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QRD #43 - Guitarist Series Part III
about this issue
Guitarist Interviews with:
Jon DeRosa of Aarktica
Brian McKenzie
Invisible Elephant
Wim Lecluyse of Circle Bros
Nick Reinhart of Tera Melos
Matt Stevens
Dan Cohoon of Moral Crayfish
Clayton James Mick
John Trubee
Agata of Melt-Banana
Bones Denault of Shady Lady
Eric Hausmann
PD Wilder of Hotel Hotel
Ryan Wasterlain
Miguel Baptista Benedict
Jim Dennis of Random FX
Jon Attwood of Yellow6
Travis Kotler of Pineal Ventana
Brian Elyo of mobdividual
Joe Morgan
Bill Horist
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Guitarist Interview with Jon DeRosa of Aarktica 
August 2010

Name: Jon DeRosa
Bands: Aarktica
Websites: Facebook, aarktica.net (archive), reverbnation.com/aarktica, twitter/aarktica, myspace.com/aarktica, silbermedia.com/aarktica (to purchase)

Listen to "In Sea"
Listen to "Ocean"

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

Jon I started out studying flamenco guitar on a classical guitar when I was about 10 years old. It was an inexpensive, decent pre-owned model that my Mom (very lovingly) got for me. I beat that thing to shit, playing metal ballads on it & eventually saved up to buy a Hirade classical guitar which I still play to this day. Hirades are I guess kind of the higher end series of Takamine guitars.
My first electric guitar was a red Yamaha, not sure of the model, basic strat-like body. Possibly the RGX or a precursor to that, right around the time Yamaha was promoting its Pacifica series. Anyway, my dad got it for me for Christmas when I was about 10 or 11. It was actually a pretty solid guitar, I played the hell out of it. It took a beating. Many years later I think I traded it in towards a Telecaster. Im sure I didnt get more than $65 for it.

QRD Whats your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?

Jon It changes all the time. Im moving toward a cleaner signal, cleaner tone these days than I did in the past. The order changes from time to time & the items in parenthesis arent used often. But right now its like this:
Gibson Nighthawk -----> Morley Volume Pedal -----> (Fulltone Octave/Fuzz or Digitech CM2) -----> (MXR Phase 90) -----> Akai E1 Headrush Delay -----> Electro-Harmonix Cathedral -----> Gibson Digital Echoplex -----> TC Electronics ND-1 Nova Delay -----> Kustom Commander (2 x 12)
The Echoplex is a rack unit with a foot control that I primarily use for looping. You can loop very long passages, multiply loops on the fly, reverse loops, add & subtract parts. Its got a lot of functions. I also still use my Line 6 Delay, Alesis Nanoverb, Boss DD-5, or Boss Super Feedbacker from time to time.

QRD Whats the most important part of your rig guitar, amplifier, or effects?

Jon Guitar.

QRD Whats your main amplifier & why?

Jon If Im playing clean or with minimal effects at home (which I do often), I use my 1970 Fender Vibrochamp. Its the best sounding small amp Ive ever heard.
The only other amp I own right now is the Kustom, an early 70s model which sounds incredible, but really needs to be turned up a bit to sound great. I use it for gigs & recording. Its a monster to haul around, but it sounds very nice. I picked it up last year for like $400. I had played through Fenders most of my life & always felt like I wanted something a bit ballsier, bigger. A bit more color, different. I found it at Main Drag in Brooklyn. The reverb was fucked up on it, but Id never use that aspect of it anyway. So I disconnected it & it sounds incredible.

QRD Whats your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?

Jon Gibson Night Hawk from 1996 or 1997. Gibson only made them for a few years, Im not really sure why it never took off. Superficially it looks a bit like a Les Paul, though the sound is not as big, not as bottomy & resonant. Possibly due to the smaller body size.  I have the 3 pick-up version: M-series mini-humbucker, M-series slanted humbucker & an NSX single coil in the middle. It has a push/pull knob thats supposed to divide the tones into single coil variations, but Ive never noticed much of a difference when I activate that, maybe mines busted. Either way, it offers a hell of a lot of tonal possibilities & it plays really clean & easy.

