I can’t imagine a guitarist more bonafide than Carl Verheyen. Sure, there’s a boatload of badass guitarists out there, but few of them can nail such a broad variety of styles like they were born to it. On top of that, he gets paid for it! Despite Verheyen’s freakish ability to effortlessly bust out be-bop, blues, country, classical, bluegrass, metal and good ole’ rock n’ roll, Verheyen retains his own inimitable signature sound. Don’t you just hate guys like that?

Then there’s the resume. He’s played on a bazillion sessions with such diverse artists as Dolly Parton, Little Richard, Stanley Clarke, Christina Aguilera, The Bee Gees and Allan Holdsworth, to name a few. He’s played on film and TV soundtracks like Samantha Who?, The Crow, The Usual Suspects, Scrubs, Ratatouille and Moscow on The Hudson. That’s the short list. He even played guitar on the iconic sitcom Happy Days. His resume goes on and on. Solo records, instructional books, videos, DVDs, gigs galore and he’s the touring guitarist for the band Supertramp.

I caught his gig at Hollywood’s legendary fusion hang, The Baked Potato. I heard an eye-bulging fusion of great tunes and styles and that made me want to run home and practice. Verheyen uses the kind of gear that makes guitar freaks need a drool bucket. He uses a mix of vintage amps and guitars married with modern technology—to great effect. Verheyen has the coolest toys. When he agreed to this interview, I knew this was going to be the perfect opportunity to pick the brain of a great virtuoso. He also turned out to be one hell of a nice guy.

What in your mind distinguishes you from other guitarists who put out records with chops for days?

The problem is that there are so many guitar players nowadays that love to use their home studios and spend hours and hours on their solos. I’m an old school guy sonically. I’ve got to use a real studio. You never listen to your amp with your ear down near the amp. You listen to your amp in the room. The best studios in town, like Capitol Records and Sunset Sound and some of these old school places, have amazing rooms. We mic the amp, but we also mic the room. That’s the sound of the guitar and that’s what I want to hear. I’m not a home studio guy. I pretty much just do little demos for myself on an old hard drive recorder, and mic amps and mic acoustic guitars and work out parts, so I rarely have to use a real studio.

So instead of my records costing $5000 to $6000, they cost $25,000 or $30,000. Which is dangerous nowadays in this climate where people aren’t buying CDs—they’re downloading. But that’s ok, too.

The sound on your records is very organic.

I never use plug-ins, and I always mic an amp no matter what. I like to mic it through some of that old API gear that they have at Sunset Sound, but I’m paying two hundred bucks an hour (laughs) so it’s a little dangerous. You want to be able to listen to it five to ten years from now and say, “Man, this still holds up,”
whereas that plug-in stuff may not.

When I go into the studio, I have four to five hours to get this tune completely in the bag. That means the 12-string part, the Gretsch part, the SG part, the two acoustic parts and the solo. The modern art of the guitar records is in the orchestration, because at some point everybody’s got monster chops.

I was listening to Greg Howe’s new record and thinking, “Oh man, this guy’s chops are insane!” There are a lot of people on a level that’s pretty high in terms of that. Now it becomes, how do you layer? How do you orchestrate? My concept has always been, “How do I pick who’s going to be Frank Sinatra? Which guy is going to have that main voice?” On those Frank Sinatra records the whole orchestra comes in and it’s beautiful. There’s this huge level of glorious sound. Then Frank comes in and it’s even more glorious!

So when you’re orchestrating all the guitars you have to figure the rhythm part is going to be this clean Strat, but I’m going to back it up with this acoustic. I’ll put the Strat in the middle of the two acoustics to give it a little more sonic girth. Right in the pre-chorus this Tele has to come in with a little hair on it. When the chorus hits I’m going to put the Les Paul here and the SG here through little amps, and they’re going to play the same unison line. Little amps are key because they can give you that cranked tone. When the solo comes in, that’s a 4x12 in the middle of the room with a mic far away and you get this big huge sound. You can hear the room, and that’s really important.

1969 Marshall 100-Watt head, 1964 Fender Twin, 1963 Vox AC30 and two THD 2x12 cabs.
How did you develop your current live rig?

