Rob Fetters on the Transformative Power of Six Strings

Truth is a relative concept for Rob Fetters.

Truth is a relative concept for Rob Fetters. It’s at the core of Saint Ain’t [Baby Ranch], an album of tightly constructed rock and pop anthems that explore personal accountability and the repercussions of action and inaction. Track titles like “Suffer,” “Desire,” “What You Do,” “Famous Last Words,” and “Life & Death Boogie” provide a glimpse of the thought-provoking mindset at work. The album is also huge fun, infused with adventurous arrangements, fiery guitar solos, and addictive hooks.

Saint Ain’t is the third solo release from Fetters, who is also involved in two guitar-driven bands: Psychodots and the Bears. Psychodots includes drummer/vocalist Chris Arduser and bassist Bob Nyswonger, both of whom play on the record. All three musicians are also in the Bears, along with guitarist Adrian Belew. Commercial scoring is another career path Fetters engages in, having done work for ABC, Disney, Nickelodeon, and PBS, as well as major brands including Microsoft, Crest, and Kellogg’s.

Fetters’ life is all about balance. He’s the epitome of the modern working musician, with irons in many fires that enable him to deal with the challenges of today’s music industry. He has been courted by Clive Davis, been on the cusp of major label deals, and seen his share of big promises broken. More importantly, many unexpected windows of opportunity opened along the way, too—a perspective he digs into on Saint Ain’t.

Describe the general perspective presented on Saint Ain’t.

It’s the result of trying to see reality instead of trying to run from it or attempting to create a separate reality. I’m no longer making judgment calls on what is good versus what is bad. A lot of things in my life relate to the fact that I didn’t get what I wanted and I had to settle for something better. Some people think I’m being ironic or witty about turning lemons into lemonade, but I’ve also seen a lot of lemonade turn into lemons. I’m a bit more unmoored these days, and I’m not afraid to be that way. I heard an interview with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma once. The interviewer said, “You’re Yo-Yo Ma. You’ve mastered your instrument. You’re the greatest cellist in the world.” Yo-Yo Ma just chuckled and said he was at a point in his life where all he could see was everything he didn’t know. I said to myself, “Yeah. That’s why you’re so good.” It’s because of his humility in the face of reality and his endless curiosity. Those are reasons artists like him are so adventurous. I feel that way about life in general. I haven’t got this sucker figured out and that’s what I wanted to express.

“Play Your Guitar” is an epic treatise and confessional for guitarists worldwide. What went into writing it?

A lifetime of guitar playing went into it. The guitar has literally been a lifesaver to me. In fact, it has been my life. I know so many guys that run businesses, are creative directors at ad agencies, or own studios. But what do they really love to do? Get out old guitars and play them. We guitar players get hooked from the first time we do it. You pick it up and you start dreaming. Before I could even play, I held my sister’s old Stella tiger-striped acoustic and imagined I was a Beatle, and then a Rolling Stone, and then someone in the Who. This was before I knew where to put my fingers. The song deals with the fact that if you are a guitar player you will get in trouble. Someone isn’t going to like you playing that guitar so much. Some girl won’t marry you. Your parents will instantly be worried sick if you decide to pursue it. People will tell you guitar players are a dime a dozen and you need to do something else. I think every guitarist hits a point where those realities emerge, but I was never going to do anything else. I’d rather be dead than not play guitar. The song also resonates with people who aren’t guitarists. If you’re really passionate about something, you’ll run into the same problems.

How did the guitar save your life?

It pulled me back from doing some bad things. When I used to drink and use drugs, somebody said to me, “If you keep that up, you’ll lose your music.” I’ll never forget that. There are lots of famous guitarists who did just that and lost what made them special. So, the guitar has saved me from self-destruction. The guitar has never been work. It has just been a universe of wonder.

Which instruments do you use on “Play Your Guitar?”

I played a 1967 Martin 00-18 acoustic and a 1965 Rickenbacker 625 on it. I also used a 2012 Strat-style “parts-caster” called a Greenie von Schneidocaster, created by master luthier David Schneider. It has Sperzel locking tuners, a Trem King fixed-bridge vibrato system, a Warmoth compound-radius neck, a Mark Jenny body, and Seymour Duncan Zephyr Silver pickups dipped to kill their microphonic tendencies. You’ll hear me doing some Keith Richards and Pete Townshend Who’s Next kind of power chording on it—not real distorted, but choppy chords that sound like a rifle getting cocked and fired. I also wanted to have a little Jimmy Page in there, so I put this kind of Lydian scale into it. For the main solo, I went psychedelic with a backwards-sounding effect; I used a little bit of compression from my Keeley 2 Knob Compressor running into a Boss RPS-10 Digital Pitch Shifter to make it happen.

What else is in your signal chain?

I also rely on a 1992 Fender Strat Plus with Sperzel locking tuners, a Kahler tremolo, and Fender N3 noiseless pickups with pickguard electronics. In addition, you’ll hear a 2001 Taylor 612-CE acoustic and “Broke Ass,” my wildly worn fretless 1974 Les Paul Custom 20th Anniversary B-stock. My guitars go into a Furman SPB-8 pedal board that also includes an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, a Pro Co Rat, a Boss TR-2 tremolo, a Boss VB-2 vibrato, a Boss DD-3 delay, a Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere, and a Boss FV300H volume pedal. For amps, I use my Wavelength Audio Rob Fetters Signature 20-watt head into a 4x12 cabinet loaded with Celestion Greenback speakers, and a Vox AC15HW1X 15-watt 1x12 handwired tube combo.

How did you create the sci-fi effects in “God is War?”

I’m playing the Rickenbacker, which is great for carving our some nice clear yet chunky and juicy guitar. When I played the solo, I was thinking, “Don’t play anything fancy. Play something you could have played when you were 14.” I did that as a placeholder for a proper guitar solo that would impress everybody later. I went back to the song a month after that and thought, “This is a perfectly good solo. It just needs to be mangled up.” So, I used a Native Instruments plug-in called Reaktor 5, which is a synth/sampler. It has a device called The Finger that has all kinds of octave shifting, filters, gates, wave shapers, reverse, and ring-modulation options. So, I put the mindless solo through kind of a food processor.

The album has a lot of space in the arrangements. Describe the philosophy at work.

I don’t believe having a dozen guitar tracks is a bad thing, but I’ve become better at saying more with less. For instance, on “Desire,” I’ve got a double-tracked Rickenbacker and Les Paul on there, as well as a my Taylor acoustic playing the same thing very tightly. If I had covered it up with other things, you wouldn’t hear the nuances anymore. It’s like looking at the night sky. You can’t pick out the individual stars if there are too many out there at once.