with Tony Whitlock of Secret Keepers
Name: Tony Whitlock
Current bands: Matthew & The Arrogant Sea, Secret Keepers, Tony Whitlock
Former bands: Brando
Websites: matthewandthearrogantsea.com, audiosculpture.com, tonywhitlock.bandcamp.com, secretkeepers.bandcamp.com
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Tony – My first real guitar was a Memphis Les Paul copy. Before it was bought for me for my 12th birthday, it had belonged to a next-door neighbor, who sold it to my neighbor on the other side, who sold it to a kid two houses down, from whom I got it. I believe I traded it in to a store a couple of years later & finally got it out of my neighborhood. Before the Memphis, I got a Gene Autry toy guitar for Christmas when I was 5 or 6, it came with a flexi LP on how to play, but I don’t think I ever tried to learn on it.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Tony – It can change dramatically & frequently. To a gig, I’ll usually take a couple of guitars, a DIY pedal board, & an amp. My pedal board fits into an old suitcase & also has room to take a guitar stand, which is nice. I play with a variety of pedals, sometimes with a bunch, sometimes with very few or none. Many that I currently use are pedals I built. In fact, I’m just launching my own pedal company; you can check it out at audiosculpture.com. Currently, my pedal board has a tuner, compressor, boost, overdrive, octave fuzz, EHX Ring Thing, EHX Superego, a couple of delays, an adjustable momentary kill switch, & sometimes a volume pedal makes it into the case. In general, I prefer small, low gain, vintage-style amps.
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig - guitar, amplifier, or effects?
Tony – I would like to think that I can get by on any semi-working piece of gear, depending on the gig. If I have to pick one, I’ll say amp, because if it ain’t working, neither am I. Although which guitar I am playing will affect how I’m playing, as will pedals (though not as much as the guitar in most situations).
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Tony – For the last 15 years or so, my main amp has been a 65 Fender Deluxe Reverb that used to belong to my grandmother. I just recently decided that I don’t want to take it around to gigs anymore due to its increasing value. With that in mind, I recently purchased a used (but current production model) Vox AC15. I’ve wanted one for a long time, & this was as good a reason as any to finally get one.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
Tony – My main guitar is a Kirn Telecaster copy made from reclaimed pine (from an NYC warehouse that was built in 1883). Other guitars I frequently use are a 75 Telecaster Custom (formerly my main guitar), 70 or 71 Mustang, 65 Guild Starfire III (which was used on the Silber “Six Feet Under The Snow” compilation), late 70s or early 80s Memphis 12 string electric, 93 Mexican made Strat, 40s or 50s Gibson BR-9 lap steel, early 90s Guild DV-52 acoustic, & a 68 Martin D12-20 acoustic 12 string.
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
Tony – Probably either a Tele or Jazzmaster style body. I really like the idea of guitars made from reclaimed lumber. It’s good to reuse, it’s great to have a chunk of wood with some history inside of it, & I think they sound lovely.
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
Tony – Well, in a sense, I am making them already. I got started in pedal building as a fun way to get my hands on hard to find &/or expensive pedals, as well as pedals that I dreamt up. After being asked about them by a few people, I started building with the intention to sell some of them. Right now I’m just getting ramped up & don’t actually have anything for sale yet, but hope to have a couple of things ready before the end of 2013. I’ll be starting out with a few basic things & getting into different models over the next year. Check out audiosculpture.com to see what I’ve done so far (shameless plug).
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
Tony – Around 10 total, some nice, some very cheap.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
Tony – A couple hang on my wall (what is on these hooks usually rotates), sometimes I have another out on a stand in my bedroom, & the rest are kept in cases.
QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?
Tony – Guitars from the 50s in them. Other than that, I can’t really think of something lacking.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Tony – I’m usually not looking for specific features, I just want it to feel right when I hold it & play it, it’s nice if it sounds good, but that can always be addressed later.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Tony – Good guitars don’t have to cost a lot & expensive guitars aren’t necessarily better than cheap guitars.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Tony – More often than not, I play them as I get them. I think it goes back to when I sanded down the body of my Strat, which I now regret. It had collected some stickers & some wear & tear from my early band days, now I wish it was still like that -- oh well, live & learn. I did rewire my Mustang, but that was fixing some poor repair work from a previous owner.
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
Tony – I tend to do a lot of research & a moderate amount of testing (if I’m able to). That being said, sometimes I’ll buy a cool or unique used item on an impulse, these are usually inexpensive. I do enjoy buying the occasional, sight unseen, inexpensive accessory & see what I can do with it - weird picks, capos, etc.
