Interview with Zac Keiller
Bands: Solo, Dark Passenger, Quint, Ensemble of Shades, Umbra
Websites: http://www.zackeiller.polydistortion.net – http://www.myspace.com/zackeiller
Listen to "All Signs Point To Yes"
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Zac – My first guitar was a black Rickenbacker 620. I bought it when I was 15 years old while vacationing in Seattle. Before that I was loaning various guitars from my brothers. A year after that I purchased a Fender Jag-Stang, which I kind of regard as my first guitar proper as I wound up playing it a lot more. Thinking back at the time, the Rickenbacker was a bit too mature for what I was playing & I eventually sold it to buy a mini disc 8-track recorder that I never used. One of my many musical regrets.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Zac – My guitar goes into a Proco Rat distortion
pedal, into a Digitech Space Station multi-effects unit, into a Behringer
digital multi fx pedal for delay, into a Behringer digital reverb pedal,
the output of this is sent stereo into a Behringer 4-channel mixer with
RCA cables out into the line-in on my computer which is a no-name PC I’ve
owned since 2002. The software I use is Cooledit Pro. I mainly use it for
a multi-track editor & for bouncing the tracks into wav format. I never
use an amplifier at home & record everything in this manner, monitoring
& mastering everything on headphones to pick up more intricacies.
Zac – Definitely guitar & effects. I am not amplifier savvy & know almost nothing about how to obtain a great combination of guitar & amplifier. At some point I became obsessed with achieving a large, epic sound with my music, it wasn’t until using the two Behringer pedals & the stereo outs that I finally understood how to get it, amps usually added more layers of background noise & I want the most pure signal I can get, so to eliminate all of that, the setup described above gives me the cleanest signal. Having said that, I do own two amplifiers, a Marshall Valvestate 150watt & an SWR Workingman’s 15 bass amp. I use both of these basically as stereo speaker cabinets: left & right when performing live, with the sound & mix controlled entirely from the guitar & effects. If I’m performing at a venue I know has a great PA system, then I don’t take the amps & use a DI box.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Zac – My main amp would have to be the SWR, purely because I love bottom end & warm tones, & it’s a very powerful component in transferring the giant guitar sound into a live scenario. Since I was a teenager I never understood why more guitarists weren’t using bass amps, I mean I’m sure there are lots of them, but many of the bands I was listening to back then used only guitar amps. I was & still am obsessed with bands that have no bass player as I like to find out what they can do with those limitations. The first band like that I started listening to was The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion & then Zeni Geva & a few others came along that I got in to.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
Zac – My guitar is a Cort M Series M600. I traded in my Fender Jag-Stang for this, as at the time I was seeking a guitar that would stay in tune & would be a good workhorse. The Cort wound up being the ideal guitar as it is very comfortable to play, has a small neck & next to no background pickup noise.
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
Zac – If I had a signature guitar it would have a built in magnetic transducer to create string drone. I briefly used an attachable device named the Sustainiac (see Gears of Sand album Unrefined & self releases Broken Signals, Line, Return to Predatory Harmony, & Sketches in Monochrome available via my web site) which produces the same effect as the ebow, but on all six strings. The sound, intricacies & subtleties this can create are brilliant, but in order to really get a strange otherworldly sound it requires a complicated combination of pedals as well as attaching the device to the headstock to generate the buzzing became a bit difficult to perform live so I ceased using it. You can hear the first & only live appearance of this setup on the live mini CD titled Monolith2 available on Lo Bango Sound www.myspace.com/lobangosound
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
Zac – My signature pedal would be a reverb, delay, & pitch shifter combination. A basic reverb & delay pedal can do wonders for creating soundscapes.
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
Zac – I own three guitars: The Cort, a Martinez acoustic, & an Aria Sinsonido skeletal bass guitar.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
Zac – On stands or in their cases.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Zac – As above: comfort, small neck size, low pickup noise, & pickup placement. I tend to go for twin humbucker guitars.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Zac – Who can say? I’ve played on crappy pawn shop brands that sound great & top of the line brands that sound terrible, it is very subjective & personal, throw in one’s choice of amp & effects & sometimes it doesn’t matter what guitar is used. Price wise I wouldn’t pay more than $1200.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Zac – I stick with what I get.
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
Zac – The last piece of equipment I thoroughly tested was the Digitech Space Station & that was in 1998, since then any pedals I’ve purchased I did not know how they would sound until I got them, but I spend a lot of time experimenting at home & can usually make anything work in some way.
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
Zac – Not often. I think I’ve only had one or two changes in the last five or six years. I tend to stick with a rig & the warning sign will be when the recordings start to stagnate or I generally lose interest in playing that I’ll then re-think my rig & change things around.
