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Sunday, July 11, 2010


Andy answers fans' questions -- Part II

Andy answers fans' questions about guitar playing and players -- Part II

Over the course of several months, Todd Bernhardt and Andy Partridge discussed Andy's approach to the guitar, examining his history with the instrument, his influences, and why and how he does what he does with it.

We opened the virtual floor for questions from fans, and ran the first part of Andy's answers two weeks ago. Here's the second and final installment of the interview.

The song of the week this week is "Transmitter," from Andy's upcoming album Powers, which is now available for pre-order from the APE House. Inspired by the Sci-Fi artist Richard M. Powers, this beautifully packaged, limited-edition CD features 12 pieces of soundscapes written and recorded by Andy. Only 500 copies of this CD will be available, all hand-numbered and signed by Andy himself. When you order your copy, you'll automatically be entered into a competition to win Andy's original drawing for the cover art, so get yours today!

TB: Michel wants you to "Tell us about three-string chords." I think what he's referring to is the fact that a lot of guitar players who are just starting out think that you always have to do barre chords, or that all the strings need a finger on them.

AP: No no no, it doesn't have to be six strings! It can be two. On "Stupidly Happy," for example, it's just a two-string motif.

TB: That's only two strings? Do you have other strings ringing out?

AP: I'm just using two-strings at a time. The D string with the A string, and then the A string with the E string. And on "Easter Theatre," all the chords in the rising part of the verse are just the bottom three strings of the guitar.

It's a big mistake that guitarists make when they assume that you have to play six strings all the time. That's a big mistake of piano players as well -- they sit down and think, "It's got to be 10 notes!" No! What's wrong with one note, or two? You can make the essence of what you need out of three notes. I think all of my keyboard compositions have been three notes. For example, the majority of "Wrapped in Grey" is three notes. I think Dave laughed when I played it to him, saying, "How are you doing that with just three notes?" He fleshed them out more, of course.

"Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her" -- all those chords on the Mellotron were just originally written with three notes, because I wasn't a good enough keyboard player to play more than three at a time. But it did the job, you know?

TB: When you are writing a song, are you fleshing out the arrangement in your head so that even if you're only playing three notes, it sounds full enough to you because you know you're going to add other things?

AP: Sure. For example, in "Easter Theatre," the guitar in the verses that sort of sounds as if it's growing out of the ground, from the Earth upwards, that's kind of all you need -- that and the throbbing drums. But when it gets to the chorus, that's when it becomes six-note chords, because it needs to be broader and more glorious.

I get by on a lot of three-note chords. You can get the essence of what you're after. They don't need to be always broader than that.

TB: Makes sense. The next question is from Gary from Winchester, whose screen name is "Sniffing and Cursing."

AP: [laughs] It all depends on what you're sniffing, I suppose!

TB: Maybe he lives on the east side of town, downwind from the factories? Anyway, he says, "talking of guitars, you're a pretty fine bass player. That beginning to 'Vanishing Girl' is definitely in my top-10 bass moments. Now that Mr. Moulding is not around, will you play bass yourself on future recordings or get a new person in?"

AP: I love playing bass. I really love it. And when I get into the zone of playing bass, I think I think up some pretty good lines -- the best one I can think of being "Mayor of Simpleton." It's totally integral to the clockwork of that song.

But I really, really like playing bass. There's something about it that's totally rewarding in a different way to playing guitar or drumming or anything. It's a different sweet you're sucking -- it's got a different flavor.

TB: It's kind of like the bastard child of drums and guitar, isn't it?

AP: Yeah, it's like dealing with the Elmer's Glue between drums and guitar. [chuckles] And it's good fun wielding that glue! Plus, I like the register -- it's a good register. Not screechy. If your bass is ever screechy, you're doing something very wrong with your tone control!

From '83 onwards, having the facility to make demos, I got more and more into bass playing. So yeah, if there will be any more recordings, I think I will enjoy greatly playing bass on them.

TB: But at the same time, you seem comfortable with others playing the instrument. Doesn't Stu generally play bass when you work on Lighterthief tracks?

AP: Sure, and he plays a different style. He's got a busy, sort of tumbling style, which is fine for some things. But I just enjoy the sensation of sitting with that bass drum, underpinning the guitar, and conversing with the guitar as well, or commenting between the holes where the vocals are, if you know what I mean. My playing is very much School of McCartney.

TB: Which leads to a question I wanted to ask. Obviously, he's an influence, but are there any other bass players whom you particularly admire?

