with Joe O’Sullivan of Bilge Pump & Polaris
Name: Joe O’Sullivan
Bands: Bilge Pump, Polaris
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Joe – A Kay Stratocaster copy that cost £55 brand new in 1985. Used it for many years until I got my current guitar in about 1999 when I finally realised it wasn’t very good. Over the years it went through many paint jobs, pick ups etc., what it really needed was a new neck. I lent it to someone a few years ago & it got lost. Slightly annoyed.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Joe – Guitar to a Rat distortion, 1971 Guild Foxy Lady (Mk1 Big Muff rebranded for Guild), homemade Rangemaster clone, Boss Tremolo pedal, early 80s Pearl analog delay, Boss tuner, amp. I occasionally use other pedals depending on stuff; 70s Coloursound Wah Supremo for recording, but too unreliable to use live -- I’ll fix it one day. Sometimes I use a modded volume pedal to control the speed of the delay, but not always. In Polaris I use no pedals, just straight into the amp. Nice & simple for setting up, never anything to go wrong. Except for our last gig when my amp caught fire. Oh dear.
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig - guitar, amplifier, or effects?
Joe – They each play their own part, but probably amplifier. I don’t like playing a gig through a borrowed amp, as it’s generally very disappointing; you can have the best gear in the world but through a shit badly looked after amp it’s going to sound shit whatever. We recently had a gig in Preston & I managed to leave all my pedals at home, it wasn’t too bad as I borrowed some to get a rough approximation of what I wanted. Not ideal, but workable. Likewise with guitars, if I had to borrow one I would, but generally other people’s guitars are horrible. Like their amps.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Joe – A 1972 Hiwatt PA head that I rebuilt the preamp of to DR103 specs with a few changes (different cathode cap & resistor values I think). I couldn’t afford a decent amp & back in the day you could get Hiwatt PA heads for less than £100. Sound City ones for even less. Carlsbro ones you would be paid to take away. It seemed the obvious thing to buy one of these & convert them into a decent amp. I’ve also got a 1968 200 watt one, stupidly loud though. I also use two 2x12 guitar cabs loaded with Fane Hiwatt speakers, which I built myself. Mainly so I can easily carry all my own gear if needed rather than a 4x12. Also if I want I can just use one of them.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
Joe – A Squier Protone Telecaster with two humbuckers. When I finally realised my old guitar would never be good no matter what pick ups I put in, I decided to find another. I looked around second hand shops & this was the one that had the nicest feeling neck. It originally only had one humbucker & a tortoiseshell scratch plate; unfortunately all the screws became rusted due to sweaty gigs so I had to drill them out to get the guard off for fixing. The remains of the screws are still in there so I can’t put it back on. I put the other humbuckers in as the single coil was too harsh, I also have a five way selector switch, which as well as regular settings allows for both pick ups in series as well as parallel (like Brian May). A few years ago I realised that the spare guitar I was using (an Encore Start I found in Paul Rauschens bin) was shit (probably why it was in a bin) so I decided to put one together out of parts myself to build a replica of mine. Surprisingly it turned out very nice & I often use it instead for gigs, especially if my back is playing up as its lighter.
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
Joe – It would be exactly like the guitar described above.
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
Joe – Because I don’t use anything out of the ordinary, any signature pedal would already exist. A bit boring I’m afraid. I wouldn’t like the idea of a pedal that does loads of stuff, generally anything that has tons of features sacrifices the quality that focusing on one aspect gives, such as your Swiss Army multi-channel amps that make everything sound the same rather than focusing on one good channel.
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
Joe – Four, the two mentioned above, a 335 copy for mucking about on at home & a Westbury Les Paul that I keep meaning to do up as it’s in need of attention. & a Kay bass that I’ve had for nearly 30 years that I use for recording.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
Joe – One at our practice room in its case, one in my living room ready to play, one in the kitchen in its case, & the Westbury in the attic. The bass is upstairs somewhere.
QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?
