09.01.1982 - Guitar Player
Painting soundscapes with the Police
Surely one of rock's premier guitar texturalists, the Police's Andy Summers often eschews long, drawn-out solos and other forms of 6-string flash for subtle rhythms, rich tones, and short fills. A master of understatement and effects, he makes innovative use of space, sending a rainbow swatch of sound through Stewart Copeland's drumming and Sting's bass parts. Andy's uncommon command of rhythm guitar allows him to instantly segue from pounding new wave to idyllic reggae rhythms. When he solos, he never overplays his hand, emphasising the unusual and making every nuance count.
Summers' meteoric rise to international fame with the Police over the last three years belies his many years spent as a journeyman guitarist for seminal British R&B and rock bands such as Zoot Money's Big Roll Band, the Soft Machine, and the Animals. He was born Andrew James Somers in the English seaside resort town of Blackpool 39 years ago (he later changed his last name to Summers to avoid having to continually spell it for people). The Somers family soon moved to Bournemouth, another resort town on the south coast. The move proved fortuitous for Andy, since the town had many groups and venues. By the time he was 15, Summers was regularly appearing with a hotel band.
Before long Andy caught the ear of another Bournemouth resident, keyboardist Zoot Money. Zoot invited Andy to join his Big Roll Band, which mainly covered black American R&B and jazz tunes. On May 31, 1966, the group recorded a live album, 'The All Happeni9ng Zoot Money's Big Roll Band At Klook's Kleek'. Prominently featured in the line-up, Andy added fairly straight jazz solos to 'Chauffeur' and 'Florence of Arabia', and proved himself to be a competent R&B player in a medley of James Brown tunes. When the mid-'60s psychedelic movement hit London, Andy joined a line-up called Dantalion's Chariot.
From May to July 1968 Summers gigged with the Soft Machine, which included bassist Kevin Ayers. drummer Robert Wyatt, and keyboardist Mike Ratledge. He then replaced Vic Briggs in the final '60s incarnation of Eric Burdon And The Animals. Andy appeared on their December 1968 release 'Love Is', the LP yielded hit versions of 'River Deep, Mountain High' and 'To Love Somebody'. When the Animals later broke up in L.A. Andy enrolled as a music and classical guitar major at the University of California.
Summers completed his studies in the early '70s and returned to England where he became a sideman for vocalist Kevin Coyne. He played on three Coyne albums 'Matching Head And Feet', released in 1975, and 'Heartburn' and 'In Living Black And White', both issued the following year. By this time Andy had gained a great deal of musical sophistication, as evidenced in the live two-record 'Living Black And White' set, which prominently featured his searing slide and rock solos, as well as his driving blues-based acoustic guitar accompaniment. After his stint with Coyne, Andy went on retainer as a sideman for Kevin Ayers.
In January of 1977 Stewart Copeland, formerly the drummer for Curved Air, organised the Police with Henri Padovani on guitar and Sting (born Gordon Matthew Sumner), a bassist he had seen playing with a Newcastle combo. Copeland's initial idea was to have a bare-bones punk band. New Wave was sweeping England at the time, and although the Police saw themselves as a part of a much broader hard rock tradition, it perfectly suited their purposes. "I couldn't believe it," remarked Copeland, "Suddenly my favourite type of music had come into fashion - loud, heavy rock and roll."
Later that year the Police toured on their own, backing Cherry Vanilla in England and supporting Wayne County's Electric Chairs across Europe. Sting and Stewart then journeyed to France for a musical project called Strontium 90, where they first played with Andy Summers. Impressed with the group, Andy went to see them at the Marquee Club the next time he was in London. They invited him to play a few gigs with them as a four piece, and in August of 1977 asked him to join the band. Soon Sting's extraordinary songwriting and singing talents led the Police in a new direction, and Padovani left the group.
Again a trio, the Police played their first gig with the now-familiar line-up of Sting, Stewart, and Andy at Birmingham's Rebecca Club on August 18, 1977. Afterwards they spent two months in Germany working with synthesizer wizard Eberhard Schoener's Laserium spectacular in Munich and playing club dates. To create a new three-piece style, the Police decided to move away from individual guitar solos. "Instead of the guitar wailing all the time and being supported by drums and bass," Andy says, "We found we had three soloists. The guitar became very harmonic and orchestral."
Things got so lean during the Police's first months together that they resorted to dying their hair blonde to appear as a mischievous punk rock group in a Wrigley's gum commercial. Things changed for the better in 1978, though, when Stewart's brother, Miles Copeland, formed Illegal Records and released the Police's first single 'Fall Out' backed by 'Nothing Achieving'. The 45 sold out its initial pressing of 2,000 copies (eventually selling 10,000), but the break the band was hoping for didn't come until their next single, the reggae-influenced 'Roxanne'. An exquisite plea in which a man asks his lover to give up her red-light life, the song shot to #42 on the English charts before the BBC banned it from the radio. Along with 'Next To you', though 'Roxanne' was included on 'No Wave', and A&M sampler album released in America. 'Roxanne' quickly picked up heavy airplay and became a top US radio add-on.
