with Michael L Clamp of Lazarus Clamp
Name: Michael L Clamp
Bands: Lazarus Clamp. I also played in Last Harbour & John Sims for short spells.
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Michael – When I was growing up, there was an unplayed, ill-loved Spanish acoustic guitar with nylon strings on it in our house. I had no notion of how to play it – or even how to tune it. I strummed it until all the strings were broken & the lacquer was all scraped off the front. I didn’t even know that you could replace strings. No one else in the house seemed to know that either. It was considered broken at this point. I guess it ended up being given – or thrown – away by my mum. It must have sounded awful – the couple of years where I relentlessly hacked at this guitar, usually while listening to recorded music. My mum must have been counting the breaking strings, month-by-month. (Prang! “Whew. Only two more strings to go: all over by Christmas!” etc.) But it had the effect of training my strumming hand to more or less keep time. Unfortunately, it was my left hand that I trained. I also didn’t know that as a right-handed person I should really have been playing it the other way round. That has worked out ok though. I have continued to play left-handed, on right-handed guitars, since that point. It feels correct.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Michael – Guitar – then tuner – [Then whatever tone/texture thing I am currently not bored with] – then an overdrive or distortion – then a clean boost or noise gate. I seem to have acquired a lot of effect pedals; they promise a lot & they are quite an affordable way to play around with different sounds. At rehearsals I take childish pleasure in lining up a long train of them. But I don’t tend to have a very complicated set up for live playing or recording – usually just as above. The tone/texture thing tends to be something I use quite sparingly – perhaps just on one or two sections of one or two songs. For a while it was phase, then tremolo; now reverb. For the most part, I just require the option of making the guitar louder (clean boost) or making the guitar dirtier & louder (overdrive or distortion).
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig - guitar, amplifier, or effects?
Michael – 1. Guitar: it’s good to have a guitar with a comfortable neck I think; it sets you up with the right relationship to what you’re doing. It’s also good if it has a reliable set-up (so that you know what to expect from it) & for me it helps if it is a guitar that I can strap-on upside down. That usually means a strap button on the bottom edge, which means I don’t usually get to borrow other people’s guitars …
2. Amplifier: I played – & recorded – for years with an amplifier that was a pragmatic solution to a logistical problem, but which never responded well to attack & emphasis on a clean instrument signal. I’m enjoying the guitar part of my role in Lazarus Clamp much more now that I have an amplifier which does that.
3. Effects: I’m quite happy to play without these. I tend to write on an unamplified guitar anyway, so effects come into my thinking quite late in the day, if at all. I’ve had a bad habit of over-elaborating in the past (who needs effects when there are so many notes to play?), but I’m getting better at doing less.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Michael – It’s a Selmer Treble ‘n’ Bass. It stays clean & bright up to quite high volumes & then when pushed a bit further, it breaks up into a lovely fuzzy grey. I like it a lot. It has no gadgets or gimmicks, apart from that there is a channel for “Bass” which suits my baritone guitar very well, & a channel for “Treble” which suits my Telecaster very well. Perfect. & it was an online auction bargain. It fizzes & crackles a bit, but hey ho. It’s such a pleasure to plug a guitar into it. Whenever it comes to life, I find myself grinning.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
Michael – My “go to” guitar is just a “Partscaster” – another online auction bargain. The body is from a US-made Tele Deluxe I think (routed for humbuckers). The neck is maple & apparently came from a Fernandez – it’s a 7.5” with vintage style frets, so it’s relatively slender. I love it. It came with a couple of horrible pick-ups in it & a Jesus sticker on the headstock. The sticker fell off before I could remove it: I guess the atmosphere in my house was no longer supportive of its relationship to the guitar. I bought a single coil Boss pickup for the neck & a humbucking Mule pick up for the bridge & with those in place, it sounds great. They aren’t perfectly balanced, but they’re pleasingly responsive. Bareknuckle seem to have found a niche with admirers of really ugly guitars (everyday on their Facebook feed is a fresh horror show of nasty finishes). & they have an unappealing preference for describing guitars as “fully loaded” with their pickups, rather than simply “fitted.” But the quality of sound from the pickups is very pleasing.
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
Michael – I’d be happy with the Partscaster above. I’d be even happier if it were my favourite colour (duck egg blue).
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
Michael – I’m not a particularly creative player with pedals. I play in a band with someone who is. So I guess the ideal pedal for me would be an incremental boost pedal; if each time you tapped it, your signal got a little bit louder … I could maybe keep up with Andrew then.
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
Michael – Five.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
Michael – They all used to live propped in corners; but after enough near-disasters, I caved in & bought stands.
QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?
