GUITARS AND AMPS EXPO 2014: There’s seldom been a better time to be a guitarist. Guitar music is back on radio’s A list, a wealth of elder statesmen are back out on the road showing their undoubted skill and class, and there are bucket loads of incredible younger players well on the path to superstardom, making their mark all over the world.
Here we tip our hat to the latter, presenting the most exciting guitar bands to be touring the live circuit or releasing new music this summer. Kicking things off is a bunch of southern country rockers with a guitar tone akin to an aged, fine bourbon...
Band: Alabama Shakes
Alabama’s finest foursome pack an astonishing number of styles into their roots-y mix. Everything from classic soul to southern rock can be heard throughout the band’s debut Boys and Girls.
The startling style mix can also be seen in the players that guitarists Brittany Howard and Heath Fogg (who dish out lead duties between them) cite as influences. While frontwoman Brittany namechecks Chuck Berry as a hero, Malcolm Young is the main man as far as Heath is concerned. It’s a jarring combination that works a treat, just check the rock rhythm and soulful melody of single Hold On for the proof.
Where to hear them: Alabama Shakes' second album (title tbc) is due out late summer
Band: Tame Impala
When Tama Impala guitarist/vocalist Kevin Parker looked out into the crowd at the band’s breakthrough London show in 2010 he would have seen Noel Gallagher, Johnny Marr and Kasabian’s Serge Pizzorno staring back at him.
No pressure there then, and not a bad endorsement of Parker’s eclectic songwriting and playing style. The psychedelic swirl of Feels Like We Only Go Backwards sounds like it came straight out of John Lennon’s ‘70s songbook, while the chuggy Elephant channels everyone from Marc Bolan to Jack White as Parker lays down his marker as the guitar hero for the 21st century.
When to see them: Tame Impala are playing May and July dates in the UK
Band: Blackberry Smoke
US southern country rockers Blackberry Smoke’s latest album, The Whippoorwill, is a record drenched head to toe in incredible guitar tones.
At a time when authenticity in sound and stripped-back, analogue recordings have become ‘the thing’ for guitar bands, the Smoke are one of a few that can say they’ve been doing it this way for years - they don’t care if Dave Grohl made recording to tape cool, this is just what they do. We gave frontman/lead guitarist Charlie Starr a light grilling on the quest for a perfect tone, vintage gear and a very special gift from Billy Gibbons.
What’s the one piece of gear you couldn’t live without?
“I am very fond of a 1956 Les Paul Jr which has been my main guitar since the early ‘90s. It's been through a lot.”
Are you always looking for the next piece of gear and the perfect tone?
“Of course. It's quite an adventure, isn't it?”
We hear you were given a guitar by Billy Gibbons, how did that come about?
“We were on tour with ZZ Top several years ago, and Billy would hang with us quite a bit. We had a discussion about Dan Armstrong guitars one day. About a week later, he called me into his dressing room and handed me one. Thank you, Billy.”
Blackberry Smoke has some incredible vintage guitar sounds and tones, what is the key to capturing those tones on record?
“Working with great engineers who are knowledgeable about mic placement is the key. I seem to learn something new every time we're in the studio.”
What is the greatest guitar tone ever captured on record?
“I think that award belongs to Rev. Billy F. Gibbons.”
Where to see them: Blackberry Smoke tour the States from May through to September, before returning to the UK for another tour
Band: The Naked and Famous
Thom Powers and his Auckland fivesome have been buzzing around since 2008, first coming to our attention thanks to the hook-heavy Young Blood, a synthpop singalong underpinned by Powers’ fuzz-heavy guitar work.
But it was Powers’ playing on 2013’s In Rolling Waves that made our ears really prick up and see that this guy is the real deal. Hearts Like Ours, in particular, is a triumph, again fuelled by Powers’ riff-work. Computer games giant EA Sports were every bit as impressed, adding the band’s tunes to the roster for their massively successful FIFA series not once but twice in the last three years, putting Powers’ riffs into millions of homes the world over.
