Jimi Barber, Stones Guitar Roadie
Stones Guitar Man Jimi Barber talks to Tony Bacon
A few months ago guitarist Jimi Barber became one of around 30 players to audition for the Pretenders, out of some 400 who applied for the job. He remembers that the session went really well, but while chatting with Chrissie Hynde afterwards she said, 'What are you then, a roadie who plays guitar?'
With that question she crystallised an attitude that Jimi has had to deal with for some years now — is he a roadie, or is he a guitarist? He's been both, and in a sense still is. One activity he undertakes primarily for pleasure, the other primarily for cash.
He's roadied with Thin Lizzy, looking after Phil Lynott's bass amps, and with the Rolling Stones, taking care of and tuning all the group's guitars. He's had to deal with gibes from other crew members when they've discovered he's a player too, and finds that people often have difficulty in accepting that someone can be good at a range of jobs centring on the electric guitar. Jimi also makes guitars, and collects guitars (see photo for some of his instruments).
'The only reason I roadie is for the money,' he says. 'A lot of musicians in this country in a lot of ways are on a high horse — they accept the fact that they can live on the dole, just about, or that they can suffer for their music. I think that's a load of rubbish. To me there's no difference between me picking up a guitar in my bedroom and getting enjoyment out of playing that, you're still playing the guitar. You probably get more satisfaction out of doing a gig or recording a session or whatever — but if I can still get that satisfaction by playing guitars, making guitars, collecting guitars, or tuning guitars for other people, then I'll do it. The only time I ever made any consistent money at all playing was when I was 12 years old, playing in a jazz band with my old man in a pub!
'I think a lot of musicians slot themselves into categories and they think they shouldn't do anything else or prostitute themselves in any way. They're too proud, and I think it's a ridiculous attitude to have.'
Jimi got into roadying 'purely by accident', which seems to be the usual route. His first taste came at the beginning of 1980 when the manager of the band he was in at the time also happened to manage Thin Lizzy — and they needed someone to drive the crew around in their luxurious mini-van for dates in Ireland. Bored with driving and long waits, Jimi ended up setting-up and generally looking after Phil Lynott's Dynacord bass amplification after the original crew member doing that got chucked off the tour, apparently for spending more time in the pub than on the stage.
"JAGGER, RICHARD, WOOD AND WYMAN BETWEEN THEM GET THROUGH AT LEAST A DOZEN GUITARS..."
He'd only been back home for a few days when a call came: did he want to do a tour of Scandinavia? The dilemma returned — musician or roadie? Jimi wasn't doing any work with his band, which was gradually slipping apart, so he did the Scandinavian Lizzy tour, deciding after it was over that he'd definitely give up roadying. But the inevitable call came: could he do a British tour? They couldn't find anyone else to do it. Jimi relented. The tour dragged on for nearly 10 weeks.
'No-one wants to do British tours,' says Jimi. 'It's very hard, there's no money, the expenses are the lowest if it's a British band, and probably the audiences are the hardest to please and the worst to work with from a band's point of view.'
Again he decided to give it up. Again he got a tempting phone call — this time half the world seemed to be on offer, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the USA. He didn't refuse, and from August 1980 to Christmas 1980 he worked his way round the World.
It was the hardest tour he's ever done — some of the crew walked out at the end, and many became ill through sheer exhaustion. In the US, they also had to deal with one of the worst winters on record — Jimi points out that while they were working in New York 12 people died in the surrounding areas from the cold. Shattered, he decided again to get out of touring, and this time he stuck to it. Well, for a while, anyway. He spent most of 1981 'finding out even more about guitars' — either through playing or actually building a few.
Later, Alan Rogan, guitar technician with the Who, called Jimi. 'How would you like to work with the Rolling Stones?'
Jimi reckons that he didn't want to do it at first. He felt it was out of his depth — looking after and tuning up somewhere around 35 guitars on a European tour for 'The Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band In The World' when all he'd done before was to set up bass amps for Thin Lizzy.
