Terry Kath interview in Guitar Player Magazine

Terry Kath

The following article was published in Guitar Player Magazine in 1971. It is the only extensive Kath interview of which I am aware of. If you know of others, please e-mail me.

Everyone has heard of Chicago, the most popular band in the country. But how many know of The Big Thing or of The Missing Links? The Big Thing and The Missing Links and Chicago are all part of Terry Kath, one of the most frequently requested guitarists in GP's history.

Terry was born in Chicago, Illinois 25 years ago. By the eighth grade he had been pounding on his older brother's drums for a year. His mother had a banjo around the house and Terry gravitated toward it, retuning it to sound like a guitar.

In the ninth grade Terry got hold of a Kay guitar and amp, and took up with a local kid band, copying every Ventures record they could get their hands on. No gigs, but a lot of fun and experience. Three years later the A Terry Kath on cover of GPself-taught guitarist felt it was time for some lessons, so he spent a year with a jazz teacher trying to learn to read chord patterns."He just kept wanting me to play good lead stuff," Terry recalls, "but then all I wanted to do was play those rock and roll chords."

Dick Clark was big then. He had a massive TV show going for him. Clark also had two tours on the road simultaneously as the Dick Clark Show. A friend of Terry's was playing lead with the second group and told him there was an opening-- for a bass player. A newly acquired Fender Jazz in hand, Kath took to the road for a year. When the Fender was stolen, he replaced it with an Eko.

Terry still played bass when he met Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine, and they formed a group called The Missing Links to play the area's many bars. But the Eko, too was ripped off one night, so for $80 Terry picked up a used Register.

"The band doing pretty well," he says, "so we thought we had to have a manager. This guy kept telling us that rock was the big thing, everyone's talking about the big thing, our band was the big thing. So he made us change our name to The Big Thing. Can you believe that?!"

They practiced for three or four months with Terry back to guitar, then started playing gigs doing everything from Tijuana Brass to Hendrix. James William Guercio, the former bassist with Clark's other road band, was by then producing records in Los Angeles for groups like Blood, Sweat and Tears. He, as well as members of the band, knew their future was limited in Chicago. Now called Chicago Transit Authority, they were expanding their music and jazz-- the Chicago bar crowd just wasn't ready.

Guercio brought the band to Southern California in 1967, changed their name to the simpler Chicago, added a bassist to the sextet, and produced that first double LP for Columbia. The rest is in the books. Three successive top-selling double albums in two years, 200 concerts annually, a European tour that was sold out months before the band left, and on and on.

As Chicago's lead singer and only guitarist, Terry Kath is probably the performer most easily identified with the band. His guitar sound has been called "slippery, but with clear definition and a churning propelling beat" by one critic, "bluesy" by another, "damn fine rock and roll" by a third. Chicago trombonist James Pankow says simply, "He's the best soloist we have".

Though he doesn't read music, Terry manages to "write" most of the band's charts. "Actually, I just tell the guys what I want, maybe play the different parts, and then they just pick it up from there.When one of the other members writes a tune, Terry's part has to be hummed to him. "I have a pretty good ear," he says, "but I think it's starting to go from playing in front of the amp all the time". Because the band developed by playing in one tiny bar after another, they are used to setting up close together on stage, and the only way Terry can hear what he is doing is by standing directly in front of his gear.

Allied Electronics of Chicago made his 60 watt Knight amp. It has two speakers to get the sound he wants without being too loud. In concert, the amp goes through their custom-built PA system which was designed by the people at Columbia Records. Terry says that the Acoustic Control people heard his amp, dug it, and designed the 150 series after it. Today Terry shares amp duties between the Knight and the Acoustic, depending on the sound of the auditorium they are playing.

After the Kay guitar, he bought a Fender Stratocaster which he still uses on the job. Thirteen other guitars have been acquired over the past few years, but it is the Stratocaster and a Les Paul Professional Gibson that he regularly uses. On the band's first LP, Terry played a Gibson SG double cutaway. "The Stratocaster has the best vibrato, but I have trouble bending the strings without slipping off", he says. "But my hands are pretty strong, I guess from playing bass all those years." He uses each guitar for different songs. Both utilize standard tunings.

His stringing is highly unique. For the first, Terry uses a tenor guitar A. The rest is a Fender 10 set, with the Fender 1st being Terry's 2nd string, the Fender 2nd being Terry's 3rd and so on. "I just toss away their 6th string". He has tried some of the various ultra light gauges, but breaks them too easily. With his strength, he finds he has little trouble bending the heavier strings.

Kath uses low action on both guitars, particularly the Fender, but isn't really sure he likes it. "I like more grip. Like the strings to work against me, so I can really feel them when I'm getting into something."

The pick he uses is a Herco light gauge nylon. "They're really unbreakable" he claims. "The only thing that ever happens is they eventually wear out. Sometimes I'll be playing along and find I'm missing the strings. I'll worry about it for days until I notice that the pick has worn down to half its size."

At first, Terry utilized a Basstone pedal that plugged into the guitar and had its own distortion. But now he uses a Cry Baby Wah-wah, "but it breaks up a lot. They are all too distorted. None of them seem to get a good natural sound."

