Dear Guitar Hero: Mike Ness
He’s led one of the pioneering acts of SoCal’s early Eighties punk movement for 33 years and counting. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is…
I’m really excited to hear what you and the guys have been working on these past months. Can you tell us a little bit about the new record? Any new gear or tricks up your sleeves? —Scotty
The name of the record is Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, but it should be called “Tone,” because it’s got the best tones that we’ve ever had on an album. We cut it at Ocean Studios in Burbank with some of the best outboard gear you could ask for. Pultec, Fairchild…you name it, they got it. The engineer, Duane Baron, was very helpful in trying to get the sounds that I wanted. He hipped me to a couple different miking techniques for the amps, but mainly it was just getting everything to tape: guitars, drums and vocals. I can’t even listen to music on an iPod, let alone make an album in a living room. I never will. We didn’t dump it into digital until the last minute. As far as guitars, I had my whole arsenal there, and Jonny [Wickersham] had his. We have quite a collection between the two of us. I’ve always gone with my Seventies goldtop and my sunburst Les Pauls, just because they seem to cut through a little bit more and lay the bed for everything else. Jonny’s a little more flexible; he plays Fifties Teles and Les Paul Juniors, and it works for him.
In the early days, you were using an SG. What made you switch over to Les Pauls with P90s? Also, what string gauge are you currently playing with? —Ricky Breez
I switched over to Les Pauls in the late Eighties when I realized they weren’t as heavy as I thought. And I really liked the sustain that they have. Eventually, I toured with Neil Young and realized that I liked the Deluxes because of the slightly tapered neck. I picked the brain of Neil Young’s guitar tech that tour. I watched his tech pull the thin mini-humbucker out of a Les Paul Deluxe, drop it in the trash can, and put a P90 in it. I’ve been using P90s ever since. As far as strings go, we use Ernie Ball. I believe it’s the 10–52 set. It’s got heavier strings at the bottom, where you need it, but you still have the flexibility in the upper strings.
The production on [2004’s] Sex, Love and Rock ’n’ Roll is noticeably bigger than on previous Social Distortion albums, especially the guitar sound. What setup did you use to get that massive tone? —Cohen Heart
I’m pretty sure it was my Fender Bassman. That’s the motor that drives this machine. But I can tell you that, as good as those songs might have been, we’ve left them in the dust with this new record. The problem with that record was that things got a little overcompressed. We were still in the mindset of stacking guitars and all that. I’ve learned now that less is better. We’ve got the tones already, so it’s just about getting the instruments to tape the right way. I mean, you listen to an old Bad Company record and you hear four instruments playing. That’s it. But it’s recorded fat, through analog equipment and a nice board, and captured with proper miking techniques. So we’re going back to the basics.
Your music has gotten me through some of the roughest parts of my life, specifically when I was getting over my drinking problems. Did you ever think that by sorting out your problems and then writing about them you’d be doing a service to other people? —Tony
People tell me all the time, “Your music’s gotten me through tough times.” And I just tell them, “Me too!” You think you’re just writing songs, just playing music, but you don’t realize that music really can be a very spiritual and emotional thing. That’s what it always was for me, but I never expected that I could do the same thing for others.
The new record’s called Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. At first, I thought it was just a humorous metaphor for a bunch of guys in a band who are all kind of immature. We have a hard time functioning in the real world, but out on the road, we’re able to perfect our craft—or, at least, we’re in the pursuit of perfecting it. When we’re onstage, it’s the one element of our lives that we have control over. But when I started to think about it more, I thought how nursery rhymes are something you read to a child to calm them down or to help them through a hard time. And, really, to me, that’s all music is.