Play Like Andy Summers During the Police Years

January 29, 2014

“IT WAS GET PUNK OR GET OUT OF TOWN,” REMINISCED ANDY SUMMERS IN the June, 2007 issue of GP, as he recalled the musical climate in the U.K. ca. the summer of ’77. “For me, it was a horrible lowering of musical values. Happily, it wasn’t long before we got out of that and started to slowly develop our own thing.” Their “own thing,” of course, is now Police history. Summers essentially redefined the role of guitarist in a power trio, a dirty job that had to be done. His clean, chorused, echoing guitar sound, and his fresh chord voicings and minimalistic, textural approach to the instrument opened ears, and made a huge impact on guitarists from Alex Lifeson to the Edge.

Far from a young punk-rocker stepping directly into the limelight with his first band, Summers’ back story reveals an extremely dedicated musician who parlayed years of classical and jazz guitar studies infused with blues, rock, and soul into recordings and roadwork with major U.K. acts Zoot Money’s Big Band, the Animals, Kevin Coyne, and the Soft Machine, and accomplished all of this over a decade before joining Sting and Stewart Copeland to cement what would become perhaps the world’s most popular musical group since the Beatles.
The Police—Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings collects every recording issued by the band up until their implosion in 1986. By the time the Police would reunite in 2007, Summers had contributed to the scores of ten films (2010, Down & Out in Beverly Hills, Weekend at Bernie’s, and Mississippi Masala among them), released a whopping 15 solo albums and guested on an additional 10 projects. Summers is also an avid photographer who exhibits his work around the world, and an accomplished author. His books include Throb (1983), Light Strings (2004), One Train Later (2006), I’ll Be Watching You: Inside the Police 1980-83 (2007), and Desirer Walks the Streets (2009), all of which can be previewed and purchased at
Understandably, a comprehensive stylistic overview of Summers’ extremely variegated career could fill this entire magazine, so I’ve opted to focus this investigation on his Police work. Care to join the force? First, you gotta...


Not long after joining the Police, Andy Summers decided that less is more. “I wanted to exploit the openness of the band’s arrangements, so I decided to create more space and air by stripping my chords down to fragments,” Summers explained to GP’s Mike Molenda in the June 2007 cover feature. He began using fewer traditional tertian-based chords (which Summers considered “old fashioned”), opting instead for his now-trademark stacked 5ths, added 9ths, and suspensions “to get the harmony moving without the obvious sentimental associations of major and minor 3rds.” Finding his place in the mix was also crucial to Summers’ M.O.: “I tried to fit my guitar in between the bass and drums, which probably comes from listening to a lot of Miles Davis. I want everybody to play different parts, because that’s where you get some tension in the music. Particularly in a trio setting, having three different parts interlocking makes for a much bigger and much more interesting sound.” Trios take note.


Hailed as a master sonic architect, Summers stands as one of the few artists to be honored with signature-model guitars from both Gibson (a slightly modified remake of his 1958 cherry ES- 335) and Fender (a painstakingly exact repro of his treasured 1961 sunburst Telecaster). He’s also done duty on a lovely red pre-CBS Stratocaster, various Gibsons, and many others, but that beat-to-crap Tele was his main guitar throughout the Police’s first incarnation. Summers began crafting his signature sonic textures with a minimal amount of gear.
“I had simple tools: a Telecaster, a Fender Twin, and maybe an MXR Phase 90,” Summers revealed to GP. “The next thing I got was a chorus, and that, along with the Echoplex, became very characteristic of the Police sound. I probably got up to four pedals taped to the floor before I could afford a custom Pete Cornish pedalboard with a MuTron, a couple of fuzz boxes, an envelope filter, chorus units, and phasers, all of which I’d combine with the Echoplex.”
Summers also incorporated Marshall amps and a Roland guitar synthesizer into his rig. Of course, times have changed and so has Summers’ gear. For the ’07/’08 Police reunion tour, he used an elaborate two-piece Bob Bradshaw switching system, the right wing of which includes three Boss FV-500H Volume/Expression pedals, one used to control a rack-mounted Lexicon PCM 70 and two for an Eventide Eclipse, a Moogerfooger Analog Delay, and a Boss Loop Station and Chromatic Tuner. The left wing houses the main Bradshaw switching unit, plus another FV-500H and a Dunlop Cry Baby wah. Summers’ off-stage rack also contains his main Custom Audio OD100 amp and a Carvin DCM150 used to power stereo effects (each amp feeds two Mesa/Boogie Rectifier 2x12 speaker cabs), plus additional signal processors, including a T.C. Electronic TC1210 Spatial Expander/Stereo Chorus/Flanger, Bob Bradshaw V-Comp Tube Compressor, D-Two Multi-tap Rhythm Delay, and a slew of stomp boxes, including a Love Eternity Overdrive, Red Witch Empress Chorus and Moon Phaser, Klon Centaur, Maxon SD9, and Z.Vex Fuzz Factory. Whew! Mercifully, Summers kept his guitar count down to three Fenders: a Custom Shop Andy Summers Signature Telecaster, a Custom Shop replica of his red Strat, and a VG Stratocaster. You can peruse Summers impressive guitar collection anytime at

