Green Warrior, George Lynch Talks Activism, Guitars, and the '80s

The “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” is five decades old, and fat chance there’s even a microscopic tidbit about any aspect of the group that hasn’t been debated to death, overanalyzed, decoded, exposed, scrutinized, glamorized, popularized, and/or demonized.
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“I WENT THROUGH MY VACUOUS PERIOD OF ’80S ROCK success—or semi-success—which was a whole bunch of silliness,” says George Lynch. “But along the way, I discovered I had this small soapbox. Some people listen to me and I feel it’s irresponsible not to use that position to try to affect change in at least some small way regarding issues that I’m very passionate about.”

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Lynch, who is one of rock’s most revered and identifiable stylists thanks to his still-fresh-sounding body of work in Dokken, is also a lifelong environmentalist and student of philosophy, history, and politics. The project that is taking up most of his time these days is a confluence of his two passions: music and activism. Shadowtrain: Under a Crooked Sky is an “exploration of human nature through the lens of the Native American experience,” explains Lynch, who is producer and co-director of the film, slated for release in 2014. The film also features Shadowtrain, the band, in which Lynch and company (drummer Vincent Nicastro, singer Gregg Analla and bassist Gabe Rosales) throw down in a wide-open, highly improvisational format. “We really don’t have songs a lot of times, we just sort of create at that moment,” says Lynch. “That’s something that I used to do when I was in my teens and early 20s—we would play but not have music. That was in the late ’60s and early ’70s. That style of improvisation has largely gone away, even with the advent of all these newer jam bands like Umphrey’s McGee and Gov’t Mule. They do cover stuff or set tunes, and improvise within the composition, but Shadowtrain actually just goes off without a safety net—a completely different animal and something that I hope people can appreciate.”

Lynch is also tracking a new project with King’s X bassist/ vocalist dUg Pinnick and Korn drummer Ray Luzier, as well as finishing up the second T&N record, the project with his former Dokken mates, Jeff Pilson and “Wild” Mick Brown. In his, uh, spare time Lynch is busy with Mr. Scary Guitars, an outlet where the 58-year-old guitarist’s gear-head penchant for tinkering and getting his hands dirty explodes into fullon guitar art. “Four years ago when I was in a wheelchair for a while with some back issues, I started painting to keep busy, and that just translated to guitars,” explains Lynch, who meticulously handcrafts each Mr. Scary guitar after close consultation with the purchaser. “ESP had a surplus of a certain model of mine, and at first I was just going to sign them—but then I started illustrating them, and before long I was using a router and a Dremel tool! The whole thing just evolved.”

How did you get started building guitars?

In the late ’70s, when I was teaching at Randy Rhoads’ mother’s music school, Musonia, I would put guitars together for my students to supplement my income. I wouldn’t say building, but just sort of buying bodies and necks from Charvel and Mighty Mite and kind of bolting things together and wiring them up and selling them real cheap—$350. They were beautiful, very playable guitars made of high-quality wood and with great necks on them.

Randy got the Ozzy gig, and I didn’t, so I got the consolation prize, which was his old job [laughs]. It was funny, because the majority of Randy’s students were girls. Randy was a good-looking guy, and a lot of the students weren’t really learning how to play, they were just there to see and hang out with him. When I showed up, half of them quit!

Do you get the same satisfaction from making guitars as you do making music?

Building guitars is very gratifying because it’s almost like meditation, where you sort of lose your sense of time and space and then wake up five hours later to find you’ve created something tangible. And, unlike with the music business, you get an immediate return for your time and energy, which is very rewarding. When you build a guitar you are making something that is both functional and beautiful, and people appreciate that. It’s unique and it’s the product of your hands and your mind. I love it.

Your tones on T&N’s Slave to the Grind and the Legacy EP span a range of distorted textures, from clean-ish to molten sustain, that rarely appeared on the original Dokken albums.

My tone is a lot cleaner than it used to be. Back in the day, give me a Seymour Duncan Invader, an amp with a ton of gain, and an overdrive pedal in front of that, along with some effects, and I was good. Of course, it was really easy to play, but what I found was that type of tone masks the fundamental thing you’re trying to transfer, which is your emotion. When I played with the super-processed, overly distorted sound, I could burn—but I was saying less. It was all very monochromatic. There was no inflection. I wasn’t telling a story anymore.

What is a typical studio setup for you?

Every session is different, but the core of my sound is my Randall Lynch Box head with Randall and Marshall cabs loaded with my Celestion Lynchback 12s. I use the same guitars I’ve been using forever—my original Tiger, an ESP custom shop Tele, and an ESP Super V—and a variety of pedals. Over the last couple of years I’ve also been running a completely clean vintage amp with my Lynch Box rig. Lately, I’ve been using an early-’60s Magnatone, and it barely distorts at all. It has this huge, bell-like clean sound. That tone, mixed with the more distorted Lynch Box, gives the sound body and depth. It’s kind of getting back to that AC/DC thing.

Do you play differently when you plug into different amps?

Oh yeah. I am a slave to my gear, and I morph to fit my environment. The way I interact with the gear as a player inspires me. I play completely different stuff if I’m plugged into a plexi Marshall than, say, a Fractal Audio system. My gear can steer me in different directions, which opens up all kinds of possibilities creatively. And it’s the same when I plug into a different pedal. A new amp or pedal can completely change my universe.

Given your involvement with the Shadowtrain movie, as well as Mr. Scary Guitars, it must be difficult to find time to practice. Are you hard on yourself if you haven’t touched the guitar for a while?

Yeah, I get very depressed about it and I feel like I’m being irresponsible vis-à-vis my abilities—a consideration that is at the foundation of everything I do. But after playing for 48 years, sometimes I get tired of it. I don’t want to keep playing the same thing and I don’t know what the point is of maintaining some ridiculous level of technical ability. I just get fatigued with the idea of that. It’s not as important to me as it was in 1986. I’m not going to be Jeff Loomis, and that’s okay. There was a point in my life when I wasn’t okay with that. That said, I’ve trained myself to get back in the saddle pretty quickly.

You’ve always talked about how you’re an “off-the-cuff” type of player. Did that ever create frustrations with producers?

There was a lot on the line when we were doing records back in the ’80s. There was a lot to prove. We were still coming up through the ranks, and each record was monumentally important. On a guitar level, I had my work cut out for me because things were very competitive and I had to carve out my place in the rock guitar hierarchy. So, to that end, I was meticulous about what I played. And I’m an “unschooled” player. I had to work around some of my limitations, which took a lot of time. On some Dokken records, I’d spend a month on guitars. Now, I can almost complete a whole record—from writing, mixing, and mastering—in that time. I’ve learned to become much more efficient and economical with my time, and I know my strengths and my limitations.

In Shadowtrain you discuss some very serious issues such as imperialism, poverty, and the environment. I think that your level of activism will surprise some people.

When I was growing up, music was a vehicle for a larger message. I think when you have some sort of message or issue that you’re championing with your music, it lends so much more gravity and depth to it, from the listener’s perspective and from the player’s perspective. When Hendrix invoked the Vietnam War—or Crosby, Stills and Nash, or whomever—it was very powerful. Music is one of the few things we have left in this world that can actually make a difference.