If anyone tells you the electric guitar is dead, invite them along to a Polyphia or Covet show, and let them take in not only the age of the crowd, but also the diversity.
This isn’t your typical bunch of chin-scratching guitar types; the standing space is rammed with everyone from tracksuited hip-hop fans to teenage popsters and bearded metalheads.
Both bands feature three of the most technical guitarists of their generation, yet they’ve managed to tap into audiences even the high priests of shred struggle to reach.
Because that’s exactly what these three players - Polyphia’s Tim Henson and Scott LePage, and Covet’s Yvette Young - are setting out to achieve: make the guitar relevant to the mainstream once more, by any means necessary. No guitar convention is safe in their relentless pursuit; these players draw more on rap and classical music than anything where a six-string takes centre-stage.
So, when we got the three together for an all-encompassing chat, their conversation was bound to slay a few sacred cows. Yvette’s two-hand tapping technique treats the guitar like a piano, Scott deploys a metal upbringing over hip-hop grooves, and Tim hopes “guitar music dies a painful death” - bear with us on that one. Suffice to say, this is no ordinary guitar interview...
You’re all highly technical players; who inspired you to play the way you do?
Yvette Young: “I come from a classical piano background, so most of my heroes or idols are piano composers - I think the way I play and write is more informed by my classical upbringing and a lot of contemporary and modern composers.”
Scott LePage: “When I was a kid, I wanted to shred, so I learned how to do that, and then over the years I guess I tried developing it into a tasteful sense, and here we are, 15 years later.”
Tim Henson: “I’ve always liked Hendrix, and he had this cool lead/rhythm blending of the two, and I really like hook writers - people that make the shit that’s catchy and gets stuck in your head.”
Would you say there were any particular players who had an influence on you?
Scott: “Stevie Ray Vaughan, fucking for sure! Texas Flood, baby! It’s such a hard question to answer, even though it’s the easiest question to answer.”
Tim: “I don’t think any of us listen to guitar music.”
Yvette: “Yeah, I never really listen to guitar music, so I only listen to bands and composers.”
Scott: “Most of the influences - I think I could probably speak for all three of us - are genre-based and generally music-y based.”
Tim: “Yeah, Hendrix and Stevie are childhood, like how me and Scott got into guitar playing, but it’s not really what it is now.”
In terms of the techniques you employ, where did you draw those from, then?
Yvette: “My piano upbringing - the two-handed tapping I play, I approach the guitar just how I’d approach writing polyphony on a piano. I started playing the way I play because I didn’t have a band; I just wanted to sound as full as possible by myself.”
Tim: “Again, I like to write hooks, so sometimes the melodies are simple, which is great, because that’s how it gets stuck in your head, so what I do is I flex on the inflection of each note.
"Rather than the amount of notes, it’s how I play each note, so doing a different set of techniques per set of notes keeps the phrase interesting, versus just playing too many notes and not being able to remember any of it.”
Scott: “My dad taught me how to play guitar, so I feel like a lot of the shit that he used to do I do also. He taught me the pentatonic scale, and it was fuckin’, ‘That’s it!’. And the rest is history.
"As you can probably tell, a lot of our music is mostly pentatonic. And then, yeah, I kinda just tried to come up with creative ways to just fly around the pentatonic scale, to be completely honest! [laughs]”
Do you consciously try to avoid the typical guitar virtuoso clichés?
Tim: “A lot of that shit is so fucking corny, I hate it. So, yeah.”
Yvette: “I never even listen to it! I’m playing catch-up now. People are like, ‘Have you heard of this guitarist? Have you heard of David Gilmour?’ or whatever. And I just saw him play, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s really impressive’. I never listen to it, so yeah, that’s funny.”
Scott: “Unless you’re one of the Gods or Steve Vai or someone and you’re a solo guitarist, I don’t know who the fuck you are. Tim and I listen to fucking radio music and shit, you know; I don’t really go on MySpace.com any more and search the solo guitarists section and see what’s new and upcoming.”
Yvette: “I do like Guthrie Govan - I remember someone showed me him in high school, and I thought he was sick.”
Tim: “I think we’re all Guthrie fans here.”
Yvette, you have the classical influence, but Tim and Scott, what would you say are the genres that influence your writing and playing?
Tim: “All I listen to is rap.”
Scott: “Rap, hip-hop - I fucking love metal. I grew up listening to metal; I was in the womb, and my parents would put fucking Iron Maiden on the TV and Judas Priest and shit and Pantera, so I was fed that from a very young age - negative- one, even.
"I mean, I go through phases of, ‘I like this more than this,’ but it’s mostly hip-hop and metal and that type of shit.”
Yvette: “I listen to a lot of post-rock, like ambient, more cinematic, movie- soundtrack kind of stuff. And then the chords and stuff I play are inspired a lot by mid-west emo or 90s emo, like Braid or Mineral. And I like a lot of grunge.”
Have you got any advice for players seeking to hone their own styles?
Tim: “Just figure your shit out and be you.”
Yvette: “Don’t try to be someone else; just figure out the voice that you have. Sometimes it takes time; sometimes it takes learning other people’s music. But I’d say just don’t try to be someone else, because you’ll stand out more if you’re yourself.”
