Gem Archer: “It was always about being in a band. It still is! It was never about being a virtuoso”

(Image credit: Adam Gasson / Future)

Gem Archer might not be a household name, but he’s been the guitar backbone of some huge acts.

He fronted the indie-rock band Heavy Stereo back in the 90s, before taking up guitar duties with Oasis and Liam Gallagher’s Beady Eye. He then went on to play with Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, where he currently remains.

The young Gem started his musical life playing violin at the age of 10 and, as was the case with many homes in the 70s, there always seemed to be a guitar kicking around.

“I loved the look of guitars,” he says, “and I used to play the violin at school, which was great, because I liked the teacher – y’know, he wore jeans and had a beard! But then they put me on the cello, and I hated the teacher… So, then I just wanted to play my guitar. After that, my Dad said, ‘Look, do you want to pack it in?’ and I just said, ‘All I want to do is play the guitar’.

I don’t listen to guitarists. I listen to music

“My Dad was fantastic. He was a builder and so he’d be listening to the radio all day and when he came home from work, I’d show him everything I’d learned – The Shadows and all that kind of stuff. When you’re young, you think, ‘Whoa! What’s next?’ And the next thing was getting an electric – then it became about trying to find a mate who also has a guitar. It was always about being in a band. It still is! It was never about being a virtuoso. All I ever wanted to do was be in a band and write songs.”

And you’re still as excited about it now?

“Oh yeah! That’s hopefully something that will never go away. Having said that, I don’t listen to guitarists. I listen to music.”

Late 60s Sunburst Gibson Firebird III

What music gets your imagination fired up when you hear it?

“It’s hard to say. Sometimes I’ll be browsing around YouTube and it’ll be something daft. My girlfriend’s from New Jersey and there’s a band over there called Los Straitjackets. They play mad surf covers in Mexican wrestling masks. They also play things like the theme from Midnight Cowboy – y’know, that kind of shit. Really it could be anything! Or my mate will go, ‘Have you heard about this guy Tommy Emmanuel?’ and you’re like, ‘Right, let’s have a look… Oh my god, that’s ridiculously good!’”

What other things aside from music inspire you to play guitar?

“Well, there’s that story of Neil Young and the Dead Man soundtrack. He got the film on a big screen, and he just recorded live to it through his amp, loud [laughs]. That’s the way to do it, isn’t it?! Just vibing off it. He’s one of the kings of getting a sound that didn’t exist before.”

Apparently, his guitar is virtually impossible for anyone else to play…

“I’ve held it. We’ve played with Neil Young a few times. Noel [Gallagher] and I went over and had a look at his gear, and it was all stacked in the corner of the stage like he was trying to flog it! Seriously. And the black Les Paul – you couldn’t even get a cigarette paper between the top E and the pickup. It’s virtually unplayable for most people, but he’s one of those rare guys.”

Noel Gallagher’s 2016 Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster

Gear vs ideas

It makes you wonder how much of it is all about the gear…

“I think it’s about the personality. It’s not about gear or anything like that. I don’t think so, anyway. Neil Young’s sound, his feel… I could spot it a mile off. I know people who think Hendrix is unlistenable, but it’s like, ‘Okay then, see ya later!’ [laughs]. But it could be anybody – the greats, or the ‘not-greats’ – it’s them. I mean people like Johnny Ramone – nobody can play like that. Those downstrokes, and it’s cleaner than you think… As long as the gear works for you.”

Your pedalboard is cool. How is The GigRig G2 working out for you? A lot of guitarists say it’s a game-changer…

“Oh man! It’s a game-changer alright. An absolute game-changer! I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before, really. I used to have pedals in racks with a switching system, but I just really wanted them on the floor, where they should be, and the G2 is a whole different level of using your effects pedals. The first thing I noticed, when they were all hooked up, was as soon as the G2 was on, all the pedals sounded way, way better. Much clearer, more detailed and less dull. Just a lot more exciting, really. To me, it just makes complete sense. Especially playing with Noel now. It’s not like Oasis where the amps are having it and then you stepped on a volume boost or something – in Oasis, it was more of a wall of sound. What we’re doing now requires a lot of different textures throughout the set and the G2 helps with that massively.”

I had an accident and after a long time of not going out, I started falling in love with the guitar again

Which guitars and amps are you into at the moment?

“I’ve never been into switching loads of different amps – all I’m using at the moment is a reissue tweed ’57 Custom Fender Twin-Amp, and it’s great. You can put a lot of pedals through it and it sounds great, whereas some amps don’t cope with a lot of pedals so well. I’m using a lot of different gain stages and I’m using quite a few different guitars, such as semis, Strats, Teles and a Firebird, but I get a lot out of them and I’ve got all the pickups covered. That’s all I need. 

