Guthrie Govan Interview - The Virtuoso's Virtuoso
Guthrie Govan is recognised by his peers as possibly the scariest guitarist alive. Combining an unparalleled technical ability with a mastery of almost all styles, Guthrie is equally at home comping in a trad jazz combo as he is performing death-defying ‘shred’ guitar. Coupled with some seriously funky grooves and an encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music styles, a wonderfully developed slide style and improvisational abilities to match anyone, he may just be the most complete guitarist out there.
Guthrie first appeared on the radar back in the early 90’s when he was the only British guitarist to appear on any of the classic shred albums ‘Guitar On The Edge’, and he quickly followed this up by winning the second Guitarist Of The Year competition. Many readers will have first become aware of Guthrie through his transcribing and playing for the wonderful Guitar Techniques magazine, or his teaching at Guitar Institute, ACM or BIMM. In 2001 Guthrie became guitarist for progressive rock band Asia, but outside of this Guthrie has been a best kept secret. People ‘in the know’ have discussed this almost mythical monster guitarist for years, but to your general guitar fan into Zakk Wylde (or from a jazzier perspective someone like Scott Hendersen) his profile has been almost non-existent.
However, over the last couple of years a real buzz has been building, helped massively by Internet forums. 2006 is turning into a pivotal year for Guthrie.
When the concept of alloutguitar.com was first evolving and the team were throwing around suggestions for guitarists who should be featured, the first person we all thought of was Guthrie. Many of us at alloutguitar.com have had the pleasure of seeing Guthrie play with The Fellowship at their regular Thursday night gigs in his hometown of Chelmsford, England. Armed with a pint of Kronenberg we broached the subject with him one Thursday evening, midway through another storming set. Luckily enough, he agreed to it and we had our first interviewee in place.
Now, a year or so down the line, in the same month as this site is being launched, we are seeing a hitherto unprecedented blaze of activity from Guthrie’s camp. His long awaited debut album ‘Erotic Cakes’ was finally released at the end of August, and his new band GPS should have their debut album ‘Window To The Soul’ available as you read this, and GPS are soon to embark on a nationwide UK tour.
Alloutguitar.com spoke at length with Guthrie at the end of June 2006 in an illuminating and revealing interview with the enigma that is Guthrie Govan.
What age were you when you first started playing?
This will sound bizarre, but I honestly don’t remember what age I was when I started – people tell me I was about three. My parents were very fond of music and I was exposed to loads of stuff from the 50’s and 60’s; I grew up with a guitar in the corner of the room and plenty of Hendrix, Cream, Beatles and early Elvis on the stereo. And, as a kid, it seemed very natural to me to pick up that guitar and experiment with it.
Did you have any guitar lessons?
Well, my Dad showed me about five chords and then said: “That’s it – you’re on your own now!” And I was away. As far as organised school type lessons, I remember once being roped into doing a guitar club class thing at primary school. There were a few other kids there learning “Michael Row The Boat Ashore” and working on their one-fingered G major chord shape, but no one else seemed to know any Cream songs, so I lost interest fairly rapidly and decided to focus on playing stuff I actually liked!
What age did you move onto the electric?
I am guessing that I was about seven, and the first electric I got was a Gibson SG Special with P90’s. I still use it to this day, every time I need to play slide stuff; back then I’m sure I didn’t appreciate what a great guitar it really was, but it was certainly easy to play, which is definitely an important factor when you’re that small!
A lot of ‘virtuoso’ type players have recounted how they had an obsessive practise schedule – very few have ever admitted that it was just something to do when not watching the T.V! Would you say this holds true for you?
Well, I definitely played the guitar a lot, but I never thought that there was anything unusual about that, and the word ‘obsessive’ sounds rather unhealthy; I always enjoyed music, that’s why I did so much of it. When you’re a kid there’s so much less responsibility to deal with and people generally allow you to do plenty of whatever interests you. In my case it was reading books and playing the guitar and so I did lots of that.
Guthrie picked up exposure at a very young age when he appeared on national television performing the Jimi Hendrx classic ‘Purple Haze‘…
I was nine and from what I can recall it was a Thames Television show called ‘Ace Reports’, about kids that do unusual things (one of the others on the show that week was an “Alan who collected skulls…”). My brother Seth played rhythm guitar back then and I think we did Chuck Berry’s ‘School Days’ and Jimi’s ‘Purple Haze’. It went smoothly enough, I think – then we were off and it was over to Alan and his skulls…! It got shown nationally and in my area I got a little bit of notoriety from it, which was cool.
After all this excitement did you get the hunger to form your own youthful rock troupe?!
Well, that was a fair bit later – when we were that young it was pretty hard to find other people who were into the same stuff! As far as I remember, Seth and I only ever found one drummer all the time we were at primary school, and he was more into his military snare drum exercises than his rock’n’roll! I remember a spell of a few years when I was constantly looking around for people – but you can imagine how hard it is for an 11 year old who’s serious about an instrument when everyone else who’s in a band is at least 16 or 17!
By the time you hit your early teens what sort of playing were you capable of?
I had a pretty good grasp of blues-rock stuff, and I sort of took it for granted that I had a passable vocabulary of Clapton and Hendrix licks, and that my ear could figure out most of the music I was hearing without too much difficulty. But really I was always far more interested how good something sounded, rather than how hard it was – to me it was all just guitar playing and I wasn’t really aware of how good – or not! – I was. People seemed to like what I was doing…
Developing His Art
What began to really interest me at this time was Jazz. My Dad had some Joe Pass stuff lying around – a couple of the ‘Virtuoso’ albums, I think – and hearing that really intrigued me; all those serious chord voicings that you just don’t hear on Cream records. I spent a lot of time with a reel-to-reel tape machine, trying to find out just what those mystical chord shapes were. So in time what happened was that I developed quite a large vocabulary of those aforementioned mystical chord shapes, but never knew quite what they were for, or what they were called – or where I would ever use them. I just sort of collated them.
It is pretty rare to have an interest in Jazz at this age…
Well, I don’t know – try telling the Gypsy Jazz guys that! I always embraced every form of music I encountered – to me it was all just ‘music’. Going back to my ‘odd childhood’ again… whilst there was always a lot of Hendrix and Cream there was also a lot of West Side Story and Frank Sinatra – so from an early age I viewed music as a very broad thing, and it was all good. I never swore allegiance to any particular style; everything I heard, I soaked up – I had a fairly decent repertoire of kid’s TV themes, for instance! Going back to the electric guitar for a moment, the reason that I developed my rock/blues playing first was that most of the stuff that I was hearing that featured the guitar prominently was in that blues/rock idiom. However, there was a little bit of almost ‘forbidden’ guitar that, nevertheless, seemed to lurk in the Jazz world; I couldn’t just ignore it – I felt the need to try and figure out how this Jazz thing worked, just because I knew it existed.
Unlike the vast majority of Guitarists, Guthrie learnt music reading and theory to a very high level whilst still in his early teens. How did you manage this?
Again I basically taught myself – I was quite fond of the library in my earlier years and would go and get out loads of books – anything from classical guitar books to violin or piano books to general theory. The more I read and tried to assimilate information, the more a broad general picture began to take shape regarding how music theory and notation worked. Some of the theory I found useful, other bits just seemed like long-winded – and more complicated! – ways of explaining stuff that I’d already figured out by ear. A classic example being modes – I remember poring over these in some book, and then suddenly realising after an hour or so that I already knew this stuff instinctively, I just didn’t realise there were so many names for it! But generally, that combination of playing all the time coupled with making lots of trips to the library helped me to find out all the stuff I wanted to know.
