INTERVIEW: Guthrie Govan
Guthrie Govan is The Dude from The Big Lebowski. No, not in terms of looks or personality or loyalty to a particular rug, but in the sense that sometimes there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s Guthrie Govan. His style brings together incredible technique and tone but most importantly it’s packed with personality and vision. To hear Guthrie play is to hear someone who’s playing with music, rather than playing at music, whether in his trio The Aristocrats with Bryan Beller and Marco Minnemann, or in Steven Wilson’s solo band, or playing his own material. With Guthrie heading to Australia soon for a series of masterclasses for Thump Music as well as an appearance at the Adelaide International Guitar Festival, it seemed like high time to talk shop with the dude.
What are the kinds of things people want to know at these masterclasses?
I’ll have a few default things do to if I have to at the clinics but what I like to do at these things is ask the people who made the effort to come to a clinic, ‘What do you want me to talk about? What were you hoping to happen?’ I have found some things pop up over and over again, and certain things have changed over the years. When I started doing clinics it was ‘How fast can you play? What exercises should I do to get as fast as possible?’ And for some reason – maybe it’s YouTube-related – more people want to talk about more philosophical stuff, more meaningful stuff. So I get questions like ‘What do you think about when you improvise? What are you thinking about when you hear a chord progression go by?’, which is a lot more fun for me and I think a lot more beneficial for them.
You first became known for writing incredibly detailed lessons and making spot-on audio tracks in Guitar Techniques magazine…
I guess the thing that got me started on that was this turning point that I had when I was maybe 20, 21 years old, in university studying English literature. Also I was playing a lot, and playing music is something I’ve always done, for as long as I can remember. And I thought to myself, ‘These are the two things that I can actually do, to some extent, in life. I’m hopeless at everything else but I can read a book and I can play a musical instrument. I should probably pick one of these things and focus on it.’ So I made this dramatic gesture where I kind of unplugged myself from the whole academic scene and left university. Then I realised there’s nowhere to go to apply for a job: ‘I’d like to be an apprentice guitarist for your company,’ y’know? Those opportunities don’t exist and you have to invent openings for yourself. So I thought, ‘What is it I can do naturally that other people would be prepared to pay money for?’ And I guess because I’m self-taught all I’ve ever done is listen to things and transcribe them. And it dawned on me that a lot of people who read these guitar magazines hear a record and it’s a mystery to them, they don’t know how to decode that and make their guitar and amp do a similar thing. So I thought, surely that’s a good starting point. So I transcribed the most confusing thing I could think of, which was a Shawn Lane thing, and I sent it to a magazine and said ‘Do you think there are any openings for someone who can do this stuff?’ And bless ‘em, they printed it and they paid me. So I thought ‘Cool! I’m a professional musician! I wonder where next week’s food money will come from.’
I saw you playing live with Steven Wilson last year and it was really interesting to see you working within his musical framework but also going off into ‘that zone’ during your solos. What’s happening in those moments?
Well, that’s pretty dark music for someone like me. Generally, left to my own devices there’d be some dark element to what I do but there’d also be a lot of silliness. And silliness, really, is the one thing that has no place in Steven’s bleak world vision. So I’m just trying to slot into the way I perceive his body of work. I try to imagine what the perfect guitar player for that kind of setting would be, and I try to be that guy – and doubtless fail. But it’s very interesting for me to bring out a different side of what I do. It’s a pretty brooding experience! I think Steven’s stroke of genius here is on the one hand he’s revisiting a lot of concepts that were pretty much fully formed in the 70s and he’s not hiding the fact that there’s a huge amount of Yes and Genesis and Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator. You can hear all of those influences in what he does. But his trick, if you like, is to put together a band with more of a jazz fusion background, people who are more comfortable improvising than just playing stuff that’s been scripted, so I think there’s a slightly different energy, a latter-day interpretation of the prog concept. Gigs can have moments where every night it’s different and people really are interacting with each other and maybe thinking more like jazz guys even though there’s still a Mellotron lurking in the background somewhere.
You recently unveiled a new Charvel signature model guitar. What were you going for?
