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John Abercrombie: All About the Sound

By Published: August 6, 2007

"Fine," Tone and Gear, Some Other Tunes, and Being a Bandleader

AAJ: The last song on the record I'll mention is, well, the last song on the record: "Fine, a sort of farewell that consists of a double-tracked acoustic you. You're playing a sort of duet with yourself. It's a perfect ending for the CD, but very different from the rest of the record at the same time—it could almost be from a different album.

AAJ: I know. Totally. It was the only one I wasn't sure whether or not we should use. It was the end of the day, and I had to make a decision: do I try to teach this song to the band? Do I play it just with the violin? Or just with Marc Johnson? I had different options I was trying to think about. And I had my acoustic guitar, so I said, "Okay, the record date's done. I'm just going to do this as an acoustic guitar overdub. I'll just give it one or two passes—and if I like it, we'll just keep it and when we mix the record, I'll make the decision then whether or not to put it on the record.

And Manfred really liked it, and thought it should be closer for the record. He thought it was okay that it was totally different and [laughing] almost seemed to have nothing to do with the record. And the more I listen to it, the more I like it. The only thing that I thought was a little strange about it was the way they separated the two acoustic guitars. If I listen on headphones, the accompaniment guitar is way on the left, and the other is on the right.

AAJ: Oh, yeah, the two are totally separated.

JA: Yeah, it's totally panned to the left and right. That was the only thing on this entire CD that, in retrospect, I thought could have been done a little differently. When I listened to it in my car, though, it sounded really good to me. It's just on headphones that I can really hear the separation. But that's one little quibble I might have with a CD that I really like.

l:r: John Abercrombie, Mark Feldman, Joey Baron, Marc Johnson

But I look at that tune as just a little statement. One time through the melody, a couple of improvised choruses, and the melody going out again. It's very much like the CD I did many, many years ago called Characters (ECM, 1978), which had a lot of acoustic guitar, and a lot of overdubs, because it was just me. My wife thinks this one sounds like something from that CD.

AAJ: Me too, and it made me think that it's time for another John Abercrombie solo record.

JA: Maybe so. And it doesn't sound too strange on this record to me, because I realize that, again, this is another one of those things I like to do. And I haven't done it for years, so it is kind of a throwback to Characters. It has some of that vibe, so it probably won't seem that unusual to people who follow my stuff. Maybe it seems unusual as the last tune on the record, but why not?

AAJ: Hey, there is nowhere else to put the song but at the end.

JA: No, it has to be at the end. It would just stick out like a sore thumb at the middle. But at the end, it's another little epilogue.

AAJ: I think I would always know an Abercrombie record if someone played one I hadn't heard to me. That said, you don't make recordings where it's obviously your band every second—and we know those kinds of records where, even if you didn't know who it was, you'd still know it was the drummer's session, or the saxophonist's. Mark Feldman has as much prominence as you as the person making the melodic statements on this new record, and you could make the same case for a lot of your records—you're not that concerned with showing that you're the leader, that you're the boss, are you?

JohnJA: No. I've never been interested in that. I like to have a band because I like to write music for a band. I like to try different things. I like to have a certain amount of control, because it's the only time I'm going to be in that kind of position where I can actually be a sort of leader.

But all I really want to do is be a member of a band that plays more of my music and plays these things that I can really resonate with and really connect to. But I love it when people just take charge. I love it when Feldman just jumps in and maybe takes the first solo and, as we used to say, just "Bogarts me. He'll just jump in there and start to play, and I'm like, "Yeah, go ahead, do it! If he does it, he obviously feels it—and then he should do it.

And that's kind of what this whole CD is about. Of the other two tunes you didn't mention, just in terms of how the titles came up—one is called "Vingt Six, which is a little classical-sounding piece that was written a day before the date. It's called that just because it's 26 measures long. No other reason for the title whatsoever. And the one called "Tres is called that because it's a waltz and has a Spanish flavor.

AAJ: "Vingt Six seems quite composed but for the solos. There's a self-contained quality to this one I like; when it's over in four minutes or so, it feels like, "Okay, that's all there is to say.

JA: Yeah. Again, that's not the kind of piece you would stretch out or play a lot on. Even live, you might play a little longer on a solo, take longer choruses on it, but it's not about that. It's just a little chamber piece, and it doesn't really work for playing a lot of choruses on.

AAJ: It's not a blowin' tune?

JA: Not a blowing tune. And the same could kind of be said for "Tres. Both songs have very strict forms and a lot of chords. "Tres is actually very complicated—it has an odd form and it moves all over the place. And, again, it's not a tune you'd probably play a lot of choruses on. It's not a blowing tune in that sense, but it is more so than "Vingt Six. It lends itself a little more to stretching out a bit. Just a bit, though—that's about it.

