Musical genius is often determined by how well someone Does something brave or foolish, but tackling the Beatles songbook is always a nail biter. As generations of music lovers consider the recordings of those transcendent tunes to be absolutely perfect, you’d better be wearing cast-iron britches if you dare revise, revamp, or otherwise mess with the Fab Four catalog.
Which is why it’s shocking—as well as jaw-dropping, super-gonzo crazy—that Andy Timmons stepped into the studio to record Andy Timmons Band Plays Sgt. Pepper [Favored Nations] without once listening to the original Beatles version during the album sessions. Timmons arranged, performed, and mixed his tribute to the Beatles’ psychedelic-era classic solely from the fog of memory. Madness!
You are one brave honcho to tackle perhaps the most famous album the Beatles ever recorded.
[Laughs.] To be honest, I’m not a big fan of Beatles covers. You’re definitely treading on hallowed ground there. I do appreciate some versions, but, a lot of times, you have to ask yourself, “Why mess with what is already great?”
So why did you?
A while ago, I was doing a “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” medley live, and my friend Riccardo Cappelli—who is a tour promoter in Italy—said, “Next time you play here, why don’t you do a whole set of Beatles songs?” I didn’t think I could pull it off, but the suggestion got my wheels turning. Then, I started arranging some Sgt. Pepper songs, and I was having so much fun that I kept coming back to them. And when I performed the songs, it became very obvious that people were connecting with the arrangements. But it still took a couple of years for me to commit to the idea.
And your band didn’t up and quit when you suggested this mad scheme?
Not yet [laughs]. Here’s the deal—I was actually recording some original songs of mine for what was going to be my next album, and some extra time opened up in the studio. My drummer, Mitch Marine, knew I had these arrangements, and he said, “Why not do those Beatles tunes?” Well, we ended up getting all the drum tracks, and half of my guitar stuff in two days.
That’s crazy. From out of the blue, you drop this idea on the group, and in two days, you have a significant amount of the Sgt. Pepper material recorded. How did that happen?
It really helped that Mitch is a huge Beatles fan. He understands the beauty of Ringo’s playing, and how his rhythmic feel is such an important part of the Beatles music. It’s a very understated swing that not many drummers can replicate. I truly believe a band is only as great as its drummer.
Mike Daane, my bassist, had the most difficult task, because Paul McCartney’s bass lines are incredibly intricate and integral to the songs. So he had to learn Paul’s bass lines, and then adapt them to my arrangements. That’s why we didn’t get all the bass tracks down in two days.
And to make things even more difficult, you weren’t referencing the album as you were tracking. You were arranging your instrumental versions completely from memory.
Yes. I did all the songs from memory. I didn’t play the original album, because I wanted my versions to represent how the songs play in my mind. I also committed to playing a single guitar part, so I had to incorporate all the chords, melodies, orchestrations, and sound effects in one performance. Luckily, my musical memory is pretty good, and I’ve listened to those songs about as much as anybody humanly could. They are almost part of my DNA.
Still, reconstructing an entire epic album from memory is fraught with danger. Did you listen back later and go, “Oops—they didn’t do that bit”?
I absolutely made some musical decisions that are not true to the original songs. On “When I’m Sixty-Four,” for example, there are wrong chords everywhere, and I go to the V chord. They didn’t. But, on that song, I felt I had to do that to get into the next section. Basically, I did whatever I thought would help the solo-guitar arrangements. I wanted the album to be my expression of these songs.
To that end, how did you negotiate all the tonal colors of the original album?
I didn’t. In fact, I never thought about it. I didn’t change my vision of what my tone is, or what it should be within the concept of performing Sgt. Pepper songs. I just went for the sounds I like to go for. It was all about me having fun coming up with these arrangements, and when it was time to record them, I just got a good tone going and tracked the parts.
Where there any frightening challenges in presenting the songs?
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” presented a lot of frustrating tuning issues because of the chord voicings I wanted to use. For example, some of the melodies needed to be supported by open strings sounding, and if I was playing high up on the neck, those chords would be brutal to get sweet. As I wanted the album to represent what I heard it my head, I wasn’t going to compromise my vision and play the chords somewhere else on the neck where they would be easier to get in tune. I’d have to figure out ways to make things work. Basically, I’d cheat [laughs]. I’d often detune certain strings, or bend them in tune. In fact, one of the biggest compliments I got about the album was from Steve Vai. He immediately recognized the tuning challenges, and he asked me, “How did you get all those chords in tune?”
For a different reason, I was very nervous about “She’s Leaving Home.” That song means a lot to me, and it was important that I nailed the emotional context of the song. I ended up playing the first verse and chorus as a solo-guitar piece before bringing in the band.
What was your basic rig for the Sgt. Pepper sessions?
The amp setup was two Mesa/Boogie Lone Stars and two Mesa/Boogie Stilettos— four amps running simultaneously for almost every song. The Lone Stars were set to the Gain channel with a Xotic BB-Preamp in front, and the Stilettos were usually on the Crunch channel. I also used a TC Electronic G-Force—mainly to split the guitar into a stereo signal, as well as to employ delays to emulate the Automatic Double Tracking effect that Abbey Road rigged up for the Beatles in 1966. The four amp heads were each plugged into their own Mesa/Boogie Rectifier 2x12 cabinet loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s. I’ve used those cabinets for so long that my ears are just attuned to them. If I plug into a Marshall 4x12, it never sounds right.
So, with that amp and speaker setup, I could trust that any tonal variations I wanted could be dialed in by solely using the controls on my original Ibanez AT100. There are actually a lot of tonal colors available by simply adjusting your volume knob. Most people don’t seem to know that. I played the AT100 on the entire album, except for “When I’m Sixty-Four.” I wanted George Harrison’s rockabilly tone on that song, so I pulled out my 1962 Gretsch Tennessean. The weird thing was that the Tennessean wasn’t giving me what I wanted. So I plugged in my ’68 Fender Telecaster, put the pickup selector in the middle position, and the Tele sounded Gretsch-ier than my Gretsch did. My go-to strings are .010-.046 D’Addarios.
That was pretty much it. At various times, I also plugged in a Chandler Stereo Digital Echo, a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo, a Tube Works Tube Driver, and a Carl Martin Compressor/ Limiter.
As someone who has made of career of playing instrumental guitar music, what musical, technical, and/or tonal elements floor you when you hear another artist’s instrumental work?
It’s not solely technique—I can tell you that! I think the bar has been raised too high as far as technical ability goes. Chops are great, but I always make the analogy that making music is like painting a picture—if all you have is red, it’s going to be a really boring picture. So I always want to hear something lyrical to go along with the flash. A volley of super-fast runs might be fun for one song, but you don’t want it to sound like a practice exercise, right?
For me, it’s all about melody and passion. I want to hear the guitarist’s phrasing— where he or she places notes within the beats. I also want to hear a mesmerizing tone. And I want all of the sounds and techniques to be used solely to deliver the emotional context of the song. I think that’s where the artistry lies. Everything else is just architecture.