Alex talks guitars
Alex is an accomplished guitar hacker, creating his own dream machines. He describes his sound as “like a nun in a sex shop”! He started playing at 16, which he says is a bit late, but he soon made up for lost time.
I’d been playing the piano before and I’d been put through the various torturous instruments they make you play at school, like the recorder, that was a nightmare that almost put me off music forever, but my dad had this old beat up classical guitar lying around that had six strings on it, I had that and was bashing it out. I remember I bought a book of music, I can’t remember which one it was, I thought it was going to be piano music. And I got it and it was a tab book for guitar instead, so instead of musical notes it was all these numbers and stuff. Guitar tablature and stuff and I thought, well I’ve spent £10 on this book and I haven’t got much money so I’ll get the most out of it. So I took this Spanish guitar and I started looking at the chord shapes and the numbers and it actually seemed quite straightforward and easy, easier than reading sheet music, so I just sort of went from there and a couple of weeks later I was basically playing chords and it snowballed, I’ve been doing well ever since really.
He has kept all his instruments and often re-used them.
I don’t think I’ve ever thrown away a guitar so basically my musical history is lying around my house in the form of various guitars that I’ve had over the years. I started on a Spanish and I moved onto a kind of steel string American style acoustic, an old Yamaha I think. As I was building up my strength my fingers got more used to that. I saw – this is almost pre-Internet, I saw in Loot, the local paper’s classified or something, an ad for an electric guitar – ‘Electric Guitar, £20’. So I thought OK I’m going to just buy that. It seemed great, I was 16? So I got this really ugly Vox. Like an 80s Vox White Shadow and that was my first electric guitar. It’s kind of a take on the Van Halen Super Strat, it’s like, Strat configuration but it’s got two Humbuckers and a bunch of cool little switches and stuff. It’s hideous but bits of it are actually with me today in the sense that I took some of the guts and stuck it into another guitar I had.
Amazingly the Vox White Shadow was only made for one month. The same month and year that Alex was born
I found that out later, but it was kind of a nice sign that this guitar was for me.
He’s got a Fender Stratocaster guitar today, but it’s been Alex-icised.
I really like the feel
It’s one of the new American Fender Strats. I really like the feel, the profile of a Strat neck, it’s fast, it’s slim. I don’t have the biggest fingers in the world so it’s not like the kind of hockey stick neck you get on some guitars, they’re really clunky. But I really didn’t like the quack, you know, the Strat quack, with the single coil pickups out of phase, you know, it was a bit thin, it didn’t really fit with the sound I wanted. So I kind of ripped out the guts of this guitar and rewired in a new couple of Humbuckers as you can see, and stripped down the controls to just like a Tele wiring kit.
Brave or reckless? Alex was taking risks!
I have to admit when I did it I was pretty freaked out because it was a brand new guitar, all my money, I’d been saving for years for this and I’ve just got it on my kitchen table and it’s all open and just bits of it everywhere and I’m trying to use a soldering iron to get it to work properly. But I knew that it was what I wanted and it came good.
That’s what I use now, it’s like a customized American Strat in the style of the 80s Super Strats, the Van Halen effect but not for that use. I’ve noticed a few people have done this, I think Dave Murray of Iron Maiden did, Kurt Cobain has done it as well, if you watch that Reading DVD they had you can see him playing a Strat. So I think you get more out of the instrument than just the standard pickup configuration.
Fender Hot Rod Deluxe Amp
It’s got quite a kick
He’s tried a few different makes of amp before settling on one that suits him best.
The amp I’ve got here is a Fender Hot Rod, it’s a 40-watt amp. It’s kind of OK to carry around. It’s quite heavy but it’s not like a big huge stack. It’s got quite a kick, it’s more for shows. I’ve found a lot of the time for smaller shows it’s too loud, it goes up to 12. You won’t get it past two, three on the volume side which can be a bit frustrating cos tube amps sound nice when they’re cranked.
It’s quite a bright amp. Originally I tried that really tight class A sound that you get with a Vox AC30. I had a Marshall Haze for a while.
