Guitar for the
Practicing Musician Interview
Thanks to Joe
Your roots spread out in many directions, from the free jazz of Shannon Jackson to Led Zeppelin. Not many people who love either of those bands would seem to love the other as well.
There's a lot of extra-musical things that come into play in the case of all music. It's like there's a certain set of values for people in jazz or classical musicians. It's really separate from the actual feeling of listening to the music. I've always enjoyed different music. Some of my earliest experiences were loving Debussy. There was Dionne Warwick. I didn't really know what I heard with "White Room" on AM radio. I didn't know what that was. I knew who the Beatles were, but I grew up with calypso music. The first time I heard "Family Affair," by Sly Stone, it was so different sounding. Music was always affecting me, opening new doorways, and I always loved that. A lot of times, why things are not cool is you think, 'Oh, this is longhaired, hippy-type music.' But that's not about the music, that's your feeling about people with long hair. I guess I just don't have the boundaries of, 'this isn't cool, and that's not cool.' Like when I first heard the Sex Pistols, it knocked me out. When I first heard "Anarchy in the U.K.," I knew that the people doing it really meant what they were saying. It wasn't a joke. And how do I square that with loving Coltrane, or Ornette Coleman, or Pat Martino? I don't, because why should 1?1 Iove African felicity. I love syncopation. I love swing. I love noise. Maybe it was a combination of hearing Coltrane and Hendrix around the same time, and not knowing how they separated, but just, here's "My Favorite Things" and here's "Machine Gun," and just hearing how the two of them kind of met in this weird place. But because of the medium of recorded music, and because both things were available at the same time, I could absorb both, whereas, people from those different eras couldn't. Louie Armstrong could not get with Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie and that hurt. But because I was exposed to records, I could pick up "My Favorite Things" or "Impressions" and then listen to "Belly Button Window" or whatever. That's the thing that made the difference.
What made you want to pick up the guitar?
One was that I just wanted to play music, and the guitar was made available to me, and I was into the guitar from hearing it on records. I'd hear Cream. I really liked Santana from "Black Magic Woman." As far as wanting to improvise and play around with leads thats when I started hearing the later things of Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Science Fiction, Sounds of America, Tomorrow is the Question, New York is Now.
Before you heard that, did you hear Kenny Burrell or Charlie Christian?
I heard Charlie Christian. I heard Wes Montgomery. McLaughlin was an influence on me, too. I would just listen to records a lot, and then I would practice. I would never really get someone's licks down. I'd be more concerned with getting a certain feel. With r&b bands you had to play with a certain feel. Same with blues. With calypso, you had to play a certain way. Like reggae. Reggae is deceptively difficult. It sounds like it's simple, and it's really not. But in terms of shedding someone's licks, I always felt that the whole thing was that somehow they had developed a voice. That's why Santana meant so much to me, because he sounds like a voice to me. I guess I wanted to find my own voice.
How was your collaboration with Santana on his latest album (Spirits Dancing In the Flesh)?
It meant a lot. It was very heavy. It's like my life took a definite turn, because he's someone that I've looked up to, and I went to his concerts, and never dreamed that I would meet him. It wasn't even something I fantasized about.
Much like Janet Jackson?
Well, one of her producers asked if I would play on this track, and "Black Cat" was one of my favorite tracks on Rhythm Nation. I had the song and learned the parts, the structure of it, and just went in and did it. I think we used the second take. I just wanted to get into that arena thing. It's meant to sound really big.
Are there any other guest shots that we don't know about?
I did something with Terry Lynne Carrington, and I also played with Bill Frissell again, on a Mingus tribute album. Jerry Allan was there. It was great. We did "Work Song," a minor blues. One section of it was Harry Paich instruments, the next section was traditional rhythm section instruments. It's crazy, great, great fun. I got to work with Don Byas, who's a great musician.
Who would you like to work with that you haven't yet?
I'd love to work with Peter Gabriel. I'd love to just meet the man. If anything were to come of it, that would be great, too. He's someone that I respect, and his music is. not 'guitar solo' music, but I think he's really special.
Did Mick Jagger's interest in the band speed up the awareness factor?
It was a catalyst in terms of the interest of the industry. Once the album came out, we were on our own. Meeting him was heavy. There's only one person like Mick Jagger. The Stones are a very singular group of people The span of history they have, and the stuff that they know and have seen, and the people they know are staggering. At first, I played on his record, Primitive cool, and we kept in touch. Eventually, the demos he produced, "Glamour Boys" and "Which Way to America", wound up on the album. Sometimes you wonder with this kind of project if the engineer is really the producer and the star producer is only hanging out. He was active in the recording and the mix.
