It only takes a few seconds of listening to Aleks Sever to recognize the fire and soul that she brings to her music. Sever’s knack for catchy melodies coupled with her impressive guitar chops is a recipe for success in the instrumental arena, and the guitarist’s fearless approach, inventiveness, and spirit of adventure make her latest album, Extravagant, a gem. “I always try to find something new that exites me or is some kind of breakthrough when I write,” says Sever. “For inspiration I listened to a lot of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew got played almost every day for a long time.”
Along with Miles, Sever cites John Coltrane, Maceo Parker, Prince, and James Brown as early influences. “I was really captivated by the grooves and the incredible harmonic depth and sense of freedom from their horn players. I started developing kind of a hybrid rhythm style, combining some of the chord shapes and more interesting melodic elements of the jazz approach with the raw groove of funk, which has always been my first love. More recently I started listening to a lot of rap and hiphop, and the phrasing, use of space, and the total intensity is very inspiring. I have a lot of respect for rap artists, and the skill it takes to create a story with a groove.”
Can you give us some insights into your songwriting process?
The rhythm part is the basic floor for me that determines the style, feel, and the overall direction and emotion of the song. The stronger and more defined the basic rhythm part is, the easier it is for me to build up melodies and solos later in the process. I usually start by playing a lot of different ideas, with no restrictions until something sparks an idea. It can be a single lick, or a little piece of a groove idea that gives me the concept for the whole song. I can visualize the whole thing in my head. Then I start to organize it by recording a drum loop and creating a rough structure or tempo map, so I have an idea where the sections will be. I start by reacting to the loop as if it were a real drummer to get a “live” feel to the part by playing around the backbeat, upbeats, and exploring the spaces. I play in different tempos and keys, and make adjustments to the drum feel until I’m satisfied that it’s as good as I can get it. After that, I add melodies and solos. I try to be aware of balance—when to obsess and when to let go and come back to it later.
What is essential to creating instrumental music that will catch the attention of the listeners you want to reach?
I first try to make music that excites me, and I have to trust that if it excites me, it will have the same effect on other people. The emotion is the most important part for me. There has to a story or feeling behind each song. Songs with words are easier, because the intent is clear. Instrumental music is a little harder, because there are no words or vocals to catch people’s attention, so I really try to focus on strong melodies. It can be aggressive, playful, melancholy, sexy, etc., but it has to be emotional. It can’t be only clever or tricky or too complicated just to be impressive. The groove, of course, also has to be undeniable. I spend a lot of time on that part, working on the drum feel and finding the perfect tempo. I try to let the inspiration flow through me, and hopefully that inspiration will capture a listener’s attention.
“Red Moon” caught my ear as having that sense of harmonic freedom you hear in some of Miles Davis’ finest moments.
That song was absolutely inspired by Bitches Brew. That record was so far ahead of anything else during that period in music that it still stands as a monument to Miles’ genius. Nobody was playing those kinds of grooves in jazz, or playing with such ferocious intensity. You can hear it in the playing of the other musicians on the record. It seems as if it lifted them up way past their abilities and created a new genre of music that’s still alive today. That’s why I asked Randy Brecker to play on “Red Moon.” I wanted to try to capture that wild spirit that Miles had on that album, and Randy has the same kind of all-in adventurous spirit in his playing.
I hear some Jeff Beck in your playing by how you infuse fast runs with sly bends, all the while staying beautifully in tune.
The Guitar Shop record blew me away. Jeff stretches the limits. He does things that nobody else does, and makes it all sound effortless. The way he incorporates subtle whammy bar effects into his runs is totally awesome. I don’t use a lot of whammy bar, but I try to get the same kind of effects by using a lot of subtle bends and quick little vibrato flourishes in my solos and melodies. I never really thought about his influence on my playing, but I’m sure it’s there. Jeff is so strong a player that probably every guitarist born in the last 50 years has been influenced by him in some way.
Your playing is so in the pocket on funky songs like “Crazy,” “Hi-Lites,” and “V.I.P.” I hear Prince there, but what other guitarists have shaped your approach to funk?
James Brown’s guitarists were a huge influence. When I first heard that music, I knew that’s how I wanted to play. Maceo Parker’s guitarists were actually the people that created that style. Maceo’s band the Kingsmen became James Brown’s band, and I listened to them a lot. Prince was also a big influence. I remember the first time I heard “Kiss” it blew me away. Prince was an incredible rhythm guitarist and one of his live performances was actually the inspiration for my song “Hi-Lites.” I remember watching a TV performance of his and the band was just fantastic. The song was really fast, and the horn players were doing steps while playing these incredibly complicated parts, and all of it seemed effortless. It inspired me to write a song with that kind of energy.
There are a lot of heavy hitters on this recording. Did you consciously choose players who shared your vision for this album?