AAJ: Like I just said, I think I would always know an Abercrombie record. But your tone continues to changes over the years. I was listening to the first Gateway record [Gateway, ECM, 1975] and to While We're Young (ECM, 1992], just to mention two, and the tones of your guitars were very different from each other—and certainly different from your sound in this current quartet. And while it might be obvious that a guitarist's tone would change over thirty years, that often isn't the case. But it seems like you are always interested in a different sound.

JA: Yeah. Now, a lot of what you mentioned is the way you play, but it's also literally different instruments. I remember the first Gateway record was recorded exclusively on a funny old Gibson guitar—I think it was called a Melody Maker or something. It was a really cheap, beat-up guitar, which nowadays would probably go for quite a few shekels, but in those days was a very cheap guitar. It was just one of the guitars I had, but I took it on the road with me and it had a little more abrasive tone to it. It wasn't a sweet tone; that guitar had a little harshness to it, and it really worked well with electronic effects. Like with distortion—I think that's where it sounded the best.

And also, I was a lot younger. That's like '76, and my whole approach to playing was different. I played with a pick in those days, not with my fingers as much, and it was more aggressive and a little more pyrotechnical. It's just where I was at, at the time. That record was also recorded in a studio in Germany which had a very particular sound, and the guitar was probably recorded through a Fender amplifier that was in the studio at the time. I didn't carry my own amps. I still don't, but I think my sound has changed over the years.

While We're Young (ECM, 1993) was a recording I made with a sort of Fender-style guitar I was playing a lot at the time, and I also had a solid-body Ibanez guitar, which was more like a Les Paul. So I had those two instruments on that record. Oh, I also had one of these Chet Atkins solid-body steel-string guitars, which appears on one or two tunes.

So I had a different variety of guitars, and a little stereo setup that I would bring to the studios with me, and try to take with me on the road if I could. Usually I couldn't because it was too much stuff to shlep around.

So a lot of time the equipment changes, the guitar changes, the studio changes. And you change. So everything's kind of changing. And I've always been interested in different sounds. The new record has four or five different instruments on it. On Class Trip, I used basically one guitar, and it was the same on Cat 'n' Mouse, except on that one, I used an acoustic on one tune. But those CDs were basically recorded with one guitar, which was a Brian Moore Custom guitar—kind of their version of a Les Paul.

But for the most current record, I had an archtop guitar which was made in California by a guy named Jim Mapson. I used that for the tune "Number 9. I used a Roger Sadowsky archtop for "Tres and "Vingt Six, and maybe one other—I can't remember which one. I used an old Les Paul that I had in the house for a tune called "Bred. I don't know what you'd call that tune. It's what we'd call an eighth-note tune; it has an even eighth-note feel as opposed to a jazz feel or a waltz. It's more even. And on most of the other tracks, I used this Brian Moore guitar. Four or five of them. And the final cut with the acoustic guitar used a Taylor acoustic that I've been playing for the last few years. I just brought it to the studio because if I'm recording in New York now, I try to bring a few instruments. I won't necessarily use them, but I want to have the option.

AAJ: It's better to have them.

JA: It's better to have them. It's good to have different colors on a CD. So you can see that all these things have changed on different recordings. Instruments, conceptions, studios, players.

AAJ: What kind of gear do you take on the road? One or two guitars? Do you bring an amp or backline one?

JohnJA: I always backline. You can't bring amps on the road anymore. You can barely even get your guitar on the plane these days. Lately I just take this Brian Moore guitar and a little box with some effects. The main effect I use, and I've been using it for about twenty years, is little stereo effects processor made by the Boss company, which is a subdivision of Roland, called the SE-50. It's just a little half-rack unit that has multi-effects—reverb, delay, chorus and a lot of really useless stuff that I don't use like distortion and compression. I just generally use it for the reverb and the delay and sometimes maybe a very little bit of chorusing. That's changed over the years. I used to use a lot more of that effect. During the eighties, I was using more chorus; I was addicted to it. As I get older, I find that that sounds like too much to me. My sound is getting a little more pure over the years—less effected, more direct.

AAJ: Do you always backline the same kind of amp?

JA: I try to get the same kind of amps. I usually go for these Roland JC-120s, mostly because I've gotten used to them so I know what they do. They basically have volume, bass, treble, middle, and that's it. It's very easy; I don't have to think about them or need a diagram to figure out how to program them. It's a basic guitar amp.

