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"Guitar '99 - Advice from the Masters" by Jim Kelly


Jim Kelly, Guitar '99 - Advice from the Masters. , Canadian Musician, 06-01-1999.

Canadian Musician presents its annual guitar feature with advice from some of the best Canadian guitarists around.

I still have my very first guitar: an Epiphone acoustic that I bought with the money I saved up from my very first after-school job. That was almost 20 years ago, and that old Epi is still with me; probably always will be. It's my comfort and it's my friend. That may sound silly to a non-player, but what do you call something that's helped you through the difficult times and with whom you've shared countless enjoyable hours? So when Canadian Musician asked me to do this piece on guitar players, I leapt at the chance. The idea that I could maybe interview some of my favourite players and talk about guitar stuff ... (well, don't tell my editor, but I probably would have done it for free).
We managed to talk to a diverse assortment of some of the finest fret jockeys around, including Alex Lifeson of Rush; Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar; Martin Tielli of The Rheostatics; Bluesman Colin Linden; Mark Makoway of Moist; Shaun Verreault of Wide Mouth Mason; Steve Stevens formerly of Billy Idol, Vince Neil and Michael Jackson; Joey Serlin of the Watchmen; acoustic wizard Stephen Fearing; Richie Kotzen of jazz group Virtú, soundtrack work, and former Poison guitarist; Nicole Hughes of Scratching Post; Mike "Pepe" Francis, Toronto's top session/touring guitarist; Craig Northey of the Odds; and Keith Scott of Bryan Adams' band. Some are widely respected perennial all-stars, and some perhaps don't often get recognized as the fine players they are. In every instance I was impressed by their insights, their ideas and their pure love of the instrument.
Hopefully what they had to say will be as interesting to the professional working guitarist as to the 13-year-old kid who's plunking away in his or her bedroom, just beginning to discover the magic grammar of the major-minor change, the pure joy of the I-IV-V progression, or the sweet release of the blues. So, in that fine show-biz tradition: take it away...

In the Beginning ...

Colin Linden: I loved Johnny Rivers and Rick Nelson with James Burton playing guitar. I always just really loved guitars and guitar players. I kind of denied it for the first few years when I was a little kid, and finally when I was about seven I couldn't deny that I wanted to be a guitar player any more. I thought 'I gotta do this,' and I bought a guitar from my brother for five dollars. And then I saw my first concert when I was eight, and that was Jimi Hendrix at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, NY, and it just turned my head around, it was so powerful.

Craig Northey: I had played violin since I was a little guy -- my mom's a violinist. But I discovered how much louder the electric guitar was over at a friend's house. His brother had a Les Paul copy with a glitter peace sign on it and the big, old curly cord. We got hold of it one day and discovered the shear power. You could change your parents' lives with one of those things. And I did [laughs].

Shaun Verreault: I think because I was an only child and really didn' t have that much to do. My parents were both really busy, working a lot of the time, and it gave me something to mess around with. It didn't necessarily have to be guitar; I wasn't one of those kids that was sitting there going, "Get me a guitar, please!" I wanted to play an instrument. It could have been piano or anything. But it so happened that it ended up being guitar.

Mark Makoway: When I was in the tenth grade, some guys I knew at school put together a punk band specializing in Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys and old Stranglers covers. Their first gig was at a packed, all-ages venue, just off Queen St. West in Toronto. Seeing them play was the first time that I had ever really experienced the energy of an indie rock show. The band sucked, but it didn't matter; I was hooked. I started playing the next day.

Richie Kotzen: I was taking piano lessons when I was five years old and a year later I saw a guitar at a yard sale and wanted to play. Most of the music I liked at the time was guitar oriented music so I would imagine that's what made me want to play.

Alex Lifeson: The first instrument I started playing was the viola in grade seven. It was a few months later that I got a guitar for Christmas. The guitar was more interesting to me, as it had more variety in terms of sound and emotional qualities.

Steve Stevens: I grew up in an area of New York called Far Rockaway, where '60s protest singer Phil Ochs came from. He was revered and admired by all my older brothers and their friends as a guitar player. He was one of the first to see me play when I was nine years old. He recognized something in me and arranged for his sister Sonny to give me lessons. Why guitar? We lived right by the beach where everyone would go with guitars at night and play -- try that with a piano.