I feel very lucky to have these musicians on this record. John Blackwell [drums] lifted the music up to another level from the first note. Josh Dunham also brought a totally natural feel to the record. I’m really particular about bass parts because they have to complement the rhythm guitar, and Josh knew instinctively what to do right away. Keyboardist Bobby Sparks was awesome! He’s so creative, and he really leaned into this project. He was on the road at that time, and he would send me these incredible suggestions for parts by email. He had so many ideas and it was great—it made everything exciting. If you have the right musicians for your music there isn’t much to talk about; you can just play and enjoy, and make sure not to edit too much later on. I wanted this record to sound a little wild but very intense, and these musicians just killed it.
Were the song arrangements pretty locked down before you went into the studio?
I have a pretty good idea of the songs before I go in the studio, and the arrangements are usually planned out in advance. I like to feel prepared. I find that it’s good to be organized and have a clear vision; it saves a lot of time and everything goes more smoothly. But at the same time I do try to be open and let musicians be creative. Sometimes things happen in the moment that you didn’t plan, and you don’t want to block something that might turn out to be magical.
Were the tracks cut live in the studio, or did you start with basic rhythm tracks and then overdub the other parts?
I don’t really have a preference, as I think you can get a good result either way, but for Extravagant, all the musicians lived in different states so we had to overdub. Everybody seemed to connect with the music right away, and they brought so much to it that it didn’t really feel like we were overdubbing. Most of them had played together before, so it was a natural process. Everything just came together without having to give a lot of direction. The project just started growing and developing on its own, because the players really seemed to enjoy it.
How do craft your solos? Do you work them out in advance or do you rely on inspiration of the moment?
It’s actually a process that involves both modes. I start by reacting from instinct, with no roadmap or planning. I give myself permission in the first few passes to sound really bad and to make a lot of mistakes, because there’s usually a fragment or phrase, or even a mistake somewhere, that shows me how to approach the solo. Then I come back and fill in the blanks by creating a rough structure for the solo—like where to play sparse, where to get more active, where to create a climax, etc.
What guitars and amps did you bring for the sessions?
I like Fender Telecasters. They’re comfortable to play, I love the way they sound and feel, and it’s the perfect shape for me. The body design gives my forearm a lot of support, which allows my hand and shoulders to relax. Being relaxed and comfortable gives me more confidence. I use an American Standard Tele, a Deluxe Tele, two Blacktops, and I just recently got the Nashville model with the middle pickup. I use either a Fender Super Sonic or Deluxe amp. Both are great for clean sounds because they have a lot of snap to the attack. The overdrive comes from a DigiTech RP-500 multi-effects pedal—I don’t use the channel switching on the Super Sonic—but both amps react really well to the RP-500 overdrive, which always has a warm and musical sound.
What other effects did you use?
I used a TC Electronic Flashback delay and Hall of Fame reverb, and a Boss DD-7 digital delay and a PS-6 pitch shifter. I experimented a lot with pitch change and delay effects and I’m really happy with how it came out. On the song “Glamour Baby” I used a pedal called the Philosopher’s Tone from Pigtronix, which is a compressor type effect. It’s a pretty extreme type of compression. It boosts the output and sustains forever. It turned out to be a good alternative to an overdrive for melody sounds.
Can you talk about your preferences in picks and strings, and are there particular ways that you like your guitars to be set up?
I use Dunlop nylon 1 mil picks and .009 D’Addario strings, which in my opinion are the best strings on the planet. I’ve tried other brands, including some very expensive ones, but nothing feels as soft, or stays in tune like D’Addario. They also almost never break. I like my guitars set up with the action a little higher than a lot of players. It sounds better in my opinion, and I can get under the strings easier when bending. There are some tricks that my tech does when he adjusts the saddle height to give me a soft feel with high action.
What kinds of things do you work on when practicing?
I start with a warm-up series of scales and arpeggios. I have my basic routine, but I’m always adding or changing up scales and styles to try and stretch my limits. Laziness can sometimes be the biggest challenge. Learning to be a better player means making yourself uncomfortable on purpose. Intense practice is difficult and exhausting, and I don’t always have the energy, but I try and avoid repeating myself. My goal is to try to improve some aspect of my playing every time I pick up the instrument.
I practice slowly to build hand strength. Slow legato practice is the key to playing fast for me. It builds muscle memory and I feel stronger and more in control. I also map out phrases and work on the fingering and dynamics until I feel comfortable. Rhythm practice and transitions between chords use a different set of muscles, and it actually improves my single-line solo playing. It strengthens and trains the hands and forearm. I also try to think ahead and visualize the fretboard, and work on anticipating a particular chord pattern or single-line run.
What advice would you have for young guitarists who want to become pro players?
Be committed and strive to be the best you can be. It seems that when you’re really focused on the music and not distracted and impatient, opportunities show up without looking for them. Also, surround yourself with people who understand and support your path. It makes everything possible.