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Guthrie Govan Takes the Reins in Prog Rock's Rowdy New Democracy

July 14, 2011
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img“Guthrie Govan gives shred a good name,” says Paul Gilbert. “It’s absolutely heartwarming to hear someone play super fast and have musical depth to match. What a breath of fresh air.”

Mr. Gilbert, however, is not the only guitar hero who is genuinely thrilled Guthrie Govan has landed the GP cover. “What sets Guthrie apart,” adds Joe Satriani, “is that no matter what he’s doing—picking, tapping, slapping, playing legato, whatever—he mixes everything up gracefully and absolutely nails each approach. And all the while the music sounds natural.”

“He’s also a tip-top teacher,” chimes in Mattias “IA” Eklundh, who has hired Govan in the past as a guest instructor at his Freak Guitar Camp intensives in Sweden. “Guthrie can play anything— backwards, if you prefer. And, unlike some other super-duper all-around guitarists, he is anything but a chameleon. Whatever he sinks his teeth into, you can tell it’s him instantly.”

Indeed, the deeper you delve into Govan’s playing, the less likely it seems there is any guitar style, genre, or approach the guitarist doesn’t absolutely own. From the virtuosic guitar work on his 2006 solo debut, Erotic Cakes [Cornford Records] to his playing in the studio and on stage with the revamped ’80s prog supergroup Asia (2001-2006) to the viral video smash in which he accurately emulates every guitarist from James Taylor and B.B. King to Steve Vai and Zakk Wylde (search YouTube for “Who’s Best Govan”), Govan stands out as one of the most versatile players the electric guitar has ever known.

Then again, there’s one important skill the British guitar hero has yet to master: the art of saying no.

“The way my life has gone the last few years, I’ve had a blanket policy of saying yes to everything that comes up—every clinic, session, gig—because my aim has always been to live completely steeped in music, and that was the only way I could pay the bills,” says Govan, surrounded by guitars and amps in the music room of his home in Chelmsford, England. “But if you do too many different things, everything can conspire to distract you from what you should be doing.”

The good news is that Govan (which, by the way, is a Scottish name that rhymes with oven) has been ’shedding hard to develop his “no” chops. The result? The 39-yearold guitarist has found time to join forces with bassist Bryan Beller (Mike Keneally, Dethklok, Steve Vai) and drummer Marco Minnemann (UKZ, Trey Gunn, Necrophagist) to launch an exciting reimagining of the prog rock power trio.

“Based on some of the slightly offensive song titles coming in from each other’s demos, we thought we’d call ourselves the Aristocrats,” says Govan. “Perhaps you’re familiar with the joke of the same name.”

If you haven’t heard the infamous joke, well, we can’t repeat it here, but rest assured there’s a documentary film available in which a plethora of comedians battle it out to make sure you’re informed of it. (“I think Sarah Silverman won that one,” says Govan.) At press time, though, the joking is over, and Govan and the Aristocrats are in a studio in Chicago, tracking their as yet untitled debut.

“I’m really feeling that this is what I should be doing now—writing more music, doing more collaborations with others, and doing more solo albums,” says Govan. “I’m also very into avoiding any situation where I become known as ‘the guy who can sound like other people.’ That would be a grim epitaph to have on your musical tombstone.”

It has been reported that you started playing guitar at age three.

So they tell me. I don’t remember. I just remember a full-size Spanish guitar seeming quite enormous, so I guess I must have been fairly small. My dad played guitar, and he showed me everything he knew when I was still pretty young. I remember doing a gig when I was five, playing lots of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, and stuff like that.

That’s quite young to be performing. Was there any “stage parenting” going on?

No, there was nothing like that at all. There were points when people would approach my family and say, “You’ve got an intriguing kid. He can play better than other people at that age. We could do something with him.” Generally, though, my parents’ response was, “No. He’s only a kid. Let him have a normal kid’s life.” That’s the opposite of stage parenting. They encouraged what I was doing but never tried to turn it into a career for me prematurely.

