Interviews & Features
From Texas shuffles to silk degrees, Mr. Scaggs gives the lowdown on his guitar world
By Gary Graff
October 27, 2017
When one talks about Boz Scaggs, you sometimes have to ask which one. Raised in Texas, Scaggs grew up learning a variety of styles that he’s performed throughout a 50-year recording career. He did a short tenure with the Steve Miller Band that put him on the group’s first two impactful albums before he went solo in 1967. His 19 solo albums have taken him from gritty blues (including “Loan Me A Dime,” one of the late Duane Allman’s signature classics) to blue-eyed soul, rock and pop hits such as “Lowdown,” “Lido Shuffle” and “We’re All Alone.”
Scaggs’ hit 1976 album Silk Degrees featured the future members of Toto, while he was also part of Steely Dan leader Donald Fagen’s New York Rock and Soul Revue and toured in the Dukes of September with Fagen and Michael McDonald. Scaggs is still going strong at 73, and there’s no sign of any breakdown dead ahead…
FGPO: How did you start playing guitar?
Scaggs: Well, growing up where I did in Texas (Plano) it was just sort of the thing to do. We had a combo in high school and there was music in the air, and I know this from the history of it all that I was not the only one. I grew up among a lot of these white guys and among a group of great guitar players, which was a tradition in that area of the country. You had to know some T-Bone Walker and Freddie King was from there and Lightnin’ Hopkins was present. And we all saw him. So if you liked music and you came from that part of the country, guitar was the instrument to pick up. Also there was the folk craze; I guess I was 13, 14 years old and Josh White and Lightnin’ Hopkins and the Kingston Trio and the Limelighters and Leadbelly was from around Dallas, where I grew up. Folk music was everywhere and the guitar was the instrument.
FGPO: Were there particular players or styles you gravitated towards?
Scaggs: No, I was just fascinated by the guitar in general. I listen to all guitar music. I listened to a lot of Spanish flamenco guitar and Chet Atkins and Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry and tried to learn a little of everything. But I wasn’t one of those naturally gifted people who could really go far with that.
FGPO: Where did the folk scene fit in for you?
Scaggs: We had a little folk trio, and at the same time I was learning how to play Jimmie Reed and T-Bone Walker. I was learning how to strum the guitar and sing folks songs. I think the first guitar I got cost me $15; it was a guitar that people bought when they were bringing souvenirs over from Mexico. Those guitars were around and easy to get, cheap.
FGPO: Did you ever have a desire to be a guitar gunslinger in the Texas tradition?
Scaggs: No, not really. I didn’t have goals in that sense. I was a rhythm guitar player and a bass player in my high school combo, and I wanted to be a really good rhythm guitar player — that’s still all I really consider myself to be. I’m grown into the position of playing lead guitar sometimes, and that’s something you do. I envy guys who have that talent to be lead guitar players, but that was never my position. I love the T-Bone Walkers and the B.B. Kings and the Freddie Kings and the Eric Claptons and the Jimmy Pages, all of them, but that wasn’t my thing. It turned out in time that my voice was my instrument. The guitar…I just love the sound of it and all of its many forms, but that was not my primary instrument.
FGPO: Ironically, though, you have “Loan Me A Dime,” which is considered, rightfully, as one of the great guitar songs of all time.
Scaggs: Well, that was Duane Allman. I play it now when we do it (live), and it’s a thrill for me to be able to play some lead guitar like that. But it was and will always be Duane on that song.
FGPO: The Steve Miller Band’s 50th anniversary next year is also yours, since you were part of the group. What’s that feel like?
Scaggs: Y’know, that was just an interim thing I did, replacing a guy that left Steve’s band. Steve started actually in ’67; that’s when I left the band. It was the San Francisco Blues Band when I joined him, actually 50 years ago (in September) and I played with him for eight or nine months, and I was just filling in on music he’d already started. But it was good for me to be in the studio, and it was the first time for all of us to really work on that level.
FGPO: What did you take from the experience?
Scaggs: We did the first album (Children Of The Future) in London and the second album (Sailor) in L.A., and we worked with a great producer, Glyn Johns, on both of those records. And we were exposed to some high-level recording techniques, and we learned a lot. I think it set the path to some degree for the directions we took after that. I think Steve got some footing from those two records, and it gave me some ideas about where I wanted to go when my solo career started. It was at an age and at a time and place that was formative and fortuitous in that it gave us each a glimpse of directions that we were going in — but they were quite different directions, as it turned out.
FGPO: You go out on the road nowadays with a big body of music and an audience that’s tapped into different eras and periods of your career. What’s that like?
Scaggs: It gets better in a way. The more we do it, the more the audience seems to get what we’re doing and word of mouth gets out, and it’s been a good progression. It just feels good and it’s tight; we’re working a lot so musically it just gets tighter and tighter and it feels good.
FGPO: Your audience also isn’t dependent on having some hot new material out there, either.
Scaggs: It really is a whole different ballgame now. Nowadays those of us of my generation who have some material and have kept up their audiences, and it’s spilled over to a younger generation…that likes live music. That’s still how they connect, to a large degree. And then these millennials, the kids in their 20s and 30s, sort of know a lot about that generation that I came up in, and they like vinyl records and cocktails. The circle’s completed in a way. So it’s a very healthy scene out there on the road. A lot of venues are really set up for acts of my size, and it seems fortuitous in a way. I can kind of work as much as I want to, and I like to work.
FGPO: You’re often lumped in with what’s been labeled Yacht Rock. Does that feel like a comfortable pair of deck shoes?
Scaggs: (laughs) Well, probably somebody had some idea when they used that word, and I’m not quite sure what they meant to imply with it. Obviously they’re little convenient boxes and it’s kind of bullshit. I don’t know what it means; Does it mean we’re sort of cool or slick or sophisticated in some way? Yacht would imply something like that. I think it’s just being thrown around as a term, so it doesn’t interest me. I don’t have any idea what it’s about.
FGPO: Is there a preferred genre you associate with?
Scaggs: There was the blue-eyed soul thing awhile back, which I was also associated with. Van Morrison and Steve Winwood and Hall & Oates and Michael McDonald — those are some of my favorite artists. I like most of the artists associated with that. I probably like most of the artists associated with Yacht Rock, too. I just think it’s kind of useless.
FGPO: So what are we going to hear from you next?
Scaggs: I have something in the works. I recorded 14 new songs during the latter part of August; it’s part three of a trilogy that started with the couple of records that were produced by Steve Jordan. We did one in Memphis and then the second one was done in Nashville and they loosely revisit my musical influences growing up and explore some of the grooves and styles that seem particularly interesting to me. So this is the third part of that and it was done in L.A. and is kind of Texas-oriented, more Freddie King type of Texas. It’s a little more guitar-oriented and a little more Texas shuffle. There are some originals, and I do a couple Bobby Blue Bland songs. And I have Charlie Sexton, who’s also from Texas and Ray Parker Jr., who’s one of my favorite guitar players. So there’s some really good guitar playing on it, and I don’t know if there’s any more room for me on it. But we’ll see when we do the overdubs; maybe I can slip a little something in.