The Police’s slightly cranky guitar shaman dodges gear questions before expounding on the looping strategies and anything-goes approach on his new solo album, Triboluminescence.
In a career spanning half a century, Andy Summers, who rose to mainstream prominence in the late 1970s with the Police, has clearly been a sound seeker. The range of tonal colors and atmospheres he’s achieved on Police songs like “Every Breath You Take,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” and “Roxanne”—not to mention on a long series of solo albums, beginning with 1987’s XYZ—is stunning.
Summers’ deep mastery of effects is especially apparent on his latest solo effort, Triboluminescence, the follow-up to 2015’s Metal Dog. On the album, Summers uses what sounds like a whole shop’s worth of effects to create instrumentals that by turns reflect guitar-hero antics and non-Western influences, and which seem to exist entirely in their own place.
Listening to a cross section of Summers’ work, one gets the impression that he must be quite the gear head. So, it was a little surprising when Summers deflected questions, in an appealingly grumpy Englishman’s way, about the tools of his trade. (His right-hand man and engineer, Dennis Smith, later filled us in.) Luckily, though, Summers was much more forthcoming about the methodologies and concepts at play in his uncanny soundscapes.
What guitars did you play on the record?
That’s the worst question. Mostly I play a Strat. I have a sort of standard working guitar that’s just always there [in the studio]. I might reconsider the sound of the guitar and use another as the track gets more detailed.
What kind of Strat is it?
The one I usually use is a copy of my 1962 Strat—a great guitar that a friend made for me in 2008.
What are you stringing it with?
What? [Incredulously.] Your kind of questions are ridiculously lightweight. Should we talk about the music, not strings? This is like a classic bozo interview. What strings do you use? Are you serious? I don’t fucking know. Somebody else puts them on. Amazing. I can’t believe you just asked me that. I don’t really want to talk about it. This is insulting.
I’m so sorry to have offended. Yes, let’s talk about music. The title track on Triboluminescence shows a gamelan [a traditional Balinese or Javanese ensemble] influence.
Well, yeah. I’m looking for different sorts of sounds that will conjure up either through looping or guitar pedals until I find something fresh and original. I've been influenced by world music—particularly gamelan sounds from Indonesia. So, I’ve made quite a lot of loops with different setups as a starting point for these tracks.
Can you talk a little bit more about the process of discovery when you’re making these loops?
Well, you get a looping device and plug it in and you start making loops. What can I tell you? You know, that’s what it does. Sometimes you get good loops; sometimes you don’t. It’s all very experimental until you get something that catches your ear and might inspire some good melodic content to go on top of it.
Do you start by hearing a melody in your head or do you arrive at that through experimentation?
I don’t sit there and go, “Okay, I’ve got to get a certain sound.” It’s much more subtle than that. Mostly I’m sitting in the studio, improvising my way around with a bunch of pedals. I do things different ways. You’re sometimes sort of looking for the unexpected thing that suddenly just pops out of nowhere, and you go, “Wait a minute.” It sort of happens by accident—much better than what you were originally trying to do. And the sum of that is you make those judgment calls based on your aesthetic choices, your playing experience, what sounds fresh and unexpected to you. It depends on whether or not you’re a real musician, I suppose.
“Gigantopithecus” sounds vaguely Middle Eastern.
Yes. I had a baritone guitar in the studio and I immediately happened upon the melody—kind of a bass-line melody that’s got a lumbering quality. And that’s where it started. There was a raging guitar solo at one point that I took out and made a sort of quirkier solo instead, which I thought was more appropriate for the slightly ironic humor that’s there. But I took my time. Then I added an instrument called a lavta, which is a sort of small cousin of the oud, and you hear it behind the guitar solo. So, it’s got a very different texture—almost Middle Eastern in character.
Talk about how you layered the sounds on “Adinkra,” which, as the name suggests, has kind of a West African influence.
That’s a good track to talk about because it started in an extremely different place. It started with an environment—I think I’ve still got the original tracks—where it sounded like an Indian orchestra to me. And it was extremely attractive when I first played it, and I did come up with that melody instantly. I sort of stayed with it and had an amazing slide guitar solo in the middle—one of the best slide solos I’ve ever played.
