Music writer Scott Sterling.
Photo courtesy of Scott Sterling

From Chuck Berry to Tom Morello: A Conversation About Black Guitarists

Last updated:

A music lover and a veteran music journalist discuss iconic Black guitarists from Prince and Tom Morello to Chuck Berry, Slash, Lenny Kravitz and more.

Veteran music journalist Scott Sterling has lived in L.A. for decades but still holds a very warm spot in his heart for his hometown of Detroit Rock City. A longtime writer for the likes of the L.A. Times, LA Weekly, KPCC and URB, Sterling also spent some time at the world-famous KROQ, where he continued to soak in his love for new music along with the classics he grew up with.

Like Scott, I am also a Black man from the Midwest who loves music. On two different occasions this month, we had long conversations trying to keep our focus on Black guitarists that we admire, who might not get the ink they deserve. Naturally, we veered off track from time to time but eventually brought it home. Despite its length, this is a heavily condensed version of our conversation.

Let’s talk about great Black guitarists! But before we do, can we just give some love to my man from Thin Lizzy?

Oh, dude, we can talk about Phil Lynott all day and twice on Sunday. I’ve noticed that more and more, over the years, people are getting it. Talk to Slash and he will tell you, flat out, the best live album of all time is “Live and Dangerous.”

And the more you read, the more you will see that he knew that he was this Black dude in this crazy white world. There’s this amazing BBC interview where he goes … he goes Black Power on them and the other guys in the band are like, “Woah, where did this come from?” There was so much going on with that dude.

Speaking of Slash, isn’t it interesting that most people don’t consider him a Black guitarist? But they definitely consider Lenny Kravitz Black, even though they are both biracial Angelenos born a year apart who grew up just a few miles away from each other.

I think a lot of people don’t even realize who Slash’s family is. And Lenny is the same way. The last time I saw Lenny Kravitz, he opened for Aerosmith and they loved his ass. He’s got that special place, as does Slash, where they can live in both worlds, but they only really live in one because they only get the acknowledgment in one.

We know Slash is a guitar hero but is Lenny?

Yes. A lot of his great solos are themes. It’s not about blowing everyone away, it’s creating a little melodic theme that people can latch onto; to where it’s almost like a lyric. You end up knowing the solo the same way you know the words.

OK, so let’s get into someone who is super respected but rarely talked about: Eddie Hazel from Parliament-Funkadelic. Do you think he gets overshadowed because Bootsy Collins and George Clinton are so iconic? Would you consider him a great guitarist?

Oh, yeah. He’s one of the main dudes. His big contribution is the “Maggot Brain” solo. He put his entire being into one solo. It’s so soulful and THERE IT IS. That’s the one you can always pull out when people ask, “What’s the deal with Eddie Hazel?” This is the deal. Flea can talk about Eddie Hazel like nobody. He’s got that same passion.

Scott Sterling with Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols
Scott Sterling with Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols.

Black rock writers matter. When you say, “KISS are great performers,” … this is coming from a guy who saw Prince up close and personal. When you write, it’s delivered in a slightly different context. Wouldn’t you agree?

I wrote something for Consequence of Sound about KISS, and one of the editors said, “We’ve covered them before, but you’re the only one who ever took them seriously. You didn’t crack any jokes. You respected them. And that is rare.” I didn’t realize that. I was like, “You’re right!”

We’ll get back to guitarists in a second, but when was the last time you heard so much love for Black folk?

Never. Literally never. This is a first. We’re going through some shit here for the first time.

I think you’re right. When Michael Jackson died, they were like, “He’s a pedophile.” When Prince died, they said he’s a drug addict. Our heroes can never win.

This is a first.

Speaking of Prince, you got to see him many times, but one of those times was at a special gathering. Where? At a tiny club?

No, at his house in L.A. It was nicknamed the “3121 House.” They played all night.

Which incarnation of his band was this?

