Interview with Alan Sparhawk of Low & Retribution Gospel Choir
Bands: Low, Black-eyed Snakes, Retribution Gospel Choir
Listen to “how the weather comes over the central hillside”
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Alan – There was a Harmony Stella acoustic guitar in the house as I was growing up. I am not sure where it came from, but it was unplayable. I borrowed a Harmony electric from a friend at around age 12 & learned a few chords. First guitar of my own was a Japanese copy of an SG bass. Still have it. Then I think my dad gave me an Aria Pro 2 ZZ Deluxe - a baby blue Explorer-shaped thing. Once I could buy my own, I traded it in for a stripped 1964 Mustang. Still have that.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Alan – Right now, it’s a Les Paul with P-90 pickups & a bigsby trem into a Z-Vex Octane 3, an SIB Mr. Echo, a Z-Vex Lo-fi Loop Junkie, & then a Z-Vex Super Hard On. Amps vary, but I like the 1965 reissue Fender Twin with the 15 inch speaker, &/or a Traynor Bassmaster head into a 1x12 cab. With Low, I’ll use smaller amps - a Carr Mercury, Fender Vibroverb, or just a Champ.
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig - guitar, amplifier, or effects?
Alan – Guitar first, I suppose. I really need a good amp, but I can get by with most anything in a pinch.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Alan – I have various amps for various situations. Fender Twin is great because it’s clean & loud. It’s not my favorite, but it’s reliable. I have an old AC30 that’s really beautiful sounding, but too fragile to travel with, the Traynor Bassmaster heads are my special favorites & I love the new Fender Pro Jr. amps. I love great amps, but I’m wishy-washy.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
Alan – Black late 1980s Les Paul standard with Rio Grande P-90 pickups & a bigsby trem. I have a few Les Pauls & they’re all pretty exciting to play (most Les Pauls are not), but this one seems the most reliable & consistent. It’s a very heavy piece of wood & whoever had it before me played it a lot. I used to play telecasters with a humbucker & bigsby, but then I crossed over like DRI. In the studio, I’ll usually use several different guitars to get different textures, plus it kinda helps justify having more guitars than you really need. On tour, I’m usually doing it all with just the one.
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
Alan – Les Paul standard, P-90 pickup in the neck position, bigsby trem. Black & dirty. If they wanted to go vintage Low, it would be a bound Tele with a humbucker in the neck & a bigsby.
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
Alan – A delay pedal probably. Analog, with a bit of wobble.
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
Alan – Around 25.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
Alan – Irresponsibly, in a secret cave.
QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don't?
Alan – A decent shoulder strap, more pockets. Reinforcement & no zipper on the bottom where the strap thing on the bottom of your guitar sits.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Alan – the way it makes me feel. I tend to be attracted to guitars that have been played a lot - the wood just feels more musical.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Alan – It really varies. The guitar I’ve played the most all my life cost me 250 bucks. Vintage guitars are really great & deserve to be expensive, but I’m too scared to travel with one. I think if you know what to look for, you can still get a great guitar for less than 500 dollars.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Alan – I tinker a bit. The bigsby is easy to install, & most guitars can benefit from upgraded capacitors. Most guitars are just fine as is.
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
Alan – Not much. I’m more of an in-the-moment consumer.
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
Alan – I change amps from time to time. Effects have been similar for a long time. I try different guitars & I have a wide variety to use, but I’m usually attached to one at a time & that position has only changed 2 or 3 times in my whole life.
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
Alan – I’ve probably had the same goal from the beginning, with various levels of accuracy. I like a very large dark tone, right on the edge of distortion - usually a tube amp turned up to breaking point. Delay has been a constant live crutch. Even as I play louder in Retribution Gospel Choir, I’m generally shooting for the same ideal.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
Alan – I used to lust after gear a lot more. I always wanted a 1960s blonde Telecaster with a rosewood neck - for some reason it just seemed the epitome of electric guitar. Now I think it would be cool to have one of those Roland synth guitars - the silver one with the support arm that goes to the headstock. That shit is bold.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
Alan – If it has strings & puts out signal, you’re in business. Used is better. Get a tuner.
QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?
Alan – Fender Pro Jr. amp is still the best buy out there - 15watts, tube, simple circuit. The Traynor Bassmaster head can be found pretty cheap, but it’s one of the best sounding amps in the world. Over the years I’ve found things cheap here & there - a Micro-Moog synth for $150, the first Roland drum machine for $25, the Silvertone I use in the Snakes, etc. I’ve had to buy gear on the road in emergency situations & it always goes bad - a Victoria Tweed amp, a JMI AC30 copy, newer AC30s.
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
Alan – The Z-Vex pedals are great - they don’t degrade tone, & they’re extreme. I like that they don’t eat batteries as fast as other pedals, too. Amp companies can vary. Fender makes a lot of shitty amps, but a few models are still the best. The simplest equipment is usually the best. As for guitars, I’m a slave to the kings - Fender & Gibson. I’ve got this thing against Boss & DOD pedals. Nothing good comes of them.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
Alan – Probably some 3-note blues riff, then I quickly try to cover it up with something obtuse.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Alan – 12 or 13.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
Alan – I know this sounds desperate, but think I’m getting slightly better even today. I’m always playing at the very edge of my ability, so it’s hard to detect, but I do think I’m getting better.
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
Alan – I can’t read music, so it’s a more practical instrument to learn & write on, to a certain point. The guitar is cool & I want to be cool.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Alan – I’m not sure. I wish sometimes that I had learned piano as a kid, but then I guess I wouldn’t be the way I am. My kids are taking piano lessons, so I’m learning a little about that. I can see why the piano would be an ideal first instrument…. The guitar is an easy companion, easy to set in the corner & pick up for a few moments. It’s portable & intimate, yet has the potential to blow the ceiling off.
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Alan – Ally. The guitar wants to make music. It feels like a battle most of the time, but the guitar is a true friend & it always gives back more than you give.
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Alan – Besides early punk like The Clash, The Edge (U2) was a big influence on me early on. I liked his simplicity, choppy rhythm, & delay effects. Pink Floyd had a huge early impact on me, too, & I still love Gilmore’s work. He’s so soulful & grand. I can never play like him, but the emotion & reaching he always has really resonates with me. Then, by college, I’d found Husker Du, The Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus, REM, Replacements, Swans, & Jesus & Mary Chain, who all had influence on me & led me back to stuff like Velvet Underground, Sabbath, The Stooges, & Neil Young. Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, & The Pixies were yet a new level - an exciting time for guitars. I love Ali Farka Toure & a lot of the other recent African desert blues guys. Dan Littleton from Ida is an extremely good player & I’ve been lucky to be around him enough to know that. There’s also a guitar player named Marc Ribot who I have always idolized.
QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing
their guitars is natural or silly
Alan – I suppose it’s natural. I don’t name them, but a few of mine have names that other people gave them. The one I use a lot lately is called “black eagle.” There’s a “white eagle” too - symbol of freedom & America.…
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Alan – I’m not proud of it, but I smashed a Les Paul studio in half on stage & then chucked it into a festival crowd of about 5000 people. It was stupid, irresponsible, & unexplainable.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Alan – Mostly just fiddle around. I try out some of the song fragments I’ve been working on, on rare occasions I’ll do finger exercise scales. Sometimes I take out The Beatles fake book & try to learn a song.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
Alan – I try to play every day - for at least a half hour. On the road it’s more & when I’m writing it can be quite a bit more. I would always play more than 2 hours a day if I could.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Alan – The thickest Jim Dunlop nylon ones with the textured grip. & I use the blunt corner.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Alan – Heavy - 11 to 54 or heavier. D’Addario or Ernie Ball, even though they don’t give them to me.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Alan – On the road, usually every 3 or 4 gigs.
QRD – How often do you break strings?
Alan – Hardly ever in Low, but in RGC I break one once every 4 or 5 shows. String breakage is about accuracy.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?
