Guthrie Govan

Interview with Guthrie Govan
from The Aristocrats

Luke Machin of The Tangent / Maschine


Luke: Where do you see your musical endeavours going in the next 5 years or so?

Guthrie: Well, for one thing I certainly intend to make more solo albums. Also, the trio stuff I’ve been doing with Bryan and Marco is very much an ongoing “band” kind of a mission, as opposed to a “one-off” project, so you can definitely expect to hear more from the Aristocrats in the future…

Other than that, I really can’t predict what else I might get up to – I’m just taking things one note at a time πŸ˜‰ I do get occasional invitations to participate in someone else’s musical project, and my standard policy where that stuff is concerned is simply to say “yes” to the things which I find musically interesting, and “no” to everything else. (Obviously, this approach makes little or no business sense, but the same could be said of the instrumental guitar genre as a whole, so… I’m no stranger to the concept of making commercially unviable decisions in the world of music!)

Luke: Is there anything else you would like to achieve in music?

Guthrie: Mostly, I think I just want my playing and writing to keep improving: I’d be happy with that πŸ˜‰

Luke: Could you see yourself being on the G3 tour at some point?

Guthrie: Well, that’s really not my decision to make…

Luke: I got into your playing and music through YouTube like many other people, what are your thoughts on YouTube and could you tell us how you think it’s affected / influenced your career?

Guthrie: Well, I’ve never actually posted anything on YouTube myself, so becoming known as a “YouTube player” was never really one of my ambitions. It’s kind of ironic that the videos of me jamming along with backing tracks invariably seem to be the ones which accumulate the highest view counts… whereas I actually feel much more in my element within the context of a band, and I’m pretty sure that my playing is a lot more interesting and musically valid when I’m able to interact with other musicians, in real time.

Having said that, YouTube has undeniably been a huge help in terms of spreading the word about what I do, and of course I’m hugely grateful for that. Grateful and pleasantly surprised!

I do think YouTube is a mixed blessing in some ways, though. I think its mere existence is largely responsible for that weird compulsion which somehow persuades so many of today’s gig-goers to watch the whole show through the tiny screen on their mobile phone. It seems like their goal is to post some lamentably shaky, over-compressed footage on YouTube in the hope that a few charitable souls might leave some nice comments… Fair enough, I suppose, but to my “old school” way of thinking it does kind of miss the whole point of live music.

From a more selfish perspective, it troubles me that so many people feel they have an inalienable right to post footage from any performance they attend. Everyone has “off nights”Β  – I’ve done gigs where I’ve had to deal with everything from malfunctioning monitors to food poisoning, and I’m sure every other professional musician can relate to that kind of experience – so from the artist’s perspective it’s really not really helpful when someone takes it upon himself to post sub-standard footage out of context.

(In an ideal world, I think the artist would have the sole right to determine which clips end up online: I reckon it’s entirely reasonable to strive for some degree of quality control over the way your playing is represented in the public domain… though I suppose most YouTube uploaders never really stop to think about it from that perspective!)

Well – it is what it is. I used to get very upset about all the questionable bootleg footage out there, but I’ve come to realise that policing it is quite impossible – every time you successfully persuade one guy to take a clip down, ten more will pop up immediately – so I’m really trying to train myself to ignore it all now. (I have to try – rightly or wrongly, my natural instinct is to freak out a little bit whenever I see that everyone in the front row is filming, and that instinct would undoubtedly have an adverse effect on my playing if I allowed it to…)

Luke: Do you think YouTube has contributed to a large part of your success?

Guthrie: Well, some of my last reply probably sounded somewhat grouchy and negative, so hopefully I can balance that out by simply saying: yes, I’m sure it has! For all its faults, the emergence YouTube has certainly helped to get the word out about what I do, so the good clearly outweighs the bad.

For instance, when Lee Ritenour asked me to record something for his “Six String Theory” project, I discovered that he was only aware of my playing because his son had once forwarded a YouTube link to him…

Luke: What are your views on internet downloads?

Guthrie: I assume you’re referring to the illegal aspect of downloading, as opposed to something like the iTunes store? I’m not sure there’s much I can really add to this well-worn debate but, just for the record, here’s my take on it all…

As with the whole “YouTube bootlegging” thing, it seems that no artist really has any power to prevent the illegal distribution of mp3s – it’s just too widespread, and arguably the record industry missed its opportunity to do anything about it a long time ago. I suppose we all just need to accept illegal downloading as a fact of life these days, and to adapt accordingly.

