In February of 2019, I was flown up to Montreal to cover composer/guitarist Tim Brady’s evening of 150 guitars for Guitar Player. You can read my coverage and interview about that here and see a sample below. Inspired by my conversation with Dither’s James Moore, after we finished Tim’s GP interview, I restarted the recorder for a wide ranging dialogue about the state of the electric guitar in today’s classical world. We covered a lot of ground so I am breaking it up into two posts. If you enjoy Part I, please subscribe to be notified when Part II is posted.
GM: I interviewed James Moore from Dither. Do you know James?
TB: A little bit. I know Taylor Levine better. I’ve worked with him.
GM: We discussed the role of the electric guitar in classical music. I find it fascinating, but have issues with it in terms of how it works and how it doesn’t.
GM: What struck me was seeing Bang on a Can at Big Ears. Mark Stewart’s a terrific guitar player and builds these amazing Hans Reichel-type instruments as well. But when I saw him play in that band, he wasn’t using very interesting guitar sounds. In discussing that with James, he indicated that it might be a function of the composers they work with. Considering that for 300 years classical music has focused on the sound of every other instrument in the orchestra, it seems the percentage of compositions where the tone of the electric guitar is focused on is still pretty low. I was wondering what your thoughts are on that?
TB: I try to live within the parameters of reality: contemporary classical electric guitar is never going to replace mainstream music. But with the work I’ve been doing for 30 years, and with Bang on Can having electric guitar for 30 years, things are changing.
A local university, Concordia, has a very big jazz department, but they were starting to get guitarists who said, “I want to study guitar, but don’t want to study jazz. What can I study?” They hired me because I’m the other thing you can study. So, every student every semester has to learn part of the Bach Partitas for violin on guitar, because it really gets their reading up to snuff, and into the idea of learning a piece of music. Generally, they want to be composers, and so have to write a piece for solo guitar.
I’m having a great time doing it. One of the students was playing in the show last night. I get a couple of emails couple a month from people like Ashley, a guy I met in England, saying, “I have played electric guitar and classical guitar for 20 years and I’m bored with both. I want to try and find a way of putting them together.” It can’t replace the mainstream electric guitar, but it is growing.
GM: I’m getting more and more records from guitarists doing it.
TB: I think there’s a couple of reasons. From a composition perspective, the guitar is tricky; you have to know a lot of weird technical stuff: the tuning is weird, the pedals are weird. It’s a hard culture to enter. Whereas if you want to write for clarinet, it sounds the same everywhere; you just write the notes and the clarinet plays them.
The strength of electric guitar is that it has this huge potential sonic vocabulary. The weakness is that you have to take the time to learn that vocabulary. To make my life easier, half the composers I commission are guitar players. They know that stuff, but half aren’t. We generally have two or three workshops for the latter where they come with recorders and for three hours I plug in all my pedals; show how an EBow works; put chopsticks in the strings; scratch the pick on the strings; play soft and play loud. I play with an overdrive versus distortion, and we go through all that. You have to do that. If you don’t, it’s like basically telling the guy, “Write a violin piece, but I’m not going to tell you how the violin is tuned or what it sounds like.” The guitar has a very specific, peculiar technology. Guitarists who want a commissioned work need to work with composers a little more—and vice versa.
GM: It seems the degree to which the merger is successful is directly related to the degree to which the composer is willing to work with the guitarist.
TB: It has to be a deep collaboration, partly because of the nature of the instrument. You mentioned what we call the classical orchestra basically existed in one form or another for about 300 years. There’s this general cultural knowledge, which is ephemeral, almost intuitive, but nonetheless real, among musicians of what string quartets, orchestras, and wind quartets sounds like.
