Tom Scholz answers your questions!

16th Dec 2013 | 16:20

Tom Scholz answers your questions!
Tom Scholz answers your questions!

When we spoke with Tom Scholz last month, we tried to leave no stone unturned, peppering the iconic guitarist and architect of the famous Boston sound with questions about his idiosyncratic recording techniques, his gear, the recently issued Tom Scholz Gibson Collector's Choice #10 Tom Scholz 1968 Les Paul, and Boston's brand-new album Life, Love & Hope.

And yet, we didn't even scratch the surface, evidenced by the amount of questions for Scholz that we received from MusicRadar readers. While prepping for a New England-style blast of snow, the famed music maker and inventor sat down to answer your queries.

Rudra R: I would love to get a true analogue sound on my recordings, but I don’t have the money for vintage equipment/tape machines. What do you recommend?

“That’s a tough one. Of course, that’s the position lots of people find themselves in, and the position I was in 35-plus years ago when I started. Back then, not too many people recorded because it was very expensive. The only option was analogue, and analogue by definition is almost always going to be more expensive than digital.

“When I started, I had to make a huge investment of time and money just to afford studio time, and later I was able to buy some old gear. It’s a difficult thing. The one thing I will say for digital, and you won’t hear me say that many complimentary things about it, is that it’s cheap. It pretty much enables anybody to record as long as you can deal with the sound.

“There are some deals for old tape machines. They’re going for a song compared to their original cost, so it is possible to get one. The tape is fairly pricey and hard to come by, but the equipment isn’t half bad. Of course, you don’t have to have an ancient, 40-year-old Les Paul to make a good recording. You can do it with any decent guitar or instrument.”

Brandon NM: What’s your take on how production of music has become digital? Is it killing the soul of music, or is it making people more creative?

“My pet theory is that digital reproduction is a huge step down in audio terms. There are a few big things wrong with it, which is why a lot of people don’t think it sounds so good. The first step down was with 16-bit CDs; and then there were MP3s, which are even worse than that – those were the final blow.

"I’m going to say this as an ethereal effect, not something that people are necessarily aware of while it’s happening, but my theory is that the proliferation of MP3 files have really diminished people’s appreciation of music. If your own choice was to listen to music on some terrible speakers all the time, would you listen to it more or less? And if you had great speakers with huge, perfect clarity, would you listen to it less? [Laughs] So I think it’s diminished people’s interest in music, and that’s hurt sales.”

Tom Scholz answers your questions!
Tom Scholz answers your questions!

Craig T: Before you started inventing your own effects, what were you using as far as amps and pedals. Was there one pedal that gave you problems and you said, “I’m going to build my own stuff?”

“It was more a matter of the things I wanted just didn’t exist. I started out with cheap tube amps, and I actually had a lot of fun overdriving them and getting some really phenomenal sounds. I used an MXR equalizer – you can still buy them today or something like them; I used battery-powered and line-powered ones. I experimented with boosting various ranges and seeing what happened – that’s how I learned about creating the kind of harmonic distortion from the amp that I liked.

“I then wanted to find a way to have a synthetic double-track of the sound. I got a friend of mine to do the circuit design. I gave him a block diagram of what turned out to be chorus unit. When I was starting, there was no chorus unit – we actually built ours. He followed my block diagram and wired up a prototype in a cigar box. We called it a ‘doubler,’ but it was the world’s first chorus – we just didn’t know it yet. That was in order to get my sound into stereo. I had two amps, and I put one on each side of the stage, wiring one direct to the guitar and the other through the chorus unit. The sound was unheard of in those days because nobody had stereo sound coming from a single guitar. But that’s how I got started, necessity being the mother of invention.”

Dec Suddaby: How do you go about your songwriting? (Big question, but maybe we can go through a couple of anecdotes.)

“I always start with an idea for a chord that could be for a verse or a chorus, or it could be a lick, some sequence of notes that I like. I play with it as much as possible; I may have an idea for a melody that goes along with it. Eventually, something hooks up in my mind and I think of a corresponding chorus or verse. Sometimes I have them in my mind for a while and it takes a while to realize how well they work together.

