Interview with Ian McPhedran of Ostrich Tuning
Bands: Ostrich Tuning
Listen to “Muscle Tough”
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Ian – I bought my first guitar when I was
fifteen. My mom gave me a bit of money for my birthday & the rest I
made by cutting lawns. My cousin (who was two years older & had been
playing in bands for some time) took me to one of the big music stores
in downtown Toronto & helped me pick one out that was in my price range
(very little) & that I liked. At the time my favorite bands were Nirvana
& Sonic Youth, so I really really wanted a Fender Mustang or a Jaguar
& had no idea that these would be way too expensive. I settled on a
black Squire Stratocaster with a white pickguard & three single coil
pickups, which seemed to be the closest approximation to what I wanted
& I could afford. I remember my father, who is generally quite dour
(a stereotypical Scotsman) & I thought didn’t really care all that
much about music surprised me by being really excited about it. It’s strange
how it became a bonding moment between us — he pulled out a bunch of his
old records & made a list of songs I should learn. He also kept referring
to it as a “rhythm guitar” which was quite endearing & would later
inform some of my musical explorations/ideas. I think he thought (&
probably still does because I have never questioned him about it) that
there were two types of guitars, “rhythm” & “lead” & that they
were different instruments, probably because of the credits in the liner
notes of some of his records.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Ian – (Instrument) > (Pedals) A/B/Y switch
(A) > Bass Booster > Brass Master > DOD Bass EQ > (Amp(s))
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig – guitar, amplifier, or effects?
Ian – The guitar & effects are definitely the most important. I like using my own amp(s) but will happily borrow/use other people’s at shows to save set-up time & car space. However, unless it is a completely spur-of-the moment/impromptu show, I prefer to use my own instruments/pedals.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Ian – Since my present set-up is geared toward bass-y sounds, these days it is a 197? GBX Bass driver. It has been a bit touchy & required a bit more maintenance than it previously did the past few years, but I am reluctant to get another because it has a unique warm tone that is often absent in newer amps. I like to couple it with a Fender Princeton Chorus amp & run the (A) through the GBX & the (B) through the Princeton.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
Ian – Presently it’s the “McPhedran Dronemaster”
I built myself a year ago. As the name implies, in the band we play in
the all-D “ostrich tuning” developed by Lou Reed for the song “Do the Ostrich”.
To achieve this effectively, the guitar has to be specially set-up &
modified slightly to take the tuning. For a long time, I had wanted to
try building my own guitar so I could learn more about the inner workings
& hopefully do my own modifications to get closer to the sounds I wanted
without having to depend on techs. I was really inspired after a great
conversation with a tattoo artist friend who builds all of her own tattooing
equipment & insists that her apprentices do so as well. It’s amazing
how much it broadens your perspective, creativity, & understanding
of music when you build your own gear — especially for musicians that love
to tinker with stuff & experiment.
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
Ian – Right now I am working on a new “dronemaster” build project that combines my favorite features of various guitars, but is optimized for ostrich tuning & improves upon the “rhythm guitar” principles outlined above. Since I have some experience now & know what I want, this time I decided to source all of the parts myself as opposed to purchasing another kit. It has a Stratocaster style neck with a jumbo paddle headstock (a bit smaller than the first build) & a body shaped like a Vox Phantom. I decided to go with mini-humbuckers, which will be wired in “super seven switching” to allow for a multitude of different settings (coil tapping each humbucker, out-of phase, series/parallel, etc…) & even greater tonal versatility. I always loved the look of the old Teisco guitars (like the Spectrum Five) with tons of switches, so the seven switches is a nod to that. I debated having a floating tremolo/vibrato system in it, but realized I don’t actually use it that much & would rather have a Telecaster style set bridge that strings through the body for improved sustain. I also designed a custom split tortoise shell pickguard for it, so it definitely combines the elements I love about my other guitars & also has some nods to the lost guitar. I tried a different finishing technique that uses Danish oil on both the neck & the body, which will give it a different look & feel than my other guitars & emphasize the wood grain. It has a satin finish, so it won’t gloss out like many other guitars. Throughout the process, I realized how much I personally dislike finishing attempts to make guitars look like sports cars — it’s just not my thing.
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
Ian – I have been building my own pedals
for some time & more than half on my board are now custom builds —
I only use manufactured ones if they have complex circuitry I can’t physically
or economically build. Aside from the aesthetics of the finishes, I didn’t
diverge too much from the many designs freely available on the internet.
Along with learning about the various components, through reading the material
on great sites like Aron Nelson’s DIYstompboxes.com, & General Guitar
Gadgets, I learned how to make slight modifications to the designs to get
the sounds I was looking for. Like guitar building, it is easy & a
lot of fun once you get going.