Where to see them: The Naked and Famous tour the States this May and June, before heading to the UK on 30 June for a string of shows
Ireland’s biggest export since U2 in waiting? Don’t bet against it. Dublin’s finest indie folkers may have only found their current line up just over two years ago, but guitarists Mark Prendergast (lead) and Steve Garrigan (rhythm) have wasted little time in hatching their plans for world domination.
Their debut album, In a Perfect World, proved a chart bother-er all over Europe, hit the top 30 in Australia and set the tone for success in the States. The contrast of the stripped-back, more-is-less All I Want to the sweeping closing solo salvo found in High Hopes show that whatever success comes Kodaline’s way will be richly deserved.
Where to see them: Kodaline's European tour starts on June 5
British heavy metal is enjoying a well-deserved purple patch at the minute. Brit exports are blazing a trail the world over, even making headway in the previously closed shop that is the US, and Architects could just be the next band of Brit riff masters to cross the pond and come back as metal heroes.
We spoke to Architects guitarist Tom Searle to find out how to write a pant-wettingly awesome metal riff, the gear that he just has to see on stage each night and whether he thinks world domination is just around the corner.
What was the first song you learned to play?
“Rather typically it was Smells Like Teen Spirit. How predictable!”
What's the one piece of gear you couldn't live without?
“Probably my Tube Screamer. I'm not mega fussy on the brand, I use the Ibanez TS9 right now and it does the job. Mine actually popped its clogs in soundcheck two days ago and the thought of playing the show without it gave me the hot sweats! It just gives my tone that bite and attack that allows my guitar to hold its place in the mix.”
What is the key to writing a killer metal riff?
“Whatever the riff is, it has to have something about it to earn its keep in the song. I don't really think about it in any sort of measured way, if it's right, then you just know it. I've definitely learnt to dial back the technical side of it, especially if it's going to make it difficult to perform live. It's not a matter of laziness, it's just if you reach too far then it might just end up a sloppy mess. I think the best riffs are the simple ones.”
Can Architects go on to achieve the kind of worldwide success we've seen from other UK metal bands like Bring Me The Horizon?
“That's hard to say. I don't want to be defeatist and say no, I suppose anything is possible. On the other hand their success is pretty unprecedented, so I'm not counting on it! To be honest the success we have right now internationally completely blows my mind. I'd never have believed we could achieve what we have, so to worry about what other people have achieved, or to think that we've failed because someone else has more would be ridiculous.”
Where to see them: Architects play Reading and Leeds festival on 23 and 24 August
Band: Crystal Fighters
A concoction of folk, synthpop and electronica might sound like a particularly hideous cocktail, but in the hands of guitar-playing trio Sebastian Pringle, Gilbert Vierich and Graham Dickson it becomes a sweet mix.
It is the multi-layered guitar work of said trio that makes this seemingly ill-advised combination flourish. Pringle, Vierich and Dickson pile acoustic lines atop of riff after riff, and still somehow find the space to squeeze in a ton of synths.
The result is a fascinating sound that proves that you don’t need to be a shredder to be a modern-day guitar hero, doing something a million miles away from razor sharp riffing and blazing soloing can also do the trick.
Where to see them: Crystal Fighters' European tour begins this May
Band: Well Hung Heart
When it comes to eclectic musical CVs, you’d struggle to find one to beat that of Robin Davey. While today he’s the buzzsaw guitar sound behind blues punk duo Well Hung Heart, in the not too distant past Robin could have also been found packing out arenas with pop princess Katy Perry.
Before that, he collaborated with Eurythmics head honcho Dave Stewart, Rolling Stones legend Mick Jagger and blues icon Buddy Guy. Yeah, not a bad CV at all.
Well Hung Heart is undoubtedly a rock band, but in your session career you’ve played for the likes of Katy Perry. Has that session work made you a better rock guitarist?
