“I’M A GUITARIST FIRST AND FOREMOST, AND IT IS RELATIVELY EASY FOR me to do what I do on my instrument,” explains 33-year-old Irish guitarist and vocalist Simon McBride. “But for this record my goal was to concentrate a bit more on the actual songwriting than I had in the past, and to write better songs. Hopefully I achieved that.” To that end, McBride holed up in a local studio with bassist Carl Harvey and drummer Paul Hamilton for several weeks to write and arrange the core material for Crossing the Line [Nugene], a rambunctious yet carefully crafted blues-rock outing chockablock with compelling songs, soulful vocals, and masterful guitar work.
From there, McBride took the bass, drum, and guide guitar tracks to Paul Reed Smith’s studio in Annapolis, Maryland, where he completed the writing and recording. “Being in Paul’s studio was like being in Aladdin’s cave for me,” says McBride. “All those guitars and amps and toys—I was like, ‘I want to try this and I want to try that and I want to try that!’”
That exuberance was clearly captured on Crossing the Line, from the smoldering opener “Lead Us Away” to the bluesy ballad “Down to the Wire (Revisited)” to the solo acoustic “A Rock and a Storm,” demonstrating the sort of playing that has garnered numerous awards and led to gigs opening for 6-string luminaries such as Jeff Beck, Joe Bonamassa, Derek Trucks, and Joe Satriani.
What guitars did you play on Crossing the Line?
I used three of Paul’s guitars, as there was no point in bringing instruments from Ireland. To get the Strat-like sounds on “Don’t Be a Fool” I used a 305, which has three single- coil pickups. There was also a prototype guitar that he was working on and experimenting with. It had some new pickups in it that hadn’t even been named yet. I used that one on three or four songs. On everything else I played Paul’s own guitar, which is based on the 408, and is very nice. Once I picked it up I couldn’t put it down, so that was the guitar I played from there on out.
Did you play through PRS amps as well?
Yes, I used two unnamed 50- and 100- watt PRS amps, as well as a PRS amp Paul called the “Christmas amp” for some reason, which is kind of a cross between a Marshall and a Dumble. He also had one of Eric Johnson’s Marshalls, and some Ampeg Jet combos that sounded cool on some clean parts. But I mostly played through a PRS HXDA head run through PRS cabinets loaded with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. Paul called me up one day while I was in the studio and said I should halt everything, because he was bringing me an amp that was a replica of the Marshall Jimi Hendrix used at Fillmore East. That was the HXDA, and I fell in love with it instantly. In fact, I loved it so much that when I went home I lifted it [laughs].
What guitar do you normally play that you didn’t bring with you?
I have several Custom 24s and other PRS guitars, but lately I’ve mostly been playing the 408, which has the new pickup system with the mini-toggles for coil splitting, and the 245 Singlecut. I also have an Angelus Cutaway acoustic that I love. But I’m not fussy when it comes to guitars. If a guitar plays nice and sounds good, I’m happy. I pretty much sound the same no matter which guitar I play, because, as with any guitar player, so much is in the hands and the heart.
Did you have a preferred brand and gauge of strings?
Right now I am using Rotosound strings gauged .010-.046, but strings are strings to me. If I don’t break them, that’s good, as I’m very hard on strings. I have to change them after every gig, otherwise I’ll break them during the first song the next night.
How did you record the guitars at Paul’s studio?
Paul has a cabinet full of really old microphones and other cool stuff, and we tried a lot of different things, including vintage ribbons— but we ended up using a stereo pair of Grundig GDSM11 dynamic mics, built by Sennheiser in the early ’60s. We put one right on the speaker and the one slightly off axis. Also, the guitars were plugged directly into the amps with no effects pedals in line or in the effects loops, and the only reverb sound we used on the album was from an acoustic echo chamber. Paul has an exact copy of one of the echo chambers in Abbey Road, with an old RCA mic in it, and we put the guitar cabs in there. I always thought an echo chamber was like a little box or something, but at one point he said, “you’re standing in it!”
So you got all of the overdriven and distortion sounds with just the amps?
Yes. I’m a firm believer in using an amp’s distortion, because pedals are just trying to emulate amp distortion anyway. A real amp always sounds better.
There’s a great, slightly crunchy rhythm tone on “Don’t Be a Fool.” How did you get that?
That’s the PRS 305, with the single-coil pickups, through the HXDA amp. It is actually the same tone that I used for the lead, but I backed the gain off a lot on the guitar to get more of a crunchy Strat-type rhythm tone.
There’s also a fantastic modulation effect on some of the tunes that sounds an awful lot like a Leslie.
We used a Waves tremolo pedal plug-in for some of those sounds, like on “Alcatraz,” but I think the sounds you are talking about actually are a Leslie. Paul has one downstairs from the studio, and I just plugged the guitar straight into the preamp for it and that was the sound. I actually wanted to do everything with the Leslie cabinet because it just sounded like heaven to me. We just put the same two mics on the horn and the rotor to capture the sound.
When you do use pedals, are there any that you feel are essential to your sound?
To be honest, pedals for me are just toys. I like to experiment and play with them. Having said that, and at the risk of contradicting myself, I love playing with toys, and the pedalboard I use live is massive [laughs]. A few of my favorites are a TC Electronic Flashback delay, which I leave on a lot very low to create a certain vibe, a Vox v847 wah, an old Arion chorus that is a piece of junk but sounds really cool, and a Strymon Flint that I keep on all the time for reverb, set to sound like Paul’s echo chamber. Another pedal I really love is the Pigtronix Disnortion, which has fuzz, overdrive, and octaver all in one pedal—and they all sound great. It has a 6-way selector switch that lets you choose between different frequencies, and you can make it sound as vile or as smooth as you want. Oh, and I also have a Creation Audio Labs MK 4.23 Clean Boost that sits at the end of my signal chain, which I keep on all the time. I don’t even turn up the gain on it, but just running my signal through it smooths all the edges of my sound like an old Neve preamp.
One of the most prominent things about your solos is your use of bends. Do you do any specific exercises to work on bends?
Not really. In fact, I don’t really practice anything a lot anymore. That said, for the past few years I’ve been trying to create the sound of Uilleann pipes on the guitar, and that involves bending into notes. So, say you are playing a note on the 10th fret. You would start on the 9th fret and bend up to it. There’s a track on the new album called “One More Try,” which has that. The guitar part is pretty much based around that bagpipe sound, which gives it that Irish edge. As for bends in general, one of my heroes growing up was Gary Moore, who did a lot of bending, so I probably got most of my bending from learning all his stuff.
I mentioned it because a lot of players seem to struggle with getting their bends together, and I thought you might have some advice for them.
The only advice I can give is to sing every note in your head as you play it, which is what I do. I can hear the pitch in my head, and if I’m slightly flat I know I’m flat, and I can push the string up ever so slightly. That helps a lot, even if you are just running up and down major scales. It is a good idea to sing along, because it helps your singing, it helps your intonation, and it helps you find the notes and fingerings on the guitar.
You mentioned Gary Moore. You are frequently compared to him and also to Rory Gallagher. How do you feel about that?
As I said, Gary Moore was one of my alltime heroes, so I feel privileged to be compared to him. Rory Gallagher was a great player, and I was definitely interested in him, but for some reason he was never an influence of mine. Unlike some people who take offense at being compared to others, my attitude is, “Wow! Thank you very much.” How can being compared to two of the greatest guitar players that ever lived be a bad thing?