Brett Garsed Interview: Liquid Virtuosity

An exclusive interview with the world renowned Australian Rock and Fusion virtuoso Brett Garsed: in Part One we look at the early days and how Brett went from being a jobbing plumber down under to the brink of his life as an LA Rock guitarist.
Brett Garsed Interview - Liquid Virtuosity

Liquid Virtuosity Part One: Early Days Down Under

I first heard Brett Garsed's playing whilst half asleep, stuck in a traffic jam in North London on a foggy Saturday morning in late 1990. Cutting through both the external and internal fog (a result of cracking student party hangover...) were the most eloquent, sinuous and melodic rock guitar lines I had pretty much ever heard! Now properly awake, I asked my AOR loving driver who was playing: none other than the much derided 'Timotei Twins' of rock: Nelson!

The album playing was their debut 'After The Rain' - a great example of supremely well-crafted melodic pop rock that was destined, only a couple of years later, to be deemed severely passé - nonetheless this album is well worth a fresh appraisal in 2007! As I listened to yet another great guitar break amidst those pristine vocal harmonies, I searched through scattered cassette box's - yep, showing my age here! - to find out who this axeman was... and first encountered the name Brett Garsed.

What I immediately got from Brett's playing (and something that I found very rarely other players, with the possible exception of some of Vinnie Moore's playing) was a sense of utter elegance and sweetness of touch - every note serving a purpose and making utter melodic sense. Brett also utilised some pretty cool jazzy/fusiony choice of notes and phrases, yet all delivered within a context palatable enough for my very 'diatonic' and under developed 'rock ears'!

Throughout the 1990's Brett work rate was prolific, appearing on records such as 1991's fusion shredfest 'Centrifugal Funk' from Mark Varney' now defunct Legato Records label (where, in my book, he came off the best in many head to head guitar duels with Frank Gambale and Shawn Lane) and collaborations with Eight Finger Tapping innovator and melodic genius TJ Helmerich, not to mention his highly regarded REH Instructional Video.

Brett's signature hybrid picking approach resulted in beautifully executed arpeggio, legato and wide interval lines and this combined with a unique approach to playing outside as well as a love of odd groupings and rhythmic displacement resulted in much acclaim form serious fusion and rock guitarists the world over. After teaching stints at LA's world renowned Musicians Institute, Brett came home to Australia at the turn of the decade.

His 2002 solo release 'Big Sky' is a beautifully recorded and moving album, featuring some sublime melodies, often highlighting his increased use and distinctive approach to slide guitar. AOG spoke with Brett a number of times during 2007 in order to bring to you arguably the most in-depth and complete interview and feature yet published on 'The Wonder From Down Under'!

In Part One of 'Liquid Virtuosity', Brett gives us the rundown on his early influences and playing experiences - and life as a jobbing Aussie guitarist/plumber!

SCHOOL DAYS AND GOING DOWN THE PUB!

Lets start right at the beginning - when did you start playing the guitar and why?

I started about 11 or 12; I can't remember exactly - the brains a bit foggy nowadays! I'd always had an interest in the guitar because my brother John played, and he was 10 years older than me. He kept it under the bed and I'd go get it out and have a bash - I always was fascinated by it and eventually it became too much so my mother went out and got me some lessons from a guy in town.

What sort of stuff did you cover in those lessons - and how long did you keep them up for?

Only about 4 weeks. He was a great guitar player - a fella named Jeff Lyons: he was definitely a good guy to meet at that time. He asked me what I wanted to learn and by then I was already a massive Blackmore fan: as soon as I heard Deep Purple I became totally enthralled with that. So, straight away, I said 'Lead Guitar'! So he drew a picture of the left hand and wrote over it '1,2,3,4' - you know, that four fingers/four frets thing - to get me using all of them right away. And that was a real good thing: if there's any advice straight off you can get from a teacher I'd say it's to get using all those fingers straight away. Over the 4 weeks he also taught me some songs - you know, very simple songs because I never had time with him to get scale shapes down or anything. After that, I started mucking around at home on my own; my cousin - who's about 5 years older than me - came around one day and noticed that I could play a bit and said that we should form a band so off we went!

I really learned how to play guitar simply by being in a band: it was good for me because I was equally as crap as everyone else! We'd practice every week on Saturday and Sunday's - around 10 hours a day: we couldn't get enough of it.

What was the local music scene like?

