Scott Holiday and Rival Sons Bring Back the Big Riff

Many guitar fans have looked to Rival Sons to bring back the big riff rock that they desperately crave. It’s easy to see why.

Pretty much ever since there has been rock and roll, there has been the need in some people’s minds to save rock and roll. Save it from becoming too safe, losing its edge, or turning into something that just doesn’t rock. The bands that have what it takes to be rock saviors all value attitude over perfection, and guts and spontaneity over careful planning. In recent memory, Van Halen, the Sex Pistols, Metallica, Nirvana, and Guns ’N Roses have all been the right band at the right time to give the music biz the kick in the ass that it needed. These days, many guitar fans have looked to Rival Sons to bring back the big riff rock that they desperately crave. It’s easy to see why. Guitarist Scott Holiday has the meaty tones, the massive hooks, and the dangerous swagger that naturally appeal to followers of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and a bunch of other awesome, hard-rocking bands.

Those similarities to classic groups have been something of a two-edged sword for Holiday and his mates, however, with some critics and some listeners questioning loudly where a tribute ends and where a ripoff begins. The criticism is not totally unfounded. Some of the tunes on Rival Sons’ latest, Head Down [Earache], bear more than a passing resemblance to ’70s-era classics that we know and love. A closer listen, though, reveals that Holiday simply has the same great records in his collection that all rock fans do, and he cut his teeth on those tunes and loves them so much that they are now etched in his brain and stamped on his DNA. And because he’s a complete gear freak, he knows what guitars, amps, and pedals created the amazing sounds on those albums. So, if he bashes an A chord on a Tele through a Supro amp, of course it sounds like Jimmy Page. How could it not?

The fact is, Holiday and his band are a great testimonial to the power of rock, and they do what they do with conviction, bravado, and killer tone. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” he says. “We’re trying to make something that connects with people at their core.”

How is Head Down different from your last record, Pressure & Time?

Pressure & Time was purposefully very concise, with a mentality of economy regarding much of my guitar work. I distinctly remember going in there and saying all the wankery had to chill out on that record. I wanted to be very minimalist and make all the little guitar moments count, rather than be flamboyant. Although that ethos never really left me, Head Down breathes more, and is more spread out and open. There are longer arrangements and more improvised sections, which is how we typically play live.

Both of those records were produced by Dave Cobb. What does he bring to the guitar tracking?

He’s massive, man. We work very closely on the tracks. He’s a guitar player, and he’s a total guitar dork like me, so we’re always breaking out old guitars, weird little amps, and effects. He’s got a stellar guitar collection. I’ll use his 1960 ES-335 as well as his Gretsch White Penguin, along with all my stuff. In the beginning, we find the guitar/ amp setup that is the general sound of the record and we’ll go from there. We work with that setup until we feel something needs to be changed. It’s really easy, actually. I can pretty much stumble and fall on a great guitar.

What kind of input does he give you on parts or arrangements?

Dave’s pretty involved. We write our records on the spot as we’re recording them, and if we’re struggling with a section, he’ll walk in with his old Tele and say, “What about this?” and play a part, and we’ll say, “Oh man, that’s it! That’s exactly what we needed.”

So you write your records right there in the studio?

Yeah. I started working that way with Dave on our first record, Before the Fire. We wanted to work very quickly and immediately to try to find something new. I discovered a lot of new things about myself as a musician. I broke out of a lot of boxes that are easy to get trapped in as a songwriter and a guitarist by doing this immediate writing. Why the hell do some bands spend a year making a rock record? Jesus. If you spend too much time, it’s going to sound like all the other sh*t that’s on the radio right now, which is over-produced, over-written, overworked, and sounds withered and dead. And all the stuff that we cut our teeth on that we love—you can hear that those records were cut live. We decided to back ourselves into that corner and make a live record, something that hopefully has some energy and life.

What other gear did you use on this album?

