Bill Nelson talks Synths Vs Guitars with Gary Cooper
Bill Nelson occupies a rare position among guitarists. From his first appearance on the scene he established himself as a 'guitar hero' (leading Be-Bop DeLuxe) but he has somehow maintained his credibility among the younger musicians whose otherwise iconoclastic attitude to guitar virtuosi (particularly among the 'synthesiser only' brigade) has all but wiped out many of the 'name' guitarists from that era.
Undoubtedly, Bill's position as being 'approved listening' for people who otherwise look askance at guitar soloists is partly due to his refusal to allow himself to be boxed-in by the cliches of the instrument. His playing doesn't depend on the repetitive riffs and licks of many of his contemporaries and his songwriting has never been predictable. A took back over the numerous records he's released show that his tastes are unusually widespread and this was recently borne out by a short U.K. tour he organised (dubbed the 'Invisibility Exhibition') where he continued his earlier mixed-media experiments, taking on tour with him (amongst others) a trio of Japanese singers/performers and a solo poet. If that sounds a shade unlikely well, the night I saw him I did get the feeling that a large part of the audience wasn't entirely prepared for what they saw. When Bill finally took the stage for his own section of the show, he was joined by his brother (who played sax, and played it rather well) and the pair of them performed their set against a Revox full of backing tracks which Bill had previously recorded at his small home studio.
To those who were anticipating Bill's more usual role of singing, playing guitar and fronting a band, it might well have come as sphock to see him working like this, but it's all part of his refusal to be categoriesed and the desire to give himself room to breath and grow as a musician.
Nonetheless, on tour he played synthesiser, marimbas and percussion as well as both acoustic and electric guitars. Was this, I asked him when we met, a result of frustration with the guitar as an instrument?
"I made my career initially out of the instrument, a guitarist more than a singer or a songwriter and for a long while it was the be-all and end-all for me. But now, although it doesn't mean that I've lost a love affair with the guitar, I've grown to see music in a wider context than just one instrument."
As the other instruments Bill plays are novelties (at least for those of us who've got used to seeing him with a guitar in hand, I began by asking him about them. To begin with, the Marimbas — a set of tuned percussion instruments resembling a xylophone, originally coming from Africa but more widely associated with Central America. What had prompted Bill to start using them?
"I'd like the sounds of marimbas on several records that I'd heard, like an old Captain Beefheart album called The Spotlight Kid where he used them on one track, also a Bryn Howarth album had a track on it called Swiss Miss and I'd loved the sound of them on that.
The use of backing tapes (as opposed to a live rhythm section) had worked tremendously effectively the night before. I wondered how Bill had gone about preparing them.
At the beginning of this last year I bought a Fostex A-8 and their little desk which goes with it along with the meter bridge and I've recently got their compressor/limiter. It's all done at home on that — not even in a sound-proofed room, just a large empty room which, of course, gives a pretty useful sound for some things. I master the tapes down from the Fostex onto a Revox B77 and then I use the Revox through the P.A. to provide the backing tracks, which have all been edited together to make a continuous whole."
Apart from the Marimbas, Bill was also using some percussion equipment which had been virtually hidden away from the audience by the other instruments he employed — what had that comprised?
"I've got a set of wooden skulls, a bell tree, a Chinese gong, a Chinese cymbal, two more small cymbals, three tom toms, a toy snare drum and that's about it.
"You see a few years ago I was asked to go over to Brussels and perform solo. As I saw it, I had the option of going on stage with just a guitar and my voice or put a tape together and play guitar to it, which is what I eventually did. Then in 1981, when I planned the first Invisibility Exhibition, I thought I'd add to that basic concept and surround myself with lots of other instruments, so it's all grown out of that basic idea."
A major feature on the show, from some points of view, was Bill's use of a synthesiser — a Yamaha CS 70M.
"I haven't had that one very long, about six months and I'm really very pleased with it. It's not got any manufacturer's pre-sets in it, so you have to build-up your own sounds using the 30 memories that it's got. When those are full you can dump what you've stored onto magnetic cards which plug into a slot at the side. Then you've got another 30 you can use.
