Interview with Zachary Corsa of Lost Trail
Bands: Lost Trail
Websites: www.myspace.com/losttrailnc, www.twitter.com/losttrailnc, www.losttrailnc.wordpress.com
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Zachary – My very first guitar was an inexpensive acoustic that a cousin gave me for a gift when I was seven. I don’t recall if it even had a brand. It’s no longer playable, but my mother’s an artist professionally, so she had the skills to turn it into some really awesome collage/wall art. So currently it’s in my music room (extra bedroom), on the wall. My first electric, at ten, was a Washburn Strat copy. No idea what became of it.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Zachary – My primary guitar is a red &
white Ibanez Jet King (dual humbucker edition). This is run through -
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig – guitar, amplifier, or effects?
Zachary – I’d say effects have the most to do with the sound of the works, although I definitely couldn’t be producing music like this relying on a solid state amp alone. I think the warmth a tube amp provides is crucial for this music. I think when I’m playing live that using both amps for a stereo effect is fairly crucial.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Zachary – Hot Rod Deluxe. The tube amp sound, the warmth that especially a tube amp provides, is unparalleled. I also own a vintage early-1980s Peavey Bandit that I adore but is badly in need of repair.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
Zachary – Ibanez Jet King. I LOVE this guitar. I’ve had it for about three years. Prior to this I owned a Jazzmaster & I had the option of a Mustang in the shop instead of the Jet King, but what impressed me about the Jet King was its ability (surprising for an inexpensive guitar) to successfully mimic the sounds of many more expensive instruments. With inexpensive parts it’s needed a lot of upkeep, especially the input jack, but it’s been well worth it. Any guitarist should know how to properly solder to begin with. I should also note that it’s had professional intonation & neck-straightening services performed. I’m not a fan of most other Ibanez guitars or products (too metal for my tastes) but this one’s a real “hidden gem.”
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
Zachary – Well anyone who’s seen me play has seen how much kitsch I glue & stick to any available surface of an instrument to make it my own, from toy birds, to fake panic buttons, to stickers. I suppose a Zachary Corsa Jet King would have to reflect that DIY aesthetic of making an instrument “your own.” As far as playability, there’s almost nothing I’d improve on the Jet King’s design, except that my model would have a tremolo bar, which my JK sorely lacks.
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
Zachary – It would have to be something that made a hellish sound. My wife & my friends definitely know how much I love pure feedback & white noise. I always tell people I go for an effect that sounds something like “a vacuum cleaner melting in hell.” Boss/Digitech/MFX, take note. Harness that in a pedal, please.
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
Zachary – Besides the Jet King, I own a seafoam Danelectro U2 reissue & two acoustics, one a Fender & one a Yamaha. I own many, many instruments besides guitars, which I couldn’t even begin to inventory here.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
Zachary – They’re almost always in their cases or bags when I’m not recording/touring/playing shows, although since I tend to sit around with one slung around my neck a bit, I can get kind of slack in this regard. My wife keeps saying I need guitar hangers, but I can’t remember ever owning any in the past.
QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?
Zachary – Bigger pockets/compartments! Or at least ones tailored for certain things, like a certain pick compartment, certain string compartment, etc. Or they could be covered in candy. Candy is always a plus. Like the witch’s house in Hansel & Gretel, but in the form of a guitar case. I guess then you’d eat the whole case, though.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Zachary – I think playability is something that should be high on any guitarist’s list. A guitar with quick action is important to me. I don’t want my fingers getting tangled by a substandard fretboard. Playability & action. I think another concern, with how hard I play guitar, is how well it retains its tuning throughout the various adjustments & knock-arounds. A guitar that can really keep its tune is worth its weight in gold to me.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Zachary – Glancing through the catalogues lately, it seems like the price of a good instrument is only getting higher, while the budget brands are just becoming cheaper/more cheaply made. The gap between is distressing & that’s where the price of a decent instrument should fall, in my opinion. The Jet King I own was about four hundred dollars new & I can’t imagine paying much more than a couple hundred over that for an instrument, not with how hard I play. I would be way too cautious to play in my normal style with some ridiculously pricey Les Paul. Also, I think people make the mistake of buying inexpensive instruments for their kids when they’re learning, out of worry they’ll give up on it. But little is more discouraging than learning on an inferior instrument & that could cause someone to give up anyway. I think an instrument is what you make of it, but I do think a fine quality product also aids you in becoming a better player.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Zachary – The Jet King was immediately taken to get the neck straightened/intonation done, & the pots & knobs replaced with higher-end components. Other than that, I’m pretty happy with the stock humbuckers & such. I’d rather buy a new interesting pedal than customize my guitar too much. My guitar stays on the same pickup & tone settings usually, but my effects are always shifting. They’re the things I like to toy with.