What did you learn on the Stones tour that was different from playing clubs?
It was a huge tour. The stage was really big. One thing I learned is even if its a stadium, you're still playing for people. Don't take things for granted. It's not like there isn't an emotional contact with people on that level. You would think that in something that big, the emotion would be too dispersed. There's a sense that if people aren't paying attention then it does get very diffused. If people are paying attention it's a very powerful thing. Being the opening act, there were moments where we faced that dispersal. But at a lot of places we got a lot of attention. It was heavy to watch the Stones live. It was deep watching them play the opening chords of "Ruby Tuesday" and hearing the emotional response to it. To see something that big operate like clockwork pretty consistently was amazing. The coordination and the professionalism was deep. Just hearing the Stones on a musical level was deep. On the last date, we played "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll" with them. That was great.
Did you start out in a cover band?
Yeah, I was in a top 40 band. I remember playing the song "Lowdown," by Boz Scaggs. Anyone who was ever in a cover band in the '70s had to play that tune. And the tune I liked to play the least was "Feelings." I used to play Bob Marley stuff, too.
Where did you get your formal schooling?
It was a combination of private instruction and learning things on my own. There's Chord Chemistry by Ted Green. There was one of the Dave Brinker books. I basically put it together. I didn't go to a music college. I went to Manhattan Community College, and they had an excellent music program. I came up, basically, through r&b. I was always fascinated with everything. I was fascinated with rock 'n' roll, I'm fascinated with jam, and I studied for a time with Rodney Jones and Bruce Johnson, and they taught me about the rhythmic feel of swing. I started to hear that feeling in certain blues guitar players playing behind the beat. There's certain things that I wanted to get heavier into, in terms of changes. "All the Things You Are" is one of the tunes that I learned studying with them. There was a certain amount of standards, but I found myself playing in other kinds of situations, playing a lot of other people's original music. I was playing in a lot of rhythm and blues situations and, and then finding myself starting to play with Ronald Shannon Jackson, and that was interesting for me, because he's just totally different. He would organize his music, which would often have two or three tonal centers. the horns would be in one key, and the guitar and the bass would be in seperate keys. A lot of times what would hold it together was a rhythmic sense.
What did you learn studying with guitarist Ted Dunbar?
To keep my mouth shut and listen. Woo! He was amazing. He was do-ing all these amazing things with octaves, and his chord melodies are just deep. Who's really deep now is Tuck Andress. Wow! Wow! Amazing, I mean, amazing. Have you ever seen him live? He's rough; Tuck is rough. Rodney Jones is rough; I saw Rodney because he plays Showtime at the Apollo, with Visiones, which is a quartet. He is killer. I love straight-ahead playing. In some ways, I refer to it.
If I heard you 15 years ago, would you have sounded like an imitation of your favorite guitarist?
I would have sounded like I was trying very badly to play a bit like Carlos Santana. Part of letting go of that is a thing that technique can give you. Developing chops and technique allows you to stop thinking of the physical limitations of playing. It eliminates "Oh, I can't play this phrase, because I don't have the chops." I think that at any level you should be able to play something that's worthwhile, musically, whether your chops are all the way up or not. If you're not playing with all the tech-nique that's at your disposal, because you weren't able to prepare yourself, that can drag you down a bit. It disturbs me if I don't have all of my technique at my command. There are people who play tremendously musical statements without a lot of tech-nique. So on each level, it's important to contribute, musically.
Do you have to practice a lot to keep your technique up to the par you want it to be?
It's a multi-tiered thing. There's different levels of the kind of practice you can do. There's certain things that you can do for looseness. Because of the physical nature of the instrument, you're dealing with muscles and tendons. That's part of it.
If you're playing a lot, you're bound to fall into those licks and cliches.
That's up to you, though. You can say to yourself, "I'm going to play something new." Every time you pick up the guitar, you're going to play something that you've never played before. Once I was thinking about the fact that, no matter how good you are, there's always something that you're not doing 'cause if that was the case, you would be doing everything that everybody's doing, and there's nobody who does that. We all have limitations. For some their level is very, very high, and it's hard to see those limitations because they're so good, but even players on the highest level, like Julian Bream, Allan Holdsworth, or B.B. King have things that they still have to do. So we all have to deal with that.
What does it take for you to be up to par?