Playing Favourites/First Guitars

Martin Tielli: Steinberger is my main guitar. It's basically like a completely stripped down guitar. It's like the guy looked at it and said 'what doesn't need to be there?' There's nothing fancy about it, except the most splendid whammy bar in the world that doesn't go out of tune and can do kind of anything. It's amazing.

Joey Serlin: My main guitar is an old red Tele. It's not even that old; it's an early-80s Japanese Tele. I've had all the American ones and I've tried the old vintage ones too, but for some reason this guitar is it. It's got this natural resonance to it that if I bang it or hit it with my ring, you can hear it. You can almost scream into it and hear your voice.

Alex Lifeson: My first guitar was a Japanese Kent classic. It cost about $45 and was impossible to play. I think my parents still have it. Each guitar is unique. They speak differently from one to the other. I think I have most of the guitars I've ever wanted.

Shaun Verreault: My very first one was a rental that went along with this trial period lesson thing that I started off in. You take it for eight weeks, and then if you like it, you can get yourself a guitar, but if you don't, you just give the guitar back. I don't even remember what it was -- it was a really nondescript acoustic. And then my next guitar was a guitar that's made in Canada, actually, called the Norman acoustic. And I do still have it.

Mike Francis: My first guitar was my dad's Gibson J50 acoustic and I do still have it. If I could have any guitar in the world? I'd pick Wilf Carter's 1933 Martin OM 45.

Steve Stevens: I don't own my first piece of crap thank God! If I could own any guitar? Probably an old Conde ... like the one Paco de Lucia plays.

Nicole Hughes: I play a Gibson Les Paul through a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier and a Rivera 4 x 12 cabinet. The Les Paul is the most beautiful guitar in terms of looks and sound ever created -- a rock standard! I find the Les Paul is a great girl guitar as well -- not too physically heavy but sonically they rock like a beast!

Richie Kotzen: My first real guitar was a Yamaha SBG 2000 and I still have it. I already own my "favourite guitar in the world". It is a tobacco sunburst Fender Telecaster, the first guitar Fender sent to me from the custom shop in 1993.

Mark Makoway: My first guitar was a piece of shit classical guitar that I stole form my sister. I remember it had the widest neck ever made and terrible intonation. I replaced the nylon strings with a set of metal acoustic strings and played it to death. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during an incident at a house party when I was at university (although the extremely wide neck is sitting in a box somewhere in my parent's basement.

Guitar Heroes

Colin Linden: I would say David Wilcox was and remains one of the great guiding lights for me in terms of the standard for roots-based guitar music. I think he's really one of the greatest guitar players to ever play. Definitely I have to mention Hubert Sumlin, who played with Howlin' Wolf for so many years, as being one of the really big guitar guys for me.

Martin Tielli: The major ones would be Bruce Cockburn and Neil Young. What I liked was that it was felt, organic -- it's not dressed up. And especially with Neil, it was on the verge of being awful and breaking down.

Richie Kotzen: The guitar players I listened to when I started are still my favourite players: John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth, early Eric Clapton, George Benson, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Mike Francis: My guitar heroes: Chet Atkins, Lenny Breau, Jerry Reed, Robben Ford, Larry Carlton, Jim Hall, Ed Bickert, Duane Allman, Bob Mann, Brian Russell and James Pirie. The reason I chose the last three gentlemen (Bob, Brian and James) is because when I was new to the Toronto Studio scene all three were gracious, encouraging and willing to share their knowledge and experience of how to be a studio musician with me. It was an education you couldn't buy anywhere else for any amount of money. (Thanks guys)

Shaun Verreault: In the beginning, I'd have to say that I went through - the first guys were the blues guys, and Stevie Ray Vaughan introduced me to all of them. Because of his playing and because of how cool he was about saying, "Young kids, if you like me, go buy a B.B. King record and a Freddie King record." And so I did all that, and it got me to Jimi Hendrix and people like that. I think after that, I was really into Living Colour. I thought that Vernon Reid was a great guitar player, and the whole approach of the band, I thought, was just awesome. And I think Prince is a really under-rated guitar player, too. But just to hear some of things that a Joe Satriani or a Steve Vai or an Eric Johnson could really do with a guitar was pretty mind- blowing. And when they think musically, rather than thinking like the Olympics, there could be some really interesting stuff going on.