My parents just truly liked music, so I grew up being exposed to a lot of it, and understanding that music is something serious— an art form—not just wallpaper to have going on in the background of your life. It made all the sense in the world to associate the guitar lying in the corner of the room with all these sounds I was hearing. I had a tape recorder, a record player, and soon gained the virtue of working stuff out by ear, which was pretty much what I did most of my formative years.

How did you find yourself, at age nine, performing on the popular British television show Ace Reports?

To this day, I have no idea. I just remember a nice car turning up at our house and taking my brother Seth and me to a studio somewhere where we played a couple of songs and answered some questions. For weeks afterwards at school, we were the hairy kids who had been on TV.

Fast forward: It’s 1993 or so, and the British magazine Guitarist is holding a “Guitarist of the Year” competition. What compelled you to enter?

Well, I’ve never seen music as a competition, but I was at an odd point in my life where I had walked out of Oxford University after a year of studying English, been on unemployment, and worked at McDonald’s making burgers, so it just seemed like a good idea to reach out to the music community to see if there was any interest in what I could do. The competition worked on the premise that they would print out an eightbar melody with no particular rhythm, and say, “Your job is to write a three-minute piece of music based on this pseudo melody.” The thing I wrote turned out to be “Wonderful Slippery Thing” [off Erotic Cakes], which I still play to this day. We each played along with our backing tracks—the others to nice DAT recorders, me to my crappy little cassettes— in front of a random selection of judges that including the famous DJ Tommy Vance and the fingerstyle guitar demon Martin Taylor.

I was thrilled they chose me as the winner. I got my free amp, went home, got my little interview in Guitarist, and then nothing happened [laughs]. Before long, I decided that rather than wait for a job to appear on a plate, it might be best to invent one for myself. With all my years of working stuff out by ear, I figured I’d get the attention of Guitar Techniques magazine by transcribing the most confusing, scary thing I could think of at the time, which was some Shawn Lane stuff. Their reply was, “Not only do you have our attention, we’re actually going to publish that and give you some money.” After that, they just kept phoning me every month. I did that for years.

You have also taught legions of guitar students at various guitar schools, from BIMM in the U.K. to Musicians Institute in California. What stands out to you as the top two or three ways in which young guitarists could stand to improve their playing?

Well, there are two basic kinds of students I meet over and over again. First, there are those who encountered the instrument naturally, as I did. Maybe they’re blues-rock kids who grew up with a Strat in the house and picked up some Stevie Ray riffs instinctively when they were young. Those guys tend to have good timing and feel, and they phrase nicely and understand good tone, but often they’re lazy—they know their blues boxes but don’t want to take things to the next level. Some of them have even been told by older blues authorities that stepping out of those boxes isn’t real music, and that it’s somehow a bad thing to be able to sweep pick, sight read, or know a jazz chord.

imgGovan with his latest signature Suhr, the Guthrie Govan Antique Modern.

When I meet students like that, I tell them, “If you actually want to do this for a living, you need to open your ears to every kind of music out there and become as versatile as possible. And the time to really learn is now. Once you’re working, you’ll have much less time to practice.”

The other kinds of students I meet are the guys whose first guitar was probably an Ibanez—it certainly at least had a pointy headstock—and they have a thick, pointy pick, a POD, and a bunch of instructional videos, and the first song they ever learned wasn’t really a song, but some sort of technical shred study. Those guys tend to think the goal of playing guitar is to fire up the old metronome, and measure their improvement purely based on technique. They know every scale and arpeggio in every key, but they’re trapped in their bedrooms with no one to tell them that their tone sucks and they can’t play in time. They need to get out there and become surrounded not just by other guitarists, but also by drummers, bass players, and even, dare I say, audiences.

What’s the best way for them to improve if they’re not at a music school?