Although the Police had no album yet and were virtually unknown outside of 'Roxanne', on their own initiative they flew to the US and began touring. Travelling together in a Chevy van with one roadie, they lined up dates, including one on a snowy night in Poughkeepsie where only two people showed up. A score of other appearances in larger cities on the East Coast raised the pitch of excitement surrounding the band to an unheard-of level for an act available only on import 45s, and A&M rushed to release their debut album 'Outlandos d'Amour'. Recorded on a budget of ,000, the album featured impressive musicianship, innovative arrangements, and unusual to American ears - rhythmic sensibilities borrowed from Jamaican reggae. Generally following the philosophy that less is more, the Police gave their material room to breathe causing their rhythms and hooks to be all the more hypnotic. On their initial effort, they had succeeded in recontextualising the diverse elements of reggae, new wave, English pop, and hard rock into a sound that was recognisably their own.
'Reggatta De Blanc' followed nine months later. Another powerful performance, this showed the band's increasing musical adhesion and polish. Andy provided rich, innovative rhythms, and, as usual, his solo emphasis was on the unexpected. The album jumped to the #1 slot on the English charts, and by the end of the year its biggest single 'Message In A Bottle' had become a #1 hit in 11 countries. 'Walking On The Moon', the LPs second single, also became a #1 hit in England.
The Police were on the road for 20 months during the next two years. On April 4, 1979, they recorded at New York's Bottom Line: two of these cuts - 'Landlord' and 'Next To You' - were released on the new wave sampler album called 'Propaganda'. In October 1980 the Police released 'Zenyatta Mondatta', which contained the hit 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'. Again Andy held back his solos until dramatic moments, most notably in the powerful statement in 'Driven To Tears'. He also turned in a searing instrumental composition - 'Behind My Camel' - and made one of his more unusual displays of eccentric guitarmanship in 'Shadows In The Rain'. In 1981 the Police appeared on Eberhard Schoener's 'Video Magic' LP. Andy shared guitar duties with Hansi Str??er, and between the two of them poignant solos were added to 'Signs Of Emotion' and 'Octagon'. Andy also provided nylon-string parts in 'Code Word Elvis'.
The Police have achieved international stardom, globe hopping to concerts in Hong Kong, Cairo, Nairobi, Bombay, Bangkok, Athens, and Mexico City. They have been the subject of books, and entire issues of pop magazines have been devoted to them. Their latest album - 'Ghost In The Machine', issued earlier this year - is intricate and provocative, probably their most accessible project yet. Layers of overtracked guitar, keyboard, and sax parts give the LP a dense, rich texture. Andy riddles 'Demolition Man' with fiery rock licks, and 'Secret Journey' features lush guitar synthesizer. Thematically, Sting adds, "I've developed my songwriting away from the subjects of love, alienation, and devotion to a more political, socially aware viewpoint."
As well represented as the Police are on vinyl, their real home turf is the stage, where they fell free to rework material. Andy Summers delights audiences and amazes guitarists with his penchant for off-the-wall solos, his command of sonic effects, and his innovative and experimental approaches to the band's sophisticated blend of hard-driving and subtle music.
Have you always been a texturalist in your approach to playing?
I've always been fascinated by that side of it, yeah. As a guitar player working in the modern world, one tends to cover most of it. I've played a long time, so I've played most styles. But obviously there are certain things that turn you on most, things that you want to hear. You hear it in other music, and you want to hear it in your own playing. To me it's more like a feeling or an emotion that you want to emulate or have come back through your own music. I think that's what I'm feeling rather than a string of notes or chords that make you feel that way.
A three-piece line-up must allow considerable room for experimentation.
I cut my guitar cloth according to the band. Being in the Police has given me great opportunity to explore things like texture. Playing in a three-piece group that emphasises space a lot, picking out sort of reggae rhythm and turning it around a little bit, and having this very wide, sort of spacey rhythm give me this great big hole to fill with textures and harmonies that hadn't been available to me in groups before. Normally I had been in bands with a keyboard player where there's a conflict - you've got to play around each other. Now that whole area is open. I know the bass lines so I can play on and off of them, and Sting can sing around what I play. It has been interesting to change harmonies a lot and experiment with texture in terms of various modification devices, changing the chords, and all that. Over the three years, the group has been generally honing its style, and I think we got onto a fairly original way of approaching a three-piece group early on in our career. People recognise that, so it's been a question of each of us defining his role and the role of his instrument.
