“I’M THE POSTER BOY FOR A.D.D.,” jokes German-born, Seattle-based Ed DeGenaro. “When I’m recording an album, I work on one song at a time, and when I’m finished I ask myself what I’m going to do next. Then I do whatever pops to mind.” That’s evident on the idiosyncratic guitarist’s latest release, Dog House [Unfretted], which shreds the stylistic map and reassembles the pieces using an array of fretted and fretless guitars, and myriad MIDI guitar-triggered samples, including banjo, strings, and horns. One moment you’re in a Bakersfield honkytonk, the next Bollywood, the next a Jamaican shack, the next downtown New York, and the next a Memphis dancehall — with clever Steely Dan, Biréli Lagrène, and Jaco Pastorius covers en route.
DeGenaro can’t always recall which guitars and amps were used on particular tracks, but that has more to do with the massive amount of gear than the limitations of his attention span. Tyler Burning Water and Studio Elite models, various fretted and unfretted Vigier Excaliburs (one Sustainiac equipped), several O’Donnells (including a double-neck 8- string fretted/7-string fretless), two Rahbek “Teles,” a Taylor T5, a Gibson Chet Atkins, a K. Yairi DYM95 Master- built acoustic, and a Supro lap-steel were among his choices. Amps included THDs, Mesa/Boogies, Soldanos, VHTs, Fenders, and Marshalls—all recorded using a THD Hot Plate Attenuator at bedroom volume.
DeGenaro’s gear obsession notwithstanding, his tone lust doesn’t deter him from focusing on the art and craft of playing his instrument. Besides amassing tons of fusion chops, and cultivating a taste for exotic techniques and tonalities, DeGenaro has also emerged as a recognized champion of the fretless guitar. And while his “outsider” status remains unthreatened, his recent contributions to Guitar Hero III Legends of Rock place his playing squarely within the popular culture, and his most lucrative gigs are with his “country band,” Nathan Chance & North Coast—although he quickly adds that they sound more like “’80s metal with cowboy hats” than Nashville cats.
How long have you been playing fretless and what got you started?
I started playing fretless around 1999, when my boss [THD Electronics President/ CEO] Andy Marshall let me try one of his Vigiers. After playing it for ten minutes, I decided that it was horrible, but he suggested that I take it home over the weekend, and eventually I started thinking it was kind of cool. The big turning point, however, was three years ago, when I tried to mimic a lap-steel line with an exaggerated vibrato. I discovered that if I played with my nail instead of the pad of my finger I could fake it, and at that point I said, “I love this instrument.”
What advice would you give to someone just starting out on fretless?
For single-note lines, the first thing you need to do is get your sound together, so that the notes don’t go plink, plink, plink on the plain strings. On faster stuff it is a matter of having gain and/or compression from the amp, and for more melodic stuff you’ve got to get up on your nail, because if you play with just the pad, that note is going to die quickly. And if you go above the tenth or 12th fret, and you play with the pad, your intonation is going to be all over the place. Also, use a tuner while you are playing. Move your finger to where you think the first note should be, check it with the tuner, and then use your ears to go to the subsequent note.
Is it possible to play chords on fretless?
If you want to play chords you’ll have to spend a lot of time on it, and you’ll have to use different voicings than you would on a fretted guitar. For example, most guitarists play barre chords, but as soon as you have more than two notes on adjacent strings in the same spot on a fretless, you’re in trouble.
Do you play mostly with your fingers?
I use a pick for fast alternate-picked stuff, but for everything else I prefer fingers against string. I usually keep the pick palmed with my index finger, and play with the others. I mostly use Dunlop Jazz III picks, but sometimes I use medium-sized, triangle, cast-acrylic V-Picks that are just amazing. Some people complain that they give too much pop to the note, but I actually like that, because I’ve worked so hard on minimizing any kind of pick attack that I can’t get attack out of a normal pick anymore.
Do you choke up on the pick?
Yes, I hold it very close to the tip.
How about strings?
I use Dunlops on my fretted guitars, .009- .046 for standard tuning, and .011-.052 or .056 when I tune down a whole step. I use .013-.056 D’Addario Half Rounds with a wound G on the fretless guitars, which are also tuned either to standard or down a whole step. I don’t use any open tunings, except for lap-steel and occasionally acoustic. I even play slide in standard.
Do you get your overdriven sounds straight from the amp or with pedals?
Both. When I use pedals, I’ll generally use two, one for overdrive and another one after it for boost. My favorite distortion pedal is the Maxon SD-9 Sonic Distortion, but I’ll also sometimes use an Ibanez SD-9 or an MI Audio Tube Zone or an Emma ReezaFRATzitz. The boost is usually an MXR MC402 Boost Overdrive or a Demeter Fat Control.
What about other effects?
Occasionally I’ll use a wah or a delay pedal, and I always use a volume pedal, but these days I’ve actually gone back to a rack system. I use an old T-Rex Mac 1 Switcher and a Big Foot Floorboard to switch my pedals in and out, and I’ve got an Eventide Eclipse and a Fractal Audio Axe-FX in the rack. The signal chain is complex, but my tones involve both a THD Flexi-50 amp and amp models in the Axe-FX.
What guitar synth did you use on Dog House?
My old Steinberger GS7 with a Roland pickup, into a Roland GR-1 for MIDI conversion, into an ancient Ensoniq ASR-X sampler and various software synths and samplers, such as the Steinberg HALion VSTi.