“It’s tempting to look for more overdrive, distortion or feedback, but the volume control is what it’s all about. Just listen to Jeff Beck!”: The Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s Zal Cleminson on tone, Marshalls, and what he learned from his late bandleader

Zal Cleminson performs onstage with Nazareth in 1980
(Image credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

The following is an excerpt of an interview that was published in the April 2006 issue of Guitar Player.

Few people today probably remember Scotland’s Sensational Alex Harvey Band, but, from 1972 to 1978, they were one of the strangest and most theatrical rock groups to step on a concert stage. 

SAHB’s guitarist, Zal Cleminson, dressed up like a Pierrot clown – in full white-face makeup – and wielded a Gibson SG or Firebird to unleash an armada of truly fierce and unique solos, licks, rhythm parts, and sound effects.

On Technique 

“Riffing – as opposed to rhythm – is where the lead guitarist started out. For me, playing single-note runs began when I listened to early jazz players – in particular Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery. From there, it was simply a case of trying to copy my heroes – Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and so on.

“My early band roots are in R&B and soul, and Steve Cropper’s tight, funky, disciplined approach is also an instinctive part of my technique. Things, inevitably, got louder and more aggressive when the likes of Zeppelin and Sabbath came on the scene. But, in truth, the man everybody wants to grasp is Hendrix – it’s the free spirit thing.” 

On Lead Guitar

“Scales are a mystery to me, so 'opaque melody', as Zappa would say, is what I understand. If nobody else does – tough! Fortunately, SAHB fans appear to enjoy most things I attempt, and for that I’m forever grateful. Lead guitar work, in a sense, takes over the voice within a band or an orchestra, and it has to speak in the same way as the narrative does in a song.

“Solos need to say something. In my view, they need to create the same emotional response in the listener as the lyric. This is why I like Frank Zappa and Jeff Beck. Their solos always tell a story – even when it’s ugly or scintillating. And I do love David Gilmour. His sound is just awesome – the bastard! In short, every rock solo starts with the blues. After that, you’re on your own…”

On the Late Alex Harvey

“His gift was introducing us to dynamics. Alex taught as to play more like an orchestra – which allows the song to breath and fix the listener’s attention to the important stuff. It’s simple, but hugely valuable and effective.”

On Tone

“Initially, your guitar tone relies simply on a guitar and an amp. Then, your technique begins to play its part. As you strive to emulate great guitar players, you actually stumble on something that becomes your own. I don’t read music, and I don’t practice things like Bohemian Rhapsody on the ukulele, so I have to adapt everything I hear and mess around with it.

“The perfect guitar tone for me has to be a mix of rhythm and lead. Essentially, it’s the same sound, in most cases. By using the volume pot, I can easily clean up the sound, or get overdrive for a solo straight from the guitar. It’s always tempting to look for more overdrive, distortion, feedback or whatever, but that basic volume control is what it’s all about. Ask Jeff Beck!

Zal Cleminson performs with the Sensational Alex Harvey Band at Alexandra Palace in London on August 5, 1973

(Image credit: Ian Dickson/Redferns)

“Since the ’70s, my tone has not really changed. I still start from the basics and only add what’s needed in order to compete with the young whippersnappers! 

“Today, with my Marshall Mode Four, I’m using mainly the amp’s second channel for the big stuff, and the very clean plexi sound for an acoustic simulation. I also use my Boss ME-50 for some subtle chorus and space pan. I like the harmonization of a chorus effect, but it needs to be subtle. It also helps the guitar sound more in tune for those moments of sheer folly!

“I use an EMG pickup, which, compared to a standard Gibson SG pickup, requires that I roll lots of top off the amp, and add a fair amount of bass. I leave the mid setting on 'Mid' – funnily enough! That gives me a more contemporary sound. I have the volume and drive settings full up.”

On Technology

“I hate it! Has it made life easier? No! All those silly bands you hear today trying to sound like something from the ’70s should just buy the original stuff and stop messing around. I’m being facetious, of course. Technology is a fine thing in the right hands – just not mine!”