Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford: Doubling On Lead And Rhythm

BRAD WHITFORD might be considered the “refined” half of Aerosmith’s guitar team — he’s a deliberate player, whose steady rhythm lines complement lead guitarist Joe Perry’s often free-form, no-holds-barred attack. But while on most Aerosmith albums Brad is credited as rhythm guitarist, the newest member of the Boston-based band also solos; both roles create for him an important place in Aerosmith’s predominately guitar-oriented rock and roll format.

Born in Boston on February 23, 1952, Whitford first came to music through the piano and trumpet. His tenure with these instruments, however, was short-lived; his father, recognizing that Brad had little desire to pursue formal training in either, bought him an acoustic guitar for his fourteenth birthday. Soon after, Brad acquired his first electric, “a Winston or Salem or something with a cigarette name,” he recalls. He took guitar lessons for six months, but abandoned this approach in favor of a self-tutoring program, which included listening to records by groups such as the Beatles, the Kingsmen, and Booker T And The MGs, as well as learning from friends. In addition, Brad credits guitar work by artists such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck as having a lasting effect on his own music — in fact, Whitford comments that Jeff Beck’s first two solo albums, Truth [Epic, BN 26413] and Beck-Ola [Epic, BXN-26478] were important style guides for him.

When he was 16 Brad used a Fender Jaguar, which he claims had an irritating habit of not staying in tune. He quickly abandoned it for a Gibson Les Paul after watching Jimmy Page use one during a performance by Led Zeppelin. Brad used the Les Paul when he played in local bands like Symbols Of Resistance, Teapot Dome, and Earth, Inc., performing at fraternity parties in the Boston area, for which groups were compensated with $150.00 per gig and all the beer they could drink.

Whitford, then playing lead guitar, developed his single-note picking technique before ever attempting rhythm work: “I started backwards,” he says. After graduating from high school, he went to the Berklee College Of Music in Boston for a year, but attending school by day and playing in a band — Stray Cat — at night “threw me all off,” he says. Nevertheless, he maintained this hectic schedule until receiving an offer to play with some musicians whom he felt were of “superior” talent. Brad then quit school and played on Nantucket Island with this band, Justin Tyme, and it was here his rhythm chops truly developed — the group’s lead guitarist, also an accomplished rhythm player, taught Whitford a great deal about rhythm technique.

Other members of Justin Tyme were friends with Aerosmith — then just a local band as well — although Brad himself had never heard of the group before this time; often Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton would come to watch Brad’s band play. Several months later, Whitford received a call from Perry, asking him to come down to where Aerosmith was performing — this was the first time Brad saw the group in action. Soon thereafter, Brad, in excited disbelief, was asked to join the group, which he did in August of 1971.

When first playing with Aerosmith, Brad used an old Marshall 100-watt amp and a Les Paul. The guitar’s neck finally gave up the ghost, but not before Brad recorded with it on the group’s first album, Aerosmith. This guitar was replaced with another Les Paul. For Get Your Winds, Brad used the Les Paul, as well as a 1960 red double-cutaway one-pickup Les Paul Jr. After Aerosmith had its Marshall equipment stolen, Whitford switched to Ampeg V-4’s. “All Marshalls are so different,” he comments, “and the really early ones were much better. Then they started changing little by little.”

Shortly after Aerosmith’s financial footing became more stable, Brad bought a 1957 gold-top Les Paul with a Bigsby tailpiece for $1,000.00. And as the group continued to gain in popularity, his guitar collection grew:

He added more Les Pauls, including a 1952, a 1955, two 1958s (a gold-top and a sunburst), and a 1960 flame-top to his collection. And more recently, he purchased a vintage Fender Broadcaster. He also replaced his Ampegs with revitalized Music Man amplifiers. Their insides were altered — he does not recall how — but with the change, Brad believes, the amps now are virtually indestructible: “You could play them for a week, and they wouldn’t blow up,” he insists. Brad had the amplifiers modified because he was not happy with them in their original, off-the-showroom-floor condition. “When the bass boost was on,” he says, “the amplifiers had a tendency to diminish treble response. With the modifications, however, the bass boost now adds bass without detracting any from the other ranges.”

