A Dazzling Conversation with Guthrie Govan: The Aristocrats' Mind-Blowing New Album, Odd Time Signatures and Staying in Tune

Guthrie Govan possesses quite possibly the most terrifying guitar chops on the planet, but he's done exploring technique for technique's sake.
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“It’s been a long time since I felt the urge to explore technique purely for the sake of technique,” says Guthrie Govan, possessor of possibly the most terrifying guitar chops on the planet. “I can’t necessarily play everything I hear in my head, but I can usually imagine a way in which it could be played, given the necessary amount of practice time. These days, I’m more likely to work on something technical only if it will help me to execute a specific passage of music.”

Those passages of music are in full bloom on Govan’s latest offering, You Know What...?, a joint effort with his mates in the Aristocrats: bass savant Bryan Beller and drum monster Marco Minnemann. It’s an egalitarian and mind-blowing collection of nine tunes, three written and produced by each member. Govan’s guitar work is at once dazzling, quirky, funky, heavy, jazzy, proggy and funny. It’s rare to hear any musician so comfortable, so at home and so in the zone at all times, and, yet, here we are. The maestro spoke to GP on the cusp of an Aristocrats tour.

You guys each wrote three songs for this record, and you produced the songs that you wrote. Describe the difference between your writing and production style and those of your bandmates.

My own writing for this band has always been focused on trying to make the harmonic side of things sound as “complete” as possible within a relatively overdub-free, live arrangement. This seems to require finding a way for the guitar and bass to convey all the necessary harmonic information, which often results in bizarre bass lines that utilize the whole range of the instrument.

For my three tunes on this album, the bass parts almost certainly took longer to write than the guitar parts. Bryan - previously responsible for “Let’s punish the guitar player” tracks such as “See You Next Tuesday” and “Louisville Stomp” - seemed more focused on writing relatively simple, melodic trio tunes. “All Said and Done” could almost be some kind of Beatles outtake. Marco wanted to explore a much more studio-oriented approach with a lot of layering, rather than worrying about how easily the arrangements might translate into a live setting.

Production-wise, we’ve never really talked about specific reference points, but I think we all have similar ideas about how we want our recordings to sound. When we’re evaluating test mixes, we tend to agree with each other on almost every point. This probably comes from a simple desire to capture the live vibe of the band and make an honest document of what we really sound like when we’re all playing together in a room.

The wah tones sound wah-ier than most. How do you get such a wicked sweep and pronounced vocal quality?

I suppose the main wah moments are the middle section of “Terrible Lizard” and of course the entirety of “D Grade F*ck Movie Jam.” In each case, what you’re hearing is my signature ash-bodied Charvel running into an Xotic wah, possibly enhanced ever-so-slightly by an Xotic EP Booster, and then into the overdrive channel of my Victory V30 MkII head. The new version of the V30 has a slightly different voicing, and the midrange sounds a little more honky and pronounced, so perhaps that amp is just unusually responsive to wah pedals. It’s also worth pointing out that the Xotic wah is a particularly fine example of its species, and its voicing can be customized extensively using the little knobs on the side of the pedal.

The Aristocrats: (from left) Minnemann, Beller and Govan

The Aristocrats: (from left) Minnemann, Beller and Govan

Can you describe what sort of techniques you’re employing for the arpeggios in “Spanish Eddie”? Technique aside, what’s going on from a harmonic standpoint?

Technically, that section is disappointingly “normal” and not at all hard to play once you’ve memorized the necessary chord shapes. The song is in drop-D tuning, and the whole pattern occurs on the three lowest strings, alternating between an open string and a hammered note on each string in turn.

Harmonically, I suppose two things are happening simultaneously: The open strings are providing a static D5 drone throughout the pattern while the hammered notes superimpose a progression something along the lines of D7b9, D7b9/F#, Dm7/F, Cm7/Eb. It’s the kind of pattern that only works because it’s constantly moving. There are some pretty dissonant note clashes in places, but hopefully the overall balance of tension and release comes across in a pleasing way.

That tune has really nice clean tones, as does “Last Orders.” What do you like in a clean sound?

