By Nicholas Webb
You’d been playing a semi acoustic 175, and suddenly there was this guitar synth. What happened? Was it love at first sight?
Basically, the people in our music store got this thing in and asked if I wanted to try it, it was that blue Roland box, the GR-300. I’d tried every other guitar synthesizer and had even bought a couple of them, the Avatar and the Patch 2000, which I messed around with for two or three nights then put in my closet, because they were just unplayable!
They’re still there actually, I think I’m going to start a synthesizer museum at some point, because I’ve got them all now!
I just picked the GR-300 up and I couldn’t believe it, because it worked! I could play all my kind of weird phrasings and it translated. I’d always had people design these guitars so I could play up an octave, but they never worked; the frets would always run out, whereas I wanted another 8 or 9 notes. I wanted to buy this thing there and then, because I knew if everybody gets hip to this they’re all going to have to have one. This was five years ago, and to this day, with the exception of John McLaughlin and Adrian Belew, few people are buying a guitar synthesizer! I just don’t understand.
Did you start by playing your old licks when you picked it up, things that you happened to be playing?.
Not really, I immediately started playing things I never would play.
What’s the difference in technique between playing the electric and the electronic guitar?
Well, the main difference is the psychological one; you have to stop thinking about it as a guitar, because it no longer is a guitar. The guitar has very little to do with it, other than as a means of talking to a computer and it’s translating what you want to tell it.
We are conditioned to think synthesizer/keyboard; synthesizers are little electronic circuits, which you turn on and off. When you play these guys, you are just turning them on and off, so you have to learn to think like the instrument you’re playing. The Roland has a high trumpet sound, which I particularly like and when I’m using it I tend to not think like a guitar player, but rather like a horn player and have always done so, even in my guitar playing, in the sense that I like to have natural ’breaths; which sound natural if I were playing a wind instrument. All that was immediately translated, but there were even a lot of phrasing things which might sound all right on a guitar, but on a trumpet they would sound real stiff. You have to think in those terms.
The main difference in terms of actual guitar technique is again one that I had been working on anyway and which just sort of happened to translate over quite well. You have to play very light and very dean. If you pick real hard it tends to make a sound which isn’t dear to the converter, but if it hears a pure tone, or just the note, it tracks real fast. I’ve met a lot of guys who ask how you can actually play guitar synthesizers, because they don’t track, but they are generally the people who pick real hard and that’s hard for the computer to digest.
So at the end of the track Are You Going With Me, for the powerful phrases which sound like you’re really attacking the guitar, you are actually just touching it?
Well, whether I’m playing as hard as I can as loud or whatever, I’ve always tried to be completely loose. That’s a very important quality for me, which I don’t think unfortunately many guitar players have. When guitar players play fast, you can see them tighten up and inevitably, to me, it translates as stiff music. It may be great guitar playing, but I don’t like to hear people trying, I want to just hear the music, which I’ve found is when you’re real loose. Watching good drummers like Jack DeJohnette and Roy Haynes, you see the sticks are practically falling out of their hands, but they are playing the meanest stuff and the very best guitar players tend to be very loose as well, like Jim Hall.
As far as technical differences go, you have to be quite a bit more accurate in terms of pitches; like you play the guitar you slide over a string and touch it real quick, because the guitar has no sustain quality unless you’re holding down the string. If you’re playing a sound on a guitar synthesizer which has got a long sustain you only play one note but it sounds like five notes are ringing. If you accidentally touch another note, the computer registers that you want to play a harmonic there.
Those are problems which I personally feel are less the problems of the player and more problems of the technology. The technology is good, but even with the Synclavier, which is the best tracking of them all, they still have a bit of work to do. To me, anybody should be able to pick up the Synclavier and not change their technique at all, but just be able to play and they just aren’t there yet, but they will be.
What equipment do you use? You’ve got a Roland controller...
Yeah, actually Roland controller is a term that people now use for the guitar; it’s a Roland G-303, which are good guitars and I’ve got a bunch of those. It’s the first time I’ve ever played a solid body guitar and at first I was a little reluctant to get into that, but I now feel really close to them. The neck has a Les Paul kind of feel with Gibson scale as opposed to a Fender. I’m used to that having played a 175.