But there were a number of factors in Jimi's favour. Alan Rogan could only do work outside of the Who camp if they weren't working, and it looked increasingly likely that Townshend and co. would either be touring or recording in summer '82. So Rogan had to cover himself. Jimi, on closer examination, looked rather an ideal candidate: he'd had personal experience of the rather tricky Boogie amps beloved by Ronnie Wood and Keith Richard, he'd also worked with the similarly problematical Nady radio wireless systems when with Thin Lizzy, and the Stones used these too: Alan Rogan also knew that Jimi was an accomplished guitarist with 14 years experience of playing; and lastly, Jimi didn't take drugs, an ideal state for the level-headed demands of caring for all those guitars!
His aversion to drugs appears to be a rarity among roadies, let alone among big-league rock musicians. 'Yeah, it never ceases to amaze people,' he laughs, 'working with bands like Lizzy and the Stones. You get a lot of stick, you can be very outcast. If you tour all the time it does help to take something, which is in a way why I stopped doing it at one time, because I didn't want to get into that at all. I'Ve seen how it fucks people up, and kills people.'
Alan Rogan ended up doing the first dates on the tour, and Jimi went along to see what had to be done. The job revolves around the maintenance, preparation and tuning of the Stones guitars — no mean task considering that during the set on this tour Jagger, Richards, Wood and Wyman between them get through at least a dozen guitars, with around 20 having to be set up and ready to go. The guitars, carried on tour in five huge trunks, were set up on stands behind the backline stage right, where the guitar roadie would sit with two Boogie combos and two Strobotuners (one of each for back-up), the line of vision and communication clear beyond the drum kit and on to the stage.
He'd ensure that guitars were tuned and ready two or three songs in advance, and that the three guitarists in the Stones (four counting Jagger) were kept supplied with instruments exactly as required.
"YOU HAVE TO PLAY CHORDS ON THE GUITAR AFTER YOU'VE TUNED THEM UP WITH THE STROBOTUNER TO SEE IF IT'S OK UP TO THE NECK..."
Jimi eventually took over from Alan towards the end of July '82 — still no-one seemed sure what the Who were up to. Jimi phoned one of the Stones production people to see if he was needed, and he got a positive reply. He then phoned Rogan, and he too told Jimi to get down to the airport. Jimi ended up on the band's plane after a traffic hold-up prevented him from meeting the crew's flight — the trip in the luxury converted Boeing was apparently an experience in itself.
So he found himself in a hotel at Frankfurt the night before his first gig on the crew, having spoken to no-one about the details of the next day's activities. Then came a phone call at about 3 in the morning, requesting that he go up to Keith's room. Eventually he found himself face to face with Jagger, Richards and Wood in a small room. 'I had to reassure them that I knew from Alan what happened and that I'd written everything down. At that moment the door opened and in walked this black sax player Gene Barge, he's a big guy, at least 6'5" from the Deep South he used to call me his 'little babe'. And he came in and put his arms round me and said they'd got nothing to worry about because he used to sit near me and Alan with the other sax player, Bobby Keys, when they weren't actually playing on a song. He'd watched me watching Alan, and he reassured them that I knew what I was doing, and that calmed them down.'
So the next day saw Jimi's first gig, and to his initial horror he discovered that extra seating had been put in by the promoter around the back of the stage — so an already nervous Jimi found himself being gawped at by a few hundred people as he attempted to get on with his work. But things settled down, and the gig went smoothly, apart from one moment when Richard crashed one of his Teles against a drum stand and put the whole thing out of tune. Jimi panicked as he started to retune it and the booing and stamping echoed around the hall from the impatient audience. He muttered apologies to Keith and fumbled on with the Tele and the Strobotuner. A cool Richard calmed him down with one sentence: 'Look kid, it's only rock'n'roll...' The tele was tuned, and Jimi settled in to a successful first gig. Things got smoother as the tour trundled on — though on one gig Jimi held up the whole show for half an hour. He tells the story.
'The worst thing that happened was an accident I had in Italy. I'd get the guitars out of the trunks about an hour or so before the show, so that they could settle in to the humidity and so on. There'd be two security guys who wouldn't let anyone near them. This gig, I caught my fingers in one of the trunks as I was getting some cases out — the lid came crashing down. They went white and I couldn't feel them at all.
