Tommy Joe Ratliff is the lead guitarist for international pop sensation Adam Lambert, who after achieving second-place on American Idol in 2009, shot to international stardom with his incredible vocal range and stage presence. Lambert’s debut solo album, For Your Entertainment, reached number three on Billboard 200, and his second album, Trespassing, opened at the coveted number one spot on the Billboard 200 chart. Tommy Joe has become an acclaimed musician in his own rite, bringing his blues-soaked brand and the rare real guitar work to the world of pop, while remaining true to his own passions and forging his style.
With their stage theatrics that include heavy makeup, top-ten charting pop-electronic music, and a new style dubbed Glam Rock, any member of Adam Lambert’s band, at first glance, would seemingly an unlikely focus of the world’s most popular blues network. Yet as Tommy Joe effortlessly proves, the powerful effects of the blues still continue to greatly influence even the most popular music on the airwaves.
We sat down to speak with Tommy Joe about his biggest influences (hint, it’s the blues), becoming a part of Adam Lambert’s band, his exciting projects (hint, it’s the blues), what Adam Lambert listens to when he throws a party (hint, it’s the blues), and much more! Don’t let the guyliner fool you; Ratliff is on a new and exciting path. Call it Glam Blues or call it what it is; a unique overdriven, rip-roarin’ guitar style. Whatever you call it, Tommy Joe Ratliff is one talented musician who’s succeeding with a guitar in an industry rife with of auto-tuners.
American Blues Scene: How did you get started in guitar in the first place?
Tommy Joe Ratliff: Well, I was always around it. I have a lot of relatives that play. One being my Uncle who is a phenomenal jazz player. He even took lessons from Joe Pass, so he’s just insane to watch. Him and my dad got me my first guitar. It was a really cheap little $25 Aria acoustic. My uncle was trying to teach me theory and how to read, but I wasn’t interested at all. I was like “I just want to learn how to play” and I was getting really pissed off trying to learn that stuff. So, I didn’t see my uncle until a month or so later, and I’d already learned a bunch of songs by ear, and he seemed pretty impressed. But yea, I’ve never had a lesson in my life. I never really gave a shit and I thought lessons dilute people’s playing. Now I actually kinda want to take some lessons. I think it’s always good to get your sound first and figure yourself out as a player or else you’ll just be another schooled robot and thats mostly what’s out there these days.
So let’s talk about the blues for a second. Who did you do the Freddie King cover with?
His name’s Brian London & he’s actually our Music Director with Adam Lambert. He MD’s and has played for tons of huge artists. We share the same enthusiasm for soul and blues. He’s turned me on to a lot of great singers and other artists. We started getting together on our off time from touring and would just smoke, drink and write shit, (laughs). We ended up writing a whole album together, and he’s gonna put it out and get that going. It’s really cool, and it’s a lot of fun. We were just talking about it and we said, “Hey, we should do a Freddie King cover”. We were texting back and forth and decided on doing “Woman across the River”. I went over the next day and we did our thing!
You scorched it. I mean really.
Thanks man! Considering how people play these days. I held back and didn’t do much, which is what the blues is about. I’m a little disappointed with the people that fancy themselves “blues men” these days. I’m not bashing them at ALL, because they’re all amazing guitar players. But, they’re too damn nerdy for blues. They could be great in a band like Dream Theatre or something (laughs). You’ll see these kids up there jamming and killing it! They’ll surprise you and do some super tasty shit, then they throw in a sweep arpeggio and i’m like “oh come ON!” (laughs).
Who do you like, then, in the blues?
The Three Kings of course! Freddie is definitely my favorite. Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, SRV of course… that live session with him and Albert King was one of my favorites growing up. Hendrix, John Lee Hooker, Clapton… that first John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers album… my God. Robert Johnson, R.L. Burnside… the list goes on and on really. Just something about those guys. You know they feel what they’re playing and they mean what they’re singing about. It really makes you feel like you’re not alone and you know if these guys can get through it with music… you can too.
Blues is a feeling.
Let’s talk for a second about the Adam Lambert thing, because that’s just wild. I love this idea: Ya’ll do this guyliner thing, and he’s this big pop star. There’s you who’s this ridiculous blues lover who can just grunge the slide guitar. How do you bring some of that influence into mainstream pop music?