Joe – An airtight section full of silica gel to keep the sweaty guitar strap in to stop the strings rusting, that way I wouldn’t have to store it separately. Took me years to realise why my strings went manky so quick. I often wonder if these bands that gaff tape their straps to their guitars realise their strings would last much longer if they removed them after gigs. I guess strap locks just don’t look as rock as gaff tape.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Joe – Whether it plays nicely, sounds good through an amp. It probably has to look nice too.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Joe – Unfortunately I don’t really know as I don’t often buy them. If you look around you can always find bargains though.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Joe – I’ve kind of talked about this already. I’m quite an idiot for constantly trying new pick-ups & wiring layouts. & trying different pots & tone cap values. & general hardware. I think the only original bits on my guitar are the body, neck & tuning heads. I’m thinking of getting some new tuning heads.
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
Joe – Not that much as I generally know what I want, but if I saw something interesting I would probably look it up on the net to check it’s not totally crap. But even then it’s just people’s opinions.
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
Joe – I constantly change small things around, try the occasional different pedal for a few gigs, a different one of my amps sometimes. Go through phases of which guitar I use. Nothing major, slow evolution. I don’t have any of the same set up as when I started Bilge Pump, but I’ve never made any drastic changes.
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
Joe – I’ve kept the same basic amp tone like an empty canvas, but use the pedals to colour it like some kind of artist. That will either make me sound very profound or a total dick.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
Joe – I’m not much of an obsessive, but there is one pedal I’ve been after for years but you never see them anywhere. I would name it, but I don’t want anyone else having it as a saved eBay search. I’d also like a Gretsch White Falcon. I’m generally a fan of any vintage British valve amp, you can’t beat the tone of a 70s Marshall cranked to stupid volume levels, it would be great to be in a blues rock band, unfortunately anyone witnessing it would be bored to tears.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
Joe – Good intonation. Nothing worse than not knowing why your guitar can be in tune in one place, but not another.
QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?
Joe – A good buy were my Hiwatt heads for peanuts. A disappointing purchase would be a FAL combo I bought in 1990, it was shit. Really shit.
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
Joe – I’m afraid I’m not a fan of Fender amps. Nothing personal, but for some reason they don’t agree with my pedals; they always break up really badly with two distortion pedals rather than singing like something that sings nicely. They do sound nice for clean type stuff though. & very nice tremolo circuit, I keep meaning to make a copy of a Fender trem & reverb unit.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
Joe – Generally an E chord to check it’s in tune, followed by some wild noodling to embarrass myself.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Joe – I think 12 or 13.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
Joe – 14.
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
Joe – Much easier than the piano, I could never get the hands to work separately. Which is why the guitar suits me as both hands are clubbing together to make one note. Very lazy.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Joe – I don’t see why not.
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Joe – Ally, I can’t make up any tunes in my head, I have absolutely no musical ability & so I use the guitar to randomly come up with crap until something sounds good. I can however play in time, which is what I bring to the equation.
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Joe – The first before I started playing was Brian May for obvious reasons. Next was Steve Jones when I was about 12 for the pure wall of sound. That in turn soon led to Keith Levene who made me realise you could do whatever you wanted, which suited me nicely as I wasn’t any good at doing what other people wanted. My next major influence was probably seeing The Butthole Surfers, The Pixies, & Fugazi all within a few months of each other in 1989. I would probably say a mixture of all of them is what I do. Which is why I sound so dated. I could definitely name bits I play in our songs that are directly influenced by each of them, some much more obvious than others.
QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly (e.g. naming their guitar)?
Joe – It is a bit silly, but I can see why people would.
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Joe – Many years ago I snapped the headstock off a bass while attempting to adjust the truss rod. Apart from that just the occasional scratch or dent.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Joe – Just playing, nothing crazy like those weird finger strengtheners.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
Joe – Not that much, apart from band practice just a bit of noodling on the sofa. I’m too lazy to learn new techniques etc., everything thing I know is accidentally found while sitting on the sofa. Maybe when I retire I’ll properly learn to play the guitar.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Joe – Dunlop 73mm; not too thick, not too thin.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Joe – Gauge 10, same reason as the plectrum.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Joe – Quite often, once they start going a bit dead. Which is quite quick when you’re as sweaty as me. I always try to towel down the guitar after a gig before putting it in its case to prolong the strings. Fast fret after gigs helps as well, as it coats the strings in oil preventing corrosion.