The electric guitar quartet has only been around a short time. The first one I know of, which had three guitars and electric bass, was here in Montreal, by Andre Duchesne. It was called Les 4 Guitaristes de l’Apocalypso-Bar. It ended up transforming into the Fred Frith Quartet, which, to my knowledge, was the first electric guitar quartet. That had no drummer, no bass player. It was experimental rock leaning into New Music. The style became known as Music Actuelle. Now they have a Music Actuelle festival. Now there’s my quartet, there’s Zwerm in Belgium, and E quartet in Berlin. It’s such a new medium that, to my knowledge, there’s only five working professional quartets. How many string quartets are there? There’s five within a 10-kilometer radius of my house.
GM: That begs the question, why quartets? Is that a holdover from the string quartet?
TB: No. My analysis is that it has to do with the processing power of the human brain, which can only manage four distinct objects. I’m not making this up. There are scientific perceptual studies. By the time you get to a fifth object, your brain has to combine two. You can’t hear five as five, you hear it as three plus two. It’s just how the brain works. And so, the quartet is this natural ensemble where it’s the maximum complexity before the brain starts folding things down into smaller groups. The technical term is “chunking.” That is why my telephone number is, (514) ***—****not 514*******. The brain can’t remember the second one. Four is the maximum number where you can remember discrete units. It is not how our ears eyes work, it’s how the central processing system of the brain works. That’s why the jazz quartet is the standard. There’s the string quartet, there’s saxophone quartet. In vocal music, there’s a vocal quartet—soprano, alto, tenor, bass. The Beatles have four musicians; on Star Trek there are four main characters.
GM: That then begs the question why not trios?
TB: Well, it’s interesting. The string trio—violin, viola, cello—has its own charm, but it’s really hard to write for because it lacks the intimacy of the duo, but doesn’t have the complexity of the quartet. All the trios in the world are going to be annoyed with me, but it’s the worst of both worlds.
GM: Are there any guitar trios?
TB: There’s a couple of classical guitar trios.
GM: There used to be Paco de Lucia, John Mclaughlin and Al DiMeola.
TB: They played so many notes, they were basically 150 guitars with three guys. [Laughter] That wasn’t a trio. It was like three ultra-virtuosos. The one trio that exists with some consistency is the jazz piano trio or the classical trio where you have piano, violin, and cello. But the piano basically functions as two units: the right and left hands. So, jazz piano trio is a four-part discussion and my theory still works.
GM: It’s a good theory. When it is just you playing electric guitar with an orchestra, how do you go about blending your sound?
TB: It’s tricky for technical reasons and for what I would call socio-cultural reasons. If you listen to my recent concerto, I use a fair bit overdrive. In general, I find slightly overdriven or straight up distorted sounds blend better with acoustic instruments. A traditional jazz sound, like Ed Bickert’s, won’t cut through orchestra. It’s too dark. It’s not loud enough. It’s all attack. There’s no sustain. When you’re fighting against 40 violins, you got to have something. I also love playing clean; I was a pretty serious jazz guitar player for a while, but I have always used effects to a certain extent.
About 15, 20 years ago when I started to write for electric guitar, not using distortion seemed nuts because it’s such a natural extension of what the instrument is. I work a lot on blending. One thing I do all the time recently is use an almost imperceptible detune chorus when I’m playing with an orchestra.
GM: That’s interesting. Why is that?
TB: Because an orchestra is always out of tune; even the most in tune orchestra is out of tune. You’ve got 100 people playing together, they can’t play perfectly in tune. Even if you’re playing a solo guitar, with the weird intonation, an electric guitar can never really play in tune. You’re a guitar player, you know what I’m talking about.
GM: You can do the Buzzy Feiten system, which really does make it difference. Tuning is another whole discussion. But briefly, my experience with tuning over the years is that it goes beyond that to where some guitars just sound in tune and some guitars will never sound in tune. Because of the overtones of the way they ring.
TB: I agree with that. Yes.
GM: I guess a violinist can adjust tuning because it’s fretless.
TB: Literally every note will adjust to tuning.
GM: I’m trying to think of any other instruments that solo with an orchestra that would have tuning issues.
TB: Vibraphone is one, they can’t change anything at all.
GM: Theoretically, guitars can as well, because we bend strings into tune as we play.