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

Jon It would be modeled after an early 70s Les Paul Black Beauty & have an entire set of drone/sympathy strings you could easily adjust the key of from song to song.

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

Jon Man, I dont know. Something really psychedelic, like a nice analog emulating tape delay with a great reverse feature & envelope sweep. Something that if you teamed up with a Foxx Tone Machine youd be in stoner metal paradise.

QRD How many guitars do you own?

Jon Just 1 classical, 1 acoustic, & 1 electric. & a tenor banjo.

QRD How & where do you store your guitars?

Jon After years of living like a transient & in one-room flops, my girlfriend & I now have a nice space in Brooklyn where we have an additional room that she uses for writing & I use for music. I try & keep them out & in sight because I think that it psychologically encourages me to play more.

QRD What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually dont?

Jon Watertight seals.

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

Jon Its been so long since Ive bought one, Im not really sure. In all honesty, the most important thing is value for the price. I dont care about brands, I dont care about popularity. I care about if it feels good & if Im going to play that thing for the next 20 years & beyond. Im willing to pay a little more for a quality instrument to ensure that.
But I also like to sniff out dark horse models. Like my Night Hawk for instance. It sounds incredible, but no one plays them, theres no market for them (well maybe now there will be, as they began making them again in 2009). & theyre not particularly in-style. I bought it in like 2002, when you really never saw them around & it was cheap. Value + quality is kinda the combination for me.

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

Jon See above. There are deals everywhere. If you have the money & theres a $5,000 guitar that has exactly what youre looking for, then I think you should be able to have that. But if you dont have that kind of money, Im quite sure you can still do all right.

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

Jon Back in my shitty guitar collecting days, Id pick up cheap Teisco Del Reys & do all kinds of things to fuck with them. But then it becomes kind of a novelty guitar, a one-trick pony. When I have a guitar I love the sound of, I tend to leave it alone.

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

Jon Before I do any internet research, I tend to go try out a few models cold. I want to make sure I form my own opinions outside of any internet gear reviews. Then with my own opinions already noted, Ill go & do the research online. Those factors combined usually help make a pretty informed decision.

QRD Do you change your rig around often?

Jon Sure. All the time for different songs. But I mean, I dont have a lot of extra gear outside of what I use from day-to-day, so theres not an awful lot of variation I guess.

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

Jon I think I have primary tones for all purposes. Meaning, my clean tone is very particular. My warm bed drones have a different but distinct tone. They are the anchors, they tend to stay fairly similar. Above & around them, though, are layers of other tones that change from song to song, album to album.

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

Jon There are a few Les Paul models that Id like to have. As far as pedals, to be honest Im not very in the loop on a lot of the newer boutique stuff coming out beyond Z Vex & Death by Audio. But Im sure there are some boxes out there that I would enjoy playing with. Id also really be interested to try out some amps/equipment by Sunn.

QRD What do you think are some important features to be on a persons first guitar that arent always there?

Jon I guess fret markers to indicate 5th, 7th, etc. I think they can help orient a new player. They tend to not be marked on a classical guitar, which I learned on. I also feel like decent tuning heads. Its already humiliating enough to suck while you learn to play, do you need to be out-of-tune as well?

QRD What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases youve made?

Jon I really cant say Ive bought anything I truly regret. & I consider all my finds best purchases.

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

Jon Ive always hated anything Ive tried by Peavey & Im not a fan of anything Ive bought from Ibanez either aside from the Tube Screamer (which I feel you need 2 of side-by-side to get the sound I really want from it). Ampeg amps & Roland electronics/amps never have worked out for me either. I mean, I know all this stuff Im mentioning is consumer-grade stuff, but even the pro lines of the latter two have seemed really shitty to me.

QRD Whats the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?

Jon Open A, & 2nd finger on 2nd fret on the D string below it. Open 5th. Kinda move that second finger up the neck, listening to the resonances.

QRD How old were you when you started playing guitar?

Jon Probably about 10 years old.