Nicole Hughes: I've said it before and I'll say it again: Tom Scholz from Boston! I just love his guitar harmonies, or as we call them in Scratching Post "guitarmonies."

Steve Stevens: I was a huge Steve Howe fan early on because he was the first guy that played a style not just based in blues. He also used so many guitar sounds in the context of one song. Paco de Lucia is the Jimi Hendrix of flamenco. I also love Robert Fripp's early work.

Alex Lifeson: Jimmy Page was my all-time guitar hero. He represented to me what a rock guitarist should be. He has the ability to almost lose control yet still have a sense of what's going on around him. Plus he looks cool.

Mark Makoway: My favourite guitarist is probably Jimmy Page. I've been into Zepplin since I was a kid, although I think their appeal for me has changed over time. I was first attracted to Page's playing because of the power of songs like 'When the Levee Breaks', but now I find I listen to the albums more for the arrangements. I love the way Page weaves together multiple layers of guitar melody, especially in their later albums such as Physical Graffiti. Check out "Ten Years Gone" and "Down by the Seaside".

Here's To The Peers:
Who are the hot players around today?

Stephen Fearing: Certainly Richard Thompson. He amazes me with what he's able to do. The fluidity going between acoustic and electric is what really blows me away about him. Colin Linden's become a real good friend of mine, and we work together a lot, but I'm still sort of in awe of his ability. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of a couple of different genres of music. I think Martin Tielli's a fantastic guitar player and I'm always amazed that he's not more known than he is. I think he's brilliant.

Nicole Hughes: I think Gordie Johnson from Big Sugar is incredible. We played a show with them recently and it's amazing how he pulls off all that fancy stuff on his own as well as singing. He's a super- talented guy. Page Hamilton from Helmet has also been very influential to me.

Shaun Verreault: I think Ben Harper is an incredible guitar player. I also think Ani DiFranco's a really underrated guitar player. She' s really great. David and Cesar from Los Lobos are monsters, because they can play anything and play it really well. Who else ... I think Gordie Johnson's a really good guitar player. He's a good mix of being precise and then knowing when to have that John Lee Hooker kind of recklessness, which I think is cool.

Mark Makoway: It's hard to say who the "greatest" guitar players are today. A lot of the more interesting guitar playing is subtler than it was, say, a decade ago. I love a lot of the guitar work on the [last two] Radiohead albums OK Computer and The Bends (John Greenwood and Ed O'Brien). Both of those albums contain a lot of really creative and unusual guitar work.

Colin Linden: In Canada, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better young guitar player than Daniel Whitely, who is Chris Whitely's son. He' s mostly known as a bluegrass mandolin player, but I think he's a truly great guitar player. I think Ian Thornley from Big Wreck is brilliant. He's one of the heaviest musicians you could meet and he' s a real young guy who I really think is major weight talent -- on a lot of levels not just as a guitar player.

Desert Island Licks

Alex Lifeson: "All Along The Watchtower" by Jimi Hendrix. Many different styles and sounds from acoustic to electric slide. They all work so well together. Genius.

Shaun Verreault: The guitar and kazoo duet on "Crosstown Traffic", the Jimi Hendrix song on Electric Ladyland. He was playing the guitar, but he was also playing a comb with wax paper. That's deadly.

Colin Linden: My current favourite is Hubert Sumlin's solo on Howlin' Wolf's record Shake For Me. That's about as perfect as anything could possibly be.

Martin Tielli: "My My Hey Hey" by Neil Young. In terms of guitar moments, there are new ones like the ka-chunk on "Creep" by Radiohead [from Pablo Honey]. That's IT, y'know? It's that kind of thing.

Steve Stevens: My favourite riff? My favourite riff of my own is the chorus to "Rebel Yell". My favourite riff by someone else is "Voodoo Chile" by Hendrix.

Richie Kotzen: I think "Layla" would be somewhere at the top of my list. I can't really say what my favourite guitar melody of all time is because there's simply too many great ones.

Gordie Johnson: I'd have to say it's probably Link Wray's version of "Hidden Charms", which is just sick. It's so raw -- the guy's got the guitar cable plugged right into his vein. He just skipped the guitar altogether.

