with Chris Brokaw of Codeine
Name: Chris Brokaw
Bands: Come, Codeine, The New Year, The Martha’s Vineyard Ferries, Hidden Tooth, The Catamites, Dirtmusic. Plus solo.
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Chris – A $35 no-name classical guitar from a pawnshop on 3rd Avenue in New York City. Sold it & bought something better.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Chris – Typically, it’s either a Fender Jazzmaster or (lately) a Gretsch 6120, through a Tokai Metaldriver, Tokai TOD-1 Overdrive, Maxon Flanger, EAR Echo/Delay, into either a Traynor TS-50 solid state 1-12” combo amp, or a Musicman HD-150 head & 2x12” Reflex cabinet.
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig - guitar, amplifier, or effects?
Chris – In order of importance: guitar, effects, amp.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Chris – For years & years it was my silverface early 70s Fender Twin; but it needs a lot of work (new tubes, caps, etc). I bought the Traynor at a music store in Bloomington, Indiana in 2005 for $65 & that’s the amp I use the most these days, especially at home. Great tone. Also easy to take around to smaller gigs in town. For louder/larger shows, I am really loving my new Musicman & cabinet, which I bought about 4 months ago. I also have a small tube amp made by Winston Eggleston of Memphis, Tennessee, which has an incredible sound.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
Chris – The most used & most versatile guitar I have is my Fender Jazzmaster. It really works well for all applications I need: playing solo shows, playing pop/rock/noise in ensembles, doing filmwork. It has personality, but also a lot of flexibility.
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
Chris – I would love to design an acoustic guitar with a whammy bar!
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
Chris – As a matter of fact, there is a company in Denmark that is working on a Chris Brokaw signature pedal right now! It will include the circuitry of two Tokai TOD-1 overdrives, plus a low-end boost switch for either/both overdrives. My dream pedal would have all that PLUS reverb & flange, but that’s a lot to ask for in one pedal.
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
Chris – Seven electrics, five acoustics, one bass.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
Chris – They’re spread out all over the country.
QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?
Chris – Hinges & locks that are made out of iron. That are made out of kryptonite. That can withstand airlines!!
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Chris – Personality of tone; a good neck; good balance.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Chris – Whatever it takes. I’ve never spent more than $1500 on a guitar & I think it would be hard for me to exceed that. I have a hollowbody Silvertone that I bought a few years ago in Albuquerque for $175 & the tone on that thing is as good as any of my other guitars.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Chris – I leave them alone. I’ve never tweaked or customized any of my guitars at all.
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
Chris – A lot, except in the case of that Silvertone - I just saw it/played it in a store while I was on tour & bought it on the spot. I also bought my EAR delay/echo pedal from a friend without having heard of it at all - I played it for 3 minutes & said, “Sold!”
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
Chris – Yes. I have a bunch of pedals & guitars & will try out different combinations depending upon my mood & upon who I’m playing with, what style of music I’ll be doing, etc.
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
Chris – I think there’s a particular tone or sound that I end up circling back to, even when I’m trying different stuff out. I think this is just sort of “my sound”, or style.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
Chris – I’d love a Gretsch White Falcon or any acoustic by Collings. Those are the main two! I’d love an old Ampeg half-stack, or a Hiwatt half-stack. Also a Fender Vibroverb Reissue. For pedals, I really want a Lovetone Ring Stinger. I’d like to have a 7-string, heavy metal style electric guitar. I’d love an acoustic bass guitar.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
Chris – I think it should be cheap & difficult to play (like mine was). It makes you work hard & appreciate every guitar that comes after.
QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?
Chris – That Silvertone was a good buy. I don’t know… I’m happy with almost everything I’ve bought. I’m sad that I sold the black Les Paul I had briefly in the 80s.
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
Chris – Audible Disease & Endangered Audio Research are both making great stuff right now (& I have endorsement deals with both). I love all the pedals Tokai made back in the day & I seek them out. I love Fender, Ampeg, Traynor, & Musicman amps. I hate Marshalls, I can never get them to do anything good - in my experience, they completely rob guitars of their personality. I’m always looking for a good reverb pedal & I think the Holy Grail pedals are not the answer there.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
Chris – I don’t know. It’s always different.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Chris – 12.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
Chris – I’m not there yet!
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
Chris – I don’t know. & I play drums a lot, too. Piano & violin did not work for me at all....
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Chris – No. I wish there were more drummers, more cool pianists, more people who did interesting things with trumpet, sax, bass clarinet.
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Chris – I see it as a tool for creating music.
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Chris – Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Johnny Thunders, Keith Levene, Ace Frehley, Greg Ginn, Ted Falconi, Pat Place, Johnny Ramone, Billy Zoom, Jorma Kaukonen, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Duane Denison, Rowland S. Howard, Chet Atkins, Townes Van Zandt, James Williamson, Eddie Van Halen, Keith Rowe, Chris Smither, the Buzzcocks Spiral Scratch EP, Still by Joy Division.
QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly (e.g. naming their guitar)?
