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Guthrie Govan Ascends to Prog-Rock Royalty

January 30, 2014
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Guthrie Govan (Rhymes with oven) is an increasingly hot commodity. Be it burning alongside bassist Bryan Beller and drummer Marco Minnemann in the incendiary post-progressive power trio the Aristocrats, emitting first-magnitude luminosity within Steven Wilson’s stellar band, or illuminating leagues of students via major institutions and seminars worldwide, the 42-year-old British guitarist is aglow.

According to legend, Govan was already playing a full-sized guitar when he was three years old, and in time the prodigious youth extended his mastery to nearly every identifiable style, thoroughly assimilating them all into his singular musical vision. Along the way, he studied English at Oxford and flipped burgers at McDonalds—but in the end the maestro heeded the call of his muse and has never looked back.

Govan’s playing on the Aristocrats’ sophomore release, Culture Clash [Boing], is frightening, entertaining, amusing, inspiring, and discouraging in turns—and sometimes all at once—incorporating lightning-quick legato lines, slick slides, death-defying intervallic leaps, breathtaking bends, wild whammy work, terrifying tapping, funked up rhythmic stabs, alarmingly accurate arpeggios, and all manner of shimmering and squawking harmonics. Oh, and did I mention his mind-blowing fretless chops?

All of this 6-string wizardry wasn’t lost on former Porcupine Tree mastermind Steven Wilson, who enlisted Govan to play on his brilliant new solo album, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories), and the subsequent world tour.

The Aristocrats’ music is frequently labeled “prog,” but you guys don’t even have a Mellotron.

I’m not really sure if our music is prog, but I don’t have a better word. I also hear the word a lot in my day-to-day activity with Steven Wilson’s band. For me, prog is partly about having been to a public school, having an English country mansion, writing about goblins, having 30-minute songs divided into five movements, and, as you say, definitely having a Mellotron. We’re not doing that. Prog is also a little bit like classical music in the sense that every note typically gets played as it was written. With the Aristocrats, while we try to be quite specific about certain written sections of each tune, there’s a huge scope for improvisation and playing the song differently every night. We’re using rock sounds, but with something of a jazz mindset, and trying to have fun with it. If someone wants to call our music prog, however, I’ll take it. At least they are listening to it.

Is there a lot of improvisation on the album?

A fair amount, yes. I’m hoping listeners can tell that certain parts of the songs are the hook—or as close to a hook as you can get without there being any singing—and anything that happens more than once was definitely planned. The number of bars in a song is also generally set in stone. We’ll play things as written for a defined duration, then go crazy for a while, then meet up again at the other end and carry on playing the song—and if we blur the distinction between which is which, we’re fine with that.

Did you approach Culture Clash differently than the debut album?

Yes. It was definitely a different process, mostly because we learned so much when we did the first record. Initially, we didn’t really know each other that well, either personally or musically. We’d done one gig together and it felt so right that we wanted to explore the energy we had between us a little further—but when we went to record we really didn’t know what to expect. This time we felt comfortable stretching out more stylistically, because we were confident that the music would still be identifiable as us no matter how extreme we were, just given the chemistry we have and the interactive aspect of the performances. The new music may be even more difficult to categorize, but we aren’t going to lose any sleep over that. Also, this time we had a better idea of how to set everything up in the studio so we could get good isolation while at the same time maintaining a lot of eye contact, because we function best when we can see each other as clearly as we can hear each other.

Describe your compositional methodology.

We all write separately. Each of us can either play or program every instrument that’s required, so generally we’ll create fairly detailed demos, then email mp3s to each other. By the time we get into the studio we’ve done as much pre-production work as possible, so all that’s left to do at that point is to establish what the tunes should sound like when played by the Aristocrats.

How did you get the gig with Steven Wilson?

All I really know is that prior to my involvement, Steven seemed to be going through a fair number of guitar players, so I had an instinct that he may be looking for something but just didn’t know how to describe it. Marco was playing in Steven’s band, and he must have mentioned me at some point because Steven came to an Aristocrats gig in London, and two days later I got an email from him asking if I’d like to play on his album.

What sorts of challenges did playing with him present?

For one thing, I’ve had to adapt to playing in a band that is pretty big sonically with quite a few instruments. Some of the keyboard sounds take up a lot of sonic space, the sax and flute often cover melodic ground that I am accustomed to covering, and there’s also a lot of sound design stuff going on. Those things have forced me to think about the guitar in a slightly different way than when I’m just doing my own thing. I have to constantly ask myself how my parts can make a particular song sound more complete. Steven’s demos are helpful in that respect, because he’s such a good producer he makes demos that anyone else would be proud to release, and I can generally hear what he’s going for and what kind of color the guitar should bring to the overall sonic picture.

