National Artist Spotlight: Zach Zunis
Interview with Zach Zunis Guitarist 09-08, and 9-17-2021
TC – Tim Childs
ZZ – Zach Zunis
I was fortunate to be able to get re-acquainted with Zach Zunis, Guitarist for Janiva Magness, during her show in early August. I consider him one of the finest Blues guitarists in our current time and it was an absolute blast talking with him. Zach is from Dayton Ohio and currently lives with his family in NYC and Long island. He has been playing guitar now for over 45 years and toured extensively all over the country and world. He has spent equal time in LA & Southern California, and met and played Guitar for William Clarke, The Red Devils, and King Ernst Baker, Ronnie Earl and Rick Holmstrom. Currently Zach is the guitar player for Javina Magness and the Big Apple Blues band
Tim Childs: We are in a pretty serious holding pattern for our area right now due to the new Covid spike going on, since you were here at the beginning of August with Javina Magness. What a pleasure it was to be able to see you with Javina at our BBS show!
Zach Zunis: Hey man, thank you so much, we really enjoyed playing for you all and are very much hoping to come back next year, or when our schedule allows. We really enjoyed hearing you and Trials & Tribulations too!! Love the enthusiasm and the original tunes you guys put out there!! Yeah, and I heard that about the spike out there! I’m sorry to hear that. Its pretty much the same everywhere from what I’m hearing. I’m in New York city right now at our flat and also my wife and I are mainly out on Long island, and I’m not able to do too much with my local projects here when I’m not on the road with Javina.
I first met you when you played with Bill Clarke, and I recall it being in San Diego, and maybe 1990? You were with Rick Holmstrom on second guitar then, I think?
Yes, that would be right! I was with Bill for several years and what a band that was!
Since you’re in New York; I’m assuming you know Bobby Radcliff, right? (A Great Blues Guitar Player out of NYC), and I just was able to catch up with him via Facebook the other day.
Oh man, of course I do. Oh my god man, let me tell you a quick story about him – he’s really a good guy! We opened up for him somewhere – I can’t remember exactly where now – some big theater – I swear to god, man, his voice & guitar he sounded like Magic Sam, I mean like Magic Sam reincarnated. I was just blown away by it! We all were in shock. For some reason that ability was eerie. I’ve heard him many times, but something about that place was just incredible! It just hit us the right way. I mean, if there’s anybody who can interpret Magic Sam correctly, it’s him, man! He internalizes that sound and playing style – just like Jimmy Vaughan does too! They study the way it’s done, they digest it and it comes out authentic!
The “authenticity” of what they do – it’s what got my attention when I was starting out back in ’83. I saw The T-Birds, first, a year or so before I saw Stevie, and they blew me away on how good they were. I think that after my Uncle (my 1st guitar mentor – Peter Childs – guitarist for Odetta, Fred Neil and others from the Folk scene in the ’60’s) and Duke & Ronnie back in Boston, Jimmy was my next guitar hero back then.
Yeah, I can see that. We’ve played with Duke a few times, and I/we did a series of gigs where Ronnie came up with us on stage and just killed it!
That would be the video of the Bull Run show with Javina Magness you have on your website?
Yes, and man what a guitar player he is! I’ve known him a long time now and I consider him a great friend and mentor.
I’ve studied those with him closely. You also open the show with a great instrumental yourself there Zach!
ZZ: Oh, thank you man!
I saw you in ’90 but you were pretty established in the San Diego & L.A area by then. Where did you start and if I see your website timeline correctly, your originally from Dayton Ohio, right?
Yes, I’m from there and I started pretty early – as a kid there, like anyone really. I can say that I ‘knew’ pretty early on that I was going to be a musician. I started playing drums as a very young person. My dad wanted me to try the accordion – (laughs), but they didn’t work out. I got hooked on the guitar as a 10 year old due to that was “it” and I had several friends that were trying it back then. And I was the “nosy” kid wanting to get in on it. I got my 1st electric guitar with a really cheap Ampeg amp that came with it, and it was cool! The guitar was a Zuistar (Sp?) or something like that. I thought it was cool because it had my initials (ZZ) on the pickups.. LOL. Anyway, I was off and running.
The first real band I as in was called “the Slugs”. We were pretty “funky” – as the times were like that back then and we somehow got the attention of the Ohio Players and Marvin who did a demo for us and, you know, it was quite the experience then. We didn’t know if anything was going to come from that connection, but I learned a lot. (Laughs). Next thing you know, I’m in S. Cal with my girlfriend at the time. Time has flown by man.
So how did you meet Bill Clarke?
Well, he was the “man’ then, as far as I’m concerned. I wasn’t the only one going to the venues he played at all over S. California, checking him out. I saw (band leader and guitarist for Mavis Staples) Rick Holmstrom in the crowd doing the same thing I was doing – learning every trick & lick we could absorb at Bills shows. I mean, this was “the” scene back then. We all went to all the clubs that Bill played. (Smokey Wilson’s club was one example). Playing there would be Bill with Junior on guitar, or James Harmon band with Kid Ramos — just killin’ it. Or Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, with either Junior in the band or Alex Shultz or Joel Foy on any given night. I mean, Tim, the scene was it!! I got asked to play – you know, sit in – by Bill after he heard about me via the other top guys after a while of going to his shows and slowly getting to know him. Not too long after, I got asked to be in the band.
