Carl Wilson and Billy Hinsche 1981
Carl Wilson and Billy Hinsche, 1981


This interview first appeared in Guitar One magazine, November 2001 issue.

Carl Wilson was the best friend I ever had.

I remember the first time we met — it was at the Hollywood Bowl on the afternoon of July 2, 1965, during a soundcheck for the “Summer Spectacular” (scheduled for the following night) headlining Carl's band, the Beach Boys, arguably the biggest group in the world.

My group, Dino, Desi & Billy, was one of the opening acts that included the Byrds, the Kinks, Sonny & Cher, and the Righteous Brothers. DD&B (as we came to be known) was absolutely on fire, especially in our home town of Los Angeles. Our current release, “I'm A Fool,” was screaming up the local and national charts and the Beach Boys liked us so much, both professionally and personally, they invited us to go on tour with them to Bakersfield, Fresno and Hawaii! I was fourteen years old and all my dreams were coming true.

After our show in Bakersfield, I went to visit Carl in his hotel room. His door was wide open and the room was full of friends and well-wishers. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, holding a brand new guitar in his hands, inspecting it carefully and strumming it casually. I'd never seen a guitar like this before. It looked like a goofy-footed Stratocaster to me. It was a Mosrite and the local dealer was trying to get Carl to accept one, at no charge, in return for an endorsement. After the somewhat high pressure sales pitch had concluded, Carl thanked the guitar rep for the offer and politely told him he wasn't interested, returning the guitar to its case to emphasize the finality of his decision. I couldn't believe it — Carl turned down a chance to get a free guitar! It was the first of many lessons I learned from Carl and speaks to his lifetime of integrity.

On the way to Hawaii, I sat next to Carl in the first class section of the plane. During the flight, I told him how much I liked the opening guitar riff of a recent Beach Boys' song. I sang it for him, accompanying myself with an imaginary guitar. Recognizing the melody he said, “Oh, you mean ‘Dance, Dance, Dance.’ It starts in the key of G and is really simple. I'd be happy to show you how to play it when we get to Hawaii.” I could hardly believe my ears. Carl Wilson was going to give me my first guitar lesson! Always generous with his time, Carl would consistently be there for me during the coming years.

The next day, I took him up on his offer when I visited him in his penthouse suite at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel. We both owned identical Fireglow Rickenbacker 360/12s and his was out of its case, lying on the couch, silently waiting to be played. Carl showed me the riff in question and then, per my request, showed me how to play the introduction to “Johnny B. Goode,” the last song of the Beach Boys' set during which DD&B joined them onstage for the rousing finale; and just because I asked him, he even allowed me to play the intro, all by myself, in concert that night. Carl didn't have a problem with it because he was all about sharing with others. By the way, I totally screwed up the intro later that night, but Carl just smiled at me in a supportive way as we kept going — never one to ridicule or compound someone else's embarrassment.

Since that time, for the better part of 30 years, Carl was never more than a few feet away from me onstage, not only during my tenure with the Beach Boys but also during his solo tours. He was also my brother-in-law and we remained extremely close until the very end.

The following interview was done in the living room of his home in Brentwood, CA, captured on a small tape recorder, and later transcribed to paper using my old college typewriter. Twenty years later, on the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Beach Boys, I somehow rediscovered it among my “very important papers” file.

What I love about the interview is that I can actually hear Carl's voice while reading the words he spoke. I sincerely hope you can hear him too.

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Billy Hinsche: When did you first become interested in learning how to play guitar?

Carl Wilson: I remember growing up always loving the guitar. I used to love to watch the people play on the Country Western shows on TV. My folks told me that when I was just a toddler, I used to pretend I was playing a guitar on a toothpick. A family friend came over when I was about twelve years old and left his guitar for me to play. I got really interested in it and learned how to play a few chords. My folks got me a single cutaway Kay. It was acoustic but it also had a pickup. That's the guitar I learned to play on.

BH: Were you self-taught?