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
Zachary – I definitely take more time with guitars than effects. Effects I usually go by what my musician friends tell me & the reviews online. I’m a bit of an introvert to just go down to Ye Olde Music Shoppe & start jamming away. So I guess the opinion of my peers is just as crucial to me as trying the item out myself.
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
Zachary – I’m constantly looking for a better, more efficient way to chain my effects together, within my limited budget. I’m lucky to have the support to do music full-time, but the caveat is that I certainly can’t afford all the toys I’d like. So I tinker endlessly to try to get as much as I can out of my inexpensive gear. I’ve never needed a complicated rig of effects (rack setups & all that is just beyond my technical understanding as a person, anyway), just the basics. But I do like to make the most of what I have & milk it for what it’s worth.
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
Zachary – With the kind of ambient/post-rock/avant garde stuff I tend towards, there’s a pretty standard setup that I try not to fuss with too much. You know the story: lots of delay & hall reverb with added or subtracted components here & there. That seems the base element in most of the Lost Trail songs that feature guitar, which are still somewhat of a minority compared to all the piano recordings.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
Zachary – I’m very happy with my guitar, if you didn’t guess by now, but just for variety of sound, it would be lovely to still own the Jazzmaster I had in college (sold for bill money) & I’ve always wanted to find a good condition original Mosrite Venture. Amps, I’ve always very much desired a nice Orange stack, just for the sheer power. My pedals are basically enough for me, but Matt Guess of The White Cascade recently posted one hell of an eBay find on his Facebook that I burned with envy over, a 1986 Japan-made Boss HF-2 Hi-Band Flanger. Rare oddities like that are when I wish I had the disposable income to pull the trigger.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
Zachary – If we’re talking electrics, thorough
pickup selectors & tone selectors of an easily-understandable variety.
Sometimes it seems like these companies skip on the features like that
& it really hurts a new player. Understanding the differences in tone
& neck-vs-bridge pickup are as important as learning scales & tuning
& stringing, in my opinion.
Zachary – Best was the Jet King, hands down. No further comment needed. Worst wasn’t that bad, but probably a vintage 1964 Teisco knockoff/pawnshop guitar that I won off eBay for around seventy bucks. The guitar just didn’t translate to modern amps, & the pickups were so painfully microphonic that you’d get a god awful knocking sound any time your pick tapped the pickup covers. Flat, flat, flat sounding. Lesson learned, what looks cool/kitsch sometimes just plain sucks.
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
Zachary – Danelectro & Behringer are two pedal companies I like to speak out in defense of against ritual abuse. Yes, they make cosmetically lousy pedals, cheap plastic & easily breakable. But the sound has always been interesting in Behringer’s case & dependable in Danelectro’s. & Danelectro has some of the nicest customer service people in the world, the kind that will send you more replacement parts than you asked for, free of charge, no questions asked. I’ve had two Danelectro guitars I’ve enjoyed as well. In terms of pedals I also own two really unique boutique units (white noise generator, ring modulator) by a company from the Dominican Republic called CoPilot FX & I can’t say enough on what these have done for my sound, with fine craftsmanship & very affordable prices. You certainly can’t go wrong with Fender for guitars or amps – in both cases, nothing sounds like either one. I’ve never been a weighty/bluesy guitar guy (Gibson, Gretsch). It always has to be that bright, clear, wet Fender sound & the Fender tube amp tone is just golden.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
Zachary – I guess it varies. Usually I just play around with random notes & chords to warm up a bit. There isn’t a particular warm-up song I go for, though there was a time when I played the theme music from “Fargo” quite regularly as a nice, gentle warm-up. It’s still a beautiful, haunting piece I’d love to cover properly someday.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Zachary – Seven, but I didn’t begin getting serious until ten or so.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
Zachary – Probably my very early twenties. At least, I think I developed what I consider as my “personal sound” around then. That’s when I really settled into my identity as a guitarist & became comfortable with my limitations & my specific skills. Once you peak out as a technical musician, you can begin to tear those walls down.
