My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player (January 1989)

Jan - 19
2019

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player (January 1989)

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The January, 1989 issue of Guitar Player marked a return to form; after several months of lackluster issues that don’t really stand out when re-reading them today, the industry standard publication kicked off a new year with a very solid issue. While the annual Reader’s Poll suffered from the same problems that eventually caused it’s demise (readers basically vote for favorites even if they haven’t released any new music; or they only vote for people covered in GP), it is cool to see who our fellow guitarists considered to be top of the pile at the time. The issue also had good interviews with Joe Satriani (who won the “Triple Crown” for Best Overall Guitarist, Best New Talent and Best Guitar Album), Les Paul, Mark Egan, and producer David Kershenbaum, among others. Revisiting the interview with Kershenbaum (who was riding the high of having produced Tracy Chapman’s debut long-player) gave me lots of ideas about recording acoustic guitars. I know that the article with Les Paul is pretty much where I learned everything about the pioneering electric guitarist and inventor, but re-reading the article shows that the septuagenarian still had a lot of fire and competitive spirit.  And the Reader’s Poll section (and second interview in a year with Satriani) has lots of small gems as well.

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David Kershenbaum has been a producer and A&R man for acts like Supertramp, Kenny Loggins, Joe Jackson and many others. He also produced Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album, which at the time this article was written was in the Top 10 in America, England, West Germany, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands.  The interview with Jas Obrecht has several valuable tips for recording acoustic guitars and “singer/songwriters” that are still applicable three decades later.

What was your strategy for [the album] Tracy Chapman?

Instead of building the songs around basic tracks and high-tech sampled sounds, drum machines and the like, I built them around Tracy’s voice and acoustic guitar first, using them as the catalyst for each song’s ultimate personality. Once I had her guitar and vocal sounds, I invited bass players and drummers over. We listened to maybe 15 or 20 of them play with her, just to get the right mix of people and sounds. The key to Tracy, and the value of this production, was knowing what not to add.

What’s the best way to record an acoustic guitar?

With microphones. We use a lot of Neumann’s and AKGs. For a while I was using a Calrec with Joe Jackson. We usually just pull out a bunch of different kinds and listen until we find just the right one, because the overtones are so important. One mic might be really good for the little picking sounds in the high end, but it might have too big of a bump in the middle part of the bottom, so it gets too woofy and boomy. …It’s better to find something that’s closest to what you’re trying to get, mood-wise, and then get the best sound that you can with that.

What about transducer and soundhole pickups?

They have their place. Frequency-wise, I’ve never thought they were quite as friendly as the right mic in the right place. They do have a little tighter sound, and they are very good for effects or if you want to go through an amp. But with the right mic in the right room, you can just get all those classic overtones. Anything on or inside the body isn’t going to get the room sound the way a mic can from a couple of inches off the neck.

There is a lot more (including where to place a mic, the role of outboard pre-amps, and the virtue of recording in the vocal booth. What I liked about re-reading this was that thanks to modern technology, it is possible for anyone to take advantage of these ideas. I don’t have unlimited funds to buy gear and I don’t have an Elektra recording contract like Tracy Chapman did, but thanks to modeling technology, plugins, and computer recording software, I too can experiment with a wide range of microphones and positions. Pretty cool. Meanwhile, I’m definitely going to seek out music that Kershenbaum produced and see if I can pick up any more good ideas.

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Warren Sirota’s interview with Les Paul definitely provides information about Paul’s role in developing the solid-body electric guitar and multi-track recording, as well as his recording and television fame in the 1950s with his then wife, Mary Ford. But the bulk of the interview is putting over Les’ then-weekly shows at New York’s Fat Tuesday (which eventually moved to the Iridium until his death 20 years after this article was published); the septuagenarian shows a feisty interest in a wide-range of topics and he comes off as opinionated and funny as heck. Here are some excerpts:

Tell us about the [Fat Tuesdays] gig

It’s doing fantastically well, like opening night every week. The bass player is Gary Nazzaroppi, and the guitar player is Lou Pazzo. They’re both excellent. The guys have excellent time and ears like hawks, so we can just go in there; we don’t rehearse anything. The audience calls out the tunes, and we play ’em by ear. We have special guests sitting in with us all the time. George Benson was in a couple of weeks ago; Monty Alexander was here on piano. We’ve also had Tal Farlow, Herb Ellis, Jimmy Page, Mark Knopfler, Johnny Smith, Eddie Van Halen, Rich Sambora, Al Di Meola, and Steve Miller. They’re fine players, and we just have a ball.

