropriately for whatever music I’m playing. Every time I pick up my guitar, I want to play in a soulful, heartfelt way. At this point, I’ve pretty much gotten rid of all the B.S. and am trying to play with soul.

What made Heartache by the Pound your best work yet, and which songs mean the most?

I’d say experience, life, heartbreak, love, and sadness all play a huge role in why Heartache by the Pound is my best work yet. Every note of that album is from my heart, and each song that I wrote on it is about my life and my struggles, and my observations of the people and situations around me.

I picked a couple of songs by the great Dennis Walker and my friend Joey Delgado. My dear friend Richard Cousins co-wrote half the songs with me. I’d say “Afraid to Die, Too Scared to Live” is one of my favorites. It’s a story that hits home with a lot of people caught up in everyday life.

Describe how you achieve your signature tone and vibrato.

That’s easy; my tone is a combination of a big loud, clean 6L6 amp with reverb, such as a Fender Super Reverb or Tweed Bassman. A Two Rock Traditional Clean is sweet, too. And something hitting the front end of the amp a bit, like a pedal that’s kinda transparent like a Jan Ray or a KingTone Dualist, is nice, too. I also like to hit it with a Topanga Reverb with the volume knob turned up more than halfway.

I use a Gibson Les Paul or ES-335 with Humbuckers, so I’m staying pretty clean with a classic style blues guitar tone, such as B.B. King and Otis Rush. But with enough gain to play some of my original songs with a more modern sound. For my style of blues playing, vibrato is huge. From Albert King to B.B. King to Larry Carlton, vibrato is ultra important.

What memories do you have of your first gigs with Joe Bonamassa?

Joe is a dear friend and a wonderful, easy-going bandleader. The first gigs were officially the Muddy/Wolf Tour, which was huge fun. We toured only about three to four shows before the Red Rocks filming. It was my first time, I believe, playing Red Rocks, so it was just an incredible experience. I think Joe had fun, too. The next project I did with him was The Three Kings Tour, which was longer and more fun. I met lifelong friends on that tour. I mostly learned to follow my own artistic vision and just all-around inspiration from a guy who changed the game industry-wise.

You touched on this before, but what guitars are you using, and why?

These days, I’m playing Gibson. I go with either a couple of different Les Paul’s or 335s. I just love the warmth and sustain of Gibson’s. And with other guitars, I had to rely on pedals for warmth and sustain. I’m mostly doing my own music these days, so I’m mostly soloing and being a bandleader, and that added warmth works so well with what I’m doing.

Do you prefer vintage or new? 

I prefer a great-sounding guitar, new or old. I gravitate towards vintage, but the prices of things have gotten insane, so I was determined to play some new guitars. Travel definitely plays a part in that decision too. Flying with guitars can be a nightmare.

Is there one guitar that means the most? 

I’d say two guitars are very dear to me: my Gibson Collectors Choice “Nicky” that I received on the Three Kings Tour as a gift from Joe. And my Gibson Murphy Lab Custom Shop ES-345. It was made for me by the custom shop, and I love it. My dear friend Mat Koehler helped oversee every part of the build.

What other guitars do you use/have you used, and how did you deploy them?

I love the Les Paul Special. I used it on some of the songs on Heartache by the Pound, like “Wrapped up Tangled up in the Blues” and “Can’t Find No Love.” It has a huge sound with those P90s, yet it cleans up so well. I used a Stratocaster a lot because it’s so versatile to my ears. I’m mainly playing for me these days, and for what I want to hear, the ES-335 is the sound.

Are there any guitars you don’t like?

It’s not that I don’t like any guitar. I do get a little worn out by the sound of a Telecaster and everyone telling me they wish I played one [Laughs]. With that said, it’s one of the most iconic guitars of all time.

You mentioned Humbucker’s earlier. What do you love about them most?

Oh, my favorite is a Humbucker, for sure. I like stock Gibson Humbuckers from the mid to late ’60s. Why? Because that’s what Larry Carlton uses. I also love Ron Ellis pickups; the man has the touch. They’re simply incredible-sounding pickups. I love the sustain and clarity of the Humbucking pickup. I can speak on the instrument in a very vocal-like way with those types of pickups.

What combination of amps and pedals are you using?

Pretty much, it’s a couple of pedals and a Fender Super Reverb amp. I prefer tube amps; it’s hard to get that big fat edge of breakup sound with modeling units like Kemper’s. If I wanted crunchier or ultra-clean tones, I’d consider going over to a modeler, possibly. I use the Topanga Reverb and Jan Ray pedal. I’m far from a pedal addict, though [Laughs].

Do current trends alter your style and technique at all?

Not at all. I think it’s important to have your own identity as a musician. This takes time and experience, and deep listening to great music. I stay true to my roots, especially the older I get. I’m inspired by great music, mostly older music; it’s such a wealth of inspiration.

How would you classify yourself now, and how might you shapeshift in the future? What’s next?

I’m now and always will be a blues musician. I want to make two different albums this year. I also want to tour more, play with great musicians, and have fun with musicians I respect musically.

Kirk Fletcher Interview

Feature Photo: courtesy of Kirk Fletcher.

Kirk Fletcher: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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