I’m a little wary of “squeaky clean” tones these days, particularly when the guitar is carrying the melody or soloing. If a clean tone is too pristine, I find that it can often sound great in isolation but then become engulfed by the rest of the mix. All the clean stuff on You Know What...? was recorded using a real tube amp with a mic in front of it. I’m sure even the cleanest-sounding tones contain all kinds of hidden harmonics that the listener perceives subliminally, where the preamp is starting to add some natural compression but the gain level is still low enough not to sound identifiably distorted.

The pickups on my Charvel are wired to do a wide variety of different things. The humbuckers have a pronounced honk in the midrange, particularly the bridge pickup, whereas some of the single-coil settings are much thinner and glassier. As I recall, the “Spanish Eddie” clean tone was produced by the neck humbucker, while “Last Orders” used the same pickup but with the mini-switch engaged, which creates a hum-free single-coil effect. I also used a Vox AC30 for “Last Orders.” That’s a bit of a departure for me, but I discovered something I really liked about the combination of a thin-sounding pickup setting feeding a much warmer, “squashed” clean channel. I really must explore this approach more in the future, as I remember it being a particularly inspiring tone.

You navigate odd time signatures really well. What’s the key to playing in odd time and, more importantly, how do you make it swing or rock?

I think the best way to become comfortable with odd time signatures is to not think of them as odd. You just have to develop a natural feel for the contour of the bar in any given time signature, so you can sense when the “one” will return without having to do any literal counting. However daunting the top number in the time signature may appear, there’s generally an underlying framework, so it’s helpful to focus on finding the most prominent pulses within each bar, which are generally separated by smaller, more manageable numbers, like 3 and 4.

For any given time signature, it’s fun to investigate all the different ways you can subdivide it. You could interpret a bar of 15/16 as a regular bar of 4/4 without the final 16th note, or it could be three groups of five 16th notes, or five groups of three, or whatever you like, really. Thinking through all of the possibilities will tend to make you feel more imaginative and less fearful when confronted with an odd time signature.

You always manage to sound very in tune, even when playing complex chords with lots of gain. What’s your take on the state of the art of intonation these days? You’ve played guitars with True Temperament Frets. What else have you experimented with?

Whenever I’m in the studio for any length of time, I really have to try hard to resist being sucked too far down into the tuning rabbit hole. Therein lies only misery! Western music is fundamentally flawed with regard to pitch. The equally tempered major third, for instance, differs pretty drastically from the “laws of physics” version of the same note. On top of that, there are mechanical quirks about the way a string vibrates, the tendency of the pole pieces to exert a magnetic pull on the strings, et cetera. My recent adoption of D’Addario NYXL strings has actually helped somewhat with some of my tuning issues. Before I discovered those, I really had to stretch a new set of strings pretty drastically to render them immune to some of the wide bends I like to do, and of course over-stretching a string can play havoc with the accuracy of its intonation.

I’m still trying to work out how I feel about the True Temperament frets. On the one hand, they do successfully address many of the most common intonation-based issues, but they also tend to make me feel more insecure about my ability to tune by ear. Part of my memory of any given chord shape includes certain instincts about which strings might need to be bent slightly in order to make all the notes sound right together. Letting go of those instincts sometimes feels disconcertingly counterintuitive!

You once said that Noel Gallagher is a successful musician who has made a lot of people happy, but his sweep picking is probably terrible, and that’s okay because he obviously doesn’t need it. What are you terrible at, and are you okay with being terrible at it?

Whenever I hear a real classical guitarist or an authentic gypsy jazz player, I’m instantly aware that they’re doing something that I’m decades away from even approximating. I’m absolutely fine with that though. In fact, I really like the idea that you can never fully conquer the guitar and you sometimes need to make difficult choices in the way you allocate the time you get to spend with your instrument.

What are you trying to get better at these days?

In general terms, I suppose I’m just trying to tune in to the idealized version of me, which I can constantly hear in my head, and then trying to get the “real-life” version of my playing to sound a little closer to that. Of course, the imagination inevitably continues to develop and evolve further throughout that whole process, so you’re essentially trying to reach a goal which is constantly moving away from you. But that’s okay. Musical growth, to borrow a well-worn cliché, really is more about the journey than the destination.

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