Guitars Made Simple
Wee chap and guitarist-person Charlie Burchill lifts the kilt of his guitar, amp and effects set up.
There was a time when the same handful of names would crop up year after year in the readers' polls of the music papers. Mostly, the musicians who won the categories for Best Guitarist or Best Drummer or Best whatever were the ones who'd had the most exposure by being in the most successful bands.
It's some measure of Simple Minds' gradually broadening success that this year found them voted second-best band in both NME and Melody Maker, pipped on both occasions by the late Jam. Interestingly, the Minds' synths man Mick MacNeil and bassist Derek Forbes also won places in their own categories in the NMEs poll.
Charlie Burchill, Simple Minds' diminutive ever-smiling guitarist, laughs about polls, declaring that he isn't the sort of player who's ever likely to win any. Ironically he's one of the few players around who actually deserves to, but it's easy to see what he means. He's the complete antithesis of that mercifully-extinct breed, the Guitar Hero. Burchill almost never plays solos, though there's a brief one in the Minds' best-known single "Promised You A Miracle", and indeed listening to some of their records it isn't always clear if he's playing at all, so deviously are his parts interwoven with MacNeil's guileful keyboards.
He's always there somewhere though, underpinning a melody, shaping up a chorus or colouring in a little near-subliminal atmosphere. The development of Simple Minds' music from the naive almost-folky days of songs like "Chelsea Girl" up to the sometimes awesomely assured pieces on their last album "New Gold Dream" has seen them evolving a deceptively subtle style. Often, the bass is the nearest thing to a lead instrument, supplying crystalline riffs around which MacNeil and Burchill assemble delicate jigsaws of tone and texture. Hard to describe, easy to get addicted to.
As Simple Minds trekked around Germany on tour recently in a coach, I set about extracting some true confessions from Charlie Burchill about his playing. On the road, Burchill spends his time learning French, reading two or three novels simultaneously and listening to a few inspirational sounds on his Walkman. These might include Chic, Television, Joni Mitchell or Wendy Carlos playing Bach's Brandenburg Concertos on synthesiser. Or even ABC.
You don't (I suggested to him) play everything you could, it's more like supplying a diagram of the possibilities.
"Aye, that's it exactly," he said enthusiastically in broad Glaswegian. "I was talking to Steve Hillage (who produced the Minds' "Sons And Fascination" LP in 1981) about Robert Fripp, and I was saying I thought that quite a lot of guitar-playing was pure maths, you know? And it really is once you get right inside it. There's certain things you realise are just like sums or puzzles, and once you find the solutions to them it opens up so many doors."
For example, Burchill has discovered a particular chord shape whose name he doesn't know, but which always supplies a certain kind of atmosphere — he often uses it, he says, when the Minds are working on a new song, transposing it into the relevant key and working off it as a starting point.
"I used it in 'Seeing Out The Angel', 'Big Sleep' and 'This Earth That You Walk Upon'," he admitted. "There's a definite sort of atmosphere that it sets off, kinda sad. You play two strings but there's only like a semitone difference between them. Usually that never works, but just because of the nature of it and the sounds I use it sounds amazing.
"There's this other chord I play on 'Seeing Out The Angel' and 'Boys From Brazil'. I think it's a suspended fourth, but it's a question of which inversion of it you use. It's totally out of key with every other instrument, but yet it's perfect, it just adds that wee bit to make it sound like a really big structure. It's almost as if there's a whole that needs extracts from two things to make it complete."
In particular, Burchill likes playing with his echo unit — a Roland Chorus Echo RE-501, sometimes in conjunction with a Yamaha E1010 Analog Delay. A conspicuous example of echo in action is his solo introduction to "Someone Somewhere In Summertime", which developed in live performance after the song was recorded for "New Gold Dream" and was subsequently added when the song was remixed as a single. It provides the sort of metronomic pulse more usually associated with a sequencer, but at the same time is categorically guitar-like.