Describe your two new Charvel guitars.

They’re both splendid in different ways. The one I used on Culture Clash and the subsequent tour has a koa body, which I very much like the sound of—sort of like if you recorded the sound of a mahogany body and sped it up a few semitones. The tone has the same nasal honk, but happening a bit higher up, so it’s more defined and cleans up a little more nicely. The guitar also has a roasted maple neck that’s reinforced with graphite, making it impervious to the weather. I played everywhere from Brazil to Norway with Steven, and I haven’t had to adjust the neck yet. The pickups were custom made by Michael Frank-Braun, the resident guru at the Fender Custom Shop, who basically nailed what I wanted on the basis of my hippie poetry. I’d say things like, “I want a pickup that sounds honest rather than flattering” and “I want a pickup that that responds to all of the different ways you can hit a string.” I also wanted it to be a little louder than a PAF, because I do need to do squealing pinch harmonics and tap notes occasionally—but I didn’t want it ridiculously loud. There’s something to be said for keeping the output of a pickup moderate, because then you hear the wood, and therefore the player, more.

The second guitar is very similar, but it has a basswood body and a birdseye maple top, as well as much bigger frets. I’m a fan of big frets, and that’s one thing we missed the first time around. The sound is more neutral, so you can hear more of the topend. That makes it easier to cut through a busy mix without being too loud, which is why I played it on the Steven Wilson tour.

Don’t your guitars also have bone nuts?

Yes. For years I had those lubricated-style nuts, which are good for tuning stability, and nine times out of ten they won’t make that clunking noise when you do something extreme with the whammy bar and then bring it back because there’s no grinding in the nut slot. But I’ve found that the D string, followed by the others, will hack its way through the nut until eventually it buzzes against the first fret. If you are at home and you have time to fix it that’s fine—but if you’re halfway through a long tour and you suddenly realize your open D string doesn’t work anymore, that’s a cause for concern. So, I’ve found that a properly cut bone nut, combined with a lubricant like Nut Sauce, will stay in tune just as well, while also lasting longer.

Is there a difference in tone?

It must affect the tone slightly, but I’d be lying if I said I could hear a difference.

Did you also experiment with different electronic components?

Yes, we experimented with capacitors when fine-tuning the tone control, and settled on a big vintage-style cap. I wanted to be able to roll the tone control all the way back to get an incredible fat jazz guitar sound, and not have the tone get all muddy, which happens with many capacitors.

Your guitars also come equipped with hairband mutes, correct?

[Laughs] No, those are definitely something I add on afterward, and they have several uses. For example, if I’m recording a passage that doesn’t have any open strings, I might place a hairband near the nut so I don’t ruin a take by accidentally arousing an open string where I didn’t want to hear one. And live they are very helpful for certain tapping things where most of the fingers on each hand are occupied and I don’t have much spare flesh on the picking hand to mute the other strings. When performing Steven Wilson’s “The Watchmaker,” for instance, I start with a capo on the third fret and end with no capo, and the only point in the song where I can feasibly remove the capo happens in the middle of the guitar solo. The bit that everyone finds impressive, but is actually easy, is when I’m playing the solo with just my fretting hand for a moment. The hard part is reaching over with my picking hand, unhooking the capo, and putting it on my amp, without hearing the extraneous open string noise. So, I start with the capo on the third fret and the hairband at the second fret so I can be happily soloing away, remove the capo, push the hairband back to the other end of the nut, and get to the end of the song somehow.

What amps do you use with the Aristocrats and with Steven Wilson?

When performing with the Aristocrats I play through my Suhr Badger 30, and I also used that amp when we recorded The Raven that Refused to Sing. On the tour with Steven I played through Victory amps, which I can’t say much about because currently they don’t actually exist. That’s how new the company is. But this much I know, the designer is Martin Kidd, who designed the Cornford amps back in the day. So when I play through one of these amps now, it feels strangely like I’ve come home. It’s a voicing I know pretty well and it enables me to do certain things that feel quite natural. I was basically road testing the amps, and reporting back about what worked and what didn’t, because onstage you discover things that you couldn’t discover just sitting in a workshop.

Describe the ways in which you manipulate the controls on your guitar while you are playing.

