Hello fellow guitarristas.
It has been a while, hasn’t it?
I guess I’ve been busy….
First there was the Queen Extravaganza audition… yes, I’ve been selected as one of the guitarists, and no, I don’t know any more about it than you do. When it starts, or even what it is, really… They are being very closed about the whole thing, and I’ve been asked, nicely, not to write, tweet, twit, twat or anything else about it.
The fact that this is also in my contract with Queen Touring has nothing to do with it! Oops…. Sorry. I didn’t say that, did I?
Anyway, check the website for details…
I’ve been producing quite a bit – more on that later.
I’ve also been filling in for Joel Hoekstra on some Night Ranger dates.
Joel and I are old friends – we go back about 12 years, and have weirdly parallel careers. Our resumes are almost identical, having been in some of the same bands, sometimes at the same time, sometimes subbing in for each other, once in two parallel productions of the same show in different countries… So when he took a sabbatical from Night Ranger to tour with Trans Siberian Orchestra, I was a pretty easy sell as a temporary replacement for some fly-in dates. He is a hell of a nice guy, and he did a great job of convincing them I’d do just fine.
An easy sell, yes. But an easy gig? No. Joel is an amazing guitarist, has been in the band for years, just did a world tour with them, and played on and co-wrote their last album. So I’m not starting where he did…. heavens no. I’m starting where he left off. 200 some-odd shows in. With no rehearsal. I’m in the hot seat again.
And we’re both standing in for Jeff Watson, their original guitarist. Maybe you’re old enough to remember having your mind blown by the video for “You Can Still Rock in America”, when he put all eight fingers down on the fretboard. No-one had ever seen anything like it before – I remember just laughing and saying, “F*&k off – I can’t do that!” And here I was – about to do it. In front in Night Ranger, and a whole lot of fans who didn’t know me from Adam, and were expecting me to come correct.
No pressure or anything.
As I dove into the material, I quickly realized I’d be incapable of mastering this technique in time for the first gig. Joel has been doing it as long as I’ve known him, fluidly, musically and inventively… It’s fully integrated into his playing, not just as a gimmick… only one of the reasons he has unassailable job security. Fair enough. I have a few workarounds. I can tap with two fingers quite handily and move them around, and I generally favor string skipping for big, “range-ey” arpeggio sequences anyway…. I have big hands and they cover a lot of territory.
But the 8-finger death punch isn’t all there is to Watson. Strange hemiolas, off-kilter rhythmic patterns with alternating odd numbered groups, interval leaps, ferociously accurate alternate picking delivered at warp-speed, unusual target notes, extreme bends, killer vibrato… The guy was a fusion player in a rock band. It’s hard to get into his head…. the second you think you know what he’s gonna do, he surprises you, which is what makes him such an exciting player…. and very hard to memorize. And the signature solos from some of the biggest hits have to be memorized. Note for note. No cheesing it.
Then there’s Brad Gillis. An absolute monster metal player in what is basically a pop band; he not only pioneered a lot of shocking and revolutionary techniques, but got to introduce them to the mainstream. Who played that unbelievably bizarre whammy bar melody in Sister Christian? He did. And his brief but explosive tenure in Ozzy’s band blew doors down for a lot of young players, including me… It’s safe to say: No Brad Gillis, no Dimebag Darrell, so no Pantera, and so on… no a lot of other things, either. I’m in awe of him.
We’re going to be playing a lot of tandem and harmony leads, not extremely challenging by modern technical metal standards, but they are iconic and memorable – and an integral part of several of their hits. So they have to be note-for-note correct. It’s a stunt formation-flying team, like the Blue Angels (or the Snow Birds, for Canadians). If you f*&k up, nobody’s gonna die, but everybody’s going to hear it, Gillis first and foremost… and believe me, he’s listening.
Yup, no pressure.
The first thing that happens after checking in to the hotel is dinner with Kelly and Jack, the lead singers and principal writers of the band, and super nice guys. Kelly, of course, the drummer and balladeer, and Jack, the bassist and affable, freewheeling, hard-rocking frontman. Then it’s up to my room to work out parts with Brad. The first thing I realize is that he’s as nervous as I am… it has to be hard on the guy, he’s had the same wingman for years, and now he’s switching gears. As we go through the stuff, it becomes apparent that I’ve done my homework, and the sense of relief is palpable.
It also becomes obvious that he is a total original, completely unique… my experience with Brian May comes to mind. Like Brian, he plays only one guitar: in this case a heavily modified red 1959 Stratocaster that’s like a part of him. The finish, and some of the wood, is partially worn off the body, revealing swamp ash: the telltale rings widely spaced. I ask if I can pick it up, and my suspicions are confirmed: it’s pretty light, with a lot of air in it. That’s why it’s acoustically loud, and rings like a bell.
Neither of us is amplified, and for him, it doesn’t matter. He still sounds like Brad Gillis. Even unplugged, he has a HUGE sound. And every whammy flutter, trick, nuance, and dive-bombed harmonic is crystal clear. Yes, he uses a lot of gain at the amp, but he doesn’t need it. All those sounds are coming out of him. And for the life of me, I don’t know how. He’s like a magician. Call him the Jeff Beck of pop-metal: he’s playing right in front of me, but half the time I couldn’t tell you what the hell he’s doing… and I’ve studied with Steve Vai. Very little mystifies me. But Gillis freaks me out.
The gig’s like this: backstage, there’s a loose camaraderie between the three principals, the kind that comes from decades of continuous work. I am not naive enough to include myself in it, necessarily: this is Planet Night Ranger and they live on it. I’m just visiting. But I’m happy to be there. There is a general atmosphere of fun and mutual respect, the kind that typifies successful, long-term working relationships. It’s pleasant to be around. It extends to the fans: at the meet and greet they are friendly, more than gracious. Clearly they love what they do.
We vocalize before the show, and an important strand of musical DNA reveals itself: like the Eagles and CSNY, or going back even further, the Beach Boys and the Turtles: like all these California bands, they are what used to be called a “singing group”. The sound of their hits depends on the unique blend of their three voices as much as any other single factor.
Then the huddle, and the hit. You don’t phone in a Night Ranger show, you go at it six-guns blazing. Between the vocals, the intense, relentless concentration required to accurately play the music with no rehearsal, while running around like a madman hitting my “marks” (there are a some things that are choreographed), I’m frequently out of breath, and it is a wonder I don’t pass out. After a few gigs I start noticing individual things that really stand out. For example, Kelly not only sings their biggest hits, but he does it very soulfully, while holding down the groove and NAILING the fills.
Another thing that I notice is that the set list is meant to be suggestive only! It can go completely out the window at any time, a casualty of their long working relationship…. they’ve been doing this for decades, and have a large repertoire at their command, so they can throw anything in, or out, any time they feel like it, and frequently do. Sometimes I’ll be asked to learn an album cut between soundcheck and the show! I’ll kill myself getting it ready, only to have it casually passed over… but I do my homework anyway, because if it’s in, and I haven’t learned it, I’m gonna hear about it!
I take this as a compliment, however. They just assume I can handle it. It indicates the level of hard work and professionalism they’ve come to expect from me.
That’s showbiz. If it works, and you win, you get a chance to do it again.
Now the run is over, and the gig is safely back in Joel’s hands.
I’ve got blisters on my fingers!!!!
To read more about Tristan click HERE