Paul Kossoff: An Interview with Rock’s Street Crawler

THE LATE PAUL KOSSOFF, born in London, September 14, 1950, became the unsung guitar great of Free at the age of eighteen. That short-lived, but successful, English quartet split in 1973, with lead singer Paul Rodgers forming Bad Company and Kossoff emerging with Back Street Crawler.

Throughout his career, Kossoff was hampered by poor health and drug addiction, and spent much of his time in and out of hospitals. In August of 1975, Paul suffered a major heart attack and respiratory failure. A reported recurrence of this condition brought about his death, on March 19, 1976, while sleeping on a flight from Los Angeles to New York. The following interview, done a few months before his death, looks at his guitar playing, his bands, and his involvement in the English rock scene

When did you first start playing guitar?

When I was nine, and I heard some Shadows music [English counterpart of The Ventures] on the radio. My parents thought I should take lessons, so I had classical training for six years. After that, I sort of got away from playing, and the first real inspiration I had to get back into it was seeing Eric Clapton with John Mayall at a small club. I didn’t know who he was or what had gone down, but here’s all these people yelling, “God, God!” He really caught my attention, and then I wanted to play. I found that my classical training had no bearing on that sort of music, other than dexterity. After Clapton, my interest grew. I went from him to Peter Green, to B.B. King and Freddie King, and then I got into soul, Otis Redding, Ray Charles. Green and Clapton were very dexterous and powerful at the same time. Clapton is everything I’d like to be. I also liked [keyboardist] Long John Baldry, and [Faces vocalist] Rod Stewart was good in those days, too. I saw the Jeff Beck band with Stewart and was very impressed. Around this time I formed a blues band called Black Cat Bones. But that broke up, because I wanted to form a band with [drummer] Simon Kirke.

Were you playing electric guitar in that band?

Yes, I was about sixteen when I got my first electric; it was an EKO or something like that, with a gold lamé finish and a billion knobs. Soon after that, I got myself a Gibson Les Paul Junior which was the cheapest Gibson around at the time. Then I had this obsession about getting a real Les Paul; it was from seeing Beck and Clapton using them. I wanted the very same thing–they were very basic influences on me. Anyway, Simon was in Black Cat Bones, and he knew a band which contained Paul Rodgers, so I got to know Paul. My playing was still very primitive at this time, but it had something very much in common with the way he sang. We got together and jammed, so all that was needed now was a bass player. At that time Andy Fraser had just left John Mayall and was looking for a band, and that’s how Free was formed.

What type of guitar and amplifier were you using when Free first started?

I was using a Les Paul and a real old Marshall top with a homemade bottom, with four 12″ speakers, which my father helped me build. I used this setup for about a year and a half, and then I got a regular 100-watt stack. Andy was using two Marshall Major stacks, and we used a Marshall PA.

What equipment are you using now?

The equipment has been nicknamed “The Enterprise.” It consists of two cabinets, each containing eight I 2s [Celestion], and two Marshall tops. I think I’m going to lighten the equipment; I think it’s too much. I’ll probably be using half of The Enterprise on gigs–just one bottom and one or maybe two tops. The cabinets were made special for me by Marshall and have bass speakers. I’ve always liked to use them, because I don’t like a lot of top. With bass speakers, you get a nice, round sound without rasp. I’m also using a Les Paul Standard with sunburst finish; I think it’s about a ‘57. It had its neck broken once, on the last gig with Free. It went up about twenty feet and came down on its neck. I thought that was it, but I saw a guy in London named Sam Lee who does beautiful work, and he put it back together. It broke at the 5th fret, and he rebuilt everything from there up, including the tuning head. The only other thing I’ve done to it is put Grover machine heads on.

What settings do you use on the guitar and amp?

I use mainly the treble pickup, between 8 and full up on the amp and guitar. It’s very simple. The amp is usually full up, and I control it from the guitar. Maybe I’m a little bit too limited with my sounds; I’m not sure. I like to play bluesy things on the bass pickup, around 4, 5, or 6 on the guitar, with the amp full up. And then you blast into a solo with your treble pick-up. You don’t play a billion notes, but you play a few goodies, hopefully, like Freddie or B.B. do.

You were also using a Fender Stratocaster for a while.

Yes, on the front of that Back Street Crawler album [Island Records, ILPS 9264]; that was a white Strat with a maple neck, but the neck was warped. It was beautiful to play–you couldn’t play any big chords on it, but it was really responsive. A track on Back Street Crawler, ‘Time Away’, was done with that guitar. I also used a Strat with the last setup of Free I was involved in. I don’t know what year it was, but it was an old one. I’m not into years and all that; if it sounds good and feels good, I’ll use it. Also, there’s no tremolo arm on that Strat. I’ve never used one, because I’ve never been into it. Any tremolo I use is from the left hand.

Was it hard to develop such a smooth vibrato?

I think my vibrato has taken a long time to sound mature, and it’s taken a long time to reach the speed of vibrato that I now have. I trill with my first, middle, and ring fingers, and bend chiefly with my small finger. I’ll use my index to back up the ring finger when I’m using vibrato.

Is there a similarity between your vibrato technique and Eric Clapton’s?

Probably, yes. He did once come up to me and asked, “How the hell do you do that?” And I said, “Oh, you must be joking!” That was the first time Free was America, and we were doing the Blind Faith tour.

Why did you change from the Stratocaster to the Les Paul?

