There are certain players that sneak up on you. It takes a little while for you
to realize what they bring to the table. Then there are the guitarists
that smack you upside the head with their very first note. Aleks Sever
is the latter. There’s something about her approach that grabs you
instantly and makes you say, “Whoa!” It’s a confidence, an honesty, and a
forcefulness that demands your attention and then keeps it with deep
melodies, subtle phrasing, and a clever blending of styles that includes
blues, funk, rock, and jazz.
Croatian who grew up in Germany, Severs migrated to L.A. around the
turn of the century and simultaneously went to school and turned heads.
Seamlessly melding influences as diverse as SRV, James Brown, Guns N’
Roses, Jeff Beck, and Usher, she has attracted some heavyweight fans,
and it’s clear why. Severs’ bends, vibrato, note choices, and tones are
those of a seasoned vet, and her sense of time makes the notes that she
plays speak with an uncommon authority. Although she has made records in
the past that showcase her vocal and keyboard skills, her latest, Danger Girl, is an instrumental affair that focuses solely on her impressive 6-string abilities.
most important thing about playing music for me is the intention behind
it. I find that that’s what the listener feels. They respond to your
intention. I try to figure out what I want to say in a particular song
before I ever start playing. That really helps to create a certain
confidence, and it comes through in the attack. I try to decide in
advance where I’m going to start the solo on the fretboard. Once I know
where my starting point is and know what the song is about, it takes me
on a journey. Every phrase is equally
important and it’s a matter of being prepared, and deciding which
emotion I’m trying to get across. For instance, if the song is an
up-tempo funky kind of groove, I might try to take a more aggressive
approach, but with some humor in it. If it’s more of a ballad, I still
keep the intensity and the attack but with a different message.
Where does that come from?
the first time I picked up an electric guitar, I knew that I had found
my voice. I played piano and acoustic guitar for a long time, but it was
the electric that gave me freedom. I could say things with the electric
guitar that I could never express with words, and it gave me such a
sense of power to be able to finally let all that out. You can express
joy, rage, and everything in between with one instrument, depending on
how hard or soft you play, how you bend the string, what kind of tone
you use, etc. I love it!
The song “Danger Girl” has several influences: rock, funk, blues, etc. Talk about how you combine those various flavors.
song was actually inspired by “The Big Payback” by James Brown. His
vocal on that song is awesome. He put so much power into the performance
and a lot of the time he’s only singing one note. He didn’t need a lot
of licks to get the point across. It’s basically a one-chord vamp.
The whole song is really just one chord with a groove, and I wanted to
capture that vibe on “Danger Girl.” The horns come in and out and the
band starts and stops, but the groove is always there. I thought it
would be cool to play some extreme, intense rock/blues overdrive solo
stuff over the top of that kind of retro-funk track.
How would you track a tune like “First Day”? How many takes did you do?
on all my songs, including “First Day,” I record a rough sketch of the
song at home first, to make sure about the arrangement before I go into
the studio, because once we’re there, there’s usually not enough time to
make changes on the spot. We recorded that particular rhythm track in
about three takes. That seems to be the magic number of takes to get the
right one. It usually takes the band a couple of passes to learn the
song well enough that it doesn’t sound stiff. I like the energy of third
takes. It seems that if you do more than three, the energy starts to
drop a little, but the third take usually has the perfect combination of
confidence and freshness.
How do you cut your lead lines?
we have the basic tracks, I take more time with the solos and melodies.
I go over each melody phrase a few times until I get the right vibe. I
like to play at least four solos in a row before I start listening back.
If I listen to my solos too soon, I get too critical and start editing
my ideas, which really chokes off creativity. If I do too many takes of a
solo, I run out of ideas and start repeating myself. I try to find the
lines in “Nightclub Art” sound like they cover more than three octaves.
Can you describe how you’re playing those? How did that tune come
song was inspired by the Usher song “Yeah.” I love the groove and feel
and thought it might be interesting to combine a hip-hop groove with an
aggressive approach on the guitar, both in the melody and the solos. As
far as the range of the notes, I really didn’t think about it, except I
knew I wanted the chorus in the song to be higher up the fretboard to
add some drama. The first phrase of the chorus ended up pretty high, and
the second phrase starts pretty low with a climb up, which I think
works for the song. With the solos, I’m also really exploring the whole
fretboard. I try to avoid staying in one position too long, especially
for a recording, which is different than live. In the studio you have to
plan your solos out a little more and avoid too many box licks to make
it sound exciting and stay interesting.
Describe your various picking techniques and the ways you get different attacks on a note.
use a combination of a lot of different picking techniques. Sometimes
I’ll scrape the pick across the strings very quickly to get more drama
out of a note. With overdrive, that creates a really cool effect, kind
of like a little explosion. Other times I’ll pluck the string to get
more snap, like the Nashville guys do. In the jazzier songs, like
“Joker,” I used a more traditional picking technique, really clean and
precise. With those types of melodies, I let the sequence of notes
provide the drama and intensity, like a horn player. I squeeze some of
the notes a little, just to bend them a little bit. I like that for the
more complicated melodies, but for the more intense, rock songs, I like
to play with the overdrive and rake the strings a lot. Depending on how
hard you drag the pick across the strings, you get a lot of different
tones out of the guitar.
What gear did you use on this record?
have two main guitars, both American Standard Teles. One is a little
lighter weight, and I used it a lot on the record. It’s swamp ash and
has a DiMarzio DP-191 Air Classic humbucker in the bridge position,
instead of a standard Tele pickup. I use a DiMarzio DP-417 Area T in the
neck position. The other mod on that guitar is a series/parallel switch
for the bridge pickup. I can get very close to a classic Tele sound
from the pickup in parallel, which I use a lot for rhythm. It’s more
transparent and snappy, like a Tele. In series, the pickup sounds like a
Super Tele. It’s got the output of a humbucker with a more rock sound,
but still has that snap to it. I used that guitar for the solos on the
other American Standard Tele is also swamp ash, with a DiMarzio DP-421
Area T Hot in the bridge position and the DP-417 in the neck. I used
that guitar when I wanted more of a vintage Tele sound. For
amps I used a small Fender Champion 600. I like small amps for
recording because they don’t interfere with the bass frequencies like
bigger amps sometimes do. The
most important part of my sound on the record is the DigiTech RP500
multi-effects pedalboard. I used the compressor, overdrive, delay,
reverb, and pitch change all over the record. The RP500 also sounds
great if you turn off all the effects and just use the overdrive or the
compressor for the clean sounds. I don’t use a lot of EQ, and I try to
get the natural sound of the guitar before I add effects.
What are the biggest challenges to being an instrumental guitarist in this day and age?
big challenge is to stick out from the crowd. There are so many great
players it’s sometimes hard to get noticed. That’s one reason I made Danger Girl.
I wanted to make a record that would appeal to a lot of people. The
good news is that there are still millions of people that love great
playing, and don’t care if there are words or not. I tried to stay away
from clichés, and to go with my heart as far as the material was
concerned. The songs were the most important part of the record for me,
not the solos. But all art has its challenges, and I don’t think it’s
that different today than it ever was. There is competition as an
instrumentalist or any other artist. The main thing is to do what you
love, and try to get really good at it. I found that once I discovered
my true path, the rest came easier.
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