"The beauty of it is that everybody who has one of these CS 70's will have a different catalogue of their own sounds for it. This overcomes that problem where so many synthesisers end-up sounding the same. For example, everyone's using Prophets now, which are wonderful synthesisers with excellent sounds, but almost everyone who uses them seems to get the same sound out of them.
"I've found the Yamaha very useful in many ways. For example, on this new album I've got coming out, I've used it for strings and it's got far more authentic string sounds on it than I could have got out of a string machine because I took a lot of trouble to get a very real sound from it, building a few flaws into the sounds, for example, so that they sounded more resonant and like a bow moving across strings.
"The best thing about it, for me, is the built-in polyphonic sequencer. There's one part of this current stage show where the reels of backing tapes have to be changed and I programme a chord progression or something similar during the soundcheck before each gig and then store it in the memory. When the tapes are being changed I just press 'play' on the machine and then improvise over the top with a twelve string guitar."
Like many players today, whatever their basic instrument may be, Bill has found that using a synthesiser has enabled him to broaden and develop his music — even going so far as to admit that, at times, he felt it might be taking over from his guitar.
"I do use synthesiser a lot, a lot more than guitar these days. I found over the years that my guitar playing was beginning to frustrate me. I'd never been able to do with it what I felt I really wanted to do and, although I felt I knew a lot about the instrument and I was very familiar with it, I was beginning to get to the point where I was just repeating all my best licks. Approaching synthesiser at that time really helped me. Although my playing of it was, and is, very primitive you have a whole range of sounds available and you can make a very simple sound become very effective, so it freshened my ideas up quite a lot.
"I'm coming back to guitar a bit more now, particularly since I started developing the E-Bow technique which tends to stop me flying around and getting too jazzy."
The E-Bow is something which Bill was making considerable use of on the tour. Basically it comprises a small metal device which rotates wheels against a guitar string giving a sound somewhere between a guitar and a bowed instrument like a violin. It's been around for a few years now, but Bill is one of the few players I've seen who appears to have perfected a really useful technique on it.
"I find it tends to make you play very simple, modal things, more on one string at a time because, although you can change strings when you want to there is a certain amount of clunking that takes place.
"I've started discovering certain little techniques on the E-Bow, like getting harmonics out of it, things that you only discover by accident when you start using it. That works together with my synthesiser playing in that, because I'm not a proper keyboard player, I tend to develop very simple ideas and then use them — ideas that I would never have come up with on the guitar. But using the E-Bow, really because it limits you, that's had a similar effect on my guitar playing, making me slow down and develop new ways of doing things.
"The sustain that you get out of an E-Bow is amazing, it just goes on and on but you can vary it by moving it just off the pickups slightly and changing the attack. The closer you get to the hot spot on the pickups, the louder it gets, but I also use a Morley volume pedal so that I can get the string sustaining and then bring the volume in with the Morley — it's almost like having a one string fiddle!"
A logical place for Bill to have looked, one might have thought, would have been towards the guitar synthesiser. I asked him what experience he'd had of them and how he'd found working with any of the ones he'd tried.
His experiences included the Hagstrom Patch 2000 model (back in the Be Bop Deluxe days), and Roland's GR300 — when working with the Yellow Magic Orchestra album. And for the most part Bill has reservations regarding triggering and facilities, but he expressed interest in a new Synclavier development.
"Apparently the people who do the Synclavier have got one virtually developed which will properly interface a guitar with all the usual Synclavier facilities so that you'll be able to have the sampling, the screen, everything. Mind you, it'll be very expensive, I gather, almost on the level of the Fairlight."
Despite Bill's espousal of the synthesiser, he does share the opinion of many players (myself included, not that it really matters) that synths far too often sound like a purely mechanical form of sound production, that they lack the essence of 'feel' which makes a good musician into a great one.
