When Eric Gales plays the blues, he’s no wannabe; the music flows from life experience.
The Memphis-born guitarist, who while still a teen went national in 1991 with his debut release, the eponymous Eric Gales Band album on major label Elektra Records, has survived substance abuse, jail time, and a fascination with street life. The blues has always been there for him, however, and he’ll celebrate that fact with a headlining slot this Friday at the Briggs Farm Blues Festival in Nescopeck.
The blues has always planted a bug in Gales’ ear. From the time he was a kid, he was listening to the all-time greats.
“I was five or six years old and I was digging all this stuff; Robin Trower, Frank Marino, Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton,” lists Gales. “The early days of listening to Albert King are where that influence of the wide string bends I do comes from.”
Gales has often been compared to Jimi Hendrix – not only through his music and playing, but also for a similarly slung left-handed guitar upon his shoulder. Gales just recently passed through NEPA as part of the “Experience Hendrix” tour, a traveling celebration of Hendrix’s music as interpreted by several different guitarists. Like Jimi himself, Gales says he’s always been told his playing was unorthodox, a fact the he’s since embraced.
“Yeah, I don’t re-string it or anything like that,” Gales explains of the guitar setup. “I just take a right-handed guitar and flip it over. I don’t reverse the strings. When I first held the guitar upside down, that’s what felt comfortable to me. Before I knew it, I was off to the races. I write with my right hand, but play guitar left-handed, upside down, so my little string is up top. When I bend it, I pull down.
“Since the beginning, I’ve been told that I play abnormally. Who’s to say that everybody else isn’t wrong and I’m right?”
Even though the national spotlight shined bright early on for Gales, spotlight that included cover stories galore for guitar magazines worldwide (Gales was lumped in with the then-saturated “shred” set), he made the rounds on the talent show circuit well before his debut record.
“I played like three times a year,” Gales says of his pre-record deal days.” I got noticed in a battle of the bands contest. I was 15 and this guy says, ‘Win, lose, or draw, I want to work with you guys.’ So that led to a production deal, a demo of four songs, and we shopped that and that generated 13 or 14 record labels that wanted it. We narrowed it down between Elektra and a couple other record labels. We ended up doing the Elektra thing and uh… and going through the motions.”
While Gales’ major label experience was not quite as rough as the stories some artists have, he made up his mind after the first record that he would, from then on, pursue things a little differently.
“I decided to say, ‘I’m gonna let the record industry come to me,’ you know what I mean?” Gales explains. “I’m gonna do what I do, what I was born to do originally. I’m not gonna chase after it. If it happens, it’s going to come to me. And, if it happens, I’m going to feel more grateful about it. You have to go out and chase your goal. Yeah, that’s cool, but you know, I gotta do what I gotta do. Which is music is my thing, and it’s the top of my chain.”
And about that spotlight shining so bright at such a young age? Gales has no regrets about how it all went down and, seemingly, wouldn’t have done anything differently. During that early 1990s era, continuing up until the present, he’s had the opportunity to share stages with many of his heroes and expresses wishes to play with such contemporary guitar greats as John Mayer when asked who he has yet to play with.
“Man, it was amazing,” Gales says of the exposure at a young age. “I might not have been aware of everything that was before me at the time, because I was taking it in stride as much as I could. But, believe it or not, I was overwhelmingly happy. I was happy, but I still stayed as focused on my craft as I could. I’m fortunate to be here still, even after all my experiences. 20-some years later, it’s still an amazing thing for me. If I passed away today, I could say that I’ve done some things that a lot of people can’t say they’ve done.”
Most recently, Gales has been spending time as part of the “supergroup” Pinnick, Gales, Pridgen, also featuring King’s X frontman Dug Pinnick and ex-Mars Volta drummer Thomas Pridgen. The trio has just released their second album, titled “PGP2.”
“I have known Dug for a while,” says Gales. “The first band I opened up for when I first came out was King’s X, so for me to be able to do this project with him is amazing. To be honest with you, this music takes my breath away. Thomas [Pridgen], I have known for six or seven years. He played on some of my solo albums. We got together and did this project and it was just wild. I didn’t expect it to be as major as it is. It is like when you go to open up a Christmas present and you don’t know what it is and it ends up being something amazing. That is really what this band is like.”
Gales can’t express enough optimism about the project, which is an amalgam of each other’s influences – there’s heavy rock, a little funk, some sweet Southern soul, and a whole lot of passionate musicianship thrown into the mix with Pinnick/Gales/Pridgen.
“I have to say that some of the most amazing stuff that I’ve done in my life came out on this record,” Gales points out. “It tapped into quite a few interesting worlds. I tapped into the Jeff Beck world, the Jimi Hendrix world, the Eric Johnson world, the John McLaughlin world. … There is some bizarre stuff. It is not me just trying to play some other folks’ stuff. I was very proud of that. There are a lot of critics out there and I have not seen anyone say, ‘This is a great rendition of someone trying to play like Jeff Beck.’ It really sounds authentic. For me, I’m enjoying every bit of it. We have high aspirations of taking this out on the road.”
For his appearance at Briggs Farm, Gales will have his trio in tow, consisting of himself on guitar, Orlando Thompson on bass, and drummer Nick Hayes. The Eric Gales Trio releases “Ghost Notes” late last year, which, incidentally, is Gales’ first all-instrumental album. He says that the instrumental format also allowed him to, in a sense, spiritually connect with the music.
“I’ve never done that before, record an all-instrumental album, and I thought it would be interesting,” says Gales. It turned out great. In the process of recording the album, different memories began to surface that made it that much more special: listening to Robert Randolph, Eric Johnson, my deceased brother Little Jimmy King, and my grandfather. Also, I didn’t have to worry about any vocals, and just a different approach of the guitar being the main carrier of the melody. But again, I’m always looking for new, modern sounds and different ways of recording.”
When asked about what drives him, Gales closes with a reflection that echoes the very core of the blues itself in the tenacity, spirit, and uplifting feeling that comes from the music, and perhaps more importantly, the artists who play it.
“Practice every day, and try to let nothing stop you,” he begins. “There are definitely some discouragements in this world, but you have to keep pursuing.”