What about your back line equipment?.
I’ve always used the same basic set up with a couple of recent modifications. I’ve been using my main amp for 11 years now, it’s an old Acoustic 134, with a bunch of Yamaha stuff.
I’m using the Roland GR-300 guitar synthesizer in addition to the Synclavier controller and I’ve also recently started using the Roland GR-700, because it has a MIDI output, which I can trigger the Kurzweil from. That really sounds like a piano, then you ask why I would want to sound like a piano and I’d answer, because I have three priorities as a musician; the first is to be a musician, to have a band and that sort of thing, second is to be a composer and third on the list is to be a guitar player. I’ve never seen my main priority as being a great guitar player; I play the guitar quite well, but I think that more important than that is my music, which doesn’t necessarily have to be on the guitar. Some of the tunes I write, I feel are as much a statement as anything I would ever play on a guitar, and it’s intriguing to me, as a band leader, to try to explore all the possibilities that are available to us now with the guitar for filling roles other than that of the soloist; playing chords on the guitar synthesizer, behind everything, can make me part of a synthesizer ensemble, as well as being the guitar player.
I don’t feel I’m losing anything, I am in fact gaining more options. I can still play the guitar acoustically, in fact I think with an even greater appreciation of what it means to say that I’m playing an acoustic instrument.
Do you play much acoustic guitar then?
I play more and more all the time. The more I get into synthesizers, the more acoustic guitar I play, and it’s really weird! I think it’s because you sit there and mess with knobs for half a day, working on a sound, when you pick up an acoustic guitar, it immediately sounds fresh and you realize that hip though these synthesizers are, they’re thousands of years away from having the power an acoustic instrument has.
It’s the challenge of it then in a way?
It is the challenge...but a lot of it is the way I use synthesizers and the Syndavier. I use these things as music processors, in the same way as people use word processors. I mean, it doesn’t matter what style of music you play, you’re still dealing with chunks; you have an A section and a B section and you have to find a bridge. Composing with the Synclavier, you can try the sections in different combinations, print them out, look at them, change the key, you can do all the things you would want to do with any kind of text, the music becomes a malleable unit. If you work on a tape, you’ve got to redo it each time you want to change something.
Whenever I start talking about all this technology and how into it I am, it’s quite easy to get lost in it, but one thing I do believe real strongly is that you, the person, have to provide the music. None of this stuff is going to do you any good if you don’t have anything to say, it’s not going to help, in fact, all its going to do is make it more obvious that you don’t have anything to say. If you write a good tune, it doesn’t matter if you play it on a fifty thousand dollar Synclavier or a twelve ninety-five guitar, if it’s a good tune it will sound like a good tune and if its not it won’t. There’s nothing you can do about it. There are no short cuts to being a good musician, and people have been finding this out for thousands of years. The more this technology grows, the more people are going to find out that there are no short cuts!
Why do you think you’ve had such a lot of success?
Well, I know two of the reasons. One is that we tour non-stop and by virtue of playing live have had personal contact with millions of people. We play between 200 and 300 nights a year, and there are between 2,000 and 5,000 people each time. If you add that up, it’s a lot of people and a certain percentage of that audience wants to have a record, which sells a lot of records. The other is that we deliver the goods live; we play really long and hard and it shows, even though we sound much better live than on records.
The new album was the first time I’ve come out of a studio situation and not wanted to find the nearest bridge and jump off it! I mean it really felt great! In fact there are a couple of tracks on there that, if I were to leave town tomorrow for good, it would be OK, because there are a couple of things on there that I’ve always wanted to get on a record and finally did . Not anything specific in terms of guitar playing, but just a feeling...
What are they, particular tracks?
Yeah, the ballad If I Could, was the first time I’ve ever had the experience of playing something in the studio, and after finishing playing it, being glad that the tape was running because I’ll never ever be able to do it again; like one of those special moments that happen, not every night, but almost every night. Usually when you see that red light go on, you know it’s going to be transcribed in a guitar magazine or something, and you start thinking all the wrong things like quote:what if I make a mistake!" But that whole day it was just loose and we were having a blast; the stuff was sounding good and we were having fun.