“And the Epiphone Sheraton with mini-humbuckers is great too. That’s Noel’s guitar. He just goes, ‘What guitars do you want to borrow’? and I was like, ‘Well, I’ve played that one and it’s incredible’. It’s 60s, but I’m not sure of the exact year. I was going to buy one, but it was about seven grand! Noel’s got an amazing collection, but we like to keep it simple. People say, ‘Why are you changing guitars so much?’ but we use a lot of capos. It’s funny, but if a capo’s on, I’ll visualise it as if it’s the nut. Like Don’t Look Back In Anger is in B flat, but to me it’s in G! I think it of it in shapes and picture the chords. I picture the whole thing and that’s kind of how I remember it.”

Can you tell us about your accident and how it affected your guitar playing?

“I had an accident and fractured my skull and broke my leg. I was out of it for a while. It was pretty bad. People asked me if it affected my playing and I jokingly replied, ‘Yeah, it’s made it better! But after a long time of not going out, I started falling in love with the guitar again. Just as an instrument and not like, I’m in a band and I do this and do that. I started to surprise myself! And I just went on a different journey, I suppose.

“This is going to sound pretentious but I think it’s helpful – it was like physio. Like healing, like recovery. And you know what? I started to go really deep and started questioning myself like, ‘I wonder, how do you actually play that’? because we can all blag everything, can’t we? If I said, ‘Play the start of Purple Rain’, everyone would have a good way of doing it, but to really analyse it and go deep with it – suddenly it was much easier, because I was stuck on a sofa with a leg in a cast! I mean I couldn’t walk...

“So, you never stop learning, and playing this set is incredible, because the band – everybody – is mega! I mean, I’m learning again.”

1968 Gibson Trini Lopez Standard In Sparkling Burgundy

Noel knowledge

Playing with the right musicians can up your game massively – a bit like playing pool with the right people…

“[Laughs] It’s weird how that happens isn’t it? And we all have those nights where we’re unbeatable. We play snooker quite a lot. Suddenly you’ll get a two-ball break, a three-ball break and before you know it, everyone’s on fire saying they’re getting pretty good at this! Then, of course, you come back down to Earth.”

I think music’s the same; some people can really bring out the best in you…

“Noel’s written a ton of different songs recently and it’s not like you just strap yourself in and play through the set – there’s a lot of different atmospheres and… I’m trying not to say ‘vibes’ [laughs].”

Everybody’s different, man, and I’m sure some people just turn it on, like click. But Noel is always on. He's the real deal

A producer friend of mine has a ‘Vibe Jar’ in the control room, kind of like a swear box – if anyone says the word ‘vibe’ they have to stick a quid in the jar…

“Yeah, good idea! The best words and clichés always get overused and then they get put on the bench, y’know. But when the shit hits the fan, they always seem to make sense though.”

What were the rehearsals like with Noel?

“He’s great. It started off rehearsing for the U2 tour, so it was a 50-minute set and then he started dripping in the new album. I’ve got all the multi-tracks, which is great. You can try and pick things out, but it’s so much easier with the multitracks. I know how Noel voices chords and on some lead lines he plays on other strings that wouldn’t be so obvious. It’s not like he just wants to replicate the record in rehearsals. There’s certain bits you’ve got down and some bits you’ll have down too much, and he’ll go, ‘Oh, just do this…’ Like the note on the record might be hanging against another note, but live the dominant note might be different, and y’know, there’s a lot of different sounds.

1998 Fender Paisley Telecaster

“[Noel] hits a lot pedals, so it’s a question of, what’s he going for here? And, of course, he’s singing as well. You’ve got to have somewhere to start, but it’s so not like just doing the record. This year we started with a list of about 35 songs, which is quite a lot to learn. Not that we did them all, but they’re all there to draw on if need be, and he adds to them all the time, and he also tries them in different ways. Some songs, like Don’t Look Back In Anger is in C, but we do it in B flat, and I think Wonderwall is higher. Noel’s the vocalist, so he’s singing for two hours – and he sings from top to bottom every day, even at rehearsals. It’s right, because it’s a song, and it’s real. Everybody’s different, man, and I’m sure some people just turn it on, like click. But Noel is always on. He’s the real deal and it’s inspiring! Noel gives it super loud. One of the sound guys was saying he’s about 20dB louder than Springsteen!”

You’re about to step onto the stage at Cardiff Motorpoint Arena knowing that something major is going to kick off! What does that feel like? I mean, you seem very, very calm considering…

“The main thing, personally, for me, is to try and be calm before you play – always calm. My routine is no routine. Be really calm and try to be with as little people as possible. There’s no night out before the gig, for me!”

Fender ’57 Custom Twin-Amp

Rod Brakes

Rod Brakes is a music journalist with an expertise in guitars. Having spent many years at the coalface as a guitar dealer and tech, Rod's more recent work as a writer covering artists, industry pros and gear includes contributions for leading publications and websites such as Guitarist, Total Guitar, Guitar WorldGuitar Player and MusicRadar in addition to specialist music books, blogs and social media. He is also a lifelong musician.

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