Canadian Musician

THE SIX STRING SHED

Hal Rodriguez


Interview with Andy Timmons

I had the pleasure of speaking with one of rock’s most dynamic and melodically exciting virtuosos, Andy Timmons, after his recent tour with fellow guitar heavyweights, Uli Jon Roth and Jennifer Batten. In this interview, he talks about practicing, his upcoming albums, and more. Thanks to Andy and Andrew King for making this interview possible! For more on Andy Timmons, visit AndyTimmons.com. (Photos by Hal Rodriguez)

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You mentioned once in an interview with Paul Gilbert that you’re happiest when you’re learning music. What new things have you been working on these days?

In general, it’s just increasing whatever harmonic and melodic knowledge I can acquire. Even technique. There’s this great video series by Troy Grady called “Cracking the Code” and he’s really been able to analyze a lot of great players’ techniques. Actually, Eric Johnson and Yngwie Malmsteen are very similar in how they negotiate difficult passages with economy type picking ideas. I do a lot of these things naturally myself, but not on that level, and to have Troy explain it was really eye opening for me. So I’m working on some technical things, which can never hurt. I think the more ability you have on the instrument, the more ability you have to express what you’re hearing.

I’ve also been getting back into playing jazz over the past several years. Working on jazz consistently just helps everything. It helps your melodic ear because you have to navigate chord changes. That has always informed the way I play, even when playing rock music. I’m hearing things in a much more chord centric way, rather than key centric, where I’m just ripping a bunch of scales because I know they work in that key. That’s not a bad thing, and I love that sound, but I’m much more interested in what chord is happening at any given moment or with what note I play, whether it’s a chord tone or non chord tone, and what tension or release it will achieve at that moment. I have this great app called the iReal Book, and I can dial up any jazz standard and dictate the key, feel, and tempo. My best days are when I sit there and play with it for an hour before I do anything else, like looking at emails. The best thing is, don’t turn on the computer first. Just get your playing going and tune in to the instrument. So just doing that on a consistent basis has helped me so much.

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Also, finding some solos to transcribe. Guys like Mike Stern will do that everyday. I’ve never been that diligent of a transcriber, but for me, the most important part of it is lots of listening. I’ve been really enamoured with Chet Baker over the last couple of years, who’s a jazz trumpet player. For me, he’s the most poignant and in the moment jazz musician I’ve ever heard. I also love Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny, but Chet just really connects with me. But I don’t feel now that I have to necessarily pick apart and learn every phrase from every solo. I want to assimilate the feel and specific lines: I’ll isolate the moments that really make me feel something and I’ll figure out what it is about that note choice and the exact placement of those notes. The players I’ve been drawn to over the years, like Steve Lukather and Larry Carlton, have such a command of their time that they can specifically place those notes at just the right moment. It’s a natural thing, but you can only have that control when you’re so confident with where the time is.

I always kind of use Stevie Ray Vaughan as a reference because I don’t think he was jotting down every Albert King lick. He had it in his head and played along with the record enough, and then took it to his own level. You hear the Albert King influence, but you also hear how he collected his favourite things that meant something to him. We’re all kind of collectors. It’s all about editing. I started with Ace Frehley, then I went to Steve Lukather, Mike Stern, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Eric Johnson. It’s up to you to pick the bits that mean something to you, and over time it becomes your own thing and you start to apply things with your own feel, hopefully.

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I’ve realized that nothing can replace you actually going down that path and figuring it out for yourself. You can look at someone’s transcription, which I’m guilty of and have done, but if you earn it with your own ears, the music internalizes completely differently, and it means more. I am concerned about the newer generation of players getting too much too easily from the internet. You can achieve things quicker, but what’s the level of depth and how does it help you create your own music? Are you remembering lick 37, or are you hearing those notes? And is there a connection between your inner ear and your guitar? Music is an aural experience. I’m a firm believer that you have to make the effort to learn it by ear yourself first, and then get the help of the transcription or video when you need it. That’s the delicate balance as we improve our playing: how you achieve it can make a huge difference. Those bits that you learned on your own internalize differently because you learned them with your ears, not your eyes.

How would you describe your upcoming album in terms of your evolution?

With my previous albums, Resolution and Andy Timmons Band Plays Sgt Pepper, we pared the performances down to just one guitar. It was a challenge and I had to reinvent how I was playing those songs, but some of it came naturally because of my jazz experience of trying to voice melodies with chords. With a distorted guitar tone, you can’t get away with as much colour as a clean jazz setting, but you learn how to support the melody with a bare minimum of other notes and get it to sound right without the backing harmony. That was a great path for me to take.

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But now working on the new record, my producer and engineer, Mike Daane and I thought it might be nice to have a little extra something. On some tracks, we felt like we could hear another guitar or a distorted wurlitzer keyboard. So now we’ve taken the “hand cuffs” off a little bit and feel liberated. The music still works as a trio, but production wise, we’re having some fun and experimenting a little more. We have a couple more things to do, then we’re ready to mix as we have 10 songs that we’re really happy with. We don’t have a title for the record yet, but it’s going to come out late summer and then we’re going to get back out to play live in September or October.

I’m also going to make a bossa nova record with a buddy of mine, Sydnei Carvalho, who’s a great fusion player but also plays traditional bossa nova. He just happens to know Roberto Menescal, who was one of the originators of that style and he’s going to produce it. So I’m thrilled to have Roberto, a guy who showed Antonio Carlos Jobim certain voicings on the guitar, not just really dig my playing, but offer to produce this record of Sydnei and I playing. I love that music and we’re going to make a record later this year.

