On Style



I’d like to expand on the topic of originality. What makes up “style”? Your influences…. and what sets you apart.

What makes you, “you”.

By way of example, I’d like to use an amazing experience, for me, anyway – We Will Rock You (the Queen musical).

One of the things I can do is produce a fairly close approximation of Brian May on demand. At least, that’s what I used to think….

Let me explain.

In the clip above, I am playing the solo from “Killer Queen”.

Ironically, this solo used to be my sound check. It got me in the mood, and reassured me that the “feel” of things was right…. but I’d never played a Queen cover, in my life – or even learned a single one of their songs! Whenever I heard one, I’d be spellbound by its utter genius, but would think immediately: “Can’t do that…. must find something else!!!”

Never for a moment did I ever imagine playing this stuff for a living.

But I’ve been called upon to do just that, a couple of times now… once in Canada and once in Italy: the Guitar 1 slot in We Will Rock You. I’m always happy to do it – playing this glorious music is a dream come true.

Having to delve deeply into the music was a process of discovery, a voyage in itself.

Brian is completely unique. In style, tone, and approach. Originally influenced by guitarists such as Clapton and Hendrix, he has assimilated and transmuted these influences, to the point where little trace of them remains. When he plays, I hear Brian. Period.

As far as gear goes, he has hit on something that is very simple: one guitar, a clean boost, and an amp (with one knob!). Though seemingly straightforward, it is an unbelievably versatile rig – in his hands, it can create virtually any tone he wants.  Listen to the Dixieland “band” on “Good Company”, (from A Night at the Opera) and reflect on the fact that it is all one guy, with one guitar! And it’s not just a  studio thing either – look up any live performance of his solo from “Brighton Rock”, to hear him build airy, crystalline cathedrals out of spun glass, and then melt them down in a sonic volcano.

The rig’s very simple, but it’s like part of his body. It hears and responds to every nuance of his playing – hand tone, harmonics, where he picks along the string, what he picks with, pickup and volume settings, where he’s standing… EVERYTHING. When you watch him play, “intuitive” is the word that comes to mind. There’s no gap between him and his instrument, between concept and execution. Nothing to impede the flow.

And the proof is that is that no two guys sound alike thru it.

For the premiere of We Will Rock You in Toronto, Brian and Roger came to play Bohemian Rhapsody with us, as they do. They called a rehearsal so we could play through the number, and work out the staging. Then Bri hung around the band loft a bit to chat with the two guitarists, and answer any lingering questions we might have. In the process, one of the guitars got passed around.  And we all sounded completely different.

Even my wife, in the balcony, listening to us fool around, could hear it.  Later she told me…. “I couldn’t see any of you, but I was listening…. and I thought, there’s Bob (guitar 2), there’s Tristan…. and THERE’S BRIAN.”

The Internet is full of guys who spent thousands and thousands of dollars buying all his stuff, hoping to sound just like him. I feel sorry for some of them. The gear is great, but it doesn’t lie. It’s a magnifying glass. Whatever you put into it comes out the other end bigger. If you suck, you’ll suck out loud – period. If you are good, you’ll sound good – good, and loud. That’s all. IT DOESN’T MAKE YOU SOUND LIKE HIM.

In fact – nobody sounds like him. Including me. That day, it hit me like a thunderbolt. At the time, I was crestfallen. Then I realized something. He didn’t hire me because I sound like him. He hired me because I sound like me…. and he likes the way I sound. That was a revelation, a liberating one.

I don’t mean to put anyone off buying gear – heavens no. It is a harmless obsession – and a huge industry. One that hires a lot of people, and spends millions on advertising. Buying gear also can provide a wealth of inspiration as the player forays into new sounds…But the bottom line is: the “tone” is really inside you.


Let me elaborate…. Here comes the dreaded “WHAT I’VE LEARNED”.

I’ve been through all the gear in the world, and I’ve noticed what defines you as a player most of all is note choices, phrasing, timing, hand tone and feel…. NOT EQUIPMENT!

I literally sound the same as I did when I’d been playing about 6 months. I have more technique, and knowledge, now. Sure. But my “voice” is the same. It is as unique and unalterable as my fingerprints. There are things that cannot be learned, or taught. Your “voice” is one of them.