It was an insane band that I have never seen him play with — before or since. He literally had a guy who’s known as the Jimi Hendrix of harmonica. And after you see this guy you’ll say, “Yes, he’s the Jimi Hendrix of harmonica.” It was this crazy, makeshift band. They were in the basement of his house. He had just released three records at Target on the same day. “LOtUSFLOW3R,” “MPLSoUND” and a solo album he made with Bria Valente.

They were doing this for a handful of press. They had originally invited Ann Powers, and for some reason, she couldn’t make it, and she kicked it to me, which is why Ann Powers is forever one of my favorite people. She said, “This is something you need to do.” And I said, “Yes, yes it is.”

It was so surreal. It wasn’t even like a movie. It was better than a movie. We were there because of that whole suite of albums, and he didn’t play anything from any of them.

That was the night he completely blew my mind because they opened with The Cars’ “Let’s Go” and they did Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” and between those two, I was just done. I’ve only seen one other instance of him doing “Let’s Go,” and that was up in Toronto.

Was this the multimillion-dollar house that he rented from either a musician or an athlete?

Yes. I want to say it was an NBA player. He painted the place and did all these renovations to it. And I think they had to sue him to turn it back because when they saw what he had done, they said WTF? Because he had made it Prince City.

Exactly. And the story I heard was the guy was upset and Prince said, “Will this suitcase of money turn that frown upside down?” (Editor’s Note: It turns out Prince wired him a half-million dollars.)

Oh, yeah, he went way overboard. And the guy was Prince’s biggest fan when it was all said and done. And that’s the thing that people miss. Because people like to talk about the drama and the negative stuff, but there’s so many stories of things that he has done for people, big and small — philanthropy, music — he was always doing kind things for people. I think that’s unfortunate because that was a big part of who he was. He didn’t use it to get on TV. Being Prince was enough for him to get on TV.

You were probably at his last great L.A. show.

Prince's marquee at his last L.A. show
The Hollywood Palladium’s marquee advertising Prince’s last show in L.A. Photo by Tony Pierce.

That was his last L.A. show, period. That was the last one.

Well, the reason I remember it is because I was driving Uber that night, and I picked up three stewardesses who had an extra ticket and they offered it to me. And I declined because it was a busy, fun night to drive. But also, I saw the setlist from the night before, and it was disappointing to me. Then, when I saw the setlist for that final night, I couldn’t believe my eyes. But I had been burned by his Troubadour show in 2011 where all he played was jazz.

Yes, that had always been his thing. If you wanted to see the full Prince experience, you had to see his biggest venues. Because as soon as you would get into the little places, it’s like he’s not Prince anymore.

Yes, and that’s why I was all, “You girls have a great time at the Palladium because you’re going to be lucky if you hear one or two hits.” And just the opposite happened that night.

Yeah, it was a four-hour show. It was the longest Prince show I’d ever seen.

And mostly hits, right?

Scott Sterling
Scott Sterling doing a rare DJ set at the Standard in DTLA. Photo by Tony Pierce.

Yeah. And in retrospect, and it kills me to even think about it, I don’t think about it much, because, I don’t know, it was — there was something going on that night. I don’t want to say he knew he wouldn’t be playing L.A. again, but he really [voice cracks] gave a lot.

Scott, you’re choking up.

It was special. It was special.

And you’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of concerts. Maybe a thousand.

It’s ridiculous.

So you’ve seen all the best and just remembering this Prince show is making you choke up.

I’ve seen Prince a bunch of times but you could see that he was going out of his way — he was really giving us everything he possibly could. Old, old shit. New. Everything. Just really going through it. So that you can really say you saw PRINCE. It was like the Forum shows, but with a little more intensity. It was ratcheted up pretty high that night. People couldn’t hang.

Let’s switch gears to someone who is getting a little notoriety right now thanks to the Beastie Boys book and documentary: Bad Brains.

Dr. Know. Yes.