CW: I took guitar lessons at a guy's accordion studio. There was a guitar teacher there and I took lessons from him for a couple of months, but it was too boring 'cause I was just reading notes. Stuff like “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” I took lessons from John Maus too. He was one of the Walker Brothers [“The Sun 'Aint Gonna' Shine Anymore”]. The funny thing was that his house was almost directly across the street from the accordion studio. It was just a real casual thing. He had a [Fender] Stratocaster that I thought was really fantastic and we used to sit in his room and jam. He would show me how to play certain things. It was sort of by example. I had been playing for about a year and a half when the Beach Boys formed. When our folks went to Mexico on business, we would take the food money they had left us and we would rent instruments from Hogan's Music Store on Hawthorne Boulevard. I was playing a 6-string Rickenbacker for a few weeks. When the group really got going we bought a Fender Stratocaster, a Precision Bass, some drums, and some other guitars. I played a Stratocaster for a couple of years.

BH: Did Fender eventually endorse you?

CW: Yes. After the group got real popular, Fender asked us to endorse their instruments. I think the deal was they'd give them to you then you'd let them print ads and stuff like that. This was around 1962.

BH: Have you endorsed any other make of guitar?

CW: I don't think so.

BH: Who influenced your early style?

CW: Chuck Berry. John Maus too, because I was most directly involved with him as far as playing.

BH: What combination of guitar and amp did you use in the early to mid-'60s?

CW: It was a Stratocaster and a [Fender] Dual Showman.

BH: At that time in the '60s, what guitar players did you admire?

CW: In the early part of the '60s I was influenced by the Ventures. We [Beach Boys] learned how to play all of their songs just by listening to the records. So we learned how to do it by ear.

BH: What other guitars did you own at that time?

CW: I had a Fender Jaguar for a while.

BH: What kind of strings were you using?

CW: Heavy. I think they were Fender. Then I switched to Ernie Ball medium gauge in the mid '60s. As the years have gone on, I started to play regular Slinkys. That's what I use now, but I'd like to switch to a lighter string for more flexibility and ease in playing.

BH: Can you describe how you achieved the studio sound that you got on the early Beach Boys' albums?

CW: We had an amp in the studio just so I could listen to it. This was before people started using the cue system so much. The cue system allowed everything to come back through the earphones. Anyway, I would use an amp and a direct box. Almost all the guitar sounds were done through the direct box to the mixing console except for "Little Honda" or one of those tunes where Brian [Wilson] wanted a buzzy, distorted guitar sound — then we'd use an amp and just crank it. That was before they had pre-amp and the master volume.

BH: Do you prefer to use an amp or go direct?

CW: I like a combination.

BH: What studios do you like for guitar sounds?

CW: Western Studio [now Ocean Way Studio] in Hollywood was real good at the time. They could get all kinds of guitar sounds there 'cause the studio players would just bring in real small amplifiers so they could drive them a little bit and get a real biting, full sound.

BH: How did your guitar sound change in the '70s? What guitars were you using then?

CW: Around 1970, a friend came over and brought a blonde 335 Gibson. He sold it to me for $300 and it was probably the best buy I ever made. It was a Custom and it was several years old at the time I bought it. I'm still using it.

BH: What guitar players did you admire in the '70s?

CW: Clapton. I thought Jimi Hendrix, even before that, was just phenomenal.

BH: Whom do you admire currently as a guitarist?

CW: I don't know their names. I just hear them on the radio. They're all over the place. There's a lot more than one great guitar player. Back, you know, ten years ago, you could just name a few good players, and now, there's so many it would be difficult to say who the greatest players are.

BH: I know you use at least three or four guitars on stage. Can you name them and some of the songs you use them on?

CW: Sure. I use an Epiphone 12-string for “California Girls” and “Sloop John B.” or songs where there is an ostenato, or a guitar figure that goes all the way through it, or just for that sound. I use the 335 for the early Beach Boys things like “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Surfin' U.S.A.”

BH: What guitars did you previously use on stage?