This might be infuriating, but this is the best answer I have: They should ask themselves, “Why am I playing and what do I want to achieve?” Until they know that, there isn’t a correct way forward. In the past, at seminars, I’ve been guilty of preaching that everyone needs to learn stuff by ear as I did, and that if you can’t do that, you’re not really a musician, you’re just a typist— you’re just copying things off a transcription or an instructional DVD. Then, one day, I got a wakeup call from a guy at one of my clinics. He was about 50, had a lovely Paul Reed Smith with the most exotic top you’ve ever seen, and he stopped me mid-rant and said, “I appreciate what you’re saying but I’m a gynecologist. I get to play guitar about 20 minutes a week. I don’t need this ear that you’re talking about, because that’s not why I’m playing. If I could learn to play ‘Layla,’ it’d make me happy every day for the rest of my life.” That guy made me reassess things. No matter why you play, it’s always good to have a clear goal. If you don’t have a goal, you’ll certainly never achieve it. If you do, you might achieve it.

As far as your goal of doing some interesting musical collaborations goes, the Aristocrats certainly qualifies. The band has already been described as “Cream for the 21st Century.” How do you feel about that characterization?

I’m wary of it because anyone who likes Cream will instantly dismiss it as blasphemy and like us less for daring to be billed as such. But I like the idea of it. Cream really was a band. It was everyone going crazy at the same time. It was a rowdy democracy of musicianship, and I like that.

One thing I really hate is when it’s just the guitar player doing all the interesting stuff and in the background you’ve got the drums just laying down a simple beat and the bass playing root notes. That bores me. Live music should be about the interaction between the people in the band. People already know that our trio is going to be about the interplay between its players. I’m excited by the fact that each of us has some kind of following of our own, which hopefully means we’ll have a more interesting cross-section of people at shows, rather than just a sea of guitar players with binoculars, notepads, and camera phones. It’s been quite well received for an album that hasn’t been made yet [laughs].

What is the Aristocrats’ musical vision and ambition?

The good thing is that it’s a fully organic one, as the project started for entirely the right reasons. Marco, Bryan, and I had played a quick set at this year’s Bass Bash at NAMM, and the chemistry was so great that when we came off stage we all said to each other, simultaneously, “This is working. We should record this.” It was particularly amazing playing with Marco for the first time, preposterously accomplished drummer that he is. He’s a freak. He’s not physically possible. Plus, there’s something a little bit naughty about him. He’s got this cheeky grin on his face when he’s playing. He’s not just a clinician.

And when it comes to bass, Bryan brings the best of both worlds. It’s amazing to me that someone can have that much ability and understanding, yet have the strength not to show off or do circus tricks. He gets the purpose of what a bass player in a rock band is, which is to lock in with the meatier side of the drum kit and make us sound solid. The Aristocrats is going to have a raucus rock vibe and a sense of humor about the music, which you might not expect to find in other muso projects in which people are flung together to make an album in a hurry.

One thing that is striking about your playing is not just how accomplished you are at so many different techniques, but also how seamlessly you go from one to the next.

I’m relieved if it comes across that way. Part of it might be me just having started so young. There’s a certain mentality you have when you’re a kid that assumes that whatever it is you’re attempting, it must be possible to do. Instinctively, I always seek the easiest and most natural way of doing things. I don’t tense up when I practice, I’m not turning red, and I’m not damaging any tendons. Whatever the technique is, it’s got to feel natural, or I don’t feel like I own it.

Take, for instance, the technique of alternate picking. We each have a unique little twitch in our wrists that comes naturally to us. To become a better picker, trace your way back from the pick all the way up to your shoulder or your spine and try to get everything else in your body lined up in such a way that the guitar feels like part of your skeleton, and that when your wrist does that natural twitch, it gives you the desired effect on the guitar. Everything between your shoulder and the pick is part of the process.

Speaking of alternate picking, yours is utterly, to borrow one of your adjectives, preposterous. Did you work with a metronome while developing that astonishing speed?

I’ve never really owned a metronome. I always opted to play along with real music, and a lot of real music is in time. There is a lot more information on a real record than there could ever be with just a click. The record tells you about the dynamic, which beat carries the most weight, when someone might be playing slightly ahead or behind of where the click would be, or what happens in that murky zone between beat one and beat two. Where is the up stroke? You can’t learn SRV’s “Pride and Joy” shuffle from a click.

