Frank Gambale on Soulmine

If you pick up Frank Gambale’s latest record, Soulmine [Wombat], expecting to hear a batch of interesting tunes with fiery electric guitar featured throughout, you won’t be let down.
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If you pick up Frank Gambale’s latest record,Soulmine [Wombat], expecting to hear a batch of interesting tunes with fiery electric guitar featured throughout, you won’t be let down. Gambale— known for his improvisatory prowess and impeccable technique— stretches out on nearly every tune here, and even takes a couple of guitar-synth solos. What may surprise you, however, is that this is just as much a vocal record as it is a blowing record. Gambale collaborated with singer Boca to co-write all ten of the new album’s tracks, which range from Santana-esque (“Forbidden Kiss”) to uptown funk (“Keep Leadin’ Me On”) to sophisticated balladry (“Enchanted Love”).

This isn’t the first time Gambale has collaborated with singers. “From when I first started playing guitar in Australia right up until the time I moved to America in 1982, all the groups I was in were vocal groups,” says the guitarist. It’s a part of my history that most people don’t know, I guess. I cut my teeth on vocal music.” Gambale originally came to the States to study guitar at Musicians Institute. Before he knew it, he was playing in Jean-Luc Ponty’s group and then Chick Corea’s Elektric Band. These high-profile gigs cemented his reputation as a player’s player, even while his interest in songwriting and vocal music remained keen. There are, in fact, vocal tunes tucked in amongst the instrumentals on many of Gambale’s albums. In particular, his 1991 release Note Worker features vocals on nearly half of the tracks.

If you’ve been following Gambale’s career long enough, an unexpected turn such as Soulmine will probably not come as much of a surprise. At any given time, he always has a couple of different projects going—both electric and acoustic bands—and he uses each record as an opportunity to explore different areas of his artistic interest. “It’s a risky thing to do,” he says, “but it keeps it interesting for me. Plus, this is one I’ve been thinking about for many years. It was a question of whether I should be the singer or I should get a great singer-songwriter to collaborate with. And that’s how it ended up.”

How did you and Boca write the songs for Soulmine?

Boca is a gifted songwriter on her own. When she writes, she usually writes the music and melody at the same time. That’s generally how I write, too, putting the words in later. I was mostly giving her music and melody for these songs. There were a couple of exceptions where we wrote stuff together—like “Forbidden Kiss.” She had a melody that she’d written a long time before. It was a bit rambling, so we tightened it up together and I reharmonized it.

You’ve got some rich tones here, and interesting combinations of tones. “Keep Leadin’ Me On” has a gritty rhythm guitar track as well as dirty lead guitar on top. How did you keep those distinct in the mix?

That was the last tune we mixed and absolutely the hardest one. When you’re mixing and mixing, after a while it gets difficult to tell if you’re doing the right thing. I always bring the mixes out and listen to them on different systems to get perspective—even though we mix with these beautiful Tannoy reference speakers, which are about as flat as you can get.

One of the best ways to get definition on different parts is panning. Moving something from the middle to 2 o’clock, or back to 10 o’clock in the stereo field, can give it more of a wide view. That’s what we did with “Keep Leadin’ Me On. The piano and the rhythm guitar track are opposing, rhythmically. I panned them pretty hard left and right. Lead vocals are center, and my lead guitar is slightly off center.

So you rely on panning as much as, say, EQ?

Hopefully, things don’t need a lot of EQ if they’re recorded well. But sometimes when you put instruments together, you don’t know how they’re going to respond to one another. There might be a chorus effect in a keyboard patch that clouds things on the guitar. Or there can be conflicting frequencies. EQ, separation, and compression can help to try and make it all come alive.

Are you using pedals, plug-ins, or pure amp sound for your overdriven tones?

I recorded my amp for most of the lead tones. I’m a little old-school like that. I usually use a close mic, like a Shure SM58. Then I’ll put some sort of nice mic about 20 feet away, up in the air, to get a very slight delay— maybe ten milliseconds. When I mix those two together, it’s a sound I haven’t been able to recreate any other way. It’s slightly fat. You get the ambience of the room as well as all the detail of what’s going on at the speaker.

Do you have one go-to amp that’s always miked up?

