shrugs and knock 'n' knowall | Saxon
Wrenched from video filming (with a ballerina no less) and quizzed on gear and blushes.
Step right up, members of Saxon, and answer these three essential questions about gear, playing and heroes. That man with the moustache (Tony Bacon) will take your answers. That man with the roll of film (Grahame Tucker) will take your pictures.
BIFF BYFORD, singer, reckons that the smaller the venue, the more the PA matters. How so? "In America and parts of Europe," he says, "we play really big concert halls, so you don't really hear the PA from the stage, but in small venues, 2-3,000 seaters, you can hear the PA, so the quality of it makes a big difference, you start to notice the clarity of the sound. It helps the guitarists most, I think, cos they can hear the sound echoing around the room. We like to have a very hi-fi sound when we play. We like to have a lot of everything, and then run it all on half power, rather than having not enough and run it on full."
"I like Shure mikes cos they're very robust, I like the Nady radio mikes but it's difficult to find a good one, they're never the same, and I like the new AKGs cos they're robust, clear and very loud.
"We usually use the Malcolm Hill PA system, it was basically designed around ourselves and AC/DC. I don't know if we're using that this time or not, we might be having a change – in that business it just depends who comes in with the best quote. But the Hill foldback system is amazing, his bins are dual purpose, they serve as foldback and as PA – they use 12in speakers to drive the bass end, very short-throw speakers so the sound develops really close to the speaker. In that way the sound is good and loud on stage. Nigel uses them as drum fills, in fact, right behind his head, about a thousand watts. Maniac."
"On the last tour, I think either Nottingham or Bristol, the stage set was like scaffolding, so I did a sort of Tarzan swing off the scaffolding to get on. I had a Nady transmitter mike – they're about £2,000 – in my bullet belt, and as I swung it dropped out. So course I couldn't go backwards in the swing, I had to carry on right down. So I swung down, and the foldback guy rushed up to give me a Shure 58 or something to carry on singing. And I was thinking shit, I've just lost a £2,000 mike, they're gonna charge me for it. Then I heard through the foldback this sort of rustling noise, so I figured that a kid must have picked it up. The song ended, and I went to the side of the stage and said, 'Has anyone down there got a microphone I just dropped, cos if you have I'd like you to give me it back please.' And this kid got up and gave it to me – still working. Most people would have just walked out with it – but suddenly there was this hand holding the mike coming up out of the crowd."
"I like lots of people, but I don't have any idols. I never had any heroes that I tried to emulate, you know? I was thrown into the job, you see, so I didn't really grow up singing in front of the mirror. I used to be a bass player, so I used to stand in front of the mirror playing a cricket bat rather than posing around singing. See, you play a tennis racket for guitar, and a cricket bat for bass – thicker neck. I like to hear all kinds of great singers, whether it be Ronnie James Dio or Barbra Streisand. But singers, you know, it sounds silly to say it, but singers are born, you can't learn it. You can learn to sound better, but you can't learn a voice. You either have a voice or you don't, you're born with a certain texture to your voice. The more you sing and the more you practice the more you'll improve, but it won't alter the tone or the power of your voice. I haven't practiced, but then we play too much to practice – when we finish I collapse. You'll very rarely hear me singing off stage. I might whistle a bit."
NIGEL GLOCKLER, drummer, will be using his mighty Ludwig set-up on the upcoming Rock The Nations tour: two 24in bass drums; 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 15, and two 16 hanging toms; 18in floor tom; a Simmons brain ("don't ask me what number, I keep forgetting"); four Simmons pads; Simmons sampler (used on the last tour for snare sampled from "Innocence Is No Excuse" album, to add to live snare sound); plus, as Nigel puts it, "millions and millions of Paiste cymbals", mainly 2002s; Promuco sticks, nearest to 2Bs; and ever-faithful Ludwig Speed King pedals.
"The best snare drum I've ever played is a Tama bell-brass 6½in snare, totally unfinished. It's actually smooth, but the finish of it looks really rough. And it's awesome, so loud. If you put one of those Evans blue hydraulic heads on, it sounds incredible. However... I don't know whether it was the actual brass vibrating, but all the tuning lugs, on both ones I've had, have sheared off. Maybe it was the type of metal they were using on the lugs, I've no idea, but all the inserts that go into the drum shell were shearing off from the lug itself. So you were ending up with loads of bits on the inside of the drum; that happened twice. Whether they've rectified it I don't know – it might have been an old drum because it did come from a hire shop. I used it on all the drum tracks for "Innocence Is No Excuse", and luckily it held out till the end of the session. Just as well – I picked it up at the end and the whole lot fell in!"