"The Roland Echo I've got gives me much longer repeats or spaces in between the repeats, while the Analog's pretty short," Burchill explained. "I never realised it until recently, but I never used the echo unit as a reverb very much. If I do it's like a really close second guitar, like an ADT — automatic double track. But it's still quite dry because the actual signal that's being repeated is dead dry.
"I like to think of the echo as being a mirror in a way. It can be the most difficult effect on the planet to play with, because if it's even fractionally out technically then the whole thing goes crazy. But when you get the timing perfect it makes life so much easier. You can sound like you're playing things you're not actually playing, but in a way you are still playing them because you've still got to master the technique of using the echo. That takes a bit of practice.
"One thing I'd love to try in the studio is to do a couple of tracks with roughly the same part, but having the echo on the offbeat and then having an echo on the beat and just building up variations of things like that. It's amazing the amount of awareness of rhythms I've developed because of working with the echo.
"There's this wee thing I do — it's a bit like the start of 'Someone Somewhere', but I can make it sound just like a sequencer. If you use a really guitary sound and you use it in the same way as a sequencer... I don't know how to describe it.
"Say like that thing Kraftwerk used at the beginning of 'Computer World', it's got this bouncing rhythm, but it's really synth-like and it sounds really electronic. I learned that and I played it on the guitar and it sounds nothing like Kraftwerk, it sounds brand new because it's a guitar tone but with the attitude of a keyboard. There's all those possibilities waiting to be opened up.
"There was another thing which really worked for me, though the rest of the band were oblivious to it. We were onstage one night doing 'Love Song' and Mick's sequencer broke down. Usually that plays the introduction to the song, so there was a panic on. Jim (Kerr) says to me: 'Start! Do something!' I had my echo all set up so I just whammed on this really over-the-top chorus and started playing this kind of sequencer-like thing on it, but it was a bit different. I was thinking how I could copy the sequencer part Mick plays, and it came out brilliantly. That's where I think a lot of guitarists sell themselves short, because they think as soon as you start using effects it's some sort of sacrilege towards the instrument. When it's not, it opens up so many doors.
"You can still make it sound like a guitar, yet have a lot more options open to you. It's another thing again to be able to use the basic straight guitar sound and make it really convincing. That's why I really love Tom Verlaine's playing, 'cos the kind of sound Television used wasn't covered up by any heavy sustain, and that's why when he plays a sort of vibrato thing it sounds really full of emotion. Verlaine sounds really erratic, but there's something dead strong about it. That was the great thing about Television — everything was focused into that style of playing but you never got bored with it. Everything was played with real conviction."
Chic's Nile Rodgers is another of Burchill's heroes, because of his grasp of how to combine precision timing with vital spaces to achieve a result which is more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it's no coincidence that both Verlaine and Rodgers play Stratocasters, because Burchill has recently abandoned his trusty white Gibson 335 in favour of a brand new Strat. Mostly, he's delighted with it.
"The Strat I've got isn't all that great — the wiring's terrible, fucking drastic. But it's much better than the Gibson because for a start it's much cleaner and brighter. There's more variation of tone. The one thing the Strat really lacks, though, is sort of body. The whole reason it sounds so good in all the other directions is because it doesn't sound so good in that area. If you start using a lot of middle to put body into the sound, then it starts taking away from the clarity.
"But it's great for what I'm doing, and if I ever want to use anything heavier I usually switch on an effect for it. For the rest of the time I need a really clean sort of sound with some variation of tone, and with the five-position selector switch you can get it. It's great, it's got a real bit of jangle in it."
Gadget-wise, Burchill is pretty well stocked, often going through balletic routines onstage as he juggles with the array of switches on his effects board. For the Minds' current American tour, Burchill was planning to start breaking in a new rack-mounted array of gadgetry wired up to an MXR Omni programmable footboard, which will include compression, distortion, flanging, chorus, delay and a 12 band graphic equaliser.
