It’s a bit brilliantly strange and exciting to release an instrumental opus influenced by music as seemingly disparate as Todd Rundgren, progressive rock, David Bowie and Mick Ronson, the Who, INXS, and the Raspberries. But Andy Timmons is nothing if not a seeker—a curious and constant student of tone, technique, beautiful melodies, and the emotionalism needed to make his compositions and playing unfold in meaningful ways. The recent Theme from a Perfect World [Timstone]—produced by Timmons and his bassist Mike Daane—is exquisitely crafted, pulsing with live energy, and cinematic in its scope. Here, Timmons details how he approached the recording of the album, and he also provides some insights on what it was like to perform with Uli Jon Roth and Jennifer Batten during last year’s “The Ultimate Guitar Experience” tour.
What was the main concept for Theme from a Perfect World?
The title track I put together as a thinly veiled tribute to Todd Rundgren and Utopia, but, overall, I just wanted it to be a good collection of songs. There were plenty of tunes in the pipeline, as my last release of original material was 2006’s Resolution. Initially, all the songs were written with no overdubs in mind. We were so burnt out on formulaic instrumental-guitar records where there are all these rhythm guitars and keyboards. And when we paired the instrumentation down to just a strict trio—that’s when it got a bit more exciting. We recorded the rhythm tracks live in the studio, and stripping things down made us focus on the actual guitar tone. While I’ve always been concerned with tone, I wasn’t all that concerned until the sound was completely exposed like that. You’re under the microscope, so that led me down the path of tone questing.
But once we started very critically looking for tones, the strictness of the formula eased up. What if we had another guitar? What if we used a B3 organ? So we took the handcuffs off a little bit, and gave ourselves the toy chest back. In some ways, this helped me rethink how I was playing some of the songs. If there was a keyboard or additional guitars, I didn’t necessarily have to support myself on my lead as a jazz-chord soloist—which is how I approached the last two records. So that was kind of fun! We gave ourselves the keys to the kingdom, but we still kept the tracks as organic and sparse as possible. We didn’t want to overdo it.
When you and Mike are tone questing, what elements and nuances are you searching for?
It’s really about trying to draw more personality out of the tone, and Mike is great at that. I would track live with the band, but, generally, we’d end up redoing the whole track once we had a chance to really sit down and focus on the tone. We were obviously trying to get the best performances, but we also wanted to find the best voice for the song.
For example, we knew we wanted a Stevie Ray Vaughan-style, vintage Strat neck-pickup tone for “On Your Way Sweet Soul,” and we literally had 20 different Strats in the studio. At one point, Sam Swank, a buddy of mine who is a luthier, brought in an all-original 1960 hardtail Stratocaster. He said, “Man, you should hear this guitar.” He didn’t know we were doing a Strat quest. This guitar instantly blew everything else away. It had whatever extra level of mojo some of these old guitars have. I haven’t given it back yet! I’ve been looking for that sound for so long, and I just was never fortunate enough to find the right guitar or find a way to hold on to it once I had it. We experimented with amps, too. I’ve been using my Mesa/Boogie Lone Stars as my live rig, but, in the studio, anything goes. We had those on hand, and there were a couple Marshalls we used quite a bit—a ’69 Marshall Super Lead and a ’79 JMP—as well as some old Fender Deluxes.
I know that the goal of “drawing more personality out of the tone” is a very subjective evaluation, but can you provide a bit more illumination on how you make your sonic decisions?
I ask myself, “How am I going to convey this specific emotion through the instrument?” There’s a song called “That Day Came”—an ode to one of my cats that passed away—and I needed a very pensive and sad tone. It turned out to be a ’65 Strat that had a very delicate, plaintive kind of sound. It’s obviously about how you play it, as well, but my main guitar just wouldn’t have the detail in the top end to cut that track the way I wanted it.
As I alluded to earlier, there may be a benchmark tone in my head if I want to sound like Eric Johnson, SRV, or Hendrix. Of course, you never end up sounding like them, but at least it’s a tonal direction for me to insert into a tune. I like to be in that realm of sonic integrity—whether I reach it or not. It’s just good to have a goal to shape and inform the sound you’re going after.
In general, when I think about tone questing, it’s not about just lining up different guitars and amps. You’ve got to have a sound in your head. You have to know where you’re going. Sometimes, you could be inspired by something you didn’t expect. I didn’t originally intend to play “Theme From a Perfect World” on an SG Special, but Mike said, “Check this guitar out!” He would hand me stuff randomly every now and then, and, sometimes, that would lead me down a slightly different path.
There’s a funny story about that SG, by the way. When Mike gave it to me, it had .010s on it, and I just couldn’t keep it in tune. How did Townshend do it? That Who Live at Leeds tone is one of the greatest tones of all time. When I did some research, it turned out he had .012s on his guitar. So I put on the .012s, and—oh, man—the tone grew in a huge way, and it stayed in tune much better. Of course, I had to deal with bending the .012s, and that wasn’t easy [laughs].
Joe Satriani once said to me, “When your guitar is the singer in the band, you have to make sure the tone isn’t going to annoy people.” He basically meant that he doesn’t hammer the audience with searing midrange tones. How do you keep your guitar sound pleasing, as well as appropriate to the melody you’re trying to convey?
This is something we spend a lot of time on, because aggressive guitar tones are what annoy me about a lot of guitar recordings. The more distortion you introduce, the more you put out this fuzziness and top end that can be very harsh. There’s a forgiving nature to saturation, of course, and it helps some guitarists play more fluidly. But I spend a lot of time balancing less gain and less treble with clarity and fluidity. It’s not easy, because you still have to cut through the mix, and Mike battles me sometimes when I go for a tone that’s a bit too dark. I definitely want a warmer sound these days, as I try to cultivate a way of really “singing” my melodies in a vocal fashion with a very pleasant tone.
How much time do you spend obsessively evaluating your phrasing?
A lot! That’s how a player grows. That’s how Jeff Beck is where he’s at! He could have stopped at “Shapes of Things”—one of the greatest solos ever—but he kept going, and he’s still going. He got where he is by consistently and persistently being hard on himself. Not settling for something close to where you want to be is key. You must seek your own perfection, and never give up.
One of the things I love about the record is your intros are always like, “Listen to me!” They’re so impactful and seductive. How does that stuff happen?
I wish I had some magical answer for you, but the songs just kind of happen the way they happen. I do compose the intro first, so that might be it. I don’t write the choruses and verses, and then come back to the intros as an afterthought. I try for an interesting idea that hits the listener immediately, and then I see if I can compose the rest of the song from there.
What was it like playing with Jennifer Batten and Uli Jon Roth on your trio tour last year?
Jennifer has so much creativity, and her sense of compositional development is wonderful. We didn’t have a lot of interplay between us during the shows, but it was incredibly inspiring to stand next to her as she wove her musical spells. Uli and I decided there would be a moment each night where we would improvise. We’d take the changes to “Little Wing” and literally think of ourselves as Bach in a way, and weave lines in between each other. This was dangerous, of course, because one player could be brilliant, but if the other player isn’t open or on point, the whole thing could be disastrous—or not nearly as exciting as it could be. It takes two to tango, right? Happily, each night we started realizing, “Oh, man, we’ve got something here.” And we made that interplay a special moment in every show.