AS A MULTI-THREAT GUITARIST, PRODUCER, engineer, composer, and label honcho, New York-based Brian Tarquin has scored jingles, television shows, and movie soundtracks, and has even won a couple of Emmys. But the guitar is obviously his first and enduring love, and his BHP Music label is dedicated to releasing instrumental albums that celebrate guitarcraft. Tarquin’s Guitar Masters Series—currently at Vol. 2—showcases a diverse crew of guitar stars such as Jimmy Page, Zakk Wylde, Allan Holdsworth, and John Scofield.
What are the elements of a truly striking instrumental guitar song?
I think you have to go back and examine the music of the ’50s and ’60s, where bands like the Ventures had a discernable sound and catchy melodies. Simple is usually better. An instrumental piece doesn’t have to deliver a barrage of notes and changes to be interesting. It also helps to remember that many listeners probably aren’t used to hearing guitar instrumentals, so you have to imagine the guitar as the vocalist, and the tone and the melody must be seductive.
Is it difficult crafting a guitar sound that enhances the vibe of the instrumental, yet still respects the individual tone of the player?
That’s a very tricky detail, but the composition itself will often dictate the guitar tone. For example, when Steve Morse recorded “Towers” [for Tarquin’s 2008 release Fretworx]—a song commemorating the 9/11 victims—he went for a wonderfully haunting tone with heavy sustain that intensified the emotion of the track. That tone was distinctly his, but it also worked for the song.
What are some of the techniques you employ to pull a transcendent performance out of a guitarist?
I find that players actually respond quite well to a bit of rivalry and competition, so I might have them listen to something one of their contemporaries did on another track. They’ll usually want to play as well—or better— than their “competition.” If a player tends to freeze up when recording, I’ll have him run through the track a few times, and not tell him I’m recording everything. I’ve also learned that 90 percent of the time the best takes are the first three, when the player is fresh. Any more takes than that will usually wear the player out.
When compiling a Guitar Masters release, besides star power, what qualities do you identify as particularly saleable to the guitar public?
I try to select material that guitarists will identify with, but not find overbearing to the ear. There also must be interesting tonal and compositional qualities—it’s not all about shredding. For example, on Guitar Masters, Vol. 2, “Flashing Lights” by Jimmy Page and Lord Sutch is a rarity with some terrific historical value. It’s not Jimmy’s best moment in the sun, but I thought the guitar audience would find it intriguing to see Page out of his Zeppelin guise. There are some great moments on it, and the raw production lets you hear the hum of the amps and the hiss of the tape.