IT HIT ME WITHOUT WARNING, and the force of guitar geekism smacked me so
hard that I found myself fighting back those tears of bliss that often
plague Italians, soap-opera divas, and unrepentant sissies. I was
drifting around Andy Summers’ Venice Beach, California, office/ photo
studio/rehearsal space when the Police guitarist casually plugged into
his Bradshaw rig and launched into the thrilling, mesmerizing arpeggios
of “Message in a Bottle.” Even naked, without support from Sting’s
swooping bass line and Stewart Copeland’s propulsive drums, the sheer
beauty of Summers’ tone, phrasing, and chord movement is extremely
moving. It’s also somewhat astonishing that the part still sounds modern
and fresh 28 years after it first blasted from phonographs and car
radios.But this is the genius of Andy Summers. By deconstructing rock, punk, jazz, classical music, and blues, he created a sound and style that transcends time. He also explored sound design as something of a cinematic art, choosing to forge tones that didn’t just enhance his melodic and harmonic forays, but brought mystery, vibe, and emotion to every guitar part. Finally, he had the balls to walk away from what was, and develop his guitar approach into something truly original. Given Summers’ formidable talents as a musician, author, and photographer, his ability to blend the tendrils of his life into an innovative musical hybrid makes sense. But back in the late ’70s, when rock audiences had already absorbed blues, prog, metal, and punk, hearing the sound of his clean, chorused, and echoing guitar spewing ear-opening chord inversions was like, well, walking on the moon.
The past year has been one of reflection and reinvention for the 64-year-old guitar master. It has also been hellacious fun. After more than 20 years adrift, the Police are touring again, and they’re touring BIG, selling out stadiums and arenas all over the world. His critically acclaimed biography, One Train Later, appeared in 2006, and Taschen just published I’ll Be Watching You: Inside the Police, 1980-83—a collection of his photographs of the band during its glory years. In addition, the Fender Custom Shop recently honored his legendary, beat-to-hell ’61 Telecaster with a Tribute Series limited edition. He also released First You Build A Cloud—a stunning duet album with classical guitarist Ben Verdery.
And to punctuate how nice it is to be Andy Summers in 2007, he took a cell phone call before our interview that informed him the Police had just sold out Dolphin Stadium in Miami.
“The response has been phenomenal,” understates Summers as he snaps closed his phone, “but it’s actually very freeing in a way, because we don’t have anything to prove. The Police songs are all proven pieces that have lasted right to this day, so we can just go out and have fun playing them.”
You had quite a career before the Police, playing with Zoot Money, the Soft Machine, and the Animals, as well as doing sessions with various pop artists. It must have been a bit of a shock to find yourself in the Sex Pistols’ England in the mid ’70s.
Definitely. When the punk thing happened, it was get punk or get out of town. For me, it was a horrible lowering of musical values. It was difficult to play these very simplistic songs at breakneck speed with total distortion while the audience was gobbing at you. This was rough. And, of course, that was definitely what was going on in the very first incarnation of the Police. Happily, it wasn’t long before we got out of that, and started to slowly develop our own thing.
How did the Police evolve from just one of London’s many punk outfits to something musically unique?
Around Christmas 1978, Stewart loaned Sting his reggae collection, and Sting started picking up on that bass-line approach, which resulted in his leaving more space in the songs. 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.
Can you detail specifically how that sense of space—as well as reacting to what Sting and Stewart were playing—guided your musical choices?
First, I wanted to exploit the openness of the band’s arrangements, so I couldn’t play Steve Jones-style, punk power chords. That would be like a piano player with all ten fingers on the keyboard—it’s too much. I decided to create more space and air by stripping my chords down to fragments. I’d seldom play full chords that had a major or minor third in them—which I considered old-fashioned harmony. Instead, I explored a much cooler, sort of disinterested chord style that utilized sacked fifths or an added ninth to get the harmony moving without the obvious sentimental associations of major and minor thirds.
Then, I tried to fit my guitar in between the bass and drums, which probably came from listening to a lot of Miles Davis. For me, interesting music has a lot of counterpoint, so I’ve always been very adamant that the other musicians don’t play what I’m playing. 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.
What kind of rig where you running during the band’s early days?
I had simple tools—a Telecaster, a Fender Twin, and maybe an MXR Phase 90. All sound and tone came from my hands and judicious twiddling of knobs on the Twin.
But by 1979’s Reggatta de Blanc more colors were in the mix.
