Boldly Going Nowhere with Justin Derrico

There was a time when if you wanted to be a professional guitarist, your choices were fairly clear: You could be a session player, toiling behind the scenes and leaving the spotlight to others; you could be a road dog, touring the world as a band member or a hired gun, closer to the spotlight but still in a supportive role; or you could be the center of attention, either as a singer/songwriter or as a billion- note guitar superstar.

There was a time when if you wanted to be a professional guitarist, your choices were fairly clear: You could be a session player, toiling behind the scenes and leaving the spotlight to others; you could be a road dog, touring the world as a band member or a hired gun, closer to the spotlight but still in a supportive role; or you could be the center of attention, either as a singer/songwriter or as a billion- note guitar superstar. But things have changed. The music biz ain’t what it used to be, and if you want to survive in the new 6-string world order, you need to adapt. You need to multi-task. That’s where Justin Derrico comes in.

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Derrico, as much as any young guitar slinger on the scene, knows what it takes to get over in today’s musical environment. Whether by default or by design, he embodies a new business model for aspiring guitarists. The prerequisites include chops and theory in a wide variety of styles, an encyclopedic knowledge of tones, the capacity to commit to memory hundreds of tunes in a short period of time, the willingness to work in any audio and visual media, and the ability to do it all with affability, charisma, and humor. So far, Derrico has parlayed his massive rock chops and GIT education into high-profile sideman work with Pink (check him out on her Funhouse Tour—Live in Australia DVD for state-of-the-art poprock guitar). That facilitated the making of his kick-ass solo record, Boldly Going Nowhere, and the accompanying tour for that record in Pink-friendly Australia. (The record is a great showcase of Derrico’s strong songwriting talents, big tones, and outrageous note choices that lurch effortlessly between rock dude pentatonics and outer-space weirdness.) The Pink gig also led to his current full-time job, guitarist on the hit TV show The Voice, where he has to keep more than 100 tunes in his head and be ready to transpose them on the fly. It’s an insane schedule, to be sure, but there is always a method to Derrico’s madness, in both his work and his music. “I’m naturally drawn to lines that are a little quirky and strange,” he says. “But what makes you sound like you know what you’re doing is how you phrase it and where you land. I like to go outside, but I’m always looking for a cool place to land.”

You went to GIT, you’ve played successful sideman gigs, and now you’re on a hit TV show. Did you plan that career path or just sort of fall into it?

Growing up listening to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, I wanted to be a guitar hero like them, but I don’t sing— that’s one thing that sort of held me back from that [laughs]. But I never thought I’d be a touring or session musician. I just loved to play. I went to GIT for about six months, and being there helped me connect. Then I got the gig with the Calling and toured with them. After that came a gig with Robin Thicke, and then came Pink. It’s been full-on, non-stop ever since.

What was your audition like for the Pink gig?

There were three songs I had to learn. I went in and played with Pink and her band. She and I just kind of hit it off. We played “Who Knew,” and she wanted somebody who could solo, so they had me solo over the chorus and she liked that. I also managed to capture the sound of her tunes, which was a big thing because she uses guitar to pitch off of quite a bit. As soon as I started playing, the drummer said, “That’s the sound! That’s the sound!” Then we played “Dear Mr. President,” and that’s a really important song to her. Instead of playing the parts exactly like the record, she was more interested in somebody that would follow her. I didn’t know that, but I sort of felt that, so that’s what I did and it worked out. They hired me on the spot. They said, “See you in a week in Budapest.” I had to learn 27 songs really quickly and started rehearsing with the band while she was off doing promo. The first time I played with her, other than the audition, was in Budapest in front of 125,000 people.

The guitar parts on Pink records were recorded by many different guitarists. What kind of rig do you need to nail all those tones?

I’ve just been using a Bogner Shiva. The cool thing about the Shiva is it’s an amp that really translates the character of whatever guitar you put in front of it. Strats sound like Strats, Les Pauls sound like Les Pauls. I’ve got some pedals, and some go in the front end like my Crybaby wah, Xotic Effects BB preamp, and Electro-Harmonix POG. My Boss CE-2 Chorus pedal, DD-20 Giga Delay, and a Line 6 M9 go in the loop. I run one volume pedal in the loop and one in front of the amp. When I go to do the stuff live, I sit down at my board and try to dial in the tones as close as I can. I know I’m not 100 percent, but I get pretty darn close where it fools most people. I also use a variety of guitars. For instance, for “Glitter in the Air,” I play a Brent Mason Tele with a touch of reverb and a clean tone. I could tell on the record it was a single-coil guitar and on the Mason Tele you can blend in the middle single-coil. So I went with a mixture of the neck mini-humbucker and the middle pickup.

