In addition to his Les Paul Customs, Di Meola has been touring with a vintage sunburst Les Paul Standard,
a loaner from Gibson.
Were you playing your ’71 Les Paul Custom on tour?
I wanted to, but the damn thing’s so heavy. It’s one of the heaviest models they ever made. I’ve been playing my ’59 Custom, which is much lighter. And that’s the sweet one, the ’59. The ’71 is the aggressive monster. It’s got DiMarzios, and it’s super-loud. I used both on the new record. On tour, I also use a ’61 Les Paul Deluxe and a custom-made Paul Reed Smith—not my signature model, but one that resembles my black Les Paul. Paul was concerned about me switching over to Gibson, so he said, “I’ve gotta make you a guitar that looks like a Les Paul.” But Gibson loaned me a vintage Les Paul sunburst—I’m not sure which year—so I played that too. Oh, and a friend loaned me the ’65 Deluxe that I’d sold him, the one I played on Casino and Romantic Warrior. That got some use on the West Coast part of the tour.
You’ve said Elysium began as an acoustic album, but you added electrics after you got a new pedalboard. How did that inspire you? I got the board from Sean Haines, who used to be a guitar tech of mine. He was talking about it on Facebook, and I got intrigued. I never liked boards—I like going straight into an amp—but I can be open-minded, so I asked him to show it to me. He came over with a Les Paul, a Bogner amp, and the board. He hooked the whole thing up, and it sounded incredible—really, really beautiful. It made me think that my new music would work with these sounds.
The board has all kinds of different delays and reverbs. There’s one sound that’s sweet and swirly, like a pedal-steel guitar. It’s got boosts and different things. I’m so unfamiliar with this stuff. I just know it’s great.
Why is there no bass on the album?
Because it was supposed to be an acoustic record. The way I orchestrate the low end of the percussion takes care of that. You don’t miss it, either. I never sat and listened to the tracks and said, “Man, where’s the bass?” Actually, I tried putting bass on some things, but I had so much counterpoint going on, and the bass would’ve made it a mess. It really wasn’t necessary.
What acoustics did you play on the record?
Primarily a [nylon-string] Conde Hermanos. There’s a 12-string on the title track, and I used my [Conde Hermanos] signature model with a cutaway on the others. I have an RMC pickup on that, so sometimes you hear a bit of a bass sound. I even used a Conde Hermanos that I bought dirt-cheap in a shop in Munich. They almost gave it away. The thing could go for $40,000, and I got it for three grand.
Talk to me about writing the song “Adour.” How did you fashion the melody to work with the main riff?
The arpeggiated middle line—I call it that because it’s the most important part—came first. I can’t imagine somebody writing a melody and then applying that kind of arpeggiated counterpoint after the fact—very hard to do! I compose some harmonic structure, and that gives me license to do any kind of melody I want. But you need an interesting underpinning first. That melody was a dream to play electrically, although it was composed acoustically.
You recorded “Monsters” at 4:30 in the morning. How does it sound so fresh and energetic?
It’s just the way it came out. [Laughs.] We were in the studio, and I wanted to get it done. Yeah, I wrote that during a crisis, a really dark period. But again, I was doing this stuff as therapy—it was a cathartic experience. If it sounds exuberant, that’s good.
The song “Babylon” is bursting with ideas. It shifts in tone quite a bit. Was it conceived as one piece, or were different sections pieced together?
It was all one piece, but it was done a couple of years before writing this record. There are a couple of things that I didn’t get a chance to record because the album would have been too long. I have three or four songs ready for the next record—and there will be bass on it! [Laughs.] I’ve conceived it to be electric, whereas on this one, I put the electric on as a last-minute thing.
Get an up-close look at “Adour” in its initial stages as Al Di Meola plays with cellist Tina Guo and keyboardist Mario Parmisano.
You head back out on tour soon to play Elysium unplugged. Which acoustic will you use?
That’ll be my Conde Hermanos signature model, the cutaway. I put it into a Roland VG-88 [V-Guitar System], and that goes into a small AER acoustic amp. I’ll do another electric tour in October, but I don’t know which guitar I’ll use, though it’ll be a Les Paul. I’ll have that pedalboard with me—that much I know.
Is there anything you can’t do on the guitar but wish you could?
That’s interesting. What I try to do is practice a lot of the passages of my music—they’re still difficult at times. It’s not just practicing the music—they’re exercises, too. It’s always a challenge. I’m still trying to get it right, to play cleaner and faster. Not that I want to play faster, but I’ll increase the tempos if need be. That’s where technique becomes important: If you can hear it, you should be able to play it. The emotion and the ability should work together.
The players who inspire me are the ones who have the best articulate technique. They don’t have to be guitar players—they can also be pianists, people like Chick [Corea] or some other guys. They’ve got that articulate technique that I strive for. That’s the school I come from.
When you put out your Beatles tribute album, did you encounter any fans who didn’t know the Beatles’ music? As hard as that is to imagine …
There was a lot of that. Not so much in my age group, but younger fans. I remember reading some things where people said they preferred my versions of Beatles songs over the originals, because they weren’t familiar with the Beatles before me. They meant it as a compliment, but I was like, “Are you kidding me? C’mon, that’s a joke, right?”I mean, you can’t top the Beatles–don’t even try. And I wasn’t trying to. That was the smartest thing I did: take the songs and do my own interpretations. I didn’t try to imitate. Others have done that, and it’s just the wrong idea. Most of the records where they imitate are god-awful. [Laughs.] I’m happy I did that record. It was a really rewarding experience.