"Classic, this one. We were headlining Chicago Fest in '83, it's a big open air thing. And it was absolutely pissing it down with rain, and really windy as well. All open air. So anyway, Bill Ludwig III came along (boss of Ludwig drums) and he says, 'Oh nice, I've got this new tom tom holder for you.' It was for me 10in and 12in toms. So I set it up, and we started the gig. One hit... and the whole thing sheared straight off! So Bill was, well, not very impressed. Meanwhile with this wind, the cymbals were just flying everywhere, it's amazing no-one was decapitated. In the end there was my drum roadie and about three other kids spreadeagled round the kit for the whole gig, desperately holding things down. And Bill Ludwig was busy trying to reweld his thing at one side, then when he'd done that he was down on the floor too, holding the kit down. So I could say that Bill Ludwig's roadied for me at one gig."
"I don't think you can say there's one person who's the best. My favourites are Neil Peart, he's what I call an 'orchestral' drummer, using the drums as an instrument rather than just keeping the bloody beat going, and he embellishes things – not stupidly, though, everything is very tasteful. Then Simon Philips for his jazz-rock, there's no-one to touch him in that area. Steve Gadd, for general feel, all these rumbas and sambas. I've got a couple of videos of him in session – and when you think he laid down that Steely Dan track 'Aja' in one take, well... Lastly, Terry Bozzio – he was with Zappa, then in UK with John Wetton, and now he's in a band called Missing Persons. He's got the best independence between top kit and bass drums I've ever heard, there's no-one uses the double-bass drum like him."
PAUL JOHNSON, new bassist, replaced Steve Dawson a few months ago (and was discovered by Biff Byford when the singer drove into a garage and heard Johnson practising away inside). Paul hadn't finalised his tour set-up when we spoke, but would certainly be using his Kramer eight-string bass and some Fernandes basses. "I'd like to use a pair of Hill power amps, maybe a Trace Elliot graphic pre-amp," postulated Paul, "something where I have total control. Plus as much speaker power as I can lay me hands on."
"My Kramer eight-string, the best thing I've ever had in me, er, fingers. I don't know much about it, I've only had it about ten minutes. It's a very well made, very well finished cricket bat. A quality guitar, it's not like the usual rack junk, like (whispers) Fenders. Years ago I used to be a straight Fender man, Fender Jazz Basses, since then I've gone into custom guitars, and now I'm out of custom guitars and on to Kramers. The eight strings give it a fullness of sound, cos you've got four normal bass strings, plus the bottom four strings off a guitar. So you get the bass, and then the tonal harmonics of a guitar string. Played together, hit correctly, it can sound pretty full. I start by tuning the higher string of the pair to a guitar, and then tune the bass strings, an octave lower, to them. You have to use a plectrum: more attack, more bollocks. And you get that brightness – with fingers it's muffled, like playing with a felt plectrum. You have to be pretty careful at first how you strike the strings to get the right sound, but you soon get used to it. Also, it's a lot harder to fret cos there's two strings to push down, there's more pressure on your fingers."
"I was once playing live and leant against the stacks and the whole lot just went straight over! It was at a small gig near Barnsley, when I wasn't 'known'. Just a Marshall bass stack – you know, you go back, throw a pose and lean on it. Over it went – nobody behind it, fortunately. I just got up and carried on playing. It was still working, it was on the floor in bits. We didn't have road crew in them days, see, so it stayed on the floor. The crowd loved it."
"I like a lot of different bass players for a lot of different reasons. I like Mark King out of Level 42 for his dexterity, Alan Lancaster out of Status Quo for his solidity – and there you have total extremes. I like listening to inventive work, I don't like to hear people who just plod along. But there isn't really a bass player other than Stanley Clarke who really impresses me. He plays like Gary Moore on bass, makes me sick. But he's not really a bass player, he's a lead guitar player. And I think he's totally out of context. Sorry Stanley."
GRAHAM OLIVER, guitarist, uses four Marshall heads on stage, all customised by guitarist Ronnie Montrose, and sitting atop eight cabs also with the Marshall badge attached. A variety of Boss pedals lurks near his feet; guitars include his Fernandes Strat, his trusty Gibson SG, a Flying-V, and a Fender Strat. "I use the SG mostly," he confides, "though it depends on exactly what set we play." In fact...