Plenty of pubs - back then (it was the mid to late 70's) loads of boozers had music on. The Australian pub scene was notorious for being a great place for bands to develop their skills because that was really all there was to do - go to the pub and see some sort of entertainment. Most of the time that meant a rock band, or music of some other kind. Even in the small town where I grew up there were 5 or 6 pubs - which would all have bands playing at least twice a week - so it was all great training.

What sort of age were you when you were playing the pubs?

I was about 13, which was a bit of a worry for the pub owners - I don't know if you'd get away with it these days... They kept a good eye on me to make sure I wasn't drinking. At some stage I must have got a bit tipsy at a private party and tried to play the guitar and realised it just didn't work, so while I'm playing I've always kept off the drink or anything else ever since - I've got enough to worry about trying to hit the good notes as it is!

What sort of covers did you play?

Oh, anything really. The two key albums we worked from were 'Made in Japan' by Deep Purple and 'Physical Graffiti' by Led Zep, a lot of Beatles songs... as well as Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I suppose what they call 'classic rock' now. It was really good for me because it was fairly set stylistically - a real '101 in Rock Guitar'!

How much practice did you do at home?

Well, after I took those 4 lessons there was a period where I sort of lost interest for a while - although thinking about it now that was probably only for 2 weeks! What really got it all kick-started for me again was the band, it's the most amazing way for a young musician to get into it all; learning songs and playing together is just great fun. So now we had our little band together I couldn't stop playing the guitar - I'd get back from school, wolf down some food and storm into the other room and just play all night.

THE INFLUENTIAL MR BLACKMORE...

Did you learn to read music?

Yeah, but not at first - I took classical guitar lessons for about a year when I was 17 - there I am trying to take the Blackmore path again: Ritchie studied classical - so I had to as well! I really worked hard at it, y'know starting really slowly just one note at a time; gradually I picked it up. I had a really good teacher, a guy named Don Charlton who was also into rock guitar as well - so he tolerated the fact I was going through my Eddie Van Halen phase at the time! He'd give me a chart to learn, so I'd go home and learn it really slowly by reading the notes: but of course what I would always do was memorize the piece after I'd learned it. I'd go for my lesson, have the music in front of me and play the piece - but as it was from memory if I stuffed it up halfway through or something I wouldn't know where on the sheet music I actually was, so I'd go back and start again. Of course, he knew this and would say "No, start from here" and point somewhere in the middle of the chart... so there I'd be going really slowly "Every Good Boy..."! And he would say, " I know you've memorised this, and I know you can do that - but you should always read everything as you play and eventually you will be able to sight read".

And, you know, by the end of that year I could actually read some pretty difficult stuff, considering I'd started from scratch. Of course then I went off into the rock 'n' roll world again - and I remember two or three years later pulling out the books and realising I'd lost a lot of it! It really is that old 'use it or lose it' thing with reading.

You mentioned A CERTAIN Mr Van Halen...

Eddie Van Halen really was a pivotal movement in my life; to me he was the next logical progression from players like Blackmore, Brian May, Jeff Beck: these guys had laid all that ground work as it were: those players in particular were the beginning of that incredibly accomplished rock guitar sensibility. Not only melodically, but technically they were really smooth and they'd sort of taken out all the rough edges of rock guitar playing - the unpleasant aspects. Eddie was the next step up from that - and of course Van Halen had such great songs too!

I remember reading a Guitar World (Ed Note: Respected US guitar magazine that had unrivalled coverage of rock and metal players during the 80's) feature and they said that the first thing to realise about Eddie is that he's as good a songwriter as he is a guitar player - which about says it all! And that's why I've always thought of Eddie, first and foremost, as a member of the band Van Halen rather than just a 'guitarist'.

So - like almost every serious rock guitarist in the world at that time! - did you spend the next few years woodshedding your Van Halen chops?!

Absolutely... well trying! Its weird; I remember there was a cool rock show on TV called 'Countdown' - it was an Australian institution for about two decades - and at that time was the only place to see any music, so for an hour a week you'd catch a glimpse of what the world music scene was up to. Now, at that time, it was mostly disco so when 'You Really Got Me' came on I remember being absolutely amazed! I was enthralled with what I was hearing - and seeing as I caught a vague glimpse of him taking his picking hand and shoving it onto the guitar neck: I was like "Wow!!"

So, I bought the album the next day and you've got 'Eruption' on there... how's he doing that?! Of course back then there were no video instructional stuff, and where I lived no one to talk to about it either, so I was really in the dark. I mean, I was a Van Halen and Holdsworth fan for about 4 years before anyone within a 100 mile radius even knew who they were! I also learned about vibrato from that show after seeing a close-up of Angus Young playing 'High Voltage'.