Were they as fast live as they are on record?

The time I saw them, they were. Who did I see them open for? I think it was Living Colour. I saw them in Detroit. We have a weird history with Fishbone, Bad Brains and the Chili Peppers because those bands could really play and they wanted to show that they were as good as all the Detroit bands.

But compared to Bad Brains — and I love the Ramones — but a lot of punk is like kids’ songs.

That’s kind of the thing. They’re different levels. Bad Brains was kind of like on some Miles Davis jazz thing. Those guys could really play. They would take that virtuosity and squeeze them into these insane punk songs. I probably got into Living Colour before I got into Bad Brains as a kid. But it was the same thing — amazing musicians trying to push metal/pop-metal and it came out really cool. Bad Brains did the same thing way before through hardcore punk right at the beginning in D.C. Compared to 1-2-3-4 New York stuff — which was cool.

What the Ramones did was amazing. They broke down all kinds of barriers. But Bad Brains was on a different level. And Bad Brains was also Black. And we’re also talking about an era where being a Black rock band was really hard. The history of Black rockers is crazy. Little Richard and Chuck Berry were literally risking their lives. At any point, they could have been shot by cops at the side of the road.

Little Richard alone. Being a flamboyant Black man all by itself is dangerous, but to also be gay and famous and wearing eyeliner and being loud and maybe being perceived as rich — you’re a target for so many evil forces.

If you have never read his authorized biography, it will completely blow your mind. Because all the things you are saying are true, but it’s amplified. He used to travel with this beautiful curvy woman. That was his lure to find gay guys. So not only was he doing all this crazy stuff on stage, but he was also sleeping with young white guys.

And, by the way, what’s more punk rock than that?

Nothing.

And like Bad Brains, how punk is it to break speed records with the hardcore and then quickly shift gears to reggae? And it might have been the first time that a lot of those teenage kids heard reggae live.

It probably was.

Let’s shift gears over to Nile Rodgers. How important was he to Duran Duran?

He was very important because after they played Live Aid, Duran Duran were pretty much considered done.

They did something bad?

Yeah, they did a version of “A View to a Kill — infamous among Durannies. There was a high note and Simon’s voice breaks like he’s 14. It was literally the last time the original five played together. You can see it. They were just all over the place. They were a complete mess. For Nile Rodgers to take the three guys who were left … he brought them back to life.

Nile produced “Notorious,” their first post-Live Aid record. And the single “Notorious” was like, what? It was like, got-damn. And then “Skin Trade,” which was funkier and deeper.

It was cool because even before they started with him, John Taylor was a huge Chic fan. He was all about disco. So working with those guys on Power Station, Tony Thompson on drums, so to get in the room with Nile Rodgers as a producer really woke them all up.

Should we consider Nile a great guitarist?

Yes, and he is. To me, he is. And he’s got his own Fender guitar. And when you think about Prince and what he did on “Kiss,” that was Nile’s calling card. That guy could start a guitar lick and all of a sudden, you’ve got “We Are Family.”

And this is what’s fun about Black guys talking about Black guitar players. My favorite band growing up was AC/DC, just like yours was KISS. When we think about riffs, we traditionally think about them as hard rock riffs. But when Black guitarists create riffs, it’s a smoother, more melodic thing. Would you agree?

Absolutely.

Like your example with Prince’s “Kiss.” That’s nothing that long-haired stoners are working on when trying to be inspired to write original songs. That riff is uniquely Black. But because funk and disco guitarists don’t also have that 20-second solo, I feel like they’re overlooked.

Black guitarists, a lot of them, should be considered the same way Keith Richards is. They don’t even give them that respect. Because Keith is doing all those things you’re talking about: He’s the bedrock, locking it down, keeping it straight. Everybody can go hog wild because Keith has got that shit in the pocket. And he gets a lot of praise for it. But a lot of Black guitarists do that too. That’s the Nile Rogers style. “This is shit you’re going to remember 50 years from now.”