It strikes me that when people buy music nowadays, they often do so almost as an act of charity. Of course it’s a wonderful thing when someone chooses to support musicians in this way, but it’s strange to think that the law seems so utterly powerless to enforce the notion that people should perhaps have to pay for the listening material which they enjoy.

(Yes, I know – occasionally, they’ll impose a ludicrously unpayable fine on some random kid who decided to “share” the new Rihanna single, or whatever, but sporadic draconian measures like that really do more to make the industry look evil than they do to combat illegal file sharing. I reckon that you’re literally more likely to win the lottery than you are to be taken to court for uploading your music collection… so it’s understandable that so many people do it.)

Some people maintain that illegal downloading generates more than enough free publicity to compensate for any loss of direct revenue from music sales: in today’s bewildering economic climate, I don’t honestly see how anyone could prove this scientifically. Maybe it is true, after all, but of course this is one of those discussions where people will tend to start by choosing whatever “truth” best serves their purposes: then they’ll collate all the evidence which supports their preferred conclusion whilst disregarding anything which contradicts it.

(A good number of the pro-downloading arguments are clearly flawed, I must say. The popular analogy between what’s happening now and the home taping phenomenon of yesteryear, for instance is painfully spurious. When someone puts up a torrent of an album, it can theoretically be accessed by tens of thousands of freeloaders all over the world, almost instantly, and the sound quality of the free version is often identical to that of the source material… so surely the torrent bears only a passing resemblance to a hissy recording of a vinyl LP circulating amongst a group of friends via the ephemeral medium of a C90 cassette?)

People talk of “sharing” their mp3s. This happy-sounding terminology does rather suggest that granting the world unrestricted access to your library of music is somehow a noble, altruistic, Robin Hood-like gesture, but… this reasoning only works if you’re prepared to abandon the whole concept of “intellectual property”. To my way of thinking, you only really have a right to “share” those things which are actually yours in the first place, and here’s the thing: even if you pay for a copy of someone else’s album, the material on that recording really doesn’t belong to you – if it did, wouldn’t your name would be printed on the cover art, rather than that of the artist?

Sorry about this epic tirade, by the way! The shorter response would be: “We can’t realistically hope to stop illegal downloading, but at least we can try to make people realise that it’s a form of stealing – and that it’s not entirely a victimless crime.” We now seem to be witnessing the emergence of a whole new generation of music listeners who have genuinely never stopped to consider that their reliance on torrents etc might be morally questionable, and that’s slightly worrying.

To be fair, I can understand why any rational music fan would prefer to acquire a product for nothing rather than paying for it – economically speaking, who could fail to find that appealing? – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s morally sound. Quite apart from the fact that musicians spend years of their lives learning to operate their instrument proficiently (years which other people might devote to becoming a qualified doctor, lawyer, engineer or some such career with an established pay structure) there’s also the undeniable fact that the recording process costs time and money – as do the basic tools of the trade! If a climate prevails in which everyone considers recorded music to be no more than free promotional material, it seems obvious to me that the quality of said music will have to be compromised in some way, as artists are compelled to cut more and more corners in their desperate bid to get the music out there.

Well… what can you do? πŸ˜‰

Luke: What artists are you listening to currently and how do they inspire you?

Guthrie: Right now, I’m working my way through the XTC back-catalogue: I’ve always been a fan of pop songs with clever chord changes and such like, but for some inexplicable reason I’d never really bothered to research XTC properly until a few weeks ago. (So far, if anyone is remotely curious, I’m particularly digging Skylarking and Nonsuch…)

Other than that strange glitch in my listening cycle, I’ve mostly been listening to Indian classical music and bluegrass lately. I generally avoid listening to too much instrumental guitar music – it can all start to feel a bit too much like work sometimes! – though I did get hold of Mike Landau’s new solo album recently, and deemed it to be most splendid. (Then again, that album sounds more like “music” to me, rather than “guitar music” – I think there’s a subtle distinction to be made there…)

Luke: You’ve done some amazing collaborations in your career but is there anyone else you would like to do a project with?

Guthrie: I don’t particularly have a “wish list” at the moment: my current feeling is that my main priority should be to release some more solo material!