Did you go through a process of abridging your playing?
Yeah, I think the group generally edited a lot of things out at the beginning. We are all good players and can play the power trio stuff, blues, and everything. We could have come on as a really heavy power trio, but we tried to avoid that kind of thing. In our very early stages it was heavier and punkier than it is now. But gradually Sting started to write these songs - we got into the reggae thing - and then it started to come to us. One's sort of subconscious material started to come to the surface, and we were able to put it into the band. Then the original things started to emerge.
When you started on guitar, did you lean more towards innovation or imitation?
Imitation. Actually, the first instrument I ever studied was piano. I was given a guitar when I was 14, and it was like an obsession immediately. I never put it down. I was trying to play like the guys on TV, and after a few months I sort of learned how to play D7 and G7 - wow! I got into listening to Django Reinhardt and people like that very quickly because my older brother was a real jazz fan.
Did you learn chords and leads at the same time?
Yeah, I was trying to figure it all out. Of course, I was listening to some pretty heavy, difficult stuff, so I eventually started playing easy stuff like Shadows tunes. I never put the guitar down; I was always playing. After a couple of years, I got quite good at it. I was listening to all kinds of American jazz guitarists, like Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, and people like that.
What were the first solos that moved you?
One that I just played over and over again was the recording of "Nuages' by Django Reinhardt [on 'Quintet Of The Hot Club Of France', Crescendo, 9001], the one with the clarinet on it. I remember listening to the runs he was playing in there, and it was amazing.
Did you participate in the British blues boom of the '60s?
I was in London but I steered right away from that because everyone was doing it. Everybody was trying to be Jeff Beck. I was so into black American jazz players like Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. I didn't want to swing over to that. At that time I was playing in a real rhythm and blues group. We had a Hammond organ and two saxophones, and we'd play lots of James Brown, Jimmy Smith, and all this ort of American black R&B jazz. That kind of funky music was happening in the mid and late '60s. It's organ-based music.
Di you participate in psychedelic music?
Well, I was in London doing what everyone else was doing. We became a psychedelic group. I was young and foolhardy at the time. We had alight show and went right through the whole thing, playing acid rock. I studied sitar for three or four years. I can still get along with that pretty good. The first band I was in was called Zoot Money's Big Roll Band: this was sort of mid '60s in London. That changed into a psychedelic group called Dantalion's Chariot. Then I was in the original Soft Machine in 1968. After that I was in the Animals. I made one album with them called 'Love Is', the last one they did. Then I was with Kevin Coyne and Kevin Ayers. Later I also made some albums in Europe with Eberhard Schoener; there's some quite interesting stuff on there. In fact, I think some of the best stuff I ever did is on Kevin Coyne albums. There's a live album called 'In Living Black And White'.
Did seeing any other players influence a change in your style?
Probably not as much as having listened to people on records. I don't listen to people on records that much any more. I can't really think of one person about whom I'd say, "Well, that's it. I'm gonna play like that." I actually saw Wes Montgomery play in London once. I was moved by Jimi Hendrix quite a lot. It was great to see him. I remember when he first came to London, and he hadn't even started to make a record. At the time it was just mindblowing. I went down to this club, and there he was playing with Brian Auger, Chas Chandler, who was his manager and a friend of mine, said, "Come see this guy. You won't believe it." He was up onstage with this huge afro, this wild jacket, and a white Strat, which he had in his teeth. That was it!
When did you decide to pursue the experimental rock course you're on now?
I always was a serious musician because it was very natural. I loved music and wanted to play, and I wanted the knowledge of music. I eventually went to college in America and studied harmony totally and 20th century composition. I played classical guitar for a long time. Then I went back to England and got back into playing rock music because my personal life was confused and a lot of things happened to me. In the end I went back to what I knew, which was playing the electric guitar. It was the only thing I felt secure with. Suddenly I became conscious after being unconscious for many years, and decided that I was going to have a career with the guitar. So I was like looking for the opportunity, and eventually it came with the Police.
Are you happy with where you have taken your playing?
Oh, yeah. We're getting to the point now where the group is obviously very successful, and we could go on as long as we want, as long as it stays fresh musically. All sorts of other playing opportunities are arising, and I think that's good because it gives us all a chance to reaffirm that we are still able to play with people outside the Police. This existence could become very sealed, like an ivory tower. You can easily forget what you're like as a player. It's important to be challenged by playing with other people who aren't just playing the Police. They might be very good and challenge you as a player; it's important for me to do that.
Is you music with the Police different from what you play on your own?
