“How to tame your axe and other stories” - Steve Hackett gets technical for TWR. Interview conducted by Gary Lucas at Steve’s home on 8th february 2016. Photographs by: Alan Perry, Stuart Barnes and Alan Hewitt. Memorabilia: TWR Archive/Mino Profumo.
Well, here we are with the latest instalment in our “Let’s get technical” series of features. This time our new cub scout reporter, Mr Gary Lucas gives Mr Hackett a grilling about all things gtr. Over to you, chaps!
GL: So, Steve I don’t know if I mentioned as we were on our way over here that I have spent the last ten or so years trying to emulate what you do so it is really an unexpected pleasure and opportunity here to ask you some questions that will be of interest to the readers who look on the web site but also there’s a bit of selfish stuff in there as well. What I’d like to start off with though is ask you how it all began for you in terms of prior to being involved with Genesis and learning to play and realising that you wanted to play. Tell me a bit about that journey because I want to understand that. Was the guitar your first instrument…?
SH: My father played a number of instruments and one of those was harmonica and in his time he had managed the bugle in the Boys Brigade, think, some clarinet and he seemed to be able to pick out a tune on practically anything just for fun. But it was the mouth organ that inspired me as a very young kid of about two and I had my own harmonica and my mother swears that I was playing a tune at two. Now I don’t think that’s possible, and she used to say that your “tune” used to consist of playing two notes over and over again. And I said what I was probably trying to do was isolate the notes because everyone I knew vamped when they played. In other words it was just a collection of notes not a million miles away from Bob Dylan.
Trying to isolate these two notes probably took me about the first four years of my life and then suddenly one day; I remember it well, I was standing in front of my mother’s dressing room mirror and I suddenly realised I could play. I think I was about four, I might have been three but I was suddenly able to play a number of tunes and it dawned on me at once that I could play Scotland the Brave, The Yellow Rose of Texas and God Save The Queen I think and so this repertoire arrived and the harmonica intrigued me for years. I talked my dad into getting me a push button harmonica; a chromatic harmonica so by the time I was six I was Larry Adler at the age of six!
Many years later the electric guitar caught my interest and it was The Shadows and I guess the big jump was the sudden arrival of blues and stuff via The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and the fact that some of these instruments that I thought I knew suddenly started to sound very different. The harmonica I think in Brian Jones’ hands and Mick Jagger’s seemed to be able to talk. Guitars were learning to scream over time probably courtesy of Jim Marshall and all of those sonic developments happened within blues . So the music was simple but there was a lot of impassioned stuff going on and coming out of the British blues scene which had based itself upon the forgotten marginalised work of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Terry and Little Walter and they were all my heroes. That’s the short answer. The rest of it goes on to infinity really…
GL: So you were into all that blues stuff when it was around were you? Because I know that when you joined Genesis, you placed an ad saying you were looking for musicians to play different musical structures and by then Genesis were not really blues at all, were they. So what motivated you to place that ad and try to look for something different, what was going on there?
SH: Well, when I look back at it I think that you had the blues influence over the whole British scene and the Baroque influence via Bach and these were two very different strands of music both player based in a way but then they started to talk to each other and Britain was at the forefront of the fusion of those disparate styles. Procul Harum, plenty of Bach in there, in a good way! So I became interested in bands that were on the cusp of that and perhaps didn’t have a clearly defined style. First and foremost, King Crimson who were part Jazz, part Classical, part Pastoral precision driven and suddenly there was a template for a lot of what Genesis was to accomplish. Yes, of course, we know other bands… they are all in your record collections, we have all got the same record collections. Mine might include one or two people that the people who are watching/listening might not have because of my interest in blues, Paul Butterfield who managed to make the harmonica sound like a trumpet and who would give guitarists a run for their money and that for me is just as important as all the things that progressive players did with guitars and keyboards.
GL: I didn’t really expect to be talking about harmonica playing today and that was not on my radar at all. A question that comes out of that is why don’t we hear any harmonica in Genesis?
