Guthrie Govan Takes His Six-String Fusion to New Heights with The Aristocrats' New Album, 'Culture Clash'
The world needs more guitar heroes like Guthrie Govan.
No mere notes-per-nanosecond noodler, Govan has musical tastes and a command of music history far more eclectic and adventurous than those of the average shred demon.
As a result, his playing is markedly more interesting than anything else in the current chops-guitar marketplace. Ample proof of this can be found on Culture Clash, his latest album with the Aristocrats, a polynational power trio that teams the British-born Govan with American bassist Bryan Beller (Steve Vai, Dream Theater, Dweezil Zappa) and German drummer Marco Minnemann (Paul Gilbert, Necrophagist, Mike Keneally).
Culture Clash is the second album by the all-instrumental Aristocrats, who take their name from an “inside” dirty joke among comedians (see the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats). Frank Zappa, a key Aristocrats influence, once asked, “Does humor belong in music?”
Govan, Beller and Minnemann would certainly answer in the affirmative. Rubber chickens and pigs constitute part of their stage gear and are immortalized on Culture Clash’s cartoon cover art. Even Govan’s look seems a bit tongue-in-cheek: the scraggly bearded, shaggy-maned guitarist is a dead ringer for Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson, one of prog-rock’s more outlandish progenitors. In fact, he once met Anderson’s son at a Joe Satriani gig. “I couldn’t resist the temptation,” Govan recalls. “I just had to say to him, ‘I bet I’ve been told I look like your dad more often than you have.’ ”
Not that Govan’s grotty, early Seventies hippie vibe is deliberately cultivated. “My look is entirely a byproduct of not caring what I look like,” he says. And indeed, the Aristocrats are not going to win points on image. But then the level of their musicianship renders that somewhat unnecessary. The 41-year-old Govan strikes an ideal balance between classic “brown tone” guitar sensibilities and a 21st century extreme-guitar aesthetic.
His remarkably fluid playing effortlessly blends elements of fusion, prog, metal and even EDM with more traditional styles like blues, straight-ahead jazz and country chicken pickin’, often in the same song. Govan’s masterfully nuanced tone is generally much cleaner than what’s heard in the average chops guitar performance and serves to bring the blinding but nonchalant precision of his playing into sharper focus.
“We realized that we don’t have to adhere to any kind of genre,” Govan says of the Aristocrats’ musical modus operandi. “The sound of the band, if we have such a thing, doesn’t so much come from adhering to any particular style of music. It comes from the way we play together. So we wanted to be a little bolder and crazier in terms of the writing and scope of this new album. We wanted to make the extreme parts more extreme, so the violent stuff is more violent and the pretty stuff is more pretty.”
Govan’s eclectic musical outlook was hatched at an early age when he learned some guitar rudiments from his baby-boomer dad. “I had this wide-eyed fascination with all of music when I was three years old and learning to play my first Elvis Presley songs on guitar,” he says. “And something that I figured out a long time ago is that music is all around you. You don’t just have to learn guitar solos from your favorite records; you can learn jingles from the TV; you can learn the music that the ice cream man is playing. I’ve always tried to stay open to all the noises I hear around me.”
Adolescence marked a big transition for the guitarist in many ways. “When I was 13 or 14,” he recalls, “I started hanging out with kids at school who were older than me. I was always the guitar-playing misfit. I could never find anyone my own age who was at a comparable level or had a comparable amount of passion for playing, so I would always end up hanging out with the older kids.
And they took it upon themselves to corrupt me with heavy rock and metal. Prior to that I’d essentially been a blues-rock guy with some smatterings of country and jazz. But I didn’t know what a Floyd Rose was. I didn’t know what tapping was. And I didn’t really know what you could do with a pinched harmonic if you had enough gain on your amp, ’cause I’d never tried having that much gain.
“Suddenly I heard Yngwie Malmsteen. I heard Steve Vai. I think I heard Steve Vai before I heard Eddie Van Halen. How’s that for messed up? I heard lots of guys on Shrapnel Records. I heard Metallica, which of course mostly had an impact on me in the rhythmic department. I loved the kind of chuggy, monstrous tone those guys were getting.
"It was a time in my life when there was a huge ear-opening thing going on. And the players I really warmed to were Steve Vai, for his creativity and humor, and the fact that he made the vocabulary of the overdriven guitar so much bigger. And then Yngwie, who, to me, demonstrates that it is possible to have all these chops and play these outrageous fast things but still sound like you mean it. This may not be a popular viewpoint, but when I listen to Yngwie playing, there’s as much sincerity as there is when B.B. King is playing. He plays every note like it could be his last.”