There’s a a lot of history here. William Clarke was huge were I ended up. We (in the Portland OR area) all listened to him, Little Charlie, James Harmon, Rod Piazza, Mark Hummel and we had great Harp front man bands too – Paul Delay’s band, Bill Rhoades & the Party Kings, Jim Wallace and the Hamhawks to name just a few. We all were listening to what you were doing in Bills band back then!
Bill was a demanding band leader. Very skilled at what he did and expected the same from everyone on the band stand. He was a great teacher too. I mean, my learning curve was STEEP, in that band. I played with him for 3 years straight and eventually left the band due to I just burned out. I think I told him in Vancouver BC that I needed to go. I told him I respected him so much (still do) for what he’d done and what he taught me, but life on the road is like that, the pace of it, got to me, eventually.
TC: So this was around ’93 or so when you switched up?
Yeah sounds about right.
So the next band you joined up eventually with is “The Red Devils?
Yes, and I was in several bands before and after. Lester called me (Lester Butler – another great harmonica player and founder of the Red Devils) and talked me into joining up with him. Lester was following Bill like we all were, and I signed up. Lester was in the recording studio for Rick Rubin’s Def American Recording Label, and we got to meet Johnny Cash, who was in working on an album. Man, that voice Tim! It was something to meet him, lol! It was cool!
Then you went on to play & record with Billy Boy Arnold, and then King Ernest Baker too?
Yes, all back there. You can find a lot of the King Ernest and the Billy Boy Arnold tracks on YouTube, I think, still.
It was around this time that you met or heard of Javina Magness, is that right? I first heard her on Kid Ramos’ California House Party album, and that was back in ’95 or so. What a voice!
Yeah, we started seeing her back then at the shows we were all going to or playing at in the LA scene then. I recall it being in the late ’80’s or right around ’90. It was pretty obvious that she was the real deal once you heard her perform, even when she was sitting in, in the early days, man. We were all like whoa, she’s got it!!
When did you start playing with her?
She approached me quite a while ago, now. I don’t recall exactly when she asked me to join the band, but I can say we’ve been (the current line up at the BBS show) with her for at least 12 years now. She made it happen!
She mentioned that it was her 30th anniversary of recording and being a performer at the BBS show. It was pretty impressive to put it mildly. We (my band mates in Trials & Tribulations) were so pumped up to open for you all. I learned a tremendous amount listening to you and how tight of a unit you were on stage with her. We talked about it after the show. It’s really, really motivating for us!
Oh thanks man, we were pretty rusty actually, but we “pull it’ together once we get going.
So, a good segway into your Big Apple Blues Band, I think. Your band-mate Jim Alfredson in the Magness band is also in this band with you too?
Yes, Jim is probably one of the best B-3 players out there right now, and we go for the super funky, greasy style of instrumentals that we all came up on when we were young players. Or in my case, as a kid.
When you pointed out the Big Apple Blues website for me to look at, man, I was blown away on how great and original your tunes are on the 2 albums you’ve done. I can hear Booker T in there, even Little Feat, too!? Am I right on that?
All of us in this band are kind of paying homage, if you will, to that era, but trying to be original and authentic also. It’s a lot of fun, for sure (Laughs)!
(Note from TC: I’ll be posting the links at the bottom of the article for our BBS fans & members to follow. All I can say – as this band alone is incredible all by itself, is – Check out the Big Apple Blues Band and be prepared to get to “groovin’” and hard. Once I started listening, an hour or more went by before I knew it! All of the musicians in this band have been playing for a long time with and in many, many national acts – too numerous to add in here.)
We have a lot of interest out here in our local scene with Guitars & gear played through. You have been a Strat player for a long time now… do I have that right?
yes, but I started on a Les Paul, actually – The Slugs and on out till the Bill Clark days. I had a Gold Top for a long, long time. I initially played that through a Peavey 4/10 set up then switched over to Super Reverbs and the like – like many of us did then.
Yeah – I still have access to my ’64 Super that I played through since the late 80’s myself. When I saw you back in ’90 you were playing an L-5 then, with I think a Strat as back up?
I was, and Junior (Guitarist Junior Watson) talked me out of that guitar.. (Chuckles). I got a Gold Strat and a Bassman amp out of that trade. Probably should of got that guitar back, but, (laughs) Junior is kind of hard to say “no” too.
On the YouTube videos of you over the years I’ve seen, you are on various Strats and I think I see a Genesis amp, but now – of late – I see a Valvetrain, I think it is?
Yeah, I’ve gone to that “custom, hand-wired” type tube amp route for a long time now. Same with the guitars. All of them are modified a bit for me. Hand-wired pick-ups, and the like. It’s all about that “tone” you know. In combination with the pedals I like also.