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

Jon I have a cassette or two of me playing classical & flamenco pieces when I was around age 16 & Im pretty sure that I was at the top of my technical game then.  Then in my early & mid-20s, I was playing a lot of acoustic instruments with Flare & my fingerpicking got pretty good, maybe better than it was in my classical days. Thats also around when I was doing Pale Horse and Rider, so a lot of steel string picking. As far as my sensitivity of sound & ability to improvise, Im more comfortable now then ever. & I hope that I continue to improve in that regard.

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

Jon Im not so sure it does, but its the one Ive grown most fond of. The tambura was my favorite sounding instrument, but at one drone all the time it gets a little limiting as to what you can do with it. & its very large & inconvenient to cart around.

QRD Do you think guitar should be peoples first instrument as often as it is?

Jon I actually began on trumpet in school band & got pretty good in just a couple years. Then I discovered guitar & never picked the trumpet up again. I regret that. I kind of think that even though its not an original idea or anything, piano is probably the best instrument to start out on. & to start very young. Its a very intuitive set up to a child. I think if a kid has a basis in that, he or she can go on to conquer many instruments.
If you start playing later in life, Im not sure it matters as much.

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

Jon I have no resentment toward my guitar whatsoever.

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

Jon John Christ, Alan Sparhawk, Brandon Capps, David Pearce, Jason DiEmilio, Loren Connors, Brian John Mitchell. I think La Monte Youngs compositions & the ragas that he & Michael Harrison introduced me to had a very significant effect on my playing as well.  These questions are difficult, I feel like if I answered this tomorrow I might give you a whole different set of names. These are the ones coming to mind now.

QRD Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly (e.g. naming their guitar)?

Jon John Christ referring to his guitar as The Bitch in the late 80s is both natural & silly.

QRD Whats the most physical damage youve done to a guitar & how did you do it?

Jon Ive done more physical damage to my own wrists & hands while playing than I ever have to any instrument. I briefly played in this post-rock/indie/emo band Morning Color Division & I tore up my right inner forearm really terribly. The pickguard on my Telecaster had come a bit loose, protruding edges above the strings. Most of those songs were full strum, palm mute type stuff. So my wrist just kept scraping against the jagged edges. There was blood everywhere & it really stung.

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

Jon Once in a while Ill take out some old music books, like the Slonimsky book of scales & modes & mess around looking for new melodic ideas.

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

Jon Right now its very little, perhaps 2 a week on a good week. I plan to remedy that in the coming months. I cant put a number on it, but I certainly would like to be playing more.

QRD What type of pick do you use & why?

Jon Medium standard on a steel string & medium-light on an electric. But really, its whatevers around.

QRD What gauge strings do you use & why?

Jon Depends on if Im getting ready for studio, show, etc. Id say medium lights most of the time & again Im not particular.

QRD How often do you change strings?

Jon Once every 1-2 months depending on how much Im playing.

QRD How often do you break strings?

Jon Hardly ever.

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

Jon I think my left hand (fretting hand) is not as quick & flexible as it used to be, probably because I dont play the kind of classical stuff I used to. My right hand (picking hand) is still pretty solid. Though my metal chops on my right are a little weak. I cant chug nearly as fast as I used to.

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

Jon I tend to have people I know & trust set it up.

QRD What tunings do you use & why?

Jon Im in standard tuning about 50% of the time. I change tunings all the time, tailored to the song. I play a lot of open strings/tunings to get a bigger sound from a single guitar.

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

Jon I have my own system for notation. I guess its like a cross between chord diagrams, tablature, & shorthand. Its literally the only way I notate my own music.

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

Jon I tend to be sitting down when I play. If Im standing, I know it definitely looks cooler to have the guitar hanging below the waist, but it limits what you can do with your left hand, so I keep it fairly high up on the waist.

QRD Whats a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?

Jon Not writing down ideas I have as they arise while Im playing. I know the only way Ill remember a riff, a progression, a song (etc) is to write it down using my notation. But sometimes I cant find a pen, or paper, or Im lazy & it just doesnt get written down. Its a real waste, since 9 times out of 10 I will not remember how it went the next time I pick up a guitar. Its really pretty terrible. Id probably have twice as many releases by now if I didnt have this bad habit.

QRD Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someones guitar playing?