AP: Do you know, it's largely the same people Colin likes! I love Andy Fraser, for his incredibly musical minimalism. Always the right note, always the right time, and never any more. And McCartney, for the musicality of the playing. He always plays just what's required to hold the track in place, and then he has that sense of conversation in the gaps as well. So that's very inspirational for my playing, and I know it is for Colin as well.

TB: What do you think of some of the more virtuosic players -- somebody like Jaco Pastorious or some of the Jazz guys?

AP: They can be thrilling, but it's not the sort of playing that I would personally like to play. But I can hear Jaco's playing, and think, "Ooh, that's great." But it's virtuosity more than doing the job. I think to have the job done well is kind of all you need ask for out of a bass player. But it's amazing how many can't do the job well!

It's not always an easy thing to ask for, though. There's "white-boy syndrome," which you've got to get through -- "Don't play ahead of the bass drum." That's horrible! That's like sticking a cart in front of a horse, and the horse can't quite push the cart. It's going to go nowhere. It's a horrible thing, the white-boy syndrome of landing the bass note before the bass drum. You know, Sly and Robbie had it right -- that the slap of the bass drum is the first part of the note of the bass guitar. You don't play before the slap of the bass drum.

TB: Johnny Thompson came back for another round of questions, and he wanted to know about the "handed guitar" from the Oranges and Lemons back-cover photo.

AP: Oh, that's just an unplayable wreck of a guitar. I can't really remember how I got it! I just painted a hand on it, strumming, and I thought, "Hey, that looks pretty good! Let's use that for a photo session, because I'm not enjoying playing this thing much."

I always like to have a little guitar around to sort of grab and strum. I mean, right now, I've [chuckles] got one in each main room of the house -- in the front room here, I've got the oil-can guitar, which [talks into it, and his voice starts resonating] if I talk into it, my voice turns metallic.

TB: [laughing] Dave gave you that for your 50th birthday, right?

AP: Yeah, that's right. It's great -- got a kind of built-in reverb. So, that's my pick-it-up-and-throw-it-around guitar for this room. And then, in the back room, the study, is the little Ozark parlor guitar.

TB: Do you still have Holly's nylon-string guitar?

AP: No, that got auctioned off for charity. Wrote a couple of albums on that, so that did its work. But, for a while, that was my throw-around guitar. It was so small I could just carry it around from room to room. I'd come in and be stood there in my socks, looking at the TV, just strumming away and blundering into stuff, thinking, "Hey, that's good! What's that going to be?" Suddenly you've found "Church of Women" or something.

So, I always need a little guitar to wander around with. The hand guitar, for a very short while, was my little wander-around guitar. But I'm not sure what happened to it. I think it went up to a fan convention in Manchester, and now I've lost track of it.

TB: Johnny also asks some straightforward, pragmatic questions, such as "What is your preferred brand of strings?"

AP: Ernie Ball tens.

TB: For electric?

AP: Yeah. For acoustic, Martin bronze-wound strings.

TB: Both he and Don Device asked, "Pick or no pick?" It sounded as if you were saying earlier that you're playing more often now without one.

AP: These days, less pick. I mean, I still play with a pick, but it's growing to be more of a pulling style, yeah. When I do use a pick, it's got to be a Dunlop .88.

TB: [laughs] Sounds like an old roadster! You should write a song about that -- [singing in old R&B style] "My ride is really great / Just me and my Dunlop .88"...

AP: [laughing] "I can ride from state to state / in my Dunlop .88"...

TB: [laughing] There you go!

AP: It's the gray one, and it's got just the right amount of giveability -- if that's a word -- and it's got the bumpy top half, where, if you get sweaty fingers, you can still grip it. So, I recommend Dunlop .88's to anyone.

TB: Finally, he wants to ask about your brown guitar -- which I guess you were already talking about before, when we were discussing foot and hand size!

AP: [laughing] My brown guitar is really my Ibanez Artist. She's stayed with me now through all these years -- since '77 -- and is still my main baby. My main electric baby.

You know, a lot of people look down their nose, because it's not a Fender or Gibson or a Rickenbacker, but hey -- the Ibanez Artist is one beautiful guitar. Beautiful to run your hands over, and it sounds great. You can get a Fender-y tone out of it, or you can get a Gibson-y tone out of it, but it is in fact neither, because it is its own thing. I recommend them highly! And I've never been asked to sponsor them, so that's not a recommendation with a loaded back end.