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
Ian – I own 4 electric guitars & am building my fifth. I have an Epiphone Dot, a 1969 Teisco Del Rey that I just finished rebuilding & am using primarily as a lap steel guitar because of its extremely high action & the aforementioned “Dronemasters”. I recently built an experimental “tabletop guitar” that I have been playing with a lot—it has two bridges with separate outputs & is perfect for adding springs, clips & other ‘prepared’ objects.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
Ian – I have well-padded gig bags for the ones I use & transport most frequently & two hard cases for the ones that stay put.
QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?
Ian – I have never really given this a lot of thought. A good case should be durable & protect the guitar well, but also be lightweight for easy transport. I find that the cases I use are great for my purposes — I just need them to hold the guitars & the straps. My cords & pedals have their own case.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Ian – I suppose this is a fairly obvious answer but it’s always a balance between aesthetics, playability, & sound. I am sure there are people scoffing at this, but for me the look is as important as the feel & sound — if you fall short on any of the three, you end up with a guitar you won’t enjoy, which will just gather dust. I love the look & feel of offset bodies & hollow bodies & prefer the look of natural wood. I prefer a low/medium action setup & generally prefer the sound of humbuckers & P-90s to single coil pickups. The weight also needs to be right—I don’t want a guitar that is feather light or conversely, so heavy it pulls too much on my shoulder. I also believe it should be fairly priced — too often high & even medium end guitars are way out of most folks’ price range & given the fact that so many are now machine assembled in factories as opposed to hand-made by luthiers, I know the markup is completely ridiculous for what sometimes ends up being inferior craftsmanship.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Ian – It depends entirely on how &
where it is made. A fair price should reflect the quality of the parts
& the craftsmanship. If it is hand-made by an independent luthier,
it may be reasonable to spend thousands of dollars if their work is impeccable
& fits what you need. I think most of the mass-produced high-end guitars
that I have browsed are way overpriced given the parts & the quality
of the work on them. Even some of the boutique reissues that I have tried
out at local shops are a bit too expensive for what they actually are.
They cut corners all over the place, skimp on some materials, & in
some cases, use shoddy electronics. Compared to the US, most of the instruments/amps/gear
sold in Canada are horrendously overpriced — I’m not entirely sure if this
is because of duties paid, store mark-ups, or the general lack of competition
in the country, but my best guess is some combination of the three. There
aren’t direct online stores (though some of the American ones will ship
to Canada for a hefty shipping fee), so you are limited in terms of options.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Ian – I have customized & upgraded
all of them. Through experience, you figure out what you like & what
you need & now that there are so many options out there, it is easy
to take a base model & customize it into something that will really
suit your style. There’s nothing wrong with sticking with what you’ve got
— I have just never found a guitar at a reasonable price that had everything
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
Ian – I go a bit overboard & read everything I can about it (reviews, specs etc…). I also listen to Youtube samples, which usually give a rough idea of what it will sound like, though will always have some asshole wanking off with a prolonged blues-rock solo. Since I’m not going to be doing that, sometimes it doesn’t really tell me much about the gear. Just once I would like to see a demo for gear that has a long sustained drone, which arguably would tell you just as much about its capabilities, but I guess wouldn’t be most people’s cup of tea. If I can, I like to try it out, preferably on my own stuff. Sometimes its hard to find someone willing to let you borrow a piece of gear to test & you just have to go with your gut instinct on whether or not it will do what you want it to do. I love reading about new equipment & have gotten much better at resisting the impulse to buy everything that could be awesome. I think we all go through period’s of G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome) — there is so much out there, it makes it easy for someone to stop playing/experimenting with the stuff they already have & covet some crazy expensive item. It is important to keep it in perspective & question how integral something will be to the overall sound.
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
Ian – No — I have finally gotten to a point where I am really happy with the effects chain & amps that I have. It took a lot of experimentation & trial & error though to get there, so if you don’t feel satisfied, you should tinker with it until it feels right. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need more stuff. Sometimes just changing the order of effects does wonders!
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
Ian – For performances, I have a definite idea in my mind of what it should sound like & have locked in. This way, I know what to expect & can improvise/build off of it effectively. As previously mentioned, this is the result of a lot of experimentation — so really, I see the two as part of the same continuum.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
Ian – Guitars: I would love to have a Teisco
May Queen & I think that I just might build a similar one in the future.