Mike Francis: I'd have to list my favourite solos for this one: Larry Carlton, "Third World Man"; Lenny Breau, "The Claw"; Jerry Reed, " Good Night Irene"; Duane Allman, "Statesboro Blues"; Amos Garrett, "Midnight at the Oasis"; B.B. King, Chet Atkins, Jim Hall and Ed Bickert -- anything by these players.

Flying Solo

Gordie Johnson: Somebody told me years ago that you should sing what you're playing and play what you're singing. Louis Armstrong would play things on his horn and you can hear the words of the song going down while he was playing. Then he would sing it, and you would hear the same kind of phrasing in his singing as in his playing. And that' s why it had such a mass appeal; he had such a human quality in his music. So I tend to not play anything on my guitar higher or lower than my vocal range.

Mark Makoway: My main goal in writing a solo is to add to the dynamics and the atmosphere of what is going on in the song. Sometimes a first- take, improvised solo is the best approach for creating a sense of energy and spontaneity, whereas other times, a slower, more-composed and melodic solo just works better in the arrangement. It totally depends on the song.

Shaun Verreault: I guess it would depend on the song each time. For example, in "King of Poison", [from Where I Started] there is a guitar solo, but it's all a bunch of harmonic things layered on top of each other, so it sounds like bells ringing. It is the guitar being a solo instrument, but it's not in the conventional way of 'Watch me bend some strings and play a bunch of fast licks.' I think it really has to suit what you're going for in the song, rather than going for something in a solo. That being said, sometimes there's a place for -- you can put a jolt of energy into a song, to have something that's either very lyrical or sometimes, just very rhythmic, a rhythmic solo. I find especially playing in a trio, that playing a lot of the chords in solos, rather than single notes, seems to help a lot, to keep it full and to add some different dimensions to it.

Martin Tielli: I think fearlessness is the most important thing. Yeah, sort of a delightful sense of panic when it's flowing. It just helps to really not think about it and wait for little electric sparks - - little sparks that happen in the brain -- and let them happen out of your hand. Just complete spontaneity. And then sometimes I'll go 'hmm, this should be just one strong melody and then I'll repeat it in different ways; this will be surfy; this I'll try to make sound like a duck or whatever.

"I Got Rhythm..."

Mark Makoway: With rhythm, the most important things are groove and feel. An effective rhythm guitar part should move the song and create a supportive bed for the vocal melodies. Adding interesting fills and/or counter-melody can really enhance a track, but the feel has to come first. I am always amazed when I meet players who can whip off lightning-fast leads, but have terrible rhythm feel.

Craig Northey: It's always that weird Zen thing where you're not thinking about it, but you are. The minute you realize that the groove is there, that you're existing in it and it's just carrying you away, is the moment you're out of it again. The rock player's problem I think is that they're always ahead, they're always on top of it. And that sometimes gives some rock music its charm, pop music especially. But I like to try to get back farther than the drummer. To find a way to be relaxed and powerful at the same time is really hard. It's something you have to work on.

Driving Non-Standard

Joey Serlin: I use open D minor [D A D F A D] and open G [D G D G B D]. I use a bunch of ones that I made up, like the E is up a step- and-a-half and the rest of the strings are down a half-step, then capoed at the fourth fret.

Stephen Fearing: Probably the one I use most is D A D G A D. James Keelaghan showed it to me in the context of more sort of modal Celtic- y stuff, but I've found that it's a real versatile tuning. It also works in a rootsy-blues setting quite well because you've got lots of fifth-sounding things going on in it. As a solo performer it gives you lots of sound -- you can play all six strings and have lots of droning going on, which is a nice thing to play.

Steve Stevens: I record with old plexy Marshalls, which are stock. You can't get a good tone from just overdriving a pre-amp ... so the fact that these amps non-mastervolume allows the output stage to distort evenly. I am currently recording a flamenco-based record and I use a guitar built by Pedro de Miguel. It's awesome sounding. I would say my ProTools system is an extremely important instrument as well. All my current effects are built by Mike Fuller of Full Tone.