Jon I would guess that many of the bowed strings would be helpful, but I think in terms of understanding tonal relationships & also improving dexterity, piano would be the one Id think would help most.

QRD Whats a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you cant?

Jon Flatpicking using plectrums. I have never been able to get the hang of those things.

QRD Whats a guitar goal youve never accomplished?

Jon I had hoped to work my way through all of the Segovia / Fernando Sor Estudios, but I only made it through the first third of the book. They get very difficult.

QRD Whats the last guitar trick you learned?

Jon No idea. I steal all my tricks from BJM.

QRD Whats your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?

Jon I guess tuner, if that counts. I like to use a capo all the time lately.

QRD Whats a guitar technique youd like to master, but havent?

Jon Id like my metal chops to be back where they used to be. Faster chugging, better note squealing/feedback.

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

Jon I took guitar lessons from age 10 - 17, I think. My teachers name was David Cohen & I still keep in touch with him to this day. Beyond that I was in college & studied piano, voice, & composition. After that I studied classical Indian vocal music with La Monte Young & Marian Zazeela, & later Michael Harrison.  My guitar lessons provided a very in-depth foundation for everything I would do musically later in life. Some have argued that traditional learning limits your mind as far as what you can do on an instrument. Now at age 31 I can say that I dont agree with that mindset at all. Having the foundation & understanding of an instrument can only elevate what you do with it. It just depends on how innovative, creative & dedicated a player you are. I certainly still draw from the well of things I learned as a teenager when I write music today.

QRD What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you dont think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?

Jon I actually did teach guitar for a few years here in Brooklyn. This was while I was in the midst of studying Indian music myself, & I borrowed some ideas from my Indian music training for my guitar lessons. I tried to teach my students to play raga modes on top of a drone (whether the drone was an open string or on a separate recording) in order to really *listen* to the relationships each note had with one another. I think its helpful to hear how each note in a scale relates to the root note. Thats probably something most guitar teachers wouldnt teach.

QRD Whats something someone would have to do to emulate your style?

Jon Be very patient with the way you allow notes to unfold in a piece. Perhaps perform on top of a drone which is playing the root of the song. Be willing to turn off your effects & play clean sometimes.

QRD Whats your take on tremolo systems?

Jon I avoid any guitars with tremolo bars. Tuning is just always out of whack with them. I owned this Ibanez Talman for about 5 minutes that had some kind of floating tremolo system where if a string broke, the tension on the system & the whole neck changed & every string went out of tune. Really fucking stupid. No idea why that makes sense for anyone.

QRD How often do you adjust your tone knob?

Jon It pretty much stays all the way up, or close to it. I dont consider that a real viable option in changing tone.

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

Jon Personality-wise & in general? Rhythm guitar players are salt-of-the-Earth guys who are content to lay back & be unnoticed. Lead guitar players may have a little more ego involved. Solo ambient/noise guys like us & the ones we hang out with? Total egomaniacal, deluded assholes.  No, no, no, Im kidding.  The sign of a good rhythm player is that you tend to go unnoticed. As in Wow, theres something about this band that is just really *working* but I cant pinpoint it. If you noticed the rhythm player, its probably because theyre not doing a good job (playing too loud, too sloppy, tone is all wrong, etc).

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

Jon No. I cant think of any situation where this might be the case.

QRD What famous musicians guitar would you like to own & why?

Jon I honestly dont know. Maybe one of Johnny Cashs tried & true D-35 Martins. Seems like youd be able to channel the man himself with one of those.

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

Jon I think its great that Jon Catler is making & working with microtonal electric guitars. It will open a lot of doors for players like us to have them available. You can check them out here: www.freenotemusic.com.

QRD Where can people hear your best guitar work?

Jon In the drone context, No Solace In Sleep & In Sea.

QRD Anything else?

Jon I have been wondering if Brandon Capps (Half String) is still making music or if anyone knows how to get in touch with him. Id really be interested in connecting with him. If anyone reading this can help out, please email me: aarktica@gmail.com.

Other QRD interviews with Jon DeRosa:
Aarktica interview (May 2000)
Aarktica interview (June 2002)
Aarktica interview (January 2008)
dead leaves rising interview (April 1997)