Behind the scenes of every great guitar player is a great guitar tech. They are a guitarist’s safety net and security blanket, their advisor, supervisor, and comrade at arms all rolled into one! Without a reliable technician, a guitarist can feel much less secure in his or her abilities to take the stage and perform at peak efficiency. Granted, guitar techs aren’t necessarily household names, but Trace Foster is a well-known name within these circles (who also just so happens to step into the role of guitar player with his own band) and has been the right–hand man for a few musicians you may have heard of … including Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Angus Young of AC/DC, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath and Melissa Etheridge!
So, how did this unique and cool rock-and-roll gig come about?
“I’d like to tell you that I am some kind of ‘super tech,’ but in actuality, I’m not … most of it is personality and being in the right place at the right time,” Foster said in an exclusive interview. “However, I also seem to speak the language as these guys. Being a musician myself, it allows me to relate on a level that techs who are not musicians can’t.”
Born and raised just north of Chicago in (go figure) Rockford, Illinois, Trace was first exposed to rock music by his older brother, who was a drummer, vocalist, and songwriter. “My family has a deep musical background, but it’s kind of weird … either you got the music gene or you don’t. Thankfully, I got it,” Foster said. “My brother was gonna make sure I played music one way or another. He was upset that I chose guitar over the drums, but he got over it.”
Trace’s brother took him to see KISS in concert early on and Ace Frehley became his first guitar influence. Shortly thereafter, the aforementioned guitar gods Joe Perry, Angus Young, and then Michael Schenker of UFO, were on his rock-and-roll radar.
“When I was 15 I wanted to be Joe Perry and my life revolved around Aerosmith and AC/DC. This was 1978 and we’re talking (Aerosmith’s) Rocks and (AC/DC’s) Powerage – two albums that were defining a generation of rockers! Then, in 1980, I saw Randy Rhoads and it was ‘game over!’ I think Randy was the epitome of greatness and I cried the day that he died … when AC’DC’s Bon Scott died too. It’s funny how musicians can touch you so deeply. I never knew either of them, but it just seemed like they were one of us, the guys that got what we were all going through.”
Trace started playing drums at age eight, but once he saw that KISS show he knew he wanted to be a guitarist. So, his brother sold the drum kit and bought him a Vox AC15 with a Vox Strat. Trace also plays keyboards and “can get through a tune on drums, if need be.” He never received any formal music training, instead, opting for the hands-on approach.
“My education in music came at the expense of others and playing in bands where I knew the musicians had the knowledge I needed. I observed and asked a lot of questions. I always remember one saying that tells you that ‘you can’t learn if you’re talking,’ and I use that line to this day.”
Truth be told, Trace never wanted to be a guitar tech. He wanted to be a rock star, he laughs. So, upon graduating high school at 17, he grabbed his car keys and headed for Los Angeles. It would be a rude awakening, but he was also surrounded by musicians with record deals, and simply started lending a helping hand at gigs.
“This was 1982 and the Sunset Strip was raging, full-steam ahead! I did shows with everyone who was anyone in L.A. and I decided to do my thing full time in 1990. I did it on and off for about a decade … touring with and being in bands. In 1988, I was in an amazing band that should have taken over the world, slugging it out all across America, but we ended up owing about a hundred grand and I basically ended up homeless.”
At this point, Trace decided that he needed to make a choice to do something else.
“I always tell people — and it’s the truth — I really didn’t want to do this job, and the more I say I don’t want to do it, the more phone calls I get!”
(laughing) Some of those phone calls have come from some of the biggest names in the guitar world. Foster’s opportunity to work with Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, who is also from Rockford, Illinois, actually came by chance.
“I recently started working with Rick again, filling in for his regular guy on some shows, and I hadn’t worked with him for exactly 20 years. Back in 1999, I had made a phone call to a friend just to catch up, and he said he was working with Cheap Trick and they were putting out feelers because Rick needed a tech. I said that I would love to do it and I was hired right then and there. So, truth be told, it was just being in the right place, at the right time.
“I was actually Rick’s third tech, Dave Wilmer was his tech for years. I can remember seeing Cheap Trick back in the day and Dave would be running around trying to keep up with Rick, switching guitars mid-song, tuning like crazy, it was like watching a show within a show. I used to think, ‘that looks like fun and I would love to do that.’ Seriously, I was in high school and thought what a great gig that is!”