VERNON: It's a subtle thing. Sometimes when you know your hands are loose you're still just playing stuff. Other times maybe those same sort of physical things are there, but you're in with the music, connecting.
Is there an element of luck in the creative process?
Luck? I think you have to just be open to it. That's the thing about luck; in a lot of ways you have to make your own luck. You have to be prepared for things to happen.
Do you have a vision on each song? For example, with "Broken Hearts',did you say to yourself, I'm gonna play like a pedal-steel guitar player, and that's gonna be the basis of a country type song?
It's a country feel with hip-hop drums. It's a song where the words came first and then the melody. Actually, the words and the melody came together, and then when it came to the band, I said, "Let's try something that has a country feel on top." In other words, the chords had root-based triads.
And you're using the bar to get the pedal-steel effect?
Yeah, the pedal-steel with the volume pedal. We said, 'Let's put a real heavy beat on the bottom, and see how it works.' It really was two very different feels that worked perfectly with each other. Dif-ferent feels dictate certain things, but the chords, the triads, are open enough that you could play almost anything under it, and it'll work.
Do you collect DAT or cassette libraries for ideas?
I just got a DAT player last year. Before that I had cassettes of ideas and fragments. Songwriting is funny for me, be-cause I'll have either a lyric, or just a bit of music, and it stays around for a while. Some songs come pretty quickly; other things take more time, and there are phrases and fragments of bits of lyrics that may become songs in '92 or '93, I don't know.
Is there a time when you know that a rift is good enough to sustain a whole song, as opposed to just being a rift?
It's a feeling. Before the first re-cord, we were rehearsing out in Brooklyn, just messing around, and I came up with the hPoinnino of "Cult of Personality." It felt very strong and it's sort of like a flow of ideas. I think riffs are good if they lead to a flow of ideas.
On "Middle Man", you take one chord and strum it once, letting it wash out while Corey sings over it. That would have to be a spontaneous thing. I can't imagine you'd play one chord once and go, "Okay, that'll be the verse."
With different songs it's just figuring out the voicings. I figure out where the melody is, and then what chords, the kind of movement it should have. It changes from song to song. I used to always play things in G. Now I don't play things in G.
You have a song on each album that has that South African feel.
There's one song on this album. On the last one, "Glamour Boys" is calypso.
Were you saying, let's work within a feel and develop a song?
No, I think the songs come first,` It's not just like, "I want to write a song that's got a calypso thing to it." I think it's more organic. Maybe there's something about "The Glamour Boys" that lends itself to the Caribbean beat, because you think of playboys and that whole thing, and so I think in that way they would work together.
Did the Caribbean beat come from Will, of did it come from you?
I brought the song in and wanted it to have a split between the hard rock feel and a calypso feel. Will gave it a beat that is interesting, because it works as a calypso beat, but it also works as a straight hard rock beat. A lot of times it's like finding a middle ground between different musics so that they don't sound like you just put this together and threw that together.
Do different guitars bring out differed things in you as a player? Could ye have written any of the songs on any guitar?
Different guitars have different feels. The necks all have sort of a v-shape but they all feel different. The actions are all slightly different. In terms of writing songs I have a Washburn acoustic. I've had it for while now. A lot of things happen on acoustic guitar. I wrote "Type" on the black Hamer, which is the best sounding of all the Hamers I have right now. The ESP guitar that I love is the green, multi-color one. That is just a great guitar, and I wanted to get a guitar from ESP that would be exactly like it. You know, a guitar comes from a block of wood. Out of a great block of wood, maybe ten guitars come out of it and that's that. For the most part, the Hamers, as I was getting them, kept getting closer and closer to what I wanted and the ESP guitars, in a sense, got a little farther away. Even though there are some really good ones.
Do you have an old favorite for recording that you might not take on the road?
All my guitars are special to me. I have a Les Paul Goldtop from when they started reissuing the Goldtop around '72, and that guitar's really special to me. When I was playing with Shannon Jackson at the JVC Jazz Festival in Saratoga, New York, right after the set, one of the stagehands moved the guitar and it fell off the stand and the neck shattered. The neck was rebuilt by Carlo Grecco on 48th Street. That guitar is sort of special to me. And I don't really play it anymore. The multi-colored green ESP will always be special to me, 'cause that's the guitar that made Vivid. I met Keith Haring in 1983, and he painted a piece on a guitar, 'cause he saw me with Shannon Jackson at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, and he liked what we were doing. He said he wanted to just do it, and that guitar is certainly very special to me. It's one of those things I'll always have.
