Guthrie Govan’s signature Charvel guitars feature over-baked necks and bodies, which Govan says improves their stability and acoustic resonance. Photo by Kris Claerhout
Guthrie Govan: Playing for Steven’s Songs
Steven says he’s not a fan of shred guitar, yet no one embodies state-of-the-art shredding more than you.
Guthrie Govan: I guess we have slightly different personalities. I’m a skinny, twitchy, coffee-drinking character, and the music I hear in my head sometimes has more notes than other people enjoy. I’m happy to try and do whatever works best for the song, really.
What’s it like for a renowned virtuoso like you to be working in a sideman capacity? I couldn’t do it all the time. If I were strictly a sideman, I’d be tearing up the furniture. But it’s nice to be part of Steven’s band because he has such a clear vision of what he wants the music to sound like, and he approaches everything with professionalism, so I know I’m involved with something that’s going to sound good.
You’re doing the European leg of the Steven Wilson tour, and then taking off to do an Aristocrats tour this summer. Who will fill in for the Wilson gig? We’ve got David Kilminster coming in. He’s done the Roger Waters show for the last eight years. This was partly my suggestion. He’s been a friend of mine for more than 20 years, and we’ve played together in all sorts of situations. I’m completely relaxed about handing the gig over to someone that both Steven and I can trust.
Filling in for Guthrie Govan would be daunting for many guitarists. Is there any situation that would intimidate you? No, because music isn’t a contest. I know there was a grandstanding, showboating aspect to ’80s rock. The guitar player was very much the gunslinger, and you had to have a bigger weapon than the other players, and all that kind of nonsense. That’s never really been a prime motivation for me. If somebody trusts me enough to invite me to play guitar on their project, I’d go in and do my best, and not worry about counterproductive stuff.
You’ve done a lot of clinics. Don’t you see that competitive attitude among the guitarists who attend? Some of them, but it used to be more that way. When I was just a guy sent there by a company to do a clinic, people would sit there with their arms folded and say, “Come on man, do your tricks. Do something I couldn’t do,” and then wait for me to screw up. But now I seem to have a higher profile, so the people at the clinics generally have more of an idea of where I’m coming from. They come to see me and check out what I have to say, and they have some idea that I’ll talk about things like “Why do we play music?” and “How do you improvise?” It’s pretty rare that I get anyone at a clinic challenging me to do an Olympic feat, and this pleases me.
A couple of years ago you told us that your first Charvel prototype was made from koa [Steve Wilson and Guthrie Govan Rig Rundown, March 2013]. But you then switched to basswood on the back and bird’s-eye maple on the top. The production guitar is basswood. I still have the koa prototype, which sounds great for certain things. To my ears, koa sounds as if you’d recorded a mahogany guitar and sped it up slightly. It has a honky, midrange-y bark that’s a little higher up in the frequency spectrum. It’s a great-sounding wood, but anytime I have to take one guitar and produce a number of different sounds, I trust the combination of basswood with a maple top more than anything else because it seems to bring out every frequency equally. It doesn’t favor any particular tonality, so you’ve got a neutral starting point that you can sculpt with pick dynamics, pedals, and amps, as the situation requires.
Do your guitars use baked woods? Yeah. The necks are baked on all my current Charvels. They resonate slightly differently, and the acoustic tone is a little more alive. It’s also extra stable, which is good news for anyone who’s on the road a lot. I took it to Indonesia, and I guess it’s immune to humid climates. Just to show you how obsessed with the whole baking thing we are, they also bake the basswood bodies on the production Charvels. They had to be a little more careful because it’s a softer, spongier wood than maple, but they found a way of doing it.
What other guitars did you use on Hand. Cannot. Erase.? I borrowed an American Deluxe Strat from Fender. It has noiseless pickups and sounded really good to my ears. You can use them with a more overdriven tone than you perhaps could with vintage-style Strat pickups. The buzz doesn’t kick in, because there isn’t any buzz. I used it on the long solo in “Regret #9.” I also used my Gibson ES-335 on “Ancestral.” I picked it up 10 years ago because I discovered that it was the same age as me. I thought that was cool, and I bonded with it at the shop.
What amps did you use?
For the sessions, I used a Victory V100 with a 4x12 cab with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. Victory is a relatively new U.K. company. The guy who designs their amps [Martin Kidd] previously designed amps for Cornford.
What about the Axe-Fx? If I’m at home at four in the morning and need to record a guest solo, it’s fantastic for that. But if I have the luxury of going to a proper studio and miking up a real cab, I just feel more comfortable that way. If you’re at AIR Studios [where Hand. Cannot. Erase. was recorded], you might as well bring a real amplifier. The Axe-Fx reproduces the sound of a recording of an amp, which is different from reproducing the amp itself. It’s great for what it does, but there are certain musical scenarios where I just feel more at home using an old-school solution.
How did Steven present the music to you? Steven gives us demos of such quality that normal people would just release them as a finished album.
How long did it take for you to prepare? It seems like a lot of music to learn without charts. I wasn’t really counting the hours. The way I normally handle it is to visit Steven’s music here and there, rather than trying to cram it too much. I don’t think there’s anything hugely complex or difficult on those albums. Basically, I need a rough outline of the big picture. I’ve been going to his house once per album cycle to listen to his demos, and he describes roughly what he has in mind for certain sections.
Do you interact differently with drummer Marco Minnemann in Steven Wilson’s project than when playing together in your band, the Aristocrats? It’s a completely different band and a completely different dynamic. To a much greater extent, what Marco and I do in Steven’s band is scripted. There’s less scope for naughtiness. With the Aristocrats we prepare a lot less for an album or a show, but communicate a lot more. Marco and I have a natural connection. We understand each other musically. With Steven’s band, we play to a click track live, and each of us is a smaller part of a bigger band. So we inevitably interact in a different way.
What about effects? I made a big pedalboard especially for the Steven tour. Normally I travel very light. I don’t use a wah for any of the Steven stuff. There’s the Suhr Koko Boost, and there’s at least one track with the Strymon Flint for a tremolo sound. I’m probably using some reverb from the Strymon as well. My Steven pedalboard weighs more than I do, but that’s not much of an achievement, given my meager frame. It’s more than I can justify shipping around the world for any other kind of tour. If I’m living in a bus, the pedalboard can go in a trailer behind the bus. If there’s a burly man available to lift it from A to B, I might as well have some fun.
What about the Providence Anadime Chorus that you use with the Aristocrats? Chorus pedals are officially banned. Steven hates them, so fair enough—that’s part of his musical vision. He does have this concept of a guitar sound that he calls “wibble,” which means anything that’s modulating somehow but isn’t a chorus. We also had a real Leslie in the studio. There was one solo on “Three Years Older” where we plugged into an Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth. I was playing the notes, and Steven was furiously moving the sliders.
Did you encounter any tracking glitches? As long as you’re being monophonic, it understands. There’s no MIDI going on—it’s not like it needs a hex pickup. It just analyzes the audio you feed into it and mutilates it in a pleasing way.
Are you using the Victory amp’s overdrive? Yeah. The only thing you’ll hear is the Koko Boost pushing a little extra mids into the amp for some of the solo stuff. I’ve always been more of an amp guy than an overdrive pedal guy.
This live rendition of “The Holy Drinker” from Frankfurt, Germany, starts off with harmonically intriguing prog-fusion solos before vocals enter around 2:39.