SH: It was one of the things I played for them on the day I auditioned with Pete and Tony. Straight away I think Peter said ’I don’t think we’d be able to use that’ but the other styles they were probably interested in. I played the three styles of things that got me the gig and this is worth listening to because if you are hoping to get a gig with what eventually becomes a big band, to play in a number of styles might help you get that gig. So I played them something that was pastoral sounding which basically ended up on The Hermit on Voyage Of The Acolyte, the oboe melody and that was when brother John and I used to play together, he would play flute and I would play guitar and that was something gentle and melodic. I played them something atonal, screaming, my version of Hendrix meets Stravinsky and basically full of bum notes but there were no wrong notes and I played them something blues on harmonica. John and I were a bit of a duo at that time and had become a duo from time to time.
GL: And the harmonica never came back later?
SH: No, it never came back with Genesis until one of the albums where I think I Tony was using something that sounded like a sample of a harmonica and bending the notes and I thought, ’well, I could have done it for you’. I had got interested AGAIN in harmonica and I spent some time with Larry Adler funnily enough who was a remarkable guy to spend an evening with and he could sit there and play you Rhapsody In Blue with one hand on the piano and the other doing the harmonic and he did and he didn’t know that I played harmonica at all and I thought I am not even going to try to go there with the great man! (laughs) So I was prepared to be there as part of his audience of five people, tops at a friends’ house and he was obviously brilliant but then I became interested in the sonic developments. Paul Butterfield had used an amp and he had distorted his vibrato was able to cup it and to have complete control of it and I saw him and his band with Mike Bloomfield who had played extensively with Bob Dylan and that was in 1966 and I saw them playing to about twenty people at a local place and there was no one there but it was the most amazing blues gig. He had a black rhythm section and it was just mind blowingly wonderful. I thought I knew how to play the harmonica and suddenly I couldn’t understand a note he was playing on thing because although it is a small range, the blues harmonica; if someone really wrings every last bit of passion out of it, it is just a marvellously expressive instrument.
I did a blues album many years later called Blues With A Feeling an I think Cheery Red are interested in re-releasing it and I might do another track for it. I think it sold the least well of anything I have ever done because I don’t think the progressive and the blues audience are interested in the same thing but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. You know, if Van Gogh had stuck to window cleaning it would have been fine! (laughs). You have just got to do what you are moved to do. He would have made more money as a window cleaner but George Formby took that job!
GL: So, I have got a tip there to check out on You Tube…
SH: Yeah, the first two albums are called The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and they are both terrific albums. The second is called East West and it is a terrific band and it is the best blues you will ever hear. I believe he poached Howlin’ Wolf’s rhythm section but he was a Chicago man and I think he learned blues first of all and then switched to harmonica and he was the equivalent I suppose of Eric Clapton who was head and shoulders above all of our blues guitarists at a certain point and when I have worked with Steve Howe and Brian May; guitarists of some distinction themselves, they all mention John Mayall + Eric Clapton, that album, we as guitarists, consider to be Eric’s finest playing. Eric will possibly disagree but the thing is, the true owners are the listeners and we all think that’s he best when he was young, fiery and in complete control, great vibrato and a fantastic sound and very simple takes and that’s he reason why he wears that crown. Giving him a very close run for his money was his successor in that band: Peter Green who I saw playing many times live and again it was knockout with him.
I think the sadness for musicians is that they often don’t realise they are doing something totally transcendent and they are concerned enough with the nuts and bolts and mechanics of it and you never know when it is going right..
GL: It is the whole think and feel thing, isn’t it?
SH: Yeah. Thinking gets in the way of it, doesn’t it? What you really want is for someone to have a visit and the guitar is somehow playing through you. I have had that moment very few times but when it does happen someone has taken over, the master has taken over and I am no longer playing it, it is playing me and it happened funnily enough some years ago at a little blues gig and I could do no wrong! But it took off in a way I have never heard it before and I felt as if I was flying and as if my feet were not touching the ground anymore.
GL: I have heard people refer to that as the point where there is a complete lack of self consciousness …
SH: Yes, well I was barely able to hang on to the notes as I was doing all sorts of amazing stuff and ‘really? I didn’t ask it to do that..’ and there is, as you know, something about guitar as a guitarist yourself, we are often looking for the unrepeatable and the great shakers and movers like Hendrix. They were looking for the unrepeatable and blues is not hidebound in form or chords at its purest and so anyone can sit in with anyone else’s band as indeed Hendrix did with Cream and a pal of mine was at a gig at a polytechnic I think and he said this guy just walked on stage and conjured a storm and everyone’s tongues were hanging out.
