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Many noteworthy feature guitarists are known for their ability to solo endlessly throughout an album, flooring you with their chops and musicality. They know what you want to hear and give it to you in the styles and even the keys you’ve come to expect. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
With his latest CD, Devoceon, Levi Chen again demonstrates that the guitar as a feature instrument can be so much more. This eighth release finds the well-traveled musician painting ethereal and melodic landscapes with a palette of influences and instruments that are as original as his ‘solo dueting’ technique that involves playing his Strat and a Chinese Gu Zheng harp at the same time. Implicit among fans of Chen’s work is the idea that music has the ability to take you somewhere. Naturally, some of us enjoy going to new places and experiencing new things more than others.
I recently had a chance to pick Chen’s brain about his style, the new CD and the gear he uses.
Hi Levi, thanks for chatting with me. I know artists hate being categorized and having their work boiled down to simple descriptions but sometimes an accessible summary is what prompts an unfamiliar listener to give something a spin. How would you describe your music and, specifically, your newest CD, Devocean?
Well, I like to think of the music I play as "good!"
In general I refer to the sound and style as “liquid gardens.” I feel that describes it perfectly! Or there’s always, "Hendrix meets Eno in China!"
I would describe Devocean as “guitar for music fans,” as opposed to music for guitar fans only. Good guitar for people who love good music. My intention was to make a “pop instrumental guitar” album. There are many styles and instrumentations, many with wonderful orchestral arrangements by Clifford Tasner, and I tried to make each appreciable in it’s own right, as well as an album.
Unlike many instrumental CDs by talented guitarists, Devocean is an inspired sonic work of art… not a guitar virtuoso shred fest. As the product of a personal negotiation with a profound event, your father’s death, it explores emotions via your playing rather than simply showcasing your chops. Talk about the process of accessing musical creativity while confronting such a life-changing event.
For me, creativity is something that is always present. It is only a matter of tuning in or out of it. Sometimes it has to be shut off – it can get overwhelming. I have more concept albums and projects conceived than I will ever be able to produce. If I play guitar too much or write too much, I get confused, or just flat out bury great ideas under new ones.
On the other hand, I believe you only have to be open to it to access it. Stop for a second and take a breath, listen to your ears, or look with your eyes and receive it – acknowledge creation.
I played guitar for my father every day for three weeks on his deathbed. I composed “Memory” one afternoon while playing for him. Simply playing an E minor chord slowly over and over... until I heard the next chord, and the next. The simple melody came slowly out of the voice leadings. Actually, this is the same approach I’ve had for years now in regards to soloing or improvising – no matter how fast or slow it seems I am playing, I’m actually just waiting for the next note to present itself. My job as a musician is to articulate the music as it appears; as a composer it is to recognize and acknowledge the music, and make decisions about highlighting or elaborating certain elements, eliminating others, helping it to reach its ideal expression (or one of them).
I never had the interest or patience to actively pursue incredible chops or technique for its own sake. All technique comes from a need to articulate musically. So as I evolved as a guitarist/musician, I only acquired a new technique when it became necessary to express something. I only want to communicate what I feel. I love how Van Halen makes me laugh at the sheer exuberance and playfulness of his solos; I love Tuck Andress’ musicality or DiMeola’s incredible technical passion. But that is what they feel, not me. So I only adapt what I need to express my emotions, learning a lick when I relate to how it makes me feel.
Most of my technique, on guitar and on the Gu Zheng, (simultaneously or not), is based on sheer willpower and intention -- I know what I want to do, and I do it.
Let’s talk gear. Tell us about your overall approach to getting the tones in your head out of your studio monitors or FOH speakers at a performance. Also, specifically, do you have particular gear/rigs you go to often for signature sounds?
As far as my sound goes, it is quite simple: a Stratocaster, echo and a tube amp (plus stereo chorus and another tube amp if possible). I only need one good amp sound and an overdrive-type pedal to get my basic gain structure. I play in the neck position 90% of the time – it has that full-bodied, throaty sound, and the single coil gives it maximum focus and clarity. For certain passages or parts – like harmonics, for example – I will use the middle pickup or both. I normally only use the bridge pickup with maximum gain during leads or crescendos.
The most integral part of my style/technique is the constant manipulation of the volume knob and the delay pedal. Unlike how Santana, Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck are constantly adjusting their volume to affect the tone and overdrive of the amp, I play with the guitar volume at 10 most of the time. But I manipulate the attack of nearly half the notes I play. This, combined with the delay, creates the swells and bowed tones from my guitar. But it also serves to subtly mask the ping pong-ing effect of the amount of delay I use. The volume knob provides truly infinite possibilities of expression both ways, as there is always a different attack on each note. Combined with the delay and vibrato/bends, the possibilities for nuance (and random magic) are endless.