Interview with Max Kutner
August 8, 2017
Name: Max Kutner
Bands: The Magic Band (Beefheart alum), Evil Genius, The Royal US, Android Trio, Izela --- Formerly The Grande Mothers of Invention (Zappa alum)
Websites: maxkutner.com, evilevilgeniusgenius.com, theroyalus.com, gingerjockey.bandcamp.com, ofhealthyliving.bandcamp.com, izelamusic.bandcamp.com
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Max – My first guitar was purchased by my mom at a Super Pawn in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1999. It was a Samick, dreadnought-style acoustic that cost $150 as I recall. A few years later, one of my sisters decided she wanted to play guitar & commandeered it -- against my will. One of her innovations was replacing the pick-guard with nail-polish & attempting to intonate it with a regular hammer. She may still have possession of it. I’m not sure.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Max – I’m very bone-headed/old-fashioned in my typical set-up. Guitar > Pedals (usually 2-4, but sometimes more depending on the context) > Amp (typically 1x12 Fender).
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig - guitar, amplifier, or effects?
Max – The most important part of my rig is me -- no arrogance intended. Finding useful approaches & having an attitude which will allow you to problem solve quickly in a concert setting is more important than owning any one piece of gear. This being said, my guitar is the most important of the choices provided.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Max – I’ve used a Fender Blues Deluxe (40W 1x12) for the better part of the last ten years. It’s extraordinarily versatile & reliable. Initially I had a 2x12, but I found that the weight difference was enough of an incentive for losing 20W. These amps are also everywhere & thus easy to swap out if need be. They’re also extremely affordable.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
Max – I alternate between a 1993 Fender Strat Plus & a custom instrument which was made for me in 2015 by Miroslav Tadic. The Strat was my only performance-grade instrument from 2002-2015 & I learned to summon virtually any sound or style I needed from it over that time period. The only thing I felt it lacked somewhat was a convincing heaviness needed for some metal & experimental music. In 2015, I commissioned the incomparably gifted Miroslav Tadic to build me a guitar which would suit my needs & build off of the strengths of the Strat that I had become so used to. The layout is somewhat similar to a Tele (one single-coil, one humbucker, hardtail bridge etc.), but with a few mods (coil-tap, tone-circuit-bypass, chambering, zero-fret, sperzels) & there is an as-of-yet unused space for a piezo contact mic to be routed from the headstock to a blend knob lower in the body. The variety offered by the pick-ups is staggering (Barden Tele in the neck, Lace Dethbucker in the bridge). Since this, the Strat has been fitted with heavier, half-wounds & used mostly for jazz/fusion style stuff.
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
Max – See above, hah. The Miroslav has an extremely light finish with some nice staining on the Limba back to match the dark tone of the Wenge top. The Strat has a very weird color scheme (blonde body; red tortoise pickguard), but it never mattered.
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
Max – I’d much rather four more sets of hands/appendages to tweek knobs in real time.
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
Max – 5.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
Max – Safely & very near my person.
QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?
Max – Bracing & sales prices.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Max – Weight & timbral variety. Finishing materials add a lot to the former & I typically seek out instruments which have little-to-no finish as I feel I have more control of the sound overall & there is more natural volume too. Also, how fast I can tune it & keep it stable.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Max – $1,200 or less. Define “good” though. Sears guitars are amazing for some things.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Max – I’m always learning or trying to learn how to modify. I have grand plans for a Frankenstein baritone in the near future.
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
Max – Extremely thorough. This is why I rarely buy new things. I’ve been trying to make this more project-based, which has lessened the stress of it all somewhat.
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
Max – Pedals, yes. Nothing else.
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
Max – Always trying to change technique to get new sounds.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
Max – I’d love a fretless electric & also a 12-string electric. Pedal-wise, if I had more money, I’d love to own everything (some just for one-sound). Believe it or not, I don’t even own a chorus pedal.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
Max – I think stabilized tuning/intonation isn’t too much to hope for.
QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?
Max – I had an acrylic BC Rich Warlock with a coffin case when I was 15. This was the most impractical purchase by far. I think I ended up giving it to a girl.
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
Max – I wholly endorse Malekko Heavy Industry for their pedals, especially the Omicron series for their portability & relative sound quality & simple usability. Fender-type instruments are still my favorite, but I dig Godin a lot. Also, been checking out old Silvertone amps for their affordability & beautiful saturation at peak volumes. Otherwise, I love Electro Harmonix for more extreme sounds & TC Electronic for making the best bang-for-your-buck devices around.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
Max – The monster lick in the middle of Frank Zappa’s “Inca Roads” that was originally written for marimba & synth. I’ve been trying to curb this though ‘cause it’s getting old. Hah.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Max – 11 or 12.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
Max – I feel like I’m always developing. I feel like I have ten more things to say or try for every show I’m lucky enough to play.
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
Max – By the time I actually considered this, I’d already developed technically enough on guitar to just shun most everything else. Lately, I’ve been flirting with getting a synthesizer & also a small frame drum.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Max – It’s certainly more affordable & has less classical baggage & expectation than many of the more standardized orchestral instruments. I would love to see a time when people picked up guitar for reasons that weren’t pop culture related though (i.e. because of AC/DC or Jack Johnson or whatever). It has just as many possibilities as violin or piano. It really depends on the person & no one can control or predict who will take to it & who will not.
