Although he’s played his biggest gigs as a member of Paul McCartney’s current band, Brian Ray had an impressive resume before he scored what is a dream job to millions of guitarists. After cutting his teeth on music from Little Richard, Elvis, and (duh) the Beatles, Ray played a ton of shows, penned a No. 1 hit for Smokey Robinson, and worked with blues diva Etta James and French superstar Johnny Hallyday. It was in the Hallyday band that he met drummer extraordinaire Abe Laboriel, Jr., who would later tip off Ray that a certain ex-Beatle might be looking for a guitarist who could double on bass. Snagging that job has allowed Ray to perform to literally hundreds of millions of people, but he somehow found the time to make This Way Up [Whooray/Icon], a guitariffic collection of melodic rock that is bursting with great tones, clever parts, and infectious hooks.
How long has This Way Up been in the making?
About two years, and not because I’m like Brian Wilson under a piano in a sandbox, tortured over songs for a long time, but because I’ve been so busy with Paul. There have been a few different cycles of songwriting, recording, going away, and then getting back to songwriting and recording. So about four different sessions made up the basic tracks for the record.
What’s the signal chain for the tremolo tone on the intro to “I Found You”?
That’s my reissue Gibson SG through a Fulltone Supa-Trem, which is set on a hard and fast, Brit-style tremolo through my Divided By 13 9/15 head. That amp is switchable between 15 watts in the EL84-based mode or 9 watts in 6V6 mode.
How hard are you driving the amp?
The amp on that song was at about one o’clock, so it’s breaking up but it still has plenty of nice transient, bell-like highs going on. I wanted an old Vox AC30 sound.
Do more guitars come in on the chorus?
Those guitars are actually in the intro too. On the other side of the stereo spectrum is a big semi-crunchy guitar that’s chunking along with a palm-muted quarternote figure. That is a really rare 1965 Epiphone Casino in a custom color called Grey Fox, that’s going through my 1963 Top Boost AC30. In the chorus I play it big and open, not palm muted.
There are a ton of guitars on the bridge section.
Yeah, that was an insane idea. I was listening to the basic track and I thought it needed something else before that wild tradeoff solo. I got the idea of a marching band, but instead of trombones, tubas, saxophones, and trumpets, what if guitars played all of those roles? So I set about doing the tuba part first, then I added a trombone part, and then what would be a sax part, and a trumpet part doing the high wails. I might have done each of those parts four times—doubled twice in the stereo field. So you’d have two tubas on the left, two tubas on the right, and on and on. Every time I would pick a different fuzz box and a different guitar.
Would you tweak the individual tones to make them sound more horn-like?
Absolutely. I would start cutting out high end and making it very midrange-y for some of the trombone parts. If you listen to tubas and baritone saxes, they have a very distinct distortion to them but not much sustain. So I goofed around with that. I ended up using my Prescription Electronics Experience pedal with an octave on it. It has a real splat to it. Then with some of the other parts I dialed in some tones with a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory. On the very high end I do a slide part, which is like trumpets with a mute on it. For that I used my 1957 Les Paul goldtop through an old Italian wah, into a Divided By 13 LDW 17/39.
How many guitars are in that section?
There might be 40 in there. They’re spread all over the stereo spectrum and imaged front and back a little bit. They’re not all equal volume. They just sort of begin to get wider and bigger and more sibilant as you add more of them. That was one session I did all on my own. I didn’t have an engineer there and I was literally just grabbing every guitar that was in the studio. There’s the Epiphone Casino, there’s a ’57 TV Junior, there’s my Les Paul, and maybe even a sitar for the low stuff.
Do you write on instruments other than guitar?
I wrote “Let’s Fall Apart” on bass. On my first record there’s a song called “Sub Atomic” that I co-wrote with Abe Laboriel, Jr. It’s very freeing to have no chordal information when you’re writing. When you’re only hearing the bottom end, you can really play with melody and harmony. If you play an A, you’re not spelling out if it’s minor or major. It doesn’t matter. The vocal is telling you what it is. It’s a fun way to write sometimes.
You worked as Etta James’ musical director back in the day. What were your duties with that? Did you write out charts for the band?
It’s funny. When I first got with Etta I was 19 years old and I couldn’t even be in the clubs I was playing with her in. It was just Etta, her husband, and me. The promoter or the owner of the club would put together a band out of locals. I would get there early, like 2:00 in the afternoon, and run them through 12 or 15 songs, mostly without Etta. My first big gig in Europe with her was the Montreux Jazz Festival and the band was put together by Claude Knobs. It was John Paul Jones on bass and Rick Wakeman on keyboards and I had no charts. They’re all going, “What the hell are we going to do? This kid’s got no charts.” But we had two rehearsals and we just had a blast and made it happen. John Paul Jones took me to dinner with the rest of Led Zeppelin who were in town in Switzerland. I’ve got to tell you, hanging out with those guys at age 19 was a huge experience for me.
Your current gig is a huge experience.
It is. I initially got hired to play one song with Paul and the band. It was the song before the National Anthem at the 2002 Super Bowl. After the game I was thanking Paul like I’d never see him again, saying, “This has been a privilege and an honor. Thank you so much. What a joy.” Later that night, as Paul was saying good night to everyone, he said to me, “Okay Brian, welcome aboard. Stick with Abe and Rusty [Anderson, guitarist]. They’ll show you the ropes. See you in five weeks for rehearsal.” I literally ran home, bought a Guild M85 bass that I thought would be good with him, got an old Gretsch—a 1959 Double Anniversary, which I still use—and a big stack of CDs and just immersed myself in all things McCartney— solo, Wings, and Beatles.
How did you know which guitar or vocal parts to prepare?
I didn’t. I learned every song on bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, and I picked out a few vocal parts, so I would sort of be ready to fall in. When it came time to start rehearsing, Rusty and I would just quickly say, “You take this part and I’ll take this part.” He and I go back a long way so it’s an easy communication.
You guys all show a tremendous amount of respect for the tunes. How and where do you stretch out and add some of your own thing?
I think we have a pretty good balance of reverent and irreverent. There are some solos that you need to do note for note, like “All My Loving.” When I play that solo, it’s that solo. I don’t want to change a single note. I remember the first time I played lead guitar on “Get Back.” I asked Paul, “Would you like me to play this just like the record or take some chances here and there?” He said, “Why don’t you start out just like the record and we’ll take it from there.” Over the five years since we started doing that, I will take one four-bar phrase and do what I want with it, and that’s the very last one. He’s been super encouraging about that. That’s the thing about Paul—he’s really cool. With all that he’s done and all that he is, he’s very loose and groovy about it. That kind of makes us loose about it too. When the Beatles came out, I decided that playing music was what I wanted to do with my life. I feel incredibly lucky that one thing has led to another and I actually have been able to make a living doing this.