I never really changed – one guitar meant one thing, and the other something else. The Les Paul is very sensible on gigs; it will not let you down tuning-wise or if I treat it roughly. Even if you pull back on the neck of the Strat, it’s out of tune, particularly that white one I had. It was harmonically out of tune a little anyway, so you had to make adjustments while you were playing.

What kind of strings do you use?

At the moment, I’m using Fender heavy or anything really heavy or stiff. Basically, I like the Gibson Sonomatic sixth, fifth, and fourth, a banjo third–I don’t know what gauge, but it’s heavier than what a Fender Rock And Roll would be (unwound), and Fender Rock And Roll second and first. I use a heavy pick, Fender or Gibson. It’s really not what type of pick you use, but how you use it. I’ve always used a heavy, because it suits me. You can really lash or you can be cool. I find a loose pick rather useless.

Your playing seems totally devoid of electronic effects.

Almost. On stage, I use a phase shifter, and I’ve used it on albums a few times. When I’m on stage, I’m too excited to fool around with controls and knobs. I find I can get the sound I want from the guitar and amp, providing everything is working right.

What equipment do you use in the studio?

Basically, the same as on stage. When I’m overdubbing leads I like to be loud, so I can get plenty of power. When I’m cut-ting a track with the other guys, I’ll use less wattage, but I’ll still get the same sound at a lower volume.

Your solos on record–‘All Right Now’, for example [Fire And Water, Free A &M, 42681–are they thought out beforehand or played as the track is being cut?

Well, on ‘All Right Now’, the bass was put down, and then the keyboard, then the rhythm guitar, and it was best if the solo was simple. It wasn’t exactly worked out, but at the time we were thinking more of effect than of virtuosity.

Is that your philosophy on playing guitar?

I like to move people; I don’t like to show off. I like to make sounds as I remember sounds that move me. My style is still very primitive, but at the same time it has developed in its own sense. I do my best to express myself and move people at the same time.

Do you play acoustic guitar at all?

Yes, I do. I write songs on acoustic guitar. I have a beautiful Guild, given to me by the band [Back Street Crawler] when I was sick. This is the best acoustic I’ve ever had; it’s better than the Gibson Hummingbird I had. I’ve never had a Martin, but I don’t think one would suit me. I don’t play any acoustic on stage, but I’d like to.

Do you use any special tunings on electric or acoustic?

No, but I use a lot of open strings, and the chords are neither major nor minor. I don’t like to play a major chord unless it’s necessary. I prefer to use a chord that rings, having neither major nor minor dominance. For example, if I was playing in G, I’d press down a D on the fifth string, a G on the fourth string, leave the third string open, get a D on the second string, and a G on the first. That shape can be moved up to a C [8th fret], and a D [10th fret], and an F [13th fret]. There’s also a figure I use in A with my little finger playing an A on the bottom E string while the A fifth string is ringing open, and I’m getting an Eon the fourth string, and an A on the third string.

[Ed. Note: These chords are characterized by the lack of a natural or a flatted third which would identify the chord as either major or minor.]

Are there certain scales you work from?

No, my playing is very primitive. I work from a few chord shapes, but it’s really pretty basic. I’ve never been able to get into the quick runs, the super-duper stuff that Alvin Lee or Rory Gallagher do. It’s never really interested me. I do practice whenever I can. With Free, we worked so much there was only time for women and sleep.

What effect has drugs had on your playing?

I had a very morbid interest at one point in [Jimi] Hendrix and Otis [Redding]. I used to listen to them and take all these drugs, and I’d think, “What point in my even playing? They’ve done it all.” And that was a bad way to be. I went through a big Hendrix thing, where I was infatuated by him, his music, and his death.

Did you ever meet Hendrix?

Yes, I met him a couple of times, but I can’t say that I knew him. When I was fifteen or sixteen, Hendrix first came to Britain with Chas Chandler [Hendrix’ manager], and he was going around to the music shops, and I was working in one. In that shop, if there was a colored person buying something, they’d put a “C” on the top of the sales sheet. Chas came in with Jimi one day, and, honestly, Hendrix looked freaky, and he really did smell. When he first walked in, all the salesmen were going, “Oh, my God!” There weren’t any guitars strung left-handed, so he took this right-handed Strat and turned it over, so that the low E was on the bottom. He started playing some chord stuff like in “Little Wing,” and the salesmen looked at him and couldn’t believe it. They wouldn’t own up to it afterwards, but they were all hanging around him, putting up with the smell and everything. He didn’t buy nothing, but just seeing him really freaked me; I just loved him to death. He was my hero and still remains my hero.

How do you feel about Eric Clapton’s music?

I saw Clapton whip up a storm a few months back. There’s no doubt about it: he can still play. When I saw him, he came on stage with an acoustic guitar, and everybody thought he wasn’t going to play –the band was doing all the playing. Then he went through a few songs, and someone handed him a nice Gibson Firebird, and he played ‘Bell Bottom Blues’, which is just a blues, but he whipped up such a storm. I thought, “That guy’s better than he ever was.” I was drawn out of my seat.

What’s still in store for your playing?

I think there’s still more room to develop in the way I’m playing. My vibrato is finally starting to grow up. Playing with Paul Rodgers helped me grow; he was my best teacher as to how to enhance a voice, blues-wise. I hate to play just solos; I pre-fer to hear his voice and back it up or rip it around or push it–without covering it over. My style and his grew up together.

© Steven RosenGuitar Player, July 1976

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