Whitesnake's Reb Beach: "I was stoned out of my brain - that’s how I learned how to play guitar!"

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(Image: © Joe Branston/Future)

MusicRadar begins this catch-up with Whitesnake guitarist Reb Beach by reminiscing on that time The Dillinger Escape Plan’s bassist Liam Wilson joined Beach’s other band, Winger, on stage at Download 2014 for early hit Madalaine.

Briefly trading Dillinger’s caustic odd-meter noise for a somewhat glammier 4/4 pop-metal, it would be one of the more unlikely guest appearances in Donington history. Though, judging by the look on Wilson’s face, it was very much a superfan’s dream coming to fruition...

“Gosh, [singer/bassist] Kip Winger invites people up on stage every now and then,” laughs Beach, reflecting back all these years on.

“It’s good we got a real bass player that time! Sometimes it doesn’t work out; we’ve had people really drunk come up and say they play bass when they’ve never even held one before. It’s especially nice when it’s someone from a different style of music, who really enjoys our music.”

And so onto the main event - Beach is talking to MusicRadar to fill us in on the new Whitesnake album, Flesh & Blood, which will be hitting shelves worldwide in May. This 13th full-length is the second to feature Beach alongside Joel Hoekstra, who replaced Doug Aldrich in 2014, having previously played with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Night Ranger and hit Broadway musical Rock Of Ages.

Few bands could claim to offer such a diverse and contrasting breadth of talent within their ranks. Here, Beach explains the writing process for the latest recordings, as well as fretboard pyrotechnics that made him one of the most unique rock guitarists to arrive in the late-'80s/early-'90s...

This is your first Whitesnake album with writing credits... how did that work out?

For solos, I picked the ones I felt I’d prefer to play over, whichever ones that were more inspiring to me. Some things kinda suck for me to play over, but for Joel, nothing is like that

“I’ve never been in a writing situation with Whitesnake before; it was always David [Coverdale, vocals] with Doug - they were the team. So this time was different: David wanted to use both me and Joel together. Though we’d mainly work in pairs - a lot of the time it would be me one-on-one with David and Joel doing the same. Then for the solo sections, it would be me and Joel together coming up with things.

“But David still wrote most of the ideas; it’s mainly him in terms of the basic structures of the songs. In five or 10 minutes, he can bang something out on the acoustic and it’s down to us to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”

How did you go about splitting the leads?

“Joel would throw something out there and I’d say yes or no, and I’d do the same with him. Whenever we both agreed on something, that would be the thing [that stuck].

“As far as the solos are concerned, I spent more time at David’s place than Joel, just because he’s one of the busiest men in rock… he’s always gigging [currently with Cher]. For solos, I picked the ones I felt I’d prefer to play over, whichever ones that were more inspiring to me. Some things kinda suck for me to play over, but for Joel, nothing is like that.”

In what sense?

“There is literally nothing that sucks for him to play over because he can play over anything and it will sound great. He’s like a machine that can pump out amazing solos, again and again.

“One of the solos he came in and did first take, it sounded like he had written it. That’s what I figured anyway, because he played it again perfectly to double it. Well, no, he came up with another perfect solo on the spot and then doubled that… I’ve never seen anything like it. He and I are different in every way, which is great. It broadens the guitar work in this band.”

The solidbody and SuperStrat partnership has been working well in Whitesnake for quite some time - is it still Suhr guitars and amps you stick with?

“My sound was pretty direct: a Suhr guitar into a Suhr OD-100 amp and that’s it. I never really use wahs, though I have a Suhr Shiba drive pedal I use sometimes, just for tapping. It kinda compresses it all a tiny bit and makes your tapping sound like picking. I wish that I could pick every note, but I can’t, so I cheat and tap, haha! In those situations I try to get it to sound as much like I’m picking as much as possible.”

Your first signature guitar was made by Ibanez and was certainly a lot pointier than the Suhr you play now...

“Those were great guitars - they were well-made and sounded killer. I drew the shape on a napkin with one hand after drinking beer all day. They bookmatched these koa pieces and cut it all out while we were drinking to make my first prototype… I still have it! They sell for a quite a lot on eBay these days.”

A lot of guitarists incorporate tapping in their leads, but few seem able to pull it off with the finesse you’re known for…

A lot of people when they’re tapping don’t really pay any attention to the notes; it’s like they just go, ‘Here, I’m tapping!’

“It’s not really that different to what Van Halen was doing - you grab the neck and go up or down four notes per string. I guess one secret to it is that when I switch to the next string, I never play the same note I just played.

“A lot of people when they’re tapping don’t really pay any attention to the notes; it’s like they just go, ‘Here, I’m tapping!’ Quite often they play the same note every time they skip a string. I prefer it to sound like I’m burning through that scale and use a new note up or down in the scale when I switch strings.”

Then there’s how you strike the next string with your spare finger...

“Yes, then I do that weird thing with my other finger, the one next to my tapping one, where I flick the oncoming string as I’m going up. I made that up because I never play with my pinky and I didn’t want to use my first [to hammer-on from nowhere] because who does that?! I just use my first finger for chords.

“I got a lot of my legato sound from Allan Holdsworth. He did this one record where he was playing music I could actually understand - it was the Jean-Luc Ponty album Enigmatic Ocean. I loved his sound and wore that record out. [Winger hit] Headed For A Heartbreak is basically me trying to be Allan Holdsworth!”