CW: I have a Stratocaster which was the first one made after the prototype. I used to use it on “Help Me Rhonda.” I used your 6-string Epiphone Sheraton for a while [The Beach Boys In Concert 1972 album]. Around 1967-68, I got into the [Fender] Telecaster with a Bigsby unit. It was sort of a hot item for Fender at the time.

BH: What guitars do you currently have in your collection?

CW: A sunburst Gibson Epiphone 12-string, a yellow Fender Stratocaster [named “Old Yeller”], a natural Gibson 335 with a Bigsby tailpiece, a red Epiphone 12-string, a white Fender Stratocaster, a black Les Paul, a sunburst Les Paul, a red Gibson 335, a tobacco sunburst Epiphone 12-string, an acoustic Martin Bicentennial D-76 [stolen from the Beach Boys' warehouse], a yellow Fender Telecaster, a blonde Fender Stratocaster, a red Baldwin 12-string, an acoustic Martin D-41, a jumbo Gibson J-200 and a Les Paul Jr.

BH: What is your most prized guitar or guitars?

CW: The Strat is probably my most prized guitar. The 335 is great for a rhythm guitar and yet it is a little bit easier to play than the Strat when it comes to doing any leads, but the sound isn't as good.

BH: What kind of amp are you currently using?

CW: Now I'm using a Mitchell. Another great amp is the Fender twin reverb.

BH: What settings do you use on your amp?

CW: Usually the volume is about half way at 5 and the tone is between 6 and 7, depending on the guitar. I like the middle right up close to 10. I like the bass up pretty high too, and the pre-amp is usually between 3 and 4. Then, if I want to get a real loud sound, a real — you know, buzzy sound, I'll put the pre-amp up at about 7 or 8, but the master usually stays about the same.

BH: Is this for stage or studio?

CW: It applies to both. I mean, for recording, you sometimes don't want to be as radical. You have to back up a little bit because the microphone will pick up the distortion much faster than, say, in a live situation.

BH: What guitars do you use for your personal playing at home? Acoustic or electric?

CW: Usually my [custom made acoustic] David Russell Young.

BH: What year was that made?

CW: I don't know. I think it was around 1974.

BH: Do you ever play modal?

CW: I do all the time — I love it. It just gives you different combinations. I love to play in the key of D, in the key of A, and in C. I usually use the Strat or the David Russell Young.

BH: Do you use a capo?

CW: It's fun to use a capo 'cause you can get the strings to really have a bell-like sound. It's a thing I got into when I was writing songs. When I started to really write a lot, I would use the capo to try different keys and different combinations.

BH: Let's talk about the new album. Would you describe the sound achieved on your upcoming solo album [Carl Wilson]?

CW: It's a real direct sound. Most of the tracks were cut with three pieces — bass, drums and guitar. Then we [Producer: James William Guercio] would overdub a few things. But there aren't a lot of instruments on the record so it's a pretty clear, direct, type sound. Not a lot of echo and stuff like that. Real direct.

BH: Did you use any effects?

CW: Yeah, we harmonized some things. The main effect was the Boss Chorus on the slow speed. It was just the chorus sound without vibrato for most of it.

BH: Can you characterize your own style? I know that's a hard question, but describe it somehow.

CW: It's just a real simple style. It's not a very elaborate or fancy way of playing — not a lot of notes. I like to get a little more mileage out of each note.

BH: I know this is another very broad and magnanimous question, but what direction is the guitar headed for in the '80s? The sound, the feel?

CW: It's just real diverse. It's spreading all over the place, I think. Music is just going. Lots of styles emerging and stuff like that, but I don't know what direction.

BH: Do you think it will get simpler or more complicated?

CW: Probably both of those things, because somebody will come along who has their style of doing it and it'll be real simple. And somebody else will learn and practice real hard and get really elaborate, you know, with the jazz and blues influences. So it's sort of wide open.

BH: Is there anything you would like to add? Maybe you'd like to give a word of advice to guitar players?

CW: Practice, practice, practice!

Copyright © 2000 William E. Hinsche