'You have to play chords on the guitars after you've tuned them up with the Strobotuner to see if it's OK up to the neck, so the idea is you tune them up about two songs in advance. I couldn't feel my left hand, and when I tried to play a chord I felt this incredible pain like I'd been stabbed in the ends of my fingers. I thought I'd broken them.
'So I went to see one of the doctors and they sprayed it with this jelly stuff that numbs your fingers — I think it's illegal over here, you get this strange taste of oysters in your mouth — and he said I couldn't do anything for 20 minutes. So I had to say when I was ready for the Stones to come on! They had to wait half an hour, the audience went crazy.
'The guitar technician from the support band, the J.Geils Band, sat with me in case anything went wrong and, sure enough, as I was tuning Ronnie's Tokai Strat with the Floyd Rose tremolo arm I broke a string, and that's one of the hardest to re-string.'
"...STEINBERGER'S TUNING... FROM ONE COUNTRY TO THE NEXT - IT WOULD STILL BE IN TUNE."
As a guitarist, did Jimi find any of the guitars that he had to deal with (see separate list) particularly appealing?
'There are a couple of Keith's guitars that are stunning. The natural Telecaster, I think it's '53, had been butchered a bit — pickups, nut, machines, bridge all changed — very beaten up. But the sound of it... so sharp! You'd play along with the band to get the tuning right in advance, and you'd find with that guitar that you'd gone over the time limit you allowed yourself. It was a very, very nice guitar to play.'
Wyman's use of the Steinberger bass (see our review in MUK No 10) has drawn even more attention to this amazing all-plastic instrument. 'Bill's very fussy about his tuning, although I only had to retune it on one song. That must have been the ultimate test for the stability of the Steinberger's tuning, that tour — it was absolutely amazing, Sometimes you could take it out of its case after it had been driven or aeroplaned perhaps from one country to the next, and it'd still be in tune.'
Jimi's guitar making activities have increased lately, and when we met in late October he'd just finished making a small 19in-scale electric for Ronnie Wood's son Jesse's sixth birthday — dubbed the MB Jessecaster. 'It's a good looking mini-axe with a beautiful birds-eye and figured maple neck (the blank came from Sussex supplier David Dyke), a mahogany body finished in Ice Blue, a combination Chandler/Schecter bridge, and a Bill Lawrence blade-magnet mini-humbucker.
'There's no-one, as far as I can make out, making electric guitars specifically for kids,' complains Jimi. 'Even those "travel guitars" can be disgusting looking instruments. You can get small guitars, but they'll have the same width fingerboard, same size necks and so on, and they're usually terrible to play. I'd have trouble playing it, let alone a six-year-old. I'm sure there's a market — I'm going to make another one next for my two-year-old nephew. By the time he's three he might have some interest, even if it's to hit his Uncle Jim over the head with. You can get small violins for kids, you can get piano pedals adjusted, so many instruments, so why not electric guitar?'
There's also a possibility now that Jimi will make a guitar for Ronnie himself — Wood was impressed with Jimi's first guitar he showed him, it's loosely based on an Explorer. Plans were being sent off to Ronnie in New York when we met, and fingers are crossed. He may do one for Keith, too.
But why did he start making instruments? 'That started off as a sort of personal challenge. I had a lot of materials hanging around for years, things like pickups and machine heads, and I bought a lot of wood about seven years ago which I've had in storage. I was getting quite sickened by guitars, especially American ones, being labelled as the best in this field and the best in that, when a lot of them were rubbish. I don't like a lot of the construction and materials, so I thought it'd be interesting to make a few myself, especially as I had access to two really good workshops.'
The main workshop he's referring to is that of his brother Stephen - he's a lute and harpsichord maker, one of the best lute makers in the country according to Jimi. Stephen also teaches at the London School of Furniture on instrument making, having taken over from Stephen Delft. Advice on some techniques directly relating to wood was obviously forthcoming for Jimi, and he was thus in a privileged position. 'Making a neck gives me pleasure,' enthuses Jimi. 'It might sound strange to say it but you can feel it growing, it takes shape as you do it, and it's completely up to you how you want it to feel. That's the advantage of someone who can play the guitar making a guitar. I've seen a lot of so-called makers in this country whose necks are just crap.