But the Fender won him over for a host of reasons.
I want a warmer sound so it’s not like a classic Fender sound, so I kind of roll back the presence and the treble. Combined with the kind of Humbucking guitars you get quite a nice, warm almost like Jazzy sound when you’re clean. There’s a lot of top end and a nice round sound, that’s what I like.
So how would he describe his sound as a whole?
I guess I’ve got a slightly schizophrenic approach to the guitar.
I suppose you could say my sound is a bit like a nun in a sex shop. It’s like on the one hand it’s really pure and clean and on the other hand it’s just pure filth. On the clean side of it I work really hard to get a pure clean tone through the pickups and amps and stuff and then a higher quality guitar with better resonance, all of it together, kind of harmonic feel, and on the other side of it I’m liking a dirty kind of abrasion, a harsh rock sound, where you’re really pushing, you’re compressing the sound with lots of distortion and you get all of the strange feedback and all of the kind of harmonic resonance that you get through strings that have been squeezed through distortion.
He’s been inspired by US and British guitarists.
So people who inspired me in that sense, are guitarists like Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) or something, the way he plays the Strat and really just sort of beats it and spanks it and gets some great sounds out of it. Or people who use pedals to some effect, like Johnny Greenwood, or maybe like Graham Coxon who has that sort of approach to playing where he’s not really playing lead, he’s not really playing rhythm, its sort of like a mix of both and you’ve got like a rhythmic quality to it but he’s picking out kind of lead lines within it, so those are kind of all the landmarks, I guess, on my progression. I don’t follow any one school of how I play or how I get my sound, but I guess along the way they’re all qualities that kind of shape the player I am today.
Really percussive trebly sound
Alex’s first customisation was his first ever guitar built into a Fender Jaguar.
I had a bunch of guitars and I was looking for something a little bit more exciting. I don’t really like the neck on a Telecaster, I don’t have the hugest hands in the world and I was drawn to the Jaguar cos it’s got a shorter scale length and the frets are a little bit closer together and you’re looking at the kind of people like Johnny Marr who made Jaguars quite famous. So I got the Jag, it was like an old Japanese one, 92, 3 or something. And it wasn’t in the best shape, it was full of dings and chips missing, and the neck’s not quite on straight and stuff.
And I had it for a bit and it had these single coils, pickups that came with it. And it’s designed for surfing so it had this really percussive, trebly sound that just wasn’t fitting with the kind of music I wanted to make, and as soon as you ran it through like a distortion pedal it would just squeal like a pig and the feedback was uncontrollable.
And I think the tone pots, you don’t lose any treble, I think they were 1000K tone pots so there was no real treble kind of loss so you couldn’t warm up the sound in a kind of reasonable way. So I had this old Vox guitar which was my first guitar and it had a double Humbucker pick up and a kind of, three knobs of master volume and two tones.
So I sort of took a leap of faith and took the Vox to bits and tool out all its innards and then put them into the Jaguar. But the problem is the Jaguar is only cut for a single coil pickup so the slots in the wood are only sort of half as wide as they needed to be, so I had to take a hammer and chisel to the guitar and I sort of hacked at it and it was all wood chips and it was quite a traumatic experience, a bit like doing open-heart surgery on your girlfriend, you’re not sure if she’s going to wake up at the end of it and every hit was more wood chips and you think, “Oh shit I’m just ruining this guitar”, but it came out OK.
It’s got the sound he wants, but he admits it’s not perfect.
The pickups are slightly, you can see, they’re a little bit wonky, I wasn’t that disciplined in putting it together. I need to get a metal control plate custom-cut for the new three-way pickup, the pick up selector switch, it’s more like a Gibson, this one. Put a kill-switch in, in the style of Johnny Greenwood mid solo kind of thing. What I like about it now is that you get this warm sound, it’s got this kind of beefy, meaty sound.
But what you also get, which is kind of special about the Jaguar, because of the low break angle between the bridge and the back, the strings resonate a lot more and you get a lot of harmonic overtones. So you can strum it behind the bridge and you get this Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth thing going on. It was like the combination of the resonance of the strings and all the harmonics you get on it, and the tremolo’s quite nice, kind of like a gentle one, not that huge kind of whammy that you can get on other guitars.