I was going to ask about Allan Holdsworth: How did you first hear about him?

Through Eddie. There was a famous Guitar Player (Ed Note: America's longest established Electric and acoustic guitar magazine) with Eddie on the cover, and in the interview Eddie said that Allan was the best in the world as far as he was concerned, and that songs like 'In the Dead of Night' and 'Hells Bells' were required listening.

I had a really good mate who worked in a record shop - remember I grew up on a farm, and the nearest town only had about 4000 people (I think it's still only got 4000 people actually!) - and so I used to trek over there and go into the only record shop in this rural town and say to my mate "You've got to find me this album by a band called UK" - and he'd say "I'm on it!" - and about a week later he'd have it! He sort of took it as a personal challenge to find any obscure album that I was after.

GETTING TECHNICAL

Being exposed to Holdsworth at this time, was this the period when you started honing in Legato specifically?

No, to be honest I was always a legato player, always. I have memories of doing the most basic scale patterns - right from day one - with hammer on's and pull off's as opposed to picking every note: I just thought that was the way you do it. I had no technical guidance at all you see: no concept of what 'Alternate Picking' or 'Legato' - or even 'Arpeggios' and 'Scales' actually were. I just used to poke around at the guitar trying to find some sort of noise that I liked playing totally be ear. Then, when Allan came along, I recognised that smooth sound and just thought 'this is great - this is where that technique can eventually lead to'.

You're playing is characterised by wider intervals than the norm and an innovative way of integrating finger style into your lines - when did this start to seep into your playing?

I remember the finger style thing started when I was really young too: I never consciously thought about it. It first came into my playing when I'd left school and began my apprenticeship in plumbing. One of the other guys there was a bit of a muso and he gave me a Leo Kottke album that was called 'The Best'. It has one side that was a live recording - and the live stuff just destroyed me! I immediately started to try and learn his versions of 'Cripple Creek' and 'Jesu, Joy of Mans Desire' on my electric.

Now, once again, because I'd never seen anyone physically play this sort of stuff it was learning by ear and just sort of mucking through: so I learnt it with the flat pick and my three fingers - I didn't realise that he was using his thumb/thumb pick and fingers. So, I sort of had the concept right - but the actual technique completely wrong. Around this time I'd also started those classical lessons and I really loved that sound of arpeggiating a chord - playing each string individually rather than strumming - so when I had the flat pick in my hand, playing the electric again, I naturally started trying to do that as well so the technique was developing and being incorporated all the time. I remember when I saw Frank Gambale's instructional videos in 88/89 it was a real eye opener - I realised there was so much more I could do with all this sort of stuff that I hadn't though about yet, so I really set to work on it.

When you left school I presume you carried on gigging a lot?

Yeah, it was the same deal really. When I left school and started the plumbing apprenticeship I'd get up at 6 in the morning and go to work, come home about 5, get some food down and get straight on the guitar. I was playing along with my favourite albums, going to rehearsals, or going out to play a gig. I got the job when I was about 15, which puts it about '78 or something like that. I kept that up until 1986 which is when I officially stopped doing the day job because I got the gig with John Farnham: (Ed Note: Aussie superstar, best known in the UK and US for his late 80's mega hit(' You're The Voice') and at that point I was able to be a full time professional musician.

Up until this point had it ever seriously crossed your mind that you might be able to become a 'pro' musician?

Well, I already knew that I'd be playing the guitar forever. I knew that I'd always be playing in some form - whether that was in a band, doing some recording or whatever - but I never really seriously entertained the possibility of doing it as a profession: once again, there was no one in a 100 mile radius who had ever achieved that.

Most of the musicians I'd run into who'd been on the fringes of doing it as a profession were so bitter and jaded by it all. It was like "Just forget about all that mate - you'll make much more money sticking with the plumbing!"

I understood where they were coming from because it's an incredibly frustrating business in a lot of ways; but luckily when it came to the point that I started to send out demos I guess my naivety paid off. If I'd listened to them - you know "You're wasting your time doing that mate, just forget about all that career stuff!" - I might have never sent them off. But I threw them out there and something good happened after all.

In the early to mid 80's were you keeping track of players such as Yngwie and the rest of that new breed of hyper technical rock players?

Oh yeah. A very good friend of mine - who used to play in another band - would come over to my place every week and we'd play some guitar and just hang out together. One week he phones me up all excited "I'm coming over, I've got this album with this Swedish guitarist on it - wait till you hear this guy!!!"