Depending on the location, he uses one or two Music Man tops, driven through four custom-made cabinets — similar to Marshall housings, except that they are ported and use JBL speakers. He may soon switch to Celestion speakers, however, because he feels that the JBLs are “so damn clean that they are actually too efficient for stage work.”

Whitford currently employs four guitars when performing: two B.C. Rich Eagles (one as a spare); a Rich Bich, which he changed by removing, then replacing, four of the ten strings; and a new Les Paul Custom fitted with Bill Lawrence L-90 XL pickups. Brad plays these guitars through a rather elaborate set of pedals, labeled “toyboxes” by the band. There are two sets of pedals — one in the middle of the stage, and one off to the side — incorporating an AKG reverb unit, and a number of MXR effects, including a 10-band equalizer, flanger, phaser, compressor, and a DDL [digital delay line] unit with three presettings. Each preset produces a different effect; by simply hitting a button, any one of three sounds can be evoked.

While Brad has these effects readily available, he is careful not to abuse them. “I don’t use that stuff a whole lot onstage,” he says. “I never used to use anything. Before I had my guitar plugged right into the amplifier. So when I do employ these things, they are not all on at the same time. I just use them very rarely. But it’s nice to have them — especially the reverb unit and the DDL. It’s really nice for solos and makes the guitar seem to jump out of the speaker.” Bill Lawrence strings are Brad’s choice. Normally he uses a light-gauge set, beginning with a .009 or .010 treble E;he believes that they feel lighter than comparably named sets of Fender or Ernie Ball strings. Brad changes plectrums every six months, currently using Mel Bay green, thin nylon picks. Prior to handling these, he used an agate pick, and sometimes a metal pick, which he claims was not “metallic sounding and did produce a good pop from the strings — that is, when it wasn’t slicing them in half or gouging the guitar’s body.”

While Brad does play a great deal of lead guitar, his main function with Aerosmith is providing a strong rhythm foundation for lead guitarist Joe Perry. For this chore, Brad sets his guitar to the treble pickup, which gives the instrument a more biting, well-defined sound. He places the appropriate tone control at full treble, while his Music Man is set at three-quarters treble, one-quarter bass, and one-half midrange. The bright switch is either on or off, depending on the concert hall; the bass boost is on at all times. Whitford often uses these same settings and equipment in the studio as well, although he does like to experiment with different amplifiers. He and Perry have accumulated a virtual warehouse of old guitar gear, including a 1954 Fender Champ amplifier.

Brad’s relationship with Joe Perry as a fellow guitarist is a balanced one. More often than not, lines are not worked out beforehand between the two. Brad believes that their interaction is derived more from an intuitive communication while performing. “It’s a feeling that happens,” he says. “Joe will start playing something, and I’ll just feel my way into it. I guess it’s about 50-50, because there comes a point when you have to sit down and think about some stuff. But we like to go a lot on spontaneity.” Whitford, in particular, likes to work off the cuff. His solos are often single run-throughs, and he is reluctant to play a line more than three times. “I hate to work out a lead,” he admits. “If I have to do a lead in a studio — an overdubbed lead — I try to do it straight. I like to play the song and not have to do an overdub. I don’t like hearing all of those piled-up guitars. When it came time for me to do the solo on ‘Milk Cow Blues’ [Draw The Line], for example, I played it through and went to rhythm, and then Joe played his solo. And I think it sounds great. When I do an overdub solo, I just tell them to run the tape. I’ll play it once and then another time — or maybe three times — and usually I’ve got it out of those three. I don’t like to sit down and think about something. I like to go right off the top of my head.” Whitford has always leaned towards improvisational playing, and he cites his work in ‘One Way Street’ from Aerosmith as one of the stronger solos he has done.

Due to a sheer lack of time, however, Brad feels he is not able to develop his lead chops further. He does feel, nevertheless, that his playing has matured, and he believes that he is playing better now than he ever has before. Brad is also currently giving some thought to doing a solo album — some material has already been recorded at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles with a group called Axis, a trio composed of Brad, drummer Vinny Appice, and guitarist Danny Johnson. But he wants to further expand his musical horizons by playing with other musicians rather than by recording a solo album: “To me the fun of this whole thing is to be able to travel and meet and play with other musicians,” he says. “That’s when you can really get off.”

© Steven RosenGuitar Player, March 1979

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