You never know what I’m gonna do. I’m into a country song at the drop of a hat. I might be playing “Lover” and some guy gets up and goes to the men’s room. I murder him because I tell him, “You mean to tell me you’re going to go to the men’s room right when I’m playing one of my best numbers?” So we go into some hokey hillbilly song, right in the middle of “Lover”. And as soon as he comes out, I say, “Well, he’s back” and without saying a word, we go right back into “Lover”.

You really know your schtick, don’t you?

Showmanship is very important. People go out to be entertained, and you can entertain them by playing what they want…When you’re playing that first number, you know if they buy or they don’t buy. You’ve got to go on and off with a bang. From the audience’s point of view, though, the ending is more important than the beginning. If you mess up on the ending, it’s over. You just signed your death warrant. You gotta be careful about those endings. You gotta know where the hell you’re going.

I once told Mary that no one would remember the first number she sang, no matter what kind of entrance she made. And Mary said “I’ll take a bet on that.” So I said, “All right. You go out the stage door, and you sign all those autographs. Ask as many as you like “what was the first number?’ I’ll be damn surprised if you win this bet.”  Nobody knew the first number, You know why? Because they’re looking at you, and thinking, “Jesus Christ, I didn’t think he looked like that. I thought he was a lot fatter. What kind of guitar does he have? Jeez, that’s a nice sound. Huh! Look how he holds his hands. Look at the shoes! Look at Mary’s gown! Look how pretty she is!” They’re giving you the once-over, and they make a decision in less than a minute. And if they buy you, at the end of the first number you’re home. But if they don’t buy you, you’re finished.

Does it matter which night you play?

Oh yes. Saturday is a train wreck. Saturday, the guy missed a plane, it’s raining out, they’re gonna go someplace–they don’t care where, but they’re gonna go out. So you get every farmer and chicken plucker out there. But on a Monday night you get pros–waiters, waitresses, singers, entertainers, club owners, and everything. That’s why I prefer playing on Mondays. But a pro knows how to entertain a Monday crowd all the way through Saturday.

What do you think of today’s MIDI instruments?

The tracking problems are really severe, and there’s such a delay on the low strings. It takes time for the MIDI box to figure out what the note is, and then there’s all the idiosyncrasies that go with the good and bad of hammer ons, pull offs, and such. The synthesizer doesn’t seem to agree with a lot of things. The player has to change his whole style and abide by the machine, and that’s absolutely wrong. Right now, all kinds of things are happening that are frustrating to the performer, so he’s a wreck. By the time they get him out, he’s ready for a psychiatrist. So you can readily understand that I am not satisfied with MIDI as it stands now.

Asking me ‘what do you think of the synthesizer?’ is like asking me what I had for dinner on United Airlines. I had some synthetic dessert with–I can’t tell you what it was. It wasn’t whipped cream, but it looked like it. It wasn’t custard, but it looked like it. And I had something that was synthetic eggs, it was made from some kind of plastics or whatever it is. And finally, you get off United Airlines, a guy asks you what you had for dinner, and you say “God damn if I know.” And when you listen to some of the music today, when they get done, you say, “Well, what was that–and where’s the melody?” Strong songwriting is still more important than a lot of flashy sounds.

That’s another subject that seems to be escaping lots of the performers out there. A great song deserves to be played and deserves to have people going down the street humming it. You can see the problem now in show after show, where you get maybe three guitar players onstage, and they’ll sit up there for an hour playing runs until you’ve got the runs. You’ve heard nothing but E7 and Am for an hour….How much can you hear of speed? You want speed, take a pill. Picture someone saying to Segovia, “Heard you last night. Boy, you sure played fast!”

