Dave Grohl went from being an acoustic-strumming preteen in the 1970s to changing rock history in the early '90s as drummer for grunge kings Nirvana—and then to reinvigorating hard rock in the new millennium as the melodic mastermind of multiplatinum-selling Foo Fighters. Here he talks about where he gets his uncanny melodic sensibility, why it was easy to "unplug" his hits, and how the band's latest acoustic recordings showed him that "the intensity of a quiet dynamic can be as powerful as a Motorhead record.".
How did you first get into songwriting?
I started recording myself when I was about 12 years old. I figured out that you could record a guitar part on a boom box with a cassette, and then take that cassette out and put it in the big home stereo and hit Play. With another cassette in the boom box, I'd hit Record, and then I'd sing along to the guitar line coming out of the home stereo speakers. The cassette in the boom box then had vocals and guitar on it. Then I'd put that cassette back in the big stereo, hit Play, press Record on the boom box, and play drums to it. I wrote songs about my dog and things like that. It was an obsession from an early age-all I wanted to do was create music.
Compared to a lot of hard-rock singers and guitarists, you have a pretty uncanny pop-melody savvy.
My taste in music is pretty wide, and I don't think of music by genre. I listen to songs individually and appreciate the thought that goes into the vocal melody - or any melody, for that matter. There's something about a sweet melody with a blue note that takes a left turn and goes somewhere unexpected that just sounds dear, you know? Listening to the Beatles and that AM Gold stuff from an early age definitely affected my sense of melody. I mean, I didn't dive right into Iron Maiden, you know! I might run up on stage and scream bloody murder for an hour and 55 minutes, but before I go up I'm listening to Eddie Money, 10cc, and things like that. That stuff really gets me.
What's the key to reworking heavy songs as acoustic versions without sounding cheesy or losing the power and passion of the original?
Well, I learned how to play rock music with an acoustic. It wasn't until later that I got an electric guitar and a distortion pedal and started playing with real volume. So my beginning, my foundation, was with this big, fat acoustic guitar, playing along to rock 'n' roll records. I think I've always felt more comfortable with an acoustic than with an electric. And when I write, I'm usually at home with an acoustic, just relaxing and finding these melodies that I get to choose the dynamic for. The songs are written before I choose how to record or perform them. Songs like "Best of You" and "Everlong" were written with an acoustic guitar and then brought to the studio to make into rock songs, so when we brought them back to the acoustic, they translated because that's where they originated.
When a lot of rock bands unplug, it just sounds schmaltzy.
I think it's because they're doing the opposite - which is difficult. There are some Foo Fighters songs that would not work on acoustic guitar, primarily because we wrote them as a rock band, but the majority of our music is written on acoustic guitar, with more attention paid to melody than anything. With most of the emphasis placed on melody, finding the dynamic in which to perform a song is always a big challenge - it can go a thousand different ways.
Do you approach acoustic guitar differently than you do the electric guitar?
I think I do separate the two, because I have these different sides to my personality. I look at the acoustic guitar as a conversation, whereas I look at the electric guitar as some sort of drunken celebration, you know? When I put on the Gibson Firebird, it's like I can taste Coors Light [laughs]. When I sit down with the acoustic guitar, it's like I'm wearing a blanket.
Are those two feelings mutually exclusive?
I think so, yeah. It's kind of like drums. Drums are an acoustic instrument, and the way that you sound on them depends on the feel that you approach them with. The best drummers are the ones that you can record with one microphone in a room and it sounds great: The cymbals aren't washing all over the place, and you're not losing the snare or the drum rolls or the hi-hats. Everything is perfectly equalized because that person knows how to work it and feel it with just their hands and feet. It's the same with an acoustic guitar. When I touch an acoustic guitar, I create dynamics as I would with the drum set. It goes up and down, and it emphasizes the song. With an electric guitar, I just walk up to the amp, turn it all the way up to ten, and beat the crap out of the thing.
What did you learn about yourself as a guitar player from the acoustic sessions for In Your Honor?
It was so nice. I finally realized that the power and intensity of a quiet dynamic - even a song with just a vocal and an acoustic guitar can be just as powerful as a Motorhead record. There's that naked element that brings it all to the front and can make it seem louder than a stack of PA cabinets. Put an acoustic instrument in a person's hands and place them in front of a microphone, and you can't go wrong. The few times that I've performed by myself with an acoustic guitar and a microphone, dropping the dynamic down so low that you can hear a pin drop in the room, it gave me the chills. There's something about this piece of wood with these strings that can move other people's hearts.
Are there any ways in which you've recently decided you want to improve as a guitarist?
No. To be perfectly honest, I don't have that sort of ambition. I take it one day at a time. I challenge myself with little things, new rhythms and new patterns and new chords. Having never studied theory, when I discover something, the satisfaction is amplified, because I think, "I don't know what that is but, damn, it's cool!" The natural process of discovering is enough reward in itself.
How do you work through musical ruts and writer's block?
You just do it when you do it, you know? Some pretentious knucklehead once said, "You can't force the hand of the muse." It didn't read well, but it actually made sense. Trying to force that thing out of its place is wrong. I've been guilty of letting songs go before they were ready, but with this album I swore to myself I'd never do that again. And I won't, because music should come from an honest place.
How would you summarize your musical evolution since Nirvana?
I feel the same as I did when I was learning those Beatles songs as a kid. I don't consider myself an accomplished musician. Everyday I'm humbled by music, and there's this greater understanding that I'll be chasing for my entire career. I don't necessarily want to be the best; I just want to understand music more.
It's like being in love with someone - you continue to fall in love, over and over again, with the right person. I just got a piano, and now I'm teaching myself how to play that, it's a whole new revelation for me. I feel like I just broke ground for a diamond mine! I think about it all day long - when I'm on my motorcycle, when I'm falling asleep at night. And it's only because that challenge and the satisfaction of musical expression will never grow old.
As a guitarist, I think that I've progressed over the last 20 years - I sure hope so. But, more than becoming [neoclassical shred guitarist] Yngwie Malmsteen, it's about finding those new places in myself to tap into music. It's an endless search. I was writing something on the piano the other day and thinking, "If an accomplished pianist sat down in front of me, I wonder what they would think of my playing. It's very basic, but I think it's beautiful." And then I realized that's all you need. I don't need to be Liberace; I just need to be able to express myself. I feel the same way about guitar.
Words: Shawn Hammond
back to the features index