Kirchen at Woodrow Wilson Plaza in Washington, D.C., July 7, 2006, with his Barden-equipped
’59 Tele. Some 10,000 gigs ago, the guitar sported a sunburst finish. Photo by Mark Jonas
In “Arkansas Diamond,” there’s a phase shifter on your guitar parts. Did you use a pedal for that?
No, I didn’t add that myself. The producer, Paul Riley, put that on after the fact during mixing. When I first heard it, I was slightly miffed. I thought, “What’s that all about?” But then I realized it’s really a nod to the great Waylon Jennings and his Maestro phase shifter, so now I heartily concur. What the heck—if it was good enough for ol’ Waymore, it’s good enough for me.
The phase shifter really accentuates the boom-chuck palm muting you’re doing on the bass strings.
Yeah, yeah, yeah—I know what you mean. It’s a cool sound, like that hollow sound they used to get out of Dano tic-tac basses. It’s a real quacky tone.
When you hit the two solos in “Man in the Bottom of the Well,” you conjure a little of that modal, Summer-of-Love guitar sound.
There is some of that, I know. What came over me? It’s almost like I had my foot up on the monitor and was whipping my hair back and forth. Actually, in ’67 it was more about standing there glaze-eyed and slack-jawed. It was fun to play those solos.
There’s even a hint of Mike Bloomfield.
Oh, I would hope so. I used to see him back at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. Mike and my wife were friends, and he used to come by to hear the Airmen when we first moved to town.
Toward the end of the second solo, it sounds like you’re using your Tele’s tone pot to get a wah sound.
Yeah, that’s exactly what I did, tone-pot wah. My little finger was honkin’ away on the tone knob— a little something extra for the people. I’ve got the control plate reversed on my Tele, with the tone pot located in the middle of the plate.
For tone-pot wah, do you get fussy about capacitors in your Teles?
No, I don’t. If the tone-pot wah isn’t working or if my volume swells don’t work on one guitar, my tendency is to grab another guitar [laughs]. I’m utterly clueless about that. I know both the capacitor and the pot’s taper play a role, but now you’re hearing a guy talk well beyond his knowledge.
Your main Tele has a Vintique neck-attachment system with threaded metal inserts and machine screws that, in the past, enabled you to easily remove the neck when you flew to a gig. Do you still do this?
When I first started going to England years ago, I carried my guitar in a Land’s End briefcase. I would unscrew the neck, put the body in the briefcase—it fit perfectly—and stick the neck through the umbrella loop on the canvas bag. Maybe if I wanted to be formal, I’d stick a sock over the peghead. I quit doing that after 9-11, because I worried that airport security might not let me take a guitar neck on the plane. They might consider it a weapon. So I haven’t had the neck off in a long time. Nowadays, I fly Southwest in the US, and they always let me carry on a guitar. Flying to Europe, I haven’t had a problem bringing a guitar on the plane in quite a while.
Do you have favorite mic’ing techniques?
In the studio, I leave that to the engineer. But when I’m recording at home, generally I’ll position a Shure SM57 in front of the speaker cone, at a slight angle and a little off center. I’ll also put an AKG 414 a little further back to pick up some room sound. When recording acoustics at home, I’ll use a 414 and a couple of Russian Octava condensers—inexpensive but really nice small-diaphragm mics I got 12 or 13 years ago.
Tell us about your strings and picks.
I use Curt Mangan strings exclusively. I string my Teles with either the stock .010 set or a custom gauge that’s .0105, .013, .017, .026, .038, and .048. On that set, the B, G, and D are the same as a normal set of .010s, but the bottom two are a bit heavier and the top E is slightly bigger. The .0105 set is what I used on most of the record. On my Martin 00-18, I use Mangan acoustic mediums. Also, I use yellow .73 mm Mangan Curtex picks. The material is a dry plastic with an almost powdery finish, and they come in a standard shape. That gauge is between a medium and a heavy pick.
What do you like about Mangan strings?
The whole thing about the Telecaster is the continuum from fat to bright. Where I hear the difference is in the wound strings. To me, they have a nice cross between a bright twangy sound and a full round tone. You know how some strings are so twangy they almost sound like they’re out of phase? That doesn’t happen with Mangans. Also, I don’t get those quality-control problems with his strings—I don’t put on a set and then have one string that’s horribly wrong for some reason. I’ve been playing Mangan strings for at least four years now.
You’ve been working professionally for more than 40 years. What advice do you have for guitarists coming up?
My advice to anybody is to grab that guitar, get up on that stage, and just try not to suck. That’s exactly what I do. I say, “I hope I don’t suck right now,” and then I dig in.
Bill Kirchen's Gearbox
’59 sunburst Fender Telecaster (serial number 2222), Big Tex Guitars replica Tele, Rick Kelly replica Tele, Fender Baja Sexto with Dan Erlewine body, Danelectro baritone, Martin 00-18
Talos 1x12 combo, ’68 silverface Fender Deluxe modded by Pete Cage, TV-front tweed Fender Deluxe
Boss DM-2 analog delay, Talos Ass Bite Overdrive, Danelectro Tuna Melt tremolo
Strings and Picks
Curt Mangan strings (.010–.046 and .0105–.048 for electrics, .013–.056 for acoustics), Mangan Curtex .73 mm picks
Shure SM57, AKG 414, and Octava mics