Make a good start
Watch Ian Thornley on stage with Big Wreck and he's every inch the untouchable rock god. Meet the 43-year-old in person, though, and it turns out he sees himself in less grandiose terms.
"I'm a guitar nerd," he shrugs, plainly. "I've always been drawn to music and sorta had a knack for it." Big Wreck's catalogue has plenty of evidence of that knack. Since 1997's multi-platinum In Loving Memory Of…, the Canadian alt-rockers have dealt in heavy, hooky anthems, always driven by Thornley's assured touch, quicksilver chops and palpable passion for the instrument.
1. Make a good start
"I remember, I'd gotten a guitar as a birthday present and it had just sat in my closet for a year. Then a friend of mine came over and we were hanging out. He just started playing Led Zeppelin songs and I was like, 'Wow – it's that easy.'
"There was an immediacy about it. It was the exact same sounds that I'd heard on the records. When music is so important to you and all of a sudden you can duplicate it… there's just something about that."
2. Pick your spot on stage
"I'm more of a Jimmy [Page] than a Robert [Plant]. I guess it comes down to your personality and what you gravitate towards. I would feel silly without a guitar on stage. It's sort of a shield. It's a comfort zone. It's not through a lack of wanting to be an exhibitionist.
"I think anybody who does this for a living wants to be in front of people, and is seeking praise on some level. I just think that having a guitar is the route I took initially, and now I can't see myself without one. I still think of myself as a guitar player first and a singer second."
3. If it ain't broke…
"I'm always changing pots and pickups, just messing with things. But my Suhrs are the only guitars I've never gone inside and tinkered around with, because they're perfect the way they are. Particularly the ones I've spec'd out myself.
"I seem to go with the alder body, a bigger maple neck and the rosewood 'board. Then I love the V60LP Single Coils, and for the humbuckers, I love the SSH. I also have a Suhr Modern that has the DSH+ humbuckers.
"It shaves a bit of that top end off, because I'm one of those guys who hits the pickup selector down to the bridge to play a solo, and then my first instinct is to reach for the tone knob to shave off some of that high end."
4. Make it easy on yourself
"I practise more these days, and what made me step it up, I think, was using lighter strings and a lower action. I used to play 13s with a really high action. I just wanted to be a macho man, Stevie Ray Vaughan kinda guy.
"Now, it's a set of 11s, and I've lowered the action and got it nice and cosy. There's just a lot more that you can do physically, and that opens up a whole new world of things to learn."
Learn from the best
5. Learn from the best
"Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mark Knopfler, Eric Johnson, Steve Morse and Jimmy Page were huge for me. There's certain songs where I'm like, 'Well, here's me doing my best Stevie Ray.' The solo in the middle of Ghosts is right out of that Stevie Ray or Albert King book, and that was by design.
"It's not like, 'Well, I'm just another clone guy.' I wanted it to be right out of his bag. But there's certain things in there – little diminished runs and stuff – that I don't think he would have done. And hopefully those are the things that you go towards as you try to find your own voice."
6. Love the one you're with
"Certain guitars just hug you. I have a few Suhrs that are like that. You pick them up, put them in your lap or strap them on, and they say, 'Hug me.' And you're just like, 'Hug me.' And this whole love affair happens."
7. Pick the right tools
"I don't think there's any such thing as too many guitars. I'm not really a guitar collector per se. I'm not like, 'Here are my early Teles.' That's not really a thing for me. They're all tools. They all serve a purpose."
8. Practice makes perfect
"I work at a technique until I have it nailed. If I learn a new lick or trick, I'm not one of those guys who's like, 'Oh, I'm gonna throw it in the show tonight.' I have to wait until it sorta absorbs into my skin and becomes a part of me. Then it'll come out.
"Sometimes, I can take six months. Sometimes, I can take even longer. You kinda want to learn everything – then forget it, and just have it be part of you."
Sometimes, simple is best
9. Sometimes, simple is best
"I do a lot of things that are still within the pentatonic box. You can find all of these choice notes that are still right in that comfort zone, and you can do that with each of the boxes, as you move up the neck.
"Then you can start digging around with the notes in between and find some money notes, like, 'Ooh, that's a sweet one.' Then you can maybe build a phrase around that, and end it with something familiar, like a pentatonic lick.
"I generally keep things close to home. I might throw in Whole Tone scales, but I'll still be in and around the pentatonic box. I might throw in chromatics or Double Diminished scales, but to my eye and ear, I still know where I am. I never stay outside for too long."
10. It's all about heart
"What impresses me in a guitar player is somebody who has their own voice. Somebody who is in the moment, every time they touch the instrument: that impresses me. When you can't hear them thinking: that impresses me. What doesn't impress me is heartless wanking. Anyone can learn technique. And anyone can learn tricks.
"It's what you do with them; it's what music you can actually make with them. When a unique voice just happens – those are the really special ones. Like, Eddie Van Halen is an incredibly flashy guitar player, but it's not just, 'Oh, look what I can do.' There's something that's so innately fun and bad-ass about it. And something tells me Eddie just picked up a guitar and that started happening."
11. You need to know when the suit fits… and when it doesn't
"I flew down to jam with Velvet Revolver. This was years ago, just after Scott Weiland was out. The music sounded great. It was like, 'Three guitars playing these riffs, this is fucking awesome.' But at the end of the jam, we both just kinda knew, Slash and I.
"They were looking for a specific thing, and I just knew that I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that thing. It wouldn't feel authentic to me, all of a sudden taking the guitar off and doing the whole front-guy thing, like, 'Let me see your hands!'
"It would feel like I was putting on a suit that doesn't fit, y'know?"
12. Keep learning
"All the time, I just love the feeling of chasing something down and then catching it. That never ends.
"I'm definitely a guitar nerd, and when something piques my interest, I want to get to the bottom of it and throw it in my bag of tricks…"
13. Hone your tone
"There'll usually be something in my head that I'm going for. You just sort of follow it until it's right. Sometimes, it's a case of having someone else there to sorta take the drawing away from the child, like, 'Okay, you're done: that's the sound.' Because it can be an endless search if you don't pick your head up and say, 'Is this working?'
"My favourite Big Wreck guitar tones? Well, A Place To Call Home, the song that opens the Ghosts record, some of those fuzz tones are pretty neat.
"Generally speaking, a Suhr Rufus ReLoaded is what you can use to get that tone, and my trick is to roll almost all the tone off on the bridge pickup and then play 5ths. It gives you a certain growl."
14. Solos should speak to you
"I'm not gonna put out a song to showcase guitar playing. That's not my bag, and I wouldn't know where to begin.
"If there's something where I can showcase guitar playing that serves the song, then certainly, I'll limber up and have a go.
"It's not that I don't like shredding solos or drawn-out guitar parts – I'm a big fan of that stuff. But it has to fit. I'm not thinking, 'Well, let's play the song in this bpm so I can get my 16th-note triplets in at top speed.' I don't look at it that way.
"When I'm playing a solo, I generally start with the vocal melody, mess around with that, see if I can find something in there. Because you want it to have a vibe, as opposed to just showing off. I mean, I am a big fan of guitar players who show off, don't get me wrong. I love the Guitar Olympics kinda approach. I think it's great.
"But it doesn't move me in the same way as something where it's like, 'Okay, this guy is actually saying something. I can feel what he's feeling…'"