Punk rock and classic technique mix in Egerton’s playing. He says studying classical guitar gave him “the ability to control all of the variables across the fretboard.” Photo by Tim Bugbee: Tinnitus Photography

The influence of fusion guitarists isn’t necessarily obvious in your work with the Descendents. Describe how Jeff Beck and other players have influenced you.
In the case of Jeff Beck, there’s the guitar-hero guy who isn’t really a shredder, but a lyrical guitarist—someone who can play a melody you can really glom onto as a listener. Same with John McLaughlin, although he can certainly go nuts, speed-wise. What’s funny with the Mahavishnu Orchestra is that Bill Stevenson loves them, as does Karl Alvarez. We grew up together and listened to the same records. Greg Ginn in Black Flag is also super into the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

There’s just something I hear in the music—ways of circumventing just playing typical blues guitar or being strictly a scale person. I don’t approach the guitar that way. I tend to come up with triad chords I really like, then find a melody and try to come up with something interesting to add to it. Much of that harmonic and melodic influence comes from listening to fusion. That and different weird time signatures. All those weird syncopated drumbeats have affected the way I feel things, as opposed to being a four-on-the-floor rocker. Not that I don’t love four-on-the floor, but the time-signature thing definitely entered our music from listening to Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin, and to jazz in general.

“Years ago I just wired the pickup straight to the jack. I tend to play harder than I probably should and there was the issue of me slamming my hand into the volume knob or pickup selector switch when I played.”

Can you point to a specific example of an odd time signature in your work?
A great example is a song like “Van,” from [1987’s] All. I don’t know what time signature that song is in, but it’s kind of out there. [Editor’s note: It’s in 7/4.] On the other hand, it’s not so crazy—it’s not math rock, but basically a riff that you can sing.

How do you work out your guitar parts?
There’s a song on one of the All records called “Mary” that’s a good example. What I had to start with was basically a simple four-note pattern that could have been played on the bass [sings the pattern], and then I put a vocal melody over it. So what I was trying to do was figure out notes to complete it, to make larger chords out of the whole thing. It’s probably a crude form of orchestration—very crude. [Laughs.] It’s like, “This instrument is playing this note and that instrument is playing that note. We might have an orchestra!” So that’s how it happens in my head. I’m just looking for a place to bring a note or two into a chord that will expand what I have it front of me. I’m not using music theory. I wasn’t taught that way. I’m an ear player, but I’m strong on hearing harmony notes that can fill out spaces into something interesting.

You might not be using theory, but you did study classical guitar. Talk about that experience.
Right before I turned 21, I decided it was time to actually learn how to play the guitar. I had just heard a Julian Bream record, and I sold all my electric guitars and bought a classical. I spent a year-and-a-half in the shed, neck deep, taking lessons and learning how to play classical guitar. I was going to try to go to a conservatory, but the Descendents thing happened and I got waylaid and here I am.

Stephen Egerton’s Gear

Guitars
Music Man Axis
Music Man StingRay
Dan Armstrong

Amps
Blackstar HT Stage 100 with HTV-412 cabinet

Effects
Danelectro Spring King

Strings and Picks
Ernie Ball 2220 Power Slinkys (.011–.048)
Ernie Ball Heavies .94 mm

How has your classical guitar phase informed your work as a rock musician?
What probably affected me the most is the ability
to control all of the variables across the fretboard,
like how to play only the strings you want in a chord,
so that the notes you’re trying to avoid don’t ring out in bad ways and clash harmonically. Classical guitar really helped me with that, and it made me think in real terms about my timing.I didn’t have good or bad timing before I started playing classical guitar, but my timing became very good once I got into really thinking about rhythm and practicing with a metronome. I made a lot of progress in a short amount of time, but my classical has been sitting in a closet ever since. I pull it out maybe every five years and go, “Whoa, I still have it.”

You live and work in Tulsa, Oklahoma, far from your bandmates. What’s that like and how does it work?
This is where my wife grew up. We’ve been here 14 years. We wanted our kids to be near their grandparents, plus the cost of living is really affordable here. It’s worked out quite well. We have pretty good ways to practice—a friend fills in on guitar for rehearsals in Fort Collins, where our bassist and drummer live. Our singer lives in Delaware. I’m also kind of a studio geek and prepare things for everybody to practice to. Then when it’s time to tour, we fly in and it’s so great to see buddies and rehearse together.

On the new album, on songs like “On Paper,” you solo in a concise and economical way. Are your solos improvised or pre-composed?
It’s a mixture. On a classic song like “Clean Sheets,” I worked that solo out. Again, it kind of refers back to what I always say about Jeff Beck’s playing having a lyrical quality. It’s all about making a guitar solo that a normal person can glom onto and understand. On [All’s 1989 track] “She’s My Ex,” I do the same thing.


Thirty years down the road with the Descendents, Egerton says, “an interesting fact about the band, which is touched on in some of our recent songs, is its sheer longevity. The bass player and I met in junior high school and have been hanging out ever since. With Bill and Milo, it’s pretty much the same.” Photo by Kevin Scalon

On other songs, I might mix things up—do part of a solo in a very plotted-out way and leave the rest of it open to improvisation. It’s a matter of experimentation. I’m not much of a scale guy, although I play a lot of scales as a practice thing. It’s a wonderful way of keeping up technique and staying limber, like dribbling for a basketball player. But I don’t think about scales when I’m actually playing. I’m just playing a song at that point.

Do the solos vary live?
Whatever way the solos turned out on the record, I usually play them the same live. My solo on “Everything Sucks,” for instance, was improvised at the time, and I learned it and play it live.