3. BOND WITH YOUR ECHOPLEX gorgeous ambience, harmonies, and filling large musical spaces with “clouds of sound,” Summers’ revolutionary usage of tape and analog delay devices often created the audio illusion of a fourth band member. Let’s begin with a few Summers-style rhythmic echo textures beyond the obvious quarter-note repeats. Conjure a gorgeous clean tone, dial in your DDL of choice (or Echoplex, if you’re lucky enough to still own one) for a ca. 30/70 wet-to-dry mix set for four or five diminishing eighth-note repeats, and then flip on your flanger or chorus and arpeggiate Ebsus2 as shown in Ex. 1a. Repeat the same figure three frets lower and dig that familiar sound as each chord tone piles up on the next one. Bump the wet/dry mix to 50/50, shorten the delay time to a single sixteenth-note slap, palm mute the repetitive lick shown in Ex. 1b and you should hear two sixteenth-notes for every eighth-note you play.
The sustained G7sus4/D signature Summers suspension tabbed in Ex. 1c (Shades of “A Hard Day’s Night”!) is a prime candidate for testing our next two timed delays. The first setting repeats every three sixteenth notes and plays well with others, as you’ll soon discover. (Tip: Set a single repeat at a fast tempo and check out what happens to your eighth-note runs.) The second setting is timed to two quarter-note triplets for each quarter note, making it the ideal choice for reggae/dub grooves. Finally, Summers often combined two delay units to set up poly-rhythmic repeats, and Ex. 1d shows what happens when you layer the setting from Ex. 1a with the first one in Ex. 1c. Try “blowing” and “releasing” rhythmic sound clouds by using a volume pedal placed before the delay(s) to fade in and out of your fave voicings. Pretty, pretty cool.

4. CROSS-POLLINATE MUSICAL GENRES the Police hit the airwaves in 1978, their music simply defied categorization. It was punky, yet it wasn’t punk. It had elements of reggae and power pop, but again, it was neither. What the band had come up with was a true conglomeration of musical styles unlike anything that preceded it. Their first album is peppered with songs that begin with an intro and verse in one style, and abruptly yet appropriately shift genres for the chorus. Reminiscent of “So Lonely” (Outlandos d’Amour), Ex. 2a shows a two-bar, reggae-style, verse rhythm figure and suggested voicings condensed into a single measure (follow those chord symbols), while Ex. 2b typifies the sort of clean, uneffected Hendrix-meets-Floyd-Cramer fills Summers would substitute for the F chord. In direct contrast, the double-timed punkish, power-pop rhythm outlined in Ex. 2c utilizes the same four chords to create a memorable, frantic chorus riff. It was a crazy blend of three distinctive styles, but it worked!

5. DECONSTRUCT REGGAE’ acquisition of his first Maestro Echoplex around Christmas of 1978 just happened to coincide with Sting borrowing Stewart Copeland’s reggae record collection. “Sting started picking up on that bass line approach, which resulted in his leaving more space in the songs,” Summers explained to GP. “At the same time I got an Echoplex. There was no thought about using it as a tool to create my own sonic identity, I just thought it was cool. And as I started reacting to what Sting was playing—or not playing—I organically began opening up even more space by using the Echoplex to play interesting harmonies and rhythms. Suddenly I was in this crucible with this reggae bass line and a very idiosyncratic drummer who played a lot of hi-hat, and a signature style started to emerge.”
Ironically, Summers recorded “Roxanne” (Outlandos d’Amour), a textbook example of this concept, sans effects using only a straight amp sound with just a touch of ’verb. You can simulate Summers’ verse part by applying the first five grids in Ex. 3a (Gm-F6-Ebmaj7- Dm7-Cm7) to the staccato quarter-notes in bar 1 of the accompanying slash-rhythm figure, and then finish up by dropping the last two chords into bar 2, saving that signature G7sus4/D for the final hit on the and of beat four. Have a bass bud double each note of a descending G minor scale (G-F-Eb-D-C) in accordance with the down-stemmed rhythm in bar 1 (or do it yourself!), and then jump down to three Fs and a G for bar 2. (Tip: Summers’ chorus chords—Cm7-Fsus4-Gsus4-G-Cm7-Fsus4- G7sus4/D—follow the same rhythmic scheme.) By the time the band recorded the reggae-licious “Walking on the Moon” (Reggatta de Blanc) in 1979, Summers’ effector and self-editing skills were in full bloom.