Chris – I don’t have an opinion on that.
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Chris – I fell asleep playing guitar in bed once, woke up in the middle of the night, leaned the guitar (an Epiphone acoustic) against the wall, walked off to the bathroom, & heard the guitar fall over & hit the floor. The headstock snapped clean off where it meets the neck (typical Achilles heel area of any Gibson-made guitar).
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Chris – Sometimes I’ll play & say, “I’m not leaving this room until I have a song written.” Otherwise I just play whenever I like for however long I like. If I have a show or tour coming up I’ll practice more diligently & focused more on getting a set together. Some weeks I’ll consciously alternate between playing acoustic & electric; flatpicking & fingerpicking; with or without an amp. Sometimes I’ll pick out songs, or parts, I want to learn from records. I’ll try to learn the bassline of a song, or the violin solo on a song (on the guitar), or try to transcribe what a piano player is doing onto the guitar. Or the vocal line. I used to sit around a lot & learn the theme songs from TV shows; that’s still fun to do & amusing for other people to hear.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
Chris – I don’t know. It really varies. Many days I don’t play guitar at all. I really should play every day.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Chris – Fender mediums for flatpicking. I like how they feel + play. I prefer the Golden Gate thumbpicks & any plastic fingerpicks.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Chris – I use Ernie Ball 11-52. Maybe 10s on my Jaguar. I just like ‘em. Could definitely use an endorsement on those! I’m very curious to try out the Cobalt. I use Martin Phosphor Bronze Light Gauge on my acoustic.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Chris – If I’m touring, I try to change them about every 5 shows.
QRD – How often do you break strings?
Chris – Never.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?
Chris – I think they’re both good. I wish my right was better. My left is pretty good at hammering on notes/chords & I think that effects how I play songs & how I sing, too.
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
Chris – I can’t really do set-up work. If a guitar needs work I’ll bring it somewhere. I have a really good guy in Boston; I need to find a new one in my new home of Seattle.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
Chris – I play almost exclusively in E flat. I stumbled upon it while I was playing in my old band Come; we arrived on that quite by accident. I have stuck with it through the years & basically ruined what used to be perfect pitch. It’s fun now to play in 440 (which is what most people want to do), too.
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
Chris – I can’t read or write music at all. Sometimes I’ll make little notes for myself, but in general I just need to record stuff to remember it at all.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Chris – About average height, I think.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Chris – Not practicing enough.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
Chris – Drums.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Chris – Classical. Western swing.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
Chris – Western swing.
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Chris – ? I don’t know.
QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?
Chris – Capo & slide. I don’t really consider them “gadgets”, but the capo has become essential for many of the songs I’ve written in the last 8 years. I’ve been playing slide since I was in high school & I really love it.
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Chris – I’m not sure.
QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
Chris – I took lessons for about three months when I first started. It got me good enough to play in bands with other people, at which point I stopped with the lessons & started playing with people who were much better than me. Around 1999 I took some lessons from a guitarist in Boston named Milo Jones. I wanted to learn some new chords.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Chris – How to play The Ramones.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Chris – I’m not sure!
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
Chris – Like, whammy bars? I think the ones in Fender Jazzmasters & Jaguars are vastly superior to every other kind. I think Bigsbys are pretty to look at, but very limited in what they can do. I often tell people that I think that Floyd Roses are better than Bigsbys, but that’s mostly just to piss people off.
QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?
Chris – A lot. Especially with the Gretsch.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
Chris – People should be able to do both. Or something that is neither.... I was in a band for a long time called Come, with another guitarist named Thalia Zedek & I like to think that we weren’t playing lead or rhythm. We played something that was neither. That said, while I enjoy the similar approach taken by Keith Richards & Ron Wood on “Some Girls” & “Emotional Rescue”, I also really loved the era when Keith Richards played rhythm & Mick Taylor played lead (specifically the live recordings from the 1972 & 73 tours of the US & Europe).
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Chris – No. I mean, I can enjoy it up to a point, but I probably won’t listen to it much.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Chris – Keith Richards has a Dan Armstrong with a 12-pole humbucker. I think they only made one for him! I’d like that pickup. Chris Smither has a really nice Collings, but I could just buy one similar to it.
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Chris – I think Annette Krebs, Stephen O’Malley, & Oren Ambarchi are all creating new languages for the guitar that are all unique & very exciting. Stephen’s is based upon architecture & has a tangibly visual element that is quite arresting.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
Chris – I think some of my best electric guitar work is on a CD called Tricks of Trapping, by the band Snares & Kites. Otherwise, I would recommend any of the Come records (our debut 11:11 is being reissued May 21 on Matador/Glitterhouse Records), or any of these solo records of mine: Gambler’s Ecstasy, Incredible Love, VDSQ Solo Acoustic Volume 3, or Canaris, all of which are for sale at www.chrisbrokaw.com - please purchase there, rather than Amazon, etc, as the money goes directly to me! Thank you!
QRD – Anything else?
Chris – I tour a lot, solo & with bands. Please come out to a show & say hello!