Yeah. I probably play much farther out on my own. Certainly as far as solo playing goes, when I'm on my own I play much more in a jazz vein. I'm just not interested in practicing like rock lead guitar any more. I can do it - and I do it a bit with the Police - but it just grew really old for me. And there's so many guys who are so good at it. It's not an area I'm interested in competing i, because my ears go for other things, styles of guitar playing that are much more interesting to me. So my solo playing is much more jazzy and linear, but I don't really do it in the Police. I've done a lot more of it on this album I've made with Robert Fripp recently and probably will do it on other projects outside.
Could you describe your collaboration with Robert Fripp?
The original idea was to do a two-guitar album, just play duets all the way through. But then what it came to - and I think this is the right way to go - is that it's just two piece of music together. It's guitar-based, and most of the pieces we've done so far started off with two guitars, and then on some tracks I've added guitar synthesizer, some percussion, and bass. It's been very exciting and stimulating. It's very contemporary sounding, slightly Eastern in places. It's hard to categorise it; it's a lot of different things all put together. It should be out later this year.
Do you view the guitar as an unlimited instrument?
I think so. Really, it depends upon the player. I don't think you ever master the instrument; I don't think that's possible.
Can you play most of the parts you imagine?
Yeah, if I work at it. Not always - depends on how much sleep I've had the night before. [laughs]
Do you first imagine tones and textures and then find them on the instrument, or does the instrument suggest them to you?
A lot of it I hear first. It's like writing music on paper without an instrument. I think I can hear it and then go to the guitar and find it, which I think in a way is a much better discipline. It's like the old thing about composing on an instrument that you can't really play: You're more likely to come up with something original. You can play the guitar and you're so fast on it, you go into all the clichés. But you go to the piano, which you don't play, you're more likely to come up with something. It's the same thing about trying to hear sounds in your head. They're really hard to find. But if you can hear them, they're probably there somewhere.
What should a solo do?
Ideally, it should carry a person. It should have peaks and valleys, and highs and lows, and it should have a real climax. It should be organic, and it should be like a song. In its most ideal form, it should really be like someone singing. When I make a statement like that, it sounds like it's a really flowing kind of thing, which it doesn't have to be. Once chord held ten bars could be a solo statement. I'm certainly into doing that. That's a lot of what I do with the Police: when we get into the free areas where we improvise, it's like we're all soloing totally all the time. One song - 'Shadows In The Rain' - is all chordal. At the end we have a long passage where Sting basically drones around in Am, and Stewart plays various rhythms around him. I play everything I can think of, really. I'll go anywhere. It's all chordal, clouds of sound and feedback, and harmonies that are totally against what he's doing. I find it really exciting.
When do you play your best?
When I feel really good physically. In any performance there are certain mystical things that you can't pin down. The situation's right. The acoustics of the hall are right. Everybody feels good at the same time and sort of forms a proximity to one another onstage. Some nights are great and magical, and other nights it should be but isn't. It's competent, but it doesn't have that quality where everything opens up and it's wonderful. For me, it's usually when I feel rested, physically good, and in the mood for playing. Those are the nights when it really happens. If I'm feeling really happy, I'm gonna play better. Playing is a mirror of the way you feel.
Some claim that they play best when angry or depressed.
Yeah, I can see that. To me, that's a slightly romantic view of it.
Can you play yourself in and out of moods?
Yeah, especially if I was feeling bad and went onstage and ripped off an amazing solo. I fell like my whole psyche is totally bound up in the guitar. I've played all my life. As you get older and play longer, you probably ought to be more objective and live with things a little more. But when I was younger and first playing, I lived from gig to gig. If it was a bad gig, then I was bummed out all week. It was great gig, I felt on top of the world for a whole week. It's till that way to some extent. Despite all the success and everything that goes on, it really all comes down to how well you're playing.
Would you say you're self critical?
Do you ever go through slumps?
Yeah, I think all players who play all the time - all their life is playing - do. Who can possibly go on year in and year out just going up, up, up. There's bound to be times when you go up a bit and then you go along, and then you go up. I'm very aware of what you're asking. I'm continually trying to improve, to get my playing better and take it up a bit more, or open a new area. Being in a band like this where the pressure is so great and we're touring all the time, it's like I can never play the guitar because I'm always playing the guitar. I really would like to have a lot more time to sit down and just practice, to forget about all the bullshit and just play around, because I love to do it. So for me now to move up the scale musically, I need time off to practice. When I go home and I'm on my own - I've got a studio and a tape recorder - I get down there and play all day long. I haven't gotten fat with being in this band and being successful. I just want to go on and on, getting better and pushing it.
Has success been what you imagined?
That's a difficult question to answer. Yes and no. Obviously, you get the money and all the stuff that goes with being in sort of a high-level successful rock band. I'm sure I don't have to spell that out. There's a great deal of personal stress involved. It's hard to keep perspective. These are all clichés, but they are all true. You are under tremendous stress. Remaining civil and nice to people and trying to maintain a normal private life becomes very difficult. You have to try to remember who you were and what it was like before it started. It makes the people you knew before more valuable, because you can go back to them and remember and be more like you.