Michael – I notice that plenty of other people have pointed out the need for a clasp that works & a degree of actual protection for the instrument inside. For me, on top of that, I’d like to see a bit more thought about the handle. I often find myself trying to carry two hard-cased guitars in one hand. It hurts. It’s not the weight, it’s the way that the handles are two short & two inflexible to allow one average-sized hand to curl adequately around two handles.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Michael – I know some players are perpetual guitar shoppers, always accumulating or trading up, but I’m not one of those. I suppose I’d say that I like simplicity of design (when you play upside down, you don’t want lots of switches & sliders & toggles getting in the way), a good neck (as above), & an action & intonation that feels (& sounds) good before you plug anything in. & then a responsive pick-up, when you do plug it in. I say singular, because one good pick-up will do it.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Michael – How long is a piece of string? Including the new pickups, the Partscaster cost me about £350. That’s not bargain basement/thrift-store price, but I think you can expect to get a reliable & responsive electric instrument on that sort of budget if you shop around. You can get something fun-but-flawed for a lot less. It’s good to learn to work around flaws – it makes you resourceful & creative & less precious. But it’s also nice, ultimately, not to have to…. I think you can get something which shows attention to detail & coherence of design for prices starting at double that, I guess - £700 is an expensive guitar in my universe. I don’t know why anyone would pay £2-3K for a guitar. How would you dare play it? Where would you play it? I suppose I can see that one might spend more money on a vintage instrument, where the price indicated more than just veneration, but actually reflected a degree of craftsmanship or design which was worth paying for. But I’m not personally attracted to that.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Michael – I played the same guitar – a Tokai Tele – on most things for about 15 years. I picked up a baritone & an electro-acoustic along the way & used those as alternatives when I wanted something different. But the Tokai was a really playable instrument & I was happy with it. I did try a Godin, but I couldn’t get on with it & sold it on. Then one of the Tokai’s pickups failed (the only one I’d ever used) & so I replaced the pair & although it sounded nice, it didn’t sound the same. So I spent a couple of years trying out alternatives. I wouldn’t usually be inclined to customize, but the Partscaster needed some help - & it was worth it. Not that I did it; I just made the decisions. I’m not to be trusted with a soldering iron.
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
Michael – I became a bit obsessive about what I wanted from a Tele when the Tokai’s character changed & I was looking for a replacement. But if things are cheap enough to try (i.e. enough to just sell on, if they’re no good), then I’m not so fussy.
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
Michael – No.
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
Michael – The former, I suppose. I like quite a bright, clean tone & I like to hear it just on the brink of breaking up.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
Michael – I don’t. I’m happy with the tools I have. But if the baritone ever needs replacing, I’d like to try an EGC.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
Michael – As above. It shouldn’t be perfect. A flawed instrument forces you to find the things it can do & to focus your energies & efforts on that. It makes you think about what you’re playing & stops you trying to be imitative. I think it should stay in tune though. The problem with a lot of really cheap guitars is that they don’t. It’s hard to make progress & to learn, if the instrument won’t hold its tuning. I struggled for years with my first “proper” guitar & it was a revelation switching to an instrument which mostly stayed in tune.
QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?
Michael – Best? I used to break a lot of strings on the Tokai. The strings invariably broke at the point where they came through the body, just beneath the bridge saddles. The metal plating there just sliced through them. I tried filing it, but it didn’t help. So I bought some electrician’s insulation tubing, & cut it into short strips (maybe 2cm long). I fed the strings through the tubing, stopping short of where they rolled over the saddles. The tubing buffered the strings at the point where they passed through the plate, without deadening the tone between the saddle & the nut. This cut down on my string breakages tremendously, at a cost of pennies. (My colleagues in Lazarus Clamp are almost certainly laughing at this. I imagine that they are saying, “It was the Selmer, you chump!” They’re probably right, but I was pleased with the insulation solution at the time). Worst? So many choices. Quite a few pedals I’ve never used, obviously. A guitar (Godin Radiator) I could never get on with. An electro-acoustic that fedback all the time. I think bandmates who watched me struggling with a previous tuner, which displayed output on a screen that couldn’t be read in the dark, might have an opinion.
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
Michael – I can’t get on with Marshall amps & never have. I can’t be excited by Les Pauls, ditto.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
Michael – A wrong note.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Michael – With intent? Maybe 19. I played drums for a couple of years before that.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
Michael – Still working on it.
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
Michael – Drums definitely weren’t for me. You should see the looks on the faces of my colleagues in Lazarus Clamp if I offer to sit at the drum stool in order to try to explain a point of timing. A guitar feels nice in my hands & I love playing them, but I don’t really think of myself as a guitarist. Not a proper one. I’m entirely self-taught & I don’t know how to do half the stuff you’re supposed to know how to do.… For me, really it is a tool that I handle just well enough to do a job that I enjoy doing. It’s hopeless trying to write a song via the drums or to communicate a song’s structure to other people that way. A guitar is a really good tool for that & it allows you to set out a palette of tones as well – to show both “how it goes” & “where it is going.” That’s what it’s for.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Michael – Probably not.