Of course, I saw the young Eric (Clapton) and Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker playing when they had just done the Fresh Cream album and they were playing at the Ram Jam Club in Brixton and I got to know Jack many years later and I said to him that I had seen him at the Ram Jam Club and he said yeah, we only played it once but it was a great gig. And you know what, it was a great gig, they played a blinder. Again they had probably had a visit and Eric was on extraordinary form and was able to do something that I think doesn’t happen these days. We had amps on stage in those days and the amps were not mic’d up in small places and when the guitarist went into overdrive and it had so much treble going through it there was a certain point where you couldn’t distinguish the notes and there was this wall of oblivion that I referred to as the wall of knives and for the listener it was like being on a rollercoaster and you can’t help but smile. I don’t know what guitar he was playing but you don’t need to play above a certain speed with that and the intensity would go up powering into this improvised thing.
Funnily enough I have been recording some new stuff and trying to capture the spontaneity of those early places but to do it within an album that will still have a progressive lilt and I hope it will have those spontaneous elements as well as well as guitar rapture and not be too controlled by the need to…’oh, hang on a sec, I’ve played 4/4/ for the last two bars’ and you don’t want to be seen dead in that being a progger eh. I don’t believe in that. I like to have all these things and those things I have borrowed from European folk and classical music but at the same time I think those guitarists with their heads back in the clouds doing that thing that seemed to happen all the time in the Sixties. The spirit of that needs to be assessed and understood and enjoyed again. I think a lot of that is lost with clarity when we started micing things up so that everybody could hear equally and that was the beginning of progressive music and perhaps the end of the era of the wall of knives.
GL: Obviously I wanted to ask you about Genesis and what it was like creating that. Tell us about… as somebody who has obviously been studying your guitar parts and we have this discussion in rehearsal ’how the hell did he come up with that?’ A lot of the guitar parts from your time in Genesis are carefully crafted to compliment everything else that is going on. Sometimes they are deep in the mix so we cant even hear precisely what you are playing. How did you come up with that?
SH: Well, I don’t want to give the same interview that I have given in the past. But I have to go back to certain things. You couldn’t always play heroically in Genesis. Genesis was always extremely concerned with form and the structure of songs. Even solos were worked out and it was almost a condition of being hired that solo is only something special if you work it out. Then of course, they were a set length everyone knows that we only had a certain amount of bars before we were going off and doing something else, so heroic playing accounted for very little of the time and finding time for the guitar to move was very difficult so I like to think I was forced to think like an orchestral player what am I going to do to compliment the very self sufficient keyboard work and sometimes vocals are fighting to get through the keyboard work and sometimes they were fighting to get through bass and drums and we might all be doing something complimentary but there might be something contrapuntal and all those words beginning with c. It was not always easy so… I know Gabriel says I was a “colourist” and I think I was forced to do that because you could either double the bass line at times with a fuzz box and do something brassy and the low end might sound like something an orchestra might do if they hadn’t been playing cricket or something.
Equally you have got florid keyboard work and one thing Tony said to me when I first joined was ‘guitarists are usually far too loud’ (laughs) and some of the gigs I did with them people would say to me, because I was using a Hi Watt stack not mic’d up and people would say ‘I couldn’t hear a note you played all night’ or ‘you were absolutely deafening’ compared to where they were standing in relation to this stack.
I ditched that fairly early on because it wasn’t consistent with this idea of being under control and… Genesis was a very controlled band. For a start, whatever time we started rehearsing usually at about ten or eleven in the morning and we stopped at six in the evening and this was new to me, what’s happening I was just getting going! (laughs) and they were going back to their girlfriends, families so all of that was very new. They were from different backgrounds and they had lived and worked together in some shape or form since they were eleven and at school together. And Phil, of course, was already a showbiz veteran and I hadn’t realised this and I put my head above the parapet and I was just very concerned with what I did but I learned to work with other people.
I think even now some of my best efforts to get them under the radar of Genesis and the crashing way the editing worked at the time and even Tony who got more of his ideas done than anyone would say ’I really hate playing my stuff to you guys’ because I know for him it was the equivalent of working to… you know those ice skating competitions, the Russian judges, were going to mark you down. So there was this competitive aspect with Genesis and often for some of the best things, absolute masterpieces it could very easily have fallen on stony ground.
