January 6, 2015
Encore: Jude's 2013 Interview
with the Late Jeff Golub
The music community lost a great solo artist and ace session player last week when guitarist Jeff Golub passed away at age 59, after struggling with a rare brain disorder. Jude had the pleasure of interviewing Golub in 2013 about his amazing life and career for a feature in Guitar Player magazine, which you can read here:
By Jude Gold
FEW SOUNDS ARE MORE cacophonous than the deafening roar of trains rushing in and out of a busy Manhattan subway station. And, as longtime New Yorker Jeff Golub found out just last year, that maelstrom of station noise can be quite disorienting—near fatally so—if, like Golub, you’ve only just begun getting used to living life without your eyesight.
“I was at the 66th Street station, and I thought I heard them announce that my train had arrived,” says the guitarist, a veteran player renowned for his lead guitar work with such star singers as Rod Stewart and Billy Squier, and for his 12 solo albums. “But when I stepped forward, the train wasn’t there. I fell onto the tracks and realized they must have said the train was approaching. My eyes can still detect light, and I could tell the train was coming right at me. I quickly climbed up onto the platform, but the train still hit my legs and dragged me a ways.”
Though onlookers were horrified, Golub not only emerged from the near-death experience with just minor injuries, he also came out of it strangely unfazed. “I never doubted I’d make it out of there,” he says. “Afterwards in the ambulance, the EMTs told me, ‘We don’t usually pull people off the tracks alive. You must have some unfinished business to do.’”
If anything embodies this unfinished business, it’s Golub’s new solo album, a vibrant and funky collection of “soul jazz” (as he describes it) instrumentals and vocal tracks aptly titled Train Keeps a Rolling [Entertainment One]. Featuring the great organist Brian Auger (Oblivion Express, Tony Williams), the record finds Golub accompanied by singers such as Christopher Cross, David Pack, and Alex Ligertwood, a full horn section led by trombonist Nick Lane, and a stellar rhythm section helmed by A-list bassist Derek Frank and top-call drummer Steve Ferrone (Average White Band, Chaka Khan, Tom Petty). But before Golub could take on this new album project, he first had to sharpen his “blind guy” chops.
“Three years ago, I suddenly began losing sight in my right eye,” explains Golub, who, at age 55, was diagnosed with a rare condition called NAION that causes the optic nerve to collapse. “Then, my left eye followed suit. Only 15 percent of NAION sufferers lose sight in both eyes. Who knew I was so lucky? [Laughs.] The first person to help me learn to live with this situation was the great keyboardist Henry Butler, who I’ve worked with a lot. He has been blind since he was three months old. He said, ‘You’re going to have to get a lot more organized.’”
For Golub, that meant learning to remember where everything is—not just objects in his house, but also knob layouts on his favorite amplifiers (Fuchs amps, if he’s got his own gear, backline Mesa/Boogie Trem-O-Verb or Fender Hot Rod DeVille combos when he’s on the road). Luckily, Golub has very little gear on the floor to worry about. “I usually run just one pedal—a Fulltone OCD set to give me a little distortion—and I leave it on all night,” says Golub. To control the drive level on the fly, he rides the volume knob on his main guitar, a red ’65 Stratocaster he bought used for $275 in 1975. “I learned to use the volume knob like that from watching Phil Keaggy, who does it brilliantly. I grew up Northeastern Ohio, where Phil used to play all the time with Glass Harp. He influenced every guitarist in the area.”
The other thing Butler explained to Golub was that now, being fully blind, he could expect his “ear” to improve greatly over time. “When it comes to music, my hearing is getting better every day,” says Golub. “I hope to someday be like Henry—he can instantly identify and play any chord he hears, and immediately memorize song arrangements. I used to use charts and sheet music pretty regularly—though, like most guitarists, I was never an amazing sight-reader. At least now I don’t have to practice reading anymore. [Laughs.]”
As for fretboard hurdles, it’s not so much the fast runs, big solos, or octave lines that have been made more challenging by Golub’s blindness (“As my son, Chris, pointed out, I rarely opened my eyes or looked at the guitar even when I had sight”), but big leaps up or down the neck. “If I have to jump nine frets up from open E to a C# chord,” says Golub, “it’s probably not gonna happen.”
