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Shown here with his No. 1 axe, an Ampeg Dan Armstrong Plexi guitar, Fu Manchu frontman Scott Hill says his tone has been the same since the early ’90s. He uses a Univox Super Fuzz and Crown W-Fuzz pedals through a Marshall JCM800.
Photo by Jerry Miller.
Scott, what are your go-to guitars?
Hill: I mainly play an Ampeg Dan Armstrong guitar. I’ve been using Seymour Duncan Hot Rail pickups since ’94. I replace them every couple of years because they get so sweaty. Those are a major part of my sound. I then go to the fuzz pedal, and then into a Marshall JCM800 head. I set the head as numb and dead as I can, and let the fuzz pedal get all the tone. I played a Fender Jaguar on this record, as well.
Bob, what are your other key pieces of gear?
Balch: For the recording, I used a ’69 or ’71 Marshall Super Bass. For live shows, I just got a Marshall DSL100H, because my other heads were having some trouble with arcing. I dig it—especially because I get so much of my tone from the guitar and the pedals. I basically just need an amp for the crunchy, AC/DC-type clean tone.On my pedalboard, I use a Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 for power. The Pink Elephant comes first, then the Creepy Face. That goes into a Boss TU-2 tuner, and then on to a ZVEX Sonar, which basically chops your signal in and out. I use that one at the end of “Dimension Shifter,” and in the intro and outro of “Evolution Machine,” coupled with an old MXR Phase 100. The Sonar goes into a regular Dunlop Cry Baby wah and then an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man with Hazarai delay. I use the delay a lot for leads, especially with the tap tempo on it. The Super Bass heads didn’t have an effects loop, but live with the DSL100H, I run a ’70s MXR Phase 100 and a BBE Soul Vibe through the effects loop.
On “Anxiety Reducer,” we really wanted to rip off the tone of the guitar solo in the Isley Brothers’ “Who’s That Lady.” So we plugged into the phaser and then straight into the board—that was apparently their trick to that sound. I wasn’t sure how to duplicate that sound live, but it turns out if you run the phaser and the Soul Vibe at the same time—even if they are running at different rates—it comes pretty close to what’s on the record. In the studio for “Anxiety Reducer,” we used a Colorsound Bass Fuzz and an MXR Phase 100 direct. Brad and I are big Isley Brothers fans, and we had been talking about trying that technique for years.
Also, I never really used to care about picks, but for the past five years or so I’ve found I prefer 1 mm Dunlop Tortex picks. I used to play the same pick and the same guitar as Scott, because I was obsessed with playing in tune with him. But that was just my OCD—that obsession kind of vanished. And for Fu Manchu, it’s actually cool that you can hear there are two different guitars playing together. When I switched to thicker picks, I found I could play the leads I actually wanted to. Before, I was playing with thin picks, and I found I didn’t have the control I wanted for faster runs.
How do you tune your guitars?
Hill: We tune to D all the way down [D–G–C–F–A–D], and sometimes—like on “Evolution Machine”—we’ll drop down to C.
Name a band or a player who’s caught your attention in the past few years.
Balch: Mike Scheidt from [doom-metal band] YOB—his guitar playing is insane. I teach guitar on Skype, and I get a lot of requests, like, “Teach me this ZZ Top lick,” or whatever. When one guy asked me to figure out a YOB guitar part, I was stumped. And when I get stumped, I get intrigued.When I’m at home, I actually don’t listen to much rock. Fu Manchu fans would be pretty disappointed if they knew what was going on when I’m at home—it’s a lot of ’70s soft rock.
Hill: I like Moab—their guitar player and singer [Andrew Giacumakis] produced our last record, and they have a new one out that I really, really like. I’ve been listening to Clutch’s latest record a lot. That’s pretty much it. On tour I don’t listen to much music.
Bob, how did playthisriff.com come about?
Balch: I’ve been doing that since 2009. I was initially going to put up a website with just Fu Manchu lessons, so I filmed myself playing every Fu Manchu song that I played on and posted TAB in PDFs on the site. It was a subscription-based site, and I figured if I got 20 or so subscribers, that would be cool—a little bit of extra cash. But I realized I could drive more people to the site if I could interview other players, as well. Exodus was the first band to agree to do it, and now there are around 70 bands—including Megadeth, Queens of the Stone Age, Death Angel. It’s a lot of thrash metal, stoner rock, and punk. We’re constantly adding videos and tabbing stuff out.
When you go to shoot the videos, what gear do you bring with you?
Balch: Aside from the camera and lights, I bring an old BK Butler Tube Works TD-752 combo amp. I bring all that stuff backstage to various venues. I feel weird doing it—because I’ll take over the backstage of a band I don’t really know! A lot of players—Tim Bogert from Cactus, John 5, Tracii Guns, Gary Hirstius from the Circle Jerks—have invited me up to film at their houses. It’s amazing to meet the people that I grew up idolizing. When I go home and edit the stuff, I end up learning a ton, too. In the past five years, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge. I parlayed a lot of that into Sun & Sail Club, the side project I did with Scott Reeder, the former bassist in Kyuss. I’d interview dudes and come home and be fully inspired.
Heavy riffs, hot rods, rad rides: In this May 2014 video from New York City, Fu Manchu performs “Mongoose” from their 1999 album, Eatin’ Dust.
You get some insane tones on Sun & Sail Club’s Mannequin. What’s going on there?
Balch: That’s my guitar going into a vocoder and a Chandler mic preamp. For that, the guitar parts are a little bit faster than Fu Manchu. When you play fast with a fuzz, it can just get buried. So I used a Marshall JTM45 with the Creepy Face and blended it with a Marshall JCM800 with a Tube Driver. When we mixed it, I wanted to have the guitar as fuzzy as possible, with the Tube Driver channel in there to give it crunch and attack.
What’s your pedagogy or approach to teaching lessons?
Balch: I just cater to each student. Some are absolute beginners, and we’ll just learn songs. Others will come and say, “I’ve been improvising for years and I’ve just hit a wall.” That’s usually a pretty easy fix, because people tend to stay in a pentatonic box. So I’ll say, “Try playing pentatonic on only two strings,” or other ideas. Since I’ve started, I’ve gotten some bizarre requests that make me wonder how people found me. Somebody might ask me to teach them Chet Atkins licks. I’m like, “I’m in Fu Manchu, how did you find out about me?” [Laughs.] But it’s cool—I’m stoked to do it.
Hill: I’ve always wanted to just stand by my amp and play. I just plug into a fuzz pedal and a Marshall and turn it up as loud as I can.