Then, at some point I added one drum track and then another. I like to play drums on my own. And I put down a kind of … what you might call belly-dancing rhythm, and thought, “Oh, that’s really cool.” The more I sat with the track, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Suddenly the whole thing sounded corny to me and like crap belly-dancing music.
I had to have the courage to sort of strip down the track, because I knew there was some really cool, good stuff in there. So, I constructed the whole melody and the bridge, and I think there were two things that came out of it. First, I started playing that sort of West African fingerstyle guitar around the melody. The melody informs the trumpet and horns that I added.
I sort of rebuilt the track until I felt it had the right sort of cool quality to it. It’s much more understated, but I thought it had a great feeling once I went through these various changes. But it’s completely different from what I had. That’s the process: You have to be very open—ready to destroy your work that you spent so much time on. That one, on this album, is the classic example. I mean, it’s shocking when you hear what it comes from. Some people might’ve liked it, but that’s the way it is.
You’ve obviously played with some great musicians. What’s it like for you to work alone, as you did on this record?
It’s an interesting thing, because I’ve made many records and am used to working with fantastic players—drummers and bassists, in particular. But I think I’m very happy in this process now of working alone. I’m starting to play the drums better; I’m getting better all the time.
I like to do it on my own because I’ve found that, even with the greatest musicians, they’ll get your music to a point, but they’ll never get it like you do. And so at least the last two records in particular are very personal and, for me, they’re complete artistic statements because there’s no one else changing the way around. I mean, it sounds sort of selfish to work like that, but I really enjoy it, and it’s challenging, and it’s more time-consuming because you’re not just knocking out a track in a couple of hours.
I like the freedom of working out the bass lines alone, then experimenting with the drums and guitars, building them up and layering, layering, layering, layering, until I come to something good. And then there’s, you know, the solos—great, improvised guitar solos because people expect that of me.
With the Police in 1982, Summers plays the 1961 Fender Telecaster that became his signature instrument during the band’s initial run. He bought it for $200 and used it to play on “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle,” and more of the group’s early hits. Photo by Frank White
You describe the layering process and listening to your work to see how it evolves as you record it. Would you say that you use the studio as a compositional tool?
Well, it is, totally. The whole studio’s like a giant paint box. Sometimes I’ll walk around and go, “Oh, wait a minute. What’s that thing?” You know, some weird instrument. “Let’s try it out. Maybe that will give us something.” It’s very much like that.
With so many tools available—and with what sounds like so many different sounds in your head—how do you know when to let go of a composition?
These things take time. Some days you get three great sets of ideas in one afternoon. It really has to do with perspective. You can’t just sit on a track and hammer away and think you’re going to get it. Sometimes it’s just like, “Okay, that’s enough for today. Let’s do a different style. Let’s do another track.” And then let that one go for a few days, and come back, and you hear it clearly because you haven’t listened to it for a few days. That’s a very important part of the process. It’s perspective that can only be obtained by stopping listening for a bit. Then you come back, focus in it, put up that track and get it instantly. “Okay, I know what’s wrong with it now.” It’s a very creative process, but you have to be vulnerable and ready to know when you feel it: when’s the right time to play solos, when’s the right time to just do sort of construction work, if you like.
On the whole, the record seems to transcend labels. Is that intentional?
I don’t think I’d say to myself, “Okay, we’re going to avoid all labels.” That’s just the way it comes out. This is my music, I don’t think it’s ... The message I got when I was growing up was that my music was not rock; it was jazz. As a kid, I was a complete jazz freak. Later, of course, I played in a rhythm-and-blues band and, obviously as you know, I played in rock bands. So, it goes on. All sorts of music are interesting. It doesn’t matter if it’s heavy metal or Albanian folk music.
The music I make comes from a variety of places, having done it such a long time. And one of the reasons that comes out, I think, is a sort of avoidance of anything generic. That’s clearly what this record and the previous one are about. They’re avoiding standard stuff.
It’s like pure music that speaks for itself. Music should come at you; you should be drawn to it. That’s what great music is. It’s not going to knock you out. It’s just there. That’s the subtle, sophisticated place to get to.
You’ve talked a couple of times about being a real musician. What do you think it takes to be a real musician playing at the highest level?
It can take your whole life. Just like any of the arts, you can learn things to a degree, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s wonderful to be engaged in ceramics, watercolors, violin, or whatever on the weekends.
