Zal Cleminson

April 20, 2006

Dressed up as a mad puppet in white face, you couldn’t miss Zal Cleminson as he prowled stages with The Sensational Alex Harvey Band in the ’70s. A glorious oddity of the times, Scotland’s wackiest band merged theatrics, a self-made mythology (“Vambo Rool”), Cleminson’s incredibly strange and lyrical riffs, and Harvey’s almost unintelligible Scottish burr into a celebration of frenetic bombast. SAHB outlived its namesake, who passed away while on a solo tour in 1982, and continues to tour with new vocalist Max Maxwell fronting original members Chris Glen (bass), Hugh McKenna (keyboards), and Ted McKenna (drums). For his part, Cleminson is still in makeup, and his guitar playing is as stunning and brutal as ever.“If it ain’t got feel,” he explains, “you’re pretty much screwed.”

What was your classic gear, and what are you using today?

My classic SAHB gear was a ’60s Gibson SG, a Marshall 100-watt head through a Vox Beatles cabinet, and no effects. Everything was stolen in Miami while touring with Jethro Tull, so I replaced it with a 100-watt Sunn stack and a Gibson Firebird. My current guitar is hand built by a guy in Glasgow named Graham Hypher. It’s a Telecaster-style body that has been reshaped and sprayed black. It has a single EMG pickup and a single volume knob, and that’s it. For what I do, it’s perfect—loud as f**k and no frills! Graham christened it “The Angry Haggis.” My amp is a Marshall Mode Four stack. For me, the perfect guitar tone is something that works for rhythm and lead, so I can simply adjust the guitar’s volume knob for a clean sound, or to get some overdrive for a solo. I use a Boss ME50 for effects, and my strings are any .010-.046 set.

Your riffs are so wonderfully bizarre. How did you develop that robotic intro for the SAHB tune “Vambo?”

That riff is loosely based on a chicken pickin’ style. It’s played very aggressively and rhythmically, and the wah sets up its own pulse along with the phrasing—like sequencing. The riff sounds hard, and it is. That’s a sore one to play! I don’t know why I used the wah, because I rarely use it at all. Dave [Batchelor, SAHB producer] may have suggested it. Typically, I start a riff or solo by playing what I hear in my head. It can be jaw dropping or cataclysmic, but, soon enough, I get an idea, and I try to refine it.

Of course, there are occasions when I don’t want to refine it, so it stays somewhere in the Twilight Zone—totally inspired and spooky.

So what was the deal with the makeup?

In the ’70s, that character was a big hit. It came about as a result of guitar angst and parody. The white face simply gave the audience a better view of what I was up to. I wear it now in homage to that formative legacy. Also, when you’re all dressed up like a Christmas tree, and you hit the stage with the adrenalin flowing, the energy immediately takes over. The flashy crap all comes steaming out. It’s too Spinal Tap at times, but I love all that prancing and showing off. If the technique suffers along the way, then ask Hendrix how he coped!

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