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
Tony – Probably too often. For the indie-pop band I’m currently playing with (matthewandthearrogantsea.com), I’m getting settled on a regular setup for upcoming shows & tours. For other gigs it’s constantly changing, sometimes I play acoustic singer-songwriter stuff, sometimes I play improvised solo guitar with live looping, sometimes I play drone-pop, etc.
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
Tony – By now the answer is probably evident that I tend to change it a lot, sometimes through the course of one song I’ll change tone a few times.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
Tony – I’ve been hankering for a Creston guitar for several years. I’ve also been wanting to check out the Juke Amplification Warbler amp. That’s probably it for new stuff; as far as vintage gear, about anything, but in particular it’s really some of the usual gearhead stuff: pre-war Martins, early Fender, rare pedals, etc.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
Tony – Probably a decent set up & a guitar that stays in tune. The easier it is to play & sound decent, the more inspiring it is. I guess that doesn’t just go for beginners.
QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?
Tony – The one I regret the most was trading my Les Paul for two cheap guitars. While they were cool, they weren’t totally usable. I don’t have either of them anymore, but that LP should still be playable.
The best specifically guitar-related might be my Kirn guitar. Overall, the best piece of musical gear I ever bought was the Tascam cassette 4 track I bought in high school. I learned so much, had a ton of fun, & grew creatively so much from that one humble machine, I love you 424.
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
Tony – I’m not really brand-loyal, though it seems I prefer Fender-style guitars over others. There are some brands I dislike for different reasons, but I don’t really want to go into it, to each their own.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
Tony – It will most likely be a part I recently came up with, some new chord I’m learning, or the guitar solo from “The Race Is On” by George Jones.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Tony – I got an electric guitar & lessons for my 12th birthday.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
Tony – I feel like I’m playing my best right now. I may have been a little better technically a few months ago, before I had a bout of tendonitis & bursitis, but during that down time, I tried to study more theory & harmony, which I feel has made me better overall.
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
Tony – I don’t know, but there was never any doubt in mind that I HAD to play guitar.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Tony – Any possible introduction into the world of musical instruments is good. I do wish I had learned piano & some brass or woodwind instrument, but my elementary school didn’t have a music program, so they weren’t really on my radar as a child.
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Tony – Although I do fight it sometimes, I think the instrument is always an ally. As one may have a disagreement with a loved one, such is the relationship with the guitar.
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Tony – This could get long, but most recently, I would say Jim Campilongo, Ted Greene, & Bill Frissell. Some of the big players in my past have been Stephen Malkmus & Scott Kannberg from Pavement, the Built to Spill guys, Brian Eno, Lou Reed & Sterling Morrisson, Kevin Shields, Wes Montgomery, & then guys like Reggie Young, Steve Cropper, & Teenie Hodges. Then there are non-guitar playing folks like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, etc. Also Bedhead, I think the Kadane brothers style probably has influenced my playing. & Ira Kaplan, Thurston Moore, & Lee Ranaldo. & I can’t forget Neil Young. Oh, then there’s guys like Don Rich, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Roy Nichols, & Bill Kirchen (who plays a mean trombone also). Barney Kessel, Hank Garland. Peter Tosh. Tinariwen. Bossa Nova guys - Gilberto, Jobim, Luiz Bonfa, etc. The Beatles & The Stones. A couple of players that made me want to play as a young kid (though I probably didn’t realize it at the time) would be Billy Gibbons & Joe Walsh.
QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly (e.g. naming their guitar)?
Tony – I don’t really think about it. I’ve never done it, but I guess I can imagine a need to distinguish or to start calling a guitar something that fits its personality.
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Tony – I took a power sander to a guitar. I wish I hadn’t. I’ve been lucky, I’ve seen friends’ guitars break in various ways.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Tony – For a long time, I didn’t really practice, nothing other than playing. Then last year, I decided to try to actively get better, my practice routine isn’t getting worked through much these days, since I’m playing with a band again, starting a company, & working a day job; but the ideal basics are these: playing a scale in 5 positions (usually just major & the related major pentatonic); playing patterns through each position; practice arpeggios for Major 7th, Minor 7th, Augmented, & Diminished chords starting on the three lowest strings; play triads through a scale -- in three shapes on each adjacent string group; play 7th chords through scale for all forms I am working on. Then I would also work on some repertoire -- learning &/or writing songs. Like I said, this routine doesn’t happen much these days.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
Tony – I probably play an average of 10-15 hours a week, I’d love to be able to play much more, maybe 6 hours a day, & still have the other aspects of my life (except a day job).
