Boston's Tom Scholz: The Return of Rockman
Tom Scholz attributes the 11-year wait for Boston’s latest album, Life, Love & Hope, to his penchant for perfectionism and tinkering in the studio. “I’m surprised I got it done at all,” he jokes. He’s pictured here with his trademark ’68 stripped goldtop Les Paul equipped with some kind of Rockman invention.
Prior to the late 1970s, guitar practice gear tended to produce small and inferior sounds. But then, the MIT graduate and Polaroid engineer Tom Scholz pioneered the Rockman—a pocket-sized headphone amp producing such robust analog effects as compression, distortion, cabinet simulation, chorus, and reverb. This development of course helped pave the way for digital plug-in-and-play hardware, software, and even free apps that today make it possible for a guitarist to instantly harness any sound imaginable—technology that, ironically, Scholz isn’t particularly that fond of. “Don’t get me started on the many shortcomings of digital sound,” he says.
Scholz is perhaps best known as the pioneering member of the arena rock band Boston. The group’s roots date back to the mid-’70s, when Scholz spent a fortune assembling a recording studio in the basement of his Watertown, Massachusetts, apartment, holing up there when he wasn’t working at Polaroid. With the assistance of vocalist Brad Delp, Scholz painstakingly assembled the demos that in 1975 would land him a contract with Epic. These tapes would form the basis of the band’s eponymous 1976 album, featuring Delp and Scholz along with guitarist Barry Goudreau, bassist Fran Sheehan, and drummer John “Sib” Hashian. It was one of the best-selling debuts in history, selling more than 17 million copies.
With such massive-sounding songs as “More Than a Feeling,” “Peace of Mind,” and “Foreplay/Longtime,” Scholz built a template that would make Boston a staple of classic rock radio stations. He also arrived at a signature guitar style balancing searing harmonized lead lines with more introspective arpeggio work. But because of his tendency to record many variations of even the smallest details in a song, tirelessly experimenting until he found a magical combination of sounds, it was two years before Boston released its sophomore album, Don’t Look Back (1978), and eight years between the subsequent albums Third Stage (1986), Walk On (1994), and Corporate America (2002).
Boston fans who’ve waited more than a decade for the group’s latest release, Life, Love & Hope, will not be disappointed by the album’s nostalgic sound, courtesy of Scholz’s vintage gear, much of which has been in service since the debut album; by the posthumous presence of Brad Delp, who died in 2007; and by a handful of departures from the Boston template, such as female singers and flamenco-inspired acoustic work. “I don’t think you can repeat the same thing over and over again and still consider it art,” says Scholz. “You’ve got to step out and take some risks.”
The new record seems to reference vintage Boston. Was this intentional?
Not exactly. I wasn’t trying to recreate the good old days of early Boston releases, but I guess there’s a bit of a throwback to the original recordings. Some artists cringe at their earliest efforts, but I’m not like that. I’m still very proud of the first Boston album, and I absolutely love “More Than a Feeling,” so I’m always thrilled when my new work reminds me and others of previous things.
How would you say you’ve evolved as a musician since those days, both as a guitarist and composer?
I’m not sure whether I’ve evolved or devolved! [Laughs.] But what I’m doing now is probably different than what I was doing 30 years ago. I might not have made the most noticeable leaps and bounds as a musician, but I’ve tried an awful lot of different things and had an enormous amount of experiences as a human being, and these things have definitely manifested themselves in my music.
For instance, the song “Sail Away” is a reaction to the horror of how badly humans reacted following Hurricane Katrina—how horribly people were treated because of economic and racial reasons. It was a travesty, a sad and terrible commentary on human nature and on those who control our society. I was deeply affected, and it ended up being the subject matter for that song. Things both bad and good generally end up being the impetus for me to write or not write something.
Scholz calls his Gibson EB-0 a “chopped-up monster” because he’s made so many modifications to it. For example, he replaced the original pickup with a Fender Jazz bass pickup that he moved to various positions,
experimenting with the sound.
Talk about how a good thing has inspired you.
“Last Day of School” has no words, but is obviously the most lighthearted, happy little tune. The last day of school was always such a good time for me, free from any type of anguish, and I started revisiting that feeling and fooling around with it until it grew into a short piece of music. When people first heard it, they thought I was playing Schubert, but I had to set them straight: “No, I’m playing Scholz!”
Which was the most difficult song on the record for you to assemble?
Pretty much all of them. In the studio, no song worked out as I originally thought it would. Every single song always required another way. Some had an incredible number of variations and versions. For example, on “Sail Away,” I rewrote the chord changes over and over, making a gazillion different versions of the song in the process—not just the usual, where I did 15 different guitar parts with different voicings, but many major overhauls with completely different chord changes, vocals, and arrangements.
As soon as I start writing and recording a song, I have more ideas and different instruments in mind. It’s like a gigantic puzzle, exponentially more complicated with each instrument and vocal track. If I add a minor chord to a section, for instance, then everything from the vocals to the instrumentation to the arrangement has to change, as it’s an entirely different sound. You can see why it took more than 10 years to make this record. I’m surprised I got it done at all! [Laughs.]