"Yes, there is an element of struggle in the guitar which makes it a very emotive sounding instrument. These days, particularly with a lot of sequencers being used, a lot of the player's energy actually goes into thinking what he is going to be doing, whereas the playing tends to get left to the sequencer and the synthesiser; in that way the player's involvement almost becomes one where he sits back like a spectator."
One way in which Bill uses the recall device on his Yamaha to avoid that syndrome is to play into the memory and then recall the actual performance so that, although technically his playing is being generated by machine, it bears a far stronger relationship to 'real' playing than it would if he had merely programmed a sequencer with a group of notes. Still on the subject of synths, Bill has also recently been making significant use on stage of some of those phenomenally impressive small Casios.
"I've been using their VL-1. I had six of them on stage last night, all with little programmes written into them and I'm just about to go along and see their new range because they've now got a model which effectively has a four track digital recorder built into it and which sells at around £500 — I've really got to try that one!"
Having spent so long talking about keyboards, it would have been easy to overlook Bill's guitars but he is, after all, regarded by most as first and foremost a guitarist and still plans to front a band later this year, where he'll be playing guitar and singing, leaving other instruments to musicians whom he considers to be more specialist in their respective fields. So, naturally enough, the talk eventually got round to guitars and the SG2000 Yamaha.
"The red guitar that I use is an SG2000 that I've had for about eight years now. In fact I was one of the first people playing that guitar in this country, I think. Until then I'd used a Gibson 345 stereo but I had that refinished and the tone went with it — it sounded horrible afterwards. I originally bought the SG2000 as a back-up but I ended-up with it becoming my main guitar. Recently I've added one of the new models, an SG2000S, which is broadly the same instrument but with coil taps — that's the green one. It was very lucky that I got that because I had my original Yamaha badly damaged on a recent flight back from Japan. I'd slackened the strings off, done everything you're supposed to do but by the time I got it back home it was in such a state that I could get an 'A' on the open 'A' string and the first two frets as well!
"I've had it worked on and they've got rid of that problem but the action still isn't what it should be.
"Fortunately the SG2000S is a very similar guitar, an update on the SG2000 really so the change isn't great, although mine still needs some playing-in. I do find the coil taps useful, though.
"While I was over in Japen, Yamaha lent me the SG3000 which they've just brought out. It's not technically a great deal different from the SG2000 but it's got heavier pickup windings and a more solid bridge and sustain plate plus better machine heads. Really, the main difference lies in the cosmetics — it's a very pretty guitar indeed."
The Yamahas are set with a very low action with a gauge 009 top string running down to a 42 on the bottom. The brand?
"I've used Rotosound for years and I find that they last, they sound good and generally perform very well — they're excellent value for money."
Whilst Bill is pretty much stabilised on his Yamaha guitars fitted with Rotosound strings, his choice of amplification is less fixed. Originally he used a now long obsolete Carlsbro valve head and, when I'd spoken to him several years ago, was unprepared to change. Now he's been through several other types - had he settled down on any one amp yet?
"Well, on this recent tour all I've been using is one of those tiny Fender Champs. That, plus an HH echo (with another HH echo for the synths) has proved to be perfect. I've found from doing sessions with people, that I'd take my Burman or Marshall down to the studio and then end up using the Fender Champ.
"I've still got those old Carlsbro amps, by the way. They're not much use now as I just don't seem to be able to get any spares for them. When they stopped making them I went mad and bought up as many as I could get my hands on. I had them modded, the valve basses were specially strengthened for me and I had fans installed in them to keep them running cool.
"Anyway, the little Fender Champ sounds better than any of them when I'm using the E-Bow. I had a Boogie for a while, but I sold it not so long ago to buy some Tannoy Little Red Monitors for my studio at home.
"The Boogie's a superb amplifier, there's no doubt about that, but it's very much a one-sound amplifier, it's all very Blues-era Claptonesque which, for a while, I was very keen on doing, but I found it far too limiting in the end.
"I used to hate transistor amps, you know, but now I realise that there are things that you can get from a transistor amp that you can't get from a valve amp — they've both got their places.
