Interview with Jon DeRosa of Aarktica
Name: Jon DeRosa
Websites: Facebook, aarktica.net (archive), reverbnation.com/aarktica, twitter/aarktica, myspace.com/aarktica, silbermedia.com/aarktica (to purchase)
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.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Jon – It changes all the time. I’m 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 aren’t
used often. But right now it’s like this:
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig – guitar, amplifier, or effects?
Jon – Guitar.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Jon – If I’m playing clean or with minimal
effects at home (which I do often), I use my 1970 Fender Vibrochamp. It’s
the best sounding small amp I’ve ever heard.
QRD – What’s 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, I’m 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 that’s supposed to divide the tones into single coil variations, but I’ve never noticed much of a difference when I activate that, maybe mine’s 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 don’t 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 you’d 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 don’t?
Jon – Watertight seals.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Jon – It’s been so long since I’ve bought
one, I’m not really sure. In all honesty, the most important thing is value
for the price. I don’t care about brands, I don’t care about popularity.
I care about if it feels good & if I’m going to play that thing for
the next 20 years & beyond. I’m willing to pay a little more for a
quality instrument to ensure that.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Jon – See above. There are deals everywhere. If you have the money & there’s a $5,000 guitar that has exactly what you’re looking for, then I think you should be able to have that. But if you don’t have that kind of money, I’m 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, I’d 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, I’ll 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 don’t have a lot of extra gear outside of what I use from day-to-day, so there’s 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 I’d like to have. As far as pedals, to be honest I’m not very in the loop on a lot of the newer boutique stuff coming out beyond Z Vex & Death by Audio. But I’m sure there are some boxes out there that I would enjoy playing with. I’d 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 person’s first guitar that aren’t 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. It’s 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 you’ve made?
Jon – I really can’t say I’ve 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 – I’ve always hated anything I’ve tried by Peavey & I’m not a fan of anything I’ve 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 I’m mentioning is consumer-grade stuff, but even the pro lines of the latter two have seemed really shitty to me.
QRD – What’s 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 & I’m 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. That’s 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, I’m 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 – I’m not so sure it does, but it’s the one I’ve 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. & it’s very large & inconvenient to cart around.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s 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 it’s not an original idea or anything, piano is probably
the best instrument to start out on. & to start very young. It’s 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.
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 Young’s 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 – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Jon – I’ve 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 I’ll 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 it’s very little, perhaps 2 a week on a good week. I plan to remedy that in the coming months. I can’t 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, it’s whatever’s around.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Jon – Depends on if I’m getting ready for studio, show, etc. I’d say medium lights most of the time & again I’m not particular.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Jon – Once every 1-2 months depending on how much I’m 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 don’t 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 can’t 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 – I’m 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 it’s like a cross between chord diagrams, tablature, & shorthand. It’s 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 I’m 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 – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Jon – Not writing down ideas I have as they arise while I’m playing. I know the only way I’ll remember a riff, a progression, a song (etc) is to write it down using my notation. But sometimes I can’t find a pen, or paper, or I’m lazy & it just doesn’t get written down. It’s a real waste, since 9 times out of 10 I will not remember how it went the next time I pick up a guitar. It’s really pretty terrible. I’d probably have twice as many releases by now if I didn’t have this bad habit.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s 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 I’d think would help most.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Jon – Flatpicking using plectrums. I have never been able to get the hang of those things.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve 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 – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Jon – No idea. I steal all my tricks from BJM.
QRD – What’s 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 – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Jon – I’d 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 teacher’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 it’s helpful to hear how each note in a scale relates to the root note. That’s probably something most guitar teachers wouldn’t teach.
QRD – What’s 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 – What’s 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 don’t 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, I’m kidding. The sign of a good rhythm player is that you tend to go unnoticed. As in “Wow, there’s something about this band that is just really *working* but I can’t pinpoint it.” If you “noticed” the rhythm player, it’s probably because they’re 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 can’t think of any situation where this might be the case.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Jon – I honestly don’t know. Maybe one of Johnny Cash’s tried & true D-35 Martins. Seems like you’d 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 it’s 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. I’d really be interested in connecting with him. If anyone reading this can help out, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.