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Alex Machacek

May 1, 2010
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Alex Machacek has garnered high praise from the likes of John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth, and pundits have routinely compared his guitar playing to Holdsworth’s and his compositions to those of his posthumous mentor Frank Zappa. (Machacek even reprised Holdsworth’s role in UK while performing with Eddie Jobson’s UKZ project.) While such comparisons are valid as far as they go, Machacek is as adept at Mahavishnu-grade single-note picking as he is at Holdsworthian legato pull-offs and hammer-ons, and his writing draws on myriad influences while increasingly transcending them.

The Austrian-born musician studied classical guitar for six years as a child, then switched to electric when he became interested in rock and jazz during his teens. Machacek earned a degree in Jazz Guitar from the Conservatory of Vienna, and in 1995 he attended the Berklee College of Music on a scholarship. Currently he is an instructor at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles.

Machacek’s critically acclaimed 2006 U.S. debut, [sic]—which included contributions from frequent collaborator drummer Terry Bozzio—was rife with mind-bending guitar work and raised more than a few eyebrows within the jazz-fusion community. It was followed by 2007’s Improvision, which further showcased Machacek’s extraordinary improvisational skills, this time in a power trio alongside bassist Matt Garrison and former Shawn Lane drummer Jeff Sipe.

Machacek’s latest release, 24 Tales [AbstractLogix], is a compositional tour de force based on a 52-minute drum solo by Marco Minnemann. Its 24 pieces flow uninterrupted from beginning to end, navigating the ever-changing rhythmic structure which includes time signatures such as 15/16 and 9/16. (“At the end of ‘Sweet Torture,’” says Machacek, “Marco interprets the 9/16 ostinato as a nontuplet and superimposes 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 over it.”) Intense metallic chunks, shimmering clusters of layered harmonics, subtle EBow orchestrations, acoustic slide figures, ripping runs and counterpoint lines, funky breakdowns, and searing virtuosic solos are just a few of the guitar highlights along the way.

Machacek had composed to drum solos previously—including two by Bozzio on [sic]—but that only partially prepared him for this endeavor. “After working with Terry I thought I was really good at it, but I discovered the hard way that I wasn’t,” he says. “Terry’s approach was very melodic and textural, and he rarely laid down a groove, whereas Marco routinely hit me with one odd meter against another, sometimes at very, um, challenging tempos.”

How did you come to record 24 Tales?

I was considering doing an album of compositions using different drummers, so I asked Marco if he had anything, and he said, “Yeah, I have a solo.” And then he gave me this. I was originally going to just use a section of it, but then he decided to have several composers write for the entire thing as part of his Normalizer project. Marco’s playing is so intricate and complex and the more you listen to it the more you realize that he’s doing things like playing in 5, but the high-hat is playing in 7, and it doesn’t throw him off. That, to me, was overwhelming. I knew about his facility, but you know about stuff and then you work on it and you really know.

Briefly describe your compositional process for the album.

The first step was to beat map the entire 52-minute composition in Logic Pro, because I wanted to sequence some sounds using MIDI. Otherwise, I would have had to play everything perfectly in real time, and I’m not a piano player or a bass player or whatever. Beat mapping allowed me to enter notes one at a time using the mouse. Also, if you know that you have a certain number of bars in a section, that helps with the structure. The next step was to lay down markers and write descriptions for every section, such as, “Lots of kick drum insanity.” Then, I’d try to establish a groove, a melody, a harmonic motif, etc., and develop a section from there.

About 45 seconds into the opening track there’s what sounds like super-complex tapping. What’s going on there?

That’s not tapping. I got that effect by layering four of five clean guitar parts and four or five artificial harmonic guitar parts, with each note cut tight so there’s almost a gating effect, and in some cases delay synced to the tempo. Typically, I’ll record a scratch piano track, and then replace the piano parts with guitars. In this case I orchestrated parts that doubled Marco’s high-hat accents, and that also established the harmonic motive that reappears throughout the album.

The harmonics on “Tour de France” are similar, though, with what sounds like filtered delays. Those are sped-up, right?

Yes, those are filtered delays. And, again, every harmonic is recorded individually. I wish I could play that fast, because the right arm movement would be incredible. I also created a chord pad at the beginning by recording four individual EBow-guitar tracks.