Thankfully, the great Brooklyn guitar luthier Roger Sadowsky stepped in to help. “It used to be that I couldn’t even hire Roger to work on my guitars,” says Golub. “Now, he does all my repairs for free, whether it’s fixing electronics or doing re-frets. Best of all, he figured out a way to put braille dots on the back of the neck at every fret marker. Now, I always know where I am on the fretboard.”
People have been very charitable to Golub since he lost his vision. “This didn’t just happen to me, it happened to everybody around me” says Golub. “We all have to deal with it, and my wife, Audrey, has been particularly amazing, because sometimes it’s a big hassle. The fact that I can still work is great. I am very thankful to Rick Braun, Warren Hill, Richard Elliot, Brian Culbertson, John Waite, Mindi Abair, Jeff Lorber and others in the music community who held a benefit concert for me in Newport Beach. The medical fund that resulted from that has allowed me to have guitar tech Eric Lebowitz with me on gigs, which sure makes life a lot easier.”
Golub first moved to New York in 1980, after completing two semesters of study at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Though his goal was to establish himself as a jazz player, rock and roll soon distracted him with what turned out to be his first big gig—a call to play lead guitar for a then-up-and-coming artist named Billy Squier, touring in support of the singer’s 1981 album Don’t Say No. “We went to Europe, and by the time we came back, ‘The Stroke’ and other singles were blowing up,” says Golub. “Suddenly, Billy was a big deal, and we were playing stadiums. Billy is a great guitarist, and he taught me a lot. The first thing he showed me was how to play power chords. He set my Les Paul to the bridge pickup and said, ‘Leave it there and don’t play any 3s.’ He also taught me a lot about tracking guitars. He showed me that when you’re laying down a part, it sounds better to drag the beat than to rush it.”
Golub continued touring and tracking with Squier for seven years, playing some of the guitar parts on hit singles such as “Everybody Wants You” and “Rock Me Tonight.” He even appeared in the latter song’s now-infamous 1984 music video, a writhing, Flashdance-in-satin-sheets affair that rock cognoscenti feel tanked Squier’s career. “Squier’s crowd was, you know, kind of Beavis and Butt-Head,” Golub explains. “They weren’t super sophisticated. They weren’t ready for that video. And that was when a video could make or break a band. Soon, we were canceling shows. That video singlehandedly altered Billy’s career. He must have a machine at home that kicks him in the butt every time he watches it.”
Golub continued working with Squier until 1988, when he joined forces with Rod Stewart. Over the next seven years, he toured, co-wrote songs, and tracked albums such as Vagabond Heart, Spanner In the Works, and the surprise hit record Unplugged …. and Seated with the legendary singer. It was a dream gig for Golub, particularly on those nights when, mid-set, Stewart would strip the band down to a trio and do tunes from his days fronting the Jeff Beck Group.
“Stepping into Jeff Beck’s shoes and performing songs from Truth was an incredible experience for me, because Beck was such a huge hero of mine” says Golub. “I really learned a lot from Rod about performing. He showed me how to make a big auditorium feel like a small room. He did that by not caring whether or not we made mistakes in front of people. He would try new songs in front of anybody. He never played down to his audience, he played even with them.”
Since 1995, Golub has made his living entirely as a solo artist. “Jazz rocker,” “smooth jazzer,” and “contemporary blues player” are just some of the labels people have used to describe him over the years. Whatever the case, he wins loyal fans with his sophisticated sense of harmony, soulful vibrato, natural flair for getting good rock lead tones, and ability to build powerful solos. “I don’t think my music falls into any one category,” says Golub. “I heard somebody say that music is either from the heart or it’s not, and I agree.”
Golub tracked his parts on Train Keeps a Rolling using his trusty ’65 Strat, a ’59 Gibson ES-345, a Gibson ES-175, various gauges of D’Addario strings, a 50-watt Fuchs Overdrive Supreme 1x12 combo, and a Shure SM58 microphone. “I prefer 58s because they don’t let in frequencies over 10kHz, which you don’t want on a guitar track,” says Golub.
On stage, Golub is, as always, an engaging bandleader. He used to deliver his commanding cues, huge, SRV-sized strums, R&B-inflected rhythm parts, and epic improvisations while pacing the stage like a hungry lion. Now, he does all those things from his perch on a chair or stool. “I play sitting down most of the time, now,” says Golub. “Luckily, my audience doesn’t care. They just want to watch me perform. They don’t care whether I can see them or not.”