However, I thought that my job was to kind of heal that psychosis and if someone did something interesting I immediately said ’that sounds really good, I think we should use that’ thereby forging an alliance and making sure that those bits weren’t kicked out. I did my damnedest. So, if you say there was a Hackett era that was because I desperately wanted to be the glue and I desperately wanted to have an overview and if I couldn’t always get my bits through then to ensure that everyone else was performing at peak. So, politically it was an extraordinary tap dance going on but I believe I brought out the best in them and I insists that when I work with people I try and bring out the best of them. I don’t mind if someone does something marvellous.
GL: It is fascinating because obviously we have all experience the end product. I am interested in the parts that you worked on and you said earlier that even the solos had to be written. How did you do that? How did you do it, did you just rehearse it and take it many times until it felt right, or…?
SH: Often the band would cycle a sequence and whoever was working up their solo we would do that, you couldn’t chain up things in those days there were no sequencers but it was a good way of working. Sometimes Mike and I might go off into a corner and put together a few chords or I might find time to work with Phil.
GL: Did you get the same kind of feedback, you were the glue and were you happy to say that’s good, we should use this but did you get similar encouragement about your stuff…?
SH: No (raucous laughter from all present) No, it was a one way street believe me. There were a lot of 'no’s, a lot of rejections never mind X Factor and it was humiliating at times but I stood there and sometimes I stood my ground and pounded the table which surprised people when it happened and sometimes there would be a Mexican stand off and others a fight to the death and sometimes you would have to threaten and sometimes it was the only way to get your idea through. But for a band to work I think you need active and passive characters and I think in a bit I say my role the same way that Peter Sinfield’s role was in King Crimson, someone who had an overview who didn’t really have a job and the idea of ’oh well, no one is doing that so I can do this’ the light show, that was important we had to have a light show, I knew that because it looked a total mess. You have to be unpopular to be popular someone has to say these things and it might cost you your job but it has got to be said. I knew we needed the mellotron, I knew we needed a synthesiser, I knew we needed to be cutting edge and if I did nothing else but provide those things then I think my time in Genesis would have been well spent.
In addition to that, I was aware that the band dynamically needed to develop and a lot of the time I was too terrified to open my mouth, frankly. Because it can be daunting when you are working with a team that are very experienced working with each other and who speak fluent Venusian and you happen to be from Pluto. I did care passionately enough to get my own way and I think I had to work by stealth and get people individually on my side and then if there was somebody on the other side you could take on the opposition. It wasn’t all negative and it didn’t all work but there were great things. Shadow Of The Hierophant which I have juist seen another version of done by a band and with a glossy video on You Tube amazing all these years later. It was a Genesis reject. I Know What I Like was a Genesis reject and the following year, keep re-presenting the reject.
GL: That, incidentally in my band Los Endos, I don’t think we have ever done a gig without playing I Know What I Like, it is just so loved, it is a loved track.
SH: Well, it is based on a guitar riff of mine and I used to put it through the Lesley cabinet and Phil and I used to play it endlessly because he liked the groove and it was nice and kind of lazy for him and I remember Mike saying ’I don’t think we should use that, it’s too much like The Beatles, too much like George Harrison’. The following year, Phil and I are still playing the same thing…
GL: Were you using the sitar…?
SH: No, the sitar guitar was actually mine and I played it again through a Lesley cabinet and through a fuzz box and it didn’t really distort but it was heading towards distortion. We jammed together and it became a song and it became the band’s first hit. But it does kind of show that you should stick by your guns with some things or at least keep firing them in the same direction and eventually the walls of Jericho will come down!
GL: When I first listened to it I didn’t think of The Beatles or George Harrison I just heard it for what it was. The sitar, because George liked that kind of stuff, was Peter more in that direction?