Luke: What is one of the most valuable things you could say from your experience to a guitar player who’s just hitting the scene?

Guthrie: I would probably become infuriatingly philosophical and simply ask the player: “Do you know why you’re doing this, and what you hope to get out of it?” Having an honest and well-considered answer to questions like that can be most helpful, I think. If you want to spend the rest of your life playing music instead of getting a “proper” job, it’s good to make sure that your expectations are reasonable, and to realise that music doesn’t actually owe you anything…

Luke: What are your thoughts on Shawn Lane and his contribution to instrumental music and how has his music influenced you?

Guthrie: Everything I can say about Shawn somehow feels like stating the obvious: clearly, he was a truly astonishing player in so many ways, and he is sorely missed.

Of course, his ludicrous technique was the thing which really forced the guitar community to pay attention, and sometimes it’s hard to listen to his faster stuff without just laughing out loud at the sheer implausibility of what you’re hearing. I’m aware that there are some competitive shredder types out there who have made it their mission in life to match Shawn’s “notes per second” count, and doubtless some of them have succeeded in their misguided quest, but here’s the thing: those guys always sound like they’re trying really hard, whereas Shawn’s lines had a graceful fluidity and effortlessness to them – because his playing was a truthful representation of the music he was hearing in his head, as opposed to some kind of Olympic feat. Also, he was playing interesting notes even at those ultra-high speeds. Also, he had a unique tone and an unmistakeable vibrato – when he played a Hendrix lick, it sounded real. Also, he wrote some really beautiful music. And of course, just when we thought it couldn’t get any scarier, we discovered that he could do all that stuff on piano, too! Truly a one-off.

From my own “guitar player” perspective, I suppose the most important thing I gleaned from Shawn’s playing was a kind of confirmation that it’s okay to play a million notes if you really mean them, and if you have a musical statement to make which actually requires a million notes.

I must have heard Shawn’s playing for the first time in the very early 90s. Back then, there was something in the climate which seemed to be hinting that perhaps the “extreme guitar” party was drawing to a close, so it was hugely refreshing to hear guys like Shawn who had found such unique and individualistic ways to carry on pushing the boundaries…

Also, hearing Shawn’s playing probably encouraged me to reassess certain preconceptions I may may had about the technical limitations of the guitar: some of the stuff he played was clearly impossible, but he did it anyway. I liked that πŸ˜‰

Luke: Was there a certain point in your career when you realised your hands could keep up with your mind, or was it a gradual process?

Guthrie: I actually think the process is more complex than the question suggests. Sometimes, technical limitations will indeed prevent you from conveying your musical ideas accurately, but there will be other times when it feels as if you’ve built up all the technique you really need and it’s the music in your mind which is stagnating. When that happens, your musical brain is asking to be fed with new inspiration and fresh ideas… so every time you assimilate some new element into the way you think about music, you have to reassess whether or not your existing level of technique is still adequate. At any given moment, it’s either the physical side or the mental side which more urgently requires your attention. Perhaps there’s a rope-climbing analogy here, in terms of the way the “difficult bit” is constantly shifting from one hand to the other…

Luke: How much of what you compose is influenced by your technique?Β  Has your composing pushed your technique or has it been the other way round?

Guthrie: I’ll try to field both of those questions with just one answer, if I may πŸ˜‰

Here’s a fun observation about the relationship between improvising and composing: you could argue – and people have certainly done so in the past – that improvisation is essentially “real time” composition, whereas composition can be viewed as a very slow, careful form of improvisation. The two processes are certainly related, but I reckon technique becomes a lot more important in the context of improvisation. If you’re just sitting down to write a piece of music at your own pace, you don’t really need any particular level of technique, and I’m sure many a great composition has been written by someone who couldn’t actually play it. (Conlon Nancarrow, for instance, invariably wrote stuff which nobody can play… and why not?)

At any rate, when I think of some of the sillier guitar things I’ve written – maybe the melody from Waves or the weird middle section in Eric – it would seem that I’ve always started with a general idea of the sound I want to hear, and then I’ve explored the instrument in search of some way to convey that sound. If you adopt the opposite tactic – writing something purely based on your technical abilities – your only option is surely to string together a bunch of ideas which you’ve already practiced: it seems safe to assume that nothing really new or interesting is likely to emerge from that approach.