It’s funny, I grew up thinking that’s what everybody did, but I guess not. I know that currently, with digital modelers and MIDI and things like that, there’s a school of thought that says you just program a different patch for every part of every song and then you don’t have to touch the controls on the guitar. But I feel more powerful in a strange way if I understand where the tone is coming from, and if I know what will happen if I tweak the tone knob slightly. Also, over the last few years I’ve become very fond of using a volume pedal, which gives me two ways of adjusting the output of the guitar while playing. If I back down the volume control on the guitar, the tone sounds thinner and more biting, whereas when using the volume pedal the EQ basically stays the same. It is also nice to be able to make on-the-fly adjustments without involving my picking hand when playing live.

When recording, however, it’s a huge deal for me to find the sweet spot on the volume knob. How fat do I want the tone to be? For a solo part I may want to it set it to 9 or 10, and if it’s a rhythm part then the same volume knob on 5 or 6 helps me cut through the mix better. So it is just experimentation. I think everyone should explore what the knobs on their own guitar do, because they probably do more than they think.

The Suhr Koko Boost pedal plays a key role in your sound. Describe how you use it.

I can get through an entire Aristocrats gig with just a single-channel Suhr Badger 30 and the Koko Boost. The Koko has two functions: clean boost and mid boost. I only use the mid boost, which adds a character to the tone that Bryan describes as “squank,” a term I quite like. It has a Freq switch that determines which mids get boosted, and I use the fattest-sounding setting. When I’m soloing, I’ll typically kick in the boost, turn the guitar volume all the way up, or nearly all the way up, and let the volume pedal do the rest.

You also used a fuzz pedal in a few spots on Culture Clash, right?

Yes, an Analog Man Sun Face, which is my favorite fuzz pedal. It has a really musical, unpredictable sound, and responds well to different volume knob settings.

You use lots of pedals and have a relatively elaborate switching system when touring with Steven Wilson [see More Online]. What are a few of the coolest sounds you’ve got programmed?

There are two particularly fun patches. One is something I concocted with the Eventide TimeFactor that utilizes a very, very short reverse delay with a lot of repeats and then some kind of filter on it over the top. The name for that patch is “Disgusting,” because no matter what you play you can’t recognize the note at all. It’s just pure noise, and there are certain places where I need to make that noise.

The other patch involves a Source Audio Soundblox Multiwave Distortion pedal, which has all these different modes, some of which will give you horrible synthetic-sounding distortion and a kind of octave-divider sound at the same time. On one song Steven’s brief to me was, “I need you to sound like a wounded rhino here,” and after much experimentation, instant rhino was there to be enjoyed.

You are frighteningly fluent in nearly every style of guitar playing. Has that helped or hindered you in finding your own voice as a player?

I don’t find being able to play different flavors of music to be a problem. I believe that music is a language and the different styles are regional accents—all of which are related. For example, you could listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan play a Kenny Burrell lick and then a Hendrix lick and then an Albert King lick, and you’d still know that it’s Stevie. So, I don’t think you need to tie yourself to a certain style to define who you are. It’s more about how you play in any given style.

Point taken, but few players have assimilated so many styles and techniques as seamlessly as you have.

Maybe there’s a parallel with the way one’s picking hand works. If you do a lot of alternate picking and you want to learn economy picking or hybrid picking or tapping, etc., it’s good if you can add all of those things to your core picking techniques so your hand becomes sort of a Swiss Army knife and you can just access those different attachments depending on what sound you want, rather than having to reboot every time you switch from one technique to another.

Humor plays an appreciable role in your playing.

Yes, but only because I like funny stuff and think funny stuff is good. So if that’s the kind of person you are, why should you refrain from sharing a little bit of that quirkiness when you’re playing? I never thought that playing had to be a serious “check out my chops and tremble in fear” kind of experience. It’s supposed to be expressing whatever it is that you want to share.

In your July 2011 GP cover story you advised students to determine what they want to achieve and then to set goals. What do you want to achieve, and what are your goals as a guitarist?

If I ask myself that, it almost feels like I don’t need to, because it’s so obvious to me that I should be playing music. I don’t remember deciding to become a guitar player, it’s just something that I’ve always done, probably for the simple reason that I can’t help it and don’t know any better. This is who I am. And if I can channel this thing that I’ve done for so many years to entertain people, or to enrich someone’s listening experience, or to contribute to someone else’s music in a way that makes them happy, then that makes me feel some sense of purpose. I just want to continue doing that.

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