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Tony – Around the same time I started practicing for real (see above), I started to evaluate other aspects of my playing, including picks. For the time being, I’ve settled on Dava Jazz Grips. For several years, I played standard shaped Dunlop Tortex picks (first yellow, then orange). Then I tried the Jazz III, after a few days, I got used to the shape & now I love them way more than standard shaped picks. Now, when I play a standard shaped pick, it feels like running in shoes that are too big for me, I can get to where I’m going, but it will probably be a little clumsy & not the best I can do. I like the Dava Grips because the grip is really comfortable & I like flipping it around to use the rubber part for a different attack option.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Tony – I’ve been everywhere from 008 to 012. I’m currently back to 009s on most of my electrics, but I plan to bump it up to 010s on my main guitar for the next string change.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Tony – Probably not as often as I should. Maybe once a month.
QRD – How often do you break strings?
Tony – Not too much anymore. There have been two gigs where I broke all six strings simultaneously, it can be dangerous to get all worked up playing a guitar with a Bigsby.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?
Tony – I feel like they both have a ways to go. Sometimes I have to remind myself to play within my limits, that a well-executed part that I might not like as much will usually sound better than a poorly-executed, mind-blowingly creative part.
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
Tony – I generally set them up myself, although I did recently have a pro set one up for the first time. I do it myself because I enjoy it & I like to tweak it then play awhile, adjust some more, etc. I took my 70s Fender to a tech recently (about a year ago) because there are a few more things to adjust that I’m not well versed in, like the three-bolt micro-tilt neck. It turns out he didn’t do much more than I normally do, but I was glad I took it.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
Tony – Mostly standard & a few that I invented. I used to really enjoy coming up with odd open tunings to create different moods & sounds. Mostly standard now because I’ve learned a lot over the last couple of years & now I can make it do what I want more easily.
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
Tony – I’ve started to use chord block diagrams to remember specific fingerings, & sometimes to remember chords I’ll just write out chords like this: x6878x, I don’t know what people refer to that notation as, but it’s kind of like tab shorthand for chords.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Tony – Around waist height, maybe a little higher. Guitars are like pants, the older you get, the higher you wear them.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Tony – Raising my right shoulder while playing when I sit, it ends up causing a lot of pain. I also tend to grip the neck much tighter than I need to, especially at shows. Also, players should take breaks during long stretches of playing.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
Tony – I think any different instrument can make you look at your primary instrument in a new light.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Tony – Jazz, chicken pickin’ truck-driving country, classical, chord melody, Chet Atkins style, & much more.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
Tony – Making a living playing it.
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Tony – It’s not a trick, but working on different chord forms up & down the neck.
QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?
Tony – I guess the ebow, though I don’t use it a whole lot these days. String winders are also very useful.
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Tony – Hybrid picking, but I’d settle for anything.
QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
Tony – I took some in the mid-80s. I learned the names of the notes on the E & A strings, how to read tab, & “Smokin’ In The Boys Room.” I also recently took a few lessons & learned some techniques for practicing jazz improv.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Tony – Some music theory, how it applies to guitar, & WHY it’s helpful to know.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Tony – Forget nearly everything they know in the heat of the moment.
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
Tony – I like them, sometimes too much (see above). I also enjoy playing a guitar without one, like my Kirn Tele.
QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?
Tony – More often than most players probably, sometimes more than once a song.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
Tony – Rhythm guitar players only strum chords? I feel like those labels don’t really apply to much of the music I listen to.
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Tony – No, it has to all work together. I guess it might depend on how not good the band is & if the song works. If the song works, I’m all in, no matter the skill level. If I don’t like the singer, forget about it.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Tony – Hmmm… I haven’t thought much about this, maybe something that was a favorite guitar of one of my favorite musicians. Perhaps Neil Young’s black Les Paul, or one of John Lennon’s guitars.
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Tony – I have no idea, so many people are capable of so many creative & out-there ideas that it’s really hard to say.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
Tony – Well, Matthew & The Arrogant Sea is working on a new album right now, that should be out early 2014, & hopefully that will have some good guitar work. I hope to have some new solo guitar pieces up on http://tonywhitlock.bandcamp.com/ in the near future. I’m also very happy with the track I did on Silber’s Six Feet Under the Snow compilation, it’s a live to tape improv solo guitar & looper pedal piece.
QRD – Anything else?
Tony – Thanks to Brian for asking me to take part in this issue & for putting out some of my music & to anyone that checks out my music or my pedals.