Does hearing the same compliments night after night become meaningless?
Yeah. You begin to just stand around afterwards and watch how many people come up. We go through this routine of pressing flesh. How many times can you be told in one night that you're really great, or that you guys are really bitchin'? And it's not always great. We're going, "God, we really sucked tonight." People mean it in a nice way, but it wears off. It just gets kind of strange, so I value time alone in privacy probably more than I used to. Personally, I've always been a fairly private person. I like to be alone, and now it's really precious. I like to get back to things I value that are outside the rock syndrome.
Of all your recordings, what are your favourite rhythm and solo tracks?
Oh, to me the best track we've ever recorded is 'Message In A Bottle'. I love that song, and I like the guitar licks at the end. They have a nice ,joyful quality. It's got a great drum track, too. I think the guitar sound on 'Walking On The Moon' is particularly good. I like the synthesizer break in the middle of 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'. Onstage I play that song on a Roland guitar synthesizer: I think I played it on a Strat in the studio because that was the first time I had the Roland and I was more or less trying it out.
What can you do with a guitar synthesizer that you can't do with an electric guitar?
Very specifically, the Roland synth has got the duet switch that allows you to add any interval on top of the original note, which is great because once you start playing chords you get a huge sound. It's got a filter control that you don't really have in a guitar. You can have it in an envelope - like a wah-wah pedal or that kind of thing - but that's different than a synthesizer. The synthesizer is a different thing altogether. With Robert Fripp I've been using two of them together: two controllers, one tuned down an octave and one tuned up an octave. Amazing.
What does it do?
You get an incredible sound, a huge, very wide, orchestral sound. It just takes on a different dimension, so much bigger. A real feature of modern music is that the sound makes you play a certain way. If your vocabulary and reference are wide enough, certain sounds will make you play in a certain style. The synthesizer usually makes me want to play sort of 20th century classical music. I really like it. That's why I want to see the Roland GR700 so much when it comes out - it's still in production. The GR300 is good, but it's limited in terms of its tonal resources at the moment.
Is guitar synthesizer technology improving?
I think so, definitely. Roland is going to really get it all together. They have eradicated the triggering problem, and their instruments play great now. They simplified it, and you can play anything on it. You can bend the strings or play as fast as you want, and it's there. The first one I used was the GL500, which you can hear vaguely at the end of 'Walking On The Moon', sort of bubbling away. The most obvious use of it has been on 'Secret Journey' and 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'. There is a lot of it with Robert Fripp, where I've taken it much, much further. We're playing two together at the same time and using them in stereo tuned an octave apart: it sounds tremendous. I'd love to use that live.
Coming from a jazz and classical background, when did you start incorporating effects into your sound?
Seriously, in recent years more. Probably in this group, because before then I'd just have some MXR Phase 90 sort of scotch-taped to the floor - the usual thing. I got to the point really early on in the Police where I wanted to start working with an Echoplex. Then I went in and talked with [designer] Pete Cornish, who was obviously the man as far as pedalboards. He was way ahead of everybody else, and I think he still is. So after a while I had enough bread to be able to get one of his boards.
What is in it?
I have an MXR Phase 90, Electro-Harmonix flanger MXR fuzz, an analog delay, a Mu-tron III, and a compressor. These are all taken out of their shells, and they all go out and patch into the Echoplex. I have two very old valve [tube] Echoplexes - one is just a spare - that have a very rich sound. They are all preamped, so they are at the same volume. No matter which one you switch to, the volume doesn't change; you just get a different effect. There are switches down there and lights so you can see what you're doing.
Do any of your controls switch on more than one effect at once?
That's right. I set everything the way I want to set it. Then if I want like echo with flanging and compression in the middle of a song, I hit just the one button and it all comes on together. There's a master effects on-and-off switch, and when it's off nothing is going to come on, although the lights will show. I could press them down so they are on, but until the master is on, nothing will come on.
What is your philosophy of using effects?
I think they should be used. You have to be judicious and musical in your use of them. If you play everything with flanger, it's going to get old really fast. You have to continually change it and use the straight guitar sound as well - which I do - so that when you use the effect, it is an effect. And then it goes off. There's a danger in playing with that sound all the time because once you turn it off, it sounds really dull. Straight guitar ought to sound as good as the effects. You have to try to keep it in perspective. With the Police effects have opened up the sound a lot. I've been getting lots of double-rhythm effects with the echo, making it sound like two guitars. I do this by setting the analog delay and the Echoplex against each other, and a syncopated rhythm comes out. Both Sting and I have moog bass pedals, which you can sustain long bass lines with. Stewart plays his drum kit through an echo also, which almost makes it sound like he's playing two drum kits at once. You get all these rhythms going and start to sound huge after a while. So there's never any lack of sound.
