Another of Sanford’s creations is this hacksaw box. “It’s essentially like a thumb piano except it’s just got the one tine inside of it and it’s played by stomping instead of with your hands,” he says. Photo by Ben Stas
Talk about your songwriting, and how you approach your solo projects versus group efforts.
They are two very different things. With the Thalia Zedek Band stuff, I more or less write the whole songs myself. It usually comes from noodling around on my guitar at home, coming up with riffs, or just coming across something that I want to work on further. I usually write the music first and the lyrics afterwards. Every once in a while, everything will come out all at once, and obviously I love that—that’s the best. When that doesn’t happen it’s more a labor of love. With E, we write a lot of stuff out of jams. We play a lot together—usually we try to play twice a week, at least—and we record everything and go back over stuff. Just because of the chemistry being the way that it is, there are usually some cool ideas that everyone agrees on in there. We’ll hone in on them and build them into a song. I usually try to not bring in anything more than a brief idea, because I find for E it works best that way: the less information the better. But if I have a cool riff idea, we’ll work on that. Jason sometimes will bring in most of a song—he’ll do that more often than me—but I’d say that was maybe 10 percent of the material. Probably 90 percent is purely collaborative—spontaneous idea generating and then hours of arranging.
The way you voice your chords is very open and interesting. Talk about your harmonic sense and how you come up with chord voicings.
I do tend to use my own voicings. Part of that might be that I just get bored playing barre chords and I don’t quite have the finger stretch to do a lot of the really crazy jazz chords. I tend to break chords down into different three note pieces. I’ll play just part of a chord and get different patterns. I’ll play the top of the chord, the bottom of the chord, or the three middle notes. I also try to keep things as simple as possible. I’ve learned from over the years that I’m not doing myself or the audience any favors by trying to play something that I can barely play. I try to do something that’s within the range of my physical grasp. One of the things about guitar playing is you learn that there are hard ways to do things and easier ways to do things. When you start figuring out what the easier way to do things is, you usually get a big bump in your playing.
Meaning you can get similar sounds using easier fingerings?
Right. It’s much easier to maneuver. Or depending on where you are going next, you might want to voice a chord in a different way. Some of the reason I voice chords in certain ways is because it works with where I’m going next in terms of the progression.
Do you juxtapose your voicings against the other instruments in the band to complete the chord?
I definitely keep that in mind, for sure, especially with E. Jason and I both seem to sense that if one person is playing high the other person will cover the low stuff. In the Thalia Zedek Band, I have a bass player so I try to stay out of his way. But with E there’s a lot more room to do that. Sometimes I’m just playing bass lines on my guitar, which is really fun.
Talk about your Hagstrom.
I have a Hagstrom 1. I actually have two of them, so I’m a double Hagstrom threat. They’re almost exactly the same guitars—the black ones that were made from the old accordion parts.
What do you like about them?
I love them. I love the tone. To me, they have a really beautiful tone—really deep and sharp, not a lot of mid. The neck is the perfect size for my hands, which like most women’s hands are smaller than guys’. I like a slightly smaller neck. It has a really smooth, thin neck.
Is there a magic to cheaper gear? Does it possess a special mojo?
Definitely yes. I’ve played Mexican-made Fenders or Squiers that sounded better than [American-made] guitars. Even though guitars are made in factories, there is still a lot of individuality between them. That’s what I’ve found. I would never buy a guitar without playing it first, thinking, “Oh it’s a Les Paul so it’s going to be great.” Every guitar is different and definitely some cheap guitars could be great. I think of guitars as individualistic in a way that other things in this world are not necessarily.
What strings do you use?
I use D’Addario strings. Tens with a wound third.
Why a wound third?
Because the Hagstrom actually has a floating wooden bridge and you can’t really adjust the strings. I took it to Jim Mouradian of Mouradian Music in Winchester, Massachusetts. He is, like, a Hagstrom expert. I had a lot of problems with the intonation and with the fixed bridge. It’s just a piece of wood so you can’t really adjust it too much. He said, “Actually, it’s meant to be played with a wound third string.” I started doing that and I really loved the sound. It’s got more sustain and it’s easier to play, so now I use wound thirds on it.
Do you get your distortion from your amp or do you use pedals?
I like to start with a clean sound. Especially with the Thalia Zedek Band, I do a lot of songs clean. I like the sound of the Hagstrom with the Twin and just reverb. That will be my base sound. I prefer to get the overdrive from pedals.
That’s interesting, because on Eve, on “Afloat,” it sounded to me like you were riding your volume knob to get your distortion.
No, I’m using pedals. That starts off completely clean and then I come in with an overdrive. I was trying to make it subtle so it wasn’t like, “Bam!” I come in with it at a time when the band is naturally getting louder. When the whole band comes in loud, I put on an overdrive and keep that on for the whole sections where the vocals are. At the very end there is an overdrive—a really old crappy Japanese overdrive pedal that I love that I’ve been using for years.
What is it?
It’s a Tokai distortion pedal. It’s an old Japanese company. I don’t believe they’re still in business.
Do you use your live rig in the studio or do you experiment?
I usually use what I use live. Right now—recording on a budget and with time constraints—I try to know what I’m going for before I go in there rather than just messing around. For the basic tracks, I’ll definitely do that. Sometimes for overdubs, I’ll borrow stuff. On the Thalia Zedek Band album, I used an electric 12-string and I experimented using different setups for slide. I have a Princeton Reverb at home, too, and I’ll bring that in sometimes for overdubs, just to have a different sound.
Do you try to track live as much as possible or do you lay down scratch parts and redo everything?
I try to do it live as much as possible. Especially on the new Thalia Zedek Band record, some of the songs we recorded didn’t really have endings and there is definitely improvisational stuff—like, I didn’t know when it was going to end, but we just ended at the perfect time. But it’s always different. I like to keep some element of chance in there.
Thalia Zedek, drummer Gavin McCarthy, and guitarist Jason Sanford bring E’s improv-developed music to the stage at Cambridge, Massachusetts’ famed Middle East café. Besides noting their edgy, melodic interplay, check out Sanford’s ingenious wire frame guitar—his own creation.