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Tracii Guns, L.A. Guns, and the Glory of Riff-tastic, Glam-rock Guitar
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It’s a pretty awesome time to be Tracii Guns. One of the original Guns N’ Roses guitarists and founder of L.A. Guns in 1985, Guns has proven to be a resilient and ever-enthusiastic artist, and his fanatical love of guitars and rock music absolutely beams off of his very soul. He has a natural talent for devising propulsive and memorable riffs, and his creative muse is further enhanced by his studious quests to find just the right tones to bring those licks to life. That commitment to creating blissfully vicious guitar tracks and performances informs two recent releases by the revitalized L.A. Guns, The Missing Peace album and the live CD/DVD, Made in Milan [both from Frontiers Records]—the first projects showcasing new songs by Guns and vocalist Phil Lewis in more than 15 years.

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Guns is also in the midst of co-designing signature guitars for Rock N Roll Relics and FU-Tone, and a 100-watt, hand-wired amp for RJS Amplification. Furthermore, we were treated to his unbridled and contagious joy for life—not to mention his compassion and dedication to charity—when he graciously took the stage and kicked ass at Guitar Player’s recent “Play It Forward” benefit for musicians affected by the October 2017 Northern California fires.

The Missing Peace is a really youthful, intense, and massively ferocious guitar album. I love it when mature artists play like snotty, fired-up punks.

Well, we all want to be mighty, because we’re little guys [laughs]. How do we get big? We play guitar. It makes you feel tall real fast. But music is always about the song, and the song has to be great. It’s the quickest way to the bank, so to speak. I feel that if any music seems less than impassioned or intense these days—whatever age you are, or whatever style you play—it’s because everyone appears to be trying to achieve a goal, rather than putting their heart on the line, and saying, “This is me, man!”

So how do you keep it real, and ensure that you’re really putting yourself—your blood—into the tracks?

It’s difficult, for sure. Crazy difficult at times. I want to write a great song, but I want to write great music, too. One shouldn’t have to suffer for the other. I also have a really sensitive consciousness about what I create. With L.A. Guns, I don’t care what anybody says, you can listen to the first note of the last record, or the last note of The Missing Peace, and that sh*t is legit.

But, for this record, whenever I had doubts, or if I wasn’t finding that right phrase to really make something explode, I would just walk away for a couple days. In the early days, that wasn’t something I’d have the time, or the option to do. So I’d wake up a couple of mornings later, and listen to something completely unrelated to the track—like John Fogerty or something—for perspective or inspiration. Having the freedom of time to really reassess what I was doing was critical. In addition, I didn’t have to consider any outside opinions—which I hate to admit is kind of nice.

Is there any downside at all to having total creative freedom on an album project?

I’ve got to tell you—there isn’t. At least not at this point in my career. When I was young, I think having all that freedom could have been a disaster. But now, having the experience of knowing what all the crayons in the crayon box do, and how to use them—yeah, there’s absolutely no downside. If you’re a bit insecure about what you’re putting together, hopefully your natural ability will overcome that.

So how did you approach the songwriting for The Missing Peace?

Well, I’m not a songwriter—I’m a music writer. I’ll demo up a track with all the bits I think are necessary for someone else to come in and either write horrible melodies and lyrics, or create something amazing that’s going to enhance the music. Once I have what I consider is an arrangement, I’ll riff over the solo section as a kind of placeholder. Then, I’ll listen to the demos, and I might go, “Oh, that solo is just dreadful,” or maybe I hit on something that I’ll develop later. Either way, I’ll take the style of whatever I did, and improvise some more. Occasionally, I can do something in one pass where all the phrases just magically appear. Other times, I have to start constructing: “Okay, this works really good for the first eight bars, but then I need something to happen here, and then something has to happen after that.” I kind of go phrase by phrase, but I don’t work on them for hours and hours. It has to come by the first or second take. Then, after putting four to eight phrases together, I’ll learn the whole thing, and play it as a complete performance. It’s a little bit time consuming, but I never spend more than an hour and a half working on a solo. Ever. There has to be spontaneity.

What are the critical elements you look to achieve when cutting solos?

Number one, it has to be melodic. Number two, it has to be bionic. Number three, it has to sound crazy. Those three elements are what you need to create something truly meaningful for people who love rock music. Overall, a solo should sound familiar, but also original. You know, “Damn, that sounds so much like Michael Schenker, but I love it!” That said, if feel I’m getting too Van Halen-y, or too Randy Rhoads-ish, I’ll try to change the emotion within myself so the solo doesn’t sound too one-dimensional. Sometimes, that’s rockabilly, and, sometimes, it’s Enya.

Is it challenging to continually assess the balance of familiar to unique when you’re constructing lead-guitar parts?

Listen, you don’t want to be in your comfort zone when you’re trying to create something new in the studio. Live performance is another deal. It doesn’t last forever, so be comfortable and just play. But solos are a big deal for me, and an album does last forever. So it’s really important that I’m sensitive and insecure, because I don’t want to repeat myself, or do something that’s too similar to something else.

