Pixies lead guitarist Joey Santiago onstage with his Bigsby-equipped Les Paul in 2014. Photo by Atlas Icons / Chris Schwegler
Talk about a few of your signature moves. One is based on a Hendrix move—holding a note on the 2nd string and then bending up to that same note on the 3rd string. But you take that and then slowly let the bend go out of tune to get that warble. What was the genesis of that?
I was playing with my friend at some party and my guitar was not in tune. I asked him, “What is this?” And he said, “Dude, your guitar is out of tune.” I liked it. That’s really the birth of it.
Those warbles are great.
It’s a mistake—a good mistake—and that’s what we look for in the studio: awesome mistakes. That’s what we’re really about sometimes.
Another one of your signature moves is doing those fast slides on one string, like on “Vamos.”
The first time I do that—the first gig when we’re fresh on a new tour—it literally hurts me! I just wait for the callous to come back and then it doesn’t effect me anymore.
You also quickly pick, or trill, chord clusters in the upper register.
Yeah, I like doing those. Lately, I’ve been figuring out melodies just by picking one string and going up and down. Then you can figure it out like, “Okay, these are cool notes.” Sometimes I’ll write them down on paper and it works—a good percentage of the time it will work. I write down a little line and it’s like, “Okay, I know this will work. Will it sound good?”
What do you write down—the notes in the chord that you’re aiming for?
Yeah, just the notes and stuff. And once again, anytime I can go a half-step, I’ll do it.
Do you get your distortion from the amp or from pedals?
A combination of the amp and a boost. I turn the boost and the Boss Hyper Fuzz on at the same time, and it will give me that instant feedback.
Is that what you were using back in the ’80s as well?
I guess in the late ’80s I relied on a Peavey Special that had a really good gain stage. I liked the Peavey sound. Back then it was cool. It was very pointy—it sounded like it had a fuzz on it already.
I really didn’t have any pedals back then. On this new record, I was trying to get away from using pedals, too.
Most of that raging fuzz on the new album is primarily from the amp?
Yeah, I tried. But in the control room we’d have to add some pedals. I did use pedals, but it was more or less the flavors of my distortion boxes and the boost and all that stuff.
Did you use your Marshall in the studio?
It was just a Marshall and my Fender to give it definition. Come to think of it, Tom just said, “Be natural.” Whatever I played live, that’s it—that’s what I used. The same thing with Charles. He was with his Vox a lot.
There are a lot of great guitar textures and rhythm parts on the new album. As a listener, how can I tell what’s you and what is Charles?
Charles does the rhythm parts. Sometimes I’ll join him—I’ll meander around and then when it comes to my thing, I get out of it.
Do you play any acoustic on the albums at all?
Nope, I don’t. That’s all Charles.
Are your main guitars still Les Pauls?
That’s all I use. If it’s good enough for the Clash, it’s good enough for us.
But you also have the Gibson ES-345.
I like the 345 for the sparkly sound. It’s all for the clean sounds, really. It’s got this natural compression to it—I love it. It’s from 1965, and it’s got a great vibe to it.
Do you use the varitone selector as well?
I always put it on the third position, which is where the neutral thing is, I think. That sounds the most natural to me anyway.
You’ve been a pretty consistent fan of the Marshall JCM800 2205 head and a Fender Vibrolux.
I think Marshall screwed up when they stopped making the 2205s—with that two-channel thing. When we go to rent amps—because the truck doesn’t make the next gig or whatever—we try to rent [the 2205s], and half the time they don’t have them.
What do you use then—whatever they have?
Yeah, I’ll just use whatever they have.
And you always use a half stack?
Yeah, the half stack. The full stack is too spandex.
You don’t want to put your foot up on the monitor and be like Iron Maiden?
Nope. They can do that—they do it well—but that isn’t my personality.
You still use the old DOD wah from the ’80s, right? What do you like about it?
It’s really more aggressive on the top end. It’s not throwback sounding—it’s not like a ’60s sound at all. It sounds modern. I use it as a filter. I set it and don’t mess with it.
Meaning you set it in one position and that will be your tone for the song—like Mick Ronson did with Bowie?
Yeah, I’ll do that. And sometimes I’ll just gradually go up—just to annoy people [laughs]. When I do that, it’s like a crescendo on one note.
Yeah. I love when we play little clubs and people start to cringe in front of my amp. “That’ll teach you!”
The Pixies begin their set at the 2016 NOS Alive festival in Oeiras, Portugal, with their 1988 hit “Bone Machine.”