Classic Interview Randy Bachman from the July 1975 GP

October 14, 2010

 Had Randy Bachman (pronounced back-man) never even picked up a guitar, his talents as a songwriter and producer would have been enough to implant his name firmly in the Canadian music hall of fame. With Guess Who pianist and vocalist Burton Cummings, Randy co-wrote “These Eyes,” “Undun,” “American Woman,” “Laughing,” and many others. He has since gone on to produce all of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s (his current group) albums, and even played a large part in the production of Brave Belt (his band immediately following the Guess Who). But now he is being hailed as a guitarist worth his weight in fancy riffs (and there are a lot of riffs in this football player-sized musician), and he’s even come to be called “The Legend” (as has his custom-built Stratocaster). In fact, during the days when Keith Emerson was with Nice, that group’s arranger liked Bachman’s guitaring enough to ask him to come to England to play with Emerson, who was forming a new group. Bachman’s solo album, Axe, with touches of classical, country, rock, and flamenco styles, indicated his eclectic capabilities, but a gall bladder infection which necessitated long hospitalization ended his chances of strumming even one chord with the group which became known as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
The violin was Randy Bachman’s first contact with music, and he remembers those early days as unhappy. It was a “very terrifying” time in his life. He was forced to pursue the violin until age 12, when he made up his own mind to stop playing. On special occasions Randy was allowed to play pieces by Don Messer, who was a fiddle player in the Newfoundland area. These were primarily Cajun and hoe-down songs which gave him a release from the structured classical forms and made him feel “warm and loose” all over. “The violin turned into a sore spot in my life,” he recalls. “When I was 10, 11, 12 all my friends were going out to play football or going to the movies, while I was up in my room practicing violin. And when I was bad, instead of saying ‘Go to your room; you can’t have dinner,’ my parents would say, ‘Go to your room and practice your violin.’ This thing that was supposed to be a pleasure, they made a punishment.”
Numbed by his experience with the violin, he stayed away from music for over three years, until age 15, when he saw Elvis Presley on Tommy Dorsey’s television show. Presley, dressed in black shirt and white tie, so dumbfounded Randy that he was moved to ask, “What’s that around his neck?” Somebody said, “It’s a guitar.” Bachman was so intrigued by all the excitement beamed at this performer and this “thing” around his neck that he instantly had to try his hand at guitar. His cousin owned a large acoustic Martin, and, after being shown three fundamental chords, Randy’s old ability to easily pick up songs surfaced again on this new instrument. When his mother told him there was a guitar in the attic that he could use, he found that it was in fact an old Hawaiian dobro with painted palm trees on the body and a large nut to raise the strings. Soon the nut was removed (to lower the action), the strings were replaced, and within two weeks of learning his first three chords, Randy could outplay his cousin. At every opportunity he watched other guitarists play (the Ventures, the Champs, Brenda Lee and the Casuals, Billy Grammer, and those appearing on the Grand Ole Opry shows), and listening to the radio (“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” “Hey Bo Diddley,” “School Days”).
One guitarist who had a great influence on Randy was the jazz/rock/ country player Lenny Breau [see GP, Sept. ’74]. Lenny (who was at that time working with his parents’ travelling country-rock show) introduced Bachman to fingerstyle picking as well as to the genius of Chet Atkins. Bachman says, “I waited around until after the show and asked Lenny what was he doing - what was it called? And he said, ‘It’s called Chet Atkins style,’ and I thought he meant chetatkins, like flamenco - just one word!” From watching Lenny perform with the Hal Lone Pine Caravan, Randy was able to master the Chet Atkins fingerpicking style, and because of Atkins’ sojourns into jazz and flamenco, the still-young guitarist developed a liking for the lighter jazz and classical pieces. “I’d play hooky from school to go watch Lenny practice,” Randy continues. “He lived right across the street from my girl friend, and after watching him figure out a piece, I’d run back over to her house and try it out myself. Meanwhile, I spent two years in every grade, but that didn’t mean anything to me.”
This Canadian-born guitarist, with these assimilations of styles, went on to form the Guess Who, Brave Belt, and most recently BTO. He admits to being highly influenced by the English sound, especially the early heyday of British rock when the Who and Jimi Hendrix started making their presence known. “The Guess Who were pretty much just getting started,” he recalls. “I saw them [The Who] at the Marquee Club, and they played so loud I thought somebody had fired a gun in my ear. To see all this destruction was utterly phenomenal. When we got back we started doing stuff like “My Generation” and smashed up our stuff. We’d make fake speaker bottoms, and I’d take this guitar (now The Legend) and throw it about six or eight feet across the room, and it would stick into my speakers.”