“Once I get that, once I have the verse and a chorus for what could be called the ‘accompaniment music,’ then I go to work and I start to think about what the melody will be like. I’ll start to make a recording, listen to it, sing along with it, play along with it, and I develop it from there. Depending on my level of excitement, that’s when I get serious about it, and I block out everything else and try to develop that piece of music.

“Sometimes it turns into a song; sometimes I drop it before it gets too far. The lyrics are always the last thing I do. I always have a recording of basic tracks and maybe some of the lead work. I’ll sit back and listen to it, and I’ll just concentrate on what kind of feeling it gives me. My goal writing the lyrics is to not disrupt that feeling. [Laughs] That’s my only goal. I don’t need to write something earth-shaking; I just don’t want to ruin the feeling. I come up with lyrics that I think augment the emotions that I’m getting from the music.”

Tom Scholz answers your questions!
Tom Scholz answers your questions!

Mike Morgano: You don’t have to divulge details, but is there something you’re currently working on equipment/gear-wise? Is there room to improve on what’s currently out there?

“There’s always room to improve. I’m always tinkering and wanting to do more. I have lots of ideas for things that would be fun to build, but I just haven’t had time to do any of it. Now that this album is done, I might get the chance to go in and try my hand at a few things. But yes, I’m always up to something.”

Brian Cahill: I read where you said that you don’t listen to music because you don’t want to be influenced. I imagine that you have heard Brian May of Queen – like you, he has a very identifiable sound (plus, he builds his own guitars). What do you think of his work?

“First of all, Brian May is one of the most amazing individuals in music, not only for what he can do making a guitar, but I believe that he’s a Ph.D in astrophysics. He’s also a staunch animal rights activist and has spearheaded efforts in England, so my hat is off to him. When I think of things I do, I think, ‘Yeah, if only I could do them as well as Brian May.’” [Laughs]

Rob Wehling: I got the new album yesterday. Lots of piano. Can Tom talk about his approach?

“I’m not sure if he means recording or playing. But when it comes to playing style, I’m probably subconsciously influenced by some very early classical training, I think from when I was about seven. I took classical piano for a couple of years, but I sort of lost interest – I couldn’t read a note today if I tried. I still enjoy that stuff, and I think I naturally gravitate towards the classical licks; in fact, I know that I do. I gravitate towards the classical licks that I heard by famous old composers.

“As far as sound, I always use an acoustic piano. I have a small five-and-a-half foot Yamaha baby grand, which I always keep miked up and ready to go. I tune it myself – that’s another important thing. A piano is a very inaccurate instrument, so depending on the key I’m playing in and what I’m playing, I will actually adjust the tuning on various keys to get the sound I want. Sometimes I’ll intentionally detune certain strings on a piano to create a more live sound."

Tom Scholz answers your questions!
Tom Scholz answers your questions!

Bobby Jennery: Have you ever recorded a solo and nailed it on the first take, but no matter how much you try to better it, the first time was still the best?

“Yep. Absolutely. Actually, a long time ago, I decided that whenever I recorded anything, I was always going to do it on production tape. I never make what you would call a ‘demo’ and then go back and try to reproduce it in the studio. I always do all of my work on production tape, so if I get something on the first take, I keep it – it’s going on the record, no matter what.

“One solo that comes to mind was when I was working on a crude start of the song Amanda. I think all that I had were some drums and some rhythm guitar that I played with an electric guitar instead of the acoustic, just to get through the chord changes and to see how it went. I played that little lead electric part after the second chorus, doing it in a hurry as I was running by, and I decided that it was exactly the way I wanted it. I then had to go back and play all of the other parts and keep everything in exactly the same place to match up with that one track that was not going to change.”

Dallas Moore: Can you please explain how you created your Warp Drive Pedal and how it functions?