The only guitars here that have really caught my eye are the Overwaters, but even they don't look to me to have been designed by a guitar player. I don't think there are many makers in this country coming out with anything incredible because of the price involved. On the Jessecaster, for example I'm making about £50, and that was really as a favour.'
"JIMI'S GUITAR MAKING ACTIVITIES HAVE INCREASED LATELY... JUST FINISHED A 19IN SCALE ELECTRIC..."
What does he think of the more established makers and manufacturers? 'In Britain guitar makers are more traditional — not in terms of copying old Fenders and Gibsons particularly, but they're more basic, kept much simpler. That tends to put people off a little bit because you haven't got the flashiness in British guitars — typically British really.
'I actually prefer American instruments, basically in terms of Gibsons and Fenders. I don't know of anything in America that's absolutely amazing, although there are a couple of interesting companies. Dean are making some quite nice looking guitars, but I've only played two or three. Some of them are just completely over the top in terms of looks and controls and everything. Some Hamers are good, some very nice ones they're making.'
Jimi has also a good collection of instruments himself — he seems to have a penchant for Les Pauls at the moment. But the whole vintage market can get too much like antique dealing, and veer too far away from what it's actually all about — playing good guitars. Jimi has distinct views in this area, and a batch of horror stories only some of which we can repeat thanks to the British libel laws...
'Most of the vintage instruments that I've used or tuned for other people have been garbage,' he declares, 'and they've often paid fortunes for them. Absolute fortunes. And apart from that, many of them aren't what they're claimed to be, either, specially in terms of Gibsons. Most of the old Les Paul Standards that you read about aren't, at all. I know of at least 12 people in this country who've paid four figures for '58 flame tops. A lot of them are '57 or '66 gold tops that have been refinished — and it's very hard to tell the difference, I must admit. I nearly bought one a year ago from a certain con-man. He's sold the same one three times, bought it back off the guys each time when they've found out what it really is, given them peanuts back, and each time sold it for at least £1500 as a 1960 cherry sunburst Les Paul Standard with a beautiful flame top. It's actually a 1957 gold top that's had a new finish put on.
'I nearly fell for it, talked him down to a thousand from £1500. But I wanted to get an expert, Doug Chandler, to look at it. As soon as I mentioned the guy's name he didn't want to know. Someone else did buy it, I know.'
"...A LOT OF SO-CALLED MAKERS IN THIS COUNTRY WHOSE NECKS ARE CRAP. THE ONLY GUITARS THAT HAVE CAUGHT MY EYE ARE OVERWATERS."
He closes with an example of how money ends up as pretty irrelevant at the top of the tree — where it grows thickest. 'Ronnie bought a 1957 Stratocaster; and it still had a price tag hanging from it when I saw it, which he thought said $350 — this is a white, maple neck 1957 Strat with all gold parts, in immaculate condition — and it was actually $3500. He shrugged his shoulders and said what the hell, he liked it. Now all right, a guy in that position is going to use it, abuse it, but he's going to play it. To him, paying that sort of money is like me or you paying £3.50, not even that. The noughts on the end fade away.
'The most I've ever paid for a guitar is £850 for a new Gibson L5 CES, a solid version of the old jazz guitar. After trying out about 20 or so I found the right one, and even then I changed the pickups, all the electrics and controls, machine heads, case — I spent £600 on buying the actual guitar plus about £250 in addition. But having worked for a lot of these guys, they buy guitars and they think they've got amazing guitars because they're a Gibson this or a Fender that.'
And so it goes Jimi Barber hopes to be working with the Stones again soon — they're in the studio from December 1st, and with their 20th anniversary in 1983 a big celebratory world tour looks to be on the cards. After all, he's got to pay for his Boogies and Les Pauls somehow!
Interview by Tony Bacon
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