I’ve found that anybody who is good at this stuff is always doubting every move they do. You have to be really cynical about yourself. “Is your ego telling you to do this right now, or can you be sensible for two minutes?” Having that conversation can be pretty difficult, but it’s an important conversation to have. You can make anything sound ridiculously over the top—you can be the Thor of lead guitar—but some restraint is in order, because you can’t just bury every other instrument on the track. Lemmy had a t-shirt that said, “Everything louder than everything else.” Every time I record something, I’m like, “Let me try that [laughs].” It just doesn’t work.

What was the guitar gear you used for The Missing Peace sessions?

The setup for most of the clean sounds was either a Gibson ’59 reissue Les Paul, a Fender ’62 reissue Stratocaster, or a hollowbody Dean through a ’74 Fender Super Reverb. The rig for all of the big, fat stuff was a Bugera 1960 Infinium tube amp, and these Mooer Micro Preamps that let me quickly and precisely tailor the EQ for each guitar part. For the rhythm tracks, it was usually a Mooer 002 UK Gold 900, and for the solos, it was the Mooer 005 Brown Sound 3. To make things really lush, I ran a tube Echoplex between the preamp and the Bugera at all times, whether the delay was on or not.

There were two variations for the speaker cabinets: a basket-weave Marshall 2x12 with just one 30-watt Celestion Greenback that I use for that rock and roll midrange, and a Marshall 4x12 loaded with Greenbacks that sounds a bit darker for the more heavy-metal stuff. The guitar for all the dirty stuff was a Gibson R9 Les Paul that belongs to my tech. I use Apex strings, gauged .009-.042, and I’m always tuned down a half-step for L.A. Guns material. After the album was completed, I discovered some real top-of-the-food-chain gear that I’m using a lot—the HeadRush Pedalboard, the RJS TG100 amp, and Chubtone guitars.

How did you document the guitar sounds?

I discovered this microphone from a guy in South Africa that’s just amazing. It’s the Tul G12, and all I did was position it about three inches in front of the speaker cone. It works great. I added a ribbon mic a foot back, and that was it. I didn’t use any room mics further back, because I wanted the guitar sound to be focused and clear. I wasn’t looking for any natural ambience that might diffuse the attack.

Any tips for maintaining the guitar roar at the mixdown stage?

Everybody should keep this in mind: Cut everything on the guitar below 80Hz. You want the guitar tone big and fat, but you don’t want that fatness to interfere with the bass and drums. Also, 300Hz is not your friend, either. Leave that frequency to the rhythm section, because that’s the frequency that makes you move and dance and tickles your funny bone. Getting a heavy guitar sound is all about supporting the other instruments, and nothing is heavier than a powerful kick drum and a bass guitar. When I worked with great producers and engineers like Andy Johns and Eddie Kramer—and when I read interviews with Jimmy Page—it was all about guitars being supportive midrange instruments. Finally, remember that there are going to be vocals all over everything, so don’t get too busy with the guitars. Ultimately, you want your music to be super listenable—not a confusing barrage of stuff.

What was the Los Angeles guitar landscape like when you were starting out?

All these guitar players were just blowing by with super-fast runs, and it became like extreme sports. I always loved the guys that took that route, because it meant I was going to have more women [laughs]. I played a lot of blues when I was a kid—we all did—and I figured out that when I played something beautiful in a minor key, women would pay attention. If a guy went [mimics fast playing], all the dudes were like, “Oh, man, that’s so killer!” But I’d notice the chicks would just start talking to each other. However, if I played something cool—or if Slash was there playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”—all the girls would focus on this beautiful piece of music.

Was it tough or tricky recording the albums you wanted to make back in the A&R-dude days of the ’80s?

Oh, man—you have no idea [laughs]. A lot of the stuff towards the end of The Missing Peace is very vague but musical, and I would write things like that when I was in my early 20s. But the A&R guy would come back and say, “Could you just write something like ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ by Mötley Crüe?” I never understood the rationale of trying to do something that sounds like something else that’s happening today. And that has been the story of the first 30 years of my career. It’s like, “Hey, can you recreate somebody else’s something?”

We continue to see articles about the so-called ill health of guitar music. As a guitarist striving to make a great guitar album, do you feel any trepidation about the current state of the 6-string?

Honestly, I think if there was ever a time for a great guitar-driven album, it’s now. Take Greta Van Fleet. The singer is really cute, and he screams his balls off. The guitarist plays an SG through a JTM45. The thing is always out of tune, but it sounds amazing, and he knows some good riffs. He’s not playing a full-on barrage of punches to your face, so I can relate to it. Rock is getting really interesting again.

Still, it would be nice if cool guitar music was all over the radio again—like it was during the early stages of your career.

Radio is not made for art at all these days. I never even think about it.

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