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May 2014
more... ArtistsGuitarsDecember 2013Electrical Guitar CompanyThe MelvinsBuzz Osborne

Melvins' Buzz Osborne: Tonal Triage

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Here Buzz is rocking out during the band's set at the Apocalypse in Toronto, ON, on May 11th, 1990, with his aforementioned '69 Les Paul Fretless Wonder that has its neck pickup in the bridge position because he didn't have money to replace the original bridge pickup. Photo by Derek von Essen.

You’ve been using Sunn Beta Leads for a while. What do you dig about those?
I know everyone prefers tube amps—and I love my Marshall stack and my Mesa/Boogie TriAxis—but for my live tone, I can’t beat those Sunn heads. They’re amazing. They’re dependable. But tonally, when they’re paired with the Carver PM-1.5 power amps, they’re monsters with plenty of gain and a real tight low end that doesn’t cause my speakers to flub out—because those 15" speakers could cause it to lose some definition.

On The Bootlicker, we even recorded guitars direct out of my pedalboard into the mixing board, with no amp modeling or anything. We just messed with the signal afterwards. If you have the patience, you can make it work.

How did you create those carnival-gone-wrong sounds in “Dr. Mule”?
It’s a Stylophone. If people don’t know what that is, look it up. I use them all the time. I’ve made those things sound like giant organs, but I’ve barely even touched a keyboard. It’s a pocket-sized synthesizer that was, like, $30. It gets confused with an octave fuzz or a gnarly keyboard, but it’s just this little device I’ve had for a long time—it’s a great studio tool.

You play deep string bends extremely accurately, and you have a very unique left-hand vibrato technique—as evidenced on the new tracks “Dogs and Cattle Prods” and “Psycho-Delic Haze.” How did you develop those?
I always had a pretty good vibrato for some reason. I’ve had people give me shit about it in the past because they think it sounds generic, but I love it. Lately, I’ve really been into long string bends that sound like I’m using a Whammy pedal—long, unnatural-sounding bends ending with heavy vibrato.

My philosophy is a poor carpenter blames his tools.

As for how I learned that stuff, you won’t find it in the Roy Clark Deluxe Big Note Guitar book. I don’t read music, and I have no understanding of chords or how or why they work. For me, that knowledge is pointless, and after playing guitar for about 33 years I see no reason to seek that out now. In my opinion, technical ability and a broad understanding of musical notes written on paper has very little to do with making music. I love writing, recording, and performing songs. I spend about 70 percent of my waking hours doing just that. If you discount all of the hard work I do in this regard, then it’s all down to luck. There’s an old saying in golf that says the more I practice the luckier I get [laughs].

How exactly do you play those deep, Whammy-like bends?
I just used my fingers and played two different takes, and then combined them for the recorded solo. I’ve always been practicing and trying to improve my left-hand vibrato technique, because those are my favorite types of solos—the ones that sound like a pitch-shifting pedal or a guitar’s whammy bar. It sounds so expressive. To me, using pedals for those effects sounds sterile and rigid. I prefer the loose, fluid feel you can get with using your fingers. I think it also helps that I use custom-gauge strings with heavy bottoms and light tops.

Why do you prefer larger, triangular picks?
Because it’s three picks in one. I keep rotating it all night when I’m playing a show, trying to get the sharpest, pointiest edge. Because of my ham-fisted strumming, I am constantly wearing out the picks. After each show I’ll take the corners of the picks and rub them on the carpet, and that burns the burs off them and they’re good as new. I also like having the give of the thinner pick, because it gives a little thaw and snap to my tone since I attack so hard. If I used a thicker pick, I’d snap it.

What’s just as unique about your style is that many of your songs have odd time signatures and don’t follow conventional rock-song structures.
Someone like Captain Beefheart was never worried about song structure or standards, so why should we? We just write and construct what we’d like to hear. We’re not perverse or trying to do something different to be oddballs. People should expect the Melvins not to do those things. The Beatles are an overall easily accessible band loved by millions, but their songs “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” or “Helter Skelter” are completely unconventional songs not of the pop formula, but are absolutely beautiful. A good song is a good song no matter its meter or how many times the chorus appears.

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