Mark Makoway: Non-standard tunings often give me new ideas and open the door to unexpected chord extensions and progressions. When I am experimenting with a new tuning, I'll go by reflex to a normal fingering for a chord in standard tuning and suddenly I'm playing an extension that I wouldn't have otherwise thought of. Occasionally, I'll create a tuning that allows more open strings to ring with the chords or makes a part easier to play. Recently I've been doing a lot of writing using:
Open Dm tuning: D A D F A D
Open G tuning: D G D G B D

Richie Kotzen: I've been using Fender guitars for the last ten years. I started using the new Yamaha DG1000 pre-amp with a Marshall tube power amp. As far as amps go, this is the most versatile set up I have used and I am able to get most of the tones I need for both studio and live performances. Most of the effects I use are floor boxes like Overdrive, Envelope filter, Octave pedal, Whammy pedal etc.

Dream Gear:
If you could design any piece of gear that would help you out as a guitarist, what would it be?

Colin Linden: I would love to be able to design a pre-amp for an acoustic guitar pickup that had a blues player's aesthetic in mind, because I find that most of the pre-amps out there are too high fidelity. The top goes to high; the bottom goes too low. A lot of the tonal excitement in old Martins and old Gibsons comes from the mid-range information. So being able to hone in on that and make it work really well would be something that would be truly incredible.

Martin Tielli: I'd like to have all my knobs right up so I could tweak them on the fly, so I'm not bending over all of time, which show-biz people don't like. You're not supposed to twiddle while you're playing.

Steve Stevens: I'm working on a patent for a hand-held effects device which is played through the pickups of the guitar. I hope to get someone to market it.

Mike Francis: A mistake filter.

Richie Kotzen: A pedal board that was controlled by mental telepathy.

Nicole Hughes: A self-tuning guitar that actually worked.

Shaun Verreault: I would want a guitar that always stays in tune and always has fresh strings on it. But then all the string-makers would send out a posse to get him, because nobody would be buying strings. Either that guitar or a phrase sampler with a 20-space memory. I guess you could accomplish that by having a DAT machine and doing a bunch of different things like that, but I'd like something that you could spontaneously make up things and mess with them and keep them all with your feet while you're playing live.

Covet Thy Neighbour's Axe:
If you could own or play any guitar in the world, what would it be?

Keith Scott: [I'd love to play] that thing Bo Diddley used to play with all the effects in it. I actually got to see it. It was down in a guitar store in Los Angeles. It's about the size of broom closet. He routed into the body and put the actual effects into the body, like, taped them in there. That was the most interesting guitar I' ve seen in a while, because he really personalized it. Can you imagine taking a Boss chorus and digging a hole in your guitar to put it in? That plugged into a Pignose must be awesome.

Shaun Verreault: Oh man ... well, oh, Lucille is a lovely guitar. But if I could have one, though, that's hard. I would like to have Woody Guthrie's old acoustic that has "This guitar kills fascists" written on it. I'd take that one...

Tricks of the Trade

Mark Makoway: To get great electric guitar sound in the studio, you' ve got to start with the guitar/amplifier combination. If your rig sounds great in the room, then it will probably sound great on tape. Start by placing a Shure SM-57 just off-centre of one of the amplifier speakers and then run the signal through a warm pre-amp (i.e. a Neve strip) and, if necessary, through some light compression. After that, it is more or less a process of adjusting the gain and tone controls on the amplifier to get the right colour and distortion. For overdubs and doubling parts, try using different guitar and amp combinations, because using a variety of sounds can give your parts a better sense of definition and texture.

Colin Linden: For recording on small Fender amps, I use dynamic mics for up close and I have the microphone touching the grill of the amplifier, miking generally the rim of the speaker. I find that if you move back even an inch you lose a tremendous amount of bottom end. A lot of the time I'll also mic a guitar amp from a few feet back as well. Generally I like using ribbon mics from a few feet back. For miking acoustic guitars, I'll usually use large diaphragm condensers, in a figure-8 position, angled so that they give maximum vocal rejection.

Keith Scott: Try to get away with the least amount of microphones and the least amount of stuff to work with, like tracks. People get a bit carried away I think. I think this is probably a problem with modern recording, that we have too many choices. The greatest sound, like when you hear Scotty Moore on those old records, there's a mic in the middle of the room, and it's wailin' -- it's fantastic.