"Probably on my next proper tour I'll use my Burman because that's really very good and it has got a lot of tonal flexibility and a lot of control over the amount of distortion you get."
The next project which most of us will encounter from Bill is the mini-album he mentioned earlier. This will comprise just six tracks, and includes some 'interesting' results from his collaboration with Yukihiro Takahashi.
Interesting is something of an understatement in the case of this album — it's certainly something which readers interested in the very best of the current directions in music should try and catch hold of. Takahashi's percussion work is mesmerising, and Bill's unusual guitar playing could prove to be a significant eye-opener for many players who currently feel stuck in a rut.
The problem with being such an innovator, of course, is that there is an inherent danger insofar as one's career is concerned, that audiences can easily be left behind. That doesn't seem to have happened in Bill's case, but a few remarks he made about his record company, the approach they take towards some of his ideas and sounds indicates that artistic creativity is still running somewhere towards the back of a race led by clone-along music which, misguidedly, the companies feel will make them money. It's a subject which Bill feels very strongly about, that and the way in which it isn't the instant copy bands who make real success, but rather the artists who start trends and develop new ideas. He's quite obviously right. The real success stories in Rock music have come about not through copying what already exists but from players trying new things — and that applied as much to the Beatles as it did to Jimi Hendrix as it will to tomorrow's superstar.
In fact Bill's relationship with the commercial side of the music business has been less than happy.
His observations on the subject of management and the politics within record companies are, frankly, quite bitter. Like many before him, Bill hasn't always felt that his career has been handled as well as it might have been and this leads him on to having some strong words of advice which MUSIC U.K. readers currently considering professional careers in music should take considerable note of.
I suggested to Bill that a lot of musicians hear plenty of scare stories about the chicanery that goes on within the business before they get to the point where the deal is offered to them.
"Those stories are pretty well founded" he observes, darkly, "and they'd do well to listen to the rumours and not take it all with a pinch of salt but take it very seriously.
"I've found it personally to be a very wicked business indeed and I'm still doing so; I'm not at all convinced that I'm in control of my own destiny at the moment, as I would like to be. I'm looking towards a state at some time when I can look after things much more personally but at the moment, when I'm working so heavily, just can't be found. After all, you have management and they're supposed to do that sort of thing for you.
"My advice to anyone who's being offered management deals or record deals or any sort of deals in the music business is don't sign until the last minute and only then after you've had as much advice as you can get. Definitely contact a solicitor and make sure the solicitor has no connections with the people who want you to sign because they often say 'You really must get independent advice, this is a good guy...' It's all back-handers and you must make sure that he's really independent.
"Also, you should try and get advice from anyone who's gone through the mill first, to see if any of their pitfalls might apply to your situation.
"In the end, if you have the talent, and people want to put records out by you, if you say no to signing contracts they won't go away; you're not going to lose them. If you're as good as they tell you and they are offering you deals, then they think there's money to be made out of you.
"You don't want a situation where they're taking all the money and just paying you a wage or something. I've met people in the business who've all got similar stories to tell." Bill then mentions some household names with whom he's talked along these lines. Unfortunately the laws of libel prevent us from printing their names but he says that they all seem to say one thing: "They all say that the only time they ever saw any money was the day they sacked their managers. Get yourself over that initial hump, then sack your manager — that's their advice."
Bill's words should be etched into the lid of every guitar case manufactured — I can't back strongly enough what he says because, over the years, anyone who has had an involvement with the music business will have seen what he's talking about time and time again. Still, he moves on, taking steps to follow his own musical originality but with his feet firmly on the ground and never fulfilling the predictable role of the guitar hero, despite the problems he's encountered along the way. It would be patronising to suggest that Bill deserves a greater recognition simply because he's a nice guy (although he is, very much so, in fact). Fortunately he is also a consummately good musician who has risen above the trap of being 'just another good guitar player'.
He'll be around for a long while, and that's something we can all be grateful for.
Interview by Gary Cooper
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