It was very rewarding. In Charvel you have a company who really seemed receptive to any input I could give them as a player, as someone who’s out there on the battlefield testing their products in challenging conditions. So we started out with this concept of a superstrat, 24 frets, two humbuckers and a single coil, basswood and maple. It’s stuff I’d figured out over years and years of using various other guitars. This is the rough formula that will work for me if I have to take one guitar to a gig or session not knowing what I’d need. They were willing to custom-wind pickups for me based on certain hard-to-describe qualities that I was looking for. Rather than saying ‘I want this particular midrange and I want it to output this many millivolts,’ I said I wanted it to be really responsive to the range of different ways you can hit the strings. I want someone else to pick up the same guitar with the same amp settings and sound completely different. They were also very good about neck stability. It’s roasted maple in the neck with graphite rods in there for reinforcement. Then we revisited the original Floyd Rose tremolo. I’d been kidding myself for years that the traditional non-locking trem with a two-post design is stable enough but then sometimes I’d listen back to recordings and think either I need a locking bridge or I need to stop bending so extravagantly. If you bend the B string up a fourth it will come back slightly flat and then you have to reach for the whammy bar and dip it down and bring it back, and hopefully that undoes all the harm that that previous bend did. But I figured that rather than going the whole hog and having these bulky normal Floyd Rose bridges with the fine tuners at the back which always get in the way of my picking hand, and the locking nut which stops me doing drop D tuning or bending behind the nut, I thought let’s just try something where we lock at the bridge end but leave the nut alone, and just have locking tuners. And lo and behold, it worked perfectly. I’m completely happy with the way the bridge worked out. You don’t need a locking nut at all, in my opinion. And it feels more like a traditional bridge. It’s less obtrusive. But then we’ve been working on the finer details like getting the camber of the saddles just right so it’s tailored to the contour of the neck, whereas the original Floyd Rose version of that bridge, you’d have two low strings, two high strings in the middle and two more low strings, and it’d have some stepped contour which is not helpful if you want a relatively low action. So I think they were thinking about 60s Strats, retrofitting the bridge in that kind of guitar with a pretty extreme radius. And on the kind of necks I’m using, and a lot of modern players want to use now with a flatter profile, a wider radius, you have to make these adjustments. And then the arm attachment, we kinda went back to first principals several times and we actually cracked it I think officially two days ago. They sent me those prototypes for the new arm attachment design and we’ve really been looking for something that doesn’t wobble at all. With any arm you can pull up or you can do a dive bomb but for those subtle Hank Marvin or Jeff Beck type things where you want vibrato that goes up and down around the basic pitch of the note, can we get that without any rattling or clunking, without feeling any mechanical stuff getting in the way? And I finally managed to install these new things two gigs ago and it’s great. We’re winning!
The two different tops that are available, do you notice any tonal variation beyond the kind you’ll naturally get from one chunk of wood to another, or is it more of a visually thing?
I think it’s more of ‘this one looks like this,’ to be honest. The two guitars I have on the road with me do sound noticeably different and it’s a strange thing. I’ve been playing that birds eye prototype for quite a while, and then the flame maple one turned up and I didn’t really like it at first. It was like, yeah, this is a great guitar but it doesn’t have the voodoo that the birds eye prototype had. Then over a month or so the guitar slowly woke up, and I guess this sometimes happens: you just need to coax the best out of a lump of tree by making it vibrate a certain number of times. Who knows how these things work? But now I actually prefer it slightly. It seems alive now, it seems like it’s finally becoming the guitar it deserved to be. Why does that stuff happen? Who knows. It’s certainly something more complex than the type of grain you have in the maple.
So tell me about the Victory amps you’re using. How are you finding them, out there in the trenches?
They’re doing the job! Everyone else in the band seems happier with the balance of frequencies I’m creating now. The general feeling is that what I’m doing is sitting better in the trio context now, if we wanted to mix a live recording or something like that. I actually quite like a harsh, unforgiving, squonky guitar tone. I like unpleasantness sometimes. And the Victory is actually a little smoother, not only than the Suhr Badger but also their great grandfather the Conford amps. What Martin Kidd, the designer, was going for was to create a new amp rather than to relive former glories. So it’s definitely a bit smoother, a little bit more polite than the Cornford stuff and it responds very well to the details in your playing. And on to of that I’m having a lot of fun having a dedicated clean channel. I’d always been doing the volume pedal trick to tame the overdrive channel and get a clean sound that way, but when The Aristocrats did the Culture Clash album, it’s quite a challenge to get that sonic palette and recreate it live so it’s fat enough and loud enough. I realised I couldn’t do this one-channel amp thing any more. It used to work but the new material dictated that it couldn’t work any more. So now I have two and a half channels.
Do you see yourself as a gear-nerd kind of guy, or is it more ‘this is what works for me’?
Other people may see me as a gear nerd, and are disappointed when they meet me. I believe in finding the best gear for the job you’re trying to do. If you’re a professional ‘anything’ you need the best tools for you personally to make your job easier and more enjoyable. But I also think that once you’ve found stuff that works, stop reading forums, stop reading reviews and just get out there and play. If you reach a point where the gear you’re using really isn’t communicating everything you’re trying to convey people, maybe then it’s time to go shopping again. But to just go shopping just for the sake of it, that’s never been me. Maybe because, forgive the sob story, but when I was growing up there was no money in the house. I could want a new pedal all I like but I wasn’t going to get it because we couldn’t afford anything. So my mentality has always been to try to get the most you can out of basic gear.