RENOWNED BRITISH GUITARIST AND COMPOSER RAY RUSSELL HAS PLAYED ON countless singles, albums, and film and television soundtracks as a session musician, in addition to releasing more than a dozen albums of original music as a solo artist or band member, scoring numerous major television programs and films, and producing albums for other artists. He’s worked with a plethora of heavyweights ranging from Tina Turner and Marvin Gaye to Jack Bruce and Robert Plant to Gil Evans and Simon Phillips. Phil Spector and George Martin are among the producers that have requested his services.
The guitarist’s first gig was replacing Vic Flick in the John Barry Seven (Russell’s twang graces seven classic James Bond films), and he replaced John McLaughlin in Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames when McLaughlin left to work with Tony Williams. In addition to mastering rock, pop, R&B, and mainstream jazz, Russell was also quite influential in the early British free jazz scene.
Russell’s latest album, Now, More Than Ever [Abstract Logix], finds the multifaceted guitarist combining his varied musical approaches into an intriguing amalgam weighted toward the rockier side of fusion, accompanied by drummers Gary Husband and Ralph Salmins, keyboardist Jim Watson, trumpeter Rupert Cobb, and bassists Jimmy Johnson, Anthony Jackson, Mo Foster, and George Baldwin.
Russell plans to take his new music on the road in 2014.
When did you first become a professional musician?
I left school at 15, when I got my first professional gig with the John Barry Seven, who had placed an ad in Melody Maker. My folks had bought me an album containing many of the band’s hits, so I went to the audition having learned to play them. When I arrived they put a bunch of sheet music in front of me, and although I couldn’t read a note, I recognized the titles and played the songs while pretending to read. A few days later we left on tour.
That led to playing on Barry’s soundtracks for early Bond films, right?
Oh yeah. I did about eight or nine films with them. John and I had a long association. Eventually I wrote some cues myself, and things evolved from there. My first big television opportunity came in the early ’80s, when George Fenton asked me to write some things for a hit show called Bergerac. He taught me a lot about composing and orchestration, as did other composers I worked with.
In addition to your session work, you made albums in the late ’60s and early ’70s ranging from psychedelic pop to straight ahead jazz, playing at a high level in both styles. Wasn’t that unusual at the time?
Yeah. But both came very naturally to me, and in a sense I don’t really see much difference. For example, the R&B I played with Georgie Fame had roots in jazz and blues. And with Mouse, in 1973, we were kind of like prog rockers. We could go into some ridiculous free jazz moment and then return and play a rock rhythm, so it all fused together.
You’ve mostly played Stratocasters, but in some ’60s-era session photos you are playing an odd-looking guitar with three pickups and lots of switches. Is that a Burns?
Yeah, that was a Burns Tri-Sonic. The pickup settings had names, and the back setting was labeled Wild Dog. On sessions guys would say, “Let’s hear that Wild Dog.” Stratocasters were sort of similar, but they sounded better, so I began playing those instead. My first Strat was a beautiful guitar that actually had the serial number 870, but it was stolen.
Current photos show you playing either a red Strat or a blue one. Are those your main guitars?
Yes. The red one is a Fender Custom Shop Masterbuilt relic of a ’54 that I got about five years ago. The blue one is another relic, but of a ’70s-era Strat, and it was built in 1992. I also have a semi-acoustic 7-string that was built for me by Paul Herman, which is a really lovely instrument.
Have any of your guitars been modified?
No. I’ve always found that if you have to really mess around with a guitar then it isn’t right. The best guitars are the ones you just pick up and like, and if you want something different it is probably best to just get another one.
The vibrato bar is a big part of your sound. How do you set yours up?
Both the Strats have the older style of whammy bars with six screws instead of two, so they are slightly stiffer than the later ones. I adjust them so that they pull up basically a minor third. It’s a pretty standard setup.
What strings do you prefer?
I use Fender Super Bullets, mostly standard .009 and .010 sets, depending on the guitar.
Do you have a favorite amplifier?
I have a beautiful old Fender Vibrolux that gives me that authentic vintage sound that you can’t really get with recreations, but it is pretty noisy when you wind it up, so I haven’t been using it much for recording, and I didn’t use it at all on the last album. Instead, I used a Bogner New Yorker, which is 12 watts of heaven. Actually, I used two Bogners, set slightly differently.
Are there any effects pedals that are crucial to your sound?
I always use some delay. I’ve got an MXR Carbon Copy that I love, as well as an old Line 6 DL4. I also have a Lazy J Cruiser, which is a combination clean boost and overdrive. That’s a fantastic pedal that I use to drive the Bogner to get a bigger sound that still sounds like my guitar. I also have a Providence Anadime Chorus pedal that I use sometimes when playing chords, and a DigiTech Whammy pedal that I use to get fourths and fifths. There’s a short delay before the fourth comes in when using the Whammy, which can sound a little wobbly, so I’ll also use the chorus to sort of neutralize the wobble, and I’ll often add a little reverse delay from the DL4 to smooth things out even more. I use a Boss RC-20 Loop Station for looping.
You’ve been recording guitars for a long time. What is your favorite setup currently?
When you do a lot of sessions you discover that there are many approaches. For example, when I was working on a project for George Martin with Geoff Emerick engineering, Geoff just walked around the room listening, then placed some microphones, and when we listened back to the results in the control room it actually sounded like me, which is a big thing. He used a couple of Neumann U87s, with one placed close up and the other farther away. I follow a very similar principle, but I use a Soundelux tube condenser placed up close near the center of the speaker cone, and an old AKG C414 as a room mic a few feet back.
Now, More Than Ever sounds very different than your previous album. Did you have a concept when starting out?
I wanted to pull in more rock influences than on my previous album, while at the same time emphasizing the compositions. And I wanted to have the improvisations be more directly influenced by the compositions than is often the case with fusion.
How was the album recorded?
I recorded the basic tracks with Gary Husband and Mo Foster, and then tracked the others individually, except Jimmy Johnson, who recorded his tracks remotely. The actual recording was done partially on analog tape and partially in Pro Tools, and then mixed to analog half-track, so we ended up with a nice combination of older and newer sounds.
How are you getting the gorgeous clean tone and volume swells on “Suddenly, They are Gone”?
That tone is just the red Strat into the Bogner, turned up halfway, with a bit of delay. And the volume swells are actually just the reverse delay setting on the DL4, which sounds different than using a volume knob or volume pedal.
There’s some nice EBow work on “Cab in the Rain.” What are you doing there?
I’m using a heavy finger grip on the strings to get the notes feeding back, and then changing the pressure and the vibrato, which affects how the EBow reacts. I’m also going to an open string every third or fourth note, which causes the EBow to feed back even more, and then I hammer onto the string, catch that feedback, and manipulate it. That’s the original metal EBow on that track, though I also have the newer ones.
What was the most event-filled day of your career?
It was actually more like two days [laughs]. It began with an all-night session for Andy Mackay of Roxy Music, followed by a session with Andy Williams in the morning, a jingle session in the afternoon, then, after an hour’s sleep, I played a gig at Ronnie Scott’s with Gil Evans until 3:00 a.m., followed by recording “Let’s Stay Together” with Tina Turner in the morning. And then I went to bed.
It must have been interesting when your wife asked, “How was your day, dear?”
Well, in fact, my wife came to the session with Tina and they talked about all sorts of things. At one point my wife told her, “I’m here because the only time I see Ray is when I come to the studio.” Luckily, she takes it all well. She’s great!