I’m terrible at recalling which gear goes with which tune, but I think I used my ’62 Fender Jazzmaster with Lollar P-90s for most of “Keep On Swinging.” I plugged that into either my Basic Audio Gnarly Fuzz or original Vox Tone Bender, into this little Supro amp. It’s a real early model—it doesn’t even have a badge on it. It’s literally just a 6-inch speaker, one knob, crappy cable, and if we left it plugged in for too long it would catch on fire. That was probably my favorite amp on the whole record—hitting it with a Rangemaster Treble Booster or a good fuzz pedal. I also played an old Harmony Rocket—Dave Davies used one with the Kinks—with the DeArmond screen pickups. It’s a great, coolsounding 335-style guitar, but totally hollow.

The intro tones on the tune “Until the Sun Comes” sound like you have different tones on each side. Do you remember how that intro came together?

That’s an interesting one, because I didn’t really use that combination of tones anywhere else on the record. The first track you hear is a ’66 Telecaster into a mid-’60s Vox Berkeley, which is a solid-state Vox with reverb. It’s a weird-sounding amp, but of course it can’t be all bad because the Beatles used it. The sound of that amp, that guitar, and the weird reverb was really dark and strange. The other tone was the 1960 ES-335 with the Supro. So the main barky tone that you hear right out of the gate was the Vox/Tele combo and we wanted something brighter and more obvious for the return tone.

You take an epic solo in “Manifest Destiny.” I know it was your intention to let things breathe a little bit more on Head Down but not many people can let a solo breathe for that long. Talk about that song.

I played the main tremolo riff to that song and David came through the talkback and said, “That’s great. We’re using that for sure.” I’d been listening to Spooky Tooth. I just got the vinyl called Spooky Two and I was really inspired by it. So we pieced the song together and after the first chorus, I wanted to do a conversational piece—not like a guitar solo, but more like painting a picture, creating a landscape. Obviously I was going to be soloing technically, but it wouldn’t be based on licks or anything like that. I wanted it to be more sonic, and tell a story more than be a guitar solo. I said that we should all talk musically to each other and pay attention. We shouldn’t decide how long or how short it should be. We should just go with it. It will come to us, and we’ll come out of this section and we’ll finish the song. And that’s what we did. What you hear on the record is us playing the song live. I was plugged into my board so I could use all my little live effects, and I just kicked them in on the fly. I used the Uni-Vibe, my wah, different delays, expression pedals, and all that, just kind of doing my little tap dance. We could all see each other and really make eye contact when we were moving in and out of sections. More importantly, we could hear each other really well and feel it out.

You guys are not shy about referencing your influences. Does a part ever get too close to some classic riff where you say, “Uh oh … we better change that up a little bit”?

Ah, this is the part of the interview where you slap me on the wrist [laughs]. I know, I know. We are terrible at policing each other. There are things that we’ve let slip by and we’ve been called out for those things. Here’s the deal: Sometimes I’ll bring in a riff that might be reminiscent of something that’s come before, but it’ll be in a different tempo, in a different groove, and I’m feeling it this whole other way. Well, through the process of recording and getting things tuned in, it might get molded into sounding way more like that other thing, and that sucks. But it’s totally inadvertent. It’s actually very innocent. Having said that, I will absolutely quote all the greats. I think every musician and certainly everyone in this band has fun paying homage. Writers, painters, sculptors—you can look at their work and find references where they’re doing exactly that, like a tip of the hat. For instance, at the end of our song “Wild Animal” I do a lick that’s very close to “Over Under Sideways Down,” and I did that on purpose. It’s me saying, “These are my boys. I love them. They trained me and I want to give them a little shout-out.”

What advice do you have for young players who want to make a record that rocks?

Please don’t play to a click! My goodness. Music needs to live; it needs to breathe. It slows down, it speeds up. Expressive music— rock and roll, jazz, blues, soul—is a very human expression. It’s our voice, and if we spoke in perfect tempo and rhythm constantly it would seem very weird and robotic. Don’t be afraid to leave a little wiggle room in it.