But his stage manner and musical ideas are by no means strict mimicry. As Randy puts it, “Along the way I developed some nutty ideas on my own of how to make my guitar sound like I wanted it to, how to make my amplifiers sound the way I wanted them to, and I’ve come up with certain little gimmicks that I use on my own.”
Bachman’s first electric guitar was a black Silvertone guitar which cost $79 and was (according to Randy) one of the first electric guitars in Winnipeg, his hometown. Nothing told him he needed an amplifier to power his guitar (“I mean everything was really done by trial and error,” he emphasizes). Randy figured there must be some way to hear the guitar, so he had friends make him jacks so that he could plug it into television sets and tape recorders. After blowing out numerous family TV sets he was forced to purchase an authentic amplifier, his first being a Harmony, which was replaced shortly thereafter by a Silvertone amplifier sporting two 12” speakers and a reverb unit.
Randy has since gone on to purchase about three dozen instruments, and has tried to perfect the various devices with which he experimented earlier. For quite some time his main guitar has been the Fender Stratocaster, though this instrument in particular is altered almost to the point of non-recognition. “You’d have to see it to believe it.” A 1953 model, this Strat’s original neck was somehow ruined and replaced with a slightly wider and rounder Jazzmaster neck . Still not satisfied with it, Randy removed the front and rear pickups and in their place put a humbucking and Telecaster pickup respectively. In this fashion he was able to achieve the “bite” of a Telecaster, the “Hendrix sound” via the middle Stratocaster unit, and the “Gibson sound” by placing the three-way standard switch in the down position.
Feeling something missing, he took out the tri-position tone switch and substituted three on-off pots. With these he can put on the Tele pickup and Gibson pickup simultaneously, which gives him the same effect as trying to juggle the standard Stratocaster lever in between the three main stops. He can now achieve any combination of the three units and still switches them around (he has placed a Rickenbacker pickup in place of the humbucking).
The normal Fender tuning pegs are substituted alternately with Grovers and Schallers (which he describes as “pretty reliable”), and Randy has even changed the standard nut (or “frog” as he calls it). Usually made of bone or plastic, several have been split due to Bachman’s unbelievably heavy string gauges (his brand is Ernie Ball). From low to high E he uses a .060, .050, .040, .013, .011, and .009, the three former to give him a strong bottom on chording, and the three latter for bending and lead work. Because of their thickness, the lower strings tended to sit on top of their designated grooves, and Randy was forced to file the grooves periodically to insure proper setting. BTO’s lead guitarist eliminated this nuisance by taking one of his mother’s metal knitting needles and, with a squeeze of glue, placed it into the old nut position. He did not cut any notches in the needle, but let the strings float freely over this round metal surface, a modification which allowed him to bend notes without the restriction of string against groove. Originally, because of its bulkiness, only the .060 gauge string was secured in a filed runway while all other strings just slid where they would over the frog. Recently, however, Randy has constructed grooves for the remaining strings (except the G and B) because they tended to slip around more than was desired.
Six small screw eyes have been tapped into the head of the guitar directly behind where the strings pass through the peg. Randy’s reasoning for this procedure is this: “Every string is pulled through a screw eye so that it’s pulled tighter, so I can get a real ‘spron’ out of the guitar. You know, that sound you get in a Telecaster - that brrang? I think the sound is caused partly because the strings come through the body, are pulled against the wood, and just twang like a bow and arrow.” With these metal screw eyes, in combination with the metallic knitting needle nut, the sound Randy achieves is much brighter than that of the non-altered Stratocaster.
Three volume controls manipulate the degree to which a certain pickup will be turned on. In other words, instead of just switching on the Fender and Rickenbacker units at 50% each, he can raise the former to say, 70%, while lowering the latter to perhaps 30%. Regarding the amount of variety of sound he can produce, he likens the volume controls to mixing knobs. “The sounds I can get out of that guitar are amazing,” he says, adding, “I can make it sound like a steel guitar, a dobro, an Eric Clapton Gibson sound, or a Hendrix Fender sound.”
