Ever since he first appeared on the scene in 1986, musical trends have come and gone, but Tony MacAlpine continues to stick to his original game plan: instrumental rock music with a focus on his exceptional 6-, 7-, and 8-string skills. The fruits of his labors can be heard throughout his new album, Concrete Gardens [Sun Dog], which was written and recorded at MacAlpine’s Pasadena, California, home studio (although the drums were tracked in Brazil, which is where drummer Aquiles Priester is based). It’s available in two different configurations: a Standard Edition that solely features the album’s 12 tracks, and a Special Edition that includes a bonus DVD of Mac- Alpine and his backing band playing all of Concrete Gardens live at EMGtv.
Speaking to Guitar Player right around the release of the album, MacAlpine discussed how his keyboard skills have helped his guitar playing, looked back on two important releases from early in his career, and how he goes about balancing songwriting and soloing. [Editor’s Note: At press time, MacAlpine had postponed his scheduled Australia and Asia tours due to a “large mass” discovered in his intestine that is “likely” cancer. We hope that by the time you read this, MacAlpine is on the mend, and looking forward to his upcoming European tour.]
Let’s start by discussing Concrete Gardens.
I started the record in 2014, going through material that had been bouncing around in my head, and I got to the point where I felt I had a good 14 or 15 songs. I got to the studio and started recording those ideas, and the compositions came together quite naturally. I felt like I was in a really good groove. I thought about what musicians might benefit the record and be interested in doing it. Aquiles Priester, my wonderful Brazilian friend and touring mate, played drums. Pete Griffin, Lucky Islam, and Sean Delson all played bass on the record. From there, I really wanted to have a duet composition on the record. Jeff Loomis and I had been talking, so he played on “Square Circles.”
Do you write primarily on the guitar or the keyboard?
I would say it’s probably equal, because the material is something that I’m hearing in my head, and I tend to use whatever instrument I have handy. It starts in the mind, so there’s no one instrument I write on.
Something that I’ve always found interesting is that some renowned guitarists, like Eddie Van Halen and Brian May, started out on piano and then moved to guitar. To a certain degree, maybe it’s easier to make the transition once you’ve played piano.
The piano is such a symphonic and rhythmic instrument. It’s very helpful to have played that instrument and then branch out to others—whether it’s guitar, wind instruments, or drums. Look at Virgil Donati [from Planet X]. He was a pianist first, and he’s now a world-class drummer.
Do you still follow a practice routine at this point in your career?
I wouldn’t say scales and chord theory and things like that. Learning songs for a live presentation is really the extent of it for me these days, because that’s really all I have time for. It’s pretty much all I have to do to get into “player shape.”
Starting out as a guitarist, how much would you practice?
Because I played piano too, I had to split my time wisely. My parents were paying for the piano lessons, but I could play the guitar four or five hours a day in my free time.
What are some memories of playing in the Breed a few years back, with Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan?
Those guys have been my friends forever. Billy Sheehan played on my very first record, Edge of Insanity, with Steve Smith. We’ve played on so many things together and it’s such a great friendship we have. And playing with Vai was a wonderful thing, because he is also a great friend of mine. It was really tension-free. It was the kind of environment where we just got a chance to get up there and make his music come to life. It was a wonderful time for all of us.
Which guitars, amps, and effects did you use on Concrete Gardens?
I still primarily play Hughes & Kettner Coreblades live. In the studio, however, I use Hughes & Kettner TriAmps. I fire those into two 2x12 cabinets with Celestion Greenbacks. And I used my neck-through Ibanez Prestige 7- and 8-string guitars with EMG pickups. The Ibanez Prestige is going into an Ernie Ball 6165 volume pedal and an Ernie Ball wah. I’ve always used the front end of the amplifier for gain. I use Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings: the 7-string set is gauged .009-.050, and the 8-strings are gauged .009-.056.
Looking back at the Edge of Insanity and Maximum Security records, did you have any idea at that point that those albums would help touch off the “shred craze” of the late ’80s?
I really didn’t. Especially with Edge of Insanity, because I was coming right from the East Coast to California, and recording in the studio with Steve Smith and Billy Sheehan, with Mike Varney producing. So I really had no idea what I was doing. But by the time I did Maximum Security, I was aware of the undercurrents and the little bit of a buzz, and felt we were on to something.
How do you balance the importance of songwriting with the importance of soloing?
I have a philosophy. I guess it comes from starting the piano at such an early age, and therefore being immersed in compositional study. The song’s strength really has to be the story. The improvisational side of it just helps to color the other things that already exist. So it really has to be a very solid song, first and foremost.