Scott: “Have fun with it, too. Don’t just run up and down scales because you think that’s the fucking answer, you know. If you don’t like playing guitar, you don’t like playing guitar, but if you do like playing guitar, then you like playing guitar. So just have fun.”
You all use the in-between pickup positions a lot; can you tell us what inspired that?
Tim: “Fourth position is what we use the most - single-coils on the Strat are just a great sound. Yvette, you use that, too, right?”
Yvette: “Yeah, middle setting.”
Is that because you don’t draw on traditional players who’d normally go for the neck or bridge?
Tim: “It allows for dynamic playing.”
Yvette: “I play with an amp - I really like tube amps - I use mostly Vox stuff [an AC30 live and AC10 for practice]. And for me, I find with single coils, the way it interacts with the tubes, I can really push it and get it to break up. And then I can also just play really lightly and it will be very clean. I like having the control at my fingertips.”
Tim and Scott, you rely on Axe-Fx; what do you look for from the amps you’re modelling on those?
Scott: “Honestly, dude, we use presets. I don’t really know...”
Tim: “Boutique 1 is the one that I use. I don’t know what amp that’s based off of [a Matchless Chieftain - tech ed], but I can imagine it does exactly what Yvette likes about her Vox, in that it’s clean until you dig in and then it breaks up and gets distorted. Not distorted, but a little crunchier.”
How do you approach songwriting?
Yvette: “For me, I write everything, I guess. Not the bass parts or the drums part, but I’ll start out with a riff. We were just talking about this the other night. We’ll write a riff, and it’s a sick riff, so it’s guaranteed that the song will be at least interesting to some extent, because you have the sick riff. And then I kind of build around it.
"I think about it like I have the climax of the story, so how do I want to introduce the characters or the situation; how do I want to conclude it? I write around that, and then I have a full song usually 90 per cent complete; and then I’ll bring it to practice and then I’ll show the band the parts. And then sometimes we’ll reorganise the structure; like, if we think of a better ending, we’ll do it collaboratively, but like I say, I write most of it.
"I think, sometimes, you can get too many cooks in the kitchen if you just have everyone contributing ideas, so it’s better if someone takes the lead and does it, and it can be a democracy - we can change stuff, if necessary.”
Tim: “With Polyphia stuff, at least for the last record New Levels New Devils, I normally write the hooks first, and then Scott and I will both write a beat to it and compare the versions.
"Then we’ll send it out to, like, 10 different producers, and then they’ll write a beat to it, and then we’ll take those back, and like what Yvette was saying, too many cooks in the kitchen, that’s a total of 12 cooks in the kitchen. So, we’ll be the master chefs and decide which ingredients get to go where, because that solves that problem of too many.
“The executive producing comes in there, and then Scott tends to do the climaxes and the bridges and the builds and the verses and stuff. So, we have this cool tag-teaming thing where I’ll come up with the hook of the song, and he’ll do all the other things, and then we put it together and have a whole song.
"Normally, it’s structured like a traditional song, where it’s verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, which for us works incredibly well, because it is guitar music, which can be quite monotonous and fucking just go everywhere and anywhere and there’s just a lot of bullshit out there, you know. And we make cool shit.”
Back to the future
What do you think is the future of guitar music?
Tim: “I see it being less guitar-centred, and more musical. Because I hope that guitar music dies. I want it to die a painful death, because so much of it is just bullshit. And I feel like people should focus more on the music itself and use the guitar as a tool to make music versus, like, ‘I’m going to play guitar music,’ you know what I mean? Because so much of it is just not good.”
Scott: “It’s very easily oversaturated, that’s for sure.”
Yvette: “I think tonally there’s a lot of room for it to grow. Like, there are so many amazing effects pedals out there. These guys use a lot of modellers and stuff that emulate that, but I think tonally, there are so many ways to make a guitar not sound like a guitar.
"Like there’s this cool synth pedal I’m messing with, the Meris Enzo: it’s really sick, it has an oscillation thing that you can create patterns based off chords that you play and you can use it as a pad. If people think about guitar texturally and melodically, I think it opens up a whole new world, but if you’re just concerned about a sick shred solo, a lot of it’s been done already.
"I don’t want it to die a painful death - there’s room for everything; I think people just need to think outside of the box a bit.”
Tim: “I think the boringness should die a painful death. As far as effects and stuff go, I use a lot of vocal effects, like the vocoder that’s on Rich Kids, that sounds nothing like a guitar. And as far as the future of it goes, me and Scott have been working really hard to bring guitar to mainstream music.
"Like, I work with a lot of hip-hop producers, and we’ve been writing for some bigger bands - there’s lots of bringing in cooler guitar parts to things that are much bigger than us. So that eventually you’ll turn on the radio again and hear guitar on the radio in whatever hip-hop song is happening - some good guitar, actually.
"So, that way, the future of guitar is cool again. Because I think it just got lost in translation of what was cool in the 80s when it was super-cool; you look back on it and that shit is dumb-corny. That’s why it’s no longer cool: because it’s literally not.”
Yvette: “I think a good melody is eternal. People have just gotta write good riffs and think about tones that aren’t total cheeseballs. Something that’s catchy - we all like catchy shit.”
Tim: “Again, it all comes down to, ‘Is the music good?’.”
Polyphia’s New Levels New Devils and Covet’s Howl are out now.