“I think it's important to understand why popular music connects to people. It's easy to dismiss mainstream artists, but behind each one is a team - often a pretty formidable one - that understands what makes something connect. It's good to get a grounding on that even if your music is in a different genre or a more niche market.”
What is the key to being a well-rounded guitarist capable of playing different styles?
“Understanding where it all came from. If you understand how Lightning Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, BB King and T Bone Walker influenced the next generation, you can apply those techniques across the board.”
You have a unique set up in terms of the split of your guitar signal - how did that come about?
“Through necessity really. We were trying to find other players to be in Well Hung Heart and people in the LA scene are notoriously unreliable. They all want to play in as many bands as possible, always wanting to find the most successful. So I just said I think I can come up with a way to play bass and guitar at the same time.
"So I split my signal four ways - one takes the bottom two strings through an Octaver into a bass amp, one goes to a cleaner guitar amp and one goes into a dirtier amp. Then the final one goes through a Pog pedal and into another amp (often a Leslie) to give me a Hammond sound as well. This enables me to get a full band sound from one guitar.”
Where to hear them: Well Hung Heart's second album, Go Forth and Multiply, comes out this May
Band: Deap Vally
Rock music has changed a whole heap in the last decade. Back in the early 2000s, the bass-less White Stripes were something of an oddity. Today, blues rock duos are ten a penny, which means that to stand out you need to be something special. Deap Vally certainly fit that bill.
Guitarist Lindsey Troy compensates for their bass-free sound by peppering tracks with wave after wave of riffs and chords, while her dovetailing of a ‘70s Ampeg B15, a 1x15 combo and a Fender Reissue Blues Deluxe 1x12 combo adds plenty of fuzz to the Vally’s raw, rough and ready, Led Zep-meets-Black Keys sound.
What is your chosen guitar and amp, and why?
“I play an early 70s Fender Mustang that I borrowed from my dad and am never giving back. He bought it from a friend who was living in his van and needed money. I love that it has so much history. It’s got some really bizarre modifications to it that truly make it one of a kind. I play a Fender Blues Deluxe and a Fender Bassman amp. I’m able to get different tones from each amp, which is crucial to our sound as a two-piece.”
How does being in a two-piece affect your playing?
“In every way. Every part I write is informed by the minimalism of our set-up. You could describe my guitar playing as a hybrid of bass, rhythm and lead guitar. And I don't really need to be in tune because there are no other melodic instruments for me to be in tune with. Perk.”
It could be argued that you’re heading up a blues rock revival - how does that feel?
“It's awesome. Blues is the mother of rock, it's inherent to the genre. For us, incorporating the blues into our music came really naturally. We're not purists in the sense that it's all blues all the time, but it's been a really generous well of inspiration for us to draw from.”
Have you managed to meet any of your guitar heroes over the last couple of years on the road? We hear Jimmy Page watched you guys play a while back…
“Shaking Jimmy Page's hand was one of the greatest honours of my lifetime. Another hero of mine I've met is Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Their first record, Fever to Tell, is practically imprinted on my DNA, so getting to play shows with them felt like I was returning to the promised land or something. Nick has since become a great friend of ours and a creative mentor to us - it's crazy how life comes full circle like that.”
Where to see them: Deap Vally play UK dates, including Isle Of Wight festival, this June and July
At a time in which cookie cutter pop rules the airwaves, any band that puts guitar rock back at the top of the radio A list must be pretty special. San Fernando Valley soft rockers Haim - headed up by sisters Alana, Danielle and Este - are just that.
Guitarists Danielle and Alana’s deft splicing of classic Fleetwood Mac melodies and nu-folk rhythms found a mainstream audience thanks to hits The Wire and Forever. There’s plenty of ‘90s r’n’b stamped throughout Haim’s sound too, while Tom Petty’s influence is unmistakable in Danielle and Alana’s playing. It all adds up to a sound so mainstream pleasing that it even got a thumbs up from David Cameron, which may or may not be a good thing.
