Gibson’s axe is a 5-string Music Man StingRay that’s rigged with banjo strings on its two high positions. The three bottom strings are tuned in fifths, like a cello, rather than standard fourths. “On the last record, we tuned the low note down to C, which is C-G-D for the low strings,” says Gibson. Photo by Nick Sayers
How do you tune it?
I use cello tuning, which is in fifths instead of fourths. On the last record, we tuned the low note down to C, which is C–G–D for the low strings. I like when the strings are loose, and we did this record with really loose tuning.
But normally you don’t tune that low?
That was a change for this record and it was an experiment. We didn’t write the songs tuned that low. When we got into the studio, we thought maybe this would be better lower, and I’d be able to play it better because the strings were looser. I really need the strings to be good and loose when I’m playing these songs. I don’t know why. But I want to bend strings a lot when I’m playing.
Are you going to tune it low when you go on the road?
I think so. When we go on tour, sometimes I don’t bother even thinking about tuning. I am not playing with anyone else. Maybe at the beginning of the tour I am tuned to C, but by the end of the tour I am tuned to A. No one would know the difference.
It’s not a problem with the vocals?
Yeah, Brian will get annoyed if I am way off. He does get used to the notes he sings as a vocalist. But often I am tuning the strings more for the action and the playability. It’s all relative to me. Maybe someone could tell me that it’s really meaningful, the difference between an A or a B or somewhere in between, but I am almost randomly tuning every day. I think, “The action is low, I should tighten the strings a little bit.” But I do keep it in tune with itself.
In the early days, you had a lot of problems with amps blowing up. How did you solve those problems?
The whole history of Lightning Bolt is me buying bigger and bigger rigs until they stopped blowing all the time. In the beginning, I was using a Hartke 350-watt combo amp with a 15" speaker, which was all I could afford, but it was still pretty expensive. That thing would blow up, like, every two months. I’d have to take it to this guy in town, he’d fix it, and that would cost $200. But I couldn’t afford a new amp, so I just kept getting it fixed. At one point, I bought an 18" speaker, which made everything twice as loud. That was eye-opening for me—that I could be that much louder by adding speakers.
For practical reasons, Gibson prefers simple Boss, DigiTech, and Line 6 pedals for his core effects. “Stuff is constantly breaking,” he says. “It’s really nice to go on eBay at any time and have a new pedal the next day, or go to a music store anywhere and be able to get the exact same pedal and have the exact same sound that you had. Photo by Scott Alario
But the combo amp kept blowing. I then got the Hartke 350-watt head/tube preamp with a SWR 4x10 and an 18. I kept adding more and more speakers, but the amp kept blowing up, although it was sounding better and better. I did this until around the year 2000, and I was totally broke. That was when I quit. There was a period when I quit Lightning Bolt, because it was too much. I wasn’t getting enough out of it. We weren’t that popular at the time. I was working at a coffee shop and I was just broke. I moved to New York City for a year. When I was in New York, I got a job making a mural and I was making a lot of money. But as I was there, I was getting frustrated because there was no good music happening in New York. There weren’t any good bands. It seemed like people were just going out to bars and drinking and working all the time.
That’s New York.
I felt like I wasn’t going to go anywhere in my life if I stayed there. I saved up $10,000, which was a lot of money for me at the time, and I thought, “I am going to go back to Providence, buy a huge bass rig, and try and do Lightning Bolt again.” I got a fancy 1,200-watt SWR bass amp, I forget what it was called … and two 4x10 SWRs, and two 18" subwoofers. It was a lot bigger. It is still not what I have now, but it was great. I got that nice rig and I could suddenly hear the notes I was playing. That’s when we recorded Ride the Skies. That was our first record where the bass sounded clear. When we released that record people started to notice us, and when we played shows a lot more people started showing up. I was playing with that rig for the next few years. Actually, that SWR amp was still blowing up every few months.
What was the problem?
The power amp was getting overheated and it would cut out. It would short out in the middle of shows. I was turning everything all the way up—that was the problem with the Hartke, too. To play with Brian, I needed to be at this volume that was just pushing everything too hard. A few years after I came back to Providence from New York and I was playing that much bigger rig, but it was still blowing up, I started buying fancy power amps. Now I am using these QSC 3,600-watt power amps. I discovered that it is less of a problem on your speakers to be super-overpowered, but not going into the red, then to be underpowered, but turning everything all the way up.
Why is that?
Clipping is what blows speakers and overheats amps. I still turn up and go a little bit into the red with everything, but I am pushing so many watts now. Plus, now I am using these powered speakers that are really powerful and never blow. Actually, I’ve blown those speakers sometimes, too.
Do you use monitors, too, or are your speakers enough?
I started using monitors more. We used to play on the floor all the time, so that wasn’t an option. When we started playing on stages more, I didn’t really understand the power of the monitors onstage for a while. Now I am very interested in getting things to sound good onstage using the monitors. In the beginning, I just assumed that my rig had to sound good and that’s all that mattered.
When you play on the floor, do you still run everything through the PA and boost it through the house system?
It’s always different. It depends on the space. I like trying to still go through a PA system if we play on the floor, but it’s usually not possible. It’s a lot of cables everywhere and usually the sound people don’t want to take that risk of having a bunch of mics and cables where all the chaos is. It is pretty chaotic when you play on the floor.
Do you have problems with people stepping on gear and knocking stuff over?
We used to have a lot of problems. When we played on the floor a lot, we would routinely have people trample my pedals and kick the cables out of my pedals in the middle of the set. People would knock Brian’s drums over. That was part of it. It was really frustrating and whenever that stuff would happen I would get pretty upset, but I think, at the same time, people liked that chaos.