Ex. 3b details four bars of the rhythmic scheme from the song’s intro/verse groove, and features a lone, shimmery G7sus4/D (borrowed from Ex. 3a) played only on beat two of bar 1. (Delay Tip: Use either setting from Ex. 1c.) The swing-eighth bass figure, like all good reggae lines, disregards the one. Graft C-C-D to the first three eighth notes, F-E-C to the next three, and then repeat the whole deal. Drop a drum bomb on beat three of every measure and feel that tropical breeze.


As the Police conquered the world, Summers continued to strip down his playing to the essentials. This might mean simply staying out of the way, latching on to a relentless groove, or adding cool, unexpected twists, such as punctuating a repetitive bass and drum groove with a couple of fragmented triads at just the right moment, but not the one you’d expect. Ex. 4a illustrates the latter approach with a locked-in, unison bass/guitar line—a root-5-b7-octave/root motif that appears in many guises throughout the Police catalog— and minimalistic guitar figure that recall the “Driven to Tears” groove. (Delay Tip: Use the triplet setting from Ex. 1c.)
If restraint was measurable, Summers’ playing on songs like “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” (Zenyatta Mondatta) would certainly tip the scales. Ex. 4b approximates the first measure of the song’s basic four-bar rhythm figure. Play it once as written, repeat the same line a whole step higher, and then move up another whole step play it twice to form the foundation for Summers’ chimey C9sus4, D9sus4, and A7sus4/E (x2) whole notes, which make up most of the song. (Delay Tip: Use either setting from Ex. 1c.) Finally, we come to the palm-muted tick-tock ostinato. No, it’s not a rare species of bird, it’s a repetitive single-note line like the one Summers plays during the verses in “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” (Zenyatta Mondatta). Play Ex. 4c over an A-F# -C# (x2) whole-note bass line and you’ll hear the illusion of a four-bar Aadd9- F# 7sus4- C#m7 progression without playing a single chord. (Delay Tip: Try the setting from Ex. 1a, or double your pleasure with Ex. 1b.)


From “Friends” and “Behind My Camel” to “Omegaman” and “Mother,” the majority of Summers’ solo Police compositions are representative of the band’s more harmonically and melodically adventurous, if not wacky and oddball instrumental moments. Witness how a simple four-note motif (root- b3-#4-5) like the one in Ex. 5a conjures cinematic imagery of a desert caravan, or how the angular 7/4 run in Ex. 5b—based on an altered b2/b9 version of Summers’ famed stacked-5th voicing (shades of Frippery!)—can be adapted to its IV and V chords (D and E), and expanded into a full-blown 12-bar, 7/4 “blues,” and you begin to get the idea that Summers’ Police work was a bit subversive, and his writing bit off the beaten path. Ex. 5c illustrates how Summers’ choice of notes for the three-part harmony intro to “Omegaman” (Ghost in the Machine) could create a total Hendrix vibe that still allows his own identity to shine. Bonus grids: Play each chord as a tied whole note to form the song’s verse progression. (Shades of Todd!)
Curiously, one of Summers’ most off-the-wall recorded statements appears on “Driven to Tears,” a song he didn’t write. “The solo on the record was the first one I played,” Summers told Jas Obrecht in a 9/82 GP feature. “I did a couple more, but that was the one. That song is about too many cameras, not enough food, etc., etc. It’s about the state of the world, and the solo was supposed to reflect the angst that the lyrics are talking about. So that’s why the solo is angular and angry. If I went in there and did a Larry Carlton-type solo, it’d have been terrible.” Ex. 5d presents Summers’ entire eight-bar solo—play it over Ex. 4a’s bass line transposed to E and feel its angst.


