Q&A: Blues and Rock Guitarist Rocky Athas

Rocky Athas with the Lightning Strikes.
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Rocky Athas

has been playing the blues for almost 40 years. The Oak Cliff native grew up with another legendary string bender,

Stevie Ray Vaughn

. Athas’ band, Lightning Strikes, was an area blues/rock mainstay and Athas recently re-cut their debut for a European label. Athas’ finger tapping style has influenced every one from Eddie Van Halen to the late

“Dimebag” Darrell Abbott

. Besides playing in a semi-super group, the Blues Berries, with

renowned drummer

Buddy Miles, Athas has his hand in several other intriguing projects. Athas took a little time to speak with us about where his style of blues comes from and where it’s going.

Who are some of your favorite guitarists? Are there guitarists who may have a flashy style that is without substance?

I will always love Freddy King, Buddy Whittington and Jimi Hendrix. To me, they were the best and most original. I must not forget George Harrison for melody content. I think if a guitarist has flash and that is what he works on, then this is his substance. To me a great guitarist has to have melody in his playing.

What’s more important, the solo or the song?

It really is always the song. If you have a great song, the solo will sound great working within the song.

You have been a part of the Dallas blues/rock scene for a number of years. How has it changed over time?

I think in the beginning the blues/rock thing was taken a little more seriously. It seems a few years back there was more effort put into the songwriting. Now it seems all that is going on is just jamming, which is fine for live shows but not really for CD listening pleasure. I just wish more focus would be on the songwriting. This is what made the great blues songs in the past, like "The Thrill Is Gone" by B.B. King, such great songs. It's blues and it's a great song. I love that marriage.

Lightning Strikes Twice features totally original material. Why do many blues artists rely so much on covers?

Well that may have something to do with what I was talking about in the last question. Maybe they rely on covers because they aren't putting much focus on the songwriting. My opinion is if you need good material for a CD and you put out cover songs and jams, it won’t have legs to carry it very far. I think if original material is the thing that is missing then we as artists should try and link up with songwriters that have wonderful songs to choose from. Just because the public doesn't know who these songwriters are doesn't mean they don't write good songs. You know some of Stevie Ray's best songs were written by Doyle Bramhall. He is a great songwriter and performer. I believe this is why Stevie’s songs still sound good. They were great songs.

What are your future recording plans? Any more work with the Blues Berries?

I will still make recordings for Armadillo Music, my label. It was fun going back and doing the old Lightning material from my past and putting it out. I will most likely focus on anything new and fun for future recordings. As far as the Blues Berries, I really loved that project. Working with Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton was a real joy. And, of course, Buddy Miles. I don't see any future talks about doing another Blues Berries [album], but I am not opposed to it.

The likes of Queen’s Brian May and the late Phil Lynot of Thin Lizzy have heralded you. What is it about your style that is appreciated by other players?

Well I wish I knew, then I could package it and make some money! Just kidding. Maybe it is just trying to be true to an original style. I have always tried to stick to what I call my own style. It is very important to try and create your own style as a guitarist. When people hear your sound and licks and go "that sounds like Rocky," then you have created your own style. I hope I have done this.

Blues, especially when it comes to CD reissues, always seems to be better appreciated outside of the United States. Why do you think that is? It is the same with my music. I just believe that overseas the people really appreciate the arts. The audiences over there are a real joy to play for.

What advice do you have for a young person who wants to play guitar?

Just keep practicing and always think of trying to write good songs. There is a formula for writing good songs. You have to study that as much as your licks on guitar. If you can work on both songwriting and guitar licks then you will have the whole package. -- Darryl Smyers

(Bonus: Rocky Athas and Lightning Strikes performing live at the Granada. Watch and enjoy.)

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