Luke: How do you approach your compositions?

Guthrie: I need to start with some little musical nugget which fascinates me, and then I pretty much let the rest of the song write itself. Waves started out as my attempt to make a guitar sound like the portamento function on an old analog synth, for instance, and the main groove of Fives was stolen from a bird I heard singing in the park one day… The melody came first for something like Wonderful Slippery Thing, the chords came first in Eric and everything kind of happened at the same time with Slidey Boy, so… I don’t have a set method, really. Whatever works!

Writing for the Aristocrats has been interesting. For my solo material I would typically layer as many tracks as I need during the recording and then worry about how to play it live later on, but I really wanted my Aristocrats tunes to be purpose-built as trio arrangements. That led me to think a lot more about how I could tweak the basslines so they would imply all the chord changes I could so clearly hear in my head but wouldn’t be able to play live whilst dealing with the melody… stuff like that.

Luke: Is there any news on a new Aristocrats album?

Guthrie: We’re determined to get it written and recorded by the end of this year – Marco, being the most prolific writer in the band, has come up with loads of new material for the album already! Trying to get all three of us in the same place at the same time isn’t easy – we’re all busy doing a number of other things, and our schedules don’t always overlap in the way we’d like them to – but whenever there’s some Aristocratic work to be done, we’ll always find a way, so… watch this space!

Luke: Also, is there a second solo album in the pipeline?

Guthrie: Indeed there is. It’s a long pipeline, however, so I’ve long since abandoned the idea of making specific promises I can’t keep… It will definitely emerge at some point, but I’m not going to rush it – it’ll be ready whenever it’s ready πŸ˜‰

Luke: Do you think of Erotic Cakes as a progressive album?

Guthrie: I’m not a huge fan of pigeon-holing music – if anything, I tend to get more excited about the kind of music which refuses to be categorised – so really I’ve always thought of Erotic Cakes simply as “an album”. It’s just some music: I’ve never felt the need to explain or define it in any greater detail than that πŸ˜‰

Luke: Will the Fellowship ever release an album?

Guthrie: Probably not, to be honest. Well… we did record a couple of low-budget home-brewed CDs a few years back, but that was mostly for fun – and I suppose also as a way of selling a few “souvenirs” to some of the regulars who attend our weekly gig in Chelmsford. I was mildly horrified to discover that those recordings are now being circulated freely online – they were never meant to be “serious” albums! Essentially, the Fellowship is a bunch of local muso types who gather once a week to play some funk/fusion covers and “let off some steam”: The gigs themselves are certainly fun – if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Chelmsford on a Thursday night and you happen to like that kind of thing, do by all means come along and check us out – but mostly I think we’re all happy for the Fellowship to remain “underground”.

Luke: What do you think about the modelling guitar amplifiers like the Axe FX, Kemper profiling digital amplifier, Guitar Rig etc..?

Guthrie: Well, that covers a wide range of products, and some of them are significantly better than others!

I’m essentially an old school “valve amp” kind of a purist at heart: when the POD first came out, it struck me that it created a believable facsimile of various amp tones, but the fundamental “fakeness” of the sound became all too apparent whenever you tried to use it with a real band in a real room. Acoustic drums, in particular, seemed to overwhelm all of the really important guitar frequencies, and I found that you’d have to keep turning the POD up louder and louder, to the point where you knew you were making a lot of noise, but you still couldn’t hear any real definition in the note content. I couldn’t say how much of this was down to some flaw in the actual modelling algorithms and how much was due to factors like the use of cheap A/D and D/A convertors, or perhaps an insufficiently high sampling rate… whatever the case may have been, my initial conclusion was that digital modelling stuff was great for making quick demos at home but it didn’t really cut it for any “serious” applications.

Since then, I’ve tried to keep an eye on the evolution of the technology, as processing power has steadily increased over the last few years, and when I started playing live with the Young Punx I realised that I would actually need to adopt some kind of digital tactic just to get through the gig… so I abandoned my purist principles and went with whatever approach was best for the job.