When did you first become aware of the super technical new generation of 80’s rock guitarists?
Well, that all happened very suddenly over one summer. This will sound very strange to players of my generation, but I actually heard Steve Vai before I heard Eddie Van Halen! What really did it for me was Dave Lee Roth’s ‘Eat ‘Em and Smile’ album, and I probably first took notice because I was aware of Steve Vai through his work with Frank Zappa. I’d been in my own little world listening to whatever took my fancy, and then suddenly I discovered this hugely extravagant Heavy Rock way of playing. It all happened very abruptly; I discovered a welcoming circle of headbangers in the year above me at school, and suddenly I was being exposed to new players like Yngwie and Tony MacAlpine on an almost daily basis.
So suddenly I realised that in the realm of Heavy Rock everybody seemed to be playing guitar in this over the top hyper-technical way. And that was a big wake up call, because I really thought that I had a grasp of the things a rock guitarist should be able to do…it was a lot to take in, in a very short space of time!
How did you get this style down, as from a purely technical perspective “shred” seems a world away from the standard 60’s and 70’s rock and blues stylings of the previous generation of guitarists…
I would generally work it all out by ear. Occasionally someone at school would lend me an instructional video, but as we didn’t have a video recorder at home I’d have to wait until the next time we went around to visit my grandparents – Seth and I would do the polite family thing for a while and then our reward would be to sit on the sofa, commandeer the video and watch Vinnie Moore telling us about ‘pivoting licks! I’d only be able to watch the thing once through, normally, to get an idea about what he was up to, and try to soak as much up as possible from that one viewing. But for me rather than learning specific licks it was more about watching people playing and seeing how efficient they could be and how they were dealing with the technical challenges. In some respects it didn’t take me that long to figure out what these guys were doing. As a bored kid I’d already had dark thoughts like, “I’m doing a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs here – what about if I picked every note – what would that sound like?” In a very abstract way my picking hand kind of knew what to do so that with Yngwie, for example, the revelation was mostly the note choice – you know, that harmonic minor ‘faux Bach’ flavour – and of course the wild vibrato and the sheer intensity of it all. The picking hand side of things only took a matter of weeks really, I’d gone through the motions enough times that it was simply a matter of applying more speed to them.
Many players with a world class technique expound at length as to the virtues of practising and developing their chops with a metronome. Have you ever used one to any degree?
No, I don’t have that kind of attention span – I couldn’t sit there with just a metronome for company, clicking away. Whenever I’ve found that I can’t do something, I’ve slowed it down to look at the mechanics of it and to see if there’s anything wrong with the way I’m trying play it. If there is, then I’ll work on correcting that, and then the speed thing will generally sort itself out sooner or later. Rather than the metronome ritual, what I’ve always tried to do is just play along with real music. With music you like and enjoy listening to, the chances are it’s going to be in time, so you’ve got your built in metronome there; also, real music has groove, it has a dynamic element you can respond to, it has chords you can play over. I’d always rather jam along to the radio or an album than a soulless click. Some people, I guess, enjoy that weight training/gym philosophy of punishing themselves with scale exercises, and that’s great – it’s just never appealed to me.
As already discussed, by your early teens you were already a very accomplished guitarist – what age did you start playing live, doing ‘proper’ gigs?
I’d always done occasional guest slots with other people’s bands, since I was 5 or 6. Also, I’d happily play at school whenever the opportunity presented itself – but I didn’t start gigging ‘properly’ until quite late, really, probably 15 or 16 – something like that. Before then it was pretty hard to find anywhere to play that you could actually call a gig!
What was the Chelmsford music scene like when you were growing up?
Looking back, I suppose there was actually quite a lot of interesting stuff going on, even though it didn’t feel that way at the time. From the school days, I particularly remember the school piano genius, who kind of got distracted for a while by this urge to be a comedy writer, but who later resurfaced as the ‘Jason’ half of the ‘Ben And Jason’ duo – they did some really clever pop stuff, but you wouldn’t believe the stuff this guy could do with a piano, even way back when he was 11. I should also mention a friend called Rob Lewis; it always bothered me that he never took his music further, because the sheer speed of his progress was quite alarming! He went from knowing absolutely nothing to becoming really rather good over the space of one summer holiday. Someone else who impressed us all at school was a guy called Tom Jenkinson; when he was 13 or 14, he was the bass player everyone wanted to recruit for their metal band. Then he kind of vanished for a couple of years to experiment with electronic music, which disappointed all the metalheads at the time but started to make sense when we heard the kind of stuff he was producing! He now trades under the name Squarepusher, and as far as I can tell no one on the planet is doing electronic music today with anything like as much imagination or musicality. On a similar note, it was only the other day that I heard Clive Carroll’s recent acoustic stuff for the first time, and was utterly stunned by how good it was. Clive’s another player with Essex roots, and in fact he once came to me for a private lesson many moons ago, mostly to find out how sweep picking worked. I remember thinking at the time that the folky things he was doing seemed infinitely more interesting that the dodgy heavy metal arpeggio stuff I was showing him, so I always knew he was really good – but I had no idea he would get quite that scary!
At this stage in your life had you ever considered pursuing music as a career?
Not really; I felt that music would be something that I’d be doing for the rest of my life purely because playing felt better than not playing. I definitely wasn’t thinking in terms of a career… in fact, I didn’t really know what to think about careers in general. Nobody in my immediate family did anything for a living that I found particularly inspiring! My school was quite big on the whole ‘academic excellence’ thing and there were certain subjects I found particularly easy, so when they started pushing me to apply for Oxbridge, I blindly went along with it for want of any better ideas. When I actually got a place at Oxford (to read English, just for the record) I thought I might as well do that just to see where it might lead – I didn’t have any plans at all, really, so I just followed along haphazardly!
The most important musical thing that happened to me around that time was actually the gap year I took straight after I left school. Rather than going to Thailand, or whatever it is you’re supposed to do with a gap year, I spent it doing clerical work in the Essex Police recruiting department! Sounds boring, but it was perfect for me; I was living at home and this fairly undemanding office job basically funded for my little 8 track Fostex home studio. It was around this time that I first started properly writing and recording demos, learning how to program a drum machine and all that good stuff.
I believe that one of your early recordings found its way to a certain Mike Varney…
It did indeed, and I suppose it was around 1991. The first demos were done at a time when I was listening to a lot of Vai and Satch, mixed with a lot of Prince, some country stuff, a bit of John Scofield and Mike Stern, some sax players and of course plenty of Zappa. I guess I was trying to come up with some guitar music that wasn’t the same as what everyone else seemed to be doing. Obviously it had to have some technical elements, but I was trying to write stuff that had some melodic interest and I wanted to make it funkier and groovier and a little less dark than most of the straight ahead rock instrumental guitar fare I’d heard. I had waded through an awful lot of music that I didn’t really enjoy in order to study the mechanics of the instrument, so I was determined to find some kind of fresh approach where that technical vocabulary would still work. I guess the earliest stuff probably came out sounding like a funkier Satch, that kind of idea. What also influenced me a lot, when I got into the recording thing more seriously, was the idea of taking inspiration from something as simple as a particular sound, or trying to fuse two apparently unrelated styles, or trying to emulate another instrument on the guitar – anything to get away from being technical and “shred” just for the sake of it. For whatever reason, Mike Varney seemed to like what I was doing and offered me a record deal.
