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Gearing up with Billy Squier

Gearing up with Billy Squier

Billy Squier talks about his gear, playing with Ringo, and touring.

When you hear the name Billy Squier, a collection of early MTV hits usually comes to mind: “Everybody Wants You,” “In The Dark,” “The Stroke,” “Rock Me Tonite,” “My Kinda Lover,” “Lonely Is The Night,” and so on. But you may not realize what an accomplished and diverse guitar player he is, and that he’s also done several tours with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. Having worked with Squier on several projects, I found him incredibly passionate about both his work and his instruments. Recently, I caught up with him at SIR studios in New York while he was preparing for his own upcoming summer tour.

So, tell me about the Ringo tours.

Playing with Ringo is just great. It’s one of the greatest gigs in the world for many reasons. Obviously, you’re playing with a Beatle, which puts you in rarefied territory right off the bat. You get to play with great musicians doing great music that you normally wouldn’t do, and it’s always nice to play new stuff. You travel in Beatle class, so it’s really not like touring in the traditional sense.

You’re just hopping around the country and playing some shows, and it’s really enjoyable and very supportive. I feel good about who I am—kind of like an elder statesman, in a way. You know, you’ve spent your whole career doing your music, and you end up on stage playing with Ringo, and it feels good. I feel like, “I really got somewhere after all.” It’s a win situation on all fronts. And Ringo is just one of the band; he doesn’t come on like a Beatle at all. He asks you what you want to do with your songs, and he really just likes to play. He appreciates the band and really makes you feel like he’s glad you’re there.

What did you bring out on that tour?

Well, I always have my ’59 Les Paul burst. My ’58 never goes out, because it’s mint. People think I’m crazy to take the guitars I take out now, but I don’t collect guitars, I play them. If I didn’t have my ’59, I would take the ’58 out. I also take out my ’58 goldtop with PAFs as a backup for my burst. The main guitar I use with Ringo is actually my ’57 Strat. I also bring my Nocaster and ’56 Les Paul Special and ’56 Junior.

How about your amps?

With Ringo I use Bogner Ecstasy Customs. I got them originally because my Marshalls would just be too loud. My Marshalls are great for what I do as a solo artist, but they’re not as versatile as the Bogners. Those have three channels, so I can set them up for, say, a country sound for Ringo, an overdrive channel, or a plexi channel. It’s a great amp, but it doesn’t sound like my Marshalls.

Tell me about those amps.

I’ve got 10 or 12 of these heads that I’ve had since the early ‘70s. I have a few that are a bit later, but the ones I use are the old Super Lead 100s. Frank Levi reworked these for me over the course of many nights of creative abuse. He’d start out with an idea and I’d try it, and then we’d just keep going until we got what we wanted. I love the way these sound because they don’t compress. They have the classic Marshall tone, but don’t compress into that midrange ‘box.’ I set the volume around 2, but they sound like they’re on 12—they’re incredibly powerful.

As for cabinets, I use a 4x12” that has two Celestions and two old Altec silver cones, which haven’t been made since 1952. I have a bunch of those that I pair off. The Altecs give me the bright, clear sound without being brittle. They have a really nice balance—really clean with some warmth, too. The Celestions of course give me that classic breakup.

So what’s in your rack?

It’s the ‘59 burst and a ‘58. I also have two guitars made by James Trussart, a great French guitar builder out of Los Angeles. I discovered one of those in Chicago last year when I was out with Ringo. I never buy new guitars, but I had to have this. I met him out in LA, and we designed another one, which is basically a Strat in a Les Paul-style body. It’s got single coils in it, because I like Strats so much. All my other guitars have stock pickups.

I also have a ‘56 Les Paul Special, which has been in my collection the longest—I’ve had that since 1974. That was my first single cutaway Paul. I usually use it for slide, but with Ringo I tuned it down for songs where I wanted to play a certain position in a lower key. I haven’t used it for a long time as a main guitar because I have these other great ones, but when I was doing the set list for this tour and trying to minimize guitar changes, I started playing it again. I tell you, it’s one of the best sounding guitars I’ve ever played in my life. I had all my amps tweaked to go out on the road, and this one amp came back and something happened to that too, and that amp and the Special were amazing—classic P-90 tones and virtually unlimited sustain anywhere on the fretboard. Gibson also wired this out of phase, so in the middle position you get that skinny Peter Green sound he made famous. So I use that on the first part of the show, then the burst, then ’57 Strat for “The Stroke” in drop- D. I also use the Trussart/TV Jones.

How about that Telecaster custom?

I actually haven’t taken that out for a long time; it’s the “Don’t Say No” guitar. I love that one, but I haven’t used it that much lately because it’s not versatile enough. I wanted to bring it out because it has an iconic status to me. So I’m taking out eight guitars this time: the ‘59 burst, the ’58 goldtop and the Special, the Tele Custom, two Strats—my ‘57 and ‘63 rosewood—and the two Trussarts. It’s more than I need, but that’s ok.

How do you protect your hearing?

Actually, I don’t. Probably the best way to protect my hearing is that I don’t play that much. I don’t go on the road all the time, so that’s helped, and at home I never listen to loud music. When I play, I play loud—I’m not doing myself any favors. On this tour, we’re using in-ear monitors. At first, I was a bit skeptical, but I’m actually getting used to it. It’s a total change, and when you’re used to doing something your whole life it’s like, whoa.

So how do you “connect” with in-ears?

There’s definitely a learning curve. I’ve only been using them for two weeks, and it’s totally different from wedges. When you’re normally on stage the sound is all around you and it’s very open, but when you put these on it’s right between your ears. But I have to say, they’ve been great for singing.

Why is that?

The reason is, you can put your voice on top of everything. You’re never battling the rest of the mix. You don’t have to sing as hard, and you have more control. Yesterday, I was singing like a big fat gospel singer in church.

So that aspect is great, but the thing I don’t like, which is sorting itself out, is that the guitars don’t sound as big. You don’t get the sound that develops away from the amp. But now every day that I play, I find I’m forgetting what wedges were like, simply because I’m not using them. So this is becoming my new consciousness, and I’m not comparing them to wedges. On a lot of my records, I used a stereo delay on my voice. I’d figure it out for each song, but it would generally be 25–50 ms and split them left and right. I remembered that idea when I started with the in-ears, and now I have that spread. My voice sounds big in my ears, and instead of it being pinpointed in the center, it’s spread across my mix, but not affected and processed. It sounds pretty much like me on my records.

Rich Tozzoli
Rich is a producer, engineer and mixer who has worked with artists ranging from Al DiMeola to David Bowie. A life-long guitarist, he’s also the author of Pro Tools Surround Sound Mixing and composes for such networks as Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon and National Geographic.