GUITAR SHOWCASE 2022: Fourteen years is a very long time out of the recording studio, but it only takes a quick listen to Three Sides Of One – the thirteenth studio album from American rock legends King’s X – to realise it was most definitely worth the wait.
On the 12 new tracks, lead singer/bassist Doug Pinnick, guitarist Ty Tabor and drummer Jerry Gaskill conjure up many of the creative nuances which helped them stand out on late '80s debut Out Of The Silent Planet and the cult albums which followed, doing so with great success. Pinnick’s heartfelt soulful vocals and falsetto screams? Check. Tabor’s extended steroid blues leads? There’s plenty to choose from. And as for Gaskill’s thunderous rhythms, despite suffering two heart attacks in the time since their last studio album, he’s sounding as commanding as ever.
As the title suggests, they are three sides of the same musical entity – and one which most would agree is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. They’ve always sounded impossibly huge for a power trio, thanks to the sheer inventiveness of their riffs, the impeccable tones coming from each side of the kit and an almost godlike ability to lock in on the funkiest of grooves.
But if you ask them what feels different about their latest work – bearing in mind this is a band whose roots stretch all the way back to 1979 – the answer is not much…
“It’s hard to answer that as I don’t really think in terms of comparisons,” says guitarist Ty Tabor. “It’s the kind of thing I like being told rather than answering myself! [laughs]. As you go along and get older, just from listening to more and more music, you have more ideas you can draw from. All of a sudden you find yourself trying things you haven’t done in a while or things you haven’t done before in order to stretch your creativity and imagination!
“I tend to approach everything from the same place – asking what tone or part is best for the song. As you get older, you change a little here and there, but I don’t really self-analyse. It’s all the same to me!”
Opening track Let It Rain starts with you letting chords ring out through a heavily effected guitar sound. How did you get that tone?
“It might sound a bit like a tremolo but it’s not. I used something called the Ultra Vibe [made by Sweet Sound Electronics]. I didn’t have an expression pedal with me at the time so I couldn’t control the speed like I normally would. So Michael Parnin, our producer for the record, ended up sitting on the floor while I played the part, randomly turning the speed knob to get different effects wherever he felt they should be. That’s literally all we did… I just played some chords and he turned a knob!”
Well, it’s hard to listen to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Robin Trower and not become obsessed with vibe pedals!
“Yeah, I’m a vibe freak myself (laughs). I’ve got a few of them here. A couple are new, and they’ll be the ones I probably take on the road. They’re made by Rick Weaver FX, one is called the Violet Vibe and the other is the Midnight Vibe. Both of them sound great, but so far the Ultra Vibe has been the one I’m using the most… I really dig that one.”
Speaking of Hendrix, the opening track also features a backwards guitar solo…
“I may have gone through something called a RotoSIM to get the double effect on that. I had Michael reverse the track and I played along in reverse – so I started out high and fast, like it’s the end of the solo, and then slowed going down the neck until it got the beginning. So it was recorded the wrong way round but once it got flipped backwards, it sounds like I started out slow and built all the way to the end.”
As for the next song, Flood Pt. 1, things get pretty heavy in places!
“I think what you’re detecting is Doug’s love for Meshuggah! I think they ended up influencing those kinds of parts. We intentionally made it not too Meshuggah-like, because the drums and syncopated craziness all fit really well.
"What we wanted to do is take some of those rhythmic ideas and put them over something more like what John Bonham would play. A bit more straight like on another new song, Swipe Up. The drums are just kick/snare straight like Bonham, while our rhythms are going all over the place. That was the point – have a different take on that kind of rhythmic stuff.”
For your solo on Nothing But The Truth, it’s interesting how you draw from either the Aeolian and Dorian scales in D depending on the chord…
“Yeah, I like to try to do that as much as possible. There’s a guy called Stu Heiss who does that a lot and I really love his playing. He will play to the chord in the middle of his leads, rather than staying in the root blues. Those notes really pop out and grab my attention, so that’s something I work on a bit – just because I love it so much when I hear other people doing it!”
