Guthrie Govan’s Charvel signature models are baked in an oxygen-free oven to zap moisture for more stability. His current favorite has an ash body. “Every kind of wood has a sonic thumbprint which is recognizable to me,” he says. Photo by Danny Work
Any other gear you feel passionately about, in or out of the studio?
We spent a long time designing the [Charvel] guitar in such a way that it would be able to cope with all kinds of different musical situations, so that guitar can do a Steven Wilson gig, a Hans Zimmer gig, an Aristocrats gig, a guitar clinic, or whatever. I did play around a little more on this record. For instance, I now know I should acquire a Fender Jazzmaster. [In the studio] they had a really nice ’60s Jazzmaster and that’s what you hear on all of “Spiritus Cactus.” I also discovered that I really like Vox AC30s for a certain kind of clean tone. “Last Orders” has a thin Stratty-sounding pickup setting running into an AC30, which adds this warm roundness. I left the studio wondering why I hadn’t recorded more stuff using that kind of tone. Sometimes a different combination of gear will inspire you to imagine different things, whereas if you had started with your regular gear, these ideas might never have occurred to you.
I know you’re very sensitive to the woods your guitars are made of. Aside from the obvious, why is that so important?
There are two reasons to care about wood. One is stability, and one is tone. The guitars I use now, the wood is all being baked, or caramelized if you will—they put it in an oxygen-free oven to get rid of some of the moisture and kill some of the organic impurities that might be in there. It makes it more stable, which is really helpful if you’re touring a lot and hopping from one climate to another, rapidly and repeatedly. It’s nice to know that your neck isn’t going to mutate horribly. But also, every kind of wood has a sonic thumbprint which is recognizable to me. So sometimes if I hear a certain sound in my head, I can translate that into, “That’s a mahogany tone.” Almost like these woods have different vowel sounds, like they honk from a different part of some sort of imagined nasal cavity. I know this sounds strange. [Laughs.]
You’re regarded as a virtuoso by your peers. How have you come to be such a skilled player?
Everything I’ve learned has started with me hearing something and saying, “I like that. If I understood how to do that, I know how I would use it.” I’ve always been interested in just copying the sounds that I hear around me. Be it an album that I found in my parent’s record collection, or what the ice cream van is doing outside the house, or a police siren, or a bird song—I’ve always had that kind of parrot element. If I hear something, I want to be able to imitate it.
I’m going to wheel out my well-used analogy, which always crops up in guitar clinics: When you’re learning an instrument, you get to choose what kind of language you want music to become in your life. It can either feel like your mother tongue, or it can feel like a language which you learned at school. You learn English by copying sounds that you hear around you and then learning what happens in your life when you make each one of those sounds. I always wanted music to feel like English, rather than one of the languages I learned at school.
How did you learn to shred?
Once you’ve figured out how to play some new thing that you couldn’t play before, I’m a believer in maybe don’t reach for the metronome and crank it up immediately. Now see if you can play the same thing again but use fewer calories. Can you play the same thing again whilst, like, watching the TV, or thinking about something else? Can you do it so that you can play it a hundred times in a row without hurting yourself? If you prioritize stuff like that, then you end up with good technique. And then one day when you need to do it at twice the speed, your body kind of knows how. Nobody ever practices how fast they can talk. People spend their lives using languages to say stuff that they want to say. And then one day when they get excited, and they naturally want to speak quicker, they find that they can do it.
You’ve played with a variety of people. What’s guided your career choices?
My business plan from day one has always been, say yes to things if they’re interesting, or if I think I’m going to learn something by taking on any given musical challenge. But I try to hang on to that kind of childlike thing. I play because it makes me feel complete. I enjoy just expressing myself through playing—everything else is just a detail. Which is not a great attitude, I wouldn’t recommend that attitude to any readers, but it’s what feels right to me, and you’ve got to be yourself, right?
Is there anything you do to find creative inspiration?
Well, I think the music that comes out of you is invariably a product of all the music that goes into you. You are what you eat—it’s the sonic version of that. I think whenever you’re trying to listen intelligently to something, find out what’s good about this unfamiliar genre of music or unexpected recording, it wakes up that part of your brain which is responsible for generating new ideas. It all incubates in your musical mind, and when it’s ready, the thing that you’ve taken from all that listening will reveal itself when the time is right.
For “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” Bryan sent me a demo of that, and it was some kind of “super strat” guitar tone through a very overdriven amp, and I thought what kind of character can I imagine interpreting this melody that I’ve been sent. And for some random reason it just kind of came to me: This should be a ’70s guy with a Les Paul. That’s the character who would deliver this melody with authority. So I actually became that guy. I went into the studio with a Les Paul, and I never play Les Pauls. They sound great but I don’t feel comfortable playing one. So, perfect. I am going to very deliberately play this guitar, which will fight me, and I will have to fight it back.
Any modern guitarists you like?
I kind of tuned out a little bit from listening to guitar all the time. Partially because it reminds me of work. [Laughs.] I generally have more fun these days listening to stuff where the guitar isn’t such a feature. The last player I heard who really blew my mind was probably Derek Trucks. And I think quite a few years have elapsed since it was accurate to describe Derek Trucks as one of the new players.
So then what are you listening to?
I’m a big fan of Knower. They’re kind of Daft Punk with a jazz degree. Sometimes it’s fun to listen to Jacob Collier and work out how that’s even possible. [Laughs.] I’m a sucker for elaborate lavish harmonies and that whole Take 6 approach, and he’s really taken that to the next level. In terms of confusing music, Tigran Hamasyan is a lot of fun. There are elements of Meshuggah in there, Armenian folk music and everything in between. He’s fascinating. Oh, and Tipper. There’s a new Tipper album. He’s an electronic DJ kind of guy, but really good at sculpting noises that aren’t real instruments. And that’s perfect for me, to go back listening to something in a happily ignorant way because you don’t understand where the source of that sound is. Some of the electronic stuff really cheers me up.
I’ve heard you’ve had an interest in learning electronic production. How’s that going?
Yeah, still a work in progress.
What program do you like to use?
I’ve always been a Logic guy, but I wanted to create a little world that was separate from that, for when I want to think electronic thoughts, so I’m having a lot of fun with Ableton now.
Cool! What have you been working on recently?
Nothing that the public needs to know about. I’m still in that stage of just exploring and being a kid.
Seen here performing “Desert Tornado” from the Aristocrats’ 2013 record, Culture Clash, Guthrie Govan illustrates his breadth of technique, dropping in speed-of-light lines (jump to 2:22 to be amazed) between carefully placed harmonies.