How much does equipment matter musically?
I like to think that here in 1982 it's still the same old thing: A song is a song. It's got to stand up on its own anyway, and then what goes on record is something else. People want to hear sort of what's on the record. I think that with some of the Police material, the effects and the way the sounds have been modified are an integral part of the music.
How much can you take from the studio and duplicate onstage?
We can reproduce virtually everything we do. We try to think about it. I use my pedalboard and the same gear in the studio and onstage.
Is it easier for you to play onstage or in the studio?
I much prefer to play live. Onstage we always have areas where chances are available. We're having fun playing around with it at the moment in a song called 'One World'. It's a very reggae type of thing on the album, and it's going well onstage. We stop in the middle and play beats that seem in the wrong places. Then we stop and they think the song has stopped, and then it starts again and we get the whole thing going. It's great fun. I like being in the studio as well; it's a different kind of work. It has more stress attached to it, and sometimes it happens really spontaneously. On this last album we had some really good spontaneous moments happen. But if you have to start working at it in the studio, it starts to show. It starts sounding laboured. If possible, I like to get my parts really quick.
Do you plan parts out in advance?
No. I sort of work with the song. The way we work is to get the basic track down first: the guitar, bass and drums. The most important thing is always the drums, to get a really good drum track. If the right feel is there on the drums, then it doesn't matter after that what you do. If he's played the right drum parts at the right times - everything's in the right order - then you can even out the bass part on again. Then Sting will put on the vocals. After that come the guitar parts. In way it's like painting a picture. You put this colour in, you pull this one out, until you've surrounded the song with the right kind of accompaniment, so that the song comes off best.
Do you often surprise yourself in the studio?
Yeah. I'm amazed that I have to still play the guitar [laughs]. I think we try to pull those elements out of ourselves and push it all the time. We take turns producing each other. We are very harsh with one another in terms of severely editing one another's playing a lot of the times, pulling stuff off of tracks. You know: "You can't do that. Don't do that rhythm. Don't play that chord. Play chords because then it would not be reggae. They are all fairly straightforward diatonic chord sequences. The Police don't really play straight reggae. All we did was take the rhythmic count and incorporated it into whiter pop songs and added a little bit of punk in there to get these sort of jazzy, strange harmonies. It became something else, really. It became, hopefully, what we call Police music rather than just pure reggae. There are other English groups that play much closer to ethnic reggae than we do.
How did you achieve the massive effect in the middle of 'Secret Journey'?
I'm playing really peculiar chords on the Strat, feeding it back at the same time, and wanging the tremolo arm. Then I've also got a background of guitar synthesizers playing in the middle part. There's like an opening minute-and-a-half of guitar synthesizer with all these chors going on, and there's a break in the middle which is the two guitars together. I like the way it stops: you suddenly drop into this hole and a sort of Himalayan sheet of sound comes toward you.
In one interview you likened that effect to painting?
It's very much like painting; being able to pull people in by using space. They fall into the hole you've prepared for them. It's musical seduction really. The same thing in painting. It's that space that pulls people in. Gestalt psychology has a thing called closure which talks about the same thing: you provide a space and people close it with their minds. I think onstage the three of us are getting to the point where we can improvise and all stop in the wrong place at the same time. The audience is felling the rhythm, and they suddenly have a shock and sort of all wake up. You hear like this massive gasp from about 20,000 people, and then we're into it again. You get this big circle of energy going. We're playing and they're responding, and we keep stopping and they fall into it again. It really works quite well.
What scales did you use in 'Bombs Away'?
It's like minor pentatonic, I suppose. It would be something like G, A*, B*, B and C.
Is there a backwards guitar track in 'Masoko Tanga'?
I played piano on that. It's just like my forearm on the piano and then playing the tape backwards while you record it. Great sound.
How did you get such sustain in 'Bring On The Night'?
That was just the amp cranked up in a room that worked.
In 'Spirits In The Material World' there is an Oriental-sounding instrument.
Actually, that is just a guitar played up very high and plucked dry - you know, the palm on the string. I blended this with the setting on the Prophet-5 keyboard synthesizer to get that kind of sound.
Did you use a slide for 'Next To You' and 'It's Alright For You'.
Yeah, I did. Those are the only bits I've done it on. I had some very heavy brass slides made specially in England. You couldn't buy them. They're quite big. I like them because you get a lot more tone out of them. 'Next To You' uses just the standard open E and G tunings. I was very into slide for a while. I also like open tunings, but I don't use them with the Police.
Did you compose 'Behind My Camel' on guitar?