Do you have a specific guitar maker?
Yeah, there’s a girl in Canada called Linda Manzer, who’s made me five guitars now and they’re fantastic. She made me an incredible six string guitar, which I used on Lonely Woman on the ’Rejoicing’ record, that’s the clearest example of what it sounds like. She has also made me a twelve string and an eight string guitar which has a sitar effect. She made me two miniature guitars; a tiple, which is twelve string with the strings in three groups of four, rather than six groups of two and an alto guitar, which is about half way between a regular guitar scale and this mini one.
On the film sound track I did a couple of weeks ago that we were talking about earlier, I play no guitar at all except at the end, when I play one tune on a miniature Ibanez guitar. It’s tuned up an octave, but looks like my 175, with a hollow body and it’s a great instrument.
Did you have it made especially for you?
Yeah, well I kind of suggested it to them. They always make mini Les Paul or Strat type guitars and tune them to regular pitch, so I thought why not make something a bit different. I think it will be coming out soon. Playing live, which guitars do you use? I’m using a Guild six string on a stand in a Nashville tuning, that’s where the top two strings are the same, the bottom four strings are restrung and tuned up an octave so you can play all your normal voicings but they come out backwards. It’s a really wild tuning!
I’ve got the three Rolands for different things; one is for the Syndavier, one has a vibrato and the other has no vibrato. Each one goes with different tunes. I’m also using an Ovation six string, classical with a pickup on it, and a Fender acoustic twelve string, on one set only, because it was the cheapest one I could find in a music store! I needed a twelve string that I could tune to an open chord and bang on it.
I’m using a Coral Electric Sitar on one tune, which has a real cool sound and an Ibanez electric twelve string, tuned real weird. I think that’s it.
Which acoustic guitars do you use?
I mainly play the Linda acoustic, that’s my favorite.
What about acoustic guitar amps?
I’ve got two Yamaha G100 preamps, with a Yamaha 300 watt power amp, two MXR digital delays, one Lexicon PCM 60 digital reverb, one model 95 Prime Time Two Lexicon, Roland GR-300, Roland GR-700, Synclavier interface and Syndavier digital synthesizer and on the acoustic guitars I use a Lexicon 224X reverb, which is a really great sound.
]These little PCM 60s that have just came out are single rack space and sound exactly like a 224, but they cost about 1000 dollars! Its unbelievable, people are going to flip! You can’t have all the flexibility but you can get that Lexicon sound.
Which guitar players do you listen to?
John Scofield, Michael Gregory Jackson, Allan Holdsworth, Van Halen, Jim Hall, I’d put him number one, Stevie Rae Vaughn and there’s a young blues guitar player in Oregon who’s starting to make some waves and I’m sure he’ll become real big, named Robert Creighton, I really like Stevie Morse a lot, especially when he plays solo, which most people haven’t heard yet. We had him open up for us a bunch of gigs, just by himself. I like Larry Carlton a lot and I love Jimmy Hendrix. I like some stuff Henry Kaiser has done. Pat Martino, George Benson, I actually like Earl Klugh, although a lot of people put him down, but he’s got a real feel and nice sound. I do wish he’d try a little harder, but he’s got all the stuff there. I like Viv Campbell, who plays in Dio, with the two hands all the time but he uses like all five fingers or four on the left hand and five on this, he’s a Heavy Metal guy. Actually I’ve only heard one solo of his but it was really happening! I like McLaughlin, especially his work with Shakti, Leo Koitke.
Webmaster's Note: Not only was Nicholas (Nick) Webb an insightful writer, but he was also a very talented guitarist and composer in his own right. Nick Webb was the founder and principal architect of the British instrumental group, Acoustic Alchemy. Nick worked for years with fellow guitarist Greg Carmichael in Acoustic Alchemy, appearing on ten albums, before passing away from cancer in 1998. I had the chance to meet Nick and Greg in Los Angeles some years ago, and can personally add that Nick was also a very kind and gracious person, as well as an excellent musician. -Wayne
Copyright 1985 Guitarist Magazine