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QRD #46 - Guitarists Interview Series
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Guitarist Interviews with:
Azalia Snail
Alan Sparhawk
Jesse Grey
Michael Seman
Robert Brown
John Booker
Steven Mitchell
Ian McPhedran
Josef Echter
Jordan Barger
Zachary Corsa
Ed Ricart
Yair Yona
Jeff Schneider
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Guitarist Interview with Robert Brown of Northern Valentine
December 2010
Name: Robert Brown
Bands: Northern Valentine
Websites: http://northernvalentine.com
Listen to Born Yesterday

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

Robert My first guitar was, & still is, a red Yamaha. I got it from a music store in Delaware in 1993 & Im still using it because I love the way it sounds. The only thing that has happened to it would be the one dent that it mysteriously acquired through airport security on our way to Iceland in 2008.

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

Robert I usually run custom patches from my Boss multi-effects through a delay pedal & a BBE Sonic Maximizer to clean up the sound before it hits the amp.

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

Robert My guitar, pedals & my customized settings & tunings are the most important to my sound.

QRD Whats your main amplifier & why?

Robert My favorite is my 1980s Peavey with two inputs, which is nice for when Im playing along to loops.

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

Robert My Yamaha is always at my side. I have it tuned just the way I want it & I know my way around it.

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

Robert Guess I sound like Im glued to this thing... my Yamaha is signature to me. I think the only thing Id add to its features would be to permanently attach the tremolo arm instead of having it screw into the guitar. Its fallen out a few times while Im playing.

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

Robert I would like to have a delay pedal that I could operate with a breath controller. Instead of tapping in a tempo or tweaking knobs, it would be fun to control that with my breath & shift the delay like that while I play.

QRD How many guitars do you own?

Robert In addition to my Yamaha I have three. That includes a bass & an acoustic guitar along with a Fender Katana that Im modifying. I had another electric guitar, but someone stole it after a show in Philadelphia.

QRD How & where do you store your guitars?

Robert Usually in our rehearsal space in our house.

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

Robert I like guitars with thinner necks, because its easier for me to play them.
Also, something with a fixed tremolo arm that doesnt screw into the guitar is nice.

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

Robert A good guitar can be any guitar if you know what you want to do with it.
I think some of the ones that Ive played that are between $600-$800 still seem reasonable in price to me.

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

Robert I dont do much to the body of my Yamaha other than change the strings occasionally.  The guitar Im modifying will be different though, Im going to have a little fun tweaking it.

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

Robert I do way too much research on gear... lets just leave it at that.

QRD Do you change your rig around often?

Robert Occasionally I will add in some different effect pedals or go through a different amp set up.  Lately, for consistency, Ive been using mostly the same rig.

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

Robert Im always looking for some new tones from my guitar, but I do have some favorites tones that I like to call on when it feels right.

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

Robert I would love to sit & try out different gear all day if I could. I have tried out so many pedals & amps & said to myself, Sure, I could use one of those. Lately, Ive been impressed with most of the pedals made by Electro Harmonix & some of the Marshall amplifiers.

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

Robert Tone controls knobs or switches... get as much customizing as you can out of the tone right from the guitar.

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

Robert I have purchased some really bad distortion pedals over the years, only to realize that Id do better to just use the amp & play a bit louder to get the effect I wanted. My ebow, on the other hand, was the best guitar related purchase Ive made. Its like an extension of my hand at this point... I love it.

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

Robert I like reliable gear that does what I ask of it. For that reason alone, I use mostly Boss & Electro Harmonix pedals, Marshall amps, & the previously mentioned 1980s Peavey amp. I play my Yamaha guitar & its been very good to me. I also like Fender guitars for the reliability & sound.

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

Robert I just start playing notes & making a new piece or music each time. I also play each string alone; to make sure its tuned to what my ear is waiting to hear in order to know its ready to play.

QRD How old were you when you started playing guitar?

Robert 21 or 22, I dont recall exactly.

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

Robert I think I hit a good comfort level around 30.

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

Robert Its the only instrument that feels like it can make the sounds in my head come into the real world.

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

Robert Not really, I think its a highly romanticized instrument. If someone feels drawn to it, they should definitely give it a try. I just dont think everyone who does necessarily should. Someone might be better at another instrument, but just never try it because of something they are aspiring to be by picking up a guitar.

