Q&A with Guitarist Earl Slick: David Bowie’s New Album, Designing Slick Straps and Pickups, and How He Spends His Free Time

The music man: Earl Slick dishes on the world of rock ’n roll



Oh so slick: Longtime guitarist Earl Slick rocks on

Photographs by Marita Madeloni

It’s been almost 40 years since guitarist Earl Slick was plucked from relative rock ’n roll oblivion to play alongside David Bowie during the 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. In the past few decades, he has not only continued to collaborate with Bowie — he played on the Young Americans and Station to Station albums, among others — but the Ulster County resident long ago became a respected artist in his own right with his signature blues-driven rock and roll riffs. And while he is thrilled to announce that he contributed to several songs on Bowie’s much-ballyhooed new album, The Next Day, it’s hardly the only thing on the rocker’s plate. In the last two years he has toured with the New York Dolls, recorded tracks for various rock groups, continued to design for his own line of guitar straps, and was recently invited to perform at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to living legend Chuck Berry.

» See photos of Earl alongside up-and-coming guitarist Kristen Capolino

Of course, Slick (born Frank Madeloni) hasn’t sat still since he rushed out to buy a guitar immediately after seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. He was 13 years old; by the time he was 17 he was a regular fixture on the the New York City club circuit. He later got a chance to record with his hero John Lennon, but counts Keith Richards as his single biggest influence. These days, Slick loves life on the road, rocking out onstage, turning his cell phone off — and hanging with his beloved Newfoundland dog, Banana. In fact, it seems an e-mail from his old buddy Bowie is pretty much the only thing that can stop him in his tracks.  

earl slick

How did you become involved with the latest Bowie album?
It happened fast. No one really knew what David was doing because he was quiet for almost 10 years, but out of the blue last May I got an e-mail from him — we were chatting about whatever — and the next day we were scheduling me to be in the studio by July. Whenever he wants to do something, I make sure I’m available. There’s no question.

Do the two of you keep in touch regularly?
We go through spurts, just like any other friendship.

What’s it like working together again?
It’s funny, it’s like when you go to work at an office every morning and you look in your desk and everything’s in the same place — same thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s been a week or 10 years, when we start the process it’s not really different, it just falls right into place. He’s so easy to work with.

So you recorded last summer but the single didn’t come out until this January — weren’t you bursting to tell someone?
We all signed a piece of paper, but honestly, it wasn’t the paper that kept anyone quiet. It’s something you do out of respect. But there were times when you would feel like you were about to explode. It’s difficult when you’re doing interviews and they ask what you’ve been up to — and I’m doing other stuff so I would talk about that, but right under the surface you wanna go, “We just did a new David Bowie record!” But you just gotta shut up!

Of course, the big question — will there be a tour?
We really don’t know anything right now. I can only guess, but one thing I doubt he’ll do is a big tour for the album specifically. I think the days of his big tours are over, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of some kind of gigs.

Maybe you can convince him for us!
I would go out in a heartbeat.

Are you still performing in the meantime?
I did a Midnight Ramble at Levon [Helm’s] barn in February, which was a gas because I’ve never been to one. I performed with John Sebastian, Robert Gordon, Marshall Crenshaw, Jimmy Vivino, and others. I’ll probably do that again. I never knew Levon, but we all had a blast.

What other projects are you working on?
I wanted to do more intimate venues — and now especially after doing Levon’s thing — so we’ve been putting together a project with the working title “Earl Slick’s Living Room.” It’s myself, David Johansen [singer for the New York Dolls], Mark Hudson [writer, producer, singer], Michael Houghton [singer and clothing designer], and we’re organizing a backup band. We’re just going to do our favorite stuff, and have some interaction with the audience — something really cool and casual. We’re looking at maybe the fall, doing 20-30 dates. Every time we get to a new city, I want to get a special guest up there. I’d love to get Eddie Vedder or Lucinda Williams.

earl slickEarl Slick jamming on stage

What other musicians are you listening to?
Lately, just a lot of old blues stuff, like Hank Williams, Fred MacDowell, Robert Johnson, old Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry. I was recently invited to do a Hall of Fame performance in honor of Chuck. It was really cool to get the invite, but to get the opportunity to play with one of the guys who invented what I do... But in all honesty, I haven’t really heard a band lately that’s caught my attention. Oh! That blues guitarist Gary Clarke, Jr. — I saw him sit in with the Stones at their show in Jersey. He’s great. He’s a natural. I was blown away. He’s on my go-to list for the Living Room.

Speaking of guitars, your Framus model has been a hit for a few years now. What makes it the Earl Slick model?
It’s just a really, really well-made, hand-crafted instrument that’s gonna last. I thought of everything I would want in a guitar when I sent the specs to these guys, and they did it really well. They play as good as they look. I don’t know. I accumulated four in the last four weeks. I’m like a kid when it comes to guitars — when I order new ones I’m at the window every day looking for the UPS truck.

Are you still creating designs for Slick Straps?
The straps are picking up really well, still selling exclusively on GuitarFetish.com. I do half a dozen new designs every six to eight months. I’m also working with GuitarFetish to offer a line of Earl Slick pickups, which affect the sound of your guitar. It’s a P90 pickup hand-modified to a specific sound I like. Those should be out by the summer.

» Read about Earl’s Slick Straps here

What do you do in your off time?
What off time? [Laughs] I spend the mornings doing interviews, then planning schedules, gigs that pop up... I’m usually running in and out of the studio doing projects. I’d like to check out more of the music scene around here. I do like to eat in that Little Italy area in Poughkeepsie. Cafe Bocca — God, that place is good. Otherwise, when I go on tour, it’s like a vacation. I keep my cell phone off. I hate cell phones. I’m itching to get out on the road. That’s why I can’t wait to get this new project going. I don’t know how to do nothing.

 

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