I have also always wanted a Rickenbacker twelve-string, but will probably
never be able to justify spending that much money on a guitar. I have mused
about buying one of those Rogue electric sitars based on the old Coral
designs, which I think counts in this category as well.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
Ian – I think the most important thing that’s often missing is a good setup. All guitars, especially a first guitar, should be setup properly to maximize the enjoyment of the instrument. This is easily done & usually for a reasonable price, but so many people don’t think to do it or don’t know that it can be done & then get frustrated when the guitar really just needs some minor adjustments. I also think it is good to have a fairly versatile, but uncomplicated guitar like a Stratocaster or a Les Paul that can give you a taste of all of the myriad or sounds & possibilities that are available, but still be simple & intuitive to use (which I think is one of the main reasons they have both remained so popular).
QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?
Ian – For the most part, I have been really
happy with the things I have bought. I think buying the kit to build my
first guitar was one of the best purchases I made. I learned a ton, it
was fairly inexpensive & a lot of fun. My Teisco guitar was a $30 Ebay
purchase, which I invested about $20 in new parts & though it could
still use a lot of work, it now plays reasonably well & was also fun
to rebuild & modify. My GBX bass amp was $300 & despite a few maintenance
issues, worth every penny. Value wise, buying GFS pickups for my builds
& to improve my other guitars is probably hands down the best — they
sound as good or better than pickups three or four times more expensive,
improved the tone of my guitars dramatically & so far, they have proven
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
Ian – It totally depends on the individual
item. I am not partial to one company or style for any of my gear — I just
buy what works for me. I hate that Fender rip people off with ridiculous
prices on some high-end guitars & amps, but think some of their low
& moderately priced stuff is a decent value. The same goes for Gibson
& pretty much all of the others.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
Ian – I always start with a few sustained strums of all of the strings, which sounds amazing in ostrich tuning. Then I usually drone on one string while fiddling on the one directly below it.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Ian – Fourteen. But I had been dreaming of doing it since I was much younger.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
Ian – I’m a really late bloomer & I’m still years away from reaching it.
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
Ian – I am not sure that it does — I also love playing the bass & the drums. But I am definitely drawn to the sound & wide range of possibilities it offers. It is the easiest to make horrendous & beautiful noises with.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Ian – People should play whatever is readily available. Due to its versatility & ease of play it is usually the guitar, but it doesn’t have to be. If the opportunity presents itself, people should try out/learn as many different instruments as they can until they find the one they like best. While not always directly transferable, the skills learned on one instrument often lead to interesting new ways of approaching another.
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Ian – Neither really. I just see it as a (McLuhanesque?) extension of my mind/body. It is up to me to use it as creatively as possible & build it/keep it in optimal shape. While I have definitely projected animistic properties on my instruments, in this sense, I just think of it as a tool — like a hammer or a screwdriver.
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Ian – In compiling a list to answer the
question, I now realize that all of my influences appealed to me for the
same reason — with slight variations, they all emphasized the importance
of simplicity & stressed that anyone could play the guitar in an interesting
way regardless of “technical ability” if they just worked at it until they
found a way that worked best for them. Kurt Cobain was an important early
influence, because Nirvana songs were the first ones I learned to play
& he always seemed to stress in interviews that anyone could do it.
That meant a lot to me & helped me break down ideas that I had internalized
that somehow you had to be a child prodigy to do something meaningful with
an instrument. Along the same lines, I remember reading a John Lennon quotation
from an interview when I was first playing that became a sort of mantra
— “I’m okay; I’m not technically good, but I can make it fucking howl.”
The Glenn Branca influenced experimentation of Thurston Moore & Lee
Ranaldo also fit in here for the same reasons, especially their use of
alternate tunings/prepared guitar techniques. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t
technically very good (I’m still not — part of the appeal of the ostrich
tuning is its simplicity & ease of play) as long as I was making it
my own. I started getting into the Velvet Underground, especially the first
two albums when I was first learning to play as well, which obviously had
a huge influence on me & also seemed to prove that interesting music
could be made by people doing deceptively simple things. Later in high
school, one of my good friends got me into My Bloody Valentine (Kevin Shields)
& Spacemen 3 (Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember & Jason “Spaceman” Pierce)
who also fit into this aesthetic. Like countless other fans, I was amazed
at the otherworldly textures that could be created with a guitar &
a few pedals playing songs with relatively simple (in some cases one chord)
structures. A later addition to the list, but for similar reasons as the
others would be Char Vinnedge from the Luv’d Ones, who also played with
alternate tunings & had a fearless spirit of experimentation.
Ian – I don’t know if I would use the word “natural”, but it does makes sense to me that people get attached to things that are pleasurable. Guitars have a great deal of personal relevance & are often attached to important memories for people who play frequently. Each one I have played feels a bit different, depending on my relationship with it. This could very well be a projection on my part, but I think there is also a certain vitalism in special/reverential objects.
