Reeves Gabrels' top 5 tips for guitarists
Reeves Gabrels runs down a short list of band names that drive him crazy – it includes Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Huey Lewis & The News, and Jason & the Scorchers – and points out what they all have in common: "They're all 'someone and the somethings,'" he says. "I just don't like that construction for a name. I never really have."
Which makes the title of his fifth solo album more than a little surprising: Reeves Gabrels & His Imaginary Friends. And like most things Reeves Gabrels, there's a story behind it. "I was doing solo acoustic shows shows in the early 2000s, and so I would bill it as ‘Reeves Gabrels And His Imaginary Friends.' I just thought it was funny – me up there by myself. I mean, I'm nothing if not ironic."
Gabrels tucked the name away for a while, but when he formed a power trio in Nashville with bassist Kevin Hornback and drummer Jeff Brown, he decided that the moniker fit the new group perfectly. "For a while, the name was just an in joke between me and myself," he says, "but I do think it has a whimsical feeling that suits my life view.”
Gabrels originally planned to release the album in 2012, but that year he joined The Cure. "Obviously, joining a big band requires a lot of changes and things to figure out – how they work, how I function with them and all that," he says. "But it also gave me time to go back and tinker with stuff on the album. I remixed a few tracks, recorded a few new ones. So the extra time spent on it was really worthwhile."
Fans of Gabrels' idiosyncratic and irreverent six-string virtuosity will find plenty to love about the new album, but the guitarist (who also sings lead) is quick to point out that the disc isn't merely a vehicle to show off his outer-limits shred skills. "It's basically my ‘this is the power trio’ statement," he says. "I didn’t want to dilute that and confuse people as to what we are and what we sound like. We’re responding to one another and playing off of each other. It’s a real live-in-the-studio thing with me waving the rock flag.”
Over the past few years, Gabrels has changed his approach to the guitar somewhat, incorporating the styles of players as disparate as Curtis Mayfield, Tony Iommi and Robin Trower. "They're all there in places on the new album," Gabrels asserts. “The things I used to do, where I stretched harmony and used unusual sounds, things have caught up to that. Now I’m fitting into the world a little more comfortably." He pauses, then adds with a laugh, "Although I don't think I'll ever be totally comfortable.”
You can preview all of the tracks on Reeves Gabrels & His Imaginary Friends and purchase the album at bandcamp.com. On the following pages, Gabrels runs down his top five tips for guitarists.
Don't be a prima donna
“I could say this a few ways: Don’t be a problem. Don’t be a jerk. Or just don’t be an asshole, how’s that? [Laughs] This piece of advice could easily extend to anything in life, but as we all know, the business of playing music tends to attract its share of egotists.
“Long before I ever met him, I read an interview with Steve Lukather in which he said, ‘Look, there’s a thousand guys who can play as well as I can, but at the end of the day, it comes down to being the kind of guy that people want to be around.’ And it’s true: Who wants to spend time in a rehearsal room or studio with a guy who’s always being a problem?
“Just because you can play or sing well or write songs doesn’t mean that you’re better than anyone else. Every band I’ve been in since high school had somebody in it who felt that they could behave in any way they felt; they thought they deserved special treatment because of their supposed ‘gifts.’ And as we all know, that’s a great way of being asked to leave a band.
“I remember when I was in the Boston music scene, there were guys who felt that they had to behave like self-important assholes in order to be treated as though they were important. Conversely, when I went to play with David Bowie, who’s had hit after hit after hit and could very rightly be called a legend, I was struck by what a regular guy he was. He didn’t need to have the ring kissed or any of that stuff. There’s a big lesson in that, I think.”
“What I mean by ‘play great’ is, do the best you can. If you’re in a band or if you’re playing on somebody’s record, go in, respect the music and everybody else in the room.
“If you’re in a cover band and you’re playing clubs, if the band decides to learn five new songs, then it’s you’re job to know those five songs to the best of your ability before you walk in the rehearsal room. You don’t want to be the guy sitting off to the side trying to figure out his shit while everybody else is standing around waiting.
“And don’t waste everybody else’s time by checking your texts or posting on Facebook while the other guys are wanting to play. I mean, how dumb is that? It’s rude, and it goes back to my first tip about being a prima donna. This should be common sense. Play great. Be the best you can be.”
Respect the music
“Respect what you do and appreciate the music you play. Try to remember what a valuable form of communication music is – it cuts across all barriers. You can communicate with people you have nothing in common with by using notes and sounds. How great is that?
“You see this in other bands sometimes. I’ve played festivals and seen bands either backstage or onstage, and their attitude is ‘It’s time to make the doughnuts.’ There's no joy at all; they're trudging off to do a job. We all might feel that from time to time – you’ve done six shows in seven days, and you’re beat. But you have to put that out of your mind and remember that the music is what’s ultimately going to lift you up.
“I remember having the flu when I was in Paris to play with Tin Machine. I was in the bathroom nearest the stage, and I was on the toilet with a bucket in front of me. The band was waiting outside the door, like, ‘We’ve really got to go on stage, Reeves. Are you gonna make it? Should we do an acoustic number?’ But I got out of the bathroom, went on stage, and by the time I was 16 bars into the music, I felt great. I wasn’t so sure at bar nine [laughs], but bar 16 did it. Everything clicked, and I remembered why I was there and what was important.”
Put the time in
“If you’re lucky enough to get the attention you think you deserved early on, it’s easy to get into this mindset where you just want to coast. But in a way, this goes back to my last point about treating the music with respect. Part of doing that involves fighting off complacency and arrogance, working to get better. Simply put, you've got to put the time in.
“I go back all the time whether people are just blessed with talent or if they get there through sheer perseverance. Any day of the week I’ll have a different opinion on that. No matter how it happens, you’ve got to work on your craft. Use it or lose it, you know?
“Sharpen your blades. Have your tools ready to make the art. I try to be brutally honest with myself about my shortcomings. Put a sheet of music in front of me and I’ll know my place really fast. Give me a transcription of Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and that’ll tell me what I need to do today.
“Any time you step into an area in which you're uncomfortable, you’re in a position where you might learn something. Don’t run from it. With the technique and the mechanics comes the art.”
Remember: opinions are subjective
“I can be in a room full of other players or artists, and somebody will mention a song and invariably somebody else will say, ‘Oh, I heard that. It’s shit.’ But what if I liked it? Is my opinion not just as valid?
“For somebody to come back and say, ‘Oh, no, it’s crap,’ does that mean that they're the final voice on the matter? I would like to think that their mind isn’t so closed that they might be somewhat open to the possibility that the song could, in fact, have merit.
“It’s horses for courses. One person is not the arbiter of taste and art. It’s all really subjective. Remembering that is the way to keep growing. Now, sure, sometimes there’s a consensus. My father always said, ‘If 10 people tell you you’re a horse, maybe it’s time to start wearing a saddle.’ You’ve got to take all of that stuff in and not worry about having your opinion challenged.
“Personally, I welcome the debate. If I like so-and-so’s new record, and somebody else says, ‘That’s the biggest pile of crap I ever heard,’ then I want to know why. I’ll hear you out, but I’m still gonna like it. That’s my gut reaction, and gut reactions are most often the truest feelings you can have. You know what you know, and you like what you like.”