Basically, I added effects as I could afford them. 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 it became apparent we were going somewhere, and, in fact, 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.
There was another sonic shift with Ghost in the Machine in 1981, where synthesizers and dense, layered parts became prominent.
All those layers were there because it was a group head trip we went through that wasn’t particularly welcomed by me. I would say, “F**k the keyboard part—I can play it all on guitar.” But these things happened anyway. I’d just try to blend with the synths and keep the guitar part strong.
Then, when the Police went on a very extended hiatus after the Synchronicity tour in 1984, you did a stylistic 360.
When the Police was definitely over, I didn’t want to be in a rock band anymore, so I returned to my love of jazz. I wanted to explore that kind of phrasing and improvisation. I even changed guitars, banishing the Telecaster in favor of a Gibson ES-335, because the 335 let me get more of the sounds I heard as a kid. In addition, I became more aware of the process of composing instrumental music, and I really went on a harmonic quest. I took jazz-piano lessons, and studied the music of Lenny Breau. In my opinion, he was maybe the greatest guitarist of all time. I was even able to take a couple of lessons from him.
However, you didn’t exactly adopt a conventional jazz-guitar sound.
No. There’s definitely some residue from the rock days, because I like to play with a certain amount of edge. Also, from being in the Police, I was very conscious of having a huge sound on stage. I never did my jazz shows with tiny amps and no effects. I used a Mesa/Boogie Triaxis and a beautiful reverb from a Lexicon PCM 70. I wanted a much more liquid sound with which to create my own world with this music. I also wrote compositions that would work well with a trio—using a lot of chords with open strings to produce a really big sound—because I like the freedom of improvising over just bass and drums.
How do you typically approach your solos?
Any good solo takes the essence of the song, encapsulates its spirit, and then raises the whole thing to another level. That’s certainly true in jazz, where you quote the melody and do variations. Of course, this isn’t always true, because sometimes you want pure visceral excitement, and a Chuck Berry thing may work better than elegant phrasing. It’s also important to twist the song slightly, and throw in a few piquant notes to catch people’s ears—it’s like throwing a spice into a soup. Suddenly, there’s another flavor, a different color. This was certainly a guiding principal for my whole harmonic interpretation of the Police songs.
“Piquant notes” is a good phrase to use when describing your solo style, because you always manage to surprise the listener somehow. How did you develop that kind of ear?
Well, I grew up with the giants. People like Monk and Mingus were always in my head, and they were intensely difficult for me to grasp when I was young. I could typically rip off a Wes Montgomery solo without any problem, but to play like Mingus and Monk was something else altogether. I saw Thelonious Monk in London when I was 16, and it blew me away. There were people like Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge coming out and playing bebop, and then Monk came out, and it was a whole other world. It was like he wasn’t playing jazz—he was playing some other music of his own. The originality of his playing was such a turn on. It just seemed to encapsulate all of what jazz was supposed to be about, and, at the same time, it wasn’t jazz. It was Monk. That was when I thought, “Wait a minute—there’s something beyond all these guitarists I’m listening to. It’s not Wes Montgomery, it’s not Grant Green, and it’s not Kenny Burrell or Jimmy Raney. This is a whole other philosophy of music!” And even more difficult and more distant was Mingus.
Specifically, what quality did these jazz greats possess that inspired you so much?
I think it’s the quality of abstraction in their music. You could say this about Miles Davis, as well. Trying to copy Miles Davis trumpet solos on the guitar is hard. At the time, I didn’t have enough theoretical knowledge. I hadn’t played long enough, so I couldn’t understand how you could abstract like that—both with note choices, and, in particular, time. The time thing in jazz phrasing is really where it’s at—playing away from the time, playing out of the time, and playing across the bar lines. You almost don’t know where they are, and yet they still come out right where they’re supposed to be. And, at the time, it seemed like piano and horn players were more abstract than guitarists. For example, the reason Wes Montgomery was so easy for me to copy was because he always seemed so right on it. I could play the whole “West Coast Blues” solo before I was 17. I really had it down. I could hear all the notes, and I could hear where the time was. But Mingus’ music was out on another planet. The attitude, the time—it was so much deeper.
So it wasn’t so much their melodic chops as their sense of rhythm and their phrasing?
To me, timing is the most important element. It’s the defining thing that ultimately determines how good a player is going to become. Anyone can learn about playing scales over chords, but the ability to twist and bend time is the mark of a great player. I’ve always tried to tap into that to ensure my solos aren’t leaning on this very square rock phrasing. There needs to be a certain logic to it, as well. The phrasing should keep building on itself, and when you add the abstractions, the solo should really start to get interesting.