Apart from some brief studies in violin, Govan has no formal musical training. He studied English, rather than music, during his one year at Oxford. But his remarkable natural ear for music made him an ace transcriptionist for the U.K.’s Guitar Techniques magazine and a much-sought-after clinician.
Govan’s 2006 solo album, Erotic Cakes, took its title from the name of a fictitious bakery in The Simpsons and featured a guest shot by Richie Kotzen, garnering praise and acclaim in the virtuoso-guitar community. Govan has played with several bands, most notably a latter-day incarnation of Asia and an ensemble led by kindred spirit and neo-prog/psychedelic singer guitarist Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree fame. But with the Aristocrats, he seems to have found his niche—for the moment, anyway.
GUITAR WORLD: Juxtaposition seems to be one of the Aristocrats’ key musical strategies—putting prog-rock stuff alongside blues, alongside jazzy chording and so on. Is that your view of the band’s brief?
I think the brief is to do whatever the hell we like and assume we can get away with it. And to try crazy things. All of us are the kind of players who can go to a trade show like NAMM and get mobbed by hundreds of people with demos CDs in a very specific style. We get a lot of fusion-shred guys saying, “Check this out,” and really, that’s not the stuff we listen to.
If you could be a fly on the wall inside the van when we’re driving from one venue to the next, exchanging iPods and comparing musical tastes, there’s really not much complicated fusion going on. There’s everything else. So it’s not just me. Everyone in the Aristocrats is interested in a broad canvas of music.
And you’ve been able to draw fans from a few of those different camps—various metal subgenres, prog fans, jazz people.
Yeah, I like the crosspollination that’s happened with respect to fan bases. When we play now, we might have fans of the crazy Keneally/Zappa-type stuff who are familiar with Bryan, or some death metal guys who saw Marco with Kreator or Necrophagist or something like that. We started to get a few Steven Wilson fans showing up—more somber prog-rock guys. Normally you wouldn’t find all those disparate music fans at the same gig. So I think that’s a good thing.
I guess the level of playing is the common draw.
Yes, you can use the musicianship angle to draw people in. But hopefully they have fun when they come to the gig. It’s not fun if everyone in the front row has brought their binoculars and notepad and they’re scrutinizing what you do. It’s nice if you can get a smile out of people.
Which of your guitars came into play on the new record?
Most of it is the first prototype I’ve developed with Charvel, which has a koa body and this lovely barking, rock kind of tone. That’s on everything apart from “Louisville Stomp” and “Desert Tornado.” For those two, I hired a Gretsch, more specifically the Reverend Horton Heat signature model Gretsch. And I’d never played a Gretsch before! I just hired it, brought it to the studio, opened the case and realized, Wow, playing a Gretsch is like playing guitar on another planet when you’re eight months pregnant. Everything is in a different place. It’s a completely different beast. Dynamically, it responds differently. The Bigsby was a big learning curve.
I thought it was a Gretsch on “Desert Tornado”! That’s the only way to get that lovely Duane Eddy/David Lynch kind of mysterious mid–20th century tone.
Totally. And it was a real bonding experience for me: learning to love Gretsches.
You’re one of the few virtuoso guitarists who doesn’t go in for what I call the “NAMM show tone”—that hackneyed, super-distorted, cheese-whiz tone that everybody else seems to have.
The problem with that tone is that it’s so enticing for someone who wants to play complicated stuff. That tone compresses everything and makes it easier for you to get your billion notes a second out. Unfortunately, the easier it is to play with a sound, often the harder it is to listen to that sound. And that buzzy tone, to my ears, doesn’t really sit in a regular band context. It always sounds a little bit abrasive and fake. If you listen to it live and at high volumes, it gets fatiguing.
And it’s such a cliché now. It sends some people right to the door.
Yes. And also I was raised on a lot of Hendrix and Clapton, B.B. King and all this sort of stuff. So part of my idea of what a guitar sounds like is informed by all that traditional stuff.
All that comes across in your work. Country too.
Well, that’s where the real guitar heroes live, isn’t it?
You’re also somewhat unique these days in that you don’t seem to be into seven-string guitars or low tunings or any of that stuff.