“He must have the more advanced version of my pedal, because I just call it the Space Echo pedal. Star Trek was around the same time as I had my Space Echo pedal – I should’ve called it a Warp Drive. [Laughs] With this pedal, it was another case where necessity drove invention. I needed to be able to get this effect where I could sustain a note indefinitely and change the pitch, so that’s what drove me to create it.

"Once I got the device that could do that, I found out it could do all sorts of other wild things, and that’s when I really started to have fun. There are only two of them in existence – I built them both. They’re very difficult to keep running and working correctly; they need constant attention. I think that’s the reason why nobody else does it.”

Tom Scholz answers your questions!
Tom Scholz answers your questions!

Paul Demske Lmt: Would you have any trepidation remixing any of your back catalogue, as Triumph did on their greatest hits collection and Rush did with Vapor Trails?

“Oh, yeah, I’d be scared to death of remixing anything. Now, I did go back and remaster some of the older stuff, and that gave me the chance to correct a lot of things that I thought were less than optimal on the original mixes. So I did go that far. I would be very hesitant to go back and remix because I’m very happy with the sound of those albums and the way the songs are presented. Anytime you go back and remix, you might improve something – and you’re always going to lose something. [Laughs] Once I get to the point with any project, whether it’s a song I’m recording or a whole album, and I think that if I change anything I might lose something important that I’ve got, that’s when I stop.”

Tim Stevens: I’ve heard that some of the guitars on the first album were recorded at virtually a “whisper volume.” Can you speak about how this was achieved?

“He’s right. In fact, there were some that were recorded at no volume. [Laughs] Many times I’ve recorded the guitars direct, so there was no speaker involved anywhere; I’ve been doing that since almost since day one, actually. You can get a great sound either way: You can go through speakers and put a mic on it, or you can go straight in. It’s what you do with all of the peripheral equipment – all of the EQs and other things that you have at your disposal – that makes it a good sound or a bad sound.

“Of course, I’ve found that one of the best and fastest ways to do that is with the Rockman that I developed years ago. Since the reader brings it up, Heaven On Earth, the first song on the new album, that guitar is all direct. If you walked into the studio, all you would’ve heard was the little stringy sounds from the guitar. Of course, in my headphones it was another matter.” [Laughs]

R. Rondo: If you could improve one thing about your guitar playing, what would it be?

“I would like to be able to play with less warm-up time. [Laughs] It takes me forever to get loose – I don’t know why. I can walk up to a keyboard and rip through Foreplay or the Smokin’ solo at double-speed in the blink of an eye. When I pick up a guitar, I always feel like my left hand has been soaking in a bowl of ice for a week. It always takes me a long time to get loose. I’ve always felt as though the guitar was a difficult instrument to play, and having done it a while, I still feel the same way.” [Laughs]

Tom Scholz answers your questions!
Tom Scholz answers your questions!

Ashton Z: How much of the new album do you think you’ll play on tour? Is it a struggle to fit new songs in with the hits that people have known for years?

“It really is. Everybody who comes to the show has their favorite Boston songs and favorite Boston album, and they expect to hear as much of that as possible. Of course, we’ve got a limited amount of time on stage every night, so it’s always a struggle trying to figure out which songs to leave out. There’s always many, many more that we'd like to play, that we could play, but you just can’t fit it all in. We are going to make an effort to play to play a few songs from the new album. It seems to be getting a pretty good reception.”

Donna Agorna: Favorite solo of yours – what lead do you love to play on stage above all others?

“I’d have to say two of them: The Launch and To Be A Man – they’re my two favorites. They’re very emotional, and I get to play around with them a little bit; they’re never the same way twice. So those are my favorites.”

And what solo by somebody else do you especially love?

“Now we’re gonna go way back. [Laughs] I’d have to say Jeff Beck on the Truth album. He’s got several on there that are just amazing. Probably my favorite is a solo on the song Rock My Plimsoul. Jeff Beck’s Truth album – it should be in everybody’s collection.”

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