So this was like my first foray into the world of customization and it’s all a bit,,, you can see things aren’t quite as they should be cos I was squeezing a lot into it. But it was an attempt, and since then I’ve not really looked back and I think it gave me the confidence to make the changes I did to my Strat. I mean this isn’t really worth much as a guitar, whereas the Strat was new. So there are things I’d like to change about this, I’m having some grounding issues with it as you can hear. It’s not a perfect instrument but I think it’s got character.
Alex relies heavily on his favourite pedals to give him a good sound when he is on the road.
I’m quite a pedal aficionado, it’s partly out of necessity cos we’re at a stage, we do a lot of travelling around and two-amp setups you know, this A B amp thing, isn’t really available to me, but at the same time I think even if it was, I quite like the control that you get with a clean amp with a clean sound and then a chain of stomp-boxes, cos you can shape your sound, particularly if you’re doing things that involve feedback and high amounts of distortion. I think amps on their own can be a bit of an untamed beast. So when you really want to get specific feedback, particularly like the lower frequency ranges and stuff, you need to kind of shape it with your pedals and that’s what I’m doing here
Boss Turbo Distortion DS-2
The first pedal I got
Loosely, the pedals are kind of in two halves, there’s boost effects, that include overdrive, distortion and fuzz, kind of an EQ boost thing and then like modulation effects so I’ve got like a chorus, digital reverb and a delay pedal, so those are the two halves. But I like being able to step up my sound as the song progresses, so rather than just having clean and dirty, I’ll start with the clean and then go to an overdrive crunchy, then maybe onto a fuzz or onto a distortion, do a clean boost on the overdrive. So you end up with like different tiers of sound that you can control as you go. You can see quite a lot of Boss pedals but that’s mostly just because that’s where I started. I think the first pedal I got was this Turbo Distortion. And I like the format, I like the style of pedal, it’s quite reliable and I just sort of stuck with it. Not to say that these are the most perfect pedals for my sound, just thinking that people tend to, especially when you’re younger and you don’t have huge amounts of cash, you sort of stick with what you know.
Pro Co Turbo Rat
A really nice sound, it’s more of a fuzz than a distortion
But I’ve kind of moved out into other sorts of things, I’ve got this Turbo Rat here made by Proco, that’s a really nice sound, it’s more of a fuzz than a distortion, but you get this kind of long sustain on it.
Electro-Harmonix Memory Man Deluxe
The Memory Man’s really nice… you’ve got a lot of control with that you can get some really nice sort of feedback, almost loops going on
It’s a mix of Boss and other brands. The Memory Man’s really nice, Electro-Harmonix, you’ve got a lot of control with that you can get some really nice sort of feedback, almost loops going on, and it’s a mix of echo and chorus so you can really mess with your sound, lots of knobs to kind of tweak to just right.
Again with the Turbo Distorion it’s a kind of DS2 as opposed to DS1 it’s only got three knobs on it. With this one you get a lot more control. It’s got an extra thing that makes it more turbo, you can have an extra mid-range boost which is good for cutting through on solos and stuff. You actually get like a breakout pedal that’s like a latching switch that you can then use to get more sounds out of the pedal, and again more sounds and more control, that’s what I like
Danelectro Fish and Chips
Mini EQ Pedal
I use a sort of simple 7-band EQ and I use it like a solo boost but it’s also a treble up. So when you do a solo if there’s feedback it’s nice resonant feedback on notes rather than just top end squeal so I like that.
Boss Digital Reverb RV-5
Six reverbs in one stereo pedal
I don’t really use the chorus much, it’s a very sparing effect, the same for the reverb. Digital reverb can be a bit funny when you put distortion through it, but again it’s about control and I don’t like having too much reverb. I don’t like having the amp too wet. So it’s just giving me the flexibility to kind of change between sounds and not have to live with them the whole time, being on at the source of the amp.
Boss Super Chorus CH-1
Clear clean chorus with stereo effect