Well ya can’t have a voice like Adam’s and not have a feeling for the blues. He’s totally about soul and funk, so he definitely get the blues. Thats what worked so well when I auditioned, I guess, is that we both have a very similar feel and, at the same time, we’re both really into make up and the glam rock. It’s going to be 4 years in October and it’s still pretty damn surreal to me and still my main priority! I was originally on bass with him. He wanted more funk and blues so he switched me over to guitar. His next album is going to be a lot more rock, which I’m super excited about.
It’s like what I was saying earlier, blues is like a secret handshake. Some of the guys you’d never guess are serious blues lovers, and a lot of people wouldn’t expect Adam Lambert to be a guy that listens to a lot of blues… or his guitar player.
Totally! When we’re all relaxing and hanging out, he’ll pop on the Hendrix blues album or old Zepplin. He gets it, ’cause its moody and its sexy. I can’t sing for shit, so to play guitar and get to do bluesy licks answering to his vocal is unreal. So, a job where I can throw on a little “guyliner”, be myself and blues is totally welcome… I don’t think I could possibly ask for a better one for myself.
That’s awesome. That gives hope. A lot of the best rock came from the blues, and it’s cool to see that that is still happening to this day.
It is! It’s rare but always refreshing to hear newer bands keep it real, and you can tell they’re not some over schooled soulless machine of a guitar player. These days too many musicians only look at it as a job and forgot what it’s all about. A lot of dudes, picked up a guitar to get laid or for the hope to someday make money with it. Some do great, but it cripples a lot of them because all they care about is how many notes you play, and how cool your fingers look playing the riff. (laughs) It’s pretty sad. You’re right though, there is still hope!
So often, it’s what you don’t play.
Exactly. When I was younger I used to be really intimidated by people that play fast as shit like Yngwie Malmsteen (laughs). I had friends that could pull that stuff off. They were monster guitar players and I think its rad that that’s the path they chose. But, it definitely is not what my ears want to hear. Especially now that I’m older… I’m so lucky to be around people that like what I do. It makes you play with way more conviction and let lose. I don’t care if I feel like bending the shit out of 5 five notes in a solo… if it feels right, that’s what I’m gonna do.
Right, I’ll play the solo I damn well wanna play.
Yeah, exactly. It’s what the song calls for and the kind of mood you’re in at that time.
A lot of the time that’s a soulful mood, judging from what I’ve heard of you.
Ya! and people think they can put rules on music. I’ve been in bands before with music nazis that act like if its not taught in music school or it’s not in a text book, it can’t be done. It was frustrating! But, I guess that’s how some people act when they’re younger, I dunno. I’m just really glad I get to play with people were soul matters.
Yeah! I’m down here in the Mississippi Delta on business where all the blues got started in the first place, and that’s one of those lessons you continually learn down here is; R.L. Burnside was playing one chord, And some of these guys were playing out of key, and they play the guitar like that, and they’d sing to that… and it didn’t matter.
Yeah, exactly, they’re just doing it, you know? And you can’t take your eyes off of ’em because they’re just in it and playing with so much emotion.
Right, and the whole foundation of popular music was built on them doing it wrong. And that’s cool. So I would call you the definition of a pretty successful musician, I would think. How’d you get to this point?
Just trial and error with bands (laughs). I was in a lot of metal bands, actually. Struggling to get by, saving up my own money for T shirts to sell, and rent for a place to practice. I was always in bands with dedicated members. The problem: it was music I wasn’t happy playing. When I was 27, I just quit and focused on my playing and was hoping to get into something worth my time. Funny enough, on my 28th birthday, I got a call from a friend of mine that kind of played match maker with artists, musicians and bands all over the place. His name is Barry Squier. He was like, “He would you like to come audition for Adam Lambert tomorrow? I really think you will get it if you show up.” I had seen YouTube videos of Adam because my cousin was making me check him out. She was like “this guy reminds me of you!” (laughs). I was like, “This guy can sing his ass off. FUCK yea I’ll come to the audition” And it all worked out from there.
Again with the glam rock, you’re at the point where you ain’t got to prove anything to anybody. If you want to wear makeup and play some old school soul, cool. You wanna play some old grungy blues, cool.
