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QRD #41 - Guitarist Interview Series Part I - June 2010
about this issue
Guitarist Interviews with:
Jason LaFarge
Aidan Baker
Jamie Stewart
Brian John Mitchell
Martin Newman
Mat Sweet
Robin Crutchfield
Darren Hayman
Anna-Lynne Williams
Larry Marotta
Mike Cosper
Sibyll Kalff
Jamie Barnes
Nathan Amundson
Jenks Miller
Chris Olley
Don Campau
Colin Newman
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Guitarist Interview with Mike Cosper of Sojourn
June 2010

Name: Mike Cosper
Bands: Currently, I just play with Sojourn, but over the years I’ve played with Bill Mallonee, Dirt Poor Robins, Jamie Barnes, Brooks Ritter, Bryan Fox, & Peter Searcy.
Websites: www.sojournmusic.com

QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?

Mike – I had a rental from the Doo Wop Shop for a while, & then I saved up money for an Epiphone Riviera - which is like a 335 with a crazy tailpiece & mini-humbuckers. I sold it, foolishly, a few years later. I miss that guitar very much.

QRD – What’s your typical setup from guitar to effects to amplifier?

Mike – It depends on the gig. These days, 90% of the time, I plug straight from the guitar into a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo (their reengineered Echoplex) into my Bad Cat Tone Cat.
For more ambient music or for recording, I’ll pull out the pedalboard. Deep breath here:
Teese Wizard Wah - Keeley Compressor - Hilton Volume Pedal - Moog 12-stage Phaser - Fulltone Supa Trem - GMD Lothar Overdrive - TC Electronics Nova Delay - Line 6 Verbzilla - & it ends with a weird clean boost that I don’t know who made. The Tape Echo goes between the pedalboard & the amp.

QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig – guitar, amplifier, or effects?

Mike – I think the most important part of every rig is the guitarist’s hands. If you notice with guys like Bill Frisell, Stevie Ray Vaughn, & anyone with a signature sound, their tone doesn’t change dramatically. Even The Edge - a guy known for his effects madness - still sounds like The Edge when he’s plugged straight in. That’s because so much of tone is about your hands. How you hit, how you fret, the kinds of voicings you choose. If I had to pick one piece of gear I couldn’t live without, it’d be my Tape Echo. I bought it when Fulltone first released it, & I haven’t missed a gig or a session with it ever since, though almost 100% of my setup has changed. 

QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?

Mike – Bad Cat Tone Cat. I’ve played everything, & this one works for what I do. It’s basically two amps in one – an AC30 clone on the left with El84 output tubes & a Bad Cat Hot Cat on the right, with EL34s. It’s very flexible, & I love the Bad Cat gain sound.

QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?

Mike – The guitar that’s been my main guitar for the past several years is a Chad Underwood Telecaster. It’s a weird combo of old & new parts, it has some really aggressive Lindy Fralin pickups, & it has a Fender Custom Shop “NoCaster” neck, which feels like a baseball bat. For the last few months, I’ve been playing a Strat a ton too, but the Tele is like home for me. 

QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?

Mike – It would probably be my Underwood Tele.

QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?

Mike – It’d be a variation of the Tube Tape Echo. I’d love a mod that allowed you to roll off some of the bass frequencies, so that’d be my signature change.

QRD – How many guitars do you own?

Mike – 7ish?

QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?

Mike – Here, there, & everywhere. I should be more careful.

QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?

Mike – First off, I look for something that’s built well – neck straight, intonation good. Next, I’m basically just looking for something that feels good & makes me want to play. Does it look good? Does it sound good? Can I imagine myself playing it all the time? Any more, because I have several guitars, I know exactly what I’m looking for when I’m buying.

QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?

Mike – I’ve got an amazing guitar that I use for bottleneck that cost $99. Seriously. I use it a ton. My electric guitars were well over $2,000, & I think they’re worth every penny. It just depends on what you need & what you’re doing. If you’re playing professionally, eventually you’ll want a pro-quality instrument, & there is a world of difference between a $500, $1,000, & $2,000 Telecaster.

QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?

Mike – I make changes, but usually not dramatic. I use volume & tone pots quite a bit, & the stock ones – even on high end guitars – are usually junk. I have one Tele I modded dramatically, but mostly I just change out volume & tone pots & call it done.

QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?

Mike – I’m thankful for return policies. I usually don’t test them a ton because the best testing ground is with a full band. A distortion pedal may sound amazing in the shop, but with the drummer there, you discover that all the clarity disappears. I buy a lot of gear & return it.

QRD – Do you change your rig around often?

Mike – Yes. About once a year.

QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?

Mike – I’ve been trying to nail down a particular tone for a long time. I’m loving the simplified setup I play right now, & feel like I’ve gotten somewhere with it, but I won’t be surprised at all if I end up pulling out the board again soon.

QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?

Mike – Vintage Fenders. Anything pre-CBS – amps, guitars, all of it.

QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?

Mike – Good tuners!

QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?

Mike – Best – Tube Tape Echo, my Underwood Tele.  Worst – I’m just not a Gibson guitar guy, & I’ve tried over & over to buy a Gibson SG or Les Paul, & it always ends up being a big disappointment.

QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?

Mike – I’m a big fan of Fender guitars, Fulltone effects, & Bad Cat Amps – for obvious reasons. I also really like Keeley Electronics. He makes the best compressor for guitar or bass on the planet. For wah users – spend the money on a Teese. It BLOWS AWAY the Vox & Crybaby stuff, & is categorically better than Fulltone’s too. But everyone should buy a Tube Tape Echo. They’re heavenly.

QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?

Mike – I don’t know. Ask Jamie Barnes.

QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?

Mike – 15.

QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?

Mike – I hope I haven’t peaked yet.…

QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?

Mike – I’m not sure.

QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?

Mike – Nope. Learn basics on a piano or a horn. I played trumpet for 8 years before playing guitar, & I understood music & melody. Most guitarists don’t know the first thing about melody, & won’t learn it if they learn guitar first – unless they learn using something like the Berklee Method (a great instructional book).

QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?

Mike – My ally, though sometimes the music requires that we get into a fight.

QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?

Mike – Angus Young, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, Jim Campilongo, Mike McCready are my faves.

QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly?

Mike – You should ask my guitar that question. :)

QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?

Mike – No good stories here. I’ve always been a nervous parent with my instruments & haven’t ever smashed anything.

QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?

Mike – I break practice up into four categories:
1. Technique – working on picking & fretting through various mechanical exercises
2. Scales, Chords, & Arpeggios – broadening my knowledge & looking for new voicings
3. Songs – learning songs from great players & great songwriters
4. Improvising – practicing over changes
It’s the Howard Robert method for breaking down practice & is something Craig Wagner showed me. I try to be systematic about practice when I practice, which isn’t all the time. I tend to go through seasons of intense practice to develop an idea or skill & then seasons of less intense practice. 

QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?

Mike – See above…. When I’m practicing hard, it’s 5-6 hours a week of practice, & 8 hours of live playing.

QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?

Mike – Wegen bluegrass picks & Stubby picks. I like a big pick – it gives you control over dynamics.

QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?

Mike – Acoustic – 13’s, Electric – 10’s.

QRD – How often do you change strings?

Mike – At least once a month on my main guitars. Sometimes much more than that!

QRD – How often do you break strings?

Mike – Almost never. I’ve broken two strings in about 5 years – both recently.

QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?

Mike – I don’t see a distinction. You need both working in harmony, or you’ll get sloppy.

QRD – Do you setup your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?

Mike – I send mine to Bill or Teresa at Guitar Emporium. They’re amazing at what they do & I don’t have the patience to learn how to do a setup as well as they do.

QRD – What tunings do you use & why?

Mike – Standard tuning, open E for bottleneck slide, open G for squareneck & lap steel.

QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?

Mike – I record ideas, I never write them down.

QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?

Mike – Normal, I think. None of this Jimmy Page lowrider stuff.

QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?

Mike – I tend to start solos in the same spots. I definitely need to break that one.

QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?

Mike – Something that’s single-note, like a horn. (See my rant above about melody)

QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?

Mike – I wish I could do really screaming fast country stuff like Jerry Reed & Jim Campilongo. I’m working on it, but not there yet.

QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?

Mike – Learning the Tony Rice Bluegrass Guitar book.

QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?

Mike – Your tuner works better if you put your pickup in the neck position & roll back your tone 10% or so. Try it.

QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?

Mike – I take them in seasons, & I’ve learned a TON from them. I’m really thankful in particular for the times I got to learn from Craig Wagner. The guy is a technical master, & really knows how to break down technique into easy-to-swallow pieces.

QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?

Mike – I’ve only ever had great teachers, so I’m not sure how to answer that one.

QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?

Mike – Listen to a lot of Bill Frisell.

QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?

Mike – I like them. I setup my Strat so it’s down-only, & I think it sounds great.

QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?

Mike – Lead guitar is committed to working with, responding to, & echoing the melody. Rhythm guitar is committed to supporting the melody.

QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?

Mike – Nope. Songs always rule the day.

QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?

Mike – I’d like to have one of Mike McCready’s late-50s Strats. Both because McCready is one of the main reasons I play guitar & because those 50s Strats are amazing.

QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?

Mike – Nels Cline from Wilco.

QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?

Mike – At Sojourn on any given Sunday.

QRD – Anything else?

Mike – Nope. Thanks!