December 11, 2023

From the Vaults: Brad Whitford


     Remember Rodney Dangerfield’s most famous catch phrase?  Rodney built entire routines around the phrase, “I don’t get no respect.”  Catching up with guitarist Brad Whitford on the eve of Aerosmith’s ‘Peace Out’ world tour, the phrase kept popping into my head.  I am not saying Whitford is disrespected by his bandmates.  No, the negative waves seem to come from the scribes and wags who focused on all the other stuff that was going on in the world of Aerosmith.  Bassist Tom Hamilton’s bout with cancer.  Drummer Joey Kramer’s penchant for rubbing people the wrong way and quitting over some slight or another.  Singer Steven Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry honed their act as the ‘Toxic Twins’ and flirted with killing the band or possibly themselves.  Through it all, it was Whitford who kept his head above water and accepted the misperception that he was ‘just Aerosmith’s rhythm guitar player’ – the other guitar player playing second fiddle to Joe Perry.  It turns out that nothing could have been further from the truth.  Yes, in many ways, Brad Whitford is the rock ‘n’ roll Rodney Dangerfield.

     Brad Whitford wasn’t an original member of Aerosmith.  He first heard of them through friends from New Hampshire who knew about Perry, Tyler, and Hamilton from their earliest days gigging there.  Whitford played a show with his band in New Hampshire where he first met Joe Perry in 1971.  “[Aerosmith] watched us play, and we talked for quite a bit afterward.  It was really friendly – just a bunch of young guys talking about gear and all that,” is how Brad recalls it now.  As he explained in a December 2023 issue of Guitar World, “About two weeks after I’d met them, I got a call from Joe, and we hung out a bit and got to know each other better.  Shortly after, he mentioned something about me maybe joining Aersosmith, and I told him I wasn’t interested.”  After catching an Aerosmith show, he changed his mind.

     Joining Aerosmith proved to be a less than smooth operation.  The guitarist he replaced, Raymond Tabano, was a good friend of both Tyler and drummer Joey Kramer.  Being invited into the band by Perry was, according to Whitford, “The beginning of the amazing drama and tense moments in and around Aerosmith, for me, it was there from the moment I joined, and remains to this very day.”   Trabano’s status as an ‘old mate’ couldn’t negate his skills or penchant for rolling up on his motorcycle just before show time.  Trabano didn’t disappear from the Aerosmith universe completely.  He spent time designing their merchandise and editing their fan letter.  New management fired Trabano from the corporation in 1979 and he eventually ended up running a catering business.  He has also surfaced on a couple of unscripted reality shows selling Aerosmith merch like signed tee-shirts and their original touring van. 

     Fortunately for the band, Whitford was a better player and a more reliable cog in the machine. The issue of Trabano’s exit would fade over time.  In his own opinion, Brad feels his addition to the line up ‘took the band up a couple of notches’.  Whitford’s musical background and prowess, however, were sometimes lost by many who could not see past the glare and glitter of the Toxic Twins.  History will record that the evolution and eventual resurrection of Aerosmith (of which Whitford says is almost ‘a miracle’) would have been a different story without his involvement.

     Bradley Ernest Whitford was born in Winchester, Massachusetts on February 23, 1952.  After his graduation from high school, he attended the Berklee College of Music and performed in local bands until he joined Aerosmith in 1971.  He and co-guitarist Joe Perry made a formidable team and perhaps it was their different approaches that made it work.  Whitford was a schooled musician and he describes how the chemistry with Perry works:  “Joe has such an elite sense of timing, rhythm and note choices.  I don’t do that,  I’m more Berklee-inspired.  I’m always thinking about intervals, scales, chords, and now they’re supposed to fit together.  Joe is very different;  he’s not schooled.  So sometimes it doesn’t work for him and sometimes he’ll try playing over something, and he doesn’t realize it’s not pentatonic, but he does find notes.  While he doesn’t always know how or why it’s working, he doesn’t really care because it does work.”

     At one time, it did get under Whitford’s skin when Perry got all the accolades and he was filed in the box labeled ‘rhythm guitar player in Aerosmith’.  He told Guitar World, “After Rocks came out, Aerosmith was touring England, and I was sitting in a bar in London reading a review of the album in Melody Maker.  When they went to talking about Last Child, they started talking about how it sounded like Jeff Beck, which was very flattering,  But then I kept reading, and they gave Joe credit for the guitar solo and kept comparing it to Jeff  Beck.  I read that, and I (expletive deleted) went nuclear,  I was just so pissed off.  It’s like, here I am having my (expletive deleted) work being compared to Jeff Beck, and they’re crediting Joe Perry.  It was BS, and I was so upset.”  Like we said before, it is the Rodney ‘I don’t get no respect’ Dangerfield thing.

     Eventually, Whitford stopped worrying about slights like this because, “People who actually listen – and know what they’re talking about – can tell the difference.”  He never laid any of this baggage on Perry.  During his split from Aerosmith (more on that in a bit) and just before they came back together, he toured with the Joe Perry Project.  Even with the new tour about to take off, he told GW, “After this call, I’m going to be standing next to Joe Perry pounding our songs all afternoon, and I’ll be as happy as a clam.  That’s what still makes all this worth it.”  Perry himself gives credit where credit is due:  “It has always rubbed me the wrong way when people put Brad down and refer to me as the lead guitarist…Some of the best solos in our catalog  are ones Brad did.  It is time to stop calling him ‘a rhythm guitarist.  We’re both guitarists in the band and Brad is a wicked soloist.”