Haha… yea, I am a very lucky guy. Everyone has their own ideal band situation, this is definitely mine.
That’s awesome, I love that. So you started talking about stuff you’d like to do… What are your dream projects?
It’s a really nice outlet getting to write with Brian… I also write with Adam’s old drummer, Isaac Carpenter. We get together and come up with cool White Stripes sounding stuff… that’s a lot of fun for me. It’s hard to say what a dream project would be, because I’m pretty content with where I am right now. I’ll definitely get some of the tunes I’m writing with Brian over to you, I think you’ll dig em! At the end of the day, I’d just really like to be a well respected blues player…
Cool, so that’s a goal of yours?
Definitely! I’m not trying to be a star in anyway. Just would love to do well enough for myself too I can be old as shit and still able to support myself playing the blues.
So is there anybody contemporary in the blues that you like?
Not really. None that I can think of that I’d want to put on and listen to. I know there are some bad ass players out there though. I was at the Baked Potato [live music venue] over a year ago, and this dude that was playing rhythm guitar for Mike Landau was a monster. His name was Kirk Fletcher. I went up to him after and asked him for lessons but he just kind of laughed and said no. I was like “I’m dead serious!” but he wouldn’t bite (laughs).
Right, right. Ask him a couple times, bug him, maybe he’ll say yes. Or shout him out in an interview.
So, you’re around L.A., have you ever heard Vintage Trouble?
I love them!! They’re great! Their singer, Ty, is actually a really good friend of Adam’s. They’ve sung together before, and I pop their music in all the time. That is a really good band.
Oh my god, they’re scary good.
It’s really good shit, there. And it’s refreshing to know that people are appreciating it, because they have substance. Stuff like One Direction, Taylor Swift and these pop things, it’s just regurgitated bullshit. And it’s Horrible. And that’s what people like. It angers me (laughs).
But you know, knowing that a band like Vintage Trouble is just that pure and great and there’s no nonsense to their music, it’s really good. I respect them a lot. I haven’t personally gotten to meet them yet. Hopefully someday.
I love their music. It’s really great. So how often are you on the road?
Well, there’s always some time off in between albums. Whenever we start up, we go for months here and there, there’s a lot of time off to stay at home and do your own thing. With the first album, we did a really long world tour. It was a huge success and it was great! It was fun.
So you like the touring? You like being on the road?
Hell yea, its so much fun. I can’t wait to start up again and get goin’. Last year, we did an acoustic promo tour for one of the singles. It was so much fun.
You did an acoustic run? How badass!
Yea! The record was dance and really electronic, so it was fun to break the songs down to just acoustic and vocal.
That’s exciting. When are you going to start it up?
I don’t know? He’s in the middle of writing right now. He’s gonna be on the new season of Glee, so that’s going to take some time for him to finish that. Whenever he’s ready to go, I’ll be ready to jump back in there and do it. But for now, I’m kind of taking time to better myself, write a lot and see where that takes me.
Well, cool, man, so when do we get to hear a new album from Tommy Joe?
Well! Closest thing now would be Brian London’s album… it’s called Rhythm N Booze (laughs). It was an inside joke we all had on tour and it just stuck. It’s rock, blues, funk n soul. I’m sure you’ll like it… Everyone says its got a Lenny Kravitz / Hendrix vibe to it. Thats not a bad thing (laughs). We didn’t put too much thought into and the songs just kind of came to us.
Ha, that’s funny. You know Buddy Guy just came out with an album called Rhythm & Blues like a week ago!
I saw the Buddy Guy album, haven’t listened to it yet. You know which one I love which just kind of flew into the radar is Sweet Tea.
Sweet Tea, yes!
Oh god, Sweet Tea is so good. That album is like, perfect. It’s just so raunchy and raw and great.
I have a great relationship with Fender and I was at a party from an opening for one of their show rooms. I had no idea he was even there but fucking Buddy Guy got up there and played. I was stoked. He didn’t go on ’til late cause I guess he was napping (laughs). But, I saw him leave. He walked right past me. I wanted to stop and shake his hand, maybe even get a picture but he just kept going. I understand… but that would have been awesome.
Maybe there’ll be another opportunity?