Mainly though, he still relies on a pedal board he's had for a year or so. "It's got a Boss flanger and this really naff fuzzbox. And there's an envelope filter but that doesn't really do much, it's just like an automatic wah-wah but you don't get that much variation on it." Also built into the board are footswitches to operate his echo and analog delay units, and all leads eventually end up in the back of Burchill's Roland Jazz Chorus 120 combo. The latter will probably have been replaced by a 60 watt MESA Boogie combo by the time the group come back from the States.
He's also got an MXR Omni flanger/fuzz device with built-in graphic EQ, with plans afoot to replace the RE-501 Chorus Echo with the 555 model. Both that and the E1010 are rack-mountable, which means that if everything goes according to plan the pedal board can bite the dust to be replaced solely by on/off switches. Also, the new battery of effects will allow Burchill to use them either singly or in any combination in any sequence, getting rid of the problem of signal loss he currently suffers with all gadgets being continuously in-line.
All this is a far cry from earlier days when Charlie used a highly dodgy selection of effects built into a flight-case for him by a roadie, who apparently devoted more time to writing the band's name on the side of the case than to making sure all the wiring was connected up properly. Indeed, Burchill's standards have risen to a degree where even Roland gear no longer quite measures up.
"Roland is good gear for the average guy trying to get together a good semi-decent system which is gonna give him a bit of variety," he opined, "but if you're really going for the quality level you can go for much better than that. MXR stuff is really good."
As for amplification, he's messed around with a few different makes in his time. "I've got a Peavey Classic — I think Peaveys have a great sound, I really like it. The one I've got has got a brilliant phaser in it, but there's certain ways it's lacking, it's too one-dimensional. But still, having said that, if you were in a studio and there was a Peavey amp there it would be a handy thing to have about 'cos you could use it for a lot of stuff."
Until he got the Roland combo, Charlie always used a Carlsbro Stingray for recording, and used it on every Simple Minds record before "New Gold Dream".
"Quality-wise the Carlsbro was very lacking, but there's something about it. Especially in the studio — everything I used the Carlsbro on in the studio I think came out better than any other amp I've ever used. There's something about Carlsbros, they've got great character."
And it was in the studio that he first became aware of the real potential of using high-quality echo. "I had this Korg echo unit — it was a tape echo, and we were recording 'Sons And Fascination' when I first used it. The repeat used to be a different sound from the original note because the tape was losing so much signal, so we said 'let's use the studio echo', and the clarity was incredible. That's how I got into it.
"Also it's great within the band. If we're writing a song, maybe there'll be a certain part which Mick's playing which is quite prominent but needs a back-up — because I'm slightly out of focus it gives you more possibilities to experiment. Say I was doing big sustained notes with a really long echo and doing another note as a harmony, all that would be going on. If people were listening to that alone it would sound like a big piece, you know, but when it's behind something else and it's almost subliminal it, just becomes a layer.
"Like on 'In Trance As Mission' I overdubbed these long sustained notes that just went from the beginning to the end of the song. As soon as the drums came in the note came in and stayed there to the end. Then I did about four harmonies. Bowie and all these people have been using that idea, because I think it originated in the early Seventies with people like Neu and this other German band called Dusseldorf.
"It's ironic, in the light of talking about all this, that what we're talking about doing next is going back to a much more basic thing. We've recorded demos of some new tracks, and the parts that work best are the parts where the guitar's more or less completely straight. After the really early days when we were Johnny and the Self Abusers, we thought 'let's get into a bit of experimenting' and I think it went too far.
"By the time we reached the 'Empires And Dance' album there were some things on it that I regret a wee bit. Not all of it, just bits here and there. But there were a couple of things I did that were too close to the keyboard — people couldn't hear it, they couldn't tell what was doing what.
"With 'Sons And Fascination' I think we did better, because there we managed to use the technology with like more basic things. The more expensive Mick's instruments get and the more technology he introduces into the set-up, the simpler the pieces get and the simpler the sounds become. The only difference is that this time they've got quality."
Quality, and the quantity thereof, must be the least of Simple Minds' worries. Still, "New Gold Dream" is a hard act to follow — we wait with bated breath.