Oliver Ackermann of A Place to Bury Strangers joins us in discussing the players we'd pick to portray if we got our chance on the big screen. Plus: musical obsessions!
Question: If you could play the role of any guitarist in a biopic, who would it be and why?
Oliver Ackermann — A Place to Bury Strangers
Photo by Tyler Barclay
A: If I could play anyone in a biopic it would be Kurt Cobain. I definitely don't qualify as the most obsessed fan of all time. That perhaps goes to the runaway I drove around in my '89 Caprice constantly requesting to rewind back to "Drain You" over and over again.
Kurt Cobain interviewed on Boston's WFNX radio, September 1991.
Photo by Julie Kramer
But Kurt for sure gave me the confidence that I could write a song and I just dove in and never looked back. I also think I could figure out those guitar parts, so there would be no weird miming to some complex solos. The real reason to do this, though, would be one of my favorite pastimes: jumping into drum sets.
Nirvana - Drain You (Live at Reading 1992) (Official Music Video)
Oliver Ackermann's Current Obsession:
Beyond-destroyed sounds. I guess that's always been my obsession, so it's more of a lifestyle. There's a little constant fight that goes on in my head where I think "this is just too messed up—what about pure fat sine waves, distinguishable rhythms, beautiful harmonies, and dreamy melodies?" And then when it comes down to it, it's just more exciting to swing a strobe light over your head and play a little AC interference. The other thing that's important is there ain't no faking. I better be drilling into my pickup or throwing my amp through the air. More high definition than surround sound 182 kHz is standing right next to me when I rip the strings off my guitar.
Sarah Gutierrez — Reader of the Month
A: Nancy Wilson. How could I miss the '70s and '80s—that's why!!! I grew up listening to Heart and being in a female fronted group would be a dream. I really loved her work on the movie Vanilla Sky. I remember frantically searching for who played, "Elevator Beat" in a movie that moved me. It certainly pulled at the heart strings.
Elevator Beat - Nancy Wilson
Sarah Gutierrez's Current Obsession:
Royal Blood having Josh Homme as a producer for "Boilermaker" on Typhoons blew me away, along with Mike Kerr's riffs. Hometown & young self-produced "Drown." I love the drums! These boys from Gen Z really are the future of music. Des Rocs made my cry about following your dream when I saw them live in October. I love to turn up Cleopatrick as loudly and often as possible. Recently discovering Nothing but Thieves' self-titled album (heavily influenced by Jeff Buckley) gave me life—I'm thrilled to see them in Chicago next year.
Royal Blood - Boilermaker (Official Video)
Tessa Jeffers — Managing Editor
A: Kim Gordon. I'm not much into Sonic Youth, but I love Kim's solo stuff. She's a great bass player, and her guitar playing is raw and powerful (just like her voice).
Years ago, I read her biography, Girl in a Band, and it's a wildly interesting look into an artful life. She's a bold creator who rose out of the shadows of men to claim her own space, and I'm here for that.
Tessa Jeffers' Current Obsession:
French music. Recently I came across a rad song by Les Artisans called "Theoreme," and it prompted me to seek out other French artists. I knew Edith Piaf and Savages well, but new ones for me include La Femme, Christine and the Queens, and Serge Gainsbourg, who's apparently the "Elvis of France." J'adore!
Theoreme - Les Artisans (audio)
Joe Gore — Contributing Writer
A: Hector Berlioz, the great 19th century French composer. Unlike nearly all classical composers, he didn't compose at a keyboard. He wrote everything on guitar and a little whistle—including his revolutionary Symphonie Fantastique and the massive opera Les Troyens. Despite his humble tools, he's considered one of the greatest orchestrators ever. (Sadly, he never composed for guitar—only with it.) But the fun part would be portraying his larger-than-life personality. Talk about attitude! He was ambitious, angry, arrogant, and unspeakably funny. His prose is as amazing as his compositions, especially his Mémoires, my fave book about classical music. (Free English-language edition here.) On page one he writes, "I was brought up in the Catholic faith—the most charming of religions since it stopped burning people." And the snark never stops.
Joe Gore's Current Obsession:
Baude Cordier's "Belle Bonne Sage," a 14th-century love song notated in the form of a heart.