In the eighties, just like everybody else around 1981, I met Bob Bradshaw. So I got the big rack. That rack grew and grew, and then there were two racks, an amp rack and an effects rack. One day in about 1989, when all that stuff was going strong, I remember plugging my seafoam green Strat into one of my Fender Princetons and thinking, “You know what? This sounds better to my ears than $50,000 worth of rack gear.” In those days we were listening to the sound of the reverbs and the delays and the choruses. When you turned all that stuff off, the sound of the basic guitar through the rig was kind of sterile. I realized that the marriage of a great-sounding guitar with an amp is very important. I had a Vox AC30 and some Marshalls
and stuff like that and I thought, “Maybe I can use these things.”

It started to come together with an A/B system. I would say right around 1990 I started putting together that kind of clean and dirty rig. I remember talking to Allan Holdsworth and he said, “You don’t play clean and dirty out of the same speakers do you?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “How can you do that? I want a real papery warm sound from my lead tone, like Celestions. From my clean sound I want something a little more bright and pingy.” Then I thought, “Well so do I!” That’s what kind of started me thinking down the road of having two separate rigs.

At one point I was playing a show at Billboard Live in Hollywood, and I had my rack stuff and the entire band’s show was programmed in. I just had to go to number one, number two, etc. Somebody walked by the power source and kicked the cable and it came out of the wall. It wiped out all ninety-nine programs! So I’ve got ten minutes until show time, and the other band had a Fender Twin. I thought, “I’ll just pull out some pedals, plug into this Fender Twin and go for it.” Really, when you get into all this changing of parameters of each sound, the only person who knows it is you, unless it’s super radical. I realized at that point that it’s better to have two amazing sounds than ninety-nine okay sounds.

That rackmount preamp/power amp period was sometimes an eight, but never a ten. My two favorite clean sounding amps are the Fender Twin and the AC30. I get all this nice midrange and fatness from the Twin. With the AC30 I get all this high-end sparkle. As a stereo pair it’s pretty cool.

Dr. Z SRZ-65 head, with Carl's rack.
You have a nice wall of vintage amps on stage, yet you still have the rack under your Doctor Z head.

What I do is come off the A/B pedalboard, and for the clean I’m going through one pedal. It goes into a Robert Stamps reverb unit, which he made custom for me back in 1997 when I was about to do a Supertramp tour. I needed spring reverb, but in rack form, and he did that for me. It comes out of that and goes into a stereo chorus, but I almost never turn it on. When I do, it’s very subtle. That comes out in stereo to the left and right inputs of a Lexicon MPX 100 Stereo Delay. I use that ping-pong delay just to give myself some imaging on stage. I’ve got a few settings for various tempos, and all my rack effects are before my clean amps. For the dirty sound, I come off the B-side of the pedal board after going through the three distortion pedals and go into the Doctor Z head. It’s a replacement for my old Marshall. They’re becoming $5000 to $6000 for those Plexi heads. Doctor Z made it so that if you turn the master volume all the way up it’s out of the signal path. It’s basically acting like a non-master volume amp using the power tubes to the fullest. Then I come into one of those THD Hotplates. That has a direct out—I feed that to a cabinet—and it also has a line level out that I feed into a Lexicon PCM-41. It’s a line level reverb, and the only way you can get into that is by turning the speaker out into line level, which the Hotplate does really well.

The switching is seamless.

An A/B system like that is going to be organic, whereas if you do channel switching or MIDI or any of that stuff, it cuts off. That little millisecond is not organic. If I have a rhythm part going and I’m singing, and I feel like slamming in a little lead line, the rhythm part hangs over in the air while I switch. There’s no pop or anything with those Lehle foot switches.

Carl's pedalboard.
Do you have any new stomp boxes in your arsenal you could tell us about?

Yeah, there’s a really nice distortion pedal I’ve been using called the Cream pedal by Andy Fuchs of Fuchs Amplification. It’s kind of a cross between a saturated Fuzz Face type of pedal and a Tube Screamer. It’s somewhere in the middle, which is nice because I find Tube Screamers sometimes aren’t saturated enough to get that creamy tone. Fuzz Faces are a little hard to manage for me. They’re a little out of control. I’ve been using that quite a bit lately.

Doctor Z recently got me a new Carmen Gia head. That’s a really nice head. It’s only 18 watts, but for recording or a small blues gig it’s great. I’ve been able to use that head to get the sound I’ve never been able to get before, real beautiful sounding.