In that particular band, most of the sounds were electronic and the mix was very busy in places, so I found that NI Guitar Rig seemed to work particularly well: on its own, the basic GR tone is somewhatΒ  brittle to my ears, but it could certainly cut through a dense wall of electronic sounds very effectively. Even though it never really responded in the way a real tube amp would (I always found that amp modelling software tended to sound better than it felt) I did enjoy the versatility that Guitar Rig offered: it allowed me to program a number of different patches for each song, and adjust the output levels precisely. We spent a lot of time on pre-production and everything in that band was fed through a “mother laptop” running Ableton Live, so for most of our gigs we were actually able to give the soundman the whole band mix in the form of single stereo output… and get away with it!

My new winner in the digital world is undoubtedly the Axe FX 2 – I acquired one a few months back, and was very happy to find that it not only sounds like the amps it purports to model, it also feels good – which is a huge deal if you want to feel inspired when you’re playing, and clearly this is one of the biggest challenges for software designers. I’m still learning what the Axe FX can and can’t do – I have yet to try doing a whole live gig with it, for instance – but it’s become my “go to” device for pretty much all of the remote recording stuff I do at home (sample replays, guest solos etc) and the feedback from producers/clients has consistently been very positive: it’s certainly fooled a few people who were convinced that the tone must have come from a mic’d amp!


Luke: Are there any memorable moments musically, that you’ve experienced on/offstage that you could share with us?

Guthrie: Plenty – but I’ll just name a random few…

* Appearing on national TV when I was 9 years old, playing some Hendrix and Chuck Berry stuff. I’m sure my playing must have sucked back then, but I’d always been the weird kid at primary school, so… suddenly becoming the only kid in the class who had ever been on TV somehow seemed to validate some of the weirdness, which I found most helpful πŸ˜‰

* Re-recording Fives with Vinnie Colaiuta, Tal Wilkenfeld and Larry Goldings (for Lee Ritenour’s Six String Theory album) was pretty cool, as you can hopefully imagine!

* I have to mention the Electric Proms gig with Dizzee Rascal. It’s one thing to find yourself “going through the motions” in the backing band for some well-known pop artist, but for me that particular gig represented something altogether more fresh and exciting. As a result of the BBC-funded nature of the event, we had the luxury of rehearsing and arranging everything meticulously as a 12-piece band… and then an additional choir and string section turned up for the actual show. You can’t always make things sound better simply by throwing more personnel into the mix, but in this case the MD’s arrangements made great use of the various resources we had at our disposal, so everything just worked. I know some of the “shred” guitar crowd were struggling to understand why I would want to play at such a gig – “it’s sad that he has to do this just to pay the bills”, etc – but honestly I feel proud to have been involved: it was a very cool thing.

* Purely for the sake of balance, I should also make brief mention of a very different Dizzee gig we once played at a festival called Global Gathering, where a bunch of wasted people near the front of the crowd thought it would be a good idea to start throwing 9V batteries at the band. Well, it was mostly batteries, thoughΒ  at one point I distinctly remember an empty Absolut bottle landing on the stage, right in front of my monitors – presumably to add a little variety. A situation like that is a lot less fun than the previous examples, but… equally memorable in its own way πŸ˜‰

Luke: Is there a particular place, gig or country that you look forward to playing?

Guthrie: Anywhere I’ve never played before would fit into that category, really. Having said that, I did get a very special vibe during the brief time I spent in India: music seems like such an important part of the culture there, and the audiences seem to listen with a rare combination of musical intelligence and rock’n’roll enthusiasm. I really do need to do more playing over there ASAP πŸ˜‰

Luke: What would your 5 desert Island discs be?

Guthrie: A list like that would mutate on an hourly basis! Right now, without thinking too hard, I suppose maybe I’d pick these:

Abbey Road (Beatles)
Songs In The Key Of Life (Stevie Wonder)
You Are What You Is (Zappa)
Debut (Bjork)
Erotic Cakes (yours truly)

It probably seems egotistical and/or strange that I included my own album on that list – given that 1) I don’t listen to it very often and 2) the list is clearly marred by a lamentable shortage of Miles Davis, Debussy, Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley etc etc – but I briefly tried to imagine what it would actually be like to be stranded on a desert island for a possible eternity, and I figured that bringing some of my own music might be a cunning way to sneak some of my “normal self” onto the island and thus, perhaps, hold the inevitable insanity at bay for that little bit longer!

One Response to Guthrie Govan

  1. Mudit says:

    When was this? What date? I cannot miss him if Guthrie comes to India again!

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