But the greatest musicians always have the most innate feeling for rhythm and time. After that, you’ve got to be able to play great solos, phrase well, and do interesting timing—change the time, playing in and out of the time. This is what makes a great musician more than anything else. If you don’t have that, you’re never going to be that great.
You recently played solo guitar to some of the photographs you’ve taken around the world. How do your photos and travels inform your music?
Well, I have sort of sub-career as a photographer and have done over 40 shows at this point. I’m just about to put out another book. I’m very interested in the world and have traveled everywhere. I’ve been to Africa, all over Asia several times, and I think I might trek to China again this fall.
I think the two things inform one another. As an improviser, getting ready to just kind of get in there and react in the moment was very helpful for me in terms of photography when I was out in the world shooting. And I suppose in any media that I get involved in creatively, I listen for the condition of music.
Andy Summers improvises on a Gibson ES model at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, standing before a shifting collection of his photographs. You can hear a variety of delays, loops, reverbs, and modulation effects in play.
Kick off the holiday season by shopping for the guitar player in your life at Guitar Center! Now through December 24th 2022, save on exclusive instruments, accessories, apparel, and more with hundreds of items at their lowest prices of the year.
We’ve compiled this year’s best deals in the 2022 Holiday Gift Guide presented by Guitar Center.
DiMarzio, Inc. announces the Relentless P (DP299), the Relentless J Bridge (DP301), Relentless J Neck (DP300), and the Relentless J Pair (DP302) for 4 string basses.
DiMarzio, Inc. announces the release of the Relentless P (DP299), the Relentless J Bridge (DP301), Relentless J Neck (DP300), and the Relentless J Pair (DP302) for 4 string basses. The new Relentless P and Relentless J series pickups feature the Relentless cover designed in collaboration with Billy Sheehan.
As with the Relentless pickups, we removed all the hard edges from the standard P Bass and standard J Bass pickups, and added an arch to the top of the pickups to bring the sensing coils and pole pieces closer to the strings. These improvements increase the dynamic range and make active circuitry unnecessary.
The Relentless P and Relentless J pickups incorporate Neodymium magnets and produce 70 percent more output than traditional passive pickups, and they’re dead quiet due to the incorporation of metal covers and foil-shielded cables. To dial in (or fine-tune) the individual string output, the Relentless P and Relentless J include eight adjustable pole pieces. These pickups also have a broad magnetic field so you can even bend notes without volume dropout.
DiMarzio’s extra shielding makes the Relentless P and Relentless J better for both recording and stage performances. We’ve mounted them onto robust .09375” thick circuit board base plates to eliminate the annoying protruding mounting screws — ultimately creating a more comfortable and consistent foundation to rest your fingers on.
The new Relentless P steps beyond the traditional P-Bass sound and can only be described as massive. It has more of everything: more volume, beefier lows, a growling midrange, and crispy highs with better individual string definition.
The Relentless J incorporates a new invention, (patent pending) parallelogram-shaped coils, offering an expanded mid-range punch, snappy highs, precise lows, and a new dimension to the sound of the Relentless series pickups.
Relentless P and Relentless J pickups will breathe new life into any bass, increase playability, and work well for any style of music from Motown to metal.
DiMarzio’s Relentless P, Relentless J Bridge, Relentless J Neck, and Relentless J pair are made in the U.S.A. and may now be ordered for immediate delivery.
Suggested List Price for the Relentless P is $169.00 (MAP $119.99).
Suggested List Price for the Relentless J Bridge and Relentless J neck is $155.00 (MAP $109.99).
Suggested List Price for the Relentless J Pair is $296.00 (MAP 209.99).
For more information, please visit our website at dimarzio.com.
Mystery Stocking is coming soon! Sign up for PG Perks below so you don't miss it.
Sign up for PG Perks on the form below to make sure you don't miss the launch announcement!
About Mystery Stocking
Each year, Premier Guitar likes to put out these mystery boxes as a part of bringing some fun to the holiday season. Remember, this is supposed to be a fun holiday treat! If the contents of this box will ruin your holiday, deplete the last of your bank account, or end your ability to see the good in humanity, it may not be for you.
- This year's Mystery Stocking will cost $44.95. ($39.95 + $5 Flat shipping)
- Each box will be guaranteed to contain $40 or more in value.
- US only. (Sorry World.)