TB: We all do. That’s why it’s always good to tune the tiniest bit flat because you can always pull up but you can’t go down.
GM: Oh, that’s interesting. Bill Frisell used to bend the neck while using a delay to create a kind of chorusing sound because he always found tuning an issue.
TB: I use a very, very slight detune effect, which is not perceptible until I turn it off. You don’t even hear it when I turn it on, but all of a sudden it helps hugely in terms of blending with orchestral musicians.
Another blend issue has nothing to do with the science. Culturally, if people hear distorted guitar a with an orchestra, they can’t hear this sonic object and that sonic object, they hear a rock band and classical music. They hear the cultural objects, not the actual sonic object. I have no control over that. I just accept that some people can’t get past it, some people can.
GM: What overdrive and chorus do you use?
TB: I just bought it a couple of Electro-Harmonix Pitch Forks. It has a detune function and I set it at about 15%. I took a felt tip marker and indicated very mild, slightly mild, and approaching Andy Summers blend settings— like 5, 10, 15, 20%, no more.
GM: Detune is very different than chorus because there’s no motion in it.
TB: Exactly. It’s a little more stable. I find detune blends better with the orchestra than chorus. I also use the Xotic SP Compressor, primarily because it too has a blend control. I put the compressor on with only about 25% compressed signal. So, there’s still 75% of my straight signal.
When playing with an orchestra, I would show up with the 20-watt amp they kept telling me to turn down. I have a Rivera-era, 1983 Super Champ, 18 watts, with a 10″ speaker and at rehearsals and for a chamber orchestra it is too loud. With a full orchestra, I use 50 watts, but I am turning down all the time.
GM: Do you use a volume pedal?
TB: I use the volume pedal mostly for swells. One of the reasons I use a compressor is because one of the things the amp does when it gets louder is compress. I use the compressor so I can play at lower volumes, but still have the feeling of an amp that’s going into compression.
GM: Do you use it before overdrive or after the overdrive?
TB: I use it after, if you use it before you cut down the touch sensitivity of the overdrive. Because I’m only using 25% of the compressed signal, I find it’s pretty transparent. It gives that slightly compressed sound, as if I were playing louder, but I don’t have to drive the conductor out of their mind.
GM: What are you using for overdrive?
TB: It varies. On my pedal board now I have some classics, a Boss Blues Driver with the Keeley Mod. Doesn’t that sound snobby? [Laughter]
GM: It sounds like every guitar player in the world.
TB: I have a Boss DS-1 with the Analog Man mod. I have a smaller board, which I’m putting together for touring. I’m using a One Control drive pedal. They’re mostly known for big switcher boards and control devices, and just started doing pedals a few years ago. They’re quite expensive, but were on sale because no one was buying. So, the guys were, “Oh, I’ll give you two for price of one and a half.” They sound a little more—Oh, God, I’m going to sound like Pete Thorn here—amp-like. Like a lot of players, I always have two drive pedals. You have to have an overdrive and a distortion. You put the overdrive first and then you put them both on when you really want to go to town. [Since out conversation, Brady has changed out his overdrives, “On the small board I now use a Strymon Sunset and on the big board a Chase Bliss Brothers. Both dual drive pedals with quiet switches.”]
Eleven years ago, I was one of the first people using Seymour Duncan P-Rail Pickups. Do you know those?
TB: My main guitar is the Godin that John McLaughlin used for a while, the RG-3. It is a Strat-style guitar made of spruce, which is very exotic. I swapped out its humbuckers for P-Rails. They allow me to create different output levels without using the volume control. When you roll off the volume control you change the electronic impedance and that changes the tone. With the P-Rails, you have four output levels without touching the volume control. I’ll go to the parallel humbuckers for the biggest clean sound possible. Often, when I want to get distorted, I switch to series humbuckers, but lately for distorted, I’ve started also using parallel humbuckers. It’s a very interesting sound—like a single coil, but not really. My guitar tech says it’s like weak Gretsch pickups. It’s about 4 to 5K output, so it’s even below vintage 7K or 6.9 K, PAFs. It’s not quite a single coil sound because it has a bit more mid-range content. I can also go to very credible single coil sound. I coil tap with RWRP wiring, so my center position is noise canceling.