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
Zachary – Guitar is an incredibly versatile instrument, one of a few that you can truly compose music on unaccompanied. I also think it’s a great beginner’s instrument. But there have been times when I wished I was trained in classical instruments from a young age, as well, for the technical balance, as I can’t read music & I’m entirely self-taught in this field, which has caused miscommunication when recording with more classical players, such as string performers. Partially as a challenge to myself & partially out of feeling boxed in by just being a guitarist, I’ve branched out into other instruments in my own clumsy way, such as drums, & especially piano. My growing love for piano was the genesis for Lost Trail, though I certainly don’t really know what I’m doing on piano most of the time. But I still consider myself simply a guitarist.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Zachary – In concordance with what I said above, I think it’s a great first instrument in many ways & it’s understandable why people go for it so often, but also a limiting one in other ways. For the serious music student, I would recommend learning both, to give you the perspective of something as primal & instinctual as guitar, with also the classical discipline of something such as violin or piano. I also think guitar makes a great first instrument in terms of affordability on the parents’ end. Of course, I’m also of the mindset that everyone, no matter their chosen field in life, should know a little bit of one musical instrument.
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Zachary – For most of my musical life it’s definitely been an ally; pushing the sonic boundaries of the instrument, seeing new things I can do with it has brought me great pleasure. When it feels adversarial, in the past it’s frustrated me, as I didn’t know how to play anything else. When I felt I wasn’t getting the right sound across with guitar, I’d throw up my hands. That’s why I’ve branched out into other instruments, for color & texture when guitar won’t do. It’s given me a second wind in my love for music & broadened my palette, so I can see guitar now as more of an arrow in the quiver, rather than the only weapon in my arsenal.
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Zachary – When I was younger, my two twin
poles of guitar influence were definitely Billy Corgan for colorful guitar
bravado & Jonny Greenwood for inventiveness & using dissonance
as a weapon in the song’s favor. Thurston Moore & J. Mascis were important
a bit later on & when I began to shift towards the post-rock end of
things, Efrim Menuck & Stuart Braithwaite (another proud Danelectro
pedal user). If I had to pick an absolute favorite influential guitarist
though, it would be a painful three-way tie of Ira Kaplan, Ian Williams,
& Doug Martsch; & with a gun to my head I’d say Ira Kaplan would
probably win. If there’s one guitarist whose style has influenced me the
very most, then I would say Kaplan hands down.
Zachary – I think it depends on someone’s personality. For me, my guitar is definitely a friend, a companion, even a loved one. But it isn’t a person & doesn’t compare to my wife, my family, my human friends, even my cat. So I see no point in naming it, nor naming cars. Giving a house a name, however, might be an exception.…
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Zachary – I have no moral objection to smashing instruments in the name of art (although it has become a bit of a cliché/showboat moment over the history of popular music), but it’s not something I can afford to do. Basically, to get the kind of noise I want & the visual spectacle I hope for, I’m as rough with my guitars as I can be without seriously harming them or their playability. What I do looks worse than it actually is. I don’t know if I’d be different if I were Mr. Moneybags, either, sweet noises from the smashing or not.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Zachary – My mind kind of goes into a trance-like little nothing place when I’m absently practicing, so I guess I don’t really think much on it. Half the time I’m multitasking on the computer, too, so I’m not paying a terrible amount of attention, probably. Guitar is something I can give partial attention to throughout the day.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
Zachary – Ironically, & I think a lot of my peers would say this, I’ve found that as I’ve gotten busier with shows & booking tours & recording, I’ve paradoxically begun to play/practice much less. I usually write melodies in my head when I’m doing other things (out for a walk, driving around on errands) & that’s when I race home & drag everything out & record it so I don’t forget, either for real or on a pocket recorder. Otherwise, I’m often too busy answering emails or spending time with my wife & friends to be bothered dragging it all out & setting it all up in our little house. I guess I’d like to play more than I do, but I’m a goal-oriented guitarist. If I don’t have a song I’m recording in mind, it’s harder these days to just sit there & aimlessly pluck, which has until now been my habit. If I had a more proper space to play in, I’m sure I would play more often.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Zachary – Dunlops, the orange ones. I used to use the Grey Nylons religiously for years, but the thickness of the orange ones is just about perfect for what I do. I’ve never even broken one that I can recall.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Zachary – 10s, usually Ernie Ball or GHS. Strong enough to handle my playing but not to weigh down the sound too much or hinder my dexterity. They also rarely break on me, though if I’m guilty of one vice as a guitarist, it’s that I don’t change my strings enough.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Zachary – When they break (pretty rarely!). I hate changing strings, something about it bores me to tears & makes me impatient to just get it over with & then I hate having to constantly retune for hours afterwards. So I’m very, very careful.
