Canadian guitarist and composer Tim Brady has been doing his best to increase the electric guitar’s presence in classical music since 1988. “Brahms didn’t write much electric guitar music,” he quips. Brady’s own work runs the gamut from “Amplify, Multiply, Remix, and Redefine (in memory of Les Paul),” a composition that combines 21 electric guitars with an orchestra, to his latest release 24 Frames/Trance [Ambiances Magnétiques], which features the guitarist performing some of his solo compositions, augmented by electronics. Whatever the context, Brady employs jazz, rock, and avant-garde techniques to demonstrate the myriad possibilities for presenting electric guitar in a classical context.
Is “Trance” all composed or is part of it improvised?
There is a guitar solo in the middle that is improvised. The composition is a one-chord jam, but the sense of where it begins and ends is quite clear in my mind. The “tape” sounds on a few of the pieces are improvised into the computer—if I like a sound I’ll grab it and move it somewhere else. I do some improvisation every day, but as soon as I get an improvisation that sounds interesting I want to fix it down—the composer in me is always lurking in the background.
Are you playing to computer backing when you perform those compositions live?
“Invisible Quartet” and “57 Ways of Playing Guitar” employ pre-recorded sound files, but everything else is done live with loopers or electronics.
Tell us about those electronics. They sound like spectral or grain effects.
It is nothing more than a Boss GT-8. When the manual says the best sounds are between parameters one and five, don’t go from six to ten, I immediately go to six through ten. That’s where the coolest sounds lie. I also use the expression pedal on the GT-8 to control two or more parameters that would not normally be linked together. For example, in “Leaps” the pedal changes the delay time and jumps the harmonizer two octaves. And on “Sul A,” which uses a reverse delay and a harmonizer set to a minor third, as I pull the pedal back the delay gets longer as the pitch changes
Are the effect moves composed or improvised?
“Leaps” is about making extreme leaps on the guitar at extreme speeds, so writing out that I need to play an F then an immediate F# two octaves higher is less useful than a physical diagram of the things that need to be done. For some pieces I use description notation. That is where you describe the physical acts that you want to happen and the sound that you want to be produced—but don’t actually put any notes on the page. To me that is still notation. In a piece where the processing is so extreme that the difference between playing this or that note is minimal, what is essential is the sense of raw energy and forward motion, and a descriptive score gets the performer closer to that reality more quickly.
Tone appears to be very important to you.
I recorded the piece “O is for Ostinato” 11 times until I found the right guitar sound for it. I kept trying different processing and different pickups. It is all about open strings, so if the tone isn’t right the piece doesn’t make any sense. It took me three years to record six minutes of music because I couldn’t find the right tone. I went through three or four different guitars.
What is your main guitar?
The guitar that I use all the time now is a custom Godin Passion with two Seymour Duncan P-Rail pickups. I found that when I pick up a classic guitar like a Stratocaster, I seem incapable of doing anything but trying to play like Stevie Ray Vaughn or Eric Clapton— it is a limitation on my part. One of the things that attracted me to the Godin is that the guitars have a slightly different tone than traditional guitars. It is a clean slate— I can find my own tone there. When it came to making my music I felt I needed the new sound palette that the Godin gave me.
What are the sonic issues of melding electric guitars with orchestra?
With the 20 guitars and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, everybody had a small amp. We set them at low levels and everything balanced quite well.
When you play electric guitar with unamplified acoustic instruments you are trying to create a sound world comparable to that of those instruments—where your instrument is loud enough to be heard but also has a usable dynamic range. I have to think of myself as an acoustic instrument, and I use the amplifier to accomplish that. I spent a minor fortune buying and selling amps to find the perfect chamber music amp, and I wound up with an early-’80s, 18-watt Fender Super Champ with a single 10" speaker. But even with a low-wattage amp, if I am playing with 12 acoustic musicians, most of the time the conductor is still telling me to turn down.
If you want to get a big electric sound without overpowering the other players, how do you approach it?
I have used many different distortion pedals over the years, but the TC Electronic Nova Drive has finally solved all of my problems. It has overdrive and distortion that you can slave together for a multi-drive distortion, and most importantly it’s programmable. I have my basic settings, but if I have to adjust the levels or otherwise tweak the sounds for a particular night’s show in a particular hall, I can save the adjusted preset or presets to another bank.
The other goal is to get a big, fat, warm sound with the same presence as distortion— but without distortion. Sometimes, before you reach overdrive or crunch, the guitar can sound a bit puny. I make sure that I have a master volume on all my amps so that I can push the preamp stage just a little bit. I know that it is not the same as playing loud, but if you are working with an 18-watt amp, when it starts to get loud [whispers] it is still only 18 watts. I also have a switch that changes the amp to class A and brings it down to only 14 or 15 watts. This gives me different ways that I can get to that “amp-working-hard-but-clean” sound at a reasonable volume.
Why do you think, in an age musically defined by the electric guitar, so few composers have worked with the instrument?
Composers tend to have university training, and universities, up until now, have not let the electric guitar in except as part of a jazz program. They never mention electric guitar in your university orchestration class.
Also, to play with an orchestra or chamber group requires that you learn to read music really well. Until now, the majority of guitarists have not taken the time or expended the energy to learn to read music. Until we get thousands of electric guitar players who can read a score and follow a conductor, you are not going to get the raw numbers to make this happen.
The one country that is almost there is Holland. Thirty years ago the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen started putting electric guitar in all of his chamber works, and he still does. It is a right of passage for every electric guitarist who wants to play new music to play Andriessen’s piece “Hout.” It is only ten minutes long but super difficult. He is not a guitarist and just writes the notes he wants, so the leaps are extremely demanding. It takes three months to learn the piece, and there are only ten or 12 of us on the planet who have played it. In Holland they now teach electric guitarists to read in order to play his complex pieces. Because these pieces exist and all these guitarists who can play them exist, other Dutch composers now write for electric guitar and it becomes a feedback loop.
Have you played many compositions by other people?
I have played a lot of guitar music by other people but have never done a concerto by anyone else. I have commissioned a young Canadian composer to write one for a 35- piece chamber orchestra. I am trying to commission a few other composers to write concertos for electric guitar and orchestra. The concerto is not the only way to make an instrument well known—it is important that the guitar be used as part of the orchestra, in chamber ensembles, and in experimental electronic music—but it is a way to make people understand that you can actually do that with an electric guitar.
I also want to write a long piece for electric guitar quartet. My idea is that everyone is going to have two amps on stage: a quiet 20-watt amp and a loud 60-watt amp. There will be sections for each so that I can explore the huge textural range of the guitar. Everybody will also have loopers, ring modulators, and harmonizers. It could be quite a mess o’ sound coming at you!