You can work on your weaknesses, but as far as your strengths go, you get what you get. So work on your weaknesses, and feature your strengths.

I’ve tried a lot of different styles and approaches. A lot of young players, myself included at one point, use high output pickups, low action and TONS of preamp gain (or distortion and compression) as a fast track to speed and fluidity. I now feel that this is a mistake. There’s no “YOU” left at the end of that chain of pedals. You’ll sound just like everyone else.

If you want to be really felt, and heard, for who you are: start by rolling off some gain. If you have high output humbuckers, I suggest experimenting with low output single coil pickups at some point.  They are clear, and favor mature players with command over picking technique, dynamics and articulation. And they’ll show up any slop in your playing. You may hate it.

But you may really like it. When you go back to the hot ‘buckers, you may feel like you’re swimming in mud. I go back and forth, myself. I find that the single coils transmit nuance and “personality” better, and tend to retain them at high gain settings, but to each his own.

On the topic of gear, and experimentation:

The classic rock guitarists we all know and love each had to come up with their own sound – using what are (by today’s standards), extremely low-tech, primitive tools. They didn’t have many choices. They couldn’t just march down to GuitarCenter and pick something up off the rack. They had to discover things on their own.

George Harrison recorded solos with the tape flipped backwards. In fact, the Beatles used the whole recording studio as an instrument. Splicing tape to morph instruments together, re-amping pianos to make them weird and dirty. Slapping switches back and forth, cranking knobs way beyond the boundaries of good taste and reason, sticking expensive, delicate microphones in unsavory places, filling the staid, conservative EMI house engineers with horror…. and changing the landscape of music forever.

Keith Richards, short a horn section and pressed for time, plugged in a fuzz tone and played the horn line himself. “Satisfaction” leapt to life, and history was made. Dave Davies ripped a hole in his speaker, to make it roar. Pete Townsend stuck a pickup in between the two stock ones on his Rickenbacker – deliberately placed too close to the strings – for the express purpose of making the chaotic noises that accompanied the Who’s famous orgies of destruction.

Hendrix teamed up with a tech, Roger Mayer, to help realize his unique vision, dreaming up sounds that had never existed before, and putting them into boxes, like the Octavia. Brian May even made his own guitar! Not content with that, he ripped all the tone circuitry out of his Vox AC30 to get a hotter sound. And John Deacon, Queen’s bassist, built the “Deacy”, a tiny amp made from a bookshelf speaker that produced Brian’s glorious, shining “guitar choir” tones.

As a result, each and every one of them sounded completely different. And like nothing that had ever been heard before on earth.


Now there are literally millions of choices – if you count every kind of guitar, and multiply that by every pedal and every preset in every device on the market. It’s bewildering. It’s also a good thing. The creative possibilities inherent in these gizmos are enormous. But the fact that these early rock guitarists had to contend with limited resources forced them to be inventive, and fostered creativity. They had to forge their weapons out of almost nothing. A guitar, an amp, and maybe two pedals.

By contrast, punching up presets, or buying the pedal that Guitarist X endorses, is convenient… but can make you really lazy. And once again, you sound just like everyone else who uses that preset, or pedal. So get out the manual, and EXPERIMENT. Go to extremes. Push the parameters. Tweak the knobs. Find out what they do, make them do things they’re not supposed to. Then dial back. I’ve done countless hours of this, and learned loads from it. If no-one ever did this, there’d be no Edge, no David Torn, no Adrian Belew, Steve Stevens, Jonny Greenwood, Nels Cline… no colour, innovation, life. Just an army of clones.

Experiment and use your ears. They will guide you to your own sonic identity.

However, there is nothing wrong with “Imitation” as a starting point.

Robin Trower, one of my all time favorite guitarists (God! I’m really dating myself here), got a bad rap for being a Hendrix clone.  Yes, he made an entire career out of Jimi’s “Band of Gypsies” – but you could do a hell of a lot worse. Jimi was God to a lot of us – and the Band of Gypsies LP was the Sermon on the Mount.

He uses the same basic palette and vocabulary Jimi laid down on this album, but to my ears, he tells his own story with it.  What I hear in his playing is the essential truth of his being, and his journey as a man. And that’s the best anyone can do, really.


To read more about Tristan click HERE


Tristan's Column

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