Owen Barry (left) and Tom Hill.
"We don't think of what we do as '70s rock, although there are obvious influences from that era," says Purple Melon vocalist/guitarist Tom Hill about the band's debut Henry’s Rocket [Split Pigeon]. Those influences include melodies and harmonies that would be at home on a Badfinger record, with riffs and hooks that call to mind the best of Bad Co., Aerosmith, and Humble Pie. But Hill and guitarist Owen Barry also bring to the party a ton of guitar influences that are far removed from any retro-chic bag, including country-tinged chicken pickin', fusionistic chromaticism, and breakneck hybrid picking. The Brit rockers are currently ruling the Hollywood scene, readying a follow-up EP, and continuing to craft killer parts, tones, and tunes.
This record has a lot of cool, interlocking guitar parts. Where does that influence come from?
Barry: I come from a sort of country/blues-rock background, and a lot of those banjo and guitar riffs kind of lock together. We're both very aware of what the other does. It’s never been a battle thing. We've always kind of complemented each other’s playing for the good of the band. Purple Melon is very much about getting the songs across as much as we can rather than prove ourselves as individuals.
Hill: We've both got a vast wealth of completely different influences. What we have in common are bands like the Who, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin. It's funny though - a lot of the bands we like tend to be one-guitar bands.
A good example of your two-guitar interplay is the tune "Ready for Love." Can you describe who's doing what and how that came together?
Barry: I wrote the riff for "Ready For Love" about seven years ago and it was a silly little concept of one note going down on one string as one note goes up on the other, and I kind of ended up with this cool riff.
[Ed. Note: A version of the "Ready for Love" riff can be found in the June 2012 Quick Licks.]
Hill: Yeah, the bottom finger keeps getting lower and the top finger keeps getting higher. It was a joke that ended up being a riff that we made into a cool song. On the record, generally I'm 90 percent of the time on the right side of the mix and Owen is on the left. So it's him doing the thumping at the start and me doing the little chord-y bits and then both of us come in with the riff. Then on the pre-chorus it's him playing the lower stuff and me doing the fingerpicking stuff up at the top.
Do the vocals reflect that guitar harmony later in the tune?
Hill: They do. At the end of the chorus it's the same riff, modulated down a minor third, to F#. I think one of the vocals picks it out and the other one starts on the 7th or something. It makes a weird kind of chord in semitones, which is cool.
How did you get those tones?
Hill: I was playing a Les Paul that our producer, Paul Stacey, owns, and I was going into a little 18-watt Cornell plexi-style head through an old Orange 2x10. I think it's modeled on those late-'60s 20-watt Marshalls. It's a really great sounding amp. It was literally just strings through the amp - nothing else, no pedals or anything.
Barry: Paul has the most ridiculous vintage amp and vintage guitar collection in his studio and we just experimented until we found the right combination for the track. I think I used an old Telecaster on that one. The amp was a Laney Supergroup, which is what I've been using for the last few years. For me, they’re like the ultimate plexi/ Hiwatt mix.
All the guitars on this record are really big and open sounding.
Barry: I've always liked vintage single- channel amps and I've always kind of done everything from my pedalboard. I like to run the amp fairly clean, mainly because if you listen to your favorite old classic records—and some of the heaviest records from back then—the guitar sounds weren't that dirty. They were just big. So I tend to get a bigger sounding record if the guitar sounds are slightly cleaner. Also for a live setup it works as a better canvas for all your effects on top. If you're pushing the front end of the amp and everything's already saturated and then you kick in one of your boosts, you go nowhere. You just get a slightly more squashed version of the same sound. Tom and I are very much from the old school of guitar sounds.
Hill: The biggest problem I think most people have nowadays is they play too distorted— they crank it right up. People think that the more gain they have the bigger it's going to sound when in fact it’s really the opposite. As far as amps, I love the old Hiwatts. Owen uses old Laney Supergroups. We used a few old Marshalls on the record. Amps like those give you a sound that's just completely uncompressed, open, and uncompromising.
The verse riff in "Kings of the World" has some unusual note choices. What's going on there?
Barry: That was the first song actually that Tom and I wrote together. It was a good riff but it was a bit kind of stock I guess. It's kind of country-influenced. You're riffing lower down on the G pentatonic notes with the open G ringing underneath. Then we put in that idea with the slightly dissonant chord—the F against the open E. That clash gives the riff a slight, not gimmick, but a little twist, I guess.
That momentary dissonance makes the riff. How important are those little details?
Hill: Very important. I think one of the things missing from a lot of modern records is the parts - the parts aren't refined enough and they're not interesting in any way whatsoever. It's usually just bashing out the chords. If you listen to old Zeppelin records, they're really rich musically. It wouldn't even matter if the vocal wasn't there. There is still so much interesting music to listen to. We tried very hard to make the whole record interesting.
What are your live rigs these days?
Barry: At the moment I'm sort of going between two amps. I'm using the vintage Laney Supergroup and a JTM 45 clone by this company called Blockhead, which is a really sweet-sounding amp. I've got a '62 SG Special, which is kind of my main guitar and an old Strat that I actually got from Double Trouble. I've got a Telecaster, which I built out of parts. My main guitar for a while - before I got the old SG - was a 1972 Guild S-100. The pickups on that thing sound amazing. I just started using a Lovepedal Kalamazoo Gold, which I think is an absolutely amazing overdrive pedal. I like Rangemaster clones or Tone Bender clones, and Fuzz Face clones. I have an original MXR Phase 90, a Univibe, and a couple of Boss delays: the DD3, which for me is the best and most natural sounding of those digital Boss pedals, and the Boss Space Echo. I have my whole board running through a GigRig, which lets me program combinations of pedals to a single switch. GigRig also makes these things called Virtual Batteries, which I use on my vintage pedals. They trick your pedals into sounding like they're running off an actual battery. You get an isolated power supply so your pedals don't hum. That stuff is excellent. It’s really cleaned my sound up and solved all my switching problems.
Hill: I've got three guitars I use - well actually two now. I just had my Duesenberg Starplayer stolen. I use a Gibson Melody Maker SG, which is a really cool, often overlooked guitar from the '60s. My main guitar is a Strat that Jeff Beck gave me years ago. I was looking for one and I asked if I could buy one off him because he's got a few warehouses full of Strats. He said, "Sure," but he refused to take any money. Amp-wise, I started using a 1971 Hiwatt head through a Hiwatt cab, which is just amazing - one of the best sounds ever. I use a Univox Super Fuzz as my main fuzz pedal. I use a Timmy, which is a really transparent overdrive made by Paul Cochrane. I run the amps really clean and use it for a little bit of extra grit if I need it. I also have a Bob Sweet Mojo Vibe, which is a great Univibe, and a couple of fuzz pedals I built myself: one is called the Hairy A**hole and the other is the Big Meaty D*ck.
You guys both have impressive chops. Do you practice a lot to keep them up?
Hill: I started when I was about 13 and I practiced like crazy then. For about three years I played all day, every day. Then I got into a band and found that the writing was what I really enjoyed. That’s my main calling, I guess. If I'm writing, that's when I'll tend to practice guitar, sort of by accident. My strength in my playing would be the fact that I’m so limited I'm constantly pushing myself to the edge. I think no matter how talented, a guitarist is always at his best when he's at the absolute limit and pushing past what he's capable of. If you're more limited, you can get to that quicker.
This interview originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Guitar Player.