"Me stage guitar is the best guitar for me, it's an old '69 SG and I like it probably cos I'm very used to it. I can pop harmonics and everything on this one: new guitars are good but there's always little flaws as far as I'm concerned – like small frets, one thing and another, where I'd have to have it put right.
"I've had the SG a long time – over ten years, since I started. I got it from Carlsbro's in Mansfield. Was it a bargain? No, it was quite dear at the time, £180, a lot of money in them days. I've bought three more SGs from roughly the same year, and they're all different. I've played a couple of Paul's new Fernandes Explorers – brilliant, they play great, and in fact they're making me a special SG, an exact duplicate of the '69. They already have a bass model in cherry, but they're doing a white copy of mine, they're going to call it the GO model."
"We were on the Wheels Of Steel tour supporting Motorhead, our first big tour. So I ran out on stage to start the first number, ran out on my own to start the riff – just me, Hammersmith Odeon, sold out – I hit the first notes, and the guitar wasn't on. I couldn't believe it, that was really embarrassing, spotlight's on me, and the guitar's not on. What did I do? Went back, re-plugged the guitar, and started again. There's nothing you can do, so it's no good panicking."
"Everybody in America seems to think it's some kind of competition. It isn't. I'm into guitarists like Paul Kossoff who can make me feel as much with three notes as others do with a million notes. And I don't like complimenting that many guitarists cos I've never seen one compliment us, so I'm not going to do it any more. I think me and Paul's done some great solos; Paul's very under-rated. In fact there's a solo on 'Watching The Sky' from "Power And The Glory", a kid came up to me in America and said that were the best solo since 'Eruption' by Eddie Van Halen, and that were a great compliment for Paul. We've both done some great stuff compositionwise – my favourite one I did was 'Sailing To America' (from "Crusader"). It weren't that technical, but the composition was good – and that's very important."
PAUL QUINN, guitarist, will use between four and six amps and cabs on the upcoming tour. Is that down to hire company availability, we wondered, given all the countries Saxon will be visiting? Nope, says Paul, it depends on the stage width. Ah, right. What else? An "intriguing rack", he says – four-way noise gates, parametrics, Roland 555, and so on. Voice-box and wah-wah appear on a few tracks on the new "Rock The Nations" LP, so they may get added to Paul's stage gear. He used to take about eight guitars on the road, but for the new tour aims to cut down to four: a Washburn HM20V, a Washburn Falcon-shape, a modern extra-fret Strat, and a Fernandes Explorer-shape. His Gibson Explorer might get added too – it's having a neck repair right now from Pete Back. Bad damage, Paul? "Yeah, the whole head fell off." That's bad. And talking of the Explorer...
"My favourite's a 1970 re-issue Gibson Firebird which I got in '83 in America. They're the same as the originals except they haven't got the inlay. But they sound a bit unfashionable – by that I mean a bit Stratified – unless you're gonna really pedal it to oblivion. But I don't, usually.
"So I stuck some new pickups on; originally it had minihumbuckers without pole-pieces. So I got a tin-opener, took a Seymour Duncan pickup apart and stuck it in the Gibson. They're built really well, modem pickups – and this one was encased inside in epoxy glue. It was a bit of a shock to find it was epoxied: the normal thing if you're changing a pickup is just to de-solder it, which is a hell of a job cos it's got a sort of built-in heatsink. Then the epoxy was stuck to the shell, it took a lot of getting out, but it all sounded brilliant when I finished it.
"I've got a – what would you call it? – an acoustic way of playing guitar. I hardly ever practice with an amp, I just sit a solid on me knee. I've got quite a choppy attack, a really trebley style. And so on a lot of pickups I have to dirty it up on the amp to get away from what I'm giving it at source."
"The second time Saxon played Donnington, in '82, I had a lead go out on an important solo. I just slung the guitar at a crew member in total disgust. I don't usually get uptight on stage, but that time I did. That was certainly the worst moment in front of the most number of people."
"Hmmm. Well, for someone who's an influence and still playing it would be Eric Clapton. Most people seem to think his finest hour was with Cream, but I think it was with John Mayall, the famous Beano album ("Bluesbreakers" on Decca). It's like what Paul Kossoff of Free became famous for later, making the guitar sound like a voice, giving it plenty of soul, it's more than just soul, though. He had the King 'soul brothers' influence – I heard those people, and Albert and Freddie do more for me than B.B. – but Clapton changed all that, he added a good modern sound and he made it sound vocal. And he's back now with his old sound and his old style again."
Interview by Tony Bacon
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