SH: Ironically Mike had seen it as this sitar thing and so it became that as well and it is idiosyncratic all that percussion and the wacky lyric and I also ordered Pete and Phil to double the first line during the mix so you got the harmony, you got the third with it and I thought that worked a treat and then Pete wanted to get rid of the harmony and I think it was Jill Gabriel who happened to be around at the time, not that women usually got listened to, and we were both saying ’no, it sounds better with the harmony’ and she said ’yes, I agree with you Steve, it sounds better with the harmony’ and so it stayed in. Without that I don’t think it would have been quite as catchy because music is all about the detail, isn’t it? The fact that it came in strong with those two singers, is kind of sloppy, it’s a little bit out of time and no one would produce that now and expect it to take off and it had the garage band feel. No click tracks then! No fixing the timing or the tuning and all the rest. It was the opposite of glossy but it has got something organic. Real people playing in a studio. The drone at the beginning I think was my idea and some vague idea of it sounding a bit like a lawnmower and it was recorded at half speed and reversed and actually what that means is that it was recorded faster and then slowed down to normal speed so those notes that sound like they go on forever and you have got a bit of synth, you’ve got a bit of lead guitar and you have sort of multiple drones and there’s a bit of backwards piano in it
GL: When I am listening to it, in fact I am often playing a lot of the pieces that you came up with, I have some particular favourites that always feel good to play and I wonder what yours are? Do you think… are there some bits that always made you feel great when you played them?
SH: Well, actually I really like the Los Endos tune. I really like it and I did it for years and years and years and recently we left it out of the set but I liked kicking it off so that it carried the Genesis spirit of being a recapitulation of the odd theme but also starting in a different time signature and there’s a bit of this, and a bit of that and a bit of GTR and so I do feel that whenever that is being played it very rarely fails to get everyone out of their seats. I love doing that. I love doing Dance On A Volcano and I love doing guitary bits let’s see… the end solo of Fountain Of Salmacis, what else? Fly On A Windshield. But not just my bits, I have been a huge fan of the bits that the other guys have done and the melodies.
I was, and am still, a fan of everyone who was involved with the band during my era and also Anthony Phillips and when I look back at Trespass the album that was crafted a year or two before I was there and I did say to Ant who is a pal these days as he is with Alan I think the strongest stiff on Trespass is actually his ironic really. But Visions Of Angels, Dusk are beautiful tunes and The Knife, I love playing that and we never got to do Visions Of Angels during my time with the band for some reason we were never able to get the twin twelve string parts and if Ant ever wants to re-record it with another willing rhythm guitarist … (laughs) I would be very happy to do that. I think it is a terrific song and Dusk which was very interesting lyrically and there were depths in there and not just has the well run dry but that bit angry tigers and I think that Genesis was often a band of angry tigers baying at each other and it wasn’t just Lord Lucan (laughs).
GL: Let me ask you a couple more things and the specifics of the sounds you used and how they came about. That second verse of The Battle Of Epping Forest, that is just magic…
SH: You mean the thing that sets the time (hums tune) I had an Echoplex with a movable head and I suddenly thought… I really can’t remember I may have been playing around t with the sound of that and the others joined in or I may have joined others and liked the sound afterwards, I don’t really remember. But it does work very well. it’s a bit like a dub mix isn’t it? I couldn’t get that to work in America because we could never get the thing to work in time because the voltage was different. That’s not an issue these days with digital but it was a good bit and it was a good vibe. We did play it live quite a bit and then for some reason we decided to ditch it because it didn’t work in America and we were increasingly playing in America and what was the idea of a gangland fight in America between East End ,,,
GL: That would be lost on them and some of the poetry of the characters in that would not make sense to them I would imagine.
SH: yeah, it probably didn’t go down that well in America and it was 1973 the year when Lennon said we were one of the bands he was listening to and that was the era of Selling England By The Pound and that album was a quantum leap forward for us as players and writers and I think the fact that we were starting to make some headway in America played its part although we were extremely hard up and I think we were bankrupting Ed Goodgold who was our American manager at the time and he said he could barely afford the food bills and after the first tour he said ’I’m going to pull out of managing you gentlemen hoodlums’ which was the way he saw Genesis.
GL: Moving forward from that actually, chronologically speaking with The Lamb… the guitars sounds on that there are a lot of very careful and atmospheric textures and lines for example, the opening of Carpet Crawlers what kind of effects were you using on those kind of soft background sounds…
SH: Well, part is me and part is Mike I think that Genesis was an extremely subtle textural band and I was extraordinarily interested in expanding the keyboard parts as well because that gave us a wider range of sounds and I always took special interest in the kit that Tony had and the moment we were both watching an RMI piano for instance, we both clocked the fact that it was an interesting sound, a cross between a harpsichord and an organ. I was a fan of all of that and that was my era and at the same time Mike would try and blend and use very deliberately muted, I wouldn’t say dull textures, so that they would blend with the more murky aspects of the guitar and keyboard and would give it more depth.