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Michael – Interesting question. I probably did spend quite a bit of time treating it is an enemy & obstruction. Certainly, pre-Tokai, a lot of early Clamp shows were characterized by temper tantrums. When you have really shit equipment, it breaks & you’re entitled to be frustrated by that, I think. But I have a functional instrument, most of the time, & I am more or less able to make it do the main things that I need to do. So I think I’ve moved to the other position.
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Michael – Oh no. It would be wrong to go on & on, wouldn’t it? So probably I’ll say Robert Forster from Go-Betweens, & Ed Crawford from Firehose. In terms of the clean tones & some aspects of the earlier style of their playing (& they are obviously different from one another) & the sorts of things which come into my head when I pick up a guitar.
QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly (e.g. naming their guitar)?
Michael – I’ve never thought about it. People give them names?
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Michael – Just dinks & dents. I’ve been rough with them, but I’ve tended to own fairly robust guitars.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Michael – I have a family. I’m not sure how they did it, but somehow they alarmed the guitars. If I pick up a guitar when other people are in the house, then immediately a voice will call out for me, asking me to do something for someone before I have played a single note. So I am like those athletes who rehearse events mentally when they can’t rehearse them physically. Only less effective.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
Michael – See above.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Michael – A pink one. It’s the right one, & it always has been.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Michael – 11-49s usually. They’re pretty robust & I sometimes hit too hard. In the context of a bright sounding set-up, I like the upper-mids you get from the heavier gauge strings too.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Michael – I used to break a lot, so I used to change them a lot – before every show. My set up is better now, & my playing is more controlled. So now, just when they get dull.
QRD – How often do you break strings?
Michael – Surprisingly rarely these days.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?
Michael – Strumming hand, I guess. Most of the stuff I’m sloppy at originates on the fretboard.
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
Michael – I do it myself. I learned how to do it & it wasn’t hard, so I carried on doing it.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
Michael – The baritone is tuned to B. The Tele to standard E. I often drop one or both of the E strings to a D. There are a couple of Clamp songs with more complicated tunings than that, but not many.
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
Michael – I write down names of chords most of the time, if I know what they are, as a very crude reminder of what I was playing; sometimes adding some tab, with a few notes describing where on the neck I played a particular shape. It usually turns out to be wrong. There are proper musicians in Lazarus Clamp, but they tolerate my idiosyncratic terminology & translate it into actual music with creativity & good grace.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Michael – On the hip.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Michael – Playing when I could be quiet. When you can be quiet, I think you should be quiet; but it’s hard to remember that, because it’s the presences rather than the absences which are fun to make. It’s only listening back that you realize you should do less.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
Michael – I found drums very helpful, in terms of understanding how guitar parts work.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Michael – I’ve always loved Martin Carthy’s guitar playing. I haven’t got a clue what he’s doing.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
Michael – See above.
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Michael – There are tricks?
QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?
Michael – I use a capo quite a lot.
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Michael – As above re: finger-picking.
QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
Michael – No, self-taught.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Michael – I admire players who play the amplifier well. I rely almost exclusively on the guitar itself & just use the amp as a translator. But some people use the amp very creatively & if I’d ever had a lesson, I’d have enjoyed learning that.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Michael – It would require quite a masochistic state of mind.
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
Michael – I don’t like them.
QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?
Michael – They are all taped down.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
Michael – I don’t really listen to the kinds of music where this is a meaningful distinction, but my impression is that the lead guitar player has more extravagant hair & goes “widdla widdla” while the other one is usually a shorter & more compact person & goes “chunka chunka.” That’s how it works right?
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Michael – I’m more interested in the material than the performance. I can cope with a bit of shoddiness, if the songs are interesting.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Michael – Not interested.
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Michael – I enjoy players whose work is so direct & expressive, so demanding of attention, that it just shapes your experience of the piece: in different ways here I’d think of Bill Orcutt, Martin Carthy, Doug Martsch, Geoff Farina, Andy Cohen, Richard Thompson, Steve Albini, & my friend George Gargan. These players are exciting & surprising. But I also like it when guitar players are economical & subtle & do their best work in the service of the song. They shape your experience, in a different way, without you noticing that they’ve done it. I think my friend in Lazarus Clamp, Andrew Kingston, is a really good at this – almost at his most effective when you are least “aware” of what he is doing. In fact, the people who are good at this are unsung heroes of guitar playing: Chris Brokaw, Nina Nastasia, Kristen Hersh, Tom Greenhalgh.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
Michael – Well. The forthcoming Lazarus Clamp LP (The Bird is Not the Metaphor) is probably the best recording we have made together. So it would be that.