It's one of the few guitars I've owned that wasn't stolen! My two main babies before then -- one was a Guild S-50, which got stolen in Amsterdam, and the other, which I used during Drums and Wires, was a Fender Bronco. Actually, that one wasn't stolen -- I traded that for a bass from my ex-brother-in-law, for the Aria bass that I use on most of my demos.

TB: Mr. Tein wants to know -- this is the shortest question we have -- "Fender or Gibson"?

AP: Ibanez! The shortest answer you can have. [laughs]

TB: [laughing] Okay -- if you were forced at gunpoint to choose between the two, which would you choose?

AP: Well, it's a silly question, really, because it's like, if you need red paint, you need red paint. If you need blue paint, you need blue paint. Gibsons sound red, Fenders sound blue.

The only Fender I played for a long time has been a Fender Squier Telecaster, one of the early Japanese ones, which shamefully was better than the American Fender Telecasters in the shop, at a fraction of the price.

But they're sonically different colors -- Gibson is more toward the red/brown/orange spectrum, and Fenders are more toward the blue/purple/green spectrum.

TB: Do you have a preference about how one feels compared to another?

AP: I guess, live -- and only because of the size of the fret markers and, more importantly, the positioning of the pickup-selector switch -- I played Gibson. I played Les Pauls a lot live. If I wasn't playing my Ibanez live, I toured with Gibson Les Pauls -- or the model known as "The Paul," which I had stolen in New Zealand.

I have to have big fret markers, so they're easy to see. That's another thing I like about the Ibanez Artist. And I have to have a pickup selector in that position for live playing, because my loud sound was on the bass pickup. My quieter sound was on the treble pickup. So, on the upstroke, I would strike the pickup selector, and that would go into lead guitar -- which was always thicker and more sustained -- and then, to go back to rhythm guitar, on the downstroke I'd strike the pickup selector, and by the time I hit the strings, I was back into rhythm guitar setting. So the placement of the selector was very important.

TB: It's interesting to hear you talk about this. It's the kind of pragmatic stuff that people don't usually talk about, but it's important in its own way.

AP: Yeah, no one ever really asks you about this kind of stuff. I'd set the treble pickup a little lower, farther away from the strings, so it'd be a little quieter and thinner, and then I'd set the bass pickup as near the strings as I could, so it'd be louder.

TB: Following up on that, we have Don Device back again, and he wants to know if you could give a breakdown of your live sound and how it evolved. So, the pedals you used, and things like that. He wanted to know in particular if you'd ever heard of a pedal called "Metal Zone."

AP: No, because I don't play live these days, I'm really out of the loop regarding what pedals I'd like. When I was touring, my early setup was an H&H amplifier combo, and I had a wooden pedal board with some pedals attached to it -- I had a wah-wah, which I didn't use as a wah, but more as a selective tone control. I always kept it stiff, and I'd cock it at a certain angle and could choose an EQ that way. I could get a number of tones out of it. I think I also had a phaser pedal on that pedal board, but I had the thing stolen, and so that got me out of pedals.

After that, I used an old '50s Watkins Dominator, which I then would piggyback into a Marshall. I'd crank up this little tiny Watkins Dominator, full volume, because I liked the distortion on it, and I liked the tone of it, and then I would piggyback it into a Marshall to just crank it up louder.

TB: And you didn't use any pedals after that?

AP: I got an MXR Flanger, and I would just go into the Marshall -- I think my Dominator became a bit unreliable, so I sold it. I would go into the Marshall and use the distortion on that, along with the MXR Flanger, which I'd use to get the ringing guitar tone for things like "Generals and Majors" or "Battery Brides" or "This Is Pop."

TB: This question comes from Dave, who says, "Among the Adrian Belew fan community there has long been talk of how a collaboration between you two, both in songwriting and performing. It seems like a fascinating fit. Are you familiar with his work, and do you see any potential to work with him?" I know you are familiar with his work, and that you guys have met -- Pat Mastelotto was telling me about that. You guys met at Real World, right?

AP: We met at Real World, and then I think he came up for Swindon for a curry with Pat. King Crimson were down at Real World, working. I actually jammed with Adrian in my Shed!

TB: Ah, that's right, Pat was telling me -- he said you, Adrian and Dave packed in there, and he ended up in the kitchen chatting with Erica because there were too many people in the Shed!

AP: [laughing] Yeah, he just couldn't fit in there -- you've seen how small it is. Me and Dave and Adrian were playing, and there was just no room for anyone else in there. No room to swing a Strat!

I liked Mr. Music Head. I had that album for a while, and really liked it, especially the track "1967." So, I spoke to Adrian about producing an album, but it never happened. I'm not sure why.

