Eric Gales: A Blues Guitar Force of Nature

Eric Gales: A Blues Guitar Force of Nature

Written by Ray Chelstowski

The only people who don’t think being nominated for a Grammy is still a big deal are those not being nominated for a Grammy. This is particularly true when you move from mainstream music to more vertical channels like the blues. Recognition in those genres is often more difficult to come by because there are so many players in the space, and airplay, popularity, and unit sales have little impact on getting a Grammy nod. When you do get nominated for a best album in the blues category, you’ve made music worth making. Last month, a true blues legend got his first shot at a Grammy (for Best Contemporary Blues Album) and it seemed like the whole industry stood up and said “’bout time!”

Eric “Raw Dawg” Gales has been wowing both fans and peers for over 30 years with an approach to guitar that is as electrifying as it is unique. Like few others, he plays a right-handed guitar upside down. This left-handed take on guitar helped establish him as a child prodigy alongside players like guitarist/singer/songwriter Joe Bonamassa, but also put him on a world stage that tempted the young player in ways that would impede his rise to a proper blues throne. Now five years sober, he has released his 18th record, Crown, and it quickly soared to a Number 1 Billboard Blues album position and finally put him in a position to walk away from the Grammys with a win in the category (to be announced in 2023). The album was made with Bonamassa, and sets itself apart with writing that offers insightful social commentary, with arrangements that put the song before the solo. It’s patient, mature, and appropriately playful.

Eric Gales, Crown, album cover.

The path to this Crown has been informed by struggles, losses, and a remarkable sense of redemption. This all unfolds on a record that establishes a renewed sense of musical purpose and humility that suggests Gales’s best work is yet to come. Copper had a chance to speak with him about the making of Crown, the importance of the thoughts it conveys, the opportunity to tap into Joe Bonamassa’s remarkable selection of vintage guitars and gear, and the gravity of this significant Grammy moment. Every now and then the Grammys gets things right. With this well-earned nod toward one of America’s most purposeful performers, they went in the right direction.

Ray Chelstowski: You’ve not only been nominated for your first Grammy. You’ve been nominated alongside some of the biggest names in music. Does that make the nod even more special?

Eric Gales: To be in the company of Edgar Winter, The North Mississippi Allstars, Ben Harper, and Shemekia Copeland is amazing. My hat is off to whoever walks off with the “hardware” [Grammy award]. It’s just great to be recognized among these kinds of peers. I spent many years in the industry and to get my first Grammy nod? I pinch myself every day. It’s quite a blessing.

RC: The new record has received a lot of critical praise, but what is it about Crown that you think sets it apart?

EG: Honestly I think that it’s the content. While the people who were involved are important too, I put that a bit further down the list. The message and the lyrical content were part of a personal goal I had made. I’d always spoken about personal issues in my songs but this time I got a little more in-depth. We started to write just before the pandemic and during the pandemic. In fact, we actually wrote the day after George Floyd died, so that added some overtones that I was very passionate about that I thought needed to be expressed in a way that wasn’t “preachy” but was part of a conversation with anyone who listens to the record.

RC: Contemporary blues is rarely delivered with a social message. Crown makes a statement on almost every track.

EG: There’s only so much that you can do subject-wise in “the blues world.” I’m not into categories and labels though. I am a blues artist at my core, but I sprinkle in other spices from inspirations that have helped cultivate me into the artist that I am. I think that this showed its presence on this record.

RC: I’ve read that the solos on this record happened in the moment. But did you come into the studio with a general framework of what the record would look like?

EG: We map the songs out before we get to the studio so that we have a guide. Then once the compass is in place everything it allows for us to chase whatever we think is dope at that moment. But what we set out to do before we went in to record, we were able to accomplish and in the end I think it all turned out OK.

RC: What was it like working on his project with your friend Joe Bonamassa, and what did he bring to the process?

EG: It was awesome. Joe brought “Joe.” That’s exactly what I wanted him to do and that helped him bring out the best Eric Gales that he could. I told him to apply the pressure and do everything that I would do if the tables were turned. He just helped me take things a little higher, all the way around.

RC: I understand that Joe offered you his vintage gear for this record and that you passed.

EG: Actually, he did offer the equipment, but then he told me that he didn’t have any issues with my tone, and just said to rock it with what I’ve got instead. He said that even made his job easier. I mean the whole world knows that Joe has this massive arsenal of equipment and it was there at our avail. But he didn’t want to fix something that ain’t broke. There were some nuances that were added where Joe’s arsenal came into play. It wasn’t like that gear was at a rest stop the entire time. We threw some things in there that gave songs a certain texture and tonality.

RC: You have been very loyal to Magneto guitars over the years and continue to play your signature Sonnet Raw Dawg RD3.

EG: That company has been on my side when no one else was and I’m a pretty loyal cat. The guitar is awesome. It’s basically a Stratocaster configuration with a flatter neck. I love the tone. I’m not prevented from playing other stuff but I play and push their guitars because they’ve been with me for so long and it’s something I love to use.

RC: You also have (Gibson) Flying Vs and SGs, and Paul Reed Smiths. Do they ever make their way out on tour?

EG: From time to time, I have [played them]. I actually have one of my brother’s old Flying Vs tucked away and I brought it out for a short stint. It really [depends on] what hits me at that moment, how I feel that day.

RC: For obvious reasons I think of Doyle Bramhall II, another left-handed blues player who plays a right-handed guitar upside down. He has a little side hustle as musical director for Eric Clapton’s band. Is that kind of role anything that would ever interest you?

EG: If the opportunity presented itself I absolutely could see that. For almost five years I played for Lauryn Hill and it was an awesome experience where I had the opportunity to learn from her and be around a whole other facet and style of music. So, yeah, I would definitely be into that.

RC: Who are you listening to these days that everyone should be giving a proper spin?

EG: Well of course there’s Kingfish [Christone “Kingfish” Ingram]. He and a bunch of other cats out there are keeping the six-string alive. So Kingfish is the guy.


Header image courtesy of Katrena Wize.


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