Perry has spent his 40-year career crafting not only the songs of Aerosmith, but of a generation. Even fellow bandmate Steven Tyler has admitted not only that he's "addicted" to the sound of Perry's guitar, but that "he is Aerosmith." An inspiration to millions of musicians and music lovers alike, the Grammy Award-winning artist has spawned some of the most infectious riffs in modern rock history, all the while meticulously concocting a guitar tone that can only be described as unmistakably, undeniably ... him.
Of course, the quest for tone is never-ending-even a legendary player like Perry is not immune to that alluring siren's song. And though Perry has acquired a substantial arsenal of guitars to help cultivate his unique tone, perhaps the most iconic instrument that he is associated with is the all-too-famous Gibson Les Paul. "When I first saw Jeff Beck playing one, and listened to that sound...it sounded better than the guitar I was playing at the time," Perry laughs, spending his afternoon in the Platinum Room at Guitar Center Hollywood. "When I got my first Les Paul, I was fortunate enough to get a good reissue Goldtop, and that was my guitar for a couple of years. There was just something really comfortable about it, the way the neck felt, the action-and it had the sound." He continues, "There's just something about the way that Les Paul put the thing together. It's got the classic, Spanish guitar shape-which is ergonomically, very comfortable-the curves of it ... it's a very sexy instrument. I fell in love with Stratocasters as well. Working with Brad-he's a hardcore Les Paul guy as well-it worked well having me play a Strat and he'd play the Gibson. But some of the real classic-sounding Aerosmith songs were two Les Pauls going at it. Certainly, there've been little improvements [to the Les Paul] over the years, but I could take a 1955 Goldtop and have that be it- without any changes."
Experienced guitarists know that the guitar is only part of the overall sound. And as any Aerosmith concert-goer can attest, Perry relies on an impressive collection of amps-like his '69 Marshall Plexi, '70 Marshall Major or his '65 Marshall Bluesbreaker 4x10" combo-to deliver his famous Aerosmith tone. "[I look for] something that-without any pedals, just a 20-foot cord-will make your guitars chime," says Perry. "So you can hear that you're playing a Les Paul, or hear that you're playing a Strat. I've tried some amps that, after all is said and done, it's hard to tell the difference between the Strat and the Les Paul, or two different Les Pauls." He goes on to say, "In the studio, you can pick a certain amp for a certain sound, and it may work for a certain guitar-it may be something that's single-coil that would squeal like a pig onstage, but it
works great in the studio. But live, however I run the rig, whether it's a pair of combos-one a little cleaner and one a little dirtier-or just one amp that breaks up near the top, so I can get a good clean sound out of it, and then affect it with a pedal ... that's a good vehicle. I change my rigs a lot, but basically what I'm going for is an amp that is transparent."
But even with all of the incredible gear at his disposal, Perry is quick to clarify that every player's tone is as unique as a fingerprint-because according to Perry, the tone is in the hands. "I can't even sound like I did back on some of the early records," he jokes. "It's a feeling thing. Inevitably what happens is you try to sound like someone else, and God willing, you come up with your own thing. I wanted to sound like Freddie King and Jeff Beck, but I never could. It always comes out sounding like me. There's a famous story about Ted Nugent when Van Halen was coming up and Eddie was exploding, Ted said, 'Ah, it's just his rig. If I played through his rig, I'd sound like him.' So, at a sound check, he played through Eddie's rig-and he sounded like Ted Nugent," he laughs. "So much of it is in the feel, and the way you tweak the knobs, and the way your hands hit the guitar. That's really what it's about."
Though just over a decade has passed since Aerosmith released their last studio album, Perry says that Music From Another Dimension! has been in production for much longer than that. "Forty years," he laughs. "It sounds facetious, but forty years is it. We went in the studio a couple of times trying to get it going. We did Honkin' on Bobo, which was supposed to be this record, but we didn't have time-but we got to work with Jack [Douglas], and that was a lot of fun without the pressure." So what does it take to keep a band together for forty years? "It takes almost more than I'm willing to give, but it's a little too late," jokes Perry. "It's a lot of work. It's not the playing-it's all the personal stuff. Learning to grow, and to have a family, and try to have some kind of normalcy on the outside, but still keep the dream alive. It's tough. [Aerosmith] is a lot like a family. There's a lot of ups and downs. It's a learning process."
In addition to the process of learning to work as a unit, Aerosmith has also developed a unique songwriting process-one that Perry describes as ever evolving. "At this point, we use just about every method you can think of," he says. "In the early days, the first three or four records were pretty much Steven and I sitting in a room-him playing drums and me with a guitar-and him scatting along, trying to pull melodies out of the air, and putting lyrics over the guitar riffs." And, as any musician
such a thing-can be a very difficult task. "The harder question is when does [a song] start?" says Perry. "It depends on what kind of song you're trying to write. Maybe you have two or three guitar riffs, and you don't know which is gonna be the chorus, the verse, whatever. Sometimes you end up with two choruses, and that can be a song too. Each song dictates its own path." He adds, "I have a song called 'Something' on this new record that pretty much just has a verse and a chorus done over twice. It's probably two-and-a-half minutes long, but I got to say what I wan- to say on it, and that's it. It doesn't need any more."
One may wonder, with a band like Aerosmith-whose career began by releasing a new album every year-how Perry is able to consistently produce such an incredible amount of content. "Well, it depends...why write the song to start with?" he asks. "If there's a certain lyric that needs a couch to sit in, then the music is almost secondhand. If it's like this one song I'm thinking of, it's kind of a political, social statement that needed a really driving piece of music underneath it. And that's all that mattered." Perry continues, "Then there are other songs where it's about hitting that tempo that's gonna get the audience off, or something that's gonna get somebody up in the morning-when they wake up, that's the first song they hit." He adds, "It's not about writing a song that you think is gonna get on the radio-though you hope that that's gonna happen-but thebottom line is getting that magic energy. Anyone in the band could go off and do solo work, but the real strength is the five guys working together. That's what the magic is. And getting that on tape is the thing you're always grasping for, and wondering if you're gonna get it. You just never know."
Above all else, Perry's number one concern throughout the band's history has always been the live show-specifically, the relentless Aerosmith fans who pack every venue they play. "Our template has always been playing live, selling the band live and trying to gain fans by playing live. That's the era we came out of," he explains. "Back in the day, when we were touring, going into our second, third and fourth records, there were places even in the States where we weren't well known. We were always touring-we might be selling 12,000 seats in Detroit or Boston, but still be playing clubs in Tampa. So we'd have to go out there and make our bones. That is a deeply ingrained facet within the band-and it's stayed with us. I don't look at us as any different than any other band of garage guys."