Meet Eric Gales, the guitar world’s best-kept secret

A portrait of Eric Gales

‘I’ve been sick for so long/Now I’m finally starting to heal,’ Eric Gales sings on his latest album, Middle Of The Road. He chose that title not because he identifies with bland, compromised music, but because the titular position offers the best possible view of where he’s headed. “When I’m in the middle of the road I can see everything clearly,” the Memphis-born musician explains, at his home in Greensboro, North Carolina.

He chose that lyric because, after years of addiction and trouble with the law, he is finally well, both physically and spiritually, and travelling along the right path, managing to avoid the ditches on both sides.

Actually, he could be feeling better. The extravagantly praised guitarist – who was told by Mick Jagger after the Rolling Stone watched one of his incendiary performances: “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life”, and has been acclaimed by Joe Bonamassa as “one of the best, if not the best, guitar players in the world” – is not in the finest fettle today due to suffering from an eye infection. Really, he wants to go to the doctor to get some ointment. Instead he’s being asked to tell his story.

And it’s a good one. Eric Gales grew up in a musical family, the youngest of five brothers, including Manuel, aka Little Jimmy King (who died in 2002) and Eugene, who became his “big mentor” and encouraged him to play the guitar from an early age (four, to be precise) – and upside-down and left-handed, like Jimi Hendrix, even though Eric was naturally right-handed.

When he was 15 he signed a record deal with Elektra, and drew immediate acclaim for his 1991 debut album The Eric Gales Band, recorded with Eugene and drummer Hubert Crawford. An appearance on American TV talk show The Arsenio Hall Show confirmed his teen prodigy status, while further records made Gales the guitar-playing wunderkind name to drop, and many of his childhood heroes – Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robin Trower, Carlos Santana – invited him to collaborate.

“Those were my woodshedding days,” Gales says of the period during which he was keen to outstrip his influences and “mould my own style”.

He had mainstream rock hits with Sign Of The Storm and Paralyzed, which earned him “a lot of notoriety” and the sort of success likely to turn a young man’s head. At first he resisted – “I tried to stay humble and be the guy I wanted to be,” he muses – but as his twenties loomed, he eventually succumbed.

“I got involved with some ‘street things’,” he admits. “I started getting into stuff that wasn’t good for me. That whole period I was in a dark haze. I was still putting out records, but I think they would have been even better if I hadn’t been doing stuff like that.”

“Stuff like that” included voluminous quantities of cocaine. Gales’s ‘lost weekend’ lasted not days, but decades. On Help Yourself, a song from Middle Of The Road, he sings: ‘Spent all my money and wasted all my time.’ How much are we talking about here?

“Quite a bit, man. It was twenty-five years of my life. Someone else can do the math.”

Hundreds of thousands of dollars?

“Somewhere in that ballpark.”

Gales’s narcotic misadventures led to a three-year spell at the Shelby County Correction Center, for possession of drugs and a weapon.

“I had a nine-millimetre handgun,” he recalls.

Did he ever use it?

“No. I have shot a gun before, but fortunately I never hurt nobody.”

Care to elaborate?

“It was when I was way younger. An old girlfriend had pissed me off and I shot at her. But I didn’t hit her.”

Fortunately, these days Gales is less belligerent, more contrite.

“A person who puts themselves in trouble’s way, the police are gonna do their job,” he says. “I can’t really blame them. I’m the only one doing the harm to myself.”

Eric Gales and Zakk Wylde performing as part of Experience Hendrix in Austin, Texas in September 2014

Eric Gales and Zakk Wylde performing as part of Experience Hendrix in Austin, Texas in September 2014

Gales left Memphis “because it was like circling the drain and there were too many of the wrong people that I knew”. He moved to Minnesota for a while, where he “battled for a bit” before settling in Greensboro. He says life has improved immeasurably since, although he hit rock bottom as recently as last year.

“That’s when I said: enough of everything,” he says. “I tried doing it a ‘softer’ way at first, just dabbling, but it didn’t work. So I gave up everything – everything.”

Having rejected intoxicants, he just needed to repair his reputation. He believes the reason he is the guitar world’s best-kept secret – the cognoscenti’s choice, an underrated figure – is down to his expending more energy on miscreancy than on music.

“Because of the damage I did, people didn’t think I was serious,” he offers. He’s not complaining, though. “I’m very happy. I’ve been highly rated by any and everybody, and now even more so because they see this is a new spin on who I am. I had to go through some things. But I wouldn’t do it different, because otherwise my story wouldn’t have the same impact.”

On Middle Of The Road, Gales brings maturity and wisdom to the table on a series of songs that explore his hard-won recovery. That doesn’t mean it’s laid-back; ‘lacerating’ is the word for the album’s best solos, although as ever, Gales prioritises feeling over technique. No wonder Gibson Guitars recently had him at No.4 in their ranking of the Top 10 Modern Blues Guitarists, with only Jack White, John Mayer and Bonamassa above him.

Still, you shouldn’t narrowcast Gales as a bluesman. His favourite artists include John McLaughlin and the late, great jazz/fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth. And you should check out the footage of him on YouTube playing a medley of Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC… and Beethoven. Asked if there’s anyone he would find too difficult to tackle, he replies, laughing: “Not if you put your mind to it there isn’t.”

Today, over the highest of the humps, he can look back on a series of peaks, including playing Hendrix tribute shows with Jimi’s former bandmates Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell, which led to them musing on his similarity to rock’s supreme stylist. “There were conversations like that, which were some of the most moving I ever had,” he remembers.

Now he’s looking forward to an appointment with the optician, and a UK tour. No more late nights, though. He’s tried that route.

“Yeah, I’ve done that already,” he says. “That didn’t work for me. Now I’m trying something different. After the shows I’ll just kick back with my wife, watch some TV and chill out.”

Does he worry about relapsing on the road?

“Not at all,” he says. “Not. At. All.”

Middle Of The Road is out now via Mascot. Eric Gales, with Supersonic Blues Machine, plays Ramblin’ Man Fair on July 30.

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Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.