To be honest it was very scary at that age – I think a lot of teenagers would be daunted by the prospect of being flown across the Atlantic to record an album very rapidly with musicians they’d never met – so I suppose I tried to put Mike on hold for a while, saying that I was flattered, I would like to do this but I didn’t think I had enough material that was of a high enough standard. Mike reassured me that he thought the playing was great, which was the main consideration for the average Shrapnel record buyer. In the midst of all these things which had cropped up so suddenly and clearly warranted so much serious consideration, something else crossed my mind. Once this hugely influential figure in the world of extreme guitar playing had given my music the ‘thumbs up’ I needed so much, I started to question the whole point of these albums. What actually happens when you release one of these? And what I concluded, rightly or wrongly, is that people will buy your album because they’re looking for new technical tricks, some new ways to sweep an arpeggio or skip a string or tap a note. They’ll slow it down, learn it and then one day you’ll hear their album, which will be the same as your album but 10% faster and possibly less musical.
I settled on the idea that if I was going to have a recording career I would rather have the music as the focal point, with the guitar just functioning as a tool of the trade. Getting encouragement from Shrapnel was great at the time, but it all just felt a bit too guitar-centric for the player I wanted to be. I also wanted to devote more time to finding a distinct direction for the music I was making, before making any bold statements to the world!
Funnily enough, the same sort of thing happened about a year later with Mark Varney – and he was even more straightforward about it “0h, don’t worry about the compositions – the people who buy our records just want to hear loads of burning guitar” – I know he meant well, but it made me feel a little uneasy!
Well, with all of that going on, it was a case of: “If in doubt, do nowt!”
It was almost de rigour for any rock based guitarist with such a high level of ability to audition for some big rock acts…Ozzy and Dio being particularly active in searching for the latest hot new guitarists. Did this ever occur to you?
Not really – I wanted to keep on learning and trying to find out what it was that I should be doing musically; as far as any of those rock ‘dream gigs’ were concerned, I was never that crazy about Ozzy and Dio at the time, so it never occurred to me that my life’s ambition should be to join a band like that.
So I went to Oxford for a year and two things happened – one was gradual and the other was very sudden, but they peaked at around the same time, and kind of disrupted my life thoroughly! The first was a growing realisation that everyone else at Oxford seemed to know why they were there – one might have a position waiting for them within Daddy’s company, another might be president of the Student Union, nurturing some obvious political ambitions… I realised that I was doing a degree in English, and the only useful application I could see for that was to become an English teacher myself and force equally worthless English Degrees on the next generation! So I took a year out, to try and work out what it was I should be doing and in that time I won the Guitarist of The Year competition. That was a big wake up call – I mean, I always wanted to play guitar as well as read books, but I felt that I should really choose one or the other and do it properly! So I left University, almost as a perverse way of ensuring that I wouldn’t stray from the musical path! Probably a terrible idea, in retrospect, but it had a strange symbolic value at the time.
There was a big buzz in the UK guitar community about these competitions – did you manage to see the first Guitarist of The Year Final, which Dave Kilminster memorably won?
Yes I saw Dave’s Final, and was thoroughly impressed! That first year was different to later ones in that there wasn’t the element of competing live with fellow finalists – that started in the year that I won. For the first competition, I think what happened was that they listened to all the demo tapes, decided that Dave’s was the best… and as his punishment for winning, they made him play in front of hundreds of other guitarists at one of the London Guitar Shows!
Anyway – in my year, the organisers had whittled it down to six players, and we all had to get up on stage, one after the other, and play our tunes on a live stage at that year’s London Guitar Show – this time with a panel of judges watching. I remember being highly amused by the fact that these included Tommy Vance and Martin Taylor – picture Martin and Tommy at the same table judging the same music! But apparently they both liked what I was doing.
Was this one of those gigs where you turn up with guitar and lead and go through a shared amp rig – all hoping that you will be able to get a decent sound?
Well I think the house amp was a Marshall JCM900 which, to be honest, was altogether too fizzy for my tastes – I loved the JCM800 and the Jubilee series of amps but much of what they’ve done since has left me cold. Anyhow, that’s part of the musician’s lot – you just have to turn up and cope with whatever gear has been provided; everyone else was in the same boat! Since then, funnily enough, I’ve done more than one exotic gig, with hired backline, where I would have been ecstatic to see that Marshall 900 again!
What are your memories of the actual playing – did you enjoy it, or did the fact that it was a competition environment overshadow that?
Well, I can’t actually remember playing, but I do remember thinking “What have I got myself into? I’ve entered this competition, knowing full well that music shouldn’t actually be a competition – and now it’s backfired on me, and here I am, in front of hundreds of people… competing!” But I just played my song and tried not to worry about it, and I gather the judges’ verdict was that I won because I sounded like I “meant it” more than the other guys – I was quite relieved that they didn’t say it was because my arpeggio was the best!
I trust that you were suitably rewarded?
Well, I got a few free drinks in the Chelmsford neighbourhood! I also got my first proper High Gain amp; part of the prize was to choose some gear up to a certain value, so I went for a Soldano Hot Rod 50 and at the time, that was really cool. This was the first time I’d had an amp that did really dirty sounds and also had a usable clean channel – with the Marshall JCM800s I’d been using up to that point, I always had to find a compromise between the two.
And then, A Career
Other cool things… well, I got an interview in Guitarist magazine, but other than that, nothing really happened! So, a little while after the competition I found myself working in McDonalds, hating every minute of it but assuming that that’s what you were meant to do as a struggling musician – being a martyr for your art, flipping burgers! One day it kind of hit me that if the magazines liked my playing enough for me to win the Guitarist Of The Year competition, maybe they should give me a job. So I transcribed a Shawn Lane solo and sent it to the newly-hatched Guitar Techniques magazine as a kind of C.V. They called me back to ask if I could write some text to go with the transcription, because they actually wanted to print it – and before I knew it I was part of the GT team, which was a really welcome break from what I was doing before!
How developed were you as a transcriber before you started doing this ‘professionally’? Did you have to adapt your transcribing style to fit in with the magazines format?
Well, Phil Hilborne was my main point of contact in terms of showing me the ropes and all that; he was a great help with regard to the magazine’s notational conventions and how the whole system worked. In more general terms, though, transcribing was just something that I’d always done – if something intrigued me, I’d generally write it down, which kind of freed up some of my RAM for thinking about other stuff. And because I’d done this for such a long time, I sort of assumed that it was easy and that everyone else had the ears to do it for themselves…which turned out not to be the case. What I realised is that were loads of players out there who sounded good but couldn’t really work stuff out by ear – so my transcription skills were presumably more useful than my prowess with a ketchup gun!
A lot of readers here also get Guitar Techniques so I am sure many will be interested to know if you ever have any say in what songs you get to transcribe?
Well, I’ve never had much choice in what songs I transcribe. To be honest, the songs and articles you get in magazines are mostly a combination of what the readers say they want, what the editorial team think the readers want and what the publishers allow the editorial team to think the readers want. In that food chain, I guess we transcriber types come in just below the readers. So here’s what happens… I get commissioned to transcribe something, I try to do the job as well as I can, it gets printed (most of the time, copyright issues permitting) and then every now and then I’ll meet someone who says their playing has actually benefited from some article or transcription I’ve done in the past – which is a very positive thing!
