Eric Gales Pumps Up the Power with Pinnick Gales Pridgen

Once upon a time in the early '90s, then-teenager Eric Gales was the next “next Jimi Hendrix.”

Once upon a time in the early '90s, then-teenager Eric Gales was the next “next Jimi Hendrix.” That complimentary yet unenviable comparison was probably inevitable for a black lefty rocking the blues on a righty Fender Stratocaster flipped upside-down. But in Gales’ case the comparisons have always been drawn deeper than black or white, left or right. Since he was a child, Gales has demonstrated a Hendrix-like natural command of the electric guitar.

Although Gales was born right-handed, he learned to play left-handed, without reversing the order of the strings, while growing up in Memphis. “I saw my family members play that way,” he recalls. “But what it meant didn’t register. And no one placed a guitar in my hands. I just picked it up, and that’s what felt comfortable. It was just in the genes.”

The young guitarist was also heavily influenced by gospel music. “Another thing that reminds people of Hendrix is just me channeling what I grew up listening to in church with my parents and grandparents,” he says. Old timey gospel and traditional blues are exactly the same musically. Only the words are different.”

Gales has always preferred his blues on the rocks, but he’s never sounded heavier than with his new supergroup, Pinnick Gales Pridgen, featuring King’s X bassist and vocalist dUg Pinnick and former Mars Volta member Thomas Pridgen on drums. If you imagine that would sound like a classic blues-rock power trio pumped up on progressive metal—you’re right.

Their eponymous debut on Gales’ longtime recording home Magna Carta is a case of label and artist working together. Magna Carta honcho Peter Morticelli and his partner Mike Varney dreamed up the team, and Varney’s sonic choices as producer further fortified the metallic foundation on Pinnick Gales Pridgen. The band had not yet toured at press time—Gales performs with Lauryn Hill and his own band—but were already beginning work on a follow-up record at Prairie Sun Studios near San Francisco.

What aspects of a guitar make you feel at home?
I feel most at home on a Strat-style guitar with slightly hotter than stock single- coil pickups. I generally prefer the sweet tone of a rosewood fretboard, but I’ll go for a maple one when I want something brighter. I like my action low, and my tremolo to float, with a half-step pullback for raising pitch. I don’t want to take it further than that because sometimes I rest the heel of my palm way back on the bridge and I’ll inadvertently raise the pitch of the entire guitar.

What guitars do you use in the studio and on the road?
I use the same gear in the studio and onstage. My main guitars are a St. Blues Blindsider loaded with standard Seymour Duncan single-coils, a ’62 Strat with the same Duncans, and my signature Magneto Sonnet Raw Dawg, which has three Lollar Vintage Blackface pickups and a slightly smoother sound. I also just got a Magneto Velvet, and although humbuckers are not usually my thing, the special Dave Stephens pickups they put in it sound great pushing my signature Two-Rock amp.

Can you describe what you go for as your core amp tone?
I like my basic tone to be hotter than a Fender but not as hot as a Marshall. My Two-Rock Signature has two channels and the dirty channel sounds fantastic— but I predominantly use the clean channel on the 100-watt version, and I boost that with pedals.

What boosters do you prefer, and how do you set the controls?
My main booster is my signature edition of the E.W.S. Brute Drive, which is kind of midway between an overdrive and a fuzz, and sounds edgy without being acidic or having too much high end. It gives me great, smooth sustain without breaking up very much. I keep the Brute on most of the time. I set the Volume control around 12 o’clock, Gain at about 5 o’clock, and Tone around 10 o’clock. I very rarely use the extra boost. I adjust the volume on my guitar to achieve tonal variations. For more distorted, Big Muff-style sounds, I click off the Brute and click on the Mojo Hand FX Colossus Fuzz. You can hear that throughout “Lascivious” and “Black Jeans.”

What other pedals do you use frequently?
I use Dunlop’s MC404 CAE Wah a lot. I like how it can produce a woofy, Morley like wah sound, or a great traditional wah sound in the treble range. I keep a Tech 21 Boost D.L.A. on all the time with the wet signal loud enough to be heard without sounding washed out or cloudy. I appreciate both digital and analog delay sounds, and the Tech 21 sits nicely between the two. I use a TC Electronic delay for reverse sounds like the one at the very start of “Collateral Damage.”

How did you get the big flange sound near the end of “Angels and Aliens?”
That’s an MXR EV Flanger. It sounds huge.

Most of your stuff sounds deeper than standard tuning, and some of the PGP material sounds extra deep.
I drop my tuning down a half-step below standard because I like the beefier tone and because it makes it easier on my vocals. From there, I drop the low string a wholestep on a handful of songs including PGP’s cover of “Sunshine of Your Love.” We experimented with quite a few lowered tunings on Pinnick GalesPridgeon because dUg is a big fan. On “Hate Crime” my whole guitar is dropped two steps below standard. I’d never tried going that low before.

How did the sessions go down?
We did the whole thing in two and a half weeks. We tracked the basics live, and then dUg and I fleshed them out with overdubs. Mike [Varney] ran Pro Tools and just let us do our thing. I prefer to create songs in the studio on the fly starting from a groove. dUg had songs prepared, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t collaborate on them.

The solo electric guitar instrumental “For Jasmine” is interesting because you expound on a familiar Beethoven theme with an accuracy and arrangement that bring Eric Johnson to mind.
Eric Johnson is my number one technical influence. I’ve probably tried to imitate every aspect of his technique, particularly his amazing accuracy, which is what really struck me when I first heard him. I don’t like the little picks he uses to achieve it, though. I use the butt end of a regular, medium pick because a thin pick is too thin, and a heavy is too heavy. The butt of a medium allows exactly the control I want. On “For Jasmine,” Johnson’s influence appears in the pattern where I play a little bit, put a chord behind it, and repeat in a free-flowing style.

Your melodic parts sound relatively “normal,” but your chords can sound distinctly different. That’s probably because most players find root notes on the bottom two strings and incorporate various suspended voicings by letting the high-pitched strings ring out. How does that work in reverse?
The concept is similar. I can hear the kind of chords you’re talking about from a right-handed player and find them playing lefty without a problem—but my flow is upside-down. The same open strings are ringing out over the top, but I have to root my chords differently.

Do you have any favorite melodic and harmonic elements in general?
My safe havens are melodic and harmonic minor, which I try to apply to everything.

Did you have any reservations about going down the power trio road that’s been traveled so often since Hendrix and Cream?
No. We covered Cream, but we didn’t really consider it until afterwards. We didn’t do a Hendrix song because it’s so difficult to get permission. Well, I mean they wanted a ridiculous amount of money.

Would you care to share some parting thoughts on Hendrix?
Hendrix blows my mind. To be mentioned in the same sentence as him is one of the highest compliments in the world. But the reason I get compared to him so heavily is not because I have a sole fascination with him. It’s more of a fascination with lots of players who were influenced by Hendrix— from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robin Trower to Frank Marino and Joe Bonamassa.
I’m no Hendrix clone. I draw on my own experiences, and my church upbringing was hugely influential. Everything I do has some kind of gospel-based feel. But I’ve managed to find a way to work it into blues-rock. The world gets to hear that one particular thing, but I like to play all kinds of different styles.

What do you feel is the most original aspect of your guitar playing?
My spontaneity—what I play off the top off my head—and that’s especially true onstage. My live performance incorporates every aspect of who I’ve come to be today.