Producing Guitar With Todd Rundgren

by Moe Berg, Canadian Musician, December 1988

I guess I should begin this column the same way I began the first guitar piece I wrote for Canadian Musician by saying that I feel a little foolish writing it. This is more true now than it was then.

It starts with my initial conversation with our album's producer Todd Rundgren (who, I should state from the onset, is a hero and a major influence of mine) after he expressed interest in producing The Pursuit of Happiness. His end of the conversation went something like this, "The tunes are good, I really like the sound of the band but we're really going to have to watershed the guitar solos - the guy has no technique at all." Of course at this point he didn't realize he was SPEAKING TO THE GUITAR PLAYER. Later, our A and R person admonished him on the phone, "You told Moe his guitar playing sucks!" to which Todd replied, "I never told him it sucked - but it does suck." Well, at least I knew Todd wasn't going to hype me.

Anyway, we ended up doing the record with him and it turned out to be an amazing experience. I learned more about making records and life in the music business in those weeks than I had in my entire life to that point.

We recorded the basic tracks for the album "live off the floor." I used a Squire Telecaster through a Marshall JCM 600 for the "heavy" tracks and a Fender Telecaster Custom through Todd's old Vox Beatle amp for the "clean" tracks. Kris Abbott used an Ibanez Iceman through a Roland JC 60 and John Sinclair ran his Squire Jazz and Fender Precision basses direct into the mystical world of Todd's E.Q.

For the dreaded guitar solos, I sat in front of the console while Mr. Rundgren fiddled with his effects rack (I should say here that Todd places the lead breaks really high in the mix so it's no wonder that he wants them to be as interesting as possible). We did a few solos with a little chorus and delay through the Marshall. When it came time to do the breaks in "Hard To Laugh," Todd decided to introduce a harmonizer into the sound. He set it to give me a low octave and we ended up with a real big, heavy sound. This was the "eureka" that he was looking for. We ended up using pitch shifting on about five or six of the solos. For "I'm An Adult Now," Todd more or less closed his eyes and set the harmonizer at some interval which to this day is unknown to both of us. The result sounded like music from Mars. It was the only time I saw the man happy in the studio. I must admit I balked at it at first but Todd said, "It's like heroin. When you first take it you throw up but right after that you can't live without it." He was right - after a couple of listens I was hooked.

I wish I could say that I relearned the guitar to accommodate this technique, but to be honest I cut all of the lead breaks in a couple of days. However, certain scales and riffs obviously didn't work depending on the pitch interval, so finding ones that did was the main challenge. I personally feel that the solo in "Ten Fingers" came off the best - the interval that we selected really worked well with the chord pattern of the song.

I imagine by now some of you are saying to yourselves that this is a cop-out and that a lot of heavy guitar processing is no substitute for technical virtuosity. Well, of course you're right, however, I don't possess a whole lot of technical expertise, but I still want my solos to be ear-catching. Not only that but you can sit in your basement and practice fast scales and runs until your guitar neck catches fire, but unless you're doing them in an original way you're just going to blend in with a thousand other guitarists who aren't likely to remembered a tenth as long as someone like B.B. King, who plays about three notes every solo. Which brings us to our final observations and conclusions.

The process of recording Love Junk really made me re-examine my guitar playing and I would encourage anyone reading to take a good listen to what you're playing. Tape a gig or a practice and ask yourself a few questions about each solo. Really, how interesting is this solo? Is it cliched; have you heard this a million times before? How would this solo sound if it was played on another instrument or if it were sung? The second and third questions aren't as important as the first, but are useful hints to help you if you're stuck. Don't be fooled into thinking that a solo consists of you playing something through to the end without making a mistake. If you want to cut it in the big leagues you're going to need something which resembles a style of your own.

In the end, playing a solo is like your first conversation with a girl. If you're not interesting in the first thirty seconds you're likely to get tuned out.

Copyright 1988, Canadian Musician, Norris-Whitney Communications, Inc.

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