You play acoustic slide in what sounds like standard tuning on “Sit Back and Chillax.”

Yes, that’s my old Yamaha FG470SA in standard tuning with some modulated delay on it. I’ve never played slide before, and I’m not good at it, but I wanted to introduce some new colors on this album.

You play with great economy of movement. What sorts of exercises would you recommend for guitarists that are trying to become more efficient in that regard?

I decided when I was really young that my right-hand picking technique sucked, so for ten minutes a day I just focused on reducing my movements. Then I did the same thing with my left hand, redoing each hammer-on and pull-off to educate my fingers to stay in place until I was ready to play the next note or notes, rather than moving away from the fretboard.

What kind of pick do you use and how do you hold it?

I use the large 2.0mm purple Dunlop picks. I like smaller picks for single-note lines, but if I do any funk comping they fall out of my hands. I hold the pick with my index finger and thumb and I try not to show too much tip, though sometimes when strumming I hold it with my thumb and middle and index fingers for additional flexibility. I also have the habit—I don’t know if it’s good or not—of circle picking, where I move just the first joint of my thumb a little bit, which appeals to me, but doesn’t always work, depending on the string combinations.

What guitars are you playing currently?

Right now I’m playing a headless hollowbody guitar made by Bill Delap that is shaped a little like an SG. I like headless guitars because you can change the strings on them really quickly, and also because they fit easily into overhead compartments when flying. And I really like the TransTrem, because I can lock it just by putting the arm down, and if a string breaks while I’m playing I can still finish the song. I also have a Godin LGXT with Synth Access, a Strat-type guitar with two humbuckers, a single-coil, and MIDI capabilities.

What strings do you prefer?

I use D’Addario strings. The Delap and Godin guitars are strung with .010 sets. I’d use .011 sets if I could, because I like a thick and well-defined tone, but I have to watch my left hand. With the legato playing and stretching, heavier strings take too much effort and I don’t want to get tendonitis. I use .012 sets on my Gibson ES-335 for playing jazz, and .013 sets on my Yamaha acoustic.

What are your three favorite effects pedals as of this moment?

I really like the Xotic Effects RC Booster because it can instantly breathe life into any amp, and the Xotic BB Preamp, which I use for a good distorted tone. The third one would be a good delay, but I haven’t found the right one yet, so I’ll say the Fractal Audio Axe-FX, which is a good pedal, in a way, if you have a MIDI controller.

What amps are you currently using?

I have a Mesa Boogie Rect-O-Verb and a Port City 2x12 cabinet, though I also have a Polytone Mini-Brute 1x12 combo that I use on jazz gigs.

What do you look for in a solo tone and how do you get it?

I look for a sound that doesn’t have too much treble and just the right amount of gain. If there isn’t enough gain, certain notes will drop off when I play legato, but if there’s too much, some clarity might be lost. When I’m recording, I might run the BB Preamp into the Boogie and mic it with a Shure SM57, or use a different distortion pedal such as an MI Audio Crunch Box. Other times I’ll use the Axe-FX and go straight into the computer

What strategies would you suggest for learning to improvise over odd time signatures?

The first thing is to learn the bass riff if there is one, and if not, learn the bass drum and snare drum figures so that you know how the time is divided. Try playing an octave figure with the bass drum on the low note and the snare on the high note. There’s also an exercise where I work with a grid of sixteenth- notes to establish beginning and ending points. Using a metronome, play a phrase that begins and ends on the first sixteenth-note. Then, start and end on the second sixteenth-note, etc., each time shifting the entire phrase by a sixteenth-note. And learn what each sixteenth-note really feels like, so that you can actually use it.

You can also try dividing times differently. For example, 15/16 may be thought of as 5 groups of 3, or 3 groups of 5—again, it’s just learning to feel it. And practice over two unrelated chords, so you have to change your notes, because that really tells you where the 1 is. You can also just play a chord every time the 1 comes around—or any given accent that you choose—and improvise in between. Beyond these things you can explore all of the permutations of note combinations within five notes, or seven notes, etc. Then you’ll have a long grey beard, no audience, no friends, and definitely no sex—but at least you’ll be able to play those things [laughs].

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