QRD – How often do you break strings?
Joe – Quite rarely. Although if I do it’s generally when I don’t have a spare guitar.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?
Joe – Neither, if I’m ever attempting to play something fast for some reason I find both hands let me down equally. Which means I’m never very flashy in my playing. Careful & considered I like to think.
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
Joe – I do it myself. Originally due to financial reasons & also as a youngster not knowing that people can do it for you. As with anything it was very satisfying working out how to do it myself. If you have a working knowledge of something it gives you a greater understanding of what it can do.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
Joe – In Bilge Pump mainly regular. Except for one song in open G as that’s how Emlyn wrote it. & another with a capo as Emlyn wrote it on a fucking ukulele. I might write a song with the bass on a trombone just to piss him off. In Polaris we used a drop D tuning. Don’t know why, I never asked.
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
Joe – Tablature. I’m shit at reading music, it takes me ages to figure anything out. Even on tab I have trouble with quavers, I can never work out whether the gap is shorter before or after the note. I’m not coming across as very good at music in this. Maybe it will make people buy our records to hear how bad my playing can possibly be.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Joe – I think it’s a very average height, although whenever Neil (drums) plays my guitar he has to raise the strap as he says it’s too low. Which is weird as he’s about two foot taller than me. Maybe I have it stupidly low, I’ll have to look at a photo. Be terrible if I realised I look like Peter Hook or something.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Joe – Hooking my thumb over the top of the neck, especially to play G due to being too lazy to learn properly. Although Jimi had the same trait & it did him ok. I still never bother with barre chords, when I got to that page in the book I decided to go my own way.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
Joe – Having a rudimentary knowledge of the piano definitely helps, especially with the theory such as modes are easier visualising on a keyboard.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Joe – I’d like to be much better at finger picking. But again laziness rears its ugly head.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
Joe – Being in Mojo magazine.
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Joe – I learned quite a lot when I had to master a load of Sabbath songs for a covers band last year. One being that to get a good Iommi sound you turn the distortion right down & let the amp do the talking.
QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?
Joe – I use a capo, but I don’t like it. I do like a slide however, but generally don’t use one apart from at home.
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Joe – Finger picking as mentioned earlier.
QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
Joe – No, I had to figure it out myself. I only ended up playing guitar as when I formed a band with my brother, Dave already had a bass & there was no way I was allowed to be the singer. So my brother told me to learn to play his guitar. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was the first song we learned.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Joe – I would say that playing in time with the drummer & having commitment to the notes is more important than the actual notes.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Joe – Avoid barre chords & fast finger work & play in time. Loudly.
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
Joe – Always fun to play, but I would be constantly worrying about the tuning. I’m a bit OCD about tuning so it could drive me mental. Often think of putting together another guitar with a Bigsby on it, a thin line Tele body would probably suit it.
QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?
Joe – In some songs when I do stupid long feedback stuff I adjust the tone knob down to find a sweet spot for controlling the feedback.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
Joe – I don’t really know as I’ve never been in that situation. I guess David versus Mark Knopfler.
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Joe – I would probably feel very sorry for them, get a bit depressed, & spend the next day convincing myself that one day they’ll find the right band.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Joe – Many years ago in the 90s I was on tour & this guy we stayed with in Houston had a Musicmaster that used to belong to Sterling Morrison which played very nicely, he offered to sell it to me for a stupidly low price but unfortunately being the 90s & on tour I had absolutely no money. I’ve often thought since that I should have borrowed some tour money for it. Oh well.
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Joe – Out of people I encounter I would probably say Steve Malley from Unit AMA & Horseloom. I’d also probably have to say Chris Sumerlin from Lords & Kogumaza as he’d be upset if I didn’t. Out of famous guitar people I don’t really know who’s current.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
Joe – For noisy type stuff the last Bilge Pump album (Rupert The Sky). For stuff where I’m pretending to be clever, the last Polaris album (I don’t think it had a name, weird).
QRD – Anything else?
Joe – Probably not, I think those questions covered everything ever.