Going all the way back to the blazing pentatonics heard on Over My Head through to these songs, you’ve always been a blues player first and foremost. Which players rubbed off most on you and in what ways?
“I think pretty much everybody I’ve ever loved was blues-influenced. My favourites growing up were people like Brian May, believe it or not. He’s one of my all-time favourites. He’s bluesy, melodic and also follows the chord. I’ve always been impressed by how he moves around and sings through his leads… but they are blues-based, even if he might express himself through different styles.
“I love Robin Trower. I love Johnny Winter… listening to him used to make me freak out as a kid. I’m a big fan of Ace Frehley, Jimmy Page and other players like that. I had a next-door neighbour who was really gifted when it came to guitar, his name was Mickey Pogue. He used to be my babysitter, actually! And he always really encouraged me to play. At one point he gave me his SG, because he’d gotten a new Les Paul… leaving it with me to practise and learn on.”
So what kind of things did you learn from him?
“Well, the biggest thing I learned was from a conversation we had. One day I was playing guitar and he came by asking me who were my favourite lead players. I named a few, then he asked me to name some guitarists who I didn’t necessarily listen to but thought were phenomenal. And I named a few more.
“He noted that everyone I loved and listened to were self-taught rather than learned musicians! And for the ones I respected but didn’t listen to, they were the more studied players. I thought that was interesting. I’ve always gravitated to individual expression and feel over fast licks. The technical side has never been anything I cared about, it’s all about the feel. I love the blues players who come straight from the heart. I’ve never cared for other types of players, to be honest.”
You’ve relied heavily on your Lab Series L5 amp and Elite Stratocaster over the years, as well as certain Orange and Marshall heads. Did you use them this time round?
“I used different guitars on every song, it depended what the song or part called for. Most of the songs have both Strats and Les Pauls on them. I did use my original Elite and my L5 on pretty much everything, though it might have not been mixed in on every part of every single track.
“Any time I played a part, it was recorded through the Lab amp, an Orange Crush, maybe a Vox or a couple of Marshalls. There were always several heads going for every single part. We laid down loads of tracks for each part, with different sounds coming from different amps. But the L5 was probably the main amp for the album, and the Orange also ended up being one of my favourite sounds.
“It’s weird, even though I used the original Elite and L5, it didn’t sound like the first four King’s X albums! We used so many different guitars and amps part-to-part. We really thought about every tone, so it’s hard to remember what got used on what phrase or what verse, but the L5 and Orange were both in there pretty consistently.”
The L5 is a fairly obscure solid-state amp. What initially got you hooked on them?
“My history with Labs goes back a fair bit. The first time I heard them was in the late '70s. I saw a band playing at a music store that had shows every weekend, and the band would have to play through gear being sold by the store. They got a bunch of Labs in and I saw this band playing through them. Both me and my friend were stood there thinking that was one of the best tones we’d ever heard.
“I’ve got to be honest, the first time I played through one I most likely sounded horrible because there are only one or two sweet spots that are worth using to me… but they are magic! Finding them, for the Average Joe trying them out for the first time, is not easy. They have a huge variety of tones, so finding that one magic thing is pretty hard. Also, with them not being tube amps, I find them a lot more immediate in their reaction. And that’s the sound I like the most… I guess I’m drawn to non-tube amps!”
That’s not something blues guitarists tend to say!
“Tube amps have a certain lag to them and they’re also affected by the temperature changes as you move around. I prefer the gear I use to sound the same from the beginning to the end of the night… or tour. I can’t get that from tube amps. They change so much any given day, whereas transistor amps are exactly the same no matter what volume you play at or anything. It’s the perfect answer for the live situation, you always get the tone you want at the volume you want. It’s not affected by tubes.
“Transistor amps have been my go-to all along and the L5 is my favourite amp of all-time. But they don’t make them anymore! So in recent years I’ve been using the Orange transistor amps, the Crush series, and they’ve become another favourite. They’re like an L5 with more girth… which works nice for King’s X stuff!”