When it was announced on the Guthrie Govan Forum that alloutguitar would be interviewing you, we had many requests to find out what songs or artists are the hardest for you to transcribe?
Well that’s a really easy question to field, even if this isn’t the answer most people would expect. John Petrucci, Steve Vai, Al DiMeola and all those type of players I find pretty easy – these guys are not a problem because they are playing so perfectly and it’s so quantised. Generally that stuff has been planned to some extent – whether it’s a 32nd note run, a sequence of sextuplet arpeggios or whatever – but you can tell exactly what it is that they are aiming for and they’re doing it so right that it almost makes the job simpler, in spite of the huge note count. The hardest thing in the world to do is a slow, sloppy blues in 12/8. I don’t mean sloppy in a bad way – Stevie Ray Vaughan wasn’t in any way a sloppy player, but some of his stuff fits this category perfectly! It’s all to do with timing, note placement within the structure of each bar, phrasing – the spacing of everything is more like speech, it’s less mathematical and pattern-based. This means a really accurate transcription can be a nightmare; it’s very like Eddie Van Halen’s famous description of playing like you are “Falling downstairs and landing on your feet”. That whole sort of thing is the hardest to transcribe – with the possible exception of someone like Bumblefoot, whose fingerings are so completely eccentric and unpredictable that one person’s guess is as good as the next!
With such a command over almost basically all styles of electric guitar, it surely must have been tempting to try and break into the lucrative session world?
Well, I always thought that it would be nice to do that, but I never quite knew how. I have never been a great one for life plans and career decisions, and it seems to me that a lot of the musicians who do well professionally have always had a very specific plan about what they want to achieve, how they should portray themselves, and how to target the sort of people who should be buying their products. I suppose I’ve never really been aggressive enough to work out a really effective business plan of any kind. Possibly because I started so young, I’ve often struggled to equate this “music” thing that I like doing with the concept of making money. I always thought that being a Session Guitarist would be a nice, therapeutic, rewarding way to make a living but never really knew how to go about it. Short of looking in the Yellow Pages under the category Music Producers’ (if there even is one!) I had no idea where I could send a demo to take things a stage further. Occasionally the phone would ring and someone would say “I’ve got this great project, it’s going to be signed – you will not believe how big this thing is going to be – the songs are great, we’ve got a wonderful singer, come and play on the demos – and we’ll pay you when we get signed”. I’ve done plenty of that kind of thing, and although I was never particularly surprised when these bands didn’t get their big record deal, I was sometimes taken aback by just how few useful contacts I managed to make in the process!
By the late 90’s you were a firmly established guitar teacher. You also managed to build up an impressive resume having taught at just about all of the leading guitar schools in the UK (and now at BIMM) – how did you break into these?
Well, a little while after I started at Guitar Techniques, the Guitar Institute in Acton phoned up offering me some work, so I would go over there for a spot of private teaching on Sundays; the only problem being that often I would spend two and a half hours travelling there to find that I only had one or two people booked in that day, then it would be the same journey home; I think it would be fair to say that my attendance record started to reflect this travel-to-income ratio after a while! I also taught at Thames Valley University on the Degree Module, and that sort of led to the Academy Of Contemporary Music in Guildford.
The ACM job was the first time that I had done anything regimented and class room orientated, and I guess I was one of the first of the magazine guys to start working there. (Ed note: The wonderful late Eric Roche, Dave Kilminster, Pete Callard and Jamie Humphries all have been longstanding Guitar Techniques contributors and all have taught at ACM.) Largely, I was approached to teach the students about playing in lots of different styles so they’d be able to handle a function gig, or a session type environment. That sounded like great fun to me, so we’d start right at the beginning with Blues from BB King stuff onwards – which anyone with their Dad’s ’59 Strat would love, but of course any one with a pointy guitar would be mortified at stooping to the level of playing one note and making it sound nice through the clean channel! So a lot of it was evangelical work, trying to show the Shredders that the blues is a valid form of music, whilst at the same time telling the Blues snobs that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of frantic sweeping if the context is right!
Did you have anything to do with designing the Syllabus?
No, that was all in place when I got there. The general pattern was that we’d start in the Autumn Term with the Blues and then move into Blues Rock, then Shred our way through the entire second term; and then, in what seemed almost like an afterthought, the summer term was “Here’s a little Jazz, here’s a bit of Funk, try a little Country…” In short, Term 3 comprised absolutely everything else that wasn’t blues, rock or metal, so it always felt a little frantic!
What do you think are the advantages or disadvantages of attending these Guitar Schools, rather than going it alone as you did?
Well it depends very much on the individual student. Some people are driven enough to figure everything out on their own, and they might not benefit so much from the school environment. On the other hand… there is a certain type of student who loves the Guitar but is essentially a bit lazy and always needs the motivation, so for them it’s great because it forces them to have the guitar to hand every day. It is also great for the obsessive guitarist who’s always felt like a bit of a weirdo – suddenly you’re in a community of like minded souls, some of whom are equally obsessive and weird in the same way, so you can get a certain sort of validation from that. The schools are great for the self taught players who can happily get by in a pub band, but have lots of gaps in their knowledge – it’s great to see someone like that become a well rounded player, not only learning some theory but also being shown real-world applications for it. It takes the fear out of it all. Occasionally you will get a player there who’s really rather good and doesn’t need to be there at all; sometimes I think these players are looking for confirmation that they’re as good as they thought they were. And even for these players there is still something valuable to be picked up; the community vibe of the place might help them finally to hook up with a like minded bass player and drummer.
A great feature of attending these schools is the world renowned guitarists that they attract to conduct Masterclasses; did you manage to see many of these and if so were any particularly memorable?
The one that sticks in my mind – though I have missed most of them due to having to teach next door! – is the Steve Morse clinic, he was an incredible motivator. He turned up with a couple of volume pedals and delays, plugged into some unfamiliar hired amps – so it didn’t resemble his usual rig at all – and from the first note you just knew it was Steve Morse. In terms of sound he was the consummate professional, he can get the results he needs from pretty much any gear. What I thought was really beneficial about his workshop was that, whilst he had an audience who really wanted him to stun them with technique, all he wanted to talk about was how much he had to practise and how alien the guitar still felt to him every time he picked it up, so this legendary player was just coming across as a normal human being – and suddenly, everyone could identify with him. His work ethic was the best bit for the students; he pointed out that, if he was doing anything else for a living, he’d have to work 40 hours a week – so why should a musician’s life be any different? A nugget of wisdom like that probably helped the students a lot more than watching someone burning through a catalogue of their most intimidating guitar stunts.
A much quoted internet rumour that has done the rounds on many a shred forum was that a certain Yngwie J Malmsteen was conducting a clinic at ACM at the time that Guthrie was a tutor. So the story goes, Yngwie invited a hapless member of the audience up to have a jam with him, and Guthrie got pushed up there…
An ugly and completely unfounded rumour, like so much of what you find on the net. Given everything we’ve been told about Yngwie’s persona, can anyone really imagine him asking for volunteers to come up and jam with him? Even if he had, I wouldn’t have been particularly keen to volunteer. If someone had absolutely insisted upon it, then I’d probably have ended up playing rhythm. But mostly – and this is the best part – I’ve never seen an Yngwie clinic. I saw him play twice – once at the Dominion Theatre and once at Hammersmith Odeon, that’s it. Never met him!