You’re a pretty fast player yourself though.

I’m a fast player, but I sit down and make ’em wait for the run, and I only put in the run where it belongs. Hopefully, it’s not disturbing the melody. When you come down to the club, you know which tune I’m playing before you’ve even gotten in the room. I was in a jazz joint a few years back….Finally, I said to my girlfriend, ‘That last number–did you like it?” And she said, “Oh yeah, that was very nice.” I asked “What was the name of it?” She said, “I don’t know. It was one of their things. I don’t know what it was.” The owner of the club didn’t know either, neither did anyone at the bar. The guitar player came over to me afterwards, and I told him that my girlfriend didn’t know the name of the song, although I did. He said, “You’re putting me on, Les! It was “How High The Moon”! But when you start out with the third chorus, and you skip the first two, you’re out in the wilderness somewhere and nobody can whistle it. The melody has to come back.

Strong stuff! I love reading these perspectives from someone with such a long history of performing in vaudeville, clubs, radio, television and everything in between. He was definitely an opinionated man, but it’s hard to say he was wrong about anything here. I particularly like this final quote:”I remember 10 years ago when someone who was rather concerned asked me what I thought about the synthesizer. He said, “in 10 years, the guitar will be extinct and the synthesizer will be it.” My reply was, “Never. The guitar will not only remain but it will be the backbone of most groups.” And I’ve yet to see a guy on a horse playing a synthesizer.

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The interview with Joe Satriani was also conducted by Jas Obrecht, and it is a great counterpoint to the excellent interview from the February, 1988 cover story. This is quite interesting for Rolling Stones fans, because Satch describes the process of being hired by Mick Jagger for Jagger’s solo tour (the one that almost broke up the Stones). But the part that jumped out the most to me was this amazing bit of technological prophecy (which is more impressive that Les Paul’s musings):

We have guitar synths, locking whammies, digital effects. What’s missing? What should be invented?

A new way to project sound. Something that replaces the setup of an audience filing into a room and facing paper-cone speakers blaring at their faces. Having an amp line and a PA line and microphones is an almost hilariously archaic setup. We’re gonna look like cave men in a couple of years when they finally figure out that speakers are a very crude thing. The difference will be like going from the earliest Victrola to a CD or DAT machine–and just look at the technological leap there. But as far as speakers go, not much has really been done. It seems to me that there should be a way to create sound in a space around your head. This sounds like Star Trek, but let’s say I had the coordinates for where your head is right now–X for depth and Y for width–and I could tell a computer to project Surfing with the Alien at these coordinates. This sound particle beam dispenser or whatever it is would excite soundwaves at only those coordinates. Suddenly you’d be enveloped in sound that wouldn’t be subject to the room’s acoustics, because it’s not being filtered through the atmosphere and broken up by the potted plants, the fan on the ceiling, the chairs and tables, and everyone with their jackets and hairdos. We’d be in full control of what you hear. Then if you moved your head out of coordinates X and Y, you’d be out of the sound.

 

This is pretty wild stuff, but what’s really wild is that it is almost here! I was recently reading about MSG Sphere, a new venue opening in Las Vegas soon. According to the article in Rolling Stone, it will have “157,000 ultra-directional speakers, that are designed by a German start-up, Holoplot, that specializes in targeting narrow soundbeams, so each section gets its own sound (per MSG, audio in different languages could even be beamed to different sections).” Pretty amazing stuff. I hope Joe gets a piece of the action!

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At the end of the Les Paul interview, he observes, “Have you noticed that there are millions of guitar players, but it’s still difficult to find five great ones? This applies to singers, violinists, you name it….Superstars with real talent, God seems to make sure it’s a limited run. Am I wrong?” Well, considering that this was the Reader’s Poll issue, the answer seems to be yes. Despite some of the drawbacks I pointed out above, it is noteworthy how diverse the poll was (in terms of styles of music); I don’t know that we would see such a poll nowadays.  Here are the winners:

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That’s it for this month. I’ll be back to discuss the February issue, with a cover story on “The Art of Improvisation” in a few weeks. Until then, keep on picking!

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