What can you tell us about the green Mel Bay guitar picks you use – you’ve noted how heavily they contribute to your overall tone in the past…
“To be honest, I’ve quit naming what they are because people are buying them and the cost of them has gone up astronomically! It’s completely ridiculous at this point and I only have a few of them left. Anytime I do an interview and mention something I use, I shoot myself in the foot because whatever it is will suddenly triple in price and become hard to find.
“The picks are so outrageously priced, it’s stupid. It kinda makes me sick! I don’t even want to buy them anymore. There are people selling them for so much money that it’s just a gouge. I won’t support them. Other people have bought them and mailed them over to me as a gift! I have just enough to get through the rest of my career, so I won’t be buying any of the expensive ones.”
Well, it’s hard for anyone to sleep at night knowing they just got heavily ripped off!
“Yeah. I used to get these picks for 20 cents each. I’d buy 150 at a time. Now you can get two for $25. I won’t do that. But what I can say is that they’re very thin and made out of a different kind of material which sounds unusual against the strings. It also comes down to how you hold the pick too… I don’t pick the way normal people do. I turn my pick sideways and pick against the edge instead of the flat bit.
“That allows you to get scrapey tones and stuff. Thin picks also mean you can hit the strings hard and sound aggressive without going out of tune. But it only works for me with this particular thin pick. The other normal plastic ones just sound normal, they don’t do anything for me. It’s the material that makes the biggest difference I think.”
Is there a favourite drive or boost that you’re using at the moment?
“I don’t really use much when it comes to overdrives or distortion. I’ll mainly use one boost to make the signal hotter and maybe change the EQ a bit. My favourite is the original [Mojo Hand] Rook Royale. I don’t recommend anybody going out and buying the new ones, because they don’t have the same components. But the original ones that came out years and years ago are really special.
"That’s my main boost live, just to hit the amp harder. I don’t really use distortion pedals or fuzz or anything like that… it’s all coming from the amp and how hard I hit my guitar.”
Let’s talk about some of your most classic riffs. The closing minutes of We Were Born To Be Loved involve some really head-twisting pushes and pulls – do you still have to count or is it more muscle memory at this stage?
“We all count when we play that one. The thing about that riff is that we don’t hit on the one sometimes. As most musicians know, there’s a one-e-and-a division in a regular beat. On that song, sometimes we will hit on the e instead of the one but it feels like we’re hitting the one slightly lagged. It’s a throw off! But then the next hit comes in perfect on time because we are counting.
“Funnily enough, we played in New York a few weeks ago and Paul Shaffer and Felicia Collins from the CBS Orchestra came out with us. They played on the famous David Letterman shows and used to run through We Were Born To Be Loved a lot. So we invited them to join us. We were practising that ending on the day before the show and they couldn’t count, they had to watch us. Afterwards I explained we weren’t hitting on the one and it was like a light bulb went off in their heads!”
Lost In Germany is another fan favourite, partly thanks to its clever usage of open strings and a big open D power chord…
“That one I wrote in a shower without my guitar! We were on the road and I started panicking because anyone who writes music will have lost hundreds of what they thought were their best ideas before they could record it or put it down.
"I was humming that riff in my head along with the vocals and started thinking about what I could do to remember it. I got out of the shower and yelled to my tech, asking him to run down to our gear and quickly grab a guitar before I forgot anything. I sat there for 10 minutes and learned the song from my head. That’s how it came to me. I heard it first before I’d even touched a guitar… I had no idea how to play it!”
Summer Land is also high up in the list – and those stunning arpeggiated chords that start the song are actually harder to play than they sound…
“I remember when I figured that one and yeah, it was kinda difficult for something that sounds pretty straight ahead. I’ve seen a lot of people play it not the way I play it, which is probably a little more difficult than it has to be, I use my little finger a lot.
“It’s another thing I heard in my head and had to figure out. All my favourite songs just come to me like that. All the songs that have done well for us are the ones that have come the easiest. And sometimes they might sound quite difficult, like Lost In Germany, but they come very easily. It’s almost like they just drop into your lap like somebody gave you a gift. Then you just have to figure it out on guitar and all of a sudden it’s there!”
- The album Three Sides Of One is out now on Inside Out Music.