Pink is such a great singer. Do you feel like she’s influenced your guitar playing at all?

Absolutely, especially rhythmically—the way she phrases things. Melodically too. I’ll hear her do a run and I’ll try to figure it out on guitar. She’s really soulful.

Let’s get into your solo record. A lot of the tunes seem like rock songs but then they’ll have crazy syncopations, end-of-the world drumming, and really strange note choices. Do you consciously try to avoid stuff that sounds too normal, or does that come naturally to you?

Most of it is pretty natural. There might have been a few things that I deliberately tweaked, like the odd-time riff to “Boldly Going Nowhere.” When I came up with it, it was in 4/4, and it wasn’t really grooving like I wanted it to. When my producer, Corey Britz, suggested I put it in 7, for some reason it just magically grooved a lot harder. Note choice wise, that’s just what I’m hearing for the most part. I like playing weird, out stuff. I don’t really get a chance to do that on pop gigs and rock gigs, where I play more straightforward, pentatonic lines. But since I had a chance to express myself, I wanted to go out there a little bit.

At 0:30 in “Goodnight Nurse,” you play a calland- response line that starts out pentatonic and then gets outside and angular for the answers. Can you explain what’s going on there?

I’m playing E melodic minor, doing two notes per string and skipping strings. So, I’m thinking of it like you would think of a pentatonic scale in terms of the shape. It’s sort of a Scott Henderson thing, although I don’t know if he exactly does that, but he does things like that with diminished scales and string skipping. I think what catches your ear with this line is that it’s melodic minor and only two notes per string, as opposed to three notes per string, which is more common.

At about 2:18 in “Technically No” you throw in some pretty big interval skips after the legato section.

That’s sort of a diminished thing I’m doing. I’m using hybrid picking and big stretches. It’s like a three note per string diminished lick and I’m going down the scale in a weird way. It’s the same pattern all the way down so it’s a symmetrical lick that adds up to some wacky intervals. A lot of that stuff I do is more shape oriented. It kind of goes back to the Eddie Van Halen thing of using shapes rather than scales to get from point A to point B. I didn’t really try to learn his licks, but more like his ability to use cool-sounding shapes to get from one place to the next. I think that’s where some of my phrasing comes from.

You’ve mentioned Hendrix, SRV, and Van Halen. Who are some other players who have informed your style?

Brent Mason has been a big-time influence on me for chops and note choices on the country side of things, and even for jazz. Brent is where my hybrid picking came from. Scott Henderson’s been an influence, especially on the outside aspect of my playing. He plays some harmonically in-depth, crazy stuff. I love Bela Fleck. One of my favorite records to listen to is Live Art. But I think my vibrato is a byproduct of listening to Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I was a huge, huge Stevie Ray Vaughan fanatic when I started playing. I thought he was the greatest guitar player. I still think he’s the greatest, even though I play nothing like him. I tried to play like him but I never could [laughs].

How did your day-to-day change when you got your gig on The Voice?

My day-to-day changed drastically because there are pretty much no days off. Saturdays are technically a day off but we spend Saturdays learning tons of tunes. We had to learn 110 tunes in ten days when we started. Just about every day we’re learning songs. It’s a lot of fun because the band is slamming. The other guitar player in the band, Dave Barry, plays with Cher and was Janet Jackson’s MD for a while. He’s just an awesome, kick-ass guitar player.

It doesn’t look like you guys are reading charts up there. How do you keep all those tunes in your head?

I don’t know, to be honest with you. I memorize everything because I’m not a good reader at all. It’s gotten to the point now, since we learn so quickly, that sometimes we have to learn songs right there on the spot—we hear the song once and we’re playing it. It’s pretty crazy.

What does the next six months or year look like for you?

Pretty crazy! When the show wraps, I start rehearsing with my band. I rehearse for two weeks, then I go to Australia for a week of promo, and then start the tour for my solo record. I’m doing a bunch of clinics at music shops in Australia as well as nine or ten shows. I’ll pretty much be gone for the entire month. After I get back from Australia I’ve got maybe a week or two off and then we start back up with the second season of The Voice. And I haven’t heard any plans yet, but I’m assuming Pink will probably be wanting to go on tour probably some time next year. It’s like a nonstop musical marathon!