You’ll find evidence of Summers’ early classical guitar training in numerous Police titles. For instance, the p-im, or thumb-, index-, and middle-finger arpeggios in Ex. 6a—which recall a portion of Summers’ more elaborate verse figure from “Bring On the Night” (Reggatta de Blanc) form a sequence of diatonic broken-6th intervals played against an open-E pedal tone. (Tip: For a real workout, try i-m-a, or index-middle-ring.) And Ex. 6b, though not heard on the original recording, illustrates the classically- voiced, ascending G and A major triad inversions that Summers played in the early ’80s during the intro and verse figures to live versions of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” Summers’ penchant for natural and artificial harmonics dates back to “Can’t Stand Losing You” (Outlandos d’Amour) and the title track from Reggatta de Blanc, and is evident on many other Police titles, as well as throughout Summers’ numerous solo albums and collaborations.
The eternal student, Summers is particularly enamored with the playing of late jazz great Lenny Breau, with whom he briefly studied. (Fact: I once returned home from a tour to find a voice message from Summers, who had acquired my Breau transcription of “Bluesette,” and was inquiring if I had any more. Now that’s dedication!) One technique Summers was quick to adopt was Breau’s cascading harpstyle harmonics (which L.B. gleaned from Chet Atkins), where a chord shape is held while the pick hand alternates between natural fretted notes plucked with the middle finger (m) and artificial harmonics played one octave higher by stopping the harmonic node 12 frets above the fretted note with the index finger (i) and simultaneously sounding it with the thumb (p). You can begin on a harmonic or a natural note as notated in the two variations broken down in Ex. 6c. It’s easier done than said, and once you get either sequence ringing and rolling, you’ll understand why we call ’em “harp harmonics.” Try “harping” the four chords in Ex. 5c, and then move on to your own pet voicings. Add compression and delay to taste.


During his service in the Police, Summers’ flair for making over well-worn, standard harmonic chord progressions with clever inversions, chord substitutions, or single-note embellishments manifested in signature instrumental hooks for many of the band’s hits, including the jangly, 9th-embellished I-V (A-E) intro/chorus figure of “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” the snakey, Ebsus2-Csus2 arpeggios subbed for a standard I-VIm movement in “Invisible Sun” (Tip: See Ex. 1a), and of course, his famously sampled rhythm figure in “Every Breath You Take” (Synchronicity). Ex. 7a illustrates Summers’ palm-muted picking pattern applied to an unadorned I-IVm-IV-V (A-F#m- D-E) intro progression, while Ex. 7b supplies all of the necessary add9 and sus2 substitutions. Put ’em together and feel the burn. (Tip: To lessen the pain, pair the Summers-approved voicings in Ex. 7c into two-beat groupings to navigate the Aadd9 and F# madd9 portions of the progression.) Bonus: Play Aadd9 x2, F# madd9 x2, Dsus2-D5, Esus2-E5, and F# madd9 x2 to simulate the song’s “A” section, and Esus2-E5, Dsus2-D5, Aadd9 x2, Badd9 x2 (the previous chord bumped up a whole step), and Esus2-E5 x2 to approximate the “B” section. Happy stretching!


And speaking of stretches, if there’s one Summers-cum-Police riff you’ve gotta know, it’s the sequence of stacked 5ths that comprises the intro/verse figure to one of his all-time favorite Police tunes. “Oh, to me, the best track we’ve ever recorded is ‘Message in a Bottle,’” Summers told GP in 1982. “I love that song and I love the guitar licks at the end. They have a nice, joyful quality. It’s got a great drum track, too.” Sounding as fresh as the day it was recorded for 1979’s Reggatta de Blanc, the song, which was used to kick off shows during the bands’ ’07-’08 reunion tour, begins with four signature sus2 voicings— note the alternate voicing for the second chord—played in rapid succession as shown in Ex. 8a (Gtr. 1). The original studio recording also features Summers’ crafty harmony part (Gtr. 2), in which he ingeniously employs parallel minor thirds for C# sus2, parallel major thirds for Asus2, a mix of both for Bsus2, and parallel 5ths for F# sus2. (Tip: The key to recycling both riffs is that final pinkie slide.) Also noteworthy is Summers’ left-hand fingering, which utilizes the second finger versus the third. Play this figure 12 times, and then launch the joyously punky, pre-chorus power chords in Ex. 8b as written.
A second pre-chorus figure (not notated) pumps three rounds of F#m and D chords, each played as a full bar of eighth-notes, before the song shifts into a halftime feel that frames the minimalistic chorus chords presented in Ex. 8c. Summers originally played straight C#mand A barre chords on the recording, but these evolved over years of touring into the more open-sounding C#m7 and Aadd9 voicings shown here, as did the flurry of Breau-style harp harmonics Summers began using to extend the last two bars of F#m9add4. Mmm...heavenly! Mille gratzie, mate!
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