This is a feature from the November/December 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Jerry Garcia’s famed Doug Irwin Tiger and its encore appearance with Warren Haynes and the Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration, Scott Tennant’s project that brings together Andrés Segovia’s guitar and the master’s unheard works, electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian and his impact on the instrument’s importance, the annual Guitar Aficionado Holiday Gift Guide and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.
HONKY TONK HERO: When writing, recording, and performing songs for his debut country-rock album, Down in a Hole, Kiefer Sutherland decided the best approach was to get up close and personal.
By Chris Gill | Photos by Tina Picard
It’s difficult to imagine Kiefer Sutherland ever being intimidated. After all, he’s the actor who portrayed Jack Bauer, one of television’s greatest badass heroes of all time. Yet when Sutherland was 19, he had a daunting experience that caused him to suddenly abandon something he had loved dearly for most of his life—playing the guitar.
“I had already been working as a professional actor for quite some time before I moved to California when I was 17,” Sutherland recalls in his luxuriously husky voice (the man could read Kardashian tweets and make them seem like Steinbeck). “But playing guitar was something that I always had in the back of my head. If my acting career didn’t take off, I would have been very happy pursuing a career making music instead. Then when I was 19, I met Jude Cole and heard him play. He was an absolutely stunning guitar player. I thought to myself, Well, if you’re not able to play like that, don’t play at all. I literally put my guitar under my bed for two years.”
Shortly after that, Sutherland started landing high-profile acting roles that included Ace Merrill in Stand By Me and David in The Lost Boys, so he never really needed to rely on music to make a living from that point onward. Regardless, his passion for playing guitar remained irresistible.
“Over time, I pulled the guitar back out and started playing again,” Sutherland says. “Jude and I became friends, and he helped me out a lot with my playing. I was always very nervous and shy about my guitar playing because I was friends with Jude and a lot of other professional and studio guitarists that were genius players. I didn’t feel comfortable playing in front of those people.
“What helped me get over that was when I started to write my own songs. Then I could play guitar parts for those songs the way that I wanted. My guitar playing took another jump at that point.”
While Sutherland wrote numerous songs over the years, he tucked most of them away while he offered a handful to performers he thought were a good match for his material. Sutherland and Cole opened a recording studio called Ironworks in Los Angeles’ Silverlake area, which soon inspired the duo to form their own record label with the same name in 2002. That experience caused Sutherland’s songwriting skills to blossom.
“Several different artists came through Ironworks, including Rocco DeLuca and the Burden, Billy Boy on Poison, and HoneyHoney,” he explains. “They all wrote songs in very different ways. It was interesting to see how they worked. When I saw these other writers and how they approached songwriting, I realized I could use different approaches. Before that time, when I was writing a song everything had to come at once, which is not a very prolific way to write. But after that I started to take one little piece from one song and another piece from another until I came up with an idea that I liked and could structure something around it. That was a really long process for me, but in the last few years I’ve managed to write a lot. Now I try to allot time to songwriting every day.”
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