There are certain players that sneak up on you. It takes a little while for you to realize what they bring to the table. Then there are the guitarists that smack you upside the head with their very first note. Aleks Sever is the latter. There’s something about her approach that grabs you instantly and makes you say, “Whoa!” It’s a confidence, an honesty, and a forcefulness that demands your attention and then keeps it with deep melodies, subtle phrasing, and a clever blending of styles that includes blues, funk, rock, and jazz.
A Croatian who grew up in Germany, Severs migrated to L.A. around the turn of the century and simultaneously went to school and turned heads. Seamlessly melding influences as diverse as SRV, James Brown, Guns N’ Roses, Jeff Beck, and Usher, she has attracted some heavyweight fans, and it’s clear why. Severs’ bends, vibrato, note choices, and tones are those of a seasoned vet, and her sense of time makes the notes that she plays speak with an uncommon authority. Although she has made records in the past that showcase her vocal and keyboard skills, her latest, Danger Girl, is an instrumental affair that focuses solely on her impressive 6-string abilities.
The first thing that struck me about your playing was your attack. You dig into notes with such power and conviction. What can you say about that?
The most important thing about playing music for me is the intention behind it. I find that that’s what the listener feels. They respond to your intention. I try to figure out what I want to say in a particular song before I ever start playing. That really helps to create a certain confidence, and it comes through in the attack. I try to decide in advance where I’m going to start the solo on the fretboard. Once I know where my starting point is and know what the song is about, it takes me on a journey. Every phrase is equally important and it’s a matter of being prepared, and deciding which emotion I’m trying to get across. For instance, if the song is an up-tempo funky kind of groove, I might try to take a more aggressive approach, but with some humor in it. If it’s more of a ballad, I still keep the intensity and the attack but with a different message.
Where does that come from?
From the first time I picked up an electric guitar, I knew that I had found my voice. I played piano and acoustic guitar for a long time, but it was the electric that gave me freedom. I could say things with the electric guitar that I could never express with words, and it gave me such a sense of power to be able to finally let all that out. You can express joy, rage, and everything in between with one instrument, depending on how hard or soft you play, how you bend the string, what kind of tone you use, etc. I love it!
The song “Danger Girl” has several influences: rock, funk, blues, etc. Talk about how you combine those various flavors.
That song was actually inspired by “The Big Payback” by James Brown. His vocal on that song is awesome. He put so much power into the performance and a lot of the time he’s only singing one note. He didn’t need a lot of licks to get the point across. It’s basically a one-chord vamp. The whole song is really just one chord with a groove, and I wanted to capture that vibe on “Danger Girl.” The horns come in and out and the band starts and stops, but the groove is always there. I thought it would be cool to play some extreme, intense rock/blues overdrive solo stuff over the top of that kind of retro-funk track.
How would you track a tune like “First Day”? How many takes did you do?
Actually, on all my songs, including “First Day,” I record a rough sketch of the song at home first, to make sure about the arrangement before I go into the studio, because once we’re there, there’s usually not enough time to make changes on the spot. We recorded that particular rhythm track in about three takes. That seems to be the magic number of takes to get the right one. It usually takes the band a couple of passes to learn the song well enough that it doesn’t sound stiff. I like the energy of third takes. It seems that if you do more than three, the energy starts to drop a little, but the third take usually has the perfect combination of confidence and freshness.
How do you cut your lead lines?
After we have the basic tracks, I take more time with the solos and melodies. I go over each melody phrase a few times until I get the right vibe. I like to play at least four solos in a row before I start listening back. If I listen to my solos too soon, I get too critical and start editing my ideas, which really chokes off creativity. If I do too many takes of a solo, I run out of ideas and start repeating myself. I try to find the right balance.
Your lines in “Nightclub Art” sound like they cover more than three octaves. Can you describe how you’re playing those? How did that tune come together?
That song was inspired by the Usher song “Yeah.” I love the groove and feel and thought it might be interesting to combine a hip-hop groove with an aggressive approach on the guitar, both in the melody and the solos. As far as the range of the notes, I really didn’t think about it, except I knew I wanted the chorus in the song to be higher up the fretboard to add some drama. The first phrase of the chorus ended up pretty high, and the second phrase starts pretty low with a climb up, which I think works for the song. With the solos, I’m also really exploring the whole fretboard. I try to avoid staying in one position too long, especially for a recording, which is different than live. In the studio you have to plan your solos out a little more and avoid too many box licks to make it sound exciting and stay interesting.
Describe your various picking techniques and the ways you get different attacks on a note.
I use a combination of a lot of different picking techniques. Sometimes I’ll scrape the pick across the strings very quickly to get more drama out of a note. With overdrive, that creates a really cool effect, kind of like a little explosion. Other times I’ll pluck the string to get more snap, like the Nashville guys do. In the jazzier songs, like “Joker,” I used a more traditional picking technique, really clean and precise. With those types of melodies, I let the sequence of notes provide the drama and intensity, like a horn player. I squeeze some of the notes a little, just to bend them a little bit. I like that for the more complicated melodies, but for the more intense, rock songs, I like to play with the overdrive and rake the strings a lot. Depending on how hard you drag the pick across the strings, you get a lot of different tones out of the guitar.
What gear did you use on this record?
I have two main guitars, both American Standard Teles. One is a little lighter weight, and I used it a lot on the record. It’s swamp ash and has a DiMarzio DP-191 Air Classic humbucker in the bridge position, instead of a standard Tele pickup. I use a DiMarzio DP-417 Area T in the neck position. The other mod on that guitar is a series/parallel switch for the bridge pickup. I can get very close to a classic Tele sound from the pickup in parallel, which I use a lot for rhythm. It’s more transparent and snappy, like a Tele. In series, the pickup sounds like a Super Tele. It’s got the output of a humbucker with a more rock sound, but still has that snap to it. I used that guitar for the solos on the record. My other American Standard Tele is also swamp ash, with a DiMarzio DP-421 Area T Hot in the bridge position and the DP-417 in the neck. I used that guitar when I wanted more of a vintage Tele sound. For amps I used a small Fender Champion 600. I like small amps for recording because they don’t interfere with the bass frequencies like bigger amps sometimes do. The most important part of my sound on the record is the DigiTech RP500 multi-effects pedalboard. I used the compressor, overdrive, delay, reverb, and pitch change all over the record. The RP500 also sounds great if you turn off all the effects and just use the overdrive or the compressor for the clean sounds. I don’t use a lot of EQ, and I try to get the natural sound of the guitar before I add effects.
Whatare the biggest challenges to being an instrumental guitarist in this day and age?
One big challenge is to stick out from the crowd. There are so many great players it’s sometimes hard to get noticed. That’s one reason I made Danger Girl. I wanted to make a record that would appeal to a lot of people. The good news is that there are still millions of people that love great playing, and don’t care if there are words or not. I tried to stay away from clichés, and to go with my heart as far as the material was concerned. The songs were the most important part of the record for me, not the solos. But all art has its challenges, and I don’t think it’s that different today than it ever was. There is competition as an instrumentalist or any other artist. The main thing is to do what you love, and try to get really good at it. I found that once I discovered my true path, the rest came easier.