Premier Guitar

Interview: Aleks Sever

September 6, 2012

“Some women can walk in with a lot of cleavage showing, and suddenly they’re Jimi Hendrix.” No, Aleks Sever doesn’t mince words. “There are a lot of female players working who wouldn’t be if they were men. There is so much more competition for a man—they really have to be great to even get any attention at all.”

A devil’s advocate or a scorned, lesser-abled 6-string sister might point to the cover of Sever’s new release, Danger Girl—on which she’s shown in a seductive pose, decked-out in a Bond girl-like outfit—and accuse her of talking the talk but not walking the walk. The reality, however, is that although Sever is not afraid to flaunt her good looks, she would have been chewed up and spit out by the star-making machine by this point if all she had to rely on was that.

“If you get to a certain level, it all comes down to the music, and no one—male or female—is going to get hired unless they can play,” she says. And play, she can. Any of her blistering solos on Danger Girl could tear the head off countless run-of-the-mill, Dumble-clone-sporting Robben Ford-wannabes—man, woman, or child.

Sever, who is of Croatian descent, grew up in Aalen, Germany, and first explored her creative side through art. She entered her oil paintings in competitions at the age of 7, and at 12 picked up an acoustic guitar for the first time. Two years later, inspired by blues players like Stevie Ray Vaughan, she switched to electric. And although her paintings had begun to win her accolades in competitions throughout Europe in her teens, the musical itch eventually won out and she packed her bags and headed to L.A. to pursue her dreams. “Being an artist can be very isolating because you spend a lot of time alone, and it is very easy for me to do that,” Sever confides. “Music always gives me a way out and makes me connect with the world. That’s when I’m the happiest.”

Soon upon arriving stateside, she landed gigs at prestigious venues like the Baked Potato and quickly made big waves, getting acclaim from industry giants like Dave Koz and Lee Ritenour, who says of Sever’s playing, “Your mouth will probably drop open like mine did.”

Sever’s latest release—her first all-instrumental album—was produced by multiplatinum producer Matthew Hager [Simply Red, Mindi Abair] and may very well catapult her to guitar-hero status. We caught up with Sever to talk about the making of the album, the gear she uses to get her blistering tones, and how she immigrated to the states and broke into the hardcore L.A. music scene.

Although you’ve received critical acclaim for your guitar work over the past decade, Danger Girl is your first all-instrumental release. Why did you wait so long to put it out?
This is my first guitar instrumental record and it definitely feels like a breakthrough. I released two vocal records before this, but it took me a while to realize that a guitar record in a funk/rock style could be very strong, even without vocals. And it feels as if I found something I was always looking for. I’m a much better guitar player than singer, and it made it so much easier to only focus on my strengths. Danger Girl started out as a vocal record, but I realized having the guitar featured throughout would be exciting.

Danger Girl showcases many sides of your musical personality. Who are some of your influences?
I don’t really think about my influences, but I’m sure I’ve been influenced by every player I’ve listened to, if I liked their playing. I wanted to combine a lot of different styles on this record—from rock to blues and jazz—but always with a funk/soul undertone. James Brown and Prince were big influences on this record. My early influences were Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and B.B. King. I was so impressed with their sound and feel that, after hearing their music, I became obsessed with playing electric guitar. Oh, and definitely Bonnie Raitt—I just love how soulful she is.

Your playing goes beyond the vocabulary of some of those influences, though. For instance, “City Rain” and “Nightclub Art” have moments of burning jazz/fusion lines. Where do those influences come from?
The jazz/fusion influence really came from listening to Maceo Parker, with his kind of bebop melodic lines, and other horn players like David Sanborn and Ernie Watts. I love the way horn players phrase, and it’s always a great challenge for me as a guitar player to try to play with that kind of phrasing. At the moment, I’m working on some new music very much inspired by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I love how free they are with intervals and keys—they’re not locked in box licks like guitar players sometimes are. I try to stretch myself past the clichés. Guitar players who influenced me a lot in this direction were Buzz Feiten, Jeff Beck, and Lee Ritenour—they make me reach further and be more experimental. I also love Larry Carlton and Robben Ford, because they play with so much passion and commitment. When I first had the idea for this record, I decided I wanted to have a model for each song, kind of a road map to know where we were going. “City Rain,” for instance, was inspired by “I Got the Feelin’” by James Brown. The other song you mentioned, “Nightclub Art,” was inspired by the Usher song “Yeah.”

Aleks Sever in the studio with her black Fender American Standard Tele. It’s outfitted with a DiMarzio Area Hot T bridge pickup and an Area T neck pickup, and she prefers the guitar when she’s going for more traditional Tele rhythm or lead sounds.

Tell us more about your approach to phrasing and soloing.
My approach to phrasing is really simple, even if the music is complicated.

I try to tell a story when I solo. There has to be a beginning, middle, and end to a solo, with a climax somewhere towards the end. Solos need to develop. It’s like a movie or story. There’s the opening line, which is an invitation to the listener—it’s like you try to get their attention by a strong first statement—and then you follow up with a series of phrases that get more and more intense and complex. I try to gradually add more notes and rhythms to add tension as the story progresses. The solo has to have a “boom” or high point where I’m playing without thinking—that’s the best part, usually. I always look for the unexpected in myself. That’s when your natural instincts take over, and the audience can feel what you’re feeling with no words to get in the way.