Medieval music! When I was a teen, my plan was to go into academia, specializing in early music. Life decreed otherwise. But now, in late middle age, I'm returning to the late Middle Ages. I've just recorded my first-ever solo album: a compilation of 14th-century pieces. I play the notes exactly as written, but using modern instruments, including lots of electric guitar. To modern listeners unfamiliar with the style, it sounds like music from Mars: eerie, beautiful, and totally frickin' weird. (Example: This love song by Baude Cordier, notated in the form of a heart.)
The Valco-produced English Tonemaster is a rare, lap-steel-inspired gem from the 1950s—when genres and guitar design were fluid.
The 1950s were a peculiar time for the electric guitar. Innovators, designers, and tinkerers were pushing the boundaries of the instrument, while musicians were experimenting with various playing techniques and sounds. There was an evolution of sorts (or de-evolution, depending on your slant) from solidbody “sit-down” guitars, like pedal and lap steels, to “stand-up” or “upright” solidbody electrics. If you look at an early Fender catalog—let’s say from 1953—you’ll see the Telecaster (and Esquire), the Precision Bass, and then a whole bunch of steel guitars. There was a shift underway, and many manufacturers began to blur the lines of what a guitar should look, sound, and play like.
So, let’s examine a guitar from the mid-’50s that had a bit of a personality crisis, born out of the American Valco Company, which also suffered from fits of mania … but in the best ways. I’ve spoken about the company a lot in this column, but to summarize: Chicago-based Valco made instruments under several different brand names, including Supro, Airline, National, and Oahu. They were a quirky organization with a lot of interesting ideas and build styles. One of Valco’s lesser-known brands was English Electronics, which was sold out of a music store/studio in Lansing, Michigan.
Here's a look at the distinctive strings-through bridge pickup.
The English Electronics Tonemaster is a perfect example of this transitional era in instrument production. Half lap steel and half electric guitar, this model was meant to appeal to all sorts of players and was totally unique. There was a similar and more common model in the Supro-branded lineup, the Supro Sixty, which made its appearance in the 1955 catalog and was among the first standard Supro electrics to feature a lap-steel pickup. Both the Supro Sixty and the English Electronics Tonemaster came equipped with similar single volume and tone knobs as well as that same pickup, whose design allowed for the strings to pass through the middle. In the Supro catalog, the pickup was described this way: “The dynamic ‘locked-power’ unit design provides the sensitive extra responsive punch that Western ‘take-off’ players are always looking for—each string has its own individual adjustment to assure perfect string output balance.”
The English Tonemaster logo on the headstock is straight out of 1950s industrial design.
That lap-steel pickup in the bridge position made for a real treble-laden adventure. I love the “take-off” tone descriptor used in the catalog, because when one of these is dialed in, the guitar surely does have a sharp attack. The Supro Sixty was renamed the 1560S Ozark around 1958, but it kept the unique lap-steel unit at the bridge. The Supro Sixty/Ozark was cool and had a good five-year run. But the lesser-known, way cooler, and way rarer, cousin the Tonemaster was the king-daddy!
Half lap steel and half electric guitar, this model was meant to appeal to all sorts of players and was totally unique for its time.
I’ve never seen an English Electronics catalog and I don’t know anything about the owner, Norman English, but I do know that one reason this guitar was unique in the Valco lineup was that it sported not one, but two, pickups: that lap-steel pickup at the bridge and a proprietary Valco unit at the neck. That neck pickup, which is often confused for a humbucker, is actually an in-house designed, patented single-coil with some amazing tones to offer. With these two units, the sound of the Tonemaster was wide-ranging, going from nasally and thin at the bridge to thick and loud at the neck. The Tonemaster also included a pickup switch, but the one on mine was more like a blender without a detent for each position. I’m not sure if my switch was broken or if it worked as intended. Thankfully, Valco used a serial number plate, often found on the back of the headstock, and that number put this guitar in the 1957 range.
The bridge pickup cover is on in this shot. The neck pickup is a single-coil, despite appearances.
Stuff like this makes me ponder the era when electric guitars and lap steels were transitioning to different styles of music and playability, and there weren’t many definitive lines between country & Western, rock ’n’ roll, swing, and rockabilly. Things were blurred and woven into one another, as they are in this guitar!
1950s English Electronics Tonemaster Guitar Demo
ESP Guitars announces 43 new LTD and LTD Deluxe guitar models to kick off the new year.
Detailed information and specifications for all “New for 2022” ESP and LTD guitar models is available at the ESP web site at espguitars.com