Andy Timmons discusses his rock fusion work on Protocol II

Andy Timmons with his Ibanez AT100
Andy Timmons with his Ibanez AT100 (Image credit: Sanden Photography)

As a solo artist, session musician and Ibanez endorsee Andy Timmons' CV is most impressive. We caught up with the Texan guitarist to talk about the release of a new album with drummer Simon Phillips, Protocol II.

How did Protocol II come about?

It was coming up to the 25th anniversary of Simon Phillips' first solo record entitled Protocol so he approached me about possibly doing a tour in celebration. I'd worked with Simon quite a bit in the '90s on the albums Another Lifetime and Out Of The Blue as well as several European and Asian tours. He was also putting together a 'best of' compilation with the realization that I would be at the January NAMM convention in Anaheim so he asked if we could record a new CD while I was in California. He then began assembling bits and pieces of demos he had done over the preceding years and that's what we started with.

There are several co-writes with you and Simon or the rest of the band. Was it more an 'all hands to the pump' rather than Simon dictating the pieces and performance approaches?

Simon wanted to know what we (myself, Steve Weingart/keys and Ernest Tibbs/bass) liked best and then went from there. Some songs were complete, some were not. It was very much a 'completely open for ideas' situation. Everyone had quite a lot to add although the whole album took only four days, including the rehearsal and arranging, save for a couple of overdubs I did back in Texas. Very much an old school way of recording and I really enjoyed that experience. There wasn't time to get too precious about things or overthink it. The result is a very energetic, fresh and raw musical experience.

One example is Upside In, Downside Out. We were literally wrapping up on the last day and Simon says "oh, I have one more thing I'd like to try in 13! He didn't have chords or melody, just an Indian rhythm. Steve immediately came up with the riff and we jammed it out from there. It took quite a while for us to be able to play it though [laughs]. I think I came up with the bridge solo changes which I think provides a nice respite from the odd time figure.

What do you find the most pleasing with an instrumental fusion project like this?

The challenge of the harmony - adult chords as Simon refers to them - and the challenge of the odd meters. I don't always resonate with music that sounds difficult for difficult's sake, but Simon's tunes are always very musical to me, regardless of time signature. Simon is also an incredibly well organised individual and is an amazing engineer and producer. He really is great at getting things done efficiently. I've learned a lot over the years working with him.

Did you record all together as a band, separate takes or a mix of both?

The majority of the record is live takes with very few punch-ins. We really wanted it to be as organic as possible. As I mentioned, I had to record a couple of parts when I got back to Dallas, but most everything is live.

The opening piece, Wildfire is a dark groove number with shifting fusion chords, slight major/minor ambiguity (Gmajor/G minor riff) and killer guitar playing. Did Simon have this pretty much planned out before you all came to record?

Yes, I recall this being one of the tunes that he had a complete demo for. It was my early favourite as it harkens back to '70s era Jan Hammer. It's also the tune we opened with every night on the tour.

Your co-write with Simon, 'Moments Of Fortune' has a great head, lots of space and a head bobbing groove. There are touches of Jeff Beck and Steve Lukather (The Pump springs to mind) in the composition and your guitar performance; how influential have these players been to you?

The working title for Moments Of Fortune was 'Pump-Type Tune'. This is definitely a fave on the record and live it really seems to connect with audiences. I came up with the B section melodies, but everything else is Simon. That was the first song we recorded. Steve, Simon and I had played together before, but it was our first time playing with Ernest and he just killed. That's not an easy groove to make feel great. We knew we had a band.

Regarding Luke and Beck, Luke is probably my biggest overall influence. He has such conviction, command of time and incredible melodic sense that ever since I first heard him (probably Breakdown Dead Ahead by Boz Scaggs) I aspired to reach that level of instinct and mastery of the instrument. I'm still working on that! [laughs]

I was a late-comer to the Jeff Beck party. My older brothers owned everything he ever recorded from songs like Shapes Of Things, onwards. I liked it and appreciated it, but I connected more with Luke, Larry Carlton, Robben Ford and Pat Metheny. The turning point was seeing him live in 1999. It is still to this day one of the greatest guitar performances I've ever witnessed. Every note seemed to have a purpose. Nothing superfluous. He completely re-stoked my fires to play guitar on the highest level possible. He has such emotional content to his playing that so very few ever achieve. It's been amazing to hear him continue to grow and evolve over the last 20 years as well as his entire career. He just keeps getting better. He's my absolute hero. All that being said, it's not lost on me that these are guitarists, among many others, that Simon has worked a lot with. I am really honoured to be in that company.

In a lot of fusion music there can be an emphasis on angular, outside writing, be it rhythmically and/or harmonically. Going into this project was there a discussion about how far in or out you'd go as a collective?

Not really, though certainly Simon, Ernest and Steve have considerably more experience in these areas than I do. Perhaps I bring a certain rock sensibility to the proceedings, but there was really no discussion about direction, just that it needed to be immediate and spontaneous.

You seem to have had a great time working with keyboardist, Steve Weingart. How do you approach working with a keyboardist?

Steve is one of my favourite people in the world. He's like a ray of light and we get on really well. He's really easy to work with and has a bottomless pit of inventive musical ideas. I'm inspired and blown away by him every night on stage and in the studio as well. It really is down to playing with people that have the antennae and instinct to play what's needed and appropriate.