One picking luxury in which I indulge is the expensive but awesome line of Red Bear picks. I like their Big Jazzer model. Dweezil Zappa turned me on to these picks at a tradeshow. He said, “Try this,” and he gave me this extra-heavy tortoise-shell-looking thing with speed bevels on it. I played it for a while, A/B’d it against my old Dunlop Jazz III XL’s, and, tonally speaking, there was no comparison. It sounded way better. Then Dweezil said, “I want it back,” so I knew it was a special pick [laughs].

What pops into your head if I ask you what the top two or three most inspiring live guitar performances are that you’ve ever witnessed?

Without even thinking, I would say the most recent one was Derek Trucks. Before hearing Derek, I didn’t know a guitar could sound so vocal. With him, the guitar becomes this transparent thing, and through it we hear this great gospel singer that Derek hears in his head. Presumably, Derek can’t sing like that, but he’s made it so his guitar can.

Then there was that mythical Eric Johnson show at the Marquee Club in London in the early ’90s that quite a few of us remember. I’m not much for lists, but if I had to list my top ten favorite live guitar sounds of all time, four of them were probably at that gig. Eric was just so in control of his gear and the notes he was playing.

I can also mention that seeing Yngwie Malmsteen made a real impact on me. He wasn’t this academic looking guy just standing there with his music stand. He was going crazy, running around the place, and throwing his Strat while playing a million notes per second. And when he stopped and played just one note, it sounded like a violin or an opera singer. Yngwie has an incomparable vibrato, which his detractors choose to ignore.

Any newer guitarists you find inspiring?

There are—Alex Machacek is quite interesting— but, by and large, I am not interested in the kind of player who is often recommended to me. That player is usually someone who’s doing something a bit like what I’m doing. I want to hear things that are completely fresh to me. For instance, I’m big Bjork fan. You never really hear a guitar on her albums, but there’s something very intriguing about what she’s done with the human voice. It’s like Derek Trucks backwards. Instead of making an instrument behave like a voice, it’s the other way around.

Last I counted, you have three Suhr signature models on the market.

I do. I’m currently brandishing the newest one, which ironically looks the oldest, and it is called the Guthrie Govan Antique Modern. It’s a complete departure from the other two. It’s an example of what happens when I listen to John Suhr instead of him listening to me. This is John’s Holy Grail wood combination— basswood for the body, a plain maple top, a nitro finish, and a roasted maple neck. I’m aware that in California you get the electric chair or something if you spray nitro on a guitar, because it’s bad for the ozone layer. So I guess that this body must have been shipped out of state to have this poisonous lacquer of death sprayed on it and then shipped back to Suhr. But it’s a pleasing finish. It’s aging nicely already.

If I ever go out and do a crazy rock gig I will take my set-neck mahogany model because it barks like nothing else. If I want to do more of a jazz-fusion gig, though—if I want screaming overdrive, want to be able to trade lines with a sax player, and also get glossy clean sounds—I would take this guitar. This small, maple-heavy instrument seems to clean up a lot better, whereas mahogany gives you a lot of that midrange that pushes an old valve amp nicely.

Do all three models have 24 frets?

They do, indeed. I know there’s a school of thought that you shouldn’t have a 24 because then the neck humbucker isn’t in the optimum place, but I’d rather have the two extra notes on each string.

And Suhr makes all the pickups on these, right?

Yeah. They roll their own, so to speak.

Why do you prefer stainless steel frets?

Well, steel frets do sound a little brighter than nickel, acoustically, but once you go into an amp, I don’t think you hear any difference. You feel a difference, though, because they stay smooth for so much longer. The bends feel glossy, the string glides over the fret when you want it to, and intonation stays accurate for longer. It’s 99 percent win with stainless steel frets. The only catch, though, is that you really should use that plastic fret protector they give you to leave under the strings during transit. If the guitar gets knocked hard and a string digs into a fret and leaves a little groove, the steel is so hard you’ll never wear that groove out, and you won’t be able to bend on that fret.

Tell us about the Blower switch on your guitars.

Ah, the Button of Doom, as I like to call it. It’s a low-profile button on my Suhrs that, when engaged, bypasses everything except the bridge pickup. It’s convenient, because I don’t have to change my volume, tone, and pickup settings to instantly get to the simple, wide-open rock valve amp sound I was raised on. What has surprised me is how much more output and top end running the switch offers compared to running the bridge pickup the normal way, which illustrates how much signal you lose just by running the pickup through all that circuitry before it reaches the output jack.