One of my favorite things about the Chuck Berry doc “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was when Keith said he could tell that Chuck’s pianist, Johnnie Johnson, either wrote or arranged those songs because all of the chords were tough to play on guitar but super easy on the piano.

Well, a lot of times back then, the piano player was also the bandleader. So you can’t really take anything from Chuck, but we should praise Johnnie.

Even better is Brian Wilson, a true musical genius, and I’m not knocking Keith. But when Brian Wilson steals from Chuck Berry, I think that’s the highest praise.

Absolutely.

OK, you’ve touched on Vernon Reid. I think, sadly, he’s going to go down as a one-hit-wonder.

That’s tough. It’s hard to relegate an artist of that caliber as that. He was another one — an amazing musician. His musical knowledge across genres is infinite.

And that solo, at that time, was unreal. I felt exactly the same way when I first heard him, as when I first heard Slash on “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” It’s like la-la-la — WAIT A DAMN MINUTE. So what else should we be listening to from Living Colour other than “Vivid”?

“Vivid,” “Time’s Up” and “Stain,” those first three records — there’s some shit on that second record, lyrically especially, I’d recommend.

They did disappear, though.

It’s that natural shift, and time and tastes change.

But just the fact that they pulled it off is the win. They pulled it off. They were able to be on a major label for three albums, two in the Top 20. Opened for the Stones — they did it. You can’t be mad. And they did it as an all-Black rock band. They did it like a band like Fishbone shoulda done it, but the Chili Peppers got to do it.

Which breaks my heart.

That’s the one that always kills me.

Don’t get me started. Let’s finish with Rage Against the Machine because this is their time again, strangely. I hear them being blasted from cars. I see young people discovering them or rediscovering them. I don’t know if you watch these reaction videos of black dudes listening to music they haven’t heard before.

Those are my favorites. I recently found one for Christopher Cross’s “Sailing.” The whole time the guy is just blissfully nodding his head for like three minutes straight. Then, he stops and says, “Man, I’m on a beautiful voyage, and I don’t care where I am going, but I can’t wait to get there.” He’s feeling it so hard.

There’s nothing Black people can’t do — other than be in an all-Black rock band and be successful forever — but we can definitely react to shit. And I do love him. I saw that guy do Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

That song’s incredible. I would love to watch him watch that.

He found this weird live version, from the year it had come out. Maybe the month it had come out. They knew it was a hit, obviously, because they were closing with it. But anyway, I got into this guy because I saw him react to “Killing in the Name.”

So here you have Tom Morello, who is literally a guitar hero. An educated Black man who can play with Bruce Springsteen just as easily as he can play with Zach, and I still think if he wasn’t wearing a cap, he could walk down Sunset Boulevard and nobody would stop him. How is that possible? And they’re headlining Coachella! (Editor’s Note: Sadly, Coachella is now canceled.)

That was the beauty of Rage Against the Machine. They never offered themselves as the lead. It was never about their faces, their look. They were never on their covers. It was always an image, an aesthetic, an idea.

To me, there’s a direct link from Eddie Van Halen to Tom Morello, because going back to Van Halen’s first album to the last, he would always do one song for the guitar players. He would do one new innovative thing. And all the guitar players would go nuts and try to figure it out. And I don’t think that people talk about it enough — that in every Rage record, Tom did the same thing.

Should we feel like Rage sold out by headlining this Coachella?

No. It’s the classic Robin Hood scenario. Take as much money as you can from The Man, and then do good. That’s why you do Coachella first with your reunion. They’re probably going to do some renegade L.A. show afterward in DTLA. Rage is gonna do what Rage is gonna do. But to do some shit like Coachella, even though it might not “look great,” but they’re gonna do some good with it. They’re gonna further their agenda.

And they deserve it.

Absolutely. They’ve earned it.

Los Angeleno