How do you decide what sort of vibe to go for with each song?
The song will tell me which approach to take. I analyze the goal of a particular song before I start playing and decide in advance the kind of style I’m looking for, depending on the mix of tempos and moods I’d like to see on the record. On “Joker,” I took a tighter, more planned approach with a lot of jazz-type chromatic lines and almost bebop phrasing. I tried to make the melody almost like a horn line in a Maceo Parker style, and it fit the song. In “Wild Love,” it was the opposite—more street and grittier. I felt like taking a more bluesy approach to that song, with more extreme bends and fast blues licks. On “Backstage,” I tried a jazz/fusion approach. Sometimes during the writing process you’ll explore a lot of different possibilities, and one will stick out for that song. That’s the way I like to write. I like to leave myself open to every possibility and not edit myself too fast. That way, I don’t miss something by locking it down too early.

It sounds like you have a lot of chops, but you’re playing with a great deal of restraint on this album.
I wanted to make a groove-oriented record, not an intellectual one. The goal was to make a record that would appeal to a lot of listeners, not just guitar players—to have these songs that were totally different styles than what you sometimes hear from guitarists.

Sever cutting a lead in the studio with a DigiTech RP500 and her sunburst Fender Tele, which has a DiMarzio Air Classic humbucker and a series/parallel switch for both rocking and twangy tones.

Let’s talk about your gear. What’s your main guitar?
I have two main guitars. Both are Fender American Standard Teles—one is sunburst and one is black—and both have rosewood fretboards. I love the feel of rosewood. It doesn’t feel sticky and the frets feel higher, which I really like. The sunburst is a little lighter, so I tend to use that one more.

Is the sunburst Tele stock?
It has a DiMarzio Air Classic humbucker in the bridge position instead of a standard Tele pickup. The other mod on the sunburst guitar is a series/parallel switch for the bridge pickup. I can get very close to a classic Tele sound from the pickup in parallel, which I use a lot for rhythm—it’s more transparent and snappy. In series, the pickup sounds like a super Tele—it’s got the output of a humbucker, with a more rock-type sound, but it still has that snap to it. I used that guitar for the solos on the record, and I’m really happy with the tone. Because I don’t have to switch guitars, it’s also great for live use.

So what do you prefer the black one for?
When I really need that classic Tele sound for rhythm or solos, I use the black one. It has a DiMarzio DP421 [Area Hot T] in the bridge, which I love because it’s hum cancelling, so it’s not noisy when I have a lot of gain.

What’s your main amp?
My main amp is a Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue. No mods, just stock out of the box. I love it—it really sounds like the old ones! Besides the Deluxe, I also have a small Fender Champion 600 that I love.

Is the Champion 600 more of a recording amp?
Yes, I use that for a lot of my recordings. I like small amps for recording, because they don’t interfere with the bass frequencies like the bigger amps do sometimes. Since I use a multi-effects pedalboard with overdrive, I don’t need the channel switching and all that stuff, just a great basic Fender tone.

Which multi-effects unit are you using?
My main multi-effects pedalboard is actually the most important part of my sound! It’s a DigiTech RP500. It’s amazing! It has a great compressor, overdrive, delay, reverb, and pitch change. It sounds great if you turn off all the effects and just use the overdrive or the compressor for the clean sounds. I try to get the natural sound of the guitar before I add effects. I don’t use a lot of EQ. Sometimes I use additional pedals—like the HardWire CM-2 Tube Overdrive—when I want really over-the-top distortion, and the Rolls RFX Twin Spin chorus, which gives me some really great Leslie-type effects. I didn’t use that effect much on the record, but I use it a lot live.

Sever rips a lead up high on her more trad-sounding Fender Tele.

Gear snobs might get squeamish at the thought of being seen with a multi-effects unit, but you dispel many myths about gear by getting some amazing tones on Danger Girl.
I spent a lot of time experimenting with different amps, pedals, and guitars in the past to find a combination that gives me something back when I play. It’s like the guitar reacts to the amp in a way that’s hard to explain. But I think the multi-effects units have gotten so good that I don’t really miss a boutique amp. I can take my sound with me wherever I go. I don’t need to have a particular amp to get the solo sound I need. To get my sound, I use two basic settings—for rhythm, I use the setting called Clean 1, and for overdrive stuff, I use a setting called Tube Drive, adjusting the amount of gain differently for crunchy or solo sounds.

Aleks Sever's Gear

Fender American Standard Tele with DiMarzio Air Classic bridge humbucker and DiMarzio Area T neck pickup, Fender American Standard Tele with DiMarzio Area Hot T bridge pickup and Area T neck pickup

Fender ’65 Deluxe Reverb reissue, Fender Champion 600

DigiTech RP500, HardWire CM-2 Tube Overdrive, Rolls RFX Twin Spin

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
D’Addario XL120 (.009–.042) sets, Dunlop 1 mm Nylon picks, Planet Waves cables and straps

What was it like coming to America and breaking into the scene—was it welcoming or cutthroat?
I had this plan that I wanted to be a guitar player and could take over the world, and I didn’t really realize that there is more to it than just wanting it. L.A. is a bigger city with more opportunities, but the competition is also so much worse, and it is sometimes not that easy to get going. The people here were very welcoming, but my path seemed a little bit confusing for a while. First, I got work as an artist—as an oil painter. It wasn’t something I was expecting, but I took this path for a while to make a living. At the same time, I always stayed serious and focused about playing the guitar and getting better. I would record a lot of music and play a lot with different bands. I was also very lucky when I came here, because right away I met a lot of great musicians who were very supportive of my music. I learned so much from them—just being around them raised my standards and made me be a better musician.

What advice would you give someone who wants to break into the scene like you did?
It’s really important to be where the musicians hang out and play. Sometimes music stores can be a good hangout, but there’s always at least one club in every town that’s the musician’s club. In L.A. it’s the Baked Potato or the Pig ’N Whistle in Hollywood. All the players who are working like to go out and jam at night, so you end up meeting a lot of people that way. The last piece of advice I would give is to try to find your style—it’s important to find one style that you really love, and try to master it.