So we all did a little bit of that and the idea that you have got an instrument and you might be able to colour that slightly by what you are doing yourself. I had acquired the Synthi Hi Fli but at the same time that was capable of doing sounds that were similar to the synth device that Brian Eno had and he came in one day and we put together some guitar things and some vocal things an some keyboard things through his device which runs a reverb unit anyway. It was lovely and he had this thing where everything you sang into it came out as blah, blah, blah which influenced things years later with the track Slogans (hums the tune). So in a way it was the current level of technology use dby ourselves and Brian and also again, Pete Sinfield mixing Ian Wallace’s drums live with Crimson and this drum solo which was put through this thing that looked like a solitaire kit, there were pegs in it, red and white pegs and early days of production ideas for Brian Eno and what was nice was that he was able to come into the band for a day, free of politics with a whole mess of ideas and be no threat to anyone. And I thought don’t you realise that you are walking into a den… (laughs) where anything you say out of place might be pounced on at any point and rubbished and ridiculed. But there he was, the equivalent of doing temporary work rather than working for… you know the job that you might normally have and I had plenty of jobs before I turned pro musician but doing temporary jobs meant that you could walk in and out and it wasn’t a big deal. He didn’t need to wear a shirt and tie and the atmosphere around Genesis was often extremely charged and you often had to be very bloody minded to get your ideas through. Very, very creative but also very difficult.
GL: Somehow it worked.
SH: Somehow it worked!
GL: I think anybody who has ever played in a band of any meaning whether you got anywhere or not, you always experience some of that because every band has got some politics and there s are so many not just musical differences that get in the way…
SH: But the nice thing was from the very first day, Pete who was, and still is a very generous minded soul said ’you know we are a team of songwriters, we are a democracy’ and I think he lived up to that and he said if you write guitar parts then you are a full part of the writing team and so in the early days we shared that when he was in the band and I think we were able to come out with very good work without feeling competitive about our ideas . Would that it had remained so but …I think he had an idea that it was a democracy but I am not sure that it worked that way in practice.
GL: You mentioned earlier that there were some bits that you and Mike would go off in the corner and work on and there were some really interesting tunings being used. Was that Mike’s thing or did you do that as well?
SH: In the main it was Mike. I used tunings sometimes.
GL: Which bits did you come up with…?
SH: Let me see… I think I used tunings so it would facilitate if I couldn’t play a certain phrase in a certain way I might de-tune the strings and I was less of a fan of that because we had so many twelve strings and before the days of stroboscopic tuning we used to have tuning rituals that went on for two hours before every gig and we would do that and then Mike would say: ‘yeah, these strings sound a bit old, I’m going to change them’ and then we would have to start all over again and sometimes we had literally tuned up for three hours before every gig to the point where I thought I don’t know if I can stand this and then because we would tune up to an organ which had flexible tuning itself, or the Mellotron and you would have a stabiliser but without that the Mellotron would end up in a different key by the end of the number. Wonderful when it worked properly but you learned to have a love-hate relationship with the Mellotron almost immediately because it was this great capable thing. When it deigned to sing it was great but it did take four pall bearers to lift it, one on each corner. Four men to lift the MK II, the model that The Beatles had used on Strawberry Fields. A great sounding thing. We bought ours off King Crimson, they had a Mellotron to spare and I went down and I worked on the band for about six months on the idea of getting a Mellotron when I heard that they (King Crimson ) had one for sale, it turned out that they owned three to my knowledge and they were all in the basement of this café on the Fulham Palace Road and so we met up with them and one of them they called “The Black Bitch” because they had had so much trouble with it, and possibly that is the one we got! (laughs). Never mind “the black queen plays the funeral march” and it was the black bitch. I make no secret of the fact that I love early Crimson and the broad based approach of that and of course the romantic tunes and the epics and the pastoral and the jazz and the geometrics and the angular stuff, I liked it all… I can’t do it to order but …
GL: Going back to the sounds that we know and rather than stuff that has given power to your elbow, the stuff that your elbow has helped to create, whenever I think of you and your playing it is very much a Gibson Les Paul with a bit of tone rolled off and a big fat sustain and so on. How much time do you spend with other guitars or is that just your thing?