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
Zac – It depends on the song or the mood I’m in. I’m forever toggling between all settings. If I’m playing more soundscapes with effects I’ll use more bass or middle, to not create too many high ends but if it’s a clean signal then more tone.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
Zac – I have always wanted a Pete Townsend signature SG, a Travis Bean, a Gretsch White Princess, a Fender Bass VI, a Fender XIII & Neil Young’s old black Les Paul. I don’t expect to ever own any of them, but I do dream about all of them from time to time.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
Zac – I think if possible that a person’s first guitar should be something that easily stays in tune & is comfortable to play. It also depends on the age of the potential player. If your child would like to learn the guitar, then invest in a decent instrument to give them the best start on it. I guess the flipside to that argument is that other notable players started out on pieces of crap & managed to forge their own style.
QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?
Zac – The best guitar purchases have been the Cort & the Digitech Space Station, only because these two items have proved to give me the most mileage & versatility. The worst are probably my two Behringer chorus & compressor sustainer pedals, only because I bought them with no intended use & have not yet found a suitable use for either of them beyond guest appearances on a couple of tracks.
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
Zac – I endorse any Digitech item, only as I’ve had nothing but good experiences with them. The same goes for Behringer pedals, locally they retail for between $30-$50, which is literally the cheapest price in the country, & I love a bit of competition to kick the Boss effects in the arse. They’re way too expensive even for the most basic of pedals. I am also beginning to love Gretsch guitars. I occasionally loan one from my Father, & the difference in tone is definitely recognisable compared to other guitars.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
Zac – The first thing I will play is usually a song by Aussie guitarist: Cam Butler. I’ve been a big fan of his work for many years (his trio Silver Ray in particular). Cam’s music has this incredible simplicity about it. He often uses only the same three or four chords, but is forever creating interesting & cinematic melodies with them. He also achieves a brilliant, warm tone with his old Les Paul that resonates with me. Over the years I’ve picked up a few songs of his, so if I sit down to have a play then I’ll often start off with one of those to get my fingers back into it.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Zac – Twelve years old.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
Zac – My best, most technical level of guitar playing was definitely sixteen to eighteen. During those years I was interested in the Chicago instrumental/math rock type of bands like June of 44, The Shipping News, Rodan. I was always playing songs by those bands & indirectly became more of a technical player because of them. I was also heavily into The Jesus Lizard, Big Black, Shellac, Fugazi & Zeni Geva. All of which are still special bands to me. I had no social network during those years & rarely left the house or did anything else, so it was very easy to be good at playing the guitar. By comparison I am definitely a terrible guitarist nowadays. I rarely ever play for leisure & when I do play it is for recording purposes. Usually during a creative frenzy I’ll pull out some great guitar parts & then wonder where they came from. Another way to look at it is I am a far better player now in terms of knowing exactly what I want to play.
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
Zac – I guess I’m just used to it. Growing up it was my constant companion. Anywhere in the family home there was always a guitar lying around & my brother & I would often play for hours while watching the television, so even while being involved in other things we would be playing a guitar. All that time on the guitar then may be the reason I don’t feel the need now.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Zac – I don’t really have an answer for that. My guess is that its most peoples first instrument because it is such a recognised & accepted one. The common time frame to learn guitar is often in ones teens & even then it is most likely because we associate it with excitement & fun. One of my favourite clips is The Who, Live at Woodstock playing an incredibly noisy & distorted version of “Sparks”. I was & still am transfixed when watching that clip because Pete Townshend’s antics symbolized freedom & sonic mayhem, which in turn led to me picking up the guitar.
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Zac – It is both. When things are going well, creatively speaking then the guitar is my ally. If I’m trying to go for an idea & can’t make it work, then I feel terrible. I feel bad some times that I didn’t learn anything else. I do love to play the bass as well, but not as often, but if I am recording & want to use other sounds, sometimes I can take any other stringed instrument, & in a ham-fisted way manage to get something out of it that a least sounds semi professional.
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Zac – Pete Townshend, Link Wray, Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan, Neil Young, Steve Albini, Duane Denison, Jeff Beck, Jeff Martin (The Tea Party), Dave Pierce from Flying Saucer Attack, Jon DeRose (Aarktica’s No Solace in Sleep was a major turning point), Luke Sutherland (of Long Fin Killie, Bows & Music AM) Trent Reznor (from a textural point of view) I’m sure there are many others but they escape me at the moment.
QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly?
Zac – It seems a little odd to me, but I’ve seen & heard of far sillier things than that.
