“Some things are just right, and if you try to do that type of thing, it’s gonna be easier because it was right to start with.”
It’s a postcard perfect summer day: the sun is warm but not blistering, the breeze stirs the air, and I’m sitting on a grassy hill talking with Byrd from Angus Mohr between Scottish Festival sets.
What gear do you bring to a show?
“Vox AC30 amplifier. NHT speakers. Speakers are important. My pedal board consists of just the usual stuff: delay, chorus, three distortion pedals for different types of distortion—sometimes I stack ‘em so one effects the other.
Volume pedal—it helps blend—I also have a set of pickups mounted to my Strat that go straight in to the sound system for an acoustic sound that has no effects of any kind except the volume pedal. I really need three feet: two to hold me up and one to run the pedals. That just leaves my Strat. and SG. When we play, sometimes I bring my Tele in case something goes wrong. Today we brought a spare Fender amp in case one of mine blow up, which doesn’t happen very often, but you never know. I don’t want to be standing there with my amp smoking and thinking, ‘What do I do now?’”
What do you think about on stage?
“Pretty much, I’m just thinking about the actual song itself, and where my place is. The vast majority of everything we play, every note is planned—we don’t always hit them all— but they’re planned along with different sounds and inflections. We do quite a few songs where we end one song and go into another, and we change those up sometimes. It’s not always the same song following, so I have to plan ahead. My pedals need to be here as soon as we stop this song. Then I switch everything so I’m ready for the next one. So that’s all I’m thinking about –what’s next.”
“That and praying to god I don’t start on the wrong guitar. The Strat is just your basic standard tuning, which is to A. The SG is tuned a half a step sharp, so when I play an A chord, it’s really a B flat. That’s for the bagpipes; they’re B flat. There are no open strings in flats and sharps; some chords sound better with open strings. In a B flat song, I just play an A, so I don’t have to think about it.”
How long have you been playing guitar?
“In 1963,when I was nine, I started out playing country music since my dad said he’d by me a guitar if I would play country. A friend of his was a guitar player, and he showed me basic three chord progression in the key of G. He made me figure out myself how to play the melody, and it didn’t dawn on me till years later, that what he taught me was how chords and melody work together. That’s helped me a lot over the years.”
What do you like about performing, rehearsing, recording?
“Everything I feel deep inside when it goes right. The crowd reaction is the energy that feeds us. It’s all about the feelings you get, and how bad it feels when it goes wrong. Usually, if something goes wrong it’s with a piece of equipment. Playing the electric guitar is a lot different than playing the acoustic guitar because the guitar is not the only part of the instrument. All the pedals, the amplifiers… you have to play the whole mess. You can’t just play the guitar. So if something doesn’t go right you can’t get the sound you want.”
“Recording to me is way too structured. I don’t mind if all of us are laying down a rhythm track, but if I’m recording my individual part I’d prefer to do that alone. I do a lot better when Gusty brings out the mobile unit to the rehearsal space. I can sit where I sit when I rehearse, and I can just play my parts. Trying to do that while everyone’s standing around waiting for me—I can’t do it. I’m really uncomfortable, and I’m never happy with anything I do in that situation. Most parts, I play six or eight times. Gusty records it all. Sometimes, he’ll mix and match different pieces, but I leave it up to him until he’s ready to let me hear it.”
Who do you listen to?
“Guitar players: Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, John Petrucchi. Pretty much anybody that I consider an exceptional guitar player. Guys who play stuff that makes you turn and look when you hear ’em. Derek Trucks, the son of the drummer for the Allman Brothers, he’s been playing slide guitar, and he’s one of the best there is. He’s incredible to watch. He never moves and everything is perfect. He plays a lot with Clapton these days, and he plays with the Allman Brothers, and he plays his own music.”
“I don’t really pay attention to lyrics. I really couldn’t care less what they are. The melody I listen to, but what the actual words are, I’ve never really cared. That’s probably why I don’t sing. I couldn’t remember the lyrics to anything because I don’t pay attention to em . My feeling is sorta like…it fits with a statement I heard Paul McCartney said: They were asking him what the words to “Come Together” meant, and he said, ‘Don’t mean anything. It just sounded good. So I can hear when the words are wrong, but I couldn’t tell you what the right ones were.
“I listen to the guitar, the rhythm, how the song flows. Over time, I’ll pick up all the other little things that are going on. I always imagine what I would be doing if I were playing it. I listen to see, is that something I could play, or would want to play? If they did a part that I want to do my own way…I’ll always put my interpretation on it, even if I’m trying to duplicate it. It may just be a little inflection of a note, or drop a note, or add a note because I felt it should be there.”
“For me, my way feels better. There are songs I won’t listen to anymore that we play because it will change my perception of what we do. The only ones I can’t help are Floyd and David Gilmour’s stuff. I continue to listen to that. Most of the stuff that they did flows so easily and natural that it lends itself to personal interpretation. The songs are friendly; it doesn’t really matter how you play it. If you get the feeling that they put into it. It seems natural. It’s like anything that anybody does. Some things are just right, and if you try to do that type of thing, it’s gonna be easier because it was right to start with.”
“We have probably a dozen songs that are kind of our signature songs. All of them are probably on one of the CDs. They’re very comfortable to play. They’re songs that flow so easily that they’re looked forward to. When they’re coming, you look down the set, and you can’t wait till you get there. “Foggy Dew” I like because I get to play a good solo. “Long Way to the Top” just because I get a lot of guitar heavy rhythm. I don’t play any solo in that, just heavy rhythm all the way, but I pretty much like everything we do. Stuff we end up not liking, we drop.
Favorites to listen to are about 80 percent of the Ghost Ship. I really like that CD. It took me a while. I had to listen to it quite a bit before it all fell into place. When you actually record it, you tend to listen to all the little things you did instead of listening to the thing as a whole. I don’t know if I do that because of something David Gilmour said, or not. He commented, ‘I really wish I could hear “Dark Side of the Moon” the way the rest of the world heard it.” Everything he hears, he said, he remembers what they did to do that, instead of just hearing the finished product. He’ll never be able to do that, and he regrets it.”
What makes an exceptional guitar player?
Innovation. Something that someone else didn’t make up. It could be in your tone more than what you play. It’s what you make it sound like. David Gilmour said something once, at least I think I heard that he said it. He said, ‘I can’t play fast, so I try to play melodic.’ He doesn’t usually play fast; he plays smooth. Lots of melody and incredible tone. You hear sounds in the guitar that shouldn’t be there. That’s what I listen for.