When Been plugs his Gibson ES-150 into his massive bass rig, he uses equalization to tame screaming feedback and enhance the old hollowbody’s natural tonal character. Photo by Debi Del Grande
Robert, I really appreciate your dedication to Epiphone Rivoli and Gibson EB-2 semi-hollowbody basses. What do you really love about them?
Been: I can’t remember who it was, but I saw someone playing one live and thought it was just the coolest looking bass I’d ever seen. It was really just for the look when I first got into them, and I stumbled into a pawn shop in San Francisco and saw one for $650. I didn’t have that much, so I talked the guy down by pointing out things like, “It’s worn down here, and it’s scratched up here.” It was actually the things I liked most about the bass—the wear and tear—but he got nervous and I talked him down to, like, $500. That was the way it started. I learned and wrote on that bass forever, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized how different it was from other basses, being short scale and semi-hollow, and how much tighter it could sound. You walk the border of guitar tones with the way they resonate naturally, so there’s a lot of things going on with those basses that I didn’t realize when I first got it. And then, years later, I picked up a Fender P bass again and it was exhausting to play. It felt like holding a log or something.
Peter, you’ve played Gibson ES-335 semi-hollowbodies your entire career and have amassed quite a few. What draws you to them?
Hayes: In the very beginning, I had an acoustic guitar I’d borrowed from my mom. Then I got a Peavey Falcon, which was a Fender rip-off that reminded me of Hendrix’s guitars. Then I got rid of the electric for some reason and lived with the acoustic for a long time. I got a little pickup for it and started diving into the weird tunings, and then when I met Rob, his dad had a Gretsch and a red 335. The 335 was the closest to the acoustic I was playing, as far as feel, and if the power goes out, you can still hear the thing … which happened a lot to us in those days. So it started like that, through Rob’s dad’s guitar. As I got better, 335s seemed to hold the tunings I use a bit better, which makes my life much easier. Maybe that’s in my head, but they don’t seem to rattle as much as other guitars when I throw odd tunings at them, and I also like the way they start yellin’ with feedback when things get loud. They have their own character when you’re playing through a big amp, and it’s a lot of fun to let them take off into feedback and control it.
Now, I can’t really afford them the way I could before. Back when I was first getting into them, they were much less expensive. I also just didn’t know any better because Michael [Been] just happened to have one. I didn’t know they were valuable guitars. I’d find them in pawnshops here and there, and I’d put my ear to the wood and give them a strum and if it sounded good unplugged, I’d roll with that. If it sounded good unplugged and the neck had that baseball bat thing, I’m in. So they became my thing.
Of course, the one that means the most is the one that belonged to Rob’s dad. That one I prefer the most because it stays in tune the best. I don’t have fancy names for them or anything, but the one that belonged to Michael Been is a ’68 or a ’69, and it’s got a chunky neck and I love it. Most of my other ones are from the ’70s or early ’80s, and they all do the trick.
I can’t imagine how many songs have come out of Michael’s guitar at this point.
Hayes: It’s had quite a life. It was hawked at one point for drugs, then found again. It’s had neck breaks. The thing’s lived a lot. I still tour with it, which is super dangerous, but I’ve been lucky—knock on wood—and I’ve always tried to come at it in a way that guitars aren’t too precious and they’re meant to be played and not hung up on a wall. It’s dangerous, but I love using that guitar.
Is your live rig still evolving at this point?
Hayes: There’s still a bit of experimentation going on. I’m still debating how to simplify things a little bit. It’s hard to do because once you get wrapped up in what I’ve done with that thing, the minute you take one amp away, all of a sudden you go “Ah, that just doesn’t sound right.” Which is just not true; you can make it work with one amp. But I like to wrap myself in a cocoon of sound, and you get used to that. The hardest part is figuring out how to get the levels right, as far as not overpowering a room or a PA, which that rig is very capable of doing. The main thing is just finding the balance with the levels where it’s quiet enough to not blow out the whole room, but loud enough that I can play around with feedback and such.
Right now I’m using a G-Lab as the main brain to switch things, and I use a Radial product to split the signal between amps. I’m using four amps with three distinct signals. There’s the Fender Twin that’s cocked up in the air and that gets my main reverb sound and some distortion, pitch shifting, and fake 12-string sounds from the G-Lab. I use a Marshall that also gets a little bit of reverb, but that amp is mainly for our house guy to get a bit of a clearer sound outta me to work with. The main two amps are my Fender Bandmasters, and they’re my dirty sound. The G-Lab turns on my echoes and delays, and I’m using a TC Electronic G-Major system that feeds more delays as well. I use a SansAmp PSA 1.1 for most of my distortions, which makes life a bit easier with the different guitars, because it allows me to tailor in various distortions for different guitars and tunings, and I round it out with some other distortion pedals that change often. I also use an Akai Headrush for tap tempos and looping, and I do a lot of loops live and play on top of them. I also use a real Klon, which I got from Michael Been, which I use pretty lightly as a distortion. I also use the TC Electronic Dark Matter for stuff, like “Little Thing Gone Wild.”
Sometimes it gets a little tricky with the amount of stuff I’m doing, and I’m still learning how to not get wrapped up in doing too much with the effects, because a lot of it isn’t necessarily noticed, or really needed. But it’s still fun to do. That said, the tap dancing and playing is still the only thing I need to do in life right now, so I’m lucky that way!
What tunings are you using?
Hayes: I’ve got seven guitars on the road with me right now, and I use five tunings, but some of them have very subtle changes between them. I’m using D–A–D–F–A–D, DADGAD, and there’s one in D–D–B–A–A–D, D–A–D–F#–A–D, and C–C–E–G–G–C, and the guitars all live their lives in those dedicated tunings. I have a lot of others that I can’t recall off the top of my head, but I’ve written them all down and when we dig through old tunes, it’s kind of a nightmare to pull things back together when it comes to relearning songs in old tunings that I’m not using much anymore. There’s tons of them.
From almost day one, I was pretty much only listening to Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, with a bit of the Stones in there, but from day one, I messed around with altered tunings because that’s how I’d get into the key of a song and that’s how I figured it was done.
Do you use the same strings on everything?
Hayes: Dunlop—and I use three different gauges on my stage guitars, but it’s mostly differences in my low strings. So I use a .056–.013 or a .052–.013. The high strings are always .013, .014, and .018 unwound. I still play around with it from time to time.
BRMC play “Spook” from the new Wrong Creatures in the studio for radio station KCRW. Note how Robert Levon Been’s bass and Peter Hayes’ guitar mesh to sound like dual guitars at various points.