One of the hallmarks of your playing is your use of dynamics. Do you remember how you became conscious of it and realized it was something important to develop?

I really wish I had an exact answer, but it’s really just the players I gravitated towards. A lot of it is the jazz thing. When you hear Charlie Parker play a line, there’s a shape to the line. That influenced how I eventually started to hear my own lines. That type of player made me interested because every note was a word, had a different emphasis, and said something. For me, it all happened naturally overtime just emulating guys like Carlton and Metheny, who had a much more sensitive approach to music. Some of it is sonic driven too. If your gain is so saturated, you’re not going to hear a lot of dynamics. It’s important to me that the higher lead gain tones still have enough articulation and detail that you can achieve giving a note the right emphasis at the right time. That’s where the emotion comes to the fore and you can get more meaning out of the lines.

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Could you describe how you developed your ability to arrange chord melodies or your compositional skills?

You’re going to hear a similar answer here as a lot of it evolved naturally. I absorbed The Beatles as much as a human being possibly could. Their music was my security blanket. I was always listening to them, not realizing it was teaching me about melody, joy, energy, and music, which that band had so much of. They had great songs and Ringo had a great feel. He swung those tunes and no other drummer in the sixties could have made those songs sound that great. All that was certainly my foundation, but it wasn’t a conscious attempt. And then yeah, I learned chord melodies of jazz standards like “Misty”. That was another lesson: here’s the melody to “Misty” and you start adding the changes under it.

Arranging The Beatles’ songs in Andy Timmons Band Plays Sgt Pepper was interesting because the melodies are so great, you don’t need a lot underneath it. I know the songs from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band inside and out and I didn’t have to reference the record. I played it in my head basically, so that’s how I did all those songs on that album. I did it from memory. In “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds”, the keyboard intro works so well on guitar and when you hear John Lennon’s original take on the song, the melody is mostly one note. There wasn’t much variation, but the key was the moving root in the bass. After you get those two, you don’t need anything else. But then, I would start figuring out ways of getting the other strings to ring with the melody to flesh out the harmony. Like in the phrase “marmalade skies”, I’ve got the E string ringing with the melody. I did all the arrangements without really thinking of a band so much as just sitting down and playing the songs for my own enjoyment. So I’d have to flesh out passing phrases on my own, and sometimes it’s just two notes ringing together. For “Lucy”, I beefed up the chorus a bit by adding the root and fifth. So there was a lot of care put into it and literally a couple of years toying around before I got the confidence to record those songs.

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And you had to make sure you found voicings that were in tune.

Oh, dear. That was a huge thing. There were a lot of string choices to make, so I had to audition a lot of different ways of playing. For example, the melody in “Lucy” doesn’t sound bad on the D and G strings, but I found I just like playing it with the open A string ringing. But then sometimes, where my ear led me choice wise was the worst possible intonation issue. So I had to figure out ways of cheating the tuning along the way and just improving the tuning of the guitar in general. I had Sperzel tuners for awhile, but then I changed to Gotoh locking tuners because the tuning ratio was 16:1 as opposed to 12:1, and that made a huge difference. I learned to intonate my own guitar, which I hadn’t really been that great at doing before.

Then I realized that for every key, you might need to alter the tuning of certain strings just to make it sweeter depending on how you’re voicing things. I do a lot of things with wide intervals. For example, there’s a new song on my upcoming album where in my voicings, the B string always sounds sharp to me for whatever reason. So I detuned it a little bit. If you just watch your tuner, it’s definitely lying to you. It’s close, but you got to use your ear to sweeten the chords and the key you’re actually playing in. I’ve tried other tuning helpers like the Buzz Feiten and True Temperament systems. They do fix some problems, but not all of them, and some things don’t sound natural to me. When you hear Eric Johnson and Joe Satriani, these dudes are in tune. These guys have figured so much out technically and physically. Eric can hear if a fret is not placed properly. You know, the guitar is definitely not a perfect instrument. That’s definitely one of the challenges and when you add distortion, it amplifies the harmonic impurities and you can really get into trouble.

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The care and attention to detail you’ve put in really shows in your music, both on record and live.

Thank you, I appreciate that very much. I’m enjoying the journey. There were years where I don’t feel I was as productive in that direction, but things are lining up now in a certain way. I feel great, emotionally and physically, and it’s become really fun again. If you focus on one thing your whole life, which a lot of musicians do, you’re not always going to have that energy you had when you were 12 in your bedroom playing along to records. It’s kind of hard to maintain that consistent level of interest. I’m just very blessed I’ve come full circle. I’ve always enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong. There were years where I was always playing, but I wasn’t really practicing or learning, and I did enjoy it, but life takes over. Once life starts happening, there’s so many things you have to take care of that have nothing to do with the instrument. Even if it’s all music related like booking tours, it’s time consuming and you can get out of the habit of dedicating that special time to the guitar. That’s what happened to me. I was still growing in some ways, but now that I’m back on it, I start to see improvement. That’s the encouragement in itself. After a few months of doing it, I’m starting to notice the difference and it’s exciting.

Hal Rodriguez is a published writer, musician, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. He can be contacted at halromusic@gmail.com and followed on instagram @halromuso.

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