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

Robert Its usually my ally. The previously mentioned tremolo arm has fallen off a few times during a show...not as friendly at that moment!

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

Robert My playing & sound has been influenced by a lot of different music other than guitar, however I would say that some of the guitarists have included Kevin Shields, Robert Fripp, Takaakira Goto, David Gilmour, & Jeff Pearce.

QRD Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly?

Robert Somewhat natural... though it seems to me to be more of a guy thing to name an inanimate object like that.

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

Robert Ive never intentionally damaged a guitar.

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

Robert I listen to & create a lot of loops. That puts me in the right frame of mind.

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

Robert It varies from week to week & Id play all the time if I could.

QRD What type of pick do you use & why?

Robert I dont really have a pick type, just kind of go with a medium of whatever is around.

QRD What gauge strings do you use & why?

Robert I switch it up depending on what Im doing. Usually an Ernie Ball super slinky will do. Sometimes something a little heavier is nice though.

QRD How often do you change strings?

Robert Again, it varies. Not as often as some other people though.

QRD How often do you break strings?

Robert Not very often... I dont do a lot of bends or attacks to them. Its usually from age if one breaks.

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

Robert Id say more of the effect comes from my fretting hand, but I think my hands balance it out most of the time, just from how I play.

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

Robert I set it up myself... I just like to know its been done the way I want it done.

QRD What tunings do you use & why?

Robert I use non-standard tunings, because I have a sound in my head & I can only really duplicate some of it when I tune the guitar to the way it makes sense for me.

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

Robert I am very unconventional with regards to this. I dont do tablature or sheet music. I write down notes from time to time, but Ive got a visual notation system that works for me.

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

Robert I dont know exactly how high it would be, but it hangs at hip level if Im standing. I sit quite a bit to play, so the strap tends to fall down anyway.

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

Robert If Im really into a loop, sometimes I end up swaying without realizing it... Ive been told its comical to watch.

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

Robert Anything with strings has been helpful for me. It makes you focus on how you pick, strike, or strum & gets you used to the way you need to grip that instrument to make the sound you want.

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

Robert I dont think I have a type that I dont play. Im playing exactly what I want & loving it.

QRD Whats a guitar goal youve never accomplished?

Robert Im still looking for the perfect tone... its my holy grail at this point.

QRD Whats the last guitar trick you learned?

Robert Im not sure if its really a trick, but learning to use a sonic maximizer to clean up & manage sound has really opened my eyes. Its so simple yet overlooked.

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

Robert Some of the layering & sequencing that Ive seen people do in a live setting. I havent had the time or money for some of the gear to do that the way I want to do it.

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

Robert Never took lessons.

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

Robert How to use an ebow.

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

Robert Learn their way around a guitar tuned to the sounds in my head. Knowing it & playing around the frets is the only way to get it.

QRD Whats your take on tremolo systems?

Robert I like the variations out there now. From a stompbox tremolo perspective, Im interested to check out the ZVex tremolo that lets you control in real time as you play. Im a fan of tremolo if its used in the right way.

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

Robert I think rhythm guitarists get the music that I play more often than lead guitarists.
Their rhythm sense just kicks in once they hear the loops or layers of music.

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

Robert Its a package deal to me. I cant listen to a guitar, no matter how well it is played, over top of bad music.

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

Robert Id like to own one of Kevin Shields Fender guitars from the early 1990s...any of them would be fine. I just think it would be cool to play on the same guitar & channel some ghosts of Loveless era MBV.

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

Robert Ive been kind of a recluse lately, holed up in the studio & working on our stuff a lot.  That hasnt afforded me much of a chance to listen to current music other than ours.

QRD Where can people hear your best guitar work?

Robert Tough question... my best work is buried in the mix of some of our songs, but floating over top of others... its hard for me to pick that. I think the first song, Born Yesterday, on our Silber Records album The Distance Brings Us Closer, is still one of my favorite improvised moments that Ive done.

QRD Anything else?

Robert Thanks for the questions... gave me a chance to reflect on a lot of what made me want to play in the first place.

Links:
Official Website
Northern Valentine on Silber

Other QRD interviews with Robert Brown:
Couples interview with Robert & Amy of Northern Valentine (February 2007)
Northern Valentine interview (March 2009)
Father's Day Interview with Robert Brown of Northern Valentine (June 2009)