I have always hated that whole trade show mentality where people ask to jam with you and really their sole intention is to try to outplay you – that whole “gunslinger” thing has no place in real music, and I find it all a bit sad. It’s certainly not what I’m all about.
A Fellowship Is Born
Over the last decade, on your own project you have been pretty much musically inseparable from Pete Riley – how did this association start?
I first met Pete through Phil Hilborne when I first started working on Guitar Techniques. Pete was playing with Phil’s band at the time; he and a keyboard playing friend of his wanted to get together to play something that was a bit less Heavy Rock, just for a bit of fun.
So we started as jamming buddies, and at some point Pete got to hear my instrumental stuff and decided that he’d quite like to be in a band that played stuff like that. Pete is a rare drummer in that if you mention, for example, Tony Macalpine’s first album, ‘Edge of Insanity’ – not only does he know the album of which you speak, he probably owns it! He actually really likes a lot of instrumental “shred” type music; loads of top British Guitar players have chosen to work with Pete over the years because, to him, it’s not just doing another job – he really does understand the genre.
So we got Erotic Cakes together with Seth, though at the time we never really knew where to take it or what to do with it. My favourite ever gig review was from one time that we played at the Army and Navy Pub in Chelmsford; the local fanzine was full of glowing band reviews, but all that poor old Cakes could muster was – and I quote – “I wasn’t there – and neither was anyone else!”
The Fellowship came about as an extension of Erotic Cakes when we found (Saxophonist) Zak Barrett, who was fresh out of music college and had recently moved down from Manchester. He had been going to local blues jams looking for anyone who could play in this neck of the woods, and I met him at one of those. He needed a band and we already had one – so we hooked up. What we discovered early on was that if we added a funkier element to what we were doing, lost a bit of that serious rock edge and grooved a bit more, in any way that made the audience feel vaguely good, we could still get all that indulgent muso stuff out of our systems, but without anyone hating us! And we’ve been doing it now for about six years.
I first saw The Fellowship back in 2003, and a better evening of technically mind blowing, yet groovy, music is hard to imagine. They played a critically lauded show over in LA at the Tone Merchants bash (presided over by alloutguitar.com’s very own LA correspondent Ed Yoon) during the NAMM 2004 show, but such events are rare. It would be great to see them exposed to a wider audience, or at the very least to go out and play some other jazzy venues in the UK such as Ronnie Scotts, or Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine’s renowned The Stables – not to mention some jazz festivals. It would be nice to see some Jazz snobs having the cobwebs blown away! Has this ever been discussed?
The Fellowship play every Thursday at the Bassment club in Chelmsford (and a occasionally a few other places) and it’s really a great form of therapy for all of us, to be able blow over the kind of stuff we’re not allowed to play for the rest of the week! It’s become a bit of a “cult” thing now, some people travel shockingly long distances to check it out, and I think we’re all secretly quite proud to be involved in something that’s a little bit different from your average gig! But we’ve never done any festivals or anything of that nature because everyone is so busy forging their own careers outside of the Fellowship – everyone has so many other things to do for their bread and butter. Pete does his thing at Rhythm magazine and plays with Keith Emerson, John tours a lot with Marty Wilde and does all sorts of TV soundtrack work in his home studio – and you would not believe how many gigs Zak does in a week.
Because of this, it’s quite hard to get the whole band together outside of Thursday nights – but we should be starting work on a new CD of all original material soon.
Guthrie’s first international break was playing on the internationally successful progressive rock band Asia’s album ‘Aura’, which was released in 2001. Admittedly almost two decades on from their heyday in 1982 (when their debut album was the biggest selling record in the world) and with only one founding member still in the band – keyboardist Geoff Downes – they were nevertheless still a force to be reckoned with and had a fervent and loyal worldwide fan base. How did you meet?
Well, this would have been around 1999/2000 and it all started through Mike Sturgis, a fellow ACM teacher who had recently recorded lots of drum tracks for the long-overdue new album, ‘Aura’. The record company were champing at the bit for their finished product, and the guys realised that they needed a session guitarist to come in and do various odd jobs to finish the recording. Some funky rhythm here, a Brian May pastiche there, maybe a hint of Steve Lukather… and in the end I was on something like 8 of the tracks. This was wonderful for me; I was on the same record as people like Elliot Randall, Simon Phillips, Tony Levin and Vinnie Colaiuta – the Vinnie factor particularly cheered me up – and in addition, this was the first time I’d ever contributed to an album that you could actually find on the shelves in Tower Records! As a representation of what I could do though, it wasn’t ideal; I was there simply to do a job. It wasn’t a case of someone phoning me to say, “I like the way you play – can you come down and provide a nice thread of stylistic continuity throughout the album?” That never happened. I came in purely as a session guy, then John and Geoff decided they liked what I did enough to ask me to tour with them. And so, gradually, I became a member of Asia. Touring wise it’s been a great learning curve, I particularly remember the big summer tour of the US when we had one gig every 4 days or so – in retrospect not a very well put together tour logistically (it was almost like someone forgot to finish putting it together!) but it was a great holiday!
In 2004 Asia released ‘Silent Nation’. After several tours Guthrie was now a fully fledged member of the band, and was widely reported in the rock press as having had a much greater role in the album…
Well… not really! I remember saying in interviews at that time “It’s so much better to be playing on an album when you’re actually part of the band”, and I like to think I found a ‘Guthrie does Classic Rock’ kind of voice on ‘Silent Nation’, which sounded like me without being too much at odds with the music – but in writing terms, all the material was already in place. It was one of those bands where an established two man writing partnership had been working well for years, so they were happy to stick to that formula – get everything written and then haul in the rest of the band to breathe some life into it all. I did contribute a lot of little ideas in specific “guitar part” terms but, solos aside, it was mostly the kind of thing that the average listener never notices!
This was also a fresh start with a new record label…
Well ‘Silent Nation’ was Asia’s first album with the new record label, Inside Out – a German label and, true to the stereotype, a very well organised one; they have a lot of fine artists on their roster, and they certainly know their prog rock! I think the Asia deal was one of their biggest to date and we were in good shape for the next record which is why what happened next was unfortunate…
Towards the end of 2005 Asia were back in the studio recording the follow up to ‘Silent Nation’, tentatively entitled ‘Architect of Time’. Yet, seemingly out of the blue came the announcement that the original line up of John Wetton (bass and vocals) Carl Palmer (drums) and Steve Howe (Guitars) were to reunite with Geoff Downes to undertake a worldwide reunion tour…
I knew this was coming so why didn’t I write something out?!
Geoff Downes had the offer of a reunion tour with the original line up, from the days of that multi million selling debut album. And it must have been hard for him to say no, I guess. I couldn’t say whether his reasons were mostly nostalgic, musical, financial or just a mixture of all of those things – to be honest I don’t really know, because Geoff somehow managed to avoid having that awkward conversation with any of us, he just made his decision and rode off into the sunset! I guess he had to do what he had to do and I don’t question that. To be a bit of a hippy for a moment, I concluded that good stuff doesn’t happen, and neither does bad stuff – it’s all just ‘stuff’, and it’s up to you what you make of it. So in this case we just soldiered on – we called in Ryo Okumoto from Spock’s Beard and formed a new band. I think that by now John and I have spent so much time together, on stage and in the studio, that we have a good musical understanding of each other, and of course on the last tour we immediately bonded with the new drummer Jay Schellen – who’s a phenomenal musician – so it seemed a shame to waste all that gelling!
