“I am a renaissance person,” the legendary guitarist declares. “I have a left brain and a right brain. If you listen to music outside of punk rock, you become more original.” Photo by Pixie Vision Photography
How about pedals? I assume with all the people jumping onstage that something would get disconnected or broken. Did you have pedals you kept on your amp in the back?
Yeah. If you look there is an Echoplex tape echo and it’s usually sitting on top of the amp. It had a foot pedal—just an on/off switch—which would be out onstage where I would be. As I remember, I found this foot pedal that was die-cast iron. It was very heavy, but it was easy to pull out of the way. Actually, sometimes somebody landed on it and broke it, but not very often. It was too small. Nowadays I only use two pedals: one is the Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler and the other one is the Boss CS-1 Compressor. I have it set so that it’s more volume boost than compression. I turn the output volume all the way up and then just turn up the compression so it’s a little louder than the straight guitar. That’s it, just two effects! It’s all in the hands man. [Laughs.]
Do you use the DL4 to emulate the Echoplex?
Yes. I use the analog-with-modulation setting. You can put a little of the wow and flutter in to give it a wetter sound. On the Echoplex, the tape has what is called wow and flutter. It’s a slow speed variation that gives it that really wet sound that digital things originally didn’t capture. The echo coming back off the tape is a different sound than the direct sound. It’s deliberate distortion—not trying to make an exact copy of the first note, but make it a different EQ, different frequencies, and a different pitch with a little bit of the wow. That’s what gives the Echoplex its wonderful analog wet sound that digital is clueless about.
Did you get your distortion from cranking your amp and controlling it with your volume knob?
It’s basically amp distortion. Our first singles, like “Holiday in Cambodia” and “California Über Alles,” and Fresh Fruit were recorded on a Fender Super Reverb. Originally I had those LPB-1 Power Boosters in front of the amp. But I’m also a science geek, so I got schematics for Marshalls and Boogie amps and rewired my Fender Super Reverb to have an extra tube channel in it so it would be like a master volume Marshall.
Yes, really. I’m a renaissance person. I have a left brain and a right brain [laughs]. I know a lot about why a Marshall sounds good and why a Fender overdrive doesn’t. And why Mesa is too much overdrive for me: You don’t get that clean surf or spaghetti-western arpeggio sound that I like.
One of the tricks is to put the echo unit before the amp. Recording engineers don’t like that. When I have the guitar’s volume down, it hits the echo and then it hits the amp. The echoes clean up as they go through the amp, because they’re at less volume. Recording engineers or some guitarists stick it in the loop in the back of the amp. They make the sound, process it, and then they add the echo—but that’s more like a post-EQ effect. I do it pre-EQ. Even when I’m maxed out—like with the compressor on, the amp up, and the guitar all the way up—if there is a piece of silence, if you listen to the echo, it cleans up. The last ones will be the clean guitar. It’s a less technical way to do it, but it’s a more musical way. It’s bad engineering, but more musical.
Why is it bad engineering?
For somebody who’s trained in engineering, “Each echo is different!” But from an artistic side, “Yeah. That’s what makes it more interesting—because they’re different.” Somebody trained in old-school engineering would not like to hear a distorted echo. You make the distorted sound and then you echo it, which is what would happen more in a natural world. For example, if you’re in a room that has a lot of echo and you hit a distorted guitar, that one distorted signal is what is echoed. In a room, the walls absorb some of that high end and each time it hits the wall it will absorb more. They change over time and the high end slowly gets cut on each echo. But what I’m doing is as it hits the amp, it has less distortion, too.
And, since you’re using your effects in an unorthodox way, you’re able to create a lot of different sounds.
Right. One thing I noticed—and this is my personal opinion—I have a lot of guitar player friends and have seen a lot of bands, but they have like 10 pedals down there on the pedalboard. In a live situation, I really can’t tell the difference that much. Now, in the studio, I’ll use many more pedals, because you can pick up the subtle nuances, but in a live situation the difference between a phaser and a flanger, for example, is very minimal. There is so much added by the room that the real subtle nuances can’t be picked up. But that’s just my opinion. I use a lot less batteries.
I saw a video of the original 1981 In God We Trust, Inc. sessions with the whole band playing together live. Was that typical of how you recorded?
No, it wasn’t. Generally, the drums would be in the big room, the bass and guitar amps would either be baffled off with gobos or in separate rooms—but the musicians would be in one room. The singer sang along so we would know where the dynamics and changes were. But the actual vocals you hear on the record were done later with him just listening in the headphones. You know, every musician is funny, like, “We’re going to record live in the studio”—and it never works.
Did you generally record multiple guitar parts?
There would be the original scratch guitar, which would probably not have a good sound. A lot of times I would double the guitar. The reason is that when you are in a club or a big hall, there are big amps or big drums and it’s filling things. But you need to sound good on a car radio or a small boom-box type system. We found that the doubled guitars kind of duplicated the power of a live performance coming through a small speaker.
Did you pan them left and right?
Generally, they’d be panned left and right if they were identical. If they were different we’d pan them more together, so that your ear wouldn’t get confused by the difference.