Where to see them: Haim play a string of UK dates - including T In The Park, and support for Kings Of Leon at the Milton Keynes Bowl - this June and July
Band: Arcane Roots
They say the key to a successful live band is the ability to make a club seem like a stadium and make an arena feel as intimate as a toilet venue. It’s something that Arcane Roots have been working on throughout their seven-year existence, and we reckon they’ve just about got it nailed.
Anyone that caught the London trio supporting the likes of Muse and Biffy Clyro in enormo domes throughout Europe last year will be fully aware that the Roots have one hell of a stage show up their sleeves, while the band’s own headline shows are often near-legendary sets packed with stadium-sized energy. Guitarist Andrew Groves fills us in on the importance of making an impression live.
Who is your biggest guitar hero?
“John Frusciante has always been, without doubt, my biggest musical inspiration. His attitude towards music and studious approach to both his playing and writing has always reached out to me as a guitar player and pushed me to become better. I came across his playing while searching for songs that were harder to play than the nu-metal my 14-year-old self was into, and I quickly learned all I could and laboured over every single nuance. His moral approach and dedicated attitude always reminds me to be humble and remain open to any source of creativity, putting music first is surprisingly difficult and rare once your music is out in public domain.”
How much importance do you place on having a great live show?
“For me, the recording is like the program but the live show is the actual performance, it is when you bring alive the songs that mean so much to you. It is when you act out the emotions and feelings within the songs and amplify them with the audience. I try to see it like taking a test each day, spending your day focused on giving the best show you can each night and getting closer to forgetting the surrounding factors and concentrating on playing music for as long as possible. We design and create the whole show ourselves, from the setlist to the light show and we constantly look for new ways to bring in new material, improvise or improve our live show each night.”
What is the key to a great live show?
“Playing live is a fairly unusual experience, marred with error, unwanted sound problems and injury/illness. But, the more we play as a band the closer we get to the audience. When we first started to play it was about nailing our own parts and singing the best we could, but now our focus has very much switched to the audience, giving them the best experience, giving them the most honest performance.”
Where to see them: Arcane Roots play 2000 Trees festival, Cheltenham, which runs from 10-12 July
Finding a guitar sound that is as brutal as a fist to the face but is also packed with gigantic hooks is no mean feat, but that’s exactly that LTNT’s Liam Lever has achieved.
The band’s latest EP, DAO, is full to the brim with explosive lead lines and heavy as hell rhythms. It’s a pleasingly eclectic sound fed by Lever’s rich array of influences and put through a blues metal filter, with Body Blood (and it’s claret-heavy promo video) summing up just what LTNT are all about in a sub-three minute blast. Here’s what Lever had to say about gear, guitar heroes and bizarre gig entrances.
What was the first guitar you owned?
“When I was about seven or eight I got a white Squire Strat off my dad's mate. It was shit then and its worse now but I’ve still got it.”
Who was your first guitar hero?
“George Harrison probably. A lot of players were introduced to me at once like him, Hendrix and Peter Green, but I remember him first. Then came Dimebag and that changed everything.”
What is the key to your guitar sound?
“Squeezing something big and heavy out of equipment not really made for the job. It’s loads of fun to play big riffs with a Les Paul through a Diezel, but playing them on a Strat through an AC30 makes for much more sonic unpredictability and excitement in my opinion.”
What's the craziest show you've ever played?
“A few bands back in the day used to have a side project called Anal Abortion. We once rode into a gig naked on the roof of a Chrysler Grand Voyager, across a golf course at about 50mph. We had wireless packs so we could start the intro from a good 100 metres away. The other guitar player had fallen off the roof and was clutching onto the wheel arch. We overshot and took out one wall of the tent. Best days of my life.”
Where to hear them: LTNT's EP, Dao, is out now