The oustanding guitarists of Tom Waits' career
By Sergio Ariza
We have already talked about the most important guitarists of three of the biggest artists of the twentieth century, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and David Bowie; so now we shall turn to one of the greatest iconoclasts of popular music, someone who began his career as a kind of 'crooner' - cursed and 'underground' - and that emerged as an unclassifiable genius in the '80s, mixing Howlin' Wolf with Cole Porter and the Stones of Exile with the polka. With one of the most characteristic voices of all time Tom Waits reinvented himself with the dissonant guitar of Marc Ribot but has always been able to surround himself with magnificent guitarists who perfectly serve his stories of hookers at Christmas, drunken pianos and blind loves. These are our ten favorite guitarists from one of the essential figures in the last 50 years.
Why fool ourselves?; the main reason for writing this article was to be able to talk about this New Yorker who can be considered one of the most original guitarists of all time. Ribot has played with the Lounge Lizards, has an extensive solo career and has created several groups such as Los Cubanos Postizos; and has also played for people like Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Caetano Veloso, John Zorn, the Black Keys, Wilson Pickett and Elton John, but his most important work has been to give the distinctive sound of the second and most important stage in the career of Tom Waits. Their relationship began in 1985 with the artist's masterpiece, Rain Dogs, the second work of the fundamental trilogy of the 80s that complete Swordfishtrombones (1983) and Frank's Wild Years (1987). From the beginning with Singapore, his angular guitar became part of the DNA of Waits’ music, giving real lessons, as in the spectacular Jockey Full Of Bourbon, with a spectacular use of tremolo, or the solo of Hang Down Your Head. From that moment, Ribot became a central figure in the music of Waits appearing on albums like Frank's Wild Years (listen to Hang On St. Christopher or Way Down in the Hole; the song that would become the The Wire’s theme tune), Mule Variations (note his beautiful work on House Where Nobody Lives or his solo on Cold Water), Real Gone (with Hoist That Rag and Make It Rain among others), Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards or his latest work to date, Bad as Me, but Ribot has also had Waits on his last solo album to date, Songs of Resistance: 1942-2018, where he sings Bella Ciao. He has also toured several times with him, as recorded on the live album Big Time, released in 1988 - that includes the 1987 tour. How could it be otherwise, when Tom Waits was inducted in 2011 at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, Ribot was there with him, setting the house on fire on Make It Rain with a Harmony Stratone and on Rain Dogs with a Telecaster.
When Tom Waits, about to start recording Rain Dogs, was asked by his record company who he wanted on his record, Waits did not hesitate and said, "Keith Richards" Waits, who was a big fan of the Stones (he always highlights Exile On Main Street as being among his favorite albums), thought it was a joke, but he got really nervous when he learned that the record company was serious and had spoken with his Satanic Majesty. A week later a note came to him: "The wait is over, let's dance. Keith." At that moment began one of the most intense relationships between two icons of the twentieth century. Two men who got along so well that some nights they ended a song and others a bottle of whiskey. In Rain Dogs his guitar was noticeable in the 'bluesy' Big Black Mariah and on the beautiful country touch of Blind Love, a song in which he exchanged 'licks' with Robert Quine and added baking vocals for Waits. In 1992 would arrive That Feel, a song composed by both, which closed the splendid Bone Machine, and in 2011 Keith would appear again in several songs on Bad As Me, including that tribute to his companion in the Stones, Mick Jagger, and to himself, on Satisfied.
The man who opened the way for Marc Ribot and who put the lead guitar on the record that was a before and after in the career of Waits, Swordfishtrombones. Fred Tackett had been a friend and collaborator of Lowell George and, after his death, he became a member of his band, Little Feat, but Tackett’s most remembered work may be on Swordfishtrombones, putting his dissonant guitar to things like Underground or putting the bluesy sauce to songs like 16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six or Gin Soaked Boy; the moment in which he was closest to another of his great influences, Howlin 'Wolf, with Tackett shining on slide.
One of my favorite guitarists, Los Lobos singer, accordionist and lead guitarist, David Hidalgo has also been a close collaborator of Waits over the years. He plays the accordion on one of Waits’ great numbers, Cold Cold Ground from Frank's Wild Years, in addition to playing the violin and the accordion on Whistle Down the Wind from Bone Machine, but it was on Bad As Me that Hidalgo finally got a chance to prove he was one of the best guitarists in the world, playing up to five songs on the album, including Hell Broke Luce, where he appears with Marc Ribot and Keith Richards. In 2012 he accompanied Waits on some live performances, including a great version of Chicago on the David Letterman program.
Robert Quine is another true legend of the guitar, he began his career with the icon of New York punk Richard Hell and has made his mark on notable albums, such as on Blue Mask by Lou Reed and Girlfriend by Matthew Sweet. His collaboration with Tom Waits is minimal, he only appears on two songs on Rain Dogs - Downtown Train and Blind Love - but coincidentally those two songs are my favorite two of the entire career of the author of Blue Valentine.
Roland Bautista had been the guitarist on Earth, Wind & Fire’s first album, and had released two solo albums, when in 1978 he received several calls to collaborate on several albums: first B.B. King offered to collaborate on his album Midnight Believer, the Jacksons to play on Destiny and the Crusaders to do the same on Images. But the strangest call he received that year was to collaborate with a white singer-songwriter, with a style of alcoholic 'crooner', who was going to release an album called Blue Valentine. It was Tom Waits but, nevertheless, they connected very well on songs like Red Shoes By The Drugstore or $ 29.00, so a couple of years later Waits contracted him again for his transition album, Heartattack & Vine; where the expert guitar player appeared on things like the title song, Downtown and the immortal Jersey Girl, where he does it with a 12 string.
The bassist, and Primus leader, Les Claypool, is one of Tom Waits 'usual collaborators, so it's no wonder that on the song that Mule Variations opened, another of Waits' fundamental albums, he was accompanied by his partner in that band, Larry LaLonde, on guitar; providing all the strength and threat that accompany this song. It would not be the last appearance of LaLonde on a Waits record, he re-appears twice (What Keeps Mankind Alive, Missing My Son) on Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, released in 2006.
One of the most important bass players in history, either within Canned Heat, or as one of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, as a session musician (he played most bass for the Monkees) or with his beloved Tom Waits, with whom he has appeared on 11 albums. But, as he already had with Canned Heat, he also sometimes plays the guitar, as in the case of the rhythmic of House Where Nobody Lives and Jesus Gonna Be Here.
What does the lead guitarist of the metal and industrial rock band Shotgun Messiah do on an album by Tom Waits? Well, prove his versatility and rediscover himself. This is what Harry Cody did with his appearances in Real Gone and Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, resulting in four songs: Metropolitan Glide, Don’t Go into That Barn, How's It Gonna End (on which he plays the banjo) and You Can Never Hold Back Spring.
I finish with the absolute protagonist. Waits has never been a solo guitarist but someone who came from kicking around the worst nightclubs in the US knows perfectly how to defend himself with a guitar. In his early days he was seen with a Gibson Hummingbird, although he also has a preference for older guitars such as a Gibson L-1 of the 30's or a '42 ES-150. His simple and direct approach fits like a glove on his stories, as you can see on songs as huge as Time, (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night or Blue Valentines.