Normally my approach is to find what compliments the keyboard voicing the best, especially the more complex the chord. If there's a chord like A13b9, I may just play an F# major triad which contains the 3rd, major 13 and flat 9 which the keyboardist is playing the fuller chord voicing.

Conversely, if I'm playing a straight powerchord I may not want to hear any upper structure from the keys. Again, so many of these things come instinctively with time but it's essential that the other player be on the same level of awareness.

How do you prep for a project like this? Any chops woodshedding before starting it?

Fortunately for me, two years prior to this project I got back on a path of practicing playing jazz standards every morning. This was prompted by an opportunity around that time to attend a week long camp with Pat Metheny and Jack Dejohnette. The thought of playing in front of Pat was simultaneously exciting AND frightening! I had played and studied jazz over the years, but at that point I hadn't been doing it that often and like anything else, if you don't use it, you lose it. Just the thought of attending the camp really lit the fire under me to get back to practicing like I did when I attended the University Of Miami. I would be in music classes all day, jamming with friends in between and after as well as gigging six nights a week. I realized that's when I was happiest about my playing.

I'm always playing, but working on straight-ahead tunes really informs so much about how I play ANY style of music. Primarily time feel and voice leading/melodic direction. So since that time I've really gotten back into student mode and I'm having a blast. So, when Simon called I felt like, "yeah, I'm ready for this. Good timing!"

Ironically, the camp never happened...but thanks Pat for scaring the crap out of me! Hopefully I will get to play with him someday. He truly is one of the greatest musicians of all time. I've learned so much from him.

Your alternate picking chops are killer as is your intonation for string bends and vibrato. In particular your intonation accuracy is among the best we've heard from an electric guitarist; can you discuss how you maintain these?

Well I'm flattered by the compliments, though I have a long way to go in these areas. String bending is one of the greatest aspects about expressive electric guitar playing and I use a lot of bends for that reason. I remember when I arrived in Miami back in 1983, many of the other players at the music school I went to liked the way I bent strings and would ask for help. I really had no idea what to tell them though, it's just something that developed naturally.

My main guitars at the time were a Les Paul and an '83 Squier Strat, the first year they were made. You had to have a Strat to gig in Miami back then due to all the dance hits with Nile Rodgers and Paul Jackson Jr type clean funk tones. I never had to think about intonation on that guitar, I just felt it. It wasn't until I tried some of the other student's guitars that I realised I didn't have the same comfort factor. I now wonder if it has to due with the 7.25" radius on that Strat. I still have that Squier and it's still my favourite Strat out of the eight others that I own. Cheapest guitar wins!

Your guitar tones are wonderful here. What was your gear setup; your Mesa Boogie + Ibanez signature guitar with several pedals?

Pretty much the same setup I've been using for the last 7-8 years. Mesa Boogie Lone Star head into 2x12 Rectifier cabs, my original Ibanez AT100 prototype, and the usual array of pedals: Xotic, Carl Martin Compressor, vintage TS808 Tube Screamer, GNI Octave box and a TC Chorus. Also I had a Strat copy that I used on a couple of tunes as well as an Ibanez AT10, a version of my AT100 manufactured in Indonesia. They are able to do amazing quality builds there for much less money, making my guitar a lot more affordable. I was skeptical at first, but they nailed it on the first prototype.

Some guitarists struggle in getting a great neck pickup tone but yours is open and singing; a little bit Hendrix with a touch of Lukather meets SRV. What do you look for when switching between neck and bridge pickups?

Well, volumes are an initial issue and finding two pickups that work well together when switching back and forth. I use the DiMarzio Cruiser in the neck position as it holds up nicely with my DiMarzio AT1 bridge humbucker. The Cruiser is voiced like a single coil but actually is a double coil. It's really become a component of my sound since the early '90s.

Steve Weingart has a very large array of keyboard tones (synth/piano) on show; how far do you look to go with tonal variety as regards rotary/ring modulation/octaved delays/Mu-tron type of 'guitar meets keyboard' tones?

I would like to explore those types of tones more at some point in the future. I would love to take the time to really get inside Jan Hammer's Mini Moog playing, which is somewhat based on his take on the electric guitar. I loved his playing with Jeff Beck...they were completely inspired and influenced by the other.

Album closer, Enigma has a wonderful funky chord intro from you with a great pop clean tone before the rock guitar head. What makes a great pop clean tone for you down to pickup setting choice; what did you use here?

That's my Ibanez AT100 with the neck pickup selected going into a Carl Martin compressor acting more as a gain boost then into the clean channel of a Mesa Boogie Lone Star. Amp controls were all set at noon. That was Steve's idea for the funky chord intro. Thanks Stevie!

What are your plans for the next year?

I've a really busy time ahead of me as October 1st is the release date of my new Truefire instructional course titled "Electric Expression". I'm really excited as this is my first official guitar instructional series. I have a 25th anniversary reunion show with Danger Danger which headlines at Firefest in Nottingham, England on 26th October. That should be a real blast! I'm also completing a new Andy Timmons Band record with a working title of Recovery. In november, Simon is planning for us to record a follow-up to Protocol 2. So yes, it's a busy schedule but I wouldn't have it any other way!

For more on Andy Timmons visit here