In an orchestral setting, it’s very important for me to have at least two levels: series and parallel. It’s not only about raw volume, it’s about texture, because, a humbucker interacts with other instruments very differently than single coil. Any blues guitarist knows this. That’s one of many reasons why Stevie Ray Vaughn sounds different than B.B. King. I’m taking up more room in the orchestra with humbuckers than if I’m playing single coils. Neither one is better. We have the option of exploring those relationships.
GM: Would you change from movement to movement?
TB: I’ll change phrase to phrase sometimes. I have to have a couple of bars to switch. Nobody loves switching switches, we’d all rather be playing guitar; I try to keep the switch changing to a minimum, but if the piece demands it, I will change.
GM: I saw a chamber orchestra piece that Steve Mackey composed for Bill Frisell in San Francisco.
TB: I’ve known Steve for 30 years. He’s the same age as me, almost down to the month. He’s a guitar player. He has taught at Princeton since ’87. He’s quite a good guitar player. He understands all of it.
The composition Frisell played with a different guitarist
GM: Frisell sounded great with the orchestra live and he also sounds great on a Gavin Bryars record.
TB: He doesn’t play many notes, so he doesn’t get in the way. And the neck vibrato, is like the Pitchfork detune. That’s a big part of it. There’s always flanging going on in orchestra. So, if the guitar player is the sole person without a flange, it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb, which may be what you want, but generally not. You want a sense a temporal dialogue amongst the players.
GM: It seems like the integration of electric guitar is only going to “improve,” because so many guitarists now are not going directly into rock or jazz, but rather into some sort of alternative use of the instrument.
TB: My analogy is the transformation the saxophone somewhere in the late ’50s or early ’60s. If you told Charlie Parker in 1952 that by 2019, the vast majority of jazz saxophone players would have at least a bachelor’s, possibly a master’s degree, or maybe a PhD, and most of them would make their living teaching in universities, what do you think Charlie Parker would’ve said? “Can I have some of that stuff?” That’s what he would have said. And yet, the saxophone has become huge in the conservatoire. The electric guitar, especially the last 15 years, is not the driving force of popular music anymore. You listen to Kendrick Lamar. There’s no reason it needs to be. So, where’s the electric guitar going to go? If the electric guitar becomes an “accepted” instrument, or just stays on the margins, I don’t care. I’m just doing the music I do.
Historically, every time an instrument stops being of some large-scale commercial value, if it has some inherent artistic value, and I think the electric guitar has, academic research picks up the slack, which is useful. But it has its downside.
GM: There’s a fun guitar podcast called Guitar Wank.
TB: Good name.
GM: Three guitarists occasionally discuss the state of guitar. They talk about how guitar players coming out of these conservatories lack live experience.
TB: It’s a big problem.
GM: The upside, from my perspective, is that so many music schools turning out so many educated musicians is creating an educated audience.
TB: I haven’t thought of it in those terms, but you’re right.
GM: For me, it explains the success of a band like Snarky Puppy: a 12-piece band playing complex music that’s a lot of fun.
TB: It’s really a good band.
GM: A decade ago they would not have such a huge following, but I think if you threw a stick in their audience, you’d be hard-pressed not to hit a music school graduate. Those students are exposed to lots of different kinds of music, they are very sophisticated. Even in Nashville, there are starting to be avant-garde shows, where you’re seeing 20 or 30 people at it as opposed to two.
TB: Well, that’s like an 800% increase.
TB: I hadn’t thought of that analysis but I’ll go with that.
GM: Which bodes well for the guitar as a “classical instrument.”
Part II coming soon- We discuss the history of the guitar vis-a-vis the European orchestral canon and more. Please subscribe to keep informed