QRD – How often do you break strings?
Zachary – Very, very rarely. My guitar playing is a lot of single-string picking & the noise I make isn’t thrashy power-chords. The effects pedals I use let me make noise without being too hard on the strings, which I’m grateful for. There’s nothing worse than popping a string during a set.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?
Zachary – I think they’re about equally matched. My fretting hand is fairly strong & I’ve worked hard on my strumming hand over the years to where I’m happy with how I play things & the way I approach the instrument. I think my dexterity with my fretting is very important to my compositions.
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
Zachary – I do minor repair work myself, but I’ve taken anything major or intensive to Bluesmaster Guitars in Durham. They do a great job for a very reasonable cost & their turnaround is pretty quick as well. I’m not a technical person with guitar/electronics whatsoever. I trust others who use that part of their brain to do me a solid.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
Zachary – Standard. I’ve never used alternate tunings, partially out of fear that I’d find something cool & forget what I was tuning to. Not being able to read music certainly doesn’t help in this regard. Standard seems to work appropriately for the mood I want my music to get across. The only time I tune down is when my elderly 1915 piano falls enough out of tune that I have to find somewhere between keys to match the guitar to what I’m doing on piano; which happens, unfortunately, too often.
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
Zachary – I can read tab & did when I was younger, but if I come up with something I’m very good about committing it to memory. If it’s something I think I’ll forget, I carry around a little Sony digital pocket recorder for quick idea recording. Since a lot of my stuff is willfully lo-fi/bad technology, there’s been times when I’ve preferred what I’ve recorded on there & its rather limited sound quality & that’s what I’ll transfer into Logic. There’s something about impulsive recordings, less pressure to get it exactly right, that appeals to me. On occasion I have written things down with the vaguest of notes. If I write something & then note “creepy Emin buildup” or “uplifting G-D-C progression” then I tend to remember what that means.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Zachary – It’s at its lowest setting for comfort, but I play sitting down for convenience.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Zachary – Over-thinking what I’m doing & worrying too much about replicating what I’ve recorded in the live environment instead of leaving any room for improvisation. I also play the soft melodies too softly at times.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
Zachary – Piano. I wish I had started trying to learn piano years & years ago. It’s given me a whole new appreciation of guitar.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Zachary – I’m mediocre at a lot of styles (finger-tapping, slide guitar, bow, screwdriver) at which I wish I could improve, actually. I’ve never been one to envy virtuoso showboat Yngwie types, though. I hope one thing my music gets across is a sort of subtlety.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
Zachary – I’ve never come away from a show saying to myself, “That was a perfect show, you really impressed them.” I think I’m too much of a perfectionist & self-critic to ever be satisfied with any live performance. I’m much happier recording, though there are things I love about playing live, that sort of charged, intense environment. Perhaps someday I’ll feel like I put on a really great show, but I think some self-criticism in the name of improvement is helpful for artistic development.
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Zachary – I’ve recently begun experimenting with a violin bow & screwdriver playing. Both of these are difficult enough to be a challenge, but also rewarding enough to be thrilling. I hope to utilize these more in the future. Treated/prepared instruments fascinate me, ever since I discovered John Cage & Glenn Branca.
QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?
Zachary – I use slide more than anything. That mournful, almost train-whistle sound really has a firm place entrenched in a lot of my guitar-based work, & because I feel like the atmosphere of where I live, the identity of the region, is important to the works, it has a certain Southern quality I really appreciate. I love my eBow, but I find I use it less now that I’m not playing as traditional ‘post-rock’ anymore. I’ve never really used a capo, though I think there’s one around somewhere. One thing I used to have was a sustain clamp that fastened to the headboard of the guitar that improved sustain & clarity. I wish I knew where that thing went.…
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Zachary – Bow playing. Absolutely. What Jonsi does with a bow is mesmerizing. & I’ve always wanted to learn cello or viola, so maybe this is the closest I’ll get! To me, guitar will never sound as beautiful as a cello.
QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
Zachary – I took about a year of guitar lessons when I was ten & eleven, from a teacher at Performance Music in Westfield, Massachusetts, just before I moved to North Carolina. That year was incredibly beneficial in terms of disciplining me & getting me to really focus on learning the basics & techniques of guitar. Before that I was very aimless & haphazard in my interest, but the lessons really crystallized my connection with it. Once we moved to NC, I felt I was learning swiftly enough on my own that lessons were no longer crucial.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Zachary – It’s probably a cliché to say I would teach someone how “not to play their instrument,” but I think that has some truth with someone self-taught like myself. I think the way I play guitar, the uniqueness of my style & some of the more unusual, creative things I do, both sound-wise & technique-wise, come from me being mostly untrained & self-taught. I think there’s an advantage to learning something against the grain of an accepted status quo, as opposed to an art school mentality of unswerving rigor.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Zachary – Half the time I’m not so much playing as making as much racket & pure sound as I can. I think I would tell someone trying to emulate my style to “make noise first, try to play guitar second.” So much of what I do is in pursuit of the most affecting feedback or colorful noise swell. There’s something mad-scientist-like about pushing the listener’s limits/endurance that really thrills me & charges me. I try to make everything such an experience.
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
Zachary – One of my favorite pedals is my Danelectro Tuna Melt tremolo/vibrato, though I don’t use it a whole lot. I just love the sound. I very much wish I had a tremolo bar on my guitar, just to have another toy to mess around with live. However, one downside of those is certainly the compromises in the tuning you end up with.
QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?
Zachary – Never. I don’t do harsh crunch, as noisy as I get I like a thick & creamy fuzz. So the tone is always jacked to 10. If any of the pedals have a tone knob, that’s jacked, too.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
Zachary – I think in terms of a more “classic rock” band it makes sense. One guitar solos & creates a counter-melody within the framework of the piece, while the other holds the structure-end with the bass & percussion. But even in more traditional bands I’ve played in, I’ve never understood the assigned roles in that way. I’m neither lead nor rhythm as a guitarist, I don’t think. When I’ve played with other guitarists, the lines of context blurred & we were just different style guitarists doing different things, to different ends.
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Zachary – Not to me. As I’ve said, I’m a perfectionist, especially in terms of rhythm & a poor drummer can especially ruin a band in my opinion, since its one of the more audible instruments. I cringe at shows when this happens to be honest & if a drummer goes off-beat it ruins the experience for me. I’m not the most skillful drummer, but I try to stay conscious of what I’m doing beat-wise. I think if a lot of drummers stuck to their basics more instead of anticipating the fills & little flashes, there’d be more success to that end. But I’m a guitarist first & a drummer second, so I’m probably inexperienced to judge this. To me though, there’s a special electricity when a band is all locked in together just right & if one part of that is off, it’s like a car with an engine problem. The cupholders & the stereo may be pretty & functional, but you’re not leaving the parking lot.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Zachary – Jimi Hendrix’s. Not to play it, but so I could auction if off for a pretty penny at Sotheby’s & finance building a really nice recording studio/practice space. There’s an abandoned factory in downtown Graham for sale that I would love to turn into something really special. I think a swiftly-plotted heist is in order.
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Zachary – As long as Mr. Jonny Greenwood is alive, he will be not only one of the most innovative guitarists in my book, ever, but one of the most innovative musicians. I also think the triple guitar attack in Fang Island is doing something special & I think Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse is more creative than people tend to give him credit for. At least, that used to be the case. No one does harmonic bends like Brock did in the 90s.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
Zachary – Come see me live! I try to play as much as possible, not just for the Benjamins/Cristal/bling, but because the people who really appreciate what I do are so kind & awesome about it. Or just pop over to the Lost Trail MySpace & scroll through all those pesky piano tracks until you find something with guitar in it. All the piano playing has made me miss guitar & rediscover my love for it, so there’ll be more guitar songs to come. I’m especially proud of “Pilot & Passengers/Seventh Continent” from a guitar perspective, simply for the noise holocaust I managed to pull off at the end.
QRD – Anything else?
Zachary – It was a lot of fun doing this
interview. Really creative questions that I think people don’t ask musicians
about their instrument very often, & I was glad to geek out & answer