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Ian – Mainly just nicks & scrapes from accidentally knocking it. I chipped a decent sized chunk out of the clear-coat on my Epiphone when it fell after I leaned it up against an amp once. With the exception of modifications (which I don’t consider damage), I have never really been into damaging guitars on purpose, though some people have told me it can do interesting things to the sound. I suppose there is an element of nihilism there as well, but I can get at that in other ways.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Ian – Sometimes listening to others is just as important.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
Ian – I try to play for at least an hour every day depending on my schedule, but if I have the time, it is usually a bit longer.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Ian – I just use whatever is available, but my favorites are the Dunlop stubby picks. I like them because they are relatively thick & I find it easier to make slight adjustments with them.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Ian – After a lot of experimentation, this
is what I use:
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Ian – Every 6 months/when one breaks, whichever comes first.
QRD – How often do you break strings?
Ian – Not that often anymore. When I was
younger & played really hard, I would break them all the time — I now
play with a much lighter touch. More importantly, if everything is properly
set up & the correct gauges are used, they shouldn’t break until they
are fairly worn.
Ian – They both need a lot of work, but I think my strumming hand is actually less proficient. The tuning I use is fairly forgiving of mistakes, so it balances out.
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
Ian – I do it all myself because I know what I need & want. I think learning how to do this adds a whole other dimension to your playing, because it allows you to fine tune your guitar for optimal performance whenever it’s needed. Unless you pay a guitar tech to accompany you whenever you play, there are times you could need adjustments & there would be no one there to assist.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
Ian – Mainly the D ostrich tuning, but sometimes DADGAD. It helps maintain a drone & simplifies playing drastically, which works with what we do. It also creates a great “chorus” sound that you can’t get from a pedal.
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
Ian – While recording I sometimes make brief notes, but usually I don’t write anything down. If I come up with something I like, I try to record it on the spot (at least roughly) so I can develop it later. Most of the time I just rely on memory.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Ian – I like it so the bottom is slightly above my belt, so I guess relatively (but not too comically) high.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Ian – I often inadvertently bend strings when fretting & raise the pitch slightly. I’m working on cleaning up my fretting.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
Ian – I think the drums are a huge help, or really anything percussive that allows you to work on your timing — a lot of people overlook this.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Ian – I always wanted to learn how to fingerpick effectively & have never been very good at it.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
Ian – Effective fingerpicking.
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Ian – Making a third bridge/prepared guitar changes the scale dramatically & brings in new notes.
QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?
Ian – I love the ebow & play mine all the time — it is great for drones & noises. I also like attaching paper-clips to strings to get a chimey effect.
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Ian – Effective pinch-harmonics — I keep practicing but they aren’t quite there.
QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
Ian – I never took formal lessons. Friends would (& continue to) show me techniques & tricks & I would just play around with them until I figured it out. Listening to other recordings & watching how other guitarists play also helps me learn new things.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Ian – I would open up the control cavities & explain what the electronics do.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Ian – Build your own gear, pick a note, & get lost in it.
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
Ian – I like them some of them, but only
have one guitar with one — I’m just not that into using it. With set bridges,
I like that there are fewer pitch changes when a string breaks. The Stratocaster-style
tremolos on my Jagmaster & on my first guitar are pretty unforgiving
if a string breaks & will throw everything off. I like the look of
the Jaguar/Jazzmaster floating tremolos, but have never played them extensively,
so I’m not sure how good they are. The old bigsby style ones look cool,
but again, I haven’t used them so I can’t evaluate their performance. I
never liked the Floyd Rose style ones, but I’ve seen people do neat things
Ian – Rarely if ever — usually it’s “set it & forget it.” I might make a minor adjustment or two if using someone else’s amp, but these are usually relatively minor.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
Ian – I don’t think those distinctions should exist — they are based more on hierarchy than anything. The distinction is moot if you are working outside of the traditional confines of pop/rock/metal/whatever.
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Ian – No — bad singing & guitar work are the most obvious to the casual listener, but if you don’t have a decent drummer/rhythm it throws everything off.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Ian – Lee Ranaldo has one of Yuri Landmans’s Moonlander Stereo Drone-Guitars. It has 18 strings, two headstocks on top of each other, plays in stereo, & is really neat looking. Mainly I would want it so I could learn firsthand from Landman’s luthier technique, but it also makes some really fascinating sounds.
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Ian – I’m really drawing a blank here. Sadly, it is probably someone holed up in a bedroom that we will never hear.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
Ian – They’ll have to wait until what I build replicates what’s in my head. Most likely the two will never converge.
QRD – Anything else?
Ian – This was a great idea & I look
forward to reading what other people have to say. I’m sorry about the length
— feel free to cut whatever seems unnecessary.