It was the Steeler album and I wasn't too keen about the songs - but, man, Yngwie's playing...! I remember waiting for my mate to arrive after he'd called, sitting there thinking "How good can this guy be?" You know, Eddie was really the pinnacle of what had been achieved at that time and I didn't really think that anyone could take it anywhere else - at least not in a rock context. And then when my mate arrived, we popped the disc on and that acoustic bit came on.... and this guy was destroying me - on an acoustic!! And then the electric stuff... that was all pretty bloody amazing!

Soon after this we used to have one day a month when we'd hit all the import record shops in Melbourne, which was the nearest big city. One day we walked in and they'd just put this track on, and of course it was that nylon string classical intro to 'Black Star'. And as soon as that opening arpeggio kicked in...I walked straight up to the counter, threw a twenty down and said "I'll take it!" And that was it!

I love Yngwie - and a lot of those other guys who came soon after - but I never tried to actually play all of that. The thing I got from all of this was "I've got to be myself". As a legato player and not a real picker, a lot of the playing and chops that those guys had were way outside of what I was trying to do so I couldn't really copy them or even aspire to stylistically. I really enjoyed Yngwie and the rest - and they were very inspiring individually -but all it really did was spur me on to find my own path and identity.

ONTO JAZZIER PASTURES

So far today we've been looking (with the possible exception of the enigmatic Mr Holdsworth!) exclusively at rock players, but in these formative early to mid 80's years what was your knowledge and awareness of Jazz like?

Well I loved to listen to it - which really helped as a lot of rock guys can't stand it! I just loved to listen to jazz guitar, particularly from a harmonic perspective. Obviously I was already listening to Holdsworth: Al's like the most extreme version of harmonic advancement anywhere, or at least he is to my ears. I'd sit there and listen to his music as a non-guitar player - a general punter...in fact I still do! I mean, I don't know what the hell he's doing most of the time.

So, for 'Jazz Guitar' it was much more people like George Benson: I was fascinated by the way they could make notes that I would class as 'wrong' sound so right. Larry Carlton too: he was another pivotal player for me because he had that jazz and fusion background but he played with a rock tone so it really appealed to me.

I tried to absorb all of these guys into my playing as well - again all by ear. In fact, I pretty much survived all the musical situations I found myself in as a rock musician purely playing by ear - I even moved to the States without knowing exactly what a 'Mixolydian Mode' was, or a 'Dorian' - or any of the 'correct' terms for all of this. I remember when I first met TJ Helmerich - who'd been through GIT and was well informed about all of that kind of stuff - and the very first day we sat down and jammed together he said "You like playing Mixolydian a lot" and I was like " I do?"

And he was pretty shocked - "You don't know what that is?" "Not really..." So, then I realised I probably knew how to play most of the modes - just not what they were called, and also not being aware specifically when was the 'right' time to use them.

I remember I was hanging out with some friends who were both Berklee Grads. One day they sat at a piano and started playing intervals and I was nailing them - yeah, b5, 7th etc - and I was shocked because I didn't realise I knew them. But what I'd been doing all these years was sort of subconsciously developing my thinking in terms of intervals: like, I knew one note and using relative pitch would be able to work out what I needed just from that rather than theoretically 'knowing' all my scales and modes.

SOME LUCKY DEMOS

You mentioned some early demos that got sent of and struck lucky - can you tell us a bit more about these?

I'd bought a little Fostex X15 four track cassette recorder, - a real 'Starship Enterprise' of it's time! - got a drum kit from a mate of mine for about 100 bucks, hung a microphone from a lamp in the lounge room and started bashing away trying to record some tunes. It was primitive stuff sonically, as these things often are, but it was mainly a showcase for my lead guitar playing. The interesting thing is that the basic sound of my whole trip was already there - melodic and very pop structured material - but with this rock/fusion improv lead guitar.

One great result that Brett achieved from these early recordings was a fantastic review by that champion of virtuosity Mike Varney in his world renowned and incredibly influential 'Spotlight' column in Guitar Player magazine. I ask Brett: When you got that great review did it change anything for you - I imagine that it must have in some way 'validated' your musical path - and give you faith to persevere in your chosen direction?

Well it didn't change anything day to day, but it did make me realise that maybe there was another realm of possibility career wise out there.

When I sent those tapes off I didn't tell anyone - I just got my girlfriend to take a picture of me in front of the house, sent them off and sort of forgot about it. The next thing I know is some bloke from Denmark sends me a letter going on about my music - and that was a bit of a thrill. Back then, of course, it took three months for the current issue of Guitar Player to get over to Australia - primitive times! - so I had no idea of the sort of reception it had received. So when I got the magazine I was so blown away! Back then Guitar Player was the Bible for guitarists all over the world - to just get your name in there, in any shape or form was a major achievement. It really spurred me on, so I started sending tapes out to record companies, management companies - anyone I could think of - to see if I could get a real gig. To be honest, I would have been happy if I could have got a gig in a good covers band and paid the rent y'know? But what it did lead to was the offer to do the Farnham gig - and that really changed everything.