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Max – I had a major chip on my shoulder related to this for a while, but I’ve made peace with it more or less over the last few years. I very much resented the ties to pop culture associated with guitar even though it really just meant more people playing instruments who would otherwise find the whole practice elitist & inaccessible. That being said, I really loathe the concept of Guitar Center & standardization, but I’ve come to realize that this is more the fault of weak people & every instrument carries some similar baggage related to binding genre stereotypes (i.e. violinists, singers & percussionists all have a type). I love the idea of making sounds on instruments where my technical dexterity is limited. Personal taste & good ears will trump all -- I try to develop both always & hope to never run out of work to do.
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Max – Too many for too many things. A short list: Miroslav Tadic, Pete Cosey, Vini Reilly, Mike Campbell, Mike Miller, Frank Zappa, Mike Keneally, Leo Brouwer, Steve Bartek, Ben Monder, Bill Frisell, Terje Rypdal, Marc Ducret, Snakefinger, Nels Cline, Allan Holdsworth... too many.
QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing guitars is natural or silly (e.g. naming guitars)?
Max – No. I don’t do it, but whatever works for everyone.
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Max – I left my Strat laying haphazardly against some rack-mounted gear in a friend’s garage when I was 15 & came back to see it had fallen & taken a serious knock to the side of the neck -- which is still present to this day as a reminder.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Max – Things which do not sound as I wish them to sound. Otherwise, dexterity exercises for maintenance -- stretches, etc. Also, I need to practice my own music as I rarely write with a guitar in hand.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
Max – This varies widely. I wish I could just play all the time, but I’d need handlers -- people to book me, feed me, hound people for paychecks & so on.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Max – I’ve mostly used Jazz IIIs, but anything small & tear-shaped with some thickness really (stubbies are great too).
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Max –.10s for rock/metal & .11s for everything else. It really depends. I think I lean toward .11 as being perfect & more versatile.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Max – Not often enough. More when I’m touring or recording.
QRD – How often do you break strings?
Max – Rarely.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?
Max – It’s extremely difficult to make a comparative analysis assuming there is a top/bottom to possibilities for both or either. I feel fairly capable in both, but there are always things I feel could use work.
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
Max – Depends on what needs to happen. I raise/lower my bridges or file nuts & change my strings. Sometimes, I’ll install a new set of tuners myself. Everything else, I feel I don’t know enough about to risk damaging my instruments.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
Max – Primarily standard, but I sometimes re-tune at will during live shows. I’ll re-tune to get some lower, otherwise unavailable notes for some things. The Miroslav guitar is extraordinarily stable for this (i.e. one string changing won’t send the rest out).
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
Max – Sheet music. I hate having notation with tabs below because I grew reading tabs & it is quicker for certain fingerings, but it’s limited beyond this (non-specified rhythm & no room for interpreting fingerings). Graphic notation is useful for certain things though as standard notation often doesn’t account for certain sonic preferences or approaches.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Max – I never measured this out. Pretty average, I suppose. Somewhere between math metal & grunge. Hah. I have relatively long arms so I adjust the strap to allow the neck to sit wherever it doesn’t over-extend my wrists in either direction. In short, however long is necessary to maintain uniformity in my hand position.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Max – Not breathing enough, figuratively. Developing simple ideas more & not succumbing to patterns.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
Max – Any other instrument. I think this is probably similar to learning multiple languages.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Max – Flamenco.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
Max – Releasing a solo album... about to check that off.
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Max – Improvising sequences using octo-tonic scale shapes on parallel string sets... I feel like I’ve only really started mining this over the last two years. Using the volume knob to alter saturation in a live setting (very non-intuitive for me, but indispensable now)!
QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (Ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?
Max – The string cutter/winder combo is pretty sexy.
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Max – Not playing during soundcheck.
QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
Max – I took lessons from an independent teacher named Jon Jacquemoud in Las Vegas for a year when I first picked up the guitar around 11 or 12. We primarily listened to songs to learn them, but Jon was a student of jazz coming from shredding -- a perfect person to screw me up early. He showed me Allan Holdsworth before I could even properly hold the instrument. I didn’t take lessons again until prepping for college with a guy named Bill Swick who mostly just showed me how to read music. Then I studied with Adam Foster at UNLV (classical lessons) & Ed Corey (classical/some jazz) at UNR. When I got to Calarts, I studied with a quartet of monsters: Larry Koonse (jazz), Woody Aplanalp (jazz/experimental/rock/etc), Stuart Fox (classical/modern) &, of course, Miroslav Tadic (my mentor in all). These people helped me shape my taste, develop my technique & encourage me to be as much of myself as possible always.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Max – To listen first & most. Listen to everything. Find a context for every sound you hear. Pay close attention to sound.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Max – Go back in time & follow me around for 20-ish years.
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo/vibrato systems?
Max – Terrible for reliable tuning. Really cool for unique techniques. See Jeff Beck.
QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?
Max – All the time.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
Max – One was hired before the other.
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Max – This is an unusual scenario to me. People with good taste tend to group together. If the music is interesting, I don’t really care so much how technical or developed the players are. See the Shaggs.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Max – I want more of Miroslav’s guitars & he is kinda famous. Otherwise, maybe Frank Zappa as his instruments were always being tricked out in strange ways.
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Max – Stian Westerhus. He is a virtuoso in real-time sound manipulation who happens to be extremely tasteful with choices. He has an entire vocabulary on pedals, computers, his guitar... all of it is developed & considered.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
Max – I’m very proud of a recording I made with some members of the Magic Band under the name “Android Trio”, specifically a track called “Untitled”. Our first offering, Road Songs is coming out on Orenda Records on September 15th.
QRD – Anything else?
Max – Thank you for the interview.