Another revision Randy came across quite accidentally was the reversal of the cup which houses the input for the guitar plug. On all Stratocasters this is an indented area which makes it nearly impossible to plug in L-shaped, or stereo jacks because of the position of this concave metal pit. Bachman simply turned this part over, so it now sits on top of the guitar and will accommodate extra fat, stereo, L-shaped, and the heavy-duty plugs so many groups use. During a recent show with Blue Oyster Cult, Randy was questioned about this arrangement by one of the group’s guitarists, and during their next meeting was pleased to see the same adjustment on the Cult’s guitar. “I do all this wiring myself,” Bachman points out. “I don’t know what I’m doing; it’s all trial and error. I end up getting a lot of solder burns and a lot of shocks, but I get a good sound.”
Because of his obvious interest in altering guitars to achieve the right sound, he realizes as well the importance of the proper amplification. After much experimenting he has found the 200-watt Sunn Model-T heads powering a Marshall stack and Heil stack an excellent vehicle. Randy says that he quit using the Marshall head because it tended to overheat and blow fuses. The Sunn head has its own preamplifier and allows him to create an effect he devised eight years ago, called “The Herzog” (listen to the guitar sound on the Guess Who’s cut “American Woman” from the album of the same name on RCA, LSP- 4266). What is involved is overdriving the preamp (setting of 9 or 10) while the normal volume settings are turned down. The sound does not become any louder, but gradually it grows dirtier and dirtier and finally ends up creating a cello-like effect. Another reason Bachman uses the Sunn unit relates to the manufacturer’s location. Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, Sunn is easily accessible to this Canadian-based band. One of the two Sunn heads powers an eight-speaker Marshall stack containing four normal 12” Ce1estion speakers and four 12” Altecs. Randy feels that the Altecs give him a much cleaner top end and subsequently a more defined feedback sound. This stack is hooked up to another Sunn T head, which in turn is driving two custom-built Heil bottoms in specially designed cabinets housing Heil’s own speakers (all 12”). In a spare cabinet Bachman has two 90-watt Garnet Session Men also embodying their own preamps, which he uses when he needs a cleaner sound, but which are primarily employed for studio use.
Randy uses a large and heavy triangular pick, though he does do a great deal of fingerpicking. He once tried using fingerpicks, but discarded them because it annoyed him to have to keep putting them on and taking them off. He quit using smaller, softer picks, because his fingernails were constantly hitting the strings and chipping away. Now he buys the heavy-duty wedge by the gross from Manny’s in New York. Randy uses few exterior gimmicks, though he does use a Fuzz Face, a Vox wah-wah, and occasionally a Leslie speaker (on record only). He believes in being a “straightforward-sounding guitar player” and consequently has his preamp turned way down to achieve clarity at high volumes and only uses the pedals when he feels it will actually be creative. The vibrato arm on his Legend has been removed because it constantly caused the guitar to de-tune, though Randy does use a standard 1954 maple neck Stratocaster on stage with the tremolo bar for varied effects. To further assure that his guitar will stay in tune, he has made the usually floating tremolo bridge stationary by screwing all the parts down.
Randy has about a dozen Stratocasters which he is constantly experimenting with. One suggestion he has for guitarists is to apply paint remover to the finish on the back of the guitar neck (carefully masking the head and fretboard to eliminate the chance of damaging these vital parts). Then with a wide scraper remove the finish on the instrument’s neck, sand with fine sandpaper, and complete the process by using fine steel wool or emery cloth. Randy has found the speed of an instrument increases by 50% with this method, because Fender’s and Gibson’s glossy finishes necessitate the use of some type of spray to insure smooth action. The natural sweat from the hand makes the neck as smooth as a “baby’s behind,” and a weekly sanding with a fine sandpaper will keep the neck like glass.
He also recommends using the large metal Telecaster volume knobs in place of the plastic Stratocaster pieces because the filed sides on the former make them easier and more accurate to grab.
Randy has concrete ideas about which direction his playing will take, but candidly admits he feels that what an artist wants and what an audience wants are often two different things. “Unfortunately, in this business your public picks what they want from you,” he says. “If you don’t do it you’re crazy, because you want to make a living from it, and make money from it, and hopefully you’ll get a turn to do what you want later. I started in a country thing with Brave Belt, and the public quickly told us what they wanted by not buying it. So now I try to do what the public wants, and at the same time try to please myself.” —Steve Rosen

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[Ed. Note: Bachman-Turner Overdrive, having recently finished a European tour, is now on the road in the United States. The group’s latest album is Four Wheel Drive, Phonogram-Mercury, SRM 1-027.]

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