No. I worked out the melody on an organ. It might have come out of my playing to a drum box. I got this machine that was set to bossa nova plus rock one and tango rhythms. I wrote that tune in Ireland about three months before we recorded the album. That was up for a Grammy, actually.
What technique did you use for the flurries of notes in 'Peanuts'?
I really like that one - the bit where the bass breaks and it's just like rahhhhhh. I was going for sheets of sound. All that's like playing wrong or badly, not trying to play cleanly, but trying to get the effect of a sheet of sound almost like John Coltrane or Ornette Colman. It's like a great sort of clusters and flurries of notes rather than cleanly picked single lines. It's because of the excitement factor.
How do you add vibrato to a note?
I only know one way; bend the string with only my third finger. Instead of giving it vibrato right away, I like to hold the note and then just as it's dying give it the vibrato. So you just hear the vibrato right at the end. There's a subtle difference. It's more exciting this way.
Where do you hold a pick?
Between forefinger and thumb. Depending on what I play. I use two different picks. For the sort of jazzy or lead stuff, I like to use a small, fat pick - a Jim Dunlop Jazz Two. You get that thick sound that way; the physical feeling in my hand makes me play a certain way. And for most of the Police stuff where there's more rhythm going on, I use a slightly larger, thinner pick.
Do you follow any particular stroke patterns?
In the rock stuff I use a lot of downstrokes to get that kind of feeling into it. Reggae is nearly all downstrokes. I like to play funk rhythms. That's what we like to jam on at our sound checks; we play for hours. I get a really loose right-hand wrist for that. I really enjoy funk because you can play what seems like a straight rhythm, but there's so many nuances that you can put into it. The B side of 'Every Little Thing', 'Flexible Strategies', is a funk tune that's basically built around one chord, like an Am or something. I'm playing a hard funk rhythm, and then there's a long guitar solo that goes virtually all the way through the song, which is like totally against the harmony that's being played. It's sort of atonal. The sound is searing, and the notes are somewhere else. It's all like E flats and B's against an A chord and F sharp. It just works really well, which I found interesting. In a way it seems to be the area James Blood Ulmer is moving into.
Do you rest your hand on the guitar when you play?
Are most of your harmonics done with a pick?
Yeah. I do like the Lenny Breau stuff. I played with him a couple of times and he showed me, so I do a lot of that in the Police. Then there are the standard harmonics which everybody knows. And then I hit the string with the pick and catch it with my fingernail at the same time, so I get a note and the harmonic at the same time. It's really effective in a bluesier kind of playing, that Albert King kind of sound.
Do you have the guitar sound you want?
Yeah. I'm pretty pleased with the sound I'm getting at the moment onstage. It's not perfect; I'd like to get better. I'd like it to be cleaner and dirtier at the same time. We play these big auditoriums, so I use two 100 watt Marshalls, both on at about half way. They're slightly souped up - they've got better valves than normal. Pete Cornish did this for me. I like to get a slightly better, creamier lead sound and a much harder, brighter sound for straight tones. At the moment they are slightly too distorted for my ultimate taste. The sound is very good. Really, I have to have a sort of workhorse situation where I go on stage and it carries me through everything more or less okay. In the studio, I take a lot more time to experiment with different amps. Whatever it needs, I'll get it.
Are you a guitar collector?
I think I am. I've always been embarrassed by that, because I have lots of guitars. I've got 40, and I don't really want them. I do not want to have the hassle with guitars. There's something ridiculous about it. What are you going to do? I'm more interested in collecting paintings than guitars. I love beautiful old Gibsons and Fenders, but having so many frustrates me in the end. I think ten guitars is it for anybody, really. If you're a working guitarist, how many can you play? You get more out of it by just having one guitar and playing it all the time. I mean, they take up so much room. It gets inconvenient after a while. I'd like to offload a lot of them.
Which is your favourite instrument?
I suppose my Tele. It's the one I always play. I was teaching guitar in California seven or eight years ago, and this kid sold it to me for 0. It's a '63, a great guitar. It's a sunburst with bound edges. The maple neck is perfect. It's a maple neck. Anyway, I don't want to question it too much because it really works. Everything in it is great. I put a Gibson humbucker in the front, and it's got this standard pickup in the neck. It's also got an overdrive, a real funky thing this guy in California's San Fernando Valley - I can't remember his name - sort of scotch taped in the back. I've tried so many different guitars, and I've never found one that could come anywhere near it.
What do you look for when trying out a guitar?