Do you design the finishes?
Yeah, Joel (Danzig) from Hamer and I get together. It started with the guitar with E=MC2 inlayed on the neck. That's also a guitar with the Sustainiac in it. It's got a bunch of inlays and symbols for a lot of different religions, and scientific symbols. That's sort of how we started.
Are the pickups always the same?
Pretty much. I have an old Tele ESP that has DiMarzio pickups that I really like. But for the most part, I like the EMG pickups. The sign language guitar uses an EMG 89. This is like a new pickup that they came out with, which is a humbucker, but you can split it to be a single coil. It has a Sustainiac string driver in it. It also has a MIDI pickup on it. I haven't really had a chance to hook it up, to see how it's work-ing with that, but it's a good sounding gui-tar. For all the guitars I use D'Addario Jazz-Rock strings, .11 to .49.
What does the sign language say?
"Love is not a joke; you can make a difference." The black guitar is supposed to be like a yin-yang thing, but it looks like a thought balloon.
What are you looking for in a guitar that you're getting closer to?
It's a combination of things. It's a guitar that I can do a lot of different things with. I could play clean rhythm and it'll sound good. I can play real heavy sounds and it'll sound good. That's your crunch guitar. You just keep on trying.
Why not do it with the amp?
I do it with the amp, as well. It's also the feel of the instrument. You can do it with your amp, but so many factors go into what the guitar ultimately sounds like, and the guitar is a big part of it. The neck is important.
Do you choose the woods?
I use alder and ash, with ebony fingerboards. I'm going to try a rosewood fingerboard, as well. If you have a good sounding guitar that you're working with in different situations, if you use the same rig all the time, you can lean heavily on it with just what the amp is doing. It's really finding a best between what the guitar is doing and what the amps and speakers are doing.
How well do you know your Synthesizer?
I have another one mounted on a steinberger guitar, and I've actually been into guitar synthesis since the first Rolands came out, the GR-300, and then the 700. In fact, when I did the record with Bill Frissell, we were both using Roland gear; I was using the GR-700, he was using the GR-300, so I've been in and out of it for quite a while.
Why do you think it never took off?
Because of a number of things. On one level, guitarists have an idea of playing exactly what they play on the guitar with the synthesizer. But I think it's a different thing. Once it's not a guitar sound it needs a different phrasing. In part, there are limitations in the gear. It's, "I can't play the way I play a guitar," while I think it's a different situation. The other thing is that the gear, for the most part, doesn't work exactly the way it should. Now, the GK-2 and the GR-50 are good for me. I haven't played a Synthaxe. I've played a lot of the systems, and it's pretty consistent, it's pretty reliable. I think there are certain adjustments. I heard a bass controller at a New York Guitar Show from this company in Australia that was amazing.
Where do you use it specifically?
With Living Colour this is something that's very new. I've been doing a lot of experimenting with it at home. I did use it a little on the albums. On the short cut, "History Lesson." All those synthesized sounds were all guitar synthesizer.
That cut reminded me of Weather Report's song "And Then."
Weather Report is definitely a favorite of mine. I love those early records like Sing the Body Electric up to Heavy Weather. Mysterious Traveler is still my favorite. I did a trio with Will and Melvin Gibbs, and that was where I actually brought the synth guitar out and used it, and it worked great. I want to experiment with it. I want to work with it live, maybe do little interludes, or work it a little bit into the tunes. Certainly I do it when I'm home. Since we're on the road a lot, that's where a lot of things have to happen, during soundchecks. When we were making both records there was time to mess around with things. I did a whole DAT of just MIDI guitar with regular guitar, hooked together. I was using a volume pedal, so I could bring the regular guitar in and out of the synthesized texture, and I really liked the way they came out. I don't know what is gonna happen with it.
How well do you know your outboard gear?
I got the Eventide H-3000 during the Stones tour. Basically, the way I work with it is I just kind of jump in and take the factory presets and start programming. I'm getting to know it. This has some of the Steve Vai presets, and I worked a little bit with those and changed some of those around. It's a very complicated machine. You can do a lot of things with it, and in fact, talking about guitar synthesis, there's certain things you can do with digital gear, with pitch shifters and whatnot, that are very altered, very different from normal guitar sounds."Fight the Fight" was working with that Sustainiac and just fingering notes, without picking. The thing about the Sustainiac is you get the fundamental, and you get a harmonic an octave above.When you just finger the notes, with the Sustainiac, you get almost what you hear when a saxophonist plays multiphonics.