Tinsley Ellis’ daily routine includes songwriting sessions in his studio in Tucker, Ga. He calls it his day job.
Along with new ideas, Ellis came to a conclusion: “Three years with no new album is too darn long.”
And although he’s widely considered one of today’s greatest southern rock guitarists and has a recording career that began in 1986, he couldn’t get his record label to sign off on his plan for a new album.
“(Alligator Records President) Bruce (Iglauer) thought it was a kooky idea,” Ellis said. “And you know what? It is a kooky idea.”
The kooky idea, an all instrumental album, “Get It!,” led to a No. 1 placement on a blues chart, daily airplay on Sirius XM satellite radio as well as play on numerous stations which have picked a few different songs as the choice for a favorite single.
“I am glad I did it,” Ellis said. “And the reviews have been very positive because I think this album puts a smile on people’s faces. A lot of times, the themes of blues songs are such serious stuff. And it’s just sort of a breather. It’s kind of fun.
Ellis produced the album independently. In a second stint with Alligator, Ellis recorded three albums since 2005. He now has 13 in his career.
“People asked, ‘You do so many instrumentals, have you ever thought about doing an instrumental album?’ ” Ellis said. “One day I was going over all my tunes on my computer and dragged them into a file and I called them ‘Tinstrementals.’ And, low and behold, I had about 25 songs.
“I felt really strongly about it so I just made it on my own and started my own record company and hired a distributor and publicist and all that kind of stuff. … It’s not as easy as I thought it would be.”
A cerebral rock star, Ellis has a history degree from prestigious Emory University in Atlanta, and he still lives in the campus’ neighborhood. He nearly left music in the early 1980s because he was disgusted with what was considered popular music at the time, specifically the hit song “Blinded Me with Science.” It didn’t even have guitar,” Ellis said.
But he continued with his band, the Heartfixers, and became the lead singer. However, guitar has always been the point of emphasis. Like he is in a conversation, Ellis’ onstage moves are calm and deliberate, a contrast to his guitar’s aggressive, string-bending and heartfelt sounds, often distorted with a wah-wah pedal.
“Get It!” pays homage to the styles of Ellis’ guitar heroes.
The album opens with a smile, “Front Street Freeze,” in which Albert Collins visits Stax Records.
“It’s always best to open an album with something with a positive message, not with one of those slow burners, because that’s how life is,” Ellis said. “You have your amenities. You have your handshake and then you get on to more serious stuff.”
It is followed by another upbeat number, “Sassy Strat.”
“The whole CD I let the guitar do the singing,” Ellis said. “I wanted to make sure the music continued to be melodic. ‘Sassy Strat’ is a very melodic song. Of course, it’s got the cackle in the clavinet part. XM radio has been playing it a lot.”
The song which Ellis said he is most proud, “The Milky Way,” is in the spacey style of David Gilmore, but the name isn’t a “Dark Side of the Moon” reference.
“I had never written a song like that before, so open and melodic,” Ellis said. “Usually my songs get kind of quiet and get kind of loud, but this one is sort of melodic and nice throughout. … I was going around the house in the middle night trying to think of a name for this song. The kids keep candy bars in the middle of the kitchen drawer and I dug one out. It was a Milky Way, but it also goes with the music, too. I caught a break.”
Ellis recorded instrumental versions of two covers, “Detour” and “Freddy’s Midnite Dream,” by, respectively, Bo Diddley and Freddy King. He first worked on those songs in earlier recording sessions but they did not make it on the records.
“Berry Tossin’” is an obvious tribute to Chuck Berry, who Ellis calls “the father of guitar rock ’n’ roll.”
“Fallen Hero” is a power ballad which has been embraced by listeners as a song for patriots. But Ellis was thinking about Roy Buchanan when he wrote it. Buchanan created a wah-wah sound without the use of pedals. “There are all type of different heroes. That song can mean a number of things to a number of different people,” Ellis said.
The pedal is in use on “Fuzzbuster,” a tip of the cap to Jeff Beck.
The album ends with another song getting a lot of radio play, “Cataluyna,” which seems like an obvious reference to Carlos Santana.
“Everybody’s saying Santana, so I say ‘OK, it works for me,’ ” Ellis said. “But I wrote that one thinking about Peter Green, the original guitarist for Fleetwood Mac. He did the original ‘Black Magic Woman.’ Carlos Santana was hugely influenced by Peter Green who did several of those Latin-feeling songs and that’s probably what Carlos was attracted to with the congas and everything.”
Ellis and Iglauer and the Alligator family remain close, so that door appears unlocked. However, Ellis likes the feeling of independence.
“If I continue (independently), the next album will just be a normal album and the next will be more like ‘Get It!’, a specialty album. Maybe acoustic will be my next abnormal album.”
YouTube clip “Catalunya” —Listen
Tinsley Ellis on tour in the West
Monday, July 29 – Crystal Bay Casino Red Room, 9 p.m.
Tuesday, July 30 – Squaw Valley’s Bluesdays, 6 p.m.
Wednesday, July 31 – Biscuits and Blues, San Francisco
Thursday, Aug. 1 – Boulder Station Casino, Las Vegas
Friday, Aug. 2 – Coach House, San Juan Capistrano
Saturday, Aug. 3 – Mammoth Lake’s Bluseapalooza