Gordie Johnson: Really, there should be no trickery to it. Go to your amp and fix the sound at your amp, or the tone controls from your guitar, or try a different guitar, try a different amp. Do every other thing besides the easy thing, which is to press a little button, or start EQ-ing it at the board.

Finger Tips

Stephen Fearing: Here's an interesting tip: If you're ever in a situation where you have no calluses and you've got to play five nights in a row, putting super glue on the ends of your fingers works like a damn. Just make sure you don't touch your fingers together. But it'll get you through the first set, and it'll help to actually harden your fingertips. Somebody showed me that a while back and it works really well.

The Practice

Martin Tielli: I just play. I find I take big steps when I hear something I like -- a piece or a song -- and I sit down with it and actually try to learn it the way that guitarist is playing it, and suddenly I'm forced to play differently, and I eventually always get it.

Keith Scott: When I'm travelling and touring I like to sit down before the show and just play on an acoustic guitar. There's just something about it -- it's very calming before you go out and play. I just go through things, whatever comes to mind. If I think my hands are feeling stiff, I'll work on scales a bit.

Advice For Beginners

Alex Lifeson: Just have as much fun playing as you can. It's something you can do for the rest of your life that is rewarding and satisfying and also very personal.

Stephen Fearing: Don't listen to guitar players all the time. I think the tendency is to think 'I'm a guitar player and therefore I'm gonna go out and buy all kinds of instructional tapes and really immerse myself in the guitar.' And that's okay, but early on, the guitar teacher I had was adamant that we not think of ourselves as guitar players, but as musicians who play guitar. If you do that, then not only do you not get stuck in ruts, but when you're composing, you're not always going down the same roads all the time. You can try to emulate what a sax player's doing, or try to emulate what a drummer's doing.

Shaun Verreault: Wow, there are so many things I could say. I guess it would be, "Don't think that you have to know lots and lots about music right away to be able to start expressing yourself with the instrument." I made that mistake. I thought you had to be quite a few years in before you started writing songs. I thought you had to be able to play everything before you could play anything. And once I got past that and started making up a one-chord song or a two-chord song, or figuring out melodies that I was just making up, seeing where my fingers led me, I think another way to enjoy the guitar opened up.

Mike Francis: There's two potential pieces of advice I can offer: 1. Get an education, and 2. Find a girlfriend with lots of money.

Steve Stevens: Listen to more than the guitar and broaden your horizons by listening to many different styles.

Richie Kotzen: Execution validates concept.

Colin Linden: Develop a close personal relationship with the instrument, as close as you possibly can. Don't ever feel like you're a stranger when you're playing the guitar. Play whatever makes you happy and do it as much as you possibly can. And fly in the face of convention. Playing guitar is a liberating thing -- it should always be that. Pay attention to your tone. Your tone is like the sound of your voice. If you have great tone that speaks of something, you don't have to play very much for it to really have impact.

Mark Makoway: Get out of your house and jam with other musicians as often as you can, because jamming teaches you how to LISTEN and play WITH other musicians. It's amazing how much you can pick up just from playing for a few hours with other players.

Ask the Masters

Joey Serlin: I guess I would ask either B.B. King or Jimi Hendrix, 'when you're just in the heat and the height of a solo, and you've got your eyes closed, where are you? [laughs] Where are you and how do I get there?'

Gordie Johnson: I'd be more concerned to talk to Muddy Waters and find out what he eats for breakfast, man -- he's still fathering children in his eighties. I think that has more to do with good guitar playing than what albums you buy and listen to, or what kind of slide you use. What amp you plug into? Never mind plugging into the amp, what about still making babies at age 82 or whatever?

Shaun Verreault: I would probably ask Jimi Hendrix how he knew those were the notes that were in my head!

Steve Stevens: I'd love to sit down and chat with Curtis Mayfield.

Richie Kotzen: I'd like to talk to Jimi Hendrix, although I don't know what I'd ask him until I actually got there.

Alex Lifeson: I'd ask Jimi Hendrix 'What the hell did you do that for?'

Mike Francis: I'd ask Tommy Hunter 'How has your hair stayed exactly the same for so many years?"


Jim Kelly, Guitar '99 - Advice from the Masters. , Canadian Musician, 06-01-1999.

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