     The first album the group recorded (1973’s Aerosmith) was done with equipment Whitford describes as, “things out of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory with knobs the size of small clocks, and all sorts of gear that seemed like it came out of the 1940s.”   They would run through arrangements and when ready, the red light ‘recording’ light would come on  and the producer would yell, “Okay, we’re ready to go.”  According to Brad, the end result was, “We became stiff as boards [for fear of goofing up and ruining the take].  But we got around that, had fun, and did what we could with the limited opportunity for overdubs that we had.  We had to be very creative because it was unlike today, where you have limitless ways to fix things.  Back then you had to wait for the tape to rewind.  But the end result was just magic.”

     Perry and Whitford got into the groove of trading off rhythm and lead duties.  One would bounce something off the other and the places where they traded places evolved naturally.  They were still learning to be a guitar duo when they began recording their second release, Get Your Wings.  They had already recorded the basic tracks at New York’s famed Record Plant when their producer, Jack Douglas, struck up a conversation with the brains behind Alice Cooper’s first solo hits, Bob Ezrin.  It was Ezrin who had hooked Cooper up with guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner which kicked Alice’s records into the stratosphere.  The two decided they could do the same thing for Aerosmith by having Hunter and Wagner come in and cover some of the solos on Get Your Wings.  Naturally, Whitford and Perry were disappointed (“The idea went over like a lead balloon,” according to Whitford), the truth probably hurt more:  they just weren’t getting things down on tape that did some of the songs justice.

     Whitford told Guitar World, “The thing was, we had done some good stuff and could play good stuff, but the tracks required some real finesse, you know?  But, I mean…listen to Train Kept A-Rollin today, those are some genius rock leads.  That was some great stuff and probably some of the stuff [Hunter and Wagner] were most proud of out of anything they’d done.  That solo is blistering.”  Brad was fortunate to be a fly on the wall when Steve came in to cut the Train solo:  “He came in with a little Fender tweed, with a ‘57 Les Paul Junior with a P90.  He set the amp down, grabbed the guitar, they started rolling tape and Steve did several passes,  The Steve says, ‘Ikay, I think I’ve got it now,’ and then he did his final pass, which was just mind blowing.  I listen back to it even today, and it’s still a lesson on guitar.”  The finesse Hunter and Wagner added to the record sold a lot of disks, but people tend to forget it was Whitford and Perry who had to go on stage and reproduce those sounds every night on tour.

     Whitford gives Steve Hunter credit for nuances in his playing to this day and points out Wagner’s style was closer to that of Perry’s.  The experience worked out well for them and the lessons were carried into their next sessions that would produce their mega selling Toys in the Attic and Rocks albums.  As good as these albums were, they were overshadowed by the twin demons that bring down so many rock bands.  They wasted a lot of time ‘when the bucks and the drugs began to flow’ and Tyler lost his edge.  Tensions grew and the seeds of their destruction were being sown.  In the late 1970s, Perry had enough and jumped ship.  Whitford hung around to work with a couple of replacement guitarists but finally, he too took his leave in the early 1980s.  There were sessions where Tyler would be carried into the control room, placed on the couch to come down, and make the rest of the band wait until he could contribute. The quality of Aerosmith’s recorded output diminished and most wrote them off as successful failures.  

     During his last sessions with the band during their first era, Whitford had begun collaborating with former Ted Nugent sideman Derek St. Holmes.  He was having such a good time recording their first album together, he decided to not return to New York to work on the new Aerosmith album.  He made it all the way to Logan Airport in Boston before he called Aerosmith’s manager David Krebs and said, “I’m done.  I can’t do this.  You won’t be seeing me in New York.  I hung up the phone, and that was it.  It felt like I could breathe again.  All this weight had been lifted from my shoulders and I honestly didn’t care.”  The collaboration he did with St. Holmes was a solid record, but they wouldn’t get together to do another one until 2016 (Reunion).  Part of the reason?  Working with the Joe Perry Project which ultimately led them both back into Aerosmith, Part 2 which commenced in 1984.

     When Guitar World asked Whitford ‘What led to the classic Aerosmith line up getting back together in ‘84?’, he replied:  “The whole time I was doing the Whitford/St.Holmes thing, and then when I started playing with Joe again, I’d be in the studio with other Leeber/Krebs clients.  They would say,’When are you going to get back together with Aerosmith?’  And I always had the same story:  ‘I’ll tell you what – it comes down to Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.  If they can find some way to bury their hatchets, I would follow them.’  But I honestly thought it would never happen.”  Never say ‘never’ Brad.

     Not only did the reunion happen, the band thrived and was introduced to a whole new generation of fans.  Both the old and new generation fans have supported the band and as Whitford repeated over and over again, the 50th year tour will be special for everyone:  “Some shows are great, and you search for ways to do it again, but that is the beauty of this.  You never know when you’re going to have one of those supernatural shows – it comes down to the band and the audience.”  Rock on, Brad, I am betting there will be more of these moments in the Peace Out farewell tour.

Top Piece Video:  Whiteford / St. Holmes performing AT DARYL’S HOUSE in 2016 . . . I can see why Brad liked to play with Derek!