Is it ever hard to relearn your solos, considering they feel very spontaneous, improvised and in-the-moment?

“You know I was giving lessons to this kid who was a huge fan, I still do, and he wanted to learn every single Winger song, so we’d go over the solos. I’d end up thinking, ‘Wow, is that what I played? How and why did I do that?’ I’m always surprised and end up having to relearn what I did 20 years ago, because I play quite different now.”

What’s the Reb Beach approach to timing and feel?

“I try to play over the bars, so it doesn’t feel super-blocky and tight. I like the bold soaring notes that you hold onto. It depends on the vibe of the song - if it’s a ballad, of course I will play slower. Some musicians just play fast the whole way through. They start fast and end fast, and in case you were wondering, the middle is fast, too.

I’m not one of those schooled guys when it comes to guitar; it’s just a few scales that I move around

“I prefer to come up with cool melodies - it’s all basic scales; most of my stuff is pentatonic or dorian. The only other one I know is mixolydian and that’s only because you move the minor 3rd up. I don’t know how to play a harmonic minor scale, though I’m sure I could figure it out.

“I’m not one of those schooled guys when it comes to guitar; it’s just a few scales that I move around. I like jumping from one place to another, coming up with different inversions of the scale I’m playing. It’s like pentatonics: you need to learn all the other places on the neck to come up with different melodies rather than hang out in just one spot and sound the same.”

Your whammy bar tricks have been pretty extreme, too, even in your riffs - like the opening track, Cutting Loose, on your 1990 instructional tape...

“That’s a fun riff to play because you get to use the whammy bar on the chords. I’ve actually redone that song for my upcoming instrumental record.

“It all starts with a riff. Winger was always a riff band, which is something I’m proud of. It wasn’t just chord; it’s riffs. Even my solo stuff, like Cutting Loose, came from cool riffs - I figured you could take this B chord and whammy it to make this Zeppelin-y sound that also had that vibrato arm touch. That inspired me to finish it off with a chorus and bridge and I was done. That’s how songs happen, I guess!”

How far in pitch can you pull up on your guitars?

“I can usually pull up a 5th and wiggle. Because sometimes you can pull up but it won’t wiggle, it will dink out… you need to wiggle!

“Whammy bar, for me, started with Brad Gillis. Don’t Tell Me You Love Me was one of the first videos on MTV. I saw him beating the crap out of his whammy bar and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I wanted a whammy bar so I could make those noises.

“So I went out and bought a G&L with the stock tremolo, turned my amp up to ‘very loud’ and would make noises every day. I was stoned out of my brain - that’s how I learned how to play guitar! I came home from school, smoked marijuana and would play for four to six hours a day. I’d just keep coming up with noises.”

What other guitarists inspired this stunt-like approach to your instrument?

If you make a mistake, just grab the bar, man. Do a divebomb or pterodactyl scream and pull up until it hits a note that works

“KISS was my first big rock show, but not long after that the second was Boston and that’s where I saw Tom Scholz. They had Sammy Hagar opening - he blew me away, too - but witnessing Tom on stage with his guitar, pointing at it and making noises like a magician… that was the coolest thing I ever saw.

“It was like he was slowing down a tape machine. He’d do the pick skew on the wound strings and drop it down two octaves so it turned into this real bassy gigantic thing. He did it in almost every song. It was the coolest sound I’d ever heard coming out of a guitar. That’s how I ended up getting into weird noises.

“Sometimes magical things happen. I was doing solos for David on a project once and notes were happening that I had no idea about. When certain things ring out into each other and go ning-ning-ning… you can’t do that stuff again. If you catch it in a recording, that’s great!”

You use the whammy a lot for subtler vibrato, too...

“The bar also really helps with that! Because sometimes it’s hard to get a good vibrato after a fast lick… in those situations, all you need to do is just grab the whammy.

Kip Winger asked me what I was doing with my solo stuff and I said the music was just sitting on my hard drive - it was him that said I better release it

“It can also help in other ways - if you make a mistake, just grab the bar, man. Do a divebomb or pterodactyl scream and pull up until it hits a note that works. When I grab that thing I don’t know what note it will be, but I know it will be there somewhere, you know! The trick is to do it quickly.”

What else can we expect from your solo album?

“My instrumental solo album is coming out later in the year, probably fall; I’m just finishing it all up right now. My biggest-selling thing on iTunes was my fusion demos from the '90s, simple four-track or eight-track songs. They were a little jazzy, but totally not complicated or out there. I make inside music.

“Those were popular and I got a lot of compliments about them, so I’ve been working on this new stuff for seven years as a hobby. Whenever I’m home, I’ll mess around with drums or keyboards.

“Funnily enough, Kip asked me what I was doing with it and I said the music was just sitting on my hard drive - it was him that said I better release it. Those who have heard it tell me it’s unique… because it’s not jazz but it’s not really rock, either. It’s hard to explain; I was going for a Jeff Beck kinda thing: me, a Fender Rhodes, bass and drums. Expect long and very melodic solos… obviously with some killer fast stuff, too!”

Flesh & Blood is out on 10 May via Frontiers Music Srl.