Tim Boykin

The Right Notes

Written by Brett Levine     

Photo by Jerry Siegel


For professional musician Tim Boykin, playing music really is everything. “I’ve been playing the guitar for 35 years,” he says, “and I’ve never done anything else.” He makes this statement sitting in Birmingham coffee house Urban Standard, only a few blocks from the cobblestone streets of Morris Avenue, where it all started. “I played my first gig at the Frontier Club when I was 16. It was really different then,” he says. “I was influenced by a whole range of styles when I first began learning, so I would move from Link Wray to Lou Reed to the Stooges, literally playing things I just imagined people never thought they would hear.”

This encyclopedic musical knowledge is something that Boykin doesn’t take particularly seriously. While he loves music history, what is important for him is what and how he plays, not necessarily who he plays. “I’m in the woodshed every day,” he says. “I use the guitar as a way to focus, so I have never seen practicing as something that I have to do. It is something I’ve always loved.” This love led Boykin from that first gig on Morris Avenue to bands including Carnival Season, the Shame Idols, and the Lolas. He was also an integral member of Topper Price and the Upsetters, which is where he was when the Tim Boykin Blues Band was born. “I’ve always loved the blues,” Boykin says. “A lot of the rock music that I had learned, as well as the punk music I admired, was really rooted in the blues. So when I started to play that rough blues, which is very raw and at times really on the edge, it was something that just came naturally.”

The Tim Boykin Blues Band, started in the early ’90s, continues to the present day. In fact, Boykin is just finishing a new release. “I wanted to do a new Tim Boykin Blues Band record, so after composing everything I literally went into the studio and laid everything down in a matter of days,” he says. This method of recording is something Boykin loves. He prefers to capture the feeling in a few takes rather than spend endless hours tracking the same song. “Bands like the Stooges would set up live mics in the studio and simply record to tape,” Boykin explains. “There is something that you can feel about that approach. I think that it translates to the recording, that energy that a band brings with them, and that when you are well-rehearsed and ready to go, why not get it down and move on?”

Boykin uses the same approach with Avavago, what he describes as his “black thrash” metal project with Alan Eaton and Said Lopez. “Just think of it as black metal but more melodic,” Boykin advises. When asked how he can balance his love for the blues with playing thrash metal, he says the two are more alike than you might think. “In fact, there is actually a lot of cross-pollination,” he says. “They’re both grounded in the ideas of song structure, and in both I’m interested in them being live, energetic, and tight.”

What really excites him is the opportunity to blur the distinctions between the studio and the stage. Boykin describes the experience of recording the new Avavago album with engineer Emanual Ellinas at Magnetic Audio as an exercise in this process: “We were in the studio working with Emanual, who is amazing. He truly understands engineering a band. He’s running everything through a fantastic mixing console, straight to tape, so the sound is incredible from the outset,” Boykin explains. “Since we spend so much time before we go into the studio trying to make sure that everything is right, it is great to work with someone who really understands not only the music but also the process we’re trying to achieve.”

Now Boykin divides his time between recording with his two bands, giving private lessons, and doing session work, something he relishes but that comes with its own set of difficulties. “I was actually self-taught, so when I started doing session work, it was really a challenge,” he says. “I was working with Mark Harrelson at Boutwell Studios, and from the booth he said, ‘Boykin, we need you to play diamonds.’ I had no idea what he meant, but somehow I figured out that he wanted me to hit a chord and hold it for four beats. Years later, I got the Mel Bay Method books, and there’s that symbol—the diamond!”

That mixture of humor and grace is what keeps Boykin moving forward. He says Birmingham is a great city in which to do that as a creative, even though some might argue that Nashville or Atlanta are better fits for musicians. “I love living in Birmingham,” he says. “The cost of living is really low, comparatively, and creatively, the city is really fertile. The biggest challenge is that the core of working bands making a living wage from playing original music is really getting smaller. From fewer venues to more cover bands, I think that may be where the music scene has changed the most.”

Whatever the case, Boykin continues to make his music. What he loves the most is simply to have a guitar in his hands and music on his mind. “I work hard on what I do because I don’t know how to do anything else,” he says. “I always think you should never shred to show off. Just try to find the right notes to make the right music for the right moment.”

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