In fact, Trace was actually recommended for the Joe Perry gig by Nielsen, along with Joe’s “front of house” guy, Steve Folsom, who told Perry that Trace would be perfect for him.
“Steve Folsom was mixing sound on the 2009 Joe Perry Project tour and Joe wasn’t happy with his tech, and Steve and I had worked with Melissa Etheridge for years, so he told them that I was the guy and a few phone calls later and I was on a plane. So, the first day I went to a gig, I was just supposed to watch the guy currently working for Joe and learn the gig.
“Well, Joe and I spent an hour on his bus before the show just talking about music, and he realized that I had a very deep appreciation for music and I was able to relate to everything he was talking about. So, when he was told it was time to hit the stage he looked at me and said ‘I like you, I think you should just do the show tonight.’ I said okay, but of course, deep down I was like ‘what the heck did I just get myself into?’
“The first time I touched the ‘Billie guitar,’ I was tuning it and handing it to him onstage … I literally walked into a hornet’s nest. But, the show was flawless, Joe was happy, and we started a relationship that lasted seven years.
“Joe is truly one of the most unique guitar players I have ever heard, but there is something that is often overlooked, that I would like to point out. Joe Perry can be Joe Perry because of one, (Aerosmith guitarist) Brad Whitford. Brad is the glue in that band as far as I am concerned because he allowed Joe, to be Joe. If you solo Joe’s parts, a lot of the time they don’t make much sense on their own. But once you add Brad and the rest of the band, wham!, there it is … Aerosmith! That’s the key to the band, everyone brings their own thing and that’s why it works so well!
“Joe’s uniqueness comes from his influences. Once you know who they are, you can hear them in his playing … especially The Meters … he has taken these influences and made them his own. I hear a lot of horn lines in Joe’s soloing style, another thing that’s overlooked at times. You know, nothing was easy for Aerosmith … nothing. They weren’t handed anything, so that’s why they’re America’s greatest rock band … because they earned it!
“There are hundreds of stories, but one of my favorite moments with Joe was when we were working on songs for the Music From Another Dimension CD. We were at Joe’s studio, The Boneyard, and it was just Joe, Steven Tyler and myself, and I was engineering the session while they were in the live room working on new songs. Joe had a bunch of ideas they were going over, with Steven playing drums and Joe on guitar, of course.
“It was the most amazing thing to watch these guys take a rough idea and turn it into an Aerosmith song. I mean, the idea was very generic until they both played it, and it took on a whole new life. It goes back to what I said about each band member bringing his personality to the table and that’s what makes it great … seeing that happen was a magical moment.
“If Angus (Young) didn’t call me, I would still be with Joe … but you just can’t say no to Angus Young. I remember when I told Joe that Angus had called me, he told me that he gets it and I needed to do that tour. Joe is pretty awesome!”
Foster still works with Angus Young, and is currently waiting on a phone call from AC/DC to report for duty. “I don’t know when it will be, but hopefully soon. People ask me all the time what they are doing, but I honestly have no idea … they are very private people and when they want us all to know what they are up to, they will make an announcement.”
Foster is the type of person who is always wanting to do more, something new, and recently found himself wanting to start producing music. He has a home recording studio and has started his own independent music label called UTB Records.
“I recently produced a band from Fort Smith, Arkansas called Letters From Jett, a great southern rock/country band that’s a cross between Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Eagles. I love the band but wasn’t necessarily happy with the guitarist, so I ended up recording most of the guitar myself and after the record was done, it is called Heartbreaks and Hangovers, it was decided that I should just stick around and play guitar at their shows.”
The CD is doing quite well as Letters From Jett has been doing select shows across America. A few of the tracks have been getting airplay in the U.S. and U.K., Heartbreaks and Hangovers is available online from Spotify and iTunes, and the band is already working on the next album. “It was a great project to launch my new label and we’re hoping for really big things this time around with the new album,” Trace added.
“I went to Europe in June with Deadland Ritual, which features Steve Stevens, Geezer Butler and Matt Sorum, and I’ll be specifically working with Geezer, an opportunity to work with another music legend. I am also going to try and spend more time at home in Nashville, producing new bands this winter. I must say, that I have been very blessed to work with the musicians I have in this business … I remind myself of that fact every single day!