I used my signature DV Mark 1x12 combo amp quite a lot on this recording for distortion sounds. I also used my stage rig. When I get off the road, I bring the rack into my studio and use it. It’s got a Carvin Tone Navigator preamp— which I helped design—a DV Mark power amp, and a T.C. Electronic G-Force for multi-effects. That’s pretty much it. I don’t like to use too much between the guitar and the speakers.

What speaker setup do you use with that system?

Two of my signature series DV Mark openback 2x12 cabs. DV Mark makes their own speakers, and they’re very warm sounding to my ear.

What was your primary guitar for this album?

I used my Carvin signature FG1 for pretty much all the lead guitar tones—although I think I played “Be the Change” on my Strat.

There’s a very different tone on “Open Your Mind” and “Saved Me from Myself.” Is that a hollowbody with flatwound strings?

Oh, yeah. That guitar is a 1968 Gibson Johnny Smith. I’ll only put flatwounds on jazz guitars. They give you a different thud than roundwounds or even half-rounds. And there’s minimal finger noise, if any. If you’ve never tried it, you’ll be amazed at how cool it sounds. With your bridge pickup, you can get incredible clean sounds. I’ve even used flats for clean rhythm sounds.

Is there an example of that on the Soulmine?

I used to do it more on the Vital Information records. There’s an album called Where We Come From, which was all done with flatwounds on an Ibanez GB10. I didn’t actually do that on this record. I used a Strat for some of the rhythm stuff. There’s a track called “All in the Game” with a very funky rhythm sound. You can hear a slight 12-string or octave thing on it.

Right. Where is that coming from?

A Roland VG-99. That was actually a scratch track. I always make sure I have a good sound when doing my home pre-production in Pro Tools—even if I’m thinking it’s going to be a scratch—because I end up keeping a lot of stuff. Quite a number of the solos on Soulmine were first takes. Even the synth-guitar solos. “All in the Game” was off the cuff. I thought, “I can’t make it any better than that, so I’ll just leave it.” Sometimes you get lucky.

Has that been your approach over the years— to do spontaneous solos in the studio?

It depends. Sometimes I’m terribly nitpicky. If I’m doing an overdub, I’ll do it over and over until I get something that I like. I won’t even proceed unless the first four bars are great, or at least something that pleases me. The opening has to be right. Then I’ll keep playing.

What are you using for synth guitar on “All in the Game”?

One of my Carvin guitars has the Roland MIDI-compatible pickup built in and the GK connector. I plugged that into a Roland GI-20 MIDI converter, straight into a Korg Triton Extreme keyboard.

Do you have to play any differently for the converter to track well?

They track pretty well these days. It’s gotten better over the years, but they’re a long way from perfect. Still, I got some interesting solos. I’ve played “All in the Game” for keyboard players and they’ll say, “That definitely wasn’t triggered from a keyboard.” They could tell because there are some odd things. There are some higher notes that I kept repeating because they were doing this funny thing. I love that kind of grit in the solo.

I have to ask you this. I interviewed Pat Metheny for GP several years ago, and he said he sometimes wished he could study technique with you. Did he ever call you for lessons?

No, he never did—but the invitation is open [laughs]. I do remember seeing that quote in Guitar Player.

I have a lot of technique, but technique has never been the focus of my playing. It has always been in pursuit of a cool musical idea that may or may not be difficult to play. What’s important is the musical concept. As long as you can get your idea out, it doesn’t really matter how you play it. I learned that early on in my career. When I was preparing to audition for Chick Corea, I listened to a lot of live recordings of the band with Scott Henderson on guitar. I listened to Scott playing the parts and heard it was mostly legato. He was playing the notes in an entirely different way than the way I ended up playing them. I realized that Chick didn’t care how Scott was playing the notes. All he cared about was that the notes were being performed with passion and grace.

I guess we’re always striving to better ourselves. In that sense—great—more power to you if you want to take lessons, or whatever, to improve certain aspects of your playing. That’s an important thing to do. Most people would say about Pat Metheny, “Boy, I wish I could play like that.” Pat doesn’t need anybody’s technique at all. He’s got his own, and he plays beautifully, and that’s it.