I also like a MESA/Boogie amp called the Mark III. Again, it's a very simple, straightforward amp. I play in stereo, so I usually like to use one of each kind if I can, because I find that using different amps sometimes creates this interesting sound, and I prefer that to using two amps at the same time that are the same. If one is different, you really get a sense that you're playing in stereo. You can really feel it more.

So I try to backline those amps if I can get them, but a lot of times I'm stuck with things I don't like. Especially when you're traveling through Europe, you can't always get exactly what you want. Especially if you're in a place like Slovenia, say—you're going to have to make do with what you can get.

The other things I take with me are a small Boss EQ pedal, just a little floor pedal that's a graphic EQ with ten or twelve bands, and some sort of distortion pedal. I've been using this distortion pedal for the last few years that's made in California by a company called Fulltone. They make a pedal called the Full-Drive, which is basically an overdrive pedal that's got a couple of stages of distortion you can use. I find it's one of the more natural-sounding ones; I just like the sound. And then I carry a volume pedal.

So I plug the guitar into the EQ, I go from that into distortion, I go from that into a volume pedal, and then I go out into my little multi-effects unit. From there, into the amps. And that's it, and all that goes into a really small attaché case. So I can go on the road with just the guitar, the attaché case and a small suitcase. Then I'm pretty mobile, and I can generally dial in my sound, or a sound that's pleasing, on almost any amp. But occasionally, you run into something that just doesn't work, and you have to make do with it, because you can't not play the gig.

And that's a big issue, I think, for a lot of people. When you go on the road, you always hear musicians complaining that the sound wasn't good. And that can be for many reasons. It could be that the sound of the room was bad. If you play in a gymnasium, or a room that's all glass, or something like that, you know you're up against a really rough acoustic room. So you have to just try maybe softer than you normally would—your dynamic range has to change a little bit.

And that's a nice thing about this band: It's really adaptable. We can really play soft if we have to. And we like to play soft, but if need be, that can really work to our advantage. We can do a sound check and realize that the room is going to be very echoey or very live, so we'll accommodate that by playing softer, because the louder you play in a room like that, the more it gets out of control.

And sometimes the sound is just bad and there's nothing you can do about it. You wind up fighting it a little bit, and you end up really mad by the end of the gig, and you're just complaining. But the next night you play in a place where the acoustics are fantastic, so you realize that so much of that has to do with just the room you play in. You just have to try to adjust the best you can. I was talking to DeJohnette years ago, and I asked him, "How do you deal with this? He said, "Man, I just play the room.

And that's it! It's just like being Rodney Dangerfield—you have to go out and play to the room and kind of tailor the way you're going to do your thing according to what you hear. It's really all about the sound. That, to me, is what all music is. I play from sound. I play from knowledge, of course, of what I'm doing on the guitar, and what I know about harmony, and theory, and blah-blah-blah. But basically, when you get right down to it, it's just sound.

And if things sound good, you're able to play better. If you're comfortable with the sound and the amplifiers and the way the band sounds, you can really get a band sound. Sometimes you'll play in a place where it's harder to get that blend of a sound, a blend of a band, because the acoustics don't allow you to do that. With this band, we try to use very little p.a. or monitoring if we can—Joey Baron doesn't use a monitor, Marc Johnson doesn't either. Mark Feldman needs a monitor because that's where his sound comes from—he plays through a microphone into a monitor. And I'll usually have a little monitor with some violin in the monitor, so I can hear Mark, because Mark stands on the other side of the stage from me when we play live. The bass and drums are more in the middle, I stand on one side, and Mark's on the other.


That works best, I think, to have the instruments a little separated—but we try to set up as close as possible so that we don't have to use too much of the monitor. We always tell the soundman. "Once you get a sound that you like, I don't want to see your fingers touch the faders on your mixer. Don't even go near them—I don't want you to change anything. If I play soft, it means I want to play soft. Don't turn me up. Because guys do this all the time: "Gee, the guitar's soft. I guess I'd better turn it up! They don't realize you want it to be soft at that point.

So a bad sound guy can just ruin the dynamics of a performance, and I can't afford to bring a sound guy with me for everything, so you're basically at the mercy of these different people in these different towns. But usually, it works out okay. I find if you just explain to people what it is you want, you'll generally be okay.

Of course, the sound can change drastically from the time you set up and do a little sound check and when you come back and do the gig because you have an audience.

AAJ: Oh, right. Bodies.

JA: Bodies take up some of the sound. They dry things up. Which for me is better. I like that. So I like a full house for many reasons! I like to see a full house; I want the promoter or the club owner to do well. I want to have a good relationship with them. And it helps me with the sound.

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