This new band was originally going by the name of “One”…
Well, of course we had problems with the name; just before the album was due out, with its nice pre-summer release date, we found out that there was another new band called ‘One’ filling the support slot on a tour big enough to cause problems and confusion all round, so we had to delay the album and rename the band ‘GPS’. It’s not hard to spot a ‘Govan, Payne, Schellen’ connection, I guess – now that Ryo has agreed to come on tour with us and generally be part of the band proper, maybe we should try to sneak an O in there…I’ve been pitching for SPOG!
The new GPS album “Window To The Soul” should be released in all territories by the time you read this, and with the excellent Inside Out record label again behind it, as well as some fully fledged virtuoso musicians playing alongside Guthrie this should be a great release. How would you describe the album?
Well, if you compare it to the recent Asia stuff, the direction now is definitely harder-edged, more proggy, the songs are longer and everyone’s soloing more. As far as the finished article goes, I haven’t heard it as yet, so I don’t know what John has done vocally – I would imagine he’s gone to town layering stuff. Certainly from what I‘ve heard so far it sounds really good.
The fact that you will be able to stretch out more will be welcomed by all reading this…
Well, I hope I haven’t ruined it with wall to wall shred! But yes, there is a lot more guitar than you’d find on the last couple of Asia albums.
GPS are also going to be actively promoting the album in the old school way – hitting the road on a support tour.
Well, the first tour we’ll be doing is the support slot for Y&T in the UK. To me that seems ideal for test-driving a new band’s first album; we won’t be playing any stuff from our past and I’m sure most folks won’t be that familiar with the new material just yet. This is a fresh start for us and I think a 40 minute slot should work out just right.
After years with only live performances and Guitar Techniques demonstrations to whet fans appetites, this summer has also has seen the release of the debut Guthrie Govan release ‘Erotic Cakes’. Reviewed elsewhere and discussed at length below, I first enquire as to how Guthrie first hooked up with Cornford, as this album is the first release from Cornford Records – so in many ways a nerve wracking time for all concerned…
I first hooked up with the Cornford guys through Guitar Techniques, and it all started with their amps. At that time anyone who was recording stuff for GT magazine would go to Phil’s studio, and he was already using Cornford gear. He had an MK50 there and I thought it was most splendid. I gather at the same time Paul heard some of my stuff on the GTCD and liked what I was doing, so we had a sort of mutual fan club and supported each other because we respected each others work.
Somewhere along the way that evolved into the idea of doing a record, and Cornford Records was born.
It is interesting that you have chosen – or circumstances have dictated – that you release your album at this point in time. A lot of people in the industry, as well as many general music fans, have been commentating that the musical climate really seems to have improved again…
Well, the climate aspect is certainly part of it. To be honest, I must admit there’s another aspect, too; like all but the most supremely arrogant of guitar players, I’ve had moments where I’ve thought, “If I wait another year, hopefully I’ll be a better player/musician; just think how much better the album could be by then…” My moments just lasted a little longer than most!
Of course what we all have to remember, ultimately, is that an album is simply a snapshot of where you are at a given period in your life – and if you hate it in a year’s time, well that’s okay because then you can do another one. So coming to terms with that ‘common sense’ factor was part of what made the album finally happen – you know, accepting that the way I was hearing the material had no relevance to the way anyone else would react on hearing it for the first time – there is such a thing as being too close to your music! Plus the fact that the musical climate now does seem a lot more welcoming than it has done in a long time. Finally, I thought it was important to document the fact that Pete, Seth and I have played some of that stuff for a shockingly long time; we needed some closure! A lot of these tracks have been through so many different formats that we just wanted to define them once and for all, crystallise each song and move on. And it’s been really interesting doing that.
I gather the recording process was fairly convoluted!
Well, it took a long time because there were so many technical problems… Initially I recorded all the guitars at home, running the amp through a Palmer speaker simulator, and the drums were done in Pete’s old studio. This was essentially an old refrigeration container, and for all the blankets and carpets he crammed in there, the results still sounded a bit like they’d been recorded in the back of a tin lorry – which of course they had been! But for a long time the intention was to stick with those drum takes – the playing was characteristically wonderful – until Jan Cyrka (who was producing/mixing the album) finally put his foot down and insisted that we do them again. So we went and put down the drums again in a ‘proper’ studio and then Jan decided that the drums sounded so good that now the guitars didn’t sit right in the mix any more. At this point Paul Cornford came to the rescue and suggested that if we had re-do all the guitars, we should do so in style – so we flew over to Richie Kotzen’s studio in Hollywood and mic’d up an assortment of very loud speaker cabs in a very nice wooden room. I have to say that, having heard the finished article, I totally understand what Jan was going for all that time; it’s a real hi-fi buff’s album now, it sounds more huge and expensive and lovely than I could ever have imagined, so it was worth all the waiting…
What can you tell us about the songs?
Well, there’s a track called ‘Waves’ on there – some die hard guitar fans may remember a primitive form of that tune from the ‘Guitar On The Edge Vol 4’ compilation… There’s a new version of ‘Rhode Island Shred’ with Bumblefoot playing fretless guitar – I’d always wanted a bit more humour to come through on this track, to make it a little less like a normal Country guitar workout, a bit more tongue in cheek – and Ron did a wonderful job of capturing just what I was after. ‘Ner Ner’ has Richie Kotzen doing a great guest solo; obviously, Richie could never sound bad even if he tried, but even so I was really pleasantly surprised by just how much he got into the spirit of the track. There’s a new version of ‘Wonderful Slippery Thing, a fairly epic rendition of ‘Sevens’, there’s our signature tune ‘Erotic Cakes’ itself… Also, there’s song called ‘Slidey Boy’ which I’m fairly sure nobody’s heard yet. That started out a long time ago, when I borrowed a guitar that was midway through being refretted; having played some fretless bass and violin in the past, I got quite into the whole fretless guitar thing, and that helped to inspire the tune, even though I ended up replacing all the fretless stuff with nylon string acoustic on the album version! The most disturbing track is called ‘Hangover’ – you can probably imagine where that one’s coming from… There’s another new track called ‘Uncle Skunk’, which is Jan Cyrka’s favourite from his sonic perspective, and there’s also a revamped version of a song called ‘Eric’ which I originally wrote for the Eric Roche Tribute CD. So to sum up – some old stuff, some new stuff. As far as the older stuff goes, I should probably add this; folks who have seen a live trio rendition of something like ‘Sevens’ on YouTube might think they know what that tune’s all about, but I think they’d actually be quite surprised by some of the arrangement aspects of this album – these studio versions are a lot closer to what I meant the stuff to sound like when I wrote it. The live thing, for me, is more about using each tune as a loose framework for some improvising and band interaction, whereas the album approach is a lot more ‘composed’ in places.
What plans have you to market ‘Erotic Cakes’?
