Musical genius is often determined by how well someone Does
something brave or foolish, but tackling the Beatles songbook is always a nail
biter. As generations of music lovers consider the recordings of those transcendent
tunes to be absolutely perfect, you’d better be wearing cast-iron britches if
you dare revise, revamp, or otherwise mess with the Fab Four catalog.
Which is why it’s shocking—as well as jaw-dropping, super-gonzo crazy—that
Andy Timmons stepped into the studio to record Andy Timmons Band Plays Sgt.
Pepper [Favored Nations] without once listening to the original Beatles version
during the album sessions. Timmons arranged, performed, and mixed his tribute
to the Beatles’ psychedelic-era classic solely from the fog of memory. Madness!
You are one brave honcho to tackle perhaps the
most famous album the Beatles ever recorded.
[Laughs.] To be honest, I’m not a big fan
of Beatles covers. You’re definitely treading
on hallowed ground there. I do appreciate
some versions, but, a lot of times,
you have to ask yourself, “Why mess with
what is already great?”
So why did you?
A while ago, I was doing a “Strawberry
Fields Forever”/“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts
Club Band” medley live, and my friend Riccardo
Cappelli—who is a tour promoter
in Italy—said, “Next time you play here,
why don’t you do a whole set of Beatles
songs?” I didn’t think I could pull it off,
but the suggestion got my wheels turning.
Then, I started arranging some Sgt. Pepper
songs, and I was having so much fun that
I kept coming back to them. And when I
performed the songs, it became very obvious
that people were connecting with the
arrangements. But it still took a couple of
years for me to commit to the idea.
And your band didn’t up and quit when you
suggested this mad scheme?
Not yet [laughs]. Here’s the deal—I was
actually recording some original songs of
mine for what was going to be my next
album, and some extra time opened up in
the studio. My drummer, Mitch Marine,
knew I had these arrangements, and he said,
“Why not do those Beatles tunes?” Well,
we ended up getting all the drum tracks,
and half of my guitar stuff in two days.
That’s crazy. From out of the blue, you drop
this idea on the group, and in two days, you
have a significant amount of the Sgt. Pepper
material recorded. How did that happen?
It really helped that Mitch is a huge
Beatles fan. He understands the beauty
of Ringo’s playing, and how his rhythmic
feel is such an important part of the Beatles
music. It’s a very understated swing
that not many drummers can replicate. I
truly believe a band is only as great as its drummer.
Mike Daane, my bassist, had the most
difficult task, because Paul McCartney’s bass
lines are incredibly intricate and integral to
the songs. So he had to learn Paul’s bass
lines, and then adapt them to my arrangements.
That’s why we didn’t get all the
bass tracks down in two days.
And to make things even more difficult,
you weren’t referencing the album as you were
tracking. You were arranging your instrumental
versions completely from memory.
Yes. I did all the songs from memory.
I didn’t play the original album, because I
wanted my versions to represent how the
songs play in my mind. I also committed to playing a single guitar part, so I had
to incorporate all the chords, melodies,
orchestrations, and sound effects in one
performance. Luckily, my musical memory
is pretty good, and I’ve listened to those
songs about as much as anybody humanly
could. They are almost part of my DNA.
Still, reconstructing an entire epic album
from memory is fraught with danger. Did you
listen back later and go, “Oops—they didn’t do
I absolutely made some musical decisions
that are not true to the original songs.
On “When I’m Sixty-Four,” for example,
there are wrong chords everywhere, and
I go to the V chord. They didn’t. But, on
that song, I felt I had to do that to get into
the next section. Basically, I did whatever I
thought would help the solo-guitar arrangements.
I wanted the album to be my expression
of these songs.
To that end, how did you negotiate all the
tonal colors of the original album?
I didn’t. In fact, I never thought about
it. I didn’t change my vision of what my
tone is, or what it should be within the
concept of performing Sgt. Pepper songs.
I just went for the sounds I like to go for.
It was all about me having fun coming up
with these arrangements, and when it was
time to record them, I just got a good tone
going and tracked the parts.
Where there any frightening challenges in
presenting the songs?
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” presented
a lot of frustrating tuning issues
because of the chord voicings I wanted to
use. For example, some of the melodies
needed to be supported by open strings
sounding, and if I was playing high up on
the neck, those chords would be brutal to
get sweet. As I wanted the album to represent
what I heard it my head, I wasn’t
going to compromise my vision and play
the chords somewhere else on the neck
where they would be easier to get in tune.
I’d have to figure out ways to make things
work. Basically, I’d cheat [laughs]. I’d often
detune certain strings, or bend them in tune.
In fact, one of the biggest compliments I
got about the album was from Steve Vai.
He immediately recognized the tuning challenges,
and he asked me, “How did you get
all those chords in tune?”
For a different reason, I was very nervous
about “She’s Leaving Home.” That song means a lot to me, and it was important that
I nailed the emotional context of the song. I
ended up playing the first verse and chorus as
a solo-guitar piece before bringing in the band.
What was your basic rig for the Sgt. Pepper
The amp setup was two Mesa/Boogie
Lone Stars and two Mesa/Boogie Stilettos—
four amps running simultaneously for
almost every song. The Lone Stars were set
to the Gain channel with a Xotic BB-Preamp
in front, and the Stilettos were usually on
the Crunch channel. I also used a TC Electronic
G-Force—mainly to split the guitar into
a stereo signal, as well as to employ delays
to emulate the Automatic Double Tracking
effect that Abbey Road rigged up for the Beatles
in 1966. The four amp heads were each
plugged into their own Mesa/Boogie Rectifier
2x12 cabinet loaded with Celestion Vintage
30s. I’ve used those cabinets for so long that
my ears are just attuned to them. If I plug
into a Marshall 4x12, it never sounds right.
So, with that amp and speaker setup, I
could trust that any tonal variations I wanted
could be dialed in by solely using the controls
on my original Ibanez AT100. There
are actually a lot of tonal colors available by
simply adjusting your volume knob. Most
people don’t seem to know that. I played
the AT100 on the entire album, except for
“When I’m Sixty-Four.” I wanted George
Harrison’s rockabilly tone on that song, so I
pulled out my 1962 Gretsch Tennessean. The
weird thing was that the Tennessean wasn’t
giving me what I wanted. So I plugged in my
’68 Fender Telecaster, put the pickup selector
in the middle position, and the Tele sounded
Gretsch-ier than my Gretsch did. My go-to
strings are .010-.046 D’Addarios.
That was pretty much it. At various times,
I also plugged in a Chandler Stereo Digital
Echo, a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, a Tube
Works Tube Driver, and a Carl Martin Compressor/
As someone who has made of career of playing
instrumental guitar music, what musical,
technical, and/or tonal elements floor you when
you hear another artist’s instrumental work?
It’s not solely technique—I can tell you
that! I think the bar has been raised too high
as far as technical ability goes. Chops are great,
but I always make the analogy that making
music is like painting a picture—if all you
have is red, it’s going to be a really boring
picture. So I always want to hear something
lyrical to go along with the flash. A volley of
super-fast runs might be fun for one song,
but you don’t want it to sound like a practice
For me, it’s all about melody and passion.
I want to hear the guitarist’s phrasing—
where he or she places notes within
the beats. I also want to hear a mesmerizing
tone. And I want all of the sounds and
techniques to be used solely to deliver the
emotional context of the song. I think that’s
where the artistry lies. Everything else is just