For sure, we have a similar view on that. I got to say Zach, you picked up on the sweet spot on my Magnatone Super 15 at the show. You nailed it first pass on the white Strat you brought with! Plus with your pedal board you have. It was nice to see actually.
Oh, Thanks man! That Magnatone is a killer! It’s almost all you need for gigging. It was a pleasure to play on and thank you so much for letting me play through your gear! Its really nice – as Javina said in her email you read me – we all feel that way as a band – to be able to come to a gig and be treated as artists and play through the “right” gear so we can put on a great show for you! Can’t wait to come back! Just without the Covid problem, right?
Amen to that, and yes, we are looking forward to getting you back here with Javina! Maybe, if it works out, we can get you here with the Big Apple Blues band too? Wouldn’t that be cool?
For sure, man, if it was to work out, I’d love to be able to do that too! I like the “vibe” I felt there when we played for you all..
We’ve been going through a lot of influences and players. I get asked occasionally by fans about who my top 20 guitars player are to me. It’s a question I have a hard time answering, and don’t like to, typically. I got like over 100 I think when it comes down to it. You are someone who really studies the blues, so, what do you think about this? I’m sure you get asked?
Oh man, that is really tough to do… (laughing).. And yes, I do get asked…You know, I think a good way to talk about this is mentioning the “influencers” or “innovators”, as the way to get there on the top guitarist question. I’m glad you asked though. For me, kind of what were were talking about is the original ones because without them, we wouldn’t be having this conversation – none of it, I think.. For me there’s T-Bone and Gatemouth, then BB, Albert and Freddie King. I’d add in Albert Collins with them too. I’m talking about the “Blues” guys here. And I can’t leave out Buddy Guy, Muddy, too many really..
For me, Albert King is my main guy. I was able to see him in Ohio many, many times as he was there a lot then, and I hung on everything he and his band did. I mean the way the band set up for the night, – all of the greats did it, BB, T-Bone, Gatemouth, all of them. Set the “stage’ with killer instrumentals with dynamics and switching up to keep you guessing what was next. I mean, the goal today is to honor that, be “authentic” and carry on the torch. At least that’s how I look at it..
I can go on… Love Johnny Winter. I still remember when the 1st Winter Album came out, and it still is timeless to me. Roy Buchanan also was a huge, huge influence for me, too. Then there’s Peter Green as another innovator and to me via BB King. I mean, what a player!
Yeah, I didn’t catch on to Peter Green until later on in my journey, but I agree with that. He had such tasteful phrasing, didn’t he?
ZZ: for sure, man! I studied him for years. The Mayall and Fleetwood Mac work. I’d also add in Carlos Santana to this conversation. Mainly for his tone and phrasing too. Like Green, but so, so original. It isn’t all about the “speed” on the fret board to me. It’s what you do with one or two notes. I mean, look at what BB did, or Albert King with 1 note at times… I mean, what more can I say? That tone and “feel” – Is more important to me than speed and how many notes one can cram in. Technique matters, but it’s what you do with it in between that is what I listen for. I mean take John McLaughlin and Robben Ford as the other side of the spectrum. They are killer guitarists on any level, jazz, Blues rock, what have you, but they also know the “space” and how to lay back in the right place, right? Not many out there can do that well in my opinion.
What about the “West Coast” jump guitar players? To me, I don’t see (beside Hollywood Fats – who came later) Lowell Fulsom or Pee Wee Crayton mentioned too much nationally. I know you get the historical link, but what do you think on that?
ZZ: man, exactly! Without either of them , and I’d add in Guitar Slim too to this discussion, Junior or Little Charlie, Hollywood Fats, Rick Holmstrom, Alex Shultz, Kid Ramos, Joel Foy or me wouldn’t have a baseline to work with, really. They were exceptional and way, way ahead of the times, but that’s how it worked, the blues scenes back then.. That’s what Bill taught us, he listened to everyone, from sax payers to guitarists. And I mean everyone old-timers and coming up. He’s copy their phrasing and then double down on it. I’m still amazed by him and what he did in his time here..
So who is, in your view, up and coming and we should be listening too?
ZZ: Well, I try and keep up when and where I can. Some of the lady players are really going for it! Lindsey Beaver Band out of Austin is one. Shes’ super original and shes the singer/drummer. Her guitar player – Brad Stivers – is a killer. Check them out! I Love what Sue Foley is doing and we first learned of her in Vancouver BC back in the Clarke days. She opened up for us a few times and just nailed it! Still does as far as I’m concerned.
Any harp Players out there that get your attention?
Yes, Big Pete out of the Netherlands. Great guy and strong player & singer. Very authentic. Played with him a few times now. Met him over in Europe when on tour there a number of years ago.
Well Zach, thanks you so much for the time. I’ve got a lot here and will put it together for our website news letter. Lets stay in touch and lets get you back for a show in the near future. One way or another! Thank you!
The pleasure is all mine Tim. Pass on to Dave, and everyone in the BBS my thanks for having us and definitely looking forward to coming back! Love what you’re doing out there in Boise! Cheers, Man!
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