Although he’s played his biggest gigs as a member of Paul
McCartney’s current band, Brian Ray had an impressive resume
before he scored what is a dream job to millions of guitarists.
After cutting his teeth on music from Little Richard, Elvis, and
(duh) the Beatles, Ray played a ton of shows, penned a No. 1 hit
for Smokey Robinson, and worked with blues diva Etta James
and French superstar Johnny Hallyday. It was in the Hallyday
band that he met drummer extraordinaire Abe Laboriel, Jr.,
who would later tip off Ray that a certain ex-Beatle might be
looking for a guitarist who could double on bass. Snagging that
job has allowed Ray to perform to literally hundreds of millions
of people, but he somehow found the time to make This Way Up
[Whooray/Icon], a guitariffic collection of melodic rock that is
bursting with great tones, clever parts, and infectious hooks.
How long has This Way Up been in the making?
About two years, and not because I’m
like Brian Wilson under a piano in a sandbox,
tortured over songs for a long time,
but because I’ve been so busy with Paul.
There have been a few different cycles of
songwriting, recording, going away, and
then getting back to songwriting and
recording. So about four different sessions
made up the basic tracks for the record.
What’s the signal chain for the tremolo
tone on the intro to “I Found You”?
That’s my reissue Gibson SG through
a Fulltone Supa-Trem, which is set on a
hard and fast, Brit-style tremolo through
my Divided By 13 9/15 head. That amp
is switchable between 15 watts in the
EL84-based mode or 9 watts in 6V6 mode.
How hard are you driving the amp?
The amp on that song was at about one
o’clock, so it’s breaking up but it still has
plenty of nice transient, bell-like highs going
on. I wanted an old Vox AC30 sound.
Do more guitars come in on the chorus?
Those guitars are actually in the intro
too. On the other side of the stereo spectrum
is a big semi-crunchy guitar that’s
chunking along with a palm-muted quarternote
figure. That is a really rare 1965
Epiphone Casino in a custom color called
Grey Fox, that’s going through my 1963 Top
Boost AC30. In the chorus I play it big and
open, not palm muted.
There are a ton of guitars on the bridge section.
Yeah, that was an insane idea. I was listening
to the basic track and I thought it
needed something else before that wild tradeoff
solo. I got the idea of a marching band,
but instead of trombones, tubas, saxophones,
and trumpets, what if guitars played all of
those roles? So I set about doing the tuba
part first, then I added a trombone part, and
then what would be a sax part, and a trumpet
part doing the high wails. I might have
done each of those parts four times—doubled
twice in the stereo field. So you’d have
two tubas on the left, two tubas on the right,
and on and on. Every time I would pick a
different fuzz box and a different guitar.
Would you tweak the individual tones to make
them sound more horn-like?
Absolutely. I would start cutting out high
end and making it very midrange-y for some
of the trombone parts. If you listen to tubas
and baritone saxes, they have a very distinct
distortion to them but not much sustain. So
I goofed around with that. I ended up using
my Prescription Electronics Experience pedal
with an octave on it. It has a real splat to it.
Then with some of the other parts I dialed in
some tones with a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory. On the
very high end I do a slide part, which is like
trumpets with a mute on it. For that I used
my 1957 Les Paul goldtop through an old Italian
wah, into a Divided By 13 LDW 17/39.
How many guitars are in that section?
There might be 40 in there. They’re
spread all over the stereo spectrum and
imaged front and back a little bit. They’re
not all equal volume. They just sort of begin
to get wider and bigger and more sibilant as
you add more of them. That was one session
I did all on my own. I didn’t have an
engineer there and I was literally just grabbing
every guitar that was in the studio.
There’s the Epiphone Casino, there’s a ’57
TV Junior, there’s my Les Paul, and maybe
even a sitar for the low stuff.
Do you write on instruments other than guitar?
I wrote “Let’s Fall Apart” on bass. On my
first record there’s a song called “Sub Atomic”
that I co-wrote with Abe Laboriel, Jr. It’s very
freeing to have no chordal information when
you’re writing. When you’re only hearing the
bottom end, you can really play with melody
and harmony. If you play an A, you’re not
spelling out if it’s minor or major. It doesn’t
matter. The vocal is telling you what it is. It’s
a fun way to write sometimes.
You worked as Etta James’ musical director
back in the day. What were your duties with that?
Did you write out charts for the band?
It’s funny. When I first got with Etta I was 19 years old and I couldn’t even be in
the clubs I was playing with her in. It was
just Etta, her husband, and me. The promoter
or the owner of the club would put
together a band out of locals. I would get
there early, like 2:00 in the afternoon, and
run them through 12 or 15 songs, mostly
without Etta. My first big gig in Europe with
her was the Montreux Jazz Festival and the
band was put together by Claude Knobs. It
was John Paul Jones on bass and Rick Wakeman
on keyboards and I had no charts.
They’re all going, “What the hell are we
going to do? This kid’s got no charts.” But
we had two rehearsals and we just had a
blast and made it happen. John Paul Jones
took me to dinner with the rest of Led Zeppelin
who were in town in Switzerland. I’ve
got to tell you, hanging out with those guys
at age 19 was a huge experience for me.
Your current gig is a huge experience.
It is. I initially got hired to play one song
with Paul and the band. It was the song
before the National Anthem at the 2002
Super Bowl. After the game I was thanking
Paul like I’d never see him again, saying,
“This has been a privilege and an honor.
Thank you so much. What a joy.” Later that
night, as Paul was saying good night to everyone,
he said to me, “Okay Brian, welcome
aboard. Stick with Abe and Rusty [Anderson,
guitarist]. They’ll show you the ropes.
See you in five weeks for rehearsal.” I literally
ran home, bought a Guild M85 bass that
I thought would be good with him, got an
old Gretsch—a 1959 Double Anniversary,
which I still use—and a big stack of CDs and
just immersed myself in all things McCartney—
solo, Wings, and Beatles.
How did you know which guitar or vocal parts
I didn’t. I learned every song on bass, lead
guitar, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, and I
picked out a few vocal parts, so I would sort
of be ready to fall in. When it came time to
start rehearsing, Rusty and I would just
quickly say, “You take this part and I’ll take
this part.” He and I go back a long way so
it’s an easy communication.
You guys all show a tremendous amount of
respect for the tunes. How and where do you
stretch out and add some of your own thing?
I think we have a pretty good balance of
reverent and irreverent. There are some solos
that you need to do note for note, like “All
My Loving.” When I play that solo, it’s that
solo. I don’t want to change a single note. I remember the first time I played lead guitar
on “Get Back.” I asked Paul, “Would you like
me to play this just like the record or take
some chances here and there?” He said, “Why
don’t you start out just like the record and
we’ll take it from there.” Over the five years
since we started doing that, I will take one
four-bar phrase and do what I want with it,
and that’s the very last one. He’s been super
encouraging about that. That’s the thing about
Paul—he’s really cool. With all that he’s done
and all that he is, he’s very loose and groovy
about it. That kind of makes us loose about
it too. When the Beatles came out, I decided
that playing music was what I wanted to do
with my life. I feel incredibly lucky that one
thing has led to another and I actually have
been able to make a living doing this.