SH: I use the Les Paul perhaps less than you might think because I have A Fernandes that they made in the style which was a gift to me, I didn’t ask them to do it and the Fernandes has a sustainer pickup so it looks like the Les Paul but it has the sustaining facility.
GL: How much do you use that, the sustainer…?
SH: I use it quite a bit and I have been known to switch it on at the beginning of a gig and leave it running throughout the whole bloody gig! It wears out batteries and it needs either a battery or two batteries, some of them need two. The gold tone one I have got uses one battery and it has got a three position switch on the one that I have got… actually two positions work very well and Gary Moore had one that I played sometimes and I have sometimes worked with Graham Lilley who was his guitar tech.
This three position switch anyway, it gives the sustain of the note, the note plus the octave or the other position if you have ever played one, it is just the harmonic. I like to think that it just gives you complete sustain on just about every note but without the tyranny of volume, you don’t need to stand in close proximity to your amp and you don’t have to kill anyone with volume. It can sound like screaming feedback but you can comfortably hold a conversation over the top. Which is the way I usually record, as you can see, I am recording in the living room because the walls are too thin for the neighbour and we have yet to build … it’ll be the third studio I have owned in my life and that’s the one in the garden provided there are no objections from neighbours and if we get any then I guess we shall have to move or …I don’t actually need permission from the council to do it but I want to get it right and we are trying to do it with their blessing.
There we are, guitars become studios. That’s the funny thing about music, you think once I’ve got that… when I was a kid I thought anyone who had a Marshall stack and a Les Paul has made it! What more do you need? You’ve got the paint, you’ve got the brushes, you’ve got the canvas and you’re like a racing car driver; you’ve got the car, you’ve got the race track, what more do you need?
GL: The Fernandes sustainer you have told me about, you’re using that have you dabbled around with other things like E Bow?
SH: yes I have, yeah. I have used E Bow extensively. My E Bow is in the lockup in a yellow box and I have a ton of equipment and I can’t find it at the moment and I might have to buy a new one. The new E Bow folks, and I don’t know if you have heard of the company but it has the ability to do what the sustainer pickups do with the harmonic flick with the blue light and the harmonic flick…
GL: The blue light is quite handy when you’re coming from backstage by the way! (laughs). As I found out quite recently. Did you use that during your time with Genesis…?
SH: Yes I did. I started to use it from 1976 onwards and it was a great thing to use if only for Firth of Fifth you know that high F # that sustains and does it nine out of ten times onstage (laughs) and it would die on me and it was always that occasion that someone would record and that’s out there. I used to use the E Bow over it and that was a great leap forward in terms of confidence it was a bit like the equivalent of Mellotron playing and going out there and wondering is this thing going to work tonight?
GL: The E Bow changes the tone as well unfortunately did that bother you or did you find a way to use the E Bow without it affecting or making it sound like a bit of something else that was punched in…?
SH: I think when recording it is very nice to have all those available tones at your disposal and if I am not answering the question directly I will say this; if you roll off all the top on your bass pickup and you use the E Bow and use it clean then you can arpeggiate over the strings and you find the hot spots and it starts to sound remarkably like a wind blown instrument and it is a very interesting thing because most players use it with distortion and echo and all of that but there is this whole other facility that it has and when I have got the patience I shall construct a whole solo like that which sounds like that demonstration record where you can’t tell if that Guitar sounds like an organ and what it is but literally bowing and it is difficult to create. Maybe a Strat would work better with it because you have got the flatter aspect of the Strat whereas the Les Paul has more of a camber in that respect.
GL: Yeah, because that Firth Of Fifth moment we have done many times and tried to get it right and it is just not reliable and therefore as a back up, I bought this E Bow and I am sure I can make that work as it is all down to where you come in and come out and we have got that more or less down now but it still does change the tone slightly so it might help if I roll a bit more of on the tone. Let me ask you as well about when you are playing live and what you like to hear. I don’t see you using in ear monitors or anything like that…
SH: Everyone else in my band uses them but I am a bit of a technophobe and I love technology as long as someone else is working it and I am old fashioned, I am a guitarist I want to hear the sound of the guitar emanating from somewhere in space. I don’t like to hear the direct signal of the guitar as I don’t think guitars sound particularly nice up close and when they start to breather and they take on the character of the room or indeed the floor. Parquet flooring is wonderful for recording guitars! Putting the head of a mic over the back of an amp if you have a Marshall which is something apparently that John Acock told me that Ritchie Blackmore used to do and that wonderful woody, slightly violin-y sound has always interested me. So as a guitarist are you interested in when the guitar sounds slightly like something else…?