Alan – When I was younger, I was into the rhythmic right-hand U2-meets-funk thing. The right hand is very expressive & visceral & the left is more logical & ordered. The right hand doesn’t have to know anything. I try to get a lot of different sounds by just the way I hit the strings.
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
Alan – I can do my own set up (intonation, etc.) I have someone else do electronics because I don’t know enough about it & I’m a messy solderer. Unless a guitar is way out of whack, I’ll usually adjust to its feel & work with whatever it’s doing.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
Alan – Open G, exclusively. I started messing with tunings when I was 19, mostly because of Sonic Youth. I settled on one I liked because I only had one guitar & didn’t like retuning. I later found out that it was open G. It seemed interesting so I just stuck with it. Now it’s all I know.
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
Alan – Notebook. Usually just lyrics with a couple chord notes at the top.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Alan – About mid-height. Too low is too hard to reach & too high takes your elbow out of the game.
QRD – What's a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Alan – I catch myself doing the guitar-face too often, but I can’t help it. I would have to think about myself too much to stop. Also, I tend to dwell too far up the neck when I’m improvising - sounds better further down.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
Alan – Lots of great guitar players are drummers too. I started on bass & I know it effected the way I approached guitar. Singing gives you new ideas.…
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Alan – I’ve always loved the way Steve Cropper plays, though I’ve never been in a band that would need that. I envy good reggae players - that shit’s more than just up-strokes. Flamenco guitar blows my mind, but those guys have been doing it intensely their whole lives - I could never catch up at this point.
QRD – What's a guitar goal you've never accomplished?
Alan – I’ve never had big aspirations - when I was young, I thought being able to play “Eruption” by Van Halen would be the ultimate, but I knew I never would so I set some humbler goals.
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Alan – Shutting off the delay pedal for just a moment here & there during chaos can put some nice unpredictable clarity in - just enough to keep things together. Also, A min to C min is interesting.
QRD – What's your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?
Alan – Capo, though I don’t use it much. Sometimes a capo can change everything.
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Alan – flamenco.
QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
Alan – I had 2 or 3 random ones as a kid - mostly from guys my dad played music with. One guy showed me the relationship of the I, IV, & V chords - that was probably the most useful & influential thing I learned. Took a few lessons in college from this older jazz guy - he mostly told stories about gigging, but that was probably more useful to me than any chord charts he’d send me home with.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don't think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Alan – A few chords, the I, IV, V pattern, & encouragement to play every day. I’d tell them to write a song with what they know &/or learn each time. It’s never too early to write or improvise.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Alan – Open G tuning, mostly. Big strings. Choke up on the blunt corner of the pick, so the skin of your finger is hitting the strings, too. Play slow & take lots of random unnecessary micro-pauses.
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
Alan – The bigsby is the only one I can deal with & I’ve come to really depend on it. I’m sort of always riding it a little - it helps blur intonation & reacts well with a little delay. I’ve always loved the sound of warped records.
QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?
Alan – Never. Always full up.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
Alan – The line between the two has been pretty well blurred by now. Anyone who would call themselves a lead guitar player at this point is probably a complete dick.
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Alan – I suppose it’s possible, but rare. I usually don’t notice the guitar work, but I’ll notice if a band is lame.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Alan – Pops Staples’. His guitar is holy - it saves souls. I’m not sure if I could OWN that, now that I think bout it. It belongs with him & God, I imagine.
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Alan – I think Johnny in Radiohead is making a valiant effort at the modern possibilities. Nels Cline is very good - very in touch with his gear, & yet still so musical. That kid in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs brought some new things to the table. I still love seeing Marc Ribot - he can play circles around you yet still sound like rubber bands on a sardine can.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
Alan – The first RGC tour EP has a song called “El Coro” that’s about the best tone I’ve ever gotten on tape. I’m really happy with how the solo guitar record went - it was the right moment at the right place. The solo on Low’s “Breaker” is good. I’m usually underwhelmed by my guitar tone on record, so I don’t get my hopes up; but every once in a while it will surprise me.
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