Hopefully, yeah. He is really cool. There’s this video, Ive seen it on Youtube, it’s a really, really, really old Buddy Guy performance. And Jimi Hendrix was watching him!! Have you seen that?
Oh, isn’t it cool? Something about that just kind of chokes me up. It’s so crazy, he’s just living up there . He even breaks a string, then he just gets on his knees and keeps going and sounds amazing even though he’s all out of tune. And Jimi is just watching in awe… god damn (laughs).
It’s like shivers up your spine when you see that.
Oh, yeah, totally. It’s crazy.
It’s scary good. What’s your favorite track off of Sweet Tea? That’s totally a loaded question.
I don’t know! I just kind of let it play… It’s really pissed off and raw, thats what I love about it.
Well, that’s one of those ones, you can just kill that whole album easy and just turn it right back on again.
Totally. Theres this boy that came out on stage with him at the Fender show… he’s probably like 12. He was really good.
Yeah, the kid that works so much with Buddy? It’s Quinn Sullivan.
Ya! he can sing too! he’s going to do well when he is older. Buddy Guy is really helping him out.
Well see, there you go. A contemporary blues guy you like! A little young, but hey, whatever works!
Another really good album that stuck out to me is From The Cradle to the Grave, by Eric Clapton. That was a great one. That one kind of shot into the radar, I thought.
Yeah, that’s an interesting choice. I wouldn’t have thought that through.
Ya, first time I heard it, I was like “eh”. I just gave it a listen last year, and I like it a lot. It’s worth revisiting.
Sometimes those take a little time to slow burn, you know.
Also, Honkin on Bobo by Aerosmith, is a great one!
Oh yeah, I’ve got that!
That’s like their first album in ’73 was like, “Mama Kin”, and “Walkin’ the Dog”, and stuff like that. Those are great blues songs.
People didn’t really notice it was blues. It was the weirdest thing.
Ya, people think cause if the distortion is a little heavier and its catchy, it can’t be blues. Look at L.A. Woman. That’s the best Doors album. It’s front to back blues.
Good point, and that Honkin’ was an album full of blues covers by Aerosmith.
I got really excited because I saw Metallica had posted they were going to put out a blues album called Ride the Smoke Stack Lighting. Turns out it was an April Fools joke… I was so bummed (laughs).
I got bad news for you, man. I’m the one who came up with that. So sorry.
That was your April Fool’s joke? Are you kidding me!?
Yeah, it’s really ironic, what you just said, because we sat around the office and said, “Who’s really talented blues fans that you would never imagine would put out a blues album — but wouldn’t be surprised if they put one out,” and I was like, “I’ve got it man.”
Oh my god, that was you!
That was me.
Haha… We’ll ya had me fooled. I really wish that would happen. James and Kirk are both insane blues players. If you listen to Load, there’s tons of blues in the album.
That’s what I’m saying, too!
OH! Theres a buddy of mine named Dinesh. You have to check him out. He’s a badass blues player.
Cool, very cool.
Yea, he has a little blues trio called The Bottletrees they’re pretty rad. Every time I go and watch him play. Im like, “Shit! I need to go home and practice”
Oh yeah, I feel like that sometimes. You think you’re really good, and you see someone who’s way better than you than you’ll ever be, and it’s like, “my god.” But that’s cool. I feel like that inspires you to be better sometimes.
Oh, it always does.
That was me. You hit the nail on the head. It was really kind of in the dire hopes, like you know these guys could make an incredible blues album if they wanted to.
If they did kind of what Aerosmith did, like old covers, oh my god. That would be so good. With James Hetfield’s voice?! That would be perfect.
It absolutely would. That was our goofy tongue in cheek hope was that they would see this and think, “hmm, maybe we should do that.”
I think now they’re too worried about their fans being pissed. They got so much backlash from making Load and Re Load. I love those albums. Listen to how kick ass 2×4 is and all those other bluesy songs. Man, I even tweeted about that Metallica cover album.
Oh, I know. Well, don’t feel bad. You’re not the only one that fell for it. That thing got picked up for news sources across the whole world.
I thought Metallica started the rumor as a joke. I think its pretty genius.
Radio stations were reporting it because of our fake press release that day.
Yeah, I sent it to some people, and they were like, dude, that’s just an April Fool’s joke. I was like, no!
I know, I know! I’m sorry, it was us!