Let’s talk amps. What do you like about the MK50 Mark II, Harlequin, and other Cornford models you’ve used so regularly over the years?

The Cornford is the kind of high-gain amp that differentiates between different guitars and players, so that even with obscene amounts of filth in the preamp, you can hear every nuance of the pick attack and can still hear whether it’s a Tele or a Strat. It’s not a compressed Dual Rectifier kind of sound. It’s like the old amps I grew up with, but on steroids. If you have any kind of blues background at all and enjoy the fact that you can play one note on the guitar a thousand different ways, the Cornford is what I would call a listening amp. It’s sensitive to every detail that you feed it. Some people don’t like that kind of amp. They say it makes it harder to play, to which I reply, “But that’s what you sound like.”

You also use Suhr amps, as well as Custom Audio amps, which are designed and built by Suhr.

Yeah. I recently got hold of the Suhr Badger 30, which I’m liking quite a lot. To my way of thinking, it’s basically a ’70s Marshall with tricks. You can get the sound of the power stage working really hard at an output as low as three-quarters of a watt. It does nice vintage overdriven stuff and also has this power-scaling witchcraft on the front panel you balance carefully using a knob called Drive and a knob called Power. In my dream world, there would be one knob just called Volume [laughs].

Any pedals you can’t live without?

This doesn’t sound very exciting, but the least dispensable thing for me is probably my volume pedal, which is usually an Ernie Ball. I’m a huge fan of getting tonal variations the old-fashioned way—i.e., by tinkering with the volume pot on the guitar—but in a live context, I find it really helpful to be able to make some of those level adjustments without disrupting what my picking hand is doing. I recently discovered the new Dunlop volume pedal, which has a really nice feel.

You don’t seem to run much delay or ’verb.

Well, sometimes it’s nice to be able to hide behind a bit of ambience—it’s like sonic makeup—but in a live context you have to take into account that every room has its own reverb. It’s good to think in terms of how the guitar sounds at the back of the room, rather than gauging it from one foot away in front of the cabinet. Adding loads of synthetic ambience may well be flattering, but it tends to rob the notes of clarity. With Asia, in particular, I found myself playing as part of a fairly busy mix, often in appalling sounding venues, and I worked out that the only way people would actually be able to hear what I was playing was to adopt a dry, unforgiving tone. The desk tapes from those shows sometimes came out sounding quite harsh, but I like to think that the tone worked in the room.

You get a lush, swirling chorus sound.

Well, I do have some nice chorus pedals. I really like the Analog Man chorus, and also the Providence Anadime. They’re very different beasts, but one thing they have in common is that they don’t rob the signal of any low end, so you can get the desired degree of swirliness without sacrificing any of the meat in the tone. I recently did a “Toneprint” for the new TC Electronic Corona chorus, which was cool. That software really lets you tweak every little detail, so it felt like designing a whole pedal from scratch.

What do you feel is the mark of a great guitar player?

I think the obvious answer is one whom you recognize after just one note. Unfortunately, though, that’s not always true. I could hear Pat Martino play one note and not be confident that it was him. The beauty in Pat’s playing lies in a lot of notes—the contour he gives them. So there are many things that make up a great guitar player. We all have a great guitar player in our heads that we can hear. It’s a matter of getting that sound out.

You hold upwards of 100 guitar clinics a year, all over the world. Have you noticed any big differences in guitar culture from one region to the next?

Each country has a unique vibe, yes. I have found that when I go to Italy, for example, there’s something fiery about guitar audiences there. They want a certain amount of bravado and showing off. Meanwhile, the French have a more surreal sense of humor about things, and they tend to embrace the zanier side of music and art in general. Those guys pretty much invented surrealism, so it makes a lot of sense to me that they would embrace, for instance, Bumblefoot’s music before anywhere else in Europe did.

And what are American crowds like?