I spoke to him a few times on the phone, and he said he had a setup at his place that we could use. I don't know why it didn't happen -- there seems to be a hole in my memory about why it never occurred. I don't remember it being anything malicious -- it just didn't happen, and I can't remember why. I think we spoke about him producing what became Nonsuch, actually. I'm sure he would have done a great job.

TB: So, it sounds as if the door could still be open to you working with him.

AP: Yeah, but I've just got to adjust my state of mind to want to go backwards with the music, if you see what I mean.

TB: Although he does some fairly avant-garde stuff too, so certainly if you were interested in doing a collaboration of some sort now, it might work out.

AP: I'm sure if he lived up the road we'd get on very well. It's just the fact that he lives in the States, and I don't. But I liked his vibe and I liked his musicality.

TB: Bob Gaulke wants to know if you still practice.

AP: I don't sit down to do set things, but I'm always playing the guitar, every day. In fact, Erica said to me a couple of days ago, "You're always playing -- you're always wandering around in the kitchen with it, or sat in the front room watching the TV, playing, or sat in the back room staring at an open book, strumming the guitar, or you're playing in the Shed, or you're playing down at Stu's."

So yeah, I play every day. I do have the ethos of always trying to play something different every time. I just noodle and blunder, which is my way of creating. I always try to make the noodling and the blundering different every time I have a guitar. If I catch myself playing something I've played before, I get a little disgusted with myself. It always has to be a new combination of runs, or a new combination of chords.

TB: Although I imagine that sometimes you slip into some old standards...

AP: Oh yeah! You slip into the stupidest things -- like, I got into this thing of playing a corny old Big Band Blues thing that I think is called "Swinging Shepherd Blues." I found myself getting stuck in playing it [laughs] and couldn't get out! But usually I try to play something brand-new, even if it's gibberish. Usually it is! But I have to play some combination of notes and chords and runs that I've never played before. I disappoint myself if I don't.

TB: Karl Muzicka is back, and he wants to know if English folklore has influenced your writing.

AP: Yes. But not so much read or taken-in in films or documentaries. It's more a case of the Wiltshire countryside, I guess. I don't sit and watch "Wicker Man" and think, "Ooh, I'm going to out-wicker that!" [laughs] It's not that kind of thing. I like to think it's sort of a natural osmosis and result of living in the Wiltshire countryside. You know, within five minutes I can be lost in the countryside here. And that does affect you. I've lived here all of my life, except for two years. And the first two years of my life I spent on a barren rooftop of a block of flats in Malta. That was very different -- all I knew was dust and washing lines.

TB: And you remember that? Do you remember your time in Malta?

AP: My very first childhood memories are of the day we came to England. I remember that the neighbors in the block of flats, mostly Maltese people, clubbed together and bought me a big tin aeroplane, probably made by Louis Marx, with big jet engines on each wing. You'd run it along the floor, and sparks would come out of the jet engines. I screamed, because I'd never seen fire! I was just delirious with fear -- I couldn't go near this toy, and in later years, I really felt sorry for the people who clubbed together and bought me this, because they weren't rich. But I was petrified of it.

That was my first memory. My second memory is on the same day, and it's of the oval window of the aircraft that we flew back in. I'm sat on my father's lap, and apparently I threw up on his suit [laughs ruefully]. But I remember the clouds and the oval window of the airplane. But both those memories -- and they're both to do with airplanes -- are from the same day. I don't know why that would be -- two big events, I guess.

TB: Paul says, "My favorite example of Andy's early guitar work is the break in "Are You Receiving Me?" -- I was only 13 when I got that single, but it really struck me how a simple little break like that can lift a song to a new plane. How does Andy rate it now?"

AP: That's the early, Punk-y years of trying to make a lot of noise, a la Chuck Berry. So, it's two strings at a time, because you make more noise playing two strings than you can with one! [laughs] It really is like Chuck Berry made into a fairground. I take shapes he used, and bend them farther than he did, probably because he had cable-car wires for strings, you know?

It was just a desire to make a loud Rock-and-Roll noise, but be musical at the same time.

TB: So, how would you rate it now? Do you think it's right for the song?

AP: I think it's effective, and oddly, if I ever thought about it, it's almost like a Dave Gregory solo. It's the sort of thing that Dave might have worked out, but he might not have bent those two-note patterns so far as to get the kind of rubbery effect I do.

TB: Here are some questions from the lovely and talented J.D. Mack. Obviously, I need to talk to Colin about this, but he wanted to know if you knew when Colin learned to play guitar. Did he learn while he was playing with you guys?