Anyone who has seen Chicago, has to admire the speed with which Terry plays. It's all natural. No special techniques, no exercises. "I just get all jacked up when we start cooking," he says, "and don't think about how I'm doing anything." Normally he anchors his little finger to the guitar just below the strings. But when he's building one of those incredible solos, or rocking the entire band with an intensely strong rhythnic pattern, he just hammers away with his entire forearm.

"I'm too busy playing to worry about the movement or the fingerboard," he muses. "I just listen to it as it's all happening."

Today Terry doesn't listen to other music much. When you're on the road 10 months out of a year, there really isn't a lot of time. "After The Ventures I dug Johnny Smith quite a bit," Kath remembers. "And George Benson when he was with Brother Jack McDuff. I heard him recently with (saxophonist) Stanley Turrentine, and he really knocked me out. I listened to a lot of Kenny Burrell when I was starting, too. And Howard Roberts. Man, I had all of Howard's albums. Mike Bloomfield's East/West was a fine record. I used to sit around the house all the time, and play guitar with it. Let's see....I also dug Eric (Clapton) on the Fresh Cream album. I guess that's about it." And then he became excited. "But then there was Hendrix, man. Jimi was really the last cat to freak me. Jimi was playing all the stuff I had in my head. I couldn't believe it, when I first heard him. Man, no one can ever do what he did with a guitar. No one can ever take his place."

Because of time, and maybe because he's playing so much, Terry doesn't practice guitar. "I wish I did practice more," he says half-heartedly. "But mostly I play the jobs or when I'm working on a tune, I sit around and play drums. Got myself a set not too long ago."

It is surprising that a guitarist of his reputation and popularity hasn't been approached with free amps or guitars from assorted companies, but it's true. No one has ever offered to supply him with anything. If the Gibson people were to design a guitar to Terry's specifications, what would it be like? "Well, first I'd want a better vibrato," he states. "Even the Bigsbies I've used haven't been good. They may make some great ones, but I haven't found them. You know, I'd like to be able to keep a chord in tune while dropping it an octave."

"And I'd like a longer neck, so I can move around on it. A neck with a heel that doesn't start until the 14th fret. Most guitars have necks that get fatter as you go up the fingerboard.

That means you have to change your hand position as you play, and sometimes I'm really getting off, you know, and the fingerboard starts dragging my hand as I'm going up."

"About the only other thing I'd want would be a wider neck. My fingers are so fat that sometimes I deaden the string next to the one I'm fretting. Otherwise, everything's fine. My Gibson has a good clean sound, and I like my low impedance pickups. I haven't modified either guitar at all."

While he's dreamin about what he'd like, he gets into a couple of ideas he's trying to develop now. "On 'Free Form Guitar' I plug my Knight into a Dual Showman for an unusual effect. The Knight distorts when I crank it up, but the Showman keeps it so I can control the sound. But on a job, I can't stop everything after the tune and change back to my regular set up. So I'm working on having a foot pedal that will be able to change from one set up to the other immediately."

Terry is more hesitant about speaking of his other project. "All I can say is that it's a machine that will get me a bowing effect,like if I was using a bow on a guitar---sort of. I'm not going to explain anymore than that, though,until I've got it built" Kath likes to play long flowing lines, but Chicago's fans would hardly know it. "Usually I solo on these wild tunes where I have to play as fast as I can. I get all jacked up on a gig, man, and I just can't slow down."

Terry, always interested in new ways to cook and new effects to get, tried playing slide for a short while, but never on record or in concert." I just couldn't seem to get anything going. After I'd play a few hours at home, I'd done all I could do with it. It was just to limiting for me."

Chicago's first album was produced in a week, Terry sometimes playing a Stratocaster whose neck was held together with a radiator hose clamp." We just didn't have time. It was the same way on the second album. 'Prelude' ( a nearly symphonic piece with strings, woodwinds and brass) was a line I had in my head. We needed another tune so I played it for Peter Matz and he arranged and orchestrated it for some other guys to play."

But generally, a good deal of time is spent on the albums. Keep in mind that not many bands, particularly ones utilizing tight arrangements and a horn section, can produce six excellent records in two years. In most cases, Terry tracks his solos on albums. "Except for 'Poem 58 and 'Liberation'," he says. "Oh yeah and 'I'm A Man', and ..." he drifts off naming a few others. In session, Kath uses a Dual Showman amp and the Knight, always miked. On the third LP he utilized a Leslie on a couple of tunes, but doesn't recall which ones.

The future looks pretty good for Terry Kath, ex-Dick Clarker, ex-Missing Link, ex-Big Thing. Commercially, Chicago can do no wrong. They sell out Carnegie Hall for a week, play before 20,000 at a time, see their albums sell a million dollars worth even before they are released. And artistically, even the critics who once mistakenly called Chicago "another Blood, Sweat and Tears," are realizing just how wrong they were, and just how creative and adventuresome this young band really is.

Special note on copyright: This story is copyright Guitar Player Magazine. I attempted to get permission from the magazine to reproduce it on this site, but they have not responded in the two months since I sent them the request. I have decided to include it on the site pending their response to my request - Tim Wood

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