Initially, it’ll be marketed through the internet at www.cornfordrecords.com. It would be great to tour this – we just have to formulate a master plan as to how exactly we should do it. I’m very reluctant to do any more power trio stuff – live, that’s the only way anyone’s ever seen it done, and the truth be known I really don’t enjoy doing it that way; the music is meant to be a little more layered than that, and a lot of what I’m playing doesn’t really make sense without some sort of chordal backing. We have to figure out how we can get the band sounding suitably big without it becoming logistically unwieldy – with the core of Pete, Seth and yours truly, I think we just need one more ingredient in there to ensure that it doesn’t sound like yet another trade show type instrumental set. Possibly a Fender Rhodes would be good, or a Hammond – nothing digital, I’d like to keep it all organic-sounding. Maybe another guitarist could work (although I can’t imagine another guitarist relishing that gig, I’d probably want to do the bulk of the fun stuff!) It’s a work in progress as we speak, but we’ll figure something out.
After all this time, bearing in mind not only the lengthy gestation period but also the fact that you are so “close” to it, are you happy with the way ‘Erotic Cakes’ has turned out?
Yes – obviously I’m happy that it’s finally finished, but also I’m really pleased with the way it turned out. I like to think there’s something unique about it compared with other albums in similar genres, and it sounds absolutely huge! Definitely not another “I did this in my bedroom with a drum machine and a POD” album. In fact, I shudder when people start asking, “When will the album be available on iTunes?” – I think Jan’s mixes sound so good that someone hearing an average-quality mp3 rendition would really be missing out on something. Then again, maybe I’m a bit of a closet audiophile; some people seem perfectly happy to spend their lives listening to everything through their computer speakers, so I suppose we’re all different…
To conclude this first part of the interview, AOG comments on the fact that this certainly seems to be an exciting – if not crucial – period of Guthries life!
Yes – I’m feeling a bit like an anxious Father pacing up and down a maternity ward, I suppose! I’m really curious to see what the outside world thinks of it!
Technique and Musical Influences
Guthrie Govan is indisputably one of the scariest and most stylistically complete guitarists on the planet. AOG seeks to find out how Guthrie became the player that he is today…
Who would you say are your pivotal influences?
Don’t laugh, but early Elvis – he delivered something with so much energy that it became very apparent to me when I was very young that it’s not just about the notes but ‘the way you tell ‘em’! Hendrix definitely; 60’s Clapton – I never really got the Strat-era Clapton until more recently when I started to pay more attention to his voice, then the whole thing started to make sense to me. Zal Cleminson, who played with the Alex Harvey Band – an enormous influence, to me he was like a spikier, more insane version of Jimmy Page.
In technique terms I could go on for days about players we both know, but the one who really made a difference and had a massive impact on me was Steve Vai – he wasn’t just displaying outrageous rock technique but utilising it whilst also really playing for the song. To hear him play on ‘Eat ‘Em and Smile’. with a different approach for every song yet always sounding unmistakeably like the same guy, that was hugely inspiring. The fact that there was a sense of humour there, and that he didn’t sound like he was trying to impress you, he was entertaining you – that seemed like evidence of a broader imagination than everyone else around was exhibiting at that time. I loved it!
And of course, Frank Zappa. Inspiring because of his refusal to compromise at all… of course much of the world finds his music distressingly odd! But with Zappa, people either love it and totally get it, or they don’t understand it at all. For me, it’s pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted from music all rolled into one big package.
I could go on… the unifying theme with all those players is the strength of their personality coming through. That’s what’s really important to me, I guess.
Do you have anything that resembles a defined practise regime?
Well, nowadays it really is just playing…and to be honest it’s always been a bit like that. I never did have a miracle workout or anything. I play music whenever I can, but as far as actual practising goes I guess that most of it is really mental nowadays – sitting on the train on the way to work, I can think about how to approach something or improve some aspect of what I do without necessarily having to be near an instrument.
Is there such a thing as a typical week in the life of Guthrie Govan?
Well when I’m not on tour or recording, I do two days a week solid teaching, plus maybe a day beforehand to plan that; I work on whatever transcriptions or backing tracks I need to do for my magazine duties, I do a duo gig with Zak (and my boomerang pedal!) every Monday, the Fellowship gig every Thursday and then… whatever else maybe going on, there are normally some other gigs depping with other bands. Some of it’s function stuff, some of it’s jazz – which tends not to pay as well, but it’s better for the soul! Recently I have been rehearsing with a dance act called The Young Punx – it’s the brainchild of a talented musician I’ve know since my University days, and we’re preparing for a tour of Japan – probably not what a lot of readers would expect me to get up to, but it’s a lot of fun, and it presents its own set of challenges!
A lot of rock players over the last couple of years seem to be attempting to get a little bit of ‘outsideness’ into their playing – trying to go for a bit of that fusion sound. Indeed, this is probably the most requested educational topic that people have requested that we cover – what would your advice be?
Well, I‘d start by asking, why do you want to be a fusion/jazz player? A lot of guitarists at the moment seem to perceive fusion almost as another trick – “Ok, I’ve got my legato and my Eight Fingered Tapping down, now let’s conquer fusion” – which is a little insulting to the genre, methinks. I’ve met people who are fascinated by the word ‘fusion but whose main concern seems to be learning some new licks-with-funny-notes which they can then play really fast over an A minor chord. That’s kind of doing a disservice to the whole concept, really. If someone can listen to, say, a 70s Billy Cobham album and get excited about the whole spirit of it all, then I reckon they understand the idea of fusion – which was meant to be about blending different styles and making something fresh happen, it doesn’t necessarily mean just playing some chromatic notes through an overdriven amp – and then their playing should naturally progress in the right direction every time their listening diet expands.
To digress for a moment, I always worry about players who try to learn the whole of a Dream Theater album before they have a solid grounding in basic rhythm styles, blues licks, vibrato, string bending – all that basic important stuff. Once you have the core basics down, every other style is an avenue you can explore if you so desire, but the Rock players who sound really convincing are the ones who started with these basic skills and steadily worked upwards – and the same thing surely applies with Fusion or any other style.
I think it’s potentially dangerous when a rock type player hears a bit of Allan Holdsworth or Frank Gambale and then dives straight into that style of playing; not only is the technical aspect daunting, there’s also all that musical knowledge and understanding going on behind the scenes, and it’s really hard to absorb both of those aspects at once without your playing just starting to sound worse. I’m guessing that when most modern rock players say they want to get their fusion down, they don’t particularly want to learn ‘Autumn Leaves’, they want instant Greg Howe! To stand a chance of sounding at all convincing, though, I think the best way is to start chronologically. Listen to Charlie Christian, Django, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Wes Montgomery… find out what people were doing before all the Brecker Brothers slash chords arrived on the scene! Listen to what those guys could do over a simple blues progression. Listen to other instruments – Cannonball Adderley on Miles Davis’ ‘Kind Of Blue’, for instance, did some of the most amazing things you could ever hope to hear – if you listen to enough of that stuff you’ll start to absorb what’s happening harmonically, and after a while ‘jazz’ ingredients like the superlocrian mode or a certain chord substitution won’t sound so strange to your ears. That’s when you can start really using it!
Getting a touch of Jazz into your playing should be a gradual process – it shouldn’t be about throwing away any of the rock stuff you already have, it’s better if you can just add to it and treat the new stuff the same way you treat the things you already know and use. Try to take in a new chord or scale – break it up into little phrases or simply take one phrase or fragment at a time and really try to understand how the new notes work over the chord they’re designed for. Knowing loads of scale fingerings for a particular ‘Jazz scale’ is no good at all if you can’t hear in your head how to use those notes in a musical situation.