- Make sure your shipping address is correct.
- Have your credit card ready to go before you refresh the page. Paypal is not available. Autofill may not fill in your information.
- There will be NO REFUNDS given.
- There has been a huge demand for these in the past. We really did sell out in less than 4 minutes last year. When they are gone, they are gone.
- One per household, one per person.
Q: What's in the Mystery Stocking?
A: It wouldn't be much of a surprise if we told you, now would it?
Q: Will I definitely get my money worth?
Q: Can I return it if I don't like it?
A: Nope. All sales final.
Q: What if I live outside the US?
A: Sorry, US only.
Q. How much is it?
A. $39.95 Plus $5 shipping
Q. When will it ship?
A. On or before December 10, 2022.
Q. What form of payment do you accept?
A. Credit cards only. Sorry, no Paypal for this.
Q. Can I ship to a different location than my billing address?
Q. I tried last year and didn't get one. Will I get one this year?
A. There is an overwhelming demand for Mystery Stocking. Be sure you have a fast internet connection and be ready when they go on sale. Last year we sold out in 3 min 33 seconds.
Q. I want to buy 5. How can I buy 5?
A. You can't. This year, we're limiting to one per household, so more people can get in on the fun!
For part two of our crash course in harmony for bassists, we’re talkin’ triads.
As bass players, our job is often to indicate and support what is happening rhythmically and harmonically in the music we’re playing. And to do that, it’s important for us to understand the basics of tonality and how it works. In fact, every bass player must have a strong knowledge of harmony to do their job correctly. This month, we’ll continue last month’s harmony crash course with some more ways to brush up on your ear skills, in italics below, so you can do your low-end job effectively.
The basic building block of harmony is the dyad, which gives us our basic intervals. But the basic building block of tonality is the triad, a grouping of three or more tones (root, 3rd, and 5th) that give us the four chord qualities—major, minor, diminished, and augmented—which you’re probably already familiar with.
Just as with intervals, we should train our ears to recognize chord qualities instantly. Start with two qualities (major and minor). Once you can identify those two correctly about 95 percent of the time, add another. Keep going until you can identify all four qualities consistently.
Another great exercise is to take a melody (either major or minor) and convert it to the opposite quality. Start out with something you know well, like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” This may take a while at first, but the goal is to keep on doing these until you can convert most stuff on the fly instantly.
“This feeling of resolution, in some ways, is the whole point.”
Each chord quality has its own distinct sound, but major and minor are related, and both feel very grounded. Because of the 5th in each, our ears can easily hear which note in the chord is strongest (the root), which gives major and minor a sense of gravity. This feeling persists even if we change the order of the notes (invert the chord).
Have a friend or an app play inversions of major or minor triads. Find the root of each chord by singing it. Work towards being able to identify these triads in root position (root in the bass), first inversion (3rd in the bass), or second inversion (5th in the bass).
Pay attention to bass lines that land on a root, 3rd, or 5th on the first beat of the bar and then practice coming up with your own examples.
Diminished and augmented triads are much more ambiguous. Without a perfect fifth (diminished has a b5 and augmented has a #5), no tone in particular sounds strongest. Thus, both chords lack gravity. In fact, to most of us, every tone sounds equal, like being lost in the woods where every direction appears the same. Both seem to want to move towards something else more stable. When this occurs, it gives a sense of release, or resolution. This feeling of resolution, in some ways, is the whole point.
The top part of a dominant seventh or V7 chord is a diminished triad. For example, a C7 consists of the notes C–E–G–Bb. If you remove the C, we’re left with an E diminished triad. This is where the moving sound, or the desire to resolve, comes from. The important takeaway is that we’re making something very stable—a major chord—and making it less stable when we add the b7, because of the diminished sound, which in turn sets up the need to resolve.
Listening for V–I: On a guitar or keyboard play any major chord, then add a b7 (transforming I to V7) and try to hear where the progression “wants” to go next. Move to the new key (a fifth down) and repeat. After twelve V–I progressions you’ll arrive back at the original key.
The Dominant Gateway: On bass, try playing a walking bass pattern over the cycle of fifths, strategically using a b7 to move to the next key. This foreshadowing is a great voice-leading skill.
That's all for our crash course in harmony. If you take your time with these exercises, you should notice not only your ears improving, but your bass playing too!