GOING PRO WITH JOHN 'THE VOICE ' FARNHAM

During the mid 80's, scoring the guitar playing gig with John Farnham must have been a dream come true for an aspiring Aussie axe slinger - how did that actually happen?

I found a magazine that had the names and addresses of industry people and record companies in it. I sent a dozen or so tapes off with a letter and one of the management companies that got a tape was Glenn Wheatley's (Farnham's manager). All the letters were the same standard 'Dear whoever, I am a guitar player looking for a position in a band...' and of course most of the record companies just sent back a stock letter - you know 'Thank you for your interest, but at this point in time we have no need for your services' and all that - but Glenn was great: he sent back a short letter saying "I've just received your tape. Please call me". This was in late '85 and Farnham was still a member of the Little River band, but he'd put bands together on the side to go and do solo gigs - you know, to keep his chops up when LRB weren't working. Glenn asked if I wanted to go and do a 3 week tour with him and I was just blown away - I was such a big fan of John as well as knowing he is one of the most amazing singers in the world. So, I did that and got paid more money per week than I got doing the plumbing - I thought "There's something wrong with this picture - everyone told me I could never make a living as a guitar player - what's going on here?!" Of course, not all people look after you as well as John, but at least it showed me what was possible.

Did you have to do an audition?

Yes. Back then I used a cassette player as my recording amp because my Marshall was too loud for the house. If you plugged the guitar into the microphone input you'd get the sound coming through the speaker, and I used to run this with an overdrive pedal to be able to record at a decent volume. So, I turned up to Johns house for this 'audition' as they were there working on demos for a new album he was due to record the following year. They wanted to see how I would fit in playing over their tracks. Of course, I turned up with my cassette player to use as an amp - and they still piss themselves laughing about that to this day - over twenty years later...!

Anyway John had this song called 'Let Me Out' which was going on the album and they wanted me to try some solos - and I just got lucky and did a couple of good takes. They really liked it and decided to give me a chance - and, you know, it was an enormous leap of faith on their part as I was pretty inexperienced!

I remember the first gig was at a pub not far from my home town and that was alright as there were only a few hundred people so that was easy enough. But the second gig was a big jump - it was here in Melbourne where John's a legend - and the curtain comes back and there's about 3000 people there! I suppose they had no clue what my reaction would be, I could've just frozen...but I was just so excited to be playing with such great musicians that I wasn't nervous. After years of playing with people where the drummer would drop his sticks halfway through a fill, or I'd have to be teaching the bass player the song...well now I was now the weakest player in the band: and every time I played with them I was being lifted to their level so for me it was bloody great!

Where are we up to now - around '86?

Well, that was late '85; after that tour ended up I simply went back to my plumbing again at the beginning of 1986. The in the June of that year they called me up to do the album - and those recordings became the 'Whispering Jack' album. After I'd done my work in the studio I went back to the plumbing yet again!

But in October they got in touch to say that as they were about to release the album it was time to do a real tour which could last a couple of months...and that was exactly 20 years ago! John's retired from performing now but that initial break changed my life.

Were these 'Whispering Jack' sessions your first real studio experience?

Yeah, it was the first time I'd been in a 'real' studio. I'd probably be more nervous now though - as back then I was so completely naïve about almost everything that I almost didn't know how to be nervous! So I just went in there and tried to do my best without thinking too much about it. I remember the first moment sitting there - there were no charts thank god! - and they had no guitar parts 'written': they were relying entirely on my creativity to come up with things. They were relying more upon my abilities and experience as a songwriter than a guitar player in a lot of ways.

So did you have a lot of freedom to come up with a lot of the riffs and everything?

Yeah a lot of the stuff - I worked with the producer closely: I'd try something and he'd say "Maybe not that" and the way I looked at it was "Good! Now I know what not to do" and we just kept going until we came up with something suitable.

The results were spectacular - for many years the John Farnham album 'Whispering Jack' was the biggest selling album in Australia's history - and as a calling card for Brett it proved invaluable.

CHECK IN SOON For Part Two of Brett's Story: RIGHT HERE he tells us how he made the move to the states, and about his decade or so of living the dream as an 'LA Guitarist'!