This approach seems to be very firmly based in intellect.
I am talking about knowledge, but the actual playing should be much more reactive and instinctive. For me, there’s no intellectualization. I don’t think, “Oh, if I substitute a b5 here it will sound really hip.” I don’t think that way at all. You simply carry the information inside you, and you react to the moment. It’s much more musical—like a pure animal sense. I mean, you can absolutely not know anything, and still find something brilliant to play. But I prefer coming at it from the other direction. Picasso, for example, was an incredible painter with a fantastic body of knowledge. He could paint anything, and yet he chose to paint what seem like very simple pictures. That’s real sophistication—the “artless” art. So, in a musical context, what might seem very simple is based on a lifetime of playing and thought. It takes years and years of playing to really get this stuff. If you’re trying to be a good improviser, you just have to keep listening. Study what other people have done. For example, you could take a standard like “I Got Rhythm,” and deconstruct how different artists played over the chord progression.
What is your typical picking technique?
I use a lot of classical technique, so I’m always concerned about my right hand. “Bring On the Night,” for example, is like a classical arpeggio that I play using pima fingering [p = thumb, i = index finger, m = middle finger, a = ring finger]. Over the years, I’ve developed a technique of palming my pick, so I can switch back and forth between playing with my fingers, and playing with a pick. The pick is an extension of the hand, and I like a stiff pick because it pushes the phrasing back into your hands. I find it very difficult to use a flexible pick to play a solo. You have two things moving at once—the strings are vibrating, and the floppy pick is moving, and I don’t think you really want that. However, when I play a song that requires rhythmic strumming, such as “The Bed’s Too Big Without You,” I like to use a thin Herco pick, because I immediately feel the flexibility in my hand, and I start playing looser. I like a pretty fast action, but I also like to get my fingers under the strings, so I don’t want the strings rattling on the fretboard.
From a musical standpoint, what’s it like fitting yourself back into the Police?
There’s definitely a certain amount of getting used to it again. We’ve all played with a lot of different people since the Police, and we have to get reacquainted with each other’s thing. In fact, I have to regard Sting and Stewart as the backup band when I play the solos, because, in a sense, they are. I’ve played with some incredible musicians over the years, and it’s going to be different soloing with those guys. What’s it going to be like? It’s the same for Sting. He’s going to be wondering how Stewart and I are going to support him musically. I think it’s all good, because the tension is what makes the musical interplay interesting and spicy.
Obviously, I’m not going to get the creative freedom I have when I do my solo thing, where I can play different sets every night and improvise these very long solos. On the Police tour, I’m going to be playing 15 to 20 pop tunes each night, and those songs are locked in. You have to play, say, “Message in a Bottle” with the right chords, and, arrangement-wise, everything must happen in a certain order. We can’t get really free form. Having said that, it does seem like we’ll let the guitar solos rip a lot more than we did in the past. That will be fun.
Still, it must be somewhat frustrating to bear the musical limits of a huge, modern-day pop act.
Well, I think this is going to be a pretty thrilling tour—if only because we’re performing to these enormous stadium crowds. The visceral rush should be amazing. But, of course, when we rehearse in Italy next month, we’re going to build a set that is basically what we will play for the next year or so. This seems like a very boring thing to do. You build a cage, and then you have to live in it, and the act of performing is not as creative as you’d like. There will be a rush when we start learning our parts again, and things will definitely be raw at the beginning. Then, we’ll get in front of an audience, and we’ll start to really tighten things up. Ultimately, we’ll plateau, but way before then, you can get bored with it all because you’re playing the same bloody songs every night. To keep things interesting, you have to keep punching it up, and we’re absolutely allowing ourselves to take off in spots.
I mean, I’m going to play the chords from “Roxanne,” but in the middle section where we jam, I’m certainly going to bring other elements into my solos. It’s rock music, of course, so I can’t suddenly start playing like Wes Montgomery or John Scofield. That wouldn’t be appropriate. But my knowledge of what I can play on the guitar has expanded so much since the last Police tour that some surprises will definitely appear.
Is it difficult to effectively manage the Police Andy with the Classical Andy, the Jazz Andy, and the Experimental Andy?
