Brett Ellis is a rock-and-roll guitar player cut from the same cloth as the charismatic blues-rockers from the late 1960s and ’70s. Born in Texas, raised in San Diego, he meets me at his Stealth Recording Studios in La Mesa, where he recorded Monkey Brain and a string of personal projects to follow. He got his first guitar at the age of 13; five years later, he says he knew he could make music his livelihood. Brett Ellis has since worked with or opened for Eric Johnson, Edgar Winter, Foghat, Sammy Hagar, Glenn Hughes, Uli Jon Roth, Carl Palmer, King’s X, Bad Company, and Pat Travers.
I’ve seen old promo shots of you onstage at Straita Head Sound in La Mesa. Were you part of the ’80s scene that produced Jake E. Lee and Assassin and Mickey Ratt?
“Mickey Ratt and Jake E. Lee were there before I hit the scene, but my band Twin Wire was on the same bill with Assassin on more than a few occasions.”
The ’80s seemed like the golden era of homegrown rock guitar — Warren Di Martini, Craig Goldy — Was it something in the water?
“It was a golden era worldwide, quite simply, because of Edward Van Halen. Personally, I found the ’80s to be artistically shallow and dreadful on the fashion side.”
The spandex, teased hair, and makeup thing...What do you make of all that?
“I couldn’t understand it then, and I understand it even less now, but something tells me if chicks didn’t dig it, it would’ve never escalated to the embarrassing level it did. And that’s a riddle I don’t have an answer to.”
What did you do in the years following the demise of Straita Head?
“Graduated from Musicians Institute, performed in the band Ellis, studied classical guitar in the style of Fernando Sor, taught guitar at Albert’s Music City, and performed at the Tommy Bolin tribute festival with Glenn Hughes, formerly of Deep Purple. I also wrote and recorded the song ‘Big Sky’ with Glenn.
The music you make now is rock with a hard edge and with blues references over jazz structures.
“In 2003, I became obsessed with forging my own distinct voice as a guitar player. I spent countless hours developing less predictable melodic sequences and more advanced harmonic note choices. I wanted to keep what I had developed as a rock player and fuse that with bebop lines.”
Is there any Brett Ellis on record from that period?
“Yes. I recorded my first solo record, Pain, during these studies, and by the time I’d finished that record I had developed what I considered my own distinct style as a player — but with plenty of room for improvement.”
That’s a lot of focus on the guitar. You also sing pretty well.
“After Pain, the lyricist in me, along with the growing need to express myself vocally, could no longer be denied. So I wrote and recorded a bluesy concept record called Musical Diary of the Hopeless Romantic.”
How was it received?
“To my astonishment, that record was received more favorably by my peers than Pain, so I knew it was time to develop my own style as a singer/lyricist and fuse that with my newly refined voice on guitar. I proceeded to write and record my next record, Guiltlessly Free. That’s when I arrived at what I can say is my own style and voice as a songwriter/singer/player.”
What vision did you have for the future of the Brett Ellis Band?
“After Guiltlessly Free, I knew it was time to start performing, so I assembled my dream rhythm section with Rick Nash on bass and Calvin Lakin on the drums to create what I consider a first-rate power trio.”
Do they inspire you to play better?
“Without question. I was so inspired by the way the three of us sound together that I wrote and recorded Monkey Brains and our new release, Zero, in short order. We’re finishing up an all-blues album entitled Blues Is Everything.”
“At my core, I’m a bluesman. No matter how crazy things may get musically, I want people to have a clear perspective that that is the root of it all.”
What was your first guitar?
“A nylon string called a Kingsmate.”
For the gear heads reading this, what are you playing now?
“I use Custom Shop Stratocasters with Bill Lawrence noiseless single coils in various tunings into a Pog octaver, Clyde Wah, Korg pitch black tuner, Ultimate Octave, Whirlwind phaser, Mini Deja Vibe, MXR micro flanger, MXR micro flanger original, Keeley Fuzz Head, Menatone Red Snapper, Emma Pisdiyauwot, Maxon OD 808 with mod, Robin Trower overdrive, T.C. electronics hall of fame reverb, T.C. Flashback Delay, Packed onto a 24-inch LYT pedal board with two Voodoo Lab pedal powers to power pedals. It all goes into Snider amps and cabinets made by local amp builder Jeff Snider.”