They seem to know more about gear than anyone else [laughs]. In America, the electric guitar is kind of a national sport. It’s up there with the Cadillac, the Coke can, and baseball. It’s one of those iconic things that represents America, so it always feels good to go to the States with a gig bag. It gives me a sense of purpose. I’ve found that in the States anyone—not just people at gigs, but anyone you meet—will see the gig bag and tend to react with curiosity, like, “Gee, that’s interesting. Are you in a band?” whereas in England the response is a bit more like, “When are you going to get a proper job?”

What’s your advice to guitarists who aspire to make their living as a pro musician?

Well, a wiser person than me—I think it was Steve Swallow—said, “If you want to play music for a living, don’t do it, but if you have to play music for a living, it’s the best job in the world.” So if music is truly your calling, and you feel empty when you’re not playing it, and you dive into it with all of yourself and promise to never question it, and always remember that it doesn’t owe you anything, then that makes it okay. Then you work at it. You weigh focusing on your particular musical strengths with becoming versatile and employable. Even if your ultimate goal is to play metal, it could be that the ability to sight read and play a few bossa nova tunes on a cruise ship can keep you alive for a few months and generate the money for your first album. Just remember, music is not a normal job. Think very carefully before you commit to doing this for a living. Think carefully, young guitar apprentice.

imgThe Guitaristocrat’s Gear—Guthrie’s Go-to Gizmos on the Aristocrats Sessions

GUITARS Suhr Guthrie Govan Signature Antique Modern (basswood body, maple top, roasted maple neck, maple fretboard); Suhr Guthrie Govan Signature Modern (mahogany body, maple top, mahogany neck with pau ferro fretboard); Rasmus (by Suhr, built in China) Guthrie Govan Signature Modern (mahogany body, mahogany neck, rosewood fretboard). All guitars equipped with Gotoh 510TS-SF1 tremolo bridges (floating) and Suhr SSH+ humbucker (bridge), ML single-coil (middle), and SSV humbucker (neck) pickups. Suhr models equipped with Sperzel locking tuners and Suhr Blower bypass buttons.

STRINGS Rotosound Roto Yellows, .010-.046

AMPS AND CABS Suhr Badger 30-watt head, Custom Audio Amplifier (CAA) PT100 100-watt head (designed and built by Suhr), Suhr 2x12 cabinet loaded with Celestion Heritage G12-65s, CAA 4x12 cabinet with WGS Veteran 30s.

EFFECTS (IN SIGNAL-CHAIN ORDER): Radial Tonebone Switchbone (for running both amps in tandem or switching between them), Suhr Koko Boost (used with Badger 30 only), Peterson StroboStomp tuner, Sweet Sound Mojo Vibe, Xotic Robotalk Envelope Filter, Analog Man Clone Chorus, Dunlop Jerry Cantrell Signature CryBaby Wah, Ernie Ball volume pedal, Eventide TimeFactor digital delay (in the effects loop of the CAA).

Hair Ties (for String Muting): Claire’s Accessories. (“I should have an endorsement.”)—JG

Making Waves

As progressive guitar themes such as “Pipeline” (the Chantays, 1963), “Scatterbrain” (Jeff Beck, 1975), “YYZ” (Rush, 1981), “Tumeni Notes” (Steve Morse Band, 1989), and “Cliffs of Dover” (Eric Johnson, 1990) have all proven over the decades, it’s hard to name a great guitar-driven instrumental that doesn’t feature a memorable melody. Perhaps that’s why Guthrie Govan’s “Waves” (which the guitarist originally released as a demo in 1993 but improved upon, rerecorded, and rereleased on Erotic Cakes in 2006) is already proving to have true lasting power in the pantheon of prog.

“‘Waves’ started out as my attempt to recreate the vibe of a melody played on a Minimoog synth with the glide/portamento knob turned up,” says Govan, who quadruple-tracked the 12-bar (including repeats) phrase using two Suhr guitars and four different pickup settings. “I wanted each note to swoop into the next as it would on the synth, so my silly fingering approach with all the slides seemed like a cool way to approximate that sound. The general picking policy here is only pick a note if it’s necessary to do so.” —JG

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