Well, they get mixed up a bit! But if you’re asking how I reconcile all those styles within the Police, it’s not really a problem. I made all those guitar parts, and I played them for years on end, so it’s very easy to return to that mindset, and extrapolate upon and extend the Police style. I might play something, and think, “That’s too metal. The Police would be lighter.” But I just change the part up a bit, and give it a little more of a dramatic harmonic thing, and it will start to sound more like the Police.
At this point, do you know Sting and Stewart too well to be surprised by what they play, or can they still shock you with an unexpected twist?
I still find myself reacting to the things they do. Nothing is automatic. For example, Stewart might start playing something, and I’ll play a figure against it. This is a cliché, but I am composing as we jam, and I’m slightly conscious of giving him something to play against that will really get him moving. This is not about dribbling all over your instrument, it’s about building parts together in order to construct some kind of musical sentence or paragraph. Then, when you finally take off, the music is really coming out of something. We’ve got some ideas going that might turn into great songs.
Given that it has been 20-some years since the last Police tour, how will technological advances affect your reinterpretation of the songs?
I’ve got a Bradshaw switching system that’s more powerful than the old Pete Cornish pedalboard I used back then. I can blend pedals together, and keep re-coloring the songs as I go—which is something I wouldn’t have done in the old days, when I might have just hit a chorus, and then gone from the chorus to a fuzz box. Now, it’s a much more sophisticated blend—much hipper and smoother. It also sounds better. I can run the amp clean, and use the various fuzz boxes for the overdrive stuff.
Also, one of the key things we’re doing this time is taking the wet/dry approach. I’m using four 2x12 Mesa/Boogie cabinets—which I love—and running the dry signal to the two center cabs, and routing the effects in stereo to the two outer cabs. The stereo sound is huge, and it’s really beautiful.
Could you detail how you “re-color” the songs?
Once I’ve programmed the sounds for each section of a song, I’m locked into those sounds, but, at the same time, I can override anything in the heat of the moment. If I feel there’s not enough fuzz, I can add in another distortion box. If I feel the distortion is too much for a part, I can pull it out, or add a phaser, a chorus, or a delay. I can just kick them straight in.
Do you tend to find sounds for the songs fairly easily, or do you sweat over every minute tonal color?
The process is between agonizing and organic. I absolutely want the guitar to sound tonally interesting throughout the set. We’ll rehearse, and then I’ll get together with Dennis [Smith, Summers’ tech], and think about different combinations of pedals and different nuances of sound. We’ll worry over things such as whether using the Love Eternity pedal with the Centaur is too much, or whether I should use the Centaur by itself, and just wind it up a little bit. I’m very aware that I have this vast palette of color at my control. I’ve got the whole orchestra over on my side! So I’ll keep fiddling around with sounds until I feel I’ve gotten the most juice out of the combinations of pedals. It’s a pleasant obsession.
So are you saying you never stop futzing with the sounds?
The basic sounds will stay in place, but I don’t think the programs will ever be absolutely set, because you must take into account the considerations of the acoustic environment you’re performing in. For example, everything might sound great in our rehearsal space in Italy, but I might need to rethink a few things once we’re on a giant stage.
Do you have a favorite effects combo?
The Eventide Eclipse is the most incredible piece of outboard gear I’ve got. I can get some really interesting sounds with that unit. It does a great reverse echo that I use for “Tea in the Sahara” when I play all these Lenny Breau harmonics. I also blend in an infinite reverb on the Lexicon PCM 70 to get this amazing sonic palette going that just builds on itself beautifully.
You mentioned earlier that you and Stewart had jammed on some stuff that could develop into songs. Are you actively writing as the Police again?
Yeah. We’re definitely going to write at least two new songs. If it all goes incredibly well, we’ll do a new album. If business continues like it is for this tour, then the obvious thing is to make another album, put it out, and tour behind that, as well.
That sounds a bit shocking if you buy into the tabloid shtick that the three of you don’t get along.
The talk about our relationships is mythology, and most of it is erroneous. It’s an interesting history we’ve had, but every band has tension. You just work it out. There was a recent piece in the New York Times where the headline was “They Can Play, But Can They Play Nice.” Right now, it seems all things are possible. Everyone is smiling.
For me, it’s just great to be in a band again. I find the whole experience of being in a rehearsal hall and working out material to be quite pleasant. This is what I was trained to do, and it’s very cool. It’s also wonderful to come back after all this time and have sellout concerts. And, as I rehearse more with Stewart and Sting, it’s great to appreciate once again how non-generic the music we make is. In a way, the Police is its own music. It’s what the three of us do together.
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