Interview with Robert Brown of Northern Valentine
Bands: Northern Valentine
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 & I’m 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 – What’s 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 – What’s 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 – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Robert – My favorite is my 1980s Peavey with two inputs, which is nice for when I’m playing along to loops.
QRD – What’s 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 I’m glued to this thing... my Yamaha is signature to me. I think the only thing I’d add to its features would be to permanently attach the tremolo arm instead of having it screw into the guitar. It’s fallen out a few times while I’m 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 I’m 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 it’s easier for me to play them.
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.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Robert – I don’t do much to the body of my Yamaha other than change the strings occasionally. The guitar I’m modifying will be different though, I’m 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... let’s 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, I’ve 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 – I’m 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, I’ve 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 person’s first guitar that aren’t 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 you’ve made?
Robert – I have purchased some really bad distortion pedals over the years, only to realize that I’d 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 I’ve made. It’s 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 & it’s been very good to me. I also like Fender guitars for the reliability & sound.
QRD – What’s 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 it’s tuned to what my ear is waiting to hear in order to know it’s ready to play.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Robert – 21 or 22, I don’t 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 – It’s 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 people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Robert – Not really, I think it’s a highly romanticized instrument. If someone feels drawn to it, they should definitely give it a try. I just don’t 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 – It’s 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 – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Robert – I’ve 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 & I’d play all the time if I could.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Robert – I don’t 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 I’m 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 don’t do a lot of bends or attacks to them. It’s 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 – I’d 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 it’s 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 don’t do tablature or sheet music. I write down notes from time to time, but I’ve got a visual notation system that works for me.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Robert – I don’t know exactly how high it would be, but it hangs at hip level if I’m standing. I sit quite a bit to play, so the strap tends to fall down anyway.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Robert – If I’m really into a loop, sometimes I end up swaying without realizing it... I’ve been told it’s comical to watch.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s 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 – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Robert – I don’t think I have a type that I don’t play. I’m playing exactly what I want & loving it.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
Robert – I’m still looking for the perfect tone... it’s my holy grail at this point.
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Robert – I’m not sure if it’s really a trick, but learning to use a sonic maximizer to clean up & manage sound has really opened my eyes. It’s so simple yet overlooked.
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Robert – Some of the layering & sequencing that I’ve seen people do in a live setting. I haven’t 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 don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Robert – How to use an ebow.
QRD – What’s 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 – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
Robert – I like the variations out there now. From a stompbox tremolo perspective, I’m interested to check out the ZVex tremolo that lets you control in real time as you play. I’m a fan of tremolo if it’s 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.
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Robert – It’s a package deal to me. I can’t listen to a guitar, no matter how well it is played, over top of bad music.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Robert – I’d like to own one of Kevin Shield’s 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 – I’ve been kind of a recluse lately, holed up in the studio & working on our stuff a lot. That hasn’t 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... it’s 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 I’ve 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.
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