I mean, everyone reading this can sing a blues lick and know that every note of it is ‘right’. That pentatonic thing is part of our culture – sorry if that sounds a bit pretentious, but really there’s a bit of pentatonic in everyone, everywhere in the world. (Investigate some obscure folk music from different continents if you don’t believe me!) The thing is, if you want to assimilate a half/whole diminished scale into what you do, you have to try so much harder, because that tonality isn’t so ubiquitous – you have to seek it out, or you’ll hardly ever hear it. You can’t achieve that just by memorising a specific lick or scale fingering – it’s more about understanding rather than the technique; it’s about being able to predict what effect each note will have over a certain chord before you actually play it. If your ears get it, they can tell your fingers what to do – but it doesn’t work the other way around.
One of the first things that many people advise to players attempting to develop jazz guitar is to learn the standards, such as ‘Misty’ and ‘Autumn Leaves‘…
Absolutely – if that’s what you want to do, it’s all good. It helps you to build a vocabulary and repertoire that people the world over will recognise – which has obvious jamming potential! There’s also the fact that, if you stick with it, your first few standards may be pretty gruelling but by the time you’ve learned your thirtieth one, it’s a quicker process – which implies that something in you is beginning to gain an understanding of that general era in Jazz and you’re learning more than just the songs themselves. You’re beginning to pick up on the language of Jazz, you’re absorbing the material in bigger chunks, rather than one chord at a time. Again I’d stress that for anyone undertaking this magical Jazz pilgrimage, the important thing is to play with some real music to hear how notes react to specific chords… that’s partly why I’m suspicious of the metronome lifestyle! You can run up and down a Lydian Dominant scale for as long as you like but it is not going to teach you anything about why those notes are grouped together like that. You need to try them over a harmonic backing, hear them over a particular chord so that you can then try working those notes in when the time is right. Then of course there’s the all important concept that ideally you’re meant to be playing across the changes – in a lot of cases, the ideal jazz phrase is the one that highlights the difference between one chord and the next, rather than just fitting over a static chord. Every time you learn an obscure new harmonic idea, you also need to be able to drift smoothly into it, and then to resolve your way back to something more stable-sounding at the end – so a lot of it’s about context. Well, I hope some of that rambling made sense, I should probably stop now!
To conclude these epic interview, Guthrie discusses the equipment that he uses to create his instantly identifiable ‘Guthrie Tone’.
You have been associated with Cornford amps for a long time now, what sort of rig do you use?
Exactly what I use depends upon what the gig is, but it’s always a Cornford amp of some sort. I’ve met some shredders who don’t get on with the Cornfords because they magnify everything you do, and if you want that ultra-compressed flattering tone that makes you sound faster and hides your sloppiness, it’s not the amp for you – but they’re wonderful for anyone who comes from more of a blues/rock background and likes the idea that you can add a little bit of character to each note, you can be so much more expressive… Guitar wise, it’s pretty much wall-to-wall Suhr Guitars nowadays. I first got involved with Suhr when I was doing a Cornford clinic over in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. At these clinics my job was to demonstrate that you don’t need an amp with 8 channels and 50 push-pull knobs in order to get a variety of nice sounds, I was trying to show how much you can do with one channel alone if you use the controls on your guitar and just vary the way you attack the strings. I was advocating the simple life really – if an amp is that good then you shouldn’t really need it to offer you 50 variations on the same sound. Anyway – Ed Yoon, who was running Tone Merchants at the time, seemed rather partial to what I was doing; he fixed me up with a Suhr to try out, and ever since then we’ve a had kind of an unofficial partnership. I use several models – a couple of Standards made from very different woods, a Classic and a Classic T – for different situations. We haven’t worked out any kind of signed exclusive deal at this point, but I always seem to come back to them because they do everything that I want a guitar to do so very well. And when I go back to any other guitar, it never seems to stay in tune half as well!
One of the things I have been trying recently is their new Silent Single Coil system – and it really works. The concept is that, instead of putting your hum-cancelling trickery in the pickup itself, like the Kinmans do, you can mount it in the scratchplate or backplate. That way, the pickup itself can be totally faithful to the vintage design we all know and love, and this hidden “mad scientist” circuitry eerily cancels out all the hum from afar, so you get an honest single coil sound completely noise free. I suspect it’s actually quieter than your average humbucker – so you can apply obscene amounts of gain to a vintage Fender-style sound without any problems. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?!
Is your old faithful PRS consigned to the Guitar Retirement Home then?!
The PRS is currently sleeping somewhere in America, wearing 13’s and tuned to C or something after one of the heavier tracks we recorded for the GPS album. It’s had a hard life – it deserves a break! Needs new frets, too…
You are primarily associated with the Cornford ‘Hellcat’, but do you use any of the other Cornford range?
Amp-wise, it’s different stuff for different applications. We recorded a good 80% of the ‘...Cakes’ album using Richie Kotzen’s signature head, which is a 100W beast, and we were able to crank it to silly levels in the studio… but you can’t always do that live. I’ve found that a 50W head is loud enough to offend a sound engineer, even at an arena-sized gig, so for the Asia stuff I ended up using the Cornford Hellcat – that’s only 35W, so I can get the power amp stage cooking a bit more without the sound guy hating me too much.
The Fellowship gigs are all about having some unwholesome fun, so I do everything differently – I use the 18W Cornford combo, the Hurricane, with the Master Volume on 11 and the gain about half-way up, then I have a silly collection of pedals on the floor. The pedal board is always evolving, but there’s generally a Menatone JAC compressor for the clean solo stuff, an Analogman chorus, a T-Rex Replica delay, a Whammy pedal, and a wah – sometimes it’s the RMC, sometimes the Silver Machine, they’re both great but utterly different. On a good day, you might also find a MoogerFooger ring modulator in there, and maybe a Mojo Vibe. Filth-wise, I’m using an Analogman Tube Screamer clone and a ZenDrive at the moment, but I’ve also dabbled with Moollon and Barber stuff – I have a most pleasing collection of fuzz boxes, and different pedals seem to complement different guitars.
What plectrums do you use?
I’m using the Jazz 3 Xls; you can play faster with the smaller ones, but the problem with those tends to be that when I’m doing a lot of the funky rhythm stuff, or get a bit too physical, I keep dropping the things! The big ones are a bit more stable and dependable. Actually, the best pick I ever had was a 1.4mm Jim Dunlop tortex, about 20 years ago; I sculpted it with a nail file for a couple of weeks and it was utter perfection, but to be practical you need to get comfortable with a pick that’s easy to replace. After gigs, people always seem to be stealing them from the mic stands! I’ve noticed that on tour a lot of fans want signed picks, and they can get quite shirty if I offer them one that’s only signed by Jim Dunlop. Actually in Germany, I’ve met people who have had their own signature picks made, and they don’t even play guitar! Personally, I just don’t get on with the standard blunt, flimsy things that you get when you order a box of personalised picks – I know some of the classic rock fans love all that stuff, but I’m more concerned about sounding good and enjoying the gig, so there you go.
And finally, what strings are you partial to?
Strings are generally 10-46 unless it’s a semi-acoustic – I have a custom Briggs semi and an early 70s ES-335 – in which case 11s seem like the bare minimum for getting a decent sound.