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Zac – Nothing serious, just some broken strings here & there. I don’t play guitar that hard. My technique (if you can call it that) is quite restrained, I often play at high volume but play softly then increase strength to give the song sudden bursts of noise.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Zac – Maybe some finger exercises up & down the neck.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
Zac – As mentioned I rarely play at all anymore, but I wouldn’t mind fitting in thirty minutes per day.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Zac – I’ve use the same nylon medium pick for many years. It helps with lighter strumming, but is still heavy enough to play hard if need be.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Zac – I like a heavy gauge to achieve a warmer tone & more bottom end, but from a playability point I prefer light gauge strings.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Zac – Once every few years. A can of WD40 lubricant & stainless steel polish can bring a set of strings back to its original health if applied every few weeks.
QRD – How often do you break strings?
Zac – Rarely.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that affect your style?
Zac – I think they’re both exclusive. Each one contributes something that achieves a greater sound that couldn’t occur without the other.
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
Zac – I’ve often wanted to have it set-up, but as long as it stays in tune that is all I need. I’m lucky in that I’ve found the perfect guitar that matches my needs, so it’s fine as is.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
Zac – I use a standard tuning, & occasionally a drop D for certain songs. If I’m working on a multi-track recording I’ll often tune to an open chord & use a violin bow on the strings to create extra atmospheres in the mix.
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
Zac – I never write down ideas & I cannot read tablature or music. I sometimes wish that I could though. 90% of all my music is based on recordings that were improvised, meaning that if I sit down to play for fun, my rig runs into my computer anyway, so I’ll often press the record button then have a thirty minute sound file at the end of it. Depending on if I’m playing noise or drones, I will often edit down those sessions into finished tracks. Or if I’m trying to record more of a musical song I’ll take melodies from those sessions & work on them until I get a song.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Zac – I wear it low, but not “Jimmy Page’s groin” low.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Zac – I like playing the same few chords. I need to learn some more.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
Zac – I own an electric mandolin that I rarely play, but when I did, the fingering involved in that transferred to greater dexterity on the guitar.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing do you wish you could do that you can’t?
Zac – I have always wanted to be able to finger pick on acoustic guitar, but the other part of me thinks that there are already far too many finger pick players in the world to do the job far better than I can, so I prefer to play the acoustic like I do an electric.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
Zac – Learning more chords & becoming more technically proficient.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Zac – I would teach them power chords first, & the more complicated chords & finger arrangements later. I started off on power chords playing things like “My Generation” & “Smells like Teen Spirit”. Learning something new can be difficult enough, but if you can achieve some kind of goal early on, I find that gives one more impetus to keep going & if when teaching someone, they can start playing basic songs, or their favourite songs, they realise that playing guitar is actually within their grasp & not something unattainable that only other people can do. At least that’s the way it happened for me.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Zac – Play hammer-ons for ten minutes without getting sore fingers. I use a lot of hammer-on techniques in conjunction with delay, reverb, & distortion to achieve droning effects.
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
Zac – I like Bigsbys, purely from an aesthetic level, but never feel the need to use them.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
Zac – I’ve often wondered about this & have struggled to see the difference between the two. Watching my brother playing guitar he can play anything, chords to complicated solos, so in my family there has never been rhythm or lead, we just play guitar, however it works.
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Zac – It depends on the situation; I’d imagine it would be frustrating watching a struggling band with a great guitarist, because there’d be no pay-off of watching all the instruments gel together to create the greater musical whole.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Zac – Neil Young’s old black Les Paul. Its beaten up, thrashed & still sounds great. I hope my Cort looks as bad as that in thirty years!
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Zac – See my above list of favourites. There is no one innovative player above all others. It all depends on individual musical taste. I am a fan of Scott Cortez of Lovesliescrushing. I’ve never met the man (except online) & have heard hardly any of his music, but what I have heard has been brilliant. A couple of times in the past though we’ve had a few long email discussions about the nature of the guitar, effects & other things & he has some great insights. I like Scott because he is a guitar worker; cruise by his MySpace or Facebook & he seems to always be working on a new guitar contraption or method of playing. He has such enthusiasm & excitement & it really shines through, even if you don’t know him. It is that sort of workhorse musician attitude that resonates with me. Eric Quach of thisquietarmy is similar as well. I like that he works so hard at every level of his project from music all the way down to realising each release he puts out. I’m handicapped in that way I that I have so much recorded material, but very little released & I just keep moving ahead to the next thing. Getting something released is great, but the time it takes & mailing out copies to labels, keeping hopeful….. I’m more addicted to the process & realising the tiny ideas that form in my mind into their finished states.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
Zac – Listen to any album on my web site:
basically anything related to sound, gadgets, or technique that I’ve discussed
in this interview can be found on my previous albums. All of which are
available for free download.
QRD – Anything else?
Zac – Thanks for inviting me to take part
in this interview.