You can almost tell right away, but you can't always be sure. Sometimes if you work with a guitar, you adjust to the sound and start getting into it. I think it's something to do with the overtone series in a guitar. It works better on some than on others. It's something you can't make happen; it sort of happens on its own. I really believe that there are certain mystical elements in the building of guitars. No matter how hard you try to make your blueprints, there are those other things that are gonna work. You hear stories about guys in the old days - in the late '50s and '60s - and the way they used to wind pickups. Some got more turns than others, so there would be more windings than on the previous ones. These kind of things make for a certain bunch of guitars. It's amazing. Why is it that some of them sound so good? Is it just the age, or is it something else? I don't know. The standard was sort of set 20 years ago, and it's very hard to get away from that. I think everybody's conditioned by it. Everybody is still playing the old 335s and the old Telecasters. I feel sorry for a lot of the modern guitar manufacturers. Old instruments are an obstacle. It's a strange sort of phenomena, just nostalgia.
Do you use recently made instruments?
I do. I've been using a Hamer onstage, and I have the guitar synthesizer. I'm certainly for working with the modern guitar makers, such as Jol Danzig from Hamer. He understands the aspects of vintage guitars. They made me a guitar with two '58 Gibson PAFs in it. Great guitar, beautiful. I'm going to start work with him now on one which I hope will be interesting. It might be a variation on a sort of harp guitar with drone strings - the same kind of thing John McLaughlin uses, only I want to have two sets of drone strings. I want to maybe get a sort of jazzy sound out of the guitar itself, use a Charlie Christian pickup. It will be a semi-acoustic, thin body guitar with two sets of sympathetic strings on it, so you can tune them differently, and have them both on or off.
What sound would you like it to have?
I like that really broad, thick, middley sound. Sort of like the old sound Chuck Berry was using - a guitar with jazz pickups, but with an edge. You get that fat sound with the edge as well. A lot of modern pickups get too thin, which I find disturbing, maybe because I'm conditioned by wanting to hear something else. Maybe with this guitar I'm working on I'll try placing one pickup right in the middle instead of up at the neck or down by the bridge.
Do you have any desire to experiment with scalloped or fretless fingerboard designs?
No. I like a fairly flat fingerboard. The odd thing about my Tele's neck is that it's got a flat fingerboard. It's maple, but I prefer rosewood. I don't like ebony at all; I can't get enough grip on it. I like the woodenness of rosewood.
How do you prefer your action?
Not unusually low. I'm in the middle, really; I like actions that aren't too stiff and hard, and I don't want them to be right on the neck either. I like it to be enough where I can really work with it. It depends on the guitar. I've got a Martin d-28 that I find a little heavy going to play - unless I play it for weeks on end, then I start to get into it. But you've got to have a bit of tension in the strings to push them; otherwise it's not as exciting when you bend a string. It's too easy. I think this translates psychologically. When you know you're bending an .008 instead of a .010, it's not as good. I use strings gauged from .010 to .046. I've been using Bill Lawrence strings, but I'm using Dean Markleys at the moment.
Do you do anything special to warm up before a show?
Yeah, I'll go sit in the tuning room and play scales and exercises. I just play by myself.
Do you ever play through music books?
Yeah. At home, when there's more time, I'll get into that kind of thing. I like Bartok. I like the violin duets. I play a lot of classical guitar music. In the last couple of years I've been playing Charlie Parker tunes. They are very challenging and difficult to play on guitar. I don't often play that kind of phrasing, so I get lots of ideas from them.
Do you do anything to protect your hands?
Around playing time I keep them out of water. I don't shake hands with all these radio people who come in.
When you were teaching guitar, did you have any special advice for students?
I always tried to point out clichés to people, to show why things become mundane. I think people should try to develop a nice, iconoclastic attitude as early on as possible.
Is your main complaint against today's guitarists the clichés?
Yeah. You've got two different things: some amazing and technically gifted players and some very vacant minds. I think the most important thing, really, is to go beyond guitar playing in a way and get into real music. Listen to lots of composers and try to find out what music is really about. All the heavy metal on the radio - there's a lot more to it than that. There are all sorts of interesting things that seems to be happening, and there are some great guitar players around. The most important thing is to live a full, exciting, rounded-out life. If you get so into playing guitar and living that life, you become a very boring person eventually. There are so many people like that. Develop as a person and try to keep things in perspective.
How do you keep your sanity on the road?
Well, I beat my head against the wall at least two hours a day - you know, got to keep the size down [laughs]. I go off and do a lot of other things. I like photography. I'm really into that: it's a passion of mine.
Have you done much composing lately?
Oh yeah, a great deal more than appears on Police albums. Some of it is being used in France this year for a movie. I did some French commercials this year, too, and the stuff with Robert Fripp.
What is the next Police release going to be?
Probably a double live album. We are going to put one out this year, but I think we're going to hold off and do another studio album right at the end of the year, which will be out next spring. There's already enough material, and we'll probably add more to it.
What would you personally like to accomplish in the future?
I'd like to be still able to play this time next year.