GL: I am interested in the guitar in all kinds of different applications. Playing different guitars makes you play them slightly differently because they offer you different things. I was sitting in a guitar shop the other day trying out some wonderful American Telecasters and I became aware of the fact just because of how it sounds you start doing different things and your mind wanders. I know some of those effects from the early Genesis days were thanks to putting it through a Lesley cabinet and you can use that in a very subtle way or you can use it in a way that radically changes what it sounds like until it sounds very un-guitar like in a way and that is about creativity, pushing the boundaries…
SH: I have found that no one guitar does it all. Annoyingly. In heaven perhaps? I won’t have to keep picking it up and putting it down and trying another but sometimes I will just pick up another guitar for one note because I just cant get the tone from another one. So I do use the Les Paul extensively and I use the Fernandes in the main but I also use twelve string; a Zemaitis twelve string and I had a Farida twelve string and Gibson twelve string and I borrowed a Rickenbacker from my cousin. I think they tend to be the favourite guitars. For the nylon I tend to use a Japanese guitar, a Yairi and I have got a couple of cutaway versions of that which I use live and I have another which I think is a copy of Ramirez and it is louder than a Ramirez and when I first got it, it was the loudest nylon in the shop and it sounded a bit like a piano and it had that depth to it and that has been with me since 1974 and I would hate to lose it as it is a magic guitar. They do take on a life of their own don’t they? They have a soul, and I sometimes feel like apologising to them and say’sorry I have had to keep you in your coffin for a while my dear’ and with twelve string, I have come back to the beauty of twelve string and after years and years of playing one in Genesis and this idea of getting either literal or symbolic twelve string damage was something that I felt when I left Genesis I must explore other things especially the nylon which I had just touched on on a couple of albums but it was a good colour for Genesis .
GL: You have talked about your writing at the moment, are you using a lot of twelve string and nylon playing on that?
SH: On the new stuff I am yet to get around to that and mainly it has been electric and the Les Paul and it has been the sustainer and the Fernandes and they are both brilliant guitars in different ways . The tone I get from the Les Paul is lovely and the action on it is extraordinary, it is very light and I have very light strings on it. I had a hand accident many years ago and it mans that my left hand is slightly weak and I have had to learn to reposition a bit and learn to do finger vibratos slightly differently. Finger vibrato was the thing that was the technique that took me the longest of all techniques to be able to get right . I know Eric (Clapton) had it down in the Sixties and I think I can teach anyone how to do it if they really want to have really great finger vibrato, if you bend up the tone and have three fingers on the string and bend up and down very slowly and when you increase the speed always remember to bend as widely, don’t twitch. Always do it slowly and don’t be afraid of it and if you do it wide and slow first of all you can learn great finger vibrato and it is the equivalent of the pirouette for a dancer and that is essential for a rock guitarist to have great finger vibrato and you can do it free standing without the thumb being involved but that is slightly less controllable and that will probably reduce you to a less wide and slightly less vibrato but .. And when you finish your vibrato always end in the upright position so that if you have got a trailing repeat it wont sound flat when you come of the note. You should always retire to that position.
Other people would a say learn to do vibrato in time and I think they teach that to violinists so hat you are literally playing in time but it seems to me that the ones who have got the greatest sound are people like Alice Sophie Mutter have got slightly faster vibrato and that bit of passion with it but I always love violinists, cellists who did that and singers, particularly girl singers who sang with fast vibrato and always melted my heart and I I have always seen it as part of the embrace, part of the act of making love and playing guitar is synonymous with that. It is unreliable with the voice I find sometimes but the great singers who had vibrato: Roy Orbison, The Everley Brothers so there you have it…
And there indeed you have it dear readers. I hope you find this interesting and your editor certainly enjoyed taking a backseat for once. Once again our thanks to Steve and Jo for giving up so much of their time on a Sunday and for such wonderful hospitality. My thanks to Stuart and Gary for organising everything so efficiently.