AP: I think he came to guitar later, after he'd learned to play bass. He was inspired by people like Andy Fraser, and Geezer Butler, the bass player in Black Sabbath. He was a Metal kid, really, but got into guitar playing later.

TB: J.D. also wants to know if you or Dave played any role in Colin's guitar education.

AP: Do you know, I've no concept. The only person who would know this is Colin.

TB: Do you ever remember sitting down with him to show him things, or him asking about chords?

AP: Not really, no. He's one of those "take it away and work silently on it" kind of guys. Both he and Dave have an excellent work-on-your-own ethic. Probably a lot better than mine. I'm very lazy. I'll just riff on something and think, "Yeah, that'll be it!" But they're very good at working out exactly what's needed around that. So, they have a strong Protestant work ethic, where I'm probably more of a lazy failed Catholic. [laughs]

TB: You had mentioned before that Colin does a lot of stuff with different tunings.

CM: Yes. You have to twist your hands inside-out. I remember him asking, "Could you play the guitar on 'Meeting Place'?", and there I was, trying to work it on in normal tuning, saying "How do you do that?" He says, "Oh no, it's a different tuning." But even when he showed me the tuning, it was still hard to play! But he could do it fine, since he thought it up.

You'll have to garner a whole bunch of questions from people for Colin!

TB: Absolutely, I'll have to follow up with him and see if he's up for that.

One more question from J.D. He says, "On 'Train Running Low on Soul Coal,' from 2:45 to 2:56, it sounds as if someone's playing a banjo. Are they?"

AP: Uh, no. It's probably my guitar. I can't tell you why he thinks it sounds like a banjo -- I'd have to listen to it closely -- but I can tell you there are no banjos on it. There are only guitars, as far as I know.

TB: I bet it's that trick that you guys do, of mic'ing an electric guitar very close, and getting the very thin sound of the unamplified strings.

AP: That's probably what it is.

TB: Finally, Per is asking a question of behalf of Jeff Truzzi, who for some reason couldn't post on MySpace. He wants to know, "When and how did you start making up your own chords, as opposed to learning them from other sources?"

AP: I started doing that from the first day I picked up a guitar, really, because the only musical education that I got was from my father, showing me a handful of chords. But I even resisted that! You know, you have that thing where you don't want to listen to your Dad -- you don't think he can teach you anything. So, my entire career was me blundering. I was playing out in bands like Stray Blues, and I could only play E, A and D. And maybe C. But that's not really the right combination of the three-chord trick, you know?

I didn't know how to listen correctly to records to find out what was going on, and I didn't have anyone showing me, "Hey, this is how this is played, and this is how this is played." So, it was a slow, painful process of sitting with a record player, and playing the song, and lifting the stylus back over and over to try to find what the chords and notes were. There were several big breakthrough moments, such as when I discovered the Blues Box and other guitar patterns, which we spoke about already.

It was all a drip-drip process. I'm sure there's nothing I blunder into that isn't an accepted chord in a book somewhere, with a name. But I don't know what the names are, and I don't know what the chords are, so I still blunder into chords now! And I still think, "Whoa, I've got to use that somewhere, because it sounds like" ... whatever -- and as soon as I start describing what it sounds like, I'm finding the lyric as well.

TB: When you blunder into a chord like that, and it's a shape that you've never put your fingers in before, how do you remember to come back to it? Do you have your own version of notating that you use?

AP: I have a very visual memory, so it's always a matter of where my fingers are. It's never so much the sound of it -- it's where the fingers are in relation to the strings.

Because I was a slow reader, I didn't particularly have a memory for what I read, because I was intimidated by print. So I developed an excellent visual memory. Take learning guitar chords -- they were all pictures for me. D is a triangle. E is a lopsided triangle that's threatening to stick in C's back. C is a lovely, organized straight line that's almost like a teacher stood up there. A is like a little fence. So, they're little pictures I had of where my fingers fell -- they form these little patterns, and that's how I remember them.

D is a triangle led up toward your hands, and if you pick it up and flip it over -- so it's laid on its back like a little cockroach -- that's D7. That's the underbelly of D, the Blues-y inversion. That's how I remember it -- it's the underbelly, I flipped it over.

That's how I had to remember them, because I didn't have a musical memory as such. I was lousy at working things out, I didn't have a good history with print, and I couldn't read music, so it was always pictures.

TB: And it fits right in with your other talents as an artist, right?

AP: That's the only way I can do it, yeah. It's not the accepted way, but it's the way that got me by.

11:35 PM

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