The Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman: Rickenbacker Romance and Amplifier Angst

photoMaybe you go way back with Brian Henneman: back to Illinois in the Eighties and the yeeeeeeeee-haaaaaaaa thrash-twang cowpunk-and-scorched-brimstone of Chicken Truck, perhaps?

Or maybe you remember when Brian worked for Uncle Tupelo in the early Nineties: the roadie who would humbly come out for the encore, strap on a guitar and take the top of everyone’s head off with his lead breaks on a thundering cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” … and then start lugging stuff out to the van.

And while we’re at it, how about the role Henneman played in alt-country history that rarely gets acknowledged? A lot of the snarl, growl, chug and crunch you hear on Wilco’s debut album — 1995’s A.M. — was courtesy of Henneman. (He was listed as a “special guest” for those pre-Jay Bennett sessions.) Put an ear to the greasily chicken-picked “That’s Not the Issue” or the Crazy Horseness of “Too Far Apart”: pretty cool, eh?

But never mind past glories and overlooked genius: The easiest way to dial into the music of Brian Henneman is to sit down with some Bottle Rockets — his main focus for the last 20-plus years. You could spend a lot of time trying to categorize their music — anything from rock ‘n’ twang to Americana punk — but in the end, you’re better off just listening and enjoying.

An excellent crash course in the Rockets would be Bloodshot Records’ recently released two-disc bundle that combines the band’s first two albums with a slew of neat previously unreleased music. Altogether, there are 11 albums in the Bottle Rockets’ catalog so far — 10 studio and one live — with a new one simmering.

Behind Henneman’s insightful lyrics and shoot-from-the-bluejeaned-hip riffs lies a total guitar nerd, one who still part-times in his hometown guitar shop when he’s not on the road and will talk gear for as long as you have time to spare. I had the chance recently to ask Brian about reuniting with the one that got away, the lifespans of parakeets and the recipe for Instant Keith Richards.

GUITAR WORLD: Brian, in most photos I’ve seen of late, you’re brandishing a Rickenbacker … it looks to me like the two of you are going steady.

Yep, a Rickenbacker 360 … love it!

I’ve heard you refer to it during shows as your “new favorite guitar.” It sounds like you’d been pining for one for awhile.

Oh, yeah, 20 years, man. [laughs] I had one 20 years ago, but in those days I was too broke to keep it, you know? It was one of those deals where the house payment came due and the Rickenbacker had to go.

I think everybody has a “one that got away” story.

You got that right … and I’d been wanting one again ever since. [laughs] I’ve always loved the sound of a Rick. Tom Petty: he’s always played them. And Roger McGuinn, of course. I’m a huge, huge, huge Roger McGuinn fan.

So I finally bit the bullet and got myself one again. I’m old enough and wise enough now to get exactly the one I wanted; in the color I wanted; with every feature I wanted … and it cost a lot of money, but I figure it’s going to be the last guitar I buy in my life. [laughs]

I’ve got enough of ‘em. I’m full of guitars. [laughs]

Tell me what you like about the 360.

For one thing, I’m using a capo on a lot of the new songs, and the Rickenbacker is the best frigging capo guitar ever. The neck is really evenly shaped and it doesn’t pull strings out of tune.

It seems like you’ve got a handle on the beast, as far as coaxing different tones out of it in the course of a set.

You know, I haven’t really played my other guitars much since I got the Rick.

Bottle Rockets John Horton (left) and Brian Henneman letting it fly.

Bottle Rockets John Horton (left) and Brian Henneman letting it fly.

At the same time, John Horton — your picking partner in the Bottle Rockets — might work through a number of guitar voices during a show.

Oh, yeah, sometimes a Strat; sometimes a Flying V or a Firebird … John plays all kinds of stuff. The thing is, the Rickenbacker balances out with all of them … it always stands out from anything John wants to play.

Have you ever tried a combination that didn’t balance out?

Ha! Good question! Yeah, one time we tried playing with two Stratocasters at the same time … and that did not work. [laughs]

Anybody get hurt?

Oh, man … We kept turning up because neither one of us could hear each other. At the end, we were so fucking loud … and we still couldn’t hear each other.

Click here to read the complete feature and check out the photo gallery (pictures!) over at GuitarWorld.com

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