Carmen Vandenberg Gets the Beck Seal of Approval

Carmen Vandenberg’s British duo Bones has a song called “Girls Can’t Play Guitar.”
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Carmen Vandenberg’s British duo Bones has a song called “Girls Can’t Play Guitar.” Fighting words to be sure, but watching Vandenberg rip lines and solos over the tune’s Chicagostyle blues groove reveals the irony of the title. Though still young, she displays chops acquired through extensive schooling, touring, and session work, and a soul that belies her years.

In the studio with musical partner/vocalist Rosie Bones—who occasionally plays guitar, as well—the band has created a unique blend of creative, aggressive guitar parts layered over modern rhythms. Live, when Bones puts down her guitar, and the personnel is stripped down to one guitar, drums, and vocals, Vandenberg’s elemental playing still fills out the sound with big riffs and solos that incorporate chords in a style harking back to Chuck Berry, without sounding like him.

The band’s blues-based-guitar-meets-electronica songs found a fan in none other than Jeff Beck. The legend enlisted the pair to help him write and record Loud Hailer, and join him on the subsequent tour.

“I couldn’t believe that a young, 22- or 23-year old girl would be in love with Buddy Guy, or even know about him,” Beck told England’s Total Guitar. “The fact that she could really play made me think, ‘Wow, this is incredible, maybe this is the right choice for me.’”

Beck’s choice was confirmed as Vandenberg not only helped him recreate the Loud Hailer songs on stage, she also became his sole chordal foil for the whole show, handling accompaniment for catalog tunes like “Blue Wind,” “Big Block,” “Freeway Jam,” and winning ovations for her featured solos. Unlike previous second guitarists, Jennifer Batten and Nicholas Meier, this year’s model made no attempt to recreate keyboard parts with guitar synth, but rather gave Beck’s band a new energy and a twin-guitar attack that occasionally recalled the Yardbirds.

What originally inspired you to play guitar?

My parents don’t play instruments themselves, but they always had music playing in the house. I have a clear memory of watching Woodstock on a VHS cassette with my dad when I was about eight years old, and after I saw Jimi Hendrix, I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” I began attempting to imitate Hendrix on my violin.

What was your first guitar?

It was a 3/4-size classical guitar my parents found for me. I can’t remember the make.

You attended London’s Academy of Contemporary Music. What kind of school is that?

ACM is a place where I met incredible tutors and equally incredible students with whom I still share musical experiences and friendships. It’s a good place to kick-start a career if you really want to work for it. I got a guitar degree—a Bachelor of Arts with honors.

How did you meet Rosie Bones?

Rosie and I met in Camden Town, London, at the Blues Kitchen. I was playing at the Sunday Jam night, and she approached me after my set. The rest is history.

Did Muddy Waters inspire the groove of “Girls Can’t Play Guitar?”

Definitely. We wanted a straight-up blues riff, and who better to be inspired than by Muddy?

What gear did you use in the studio for the Bones recordings?

It depended on where we were when we were recording, but mainly I am loyal to my American Vintage ’53 reissue Fender Telecaster. I love my amp—which is a vintage Peavey/Hammond TR-30. My main fuzz is a Catalinbread Manx Loaghtan. For other distortion effects, I use Roger Mayer’s Mongoose and a Blackstar Distortion LT Drive. I use Ernie Ball strings .010-.046, and Dunlop Nylon Standard .88 picks.

How did you process the guitar on Bones’ “Pretty Waste?”

It’s a pretty standard fuzz sound. I think it was the Catalinbread, but I layered guitar lines at different octaves, and that makes it sound unique.

What was the distortion for the solo on “Fat?”

We often distort sounds again after they have been recorded, and that’s what’s going on there. The type of added distortion is always different, but we generally use tube preamps or tape saturation.

What are you using live with Bones?

It is pretty much the same as my studio rig, but I’ve since added a Fender Telecaster Thinline.

Live and in the studio you get a really aggressive, biting, but musical sound with that ’53 reissue Telecaster. How do you make it that sharp, but keep it from getting thin and painful?

I think it’s the combination of the amp and the pedals I use. It varies depending on the venue. It sometimes can be sharp to the ear, so I roll off most of the mid and top end from the amp. For recording, it’s the same “adding distortion after the fact” concept as the solo in “Fat,” as well as the incredible skills of our producer Filippo Cimatti.

Which parts did you play on the Jeff Beck’s Loud Hailer?

I played the rhythm parts on the album— most of them on my Tele, with the exception of “Scared for the Children” and “Shrine.” On those, I played one of Jeff’s Strats, and on “O.I.L.,” I played a Gretsch Electromatic Pro Jet.

How did the writing and recording process go?

The whole album was written around Jeff’s fireplace. It was really relaxed and fun. Then, we recorded all the guitars in Jeff ’s attic studio. It all happened so quickly that it feels like a dream.

How did playing big stages with Cher Lloyd and Kate Nash help prepare you for the Beck tour?

Every experience helps, but what I think prepared me most were the support tours that Bones did this year with The Kooks, Skunk Anansie, and Pvris across the United Kingdom and Europe. It takes a lot more confidence to play your own music in front of a crowd than someone else’s.

Your slow blues solo sounds great on “Little Brown Bird” live. Beck has said your love of, and ability to play blues, was a factor in choosing to work with you.

Well, thank you. Our first ever conversation was about Albert Collins, so our mutual love for blues probably helped.

Was playing his older fusion music a challenge?

It was definitely a challenge.

Did your formal schooling help?

I’m sure it did, but the main part was figuring out how to fit in—creating parts that suited my playing and my instrument—and then sitting down and practicing.

What was your gear for the Beck tour?

I had Fender Twin Reverb and Magnatone High Fidelity amps, and, ironically, I used Radial’s Bones switcher to change between them during the set. For drive, I used Radial’s Texas Dual Mode Overdrive and London Distortion. I use a Boss chorus ensemble pedal when my sound needs to be a little bit more like a keyboard, and a volume pedal for songs such as “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.”

Do you switch to a Strat from the Tele on some tunes to more closely match Beck’s sound?

Although a Tele will always be my favorite, and it works well for Bones, it is limited in other aspects. I couldn’t cover the diversity I needed for this gig, so sometimes I used a Strat.

Did Beck give you any advice or direction in terms of your role as second guitarist?

Jeff always had suggestions for parts or tones during rehearsals, what sounds he wanted me to cover, what parts would work best with his, and so on.

What have you learned standing next to him every night?

The main thing I’ve learned is just how much work I still have to do! His tone, precision, never-ending dedication, hard work, and incredible musicality are beyond inspiring.