You’re known to work painstakingly on your music. What is this like for you?
Touring and recording are definitely full-time jobs for me, well over 40 hours per week. I don’t get to take two or three weeks off each year. I haven’t had a real vacation since before I started working on the album, which by the way I’d really like to do. I wouldn’t have been able to take a vacation when making the record; I would have spent the whole time thinking about the songs I was working on. So making an album is very costly in personal time. I often ask myself if it’s a good idea to be doing this work that takes me away from many other things I’d like to do and people I’d like to spend time with. I tend to work alone—I’m the producer, engineer, assistant, technician, arranger/writer, and bunch of musicians all in one—it all falls on my lap. It can be high-pressure, difficult, frustrating, even exhausting. On the plus side, there are moments when it’s absolutely exhilarating. These are the moments I live for.
Talk about the guitars, both electric and acoustic, you used on the album.
As usual, it was very limited. I’ve got my trusty old Guild D-25 that I’ve had for a very long time, a great guitar that’s been damaged several times—twice by falling mic stands—and repaired. I’ve also got a Guild 12-string, a G212. It’s got the same body size [dreadnought] as my 6-string Guild, and I’ve used it for all my 12-string work since “Amanda.”
For bass, I’ve got an old [Gibson] EB-0 that’s kind of a chopped-up monster. I took out the nasty original pickup and replaced it with a Fender Jazz pickup that I’ve moved around in various positions, experimenting with the sound. As a result, the body has been carved up again and again, and there’s very little of it left! [Laughs.]
That's a fairly minimal stable of axes.
Yes. I don’t have a big guitar collection, basically just what I need. Once or twice in my career I’ve treated myself to a really nice guitar. I bought a Gibson ES-335 years ago, and a 12-string Rickenbacker electric, but found that I didn’t actually use either one. I certainly understand collecting guitars that are A) beautiful and B) functional, but I don’t at all like having guitars sitting around if I’m not using them.
Gibson honored Tom Scholz this past year with the Collector’s Choice #10 Tom Scholz 1968 Les Paul. Prior to the recording of the first Boston album, Scholz stripped the gold finish from the original vintage goldtop this replica is modeled after, revealing the underlying natural maple. Scholz added a DiMarzio Super Distortion humbucking pickup in the bridge, while retaining the guitar’s original P-90 in the neck. He also replaced the original Klusons with the Schaller M6 tuners
that were popular at the time.
There are such killer overdriven sounds and lush effects throughout the record—did you use the Rockman?
The Rockman has always been my go-to unit. I try to do everything analog as much as possible, not only overdrive but also analog effects like echo and chorus. It’s impossible to duplicate these sounds with digital technology. Going from analog to digital or vice versa, phase error angle gets introduced, and it isn’t pretty.
My favorite is my Space Echo pedal—not a device I ever offered for sale or patented because it’s so very hard to build that I’ve only ever been able to make two. Using the pedal is like trying to get a finicky old racing car up to peak performance. I’ve used it to make crazy sounds, like on “Foreplay” going into “Long Time” and for those giant-sounding pick slides throughout my career including moments on the new record.
What do you use for amps, picks, and strings?
I recorded with an old Marshall head that I’ve affectionately dubbed “Mars,” as the “hall” fell off the logo a long time ago. It’s same amp I’ve played for more than 30 years. I’ve always used standard Fender medium picks for guitar. For bass I play about half the time with my fingers and the other half I used a Fender heavy pick. I also use regular Fender electric guitar strings, though a pretty unconventional setup, very thin on top, .08 on the 1st string, and heavier on the bottom, .044 on the 6th.
While Tom Scholz always composes parts that best serve the song, this 2012 performance offers proof that he’s also a wild, virtuosic improviser.
Did you have to adjust your technique to use such light treble strings?
It requires me to be very cognizant of the pressure I use for vibrato and for bending, and to have a light touch for chord work. The reason I prefer light strings is that I like to tune my guitar slightly flatter than concert tuning because it’s easy to bend the strings to come up into a note but pretty much impossible to do the opposite. I find that by controlling the pressure I put on the neck and strings, sometimes by pulling on the neck to raise the pitch, it’s easier to fit in with the overall tuning of the band. So I usually tune about 10 cents flat live, and you can hear some very subtle differences in pitch when I’m playing in unison with Gary [Pihl]. Also, I sometimes use a device called a gang tuner that allows me to retune all of the strings at the same time, a half step in either direction.
To what degree did improvisation factor into the new guitar solos?
Everything I do is improvised. I have absolutely no idea in the studio what I’m going to play for any given lead. When I did the first Boston album, I had all the material in demo form, and when making the official album I had to try to go back and play everything exactly like on the demos. I found that to be agonizing. I was never sure if I was playing something exactly the same. What I like most is to have an idea for a basic melody, but not to have to worry note-for-note what I’ll play for some fast part. I like to do whatever fills or licks my mood dictates in the moment. I’m lucky to have been able to do just that for 30-odd years.