Well, I haven’t ruled out the idea of treating myself to an eight-string, mostly so I could have a spare instrument to travel with on the tour bus. I spend a lot of time on the road, and sometimes when I get to a hotel room I want to record a demo. And the idea of an extended-range instrument, where I could approximate the bass parts and guitar parts, is interesting. So, as a tool, the eight-string thing is tempting, but in terms of actually saying what I have to say musically, I’m still figuring out what to do with six strings. I haven’t exhausted the possibilities there by any means.
Exactly. It’s been enough for many great guitarists.
Yeah. And it also worries me sometimes when a guy goes for the ultra-low stuff. Sometimes it isn’t enough just to make the strings fatter. The problem is the instrument isn’t long enough when you get into notes an octave below the lowest note on a traditional guitar. But maybe through all that overdrive it doesn’t matter so much.
Speaking of overdrive, you mentioned that you’re still using Suhr amps.
For this band, yes. The Suhr Badger 30 has become the guitar sound of the Aristocrats. I think it would feel weird to try anything else. And the trusty Suhr Koko boost pedal is actually almost part of the Badger. Those two go together so well. But in the studio, recording Culture Clash, we had two amps on the go. I split the guitar signal and went through two completely different amps so we could mix the signal as we saw fit on a track-by-track basis.
One was the Badger and the other was a Fender Supersonic 22. And I had a couple of different pedals in front of that. One was a Wampler Euphoria, which is kind of a Dumble in a tin, and at other points it was the Analog Man Sunface, which is the mightiest of all fuzz pedals. Other than that, I think I brought a wah pedal to the studio, but I didn’t use it. And volume pedal is a huge part of what I do. I try to set the amp so that everything is turned up to 10 and squealing uncontrollably. It’s nice to know reckless abandon is there and that I can access it by pushing the volume pedal all the way down. Then I can back it off as much as I need for whatever tone I’m going for.
Any other effects that played a role on Culture Clash?
I used either an Analog Man chorus or a Providence Anadime chorus. They’re my two favorites. I think it was the Analog Man. And the other was a DLS Versa Vibe, which is their take, as the name would suggest, on a Uni-Vibe type sound. I think you can hear that maybe in the solo for “Living the Dream.” I think I used it for a few clean guitar parts on some of the layers in the Marco songs. And I used an eBow for the middle bit—the bass solo section in “Oh No.”
Was the sequencer-like part in “Dance of the Aristocrats” generated by a guitar?
No, that’s Bryan. He has this cool thing where he’s playing through a bass-synth pedal, and then he has a very short delay, like a 16th-note delay. He’s hitting eighth notes and then the slapback has the same output level as the original notes. Marco wrote the song and for the demo he had programmed some kind of synth bass. Bryan figured out a way he can do the part live that hopefully sounds suitably electronic.
But the main melody and leads also have a kind of synthy tone and glissando. That’s you on guitar, right?
Yes. Marco and I, in particular, do have a soft spot for a lot of electronic music. Marco’s a big Kraftwerk fan and always has been. I’ve listened to far too much Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and stuff like that.
Along with standard tuning, you’re known for playing in dropped D. Are there any dropped D pieces on Culture Clash?
Yes, but not on any of my own compositions. It’s never me, but the other guys love it. “Living in a Dream” is very much dropped D, “Ohhhh Noooo” and “Desert Tornado” are also dropped D.
In “Ohhhh Noooo,” are you using the whammy bar to get that kind of nervous vibrato quality on the lead lines?
No, that’s just me bending. Someone else in an interview said, “This reminds me of Jeff Beck. Were you channeling Jeff Beck?” Not consciously. When Marco sent me the demo, that melody had more of a Mike Stern kind of vibe. Just the notes—very staccato. I thought it would be more fun and cheeky sounding to put in some of those quirky fast-as-possible semitone bends.
The intro to the title track—which is one of your compositions on the album—reminded me a bit of Gentle Giant. I don’t know if that band is on your radar at all.
Interesting. I’d never really heard of Gentle Giant until I joined Steven Wilson’s band [circa 2006] and everybody was talking about them. So I thought, Oh I better check this Gentle Giant out. I did, and yeah it’s great stuff. But I think I found it at the wrong time in my life for it to be a huge influence.
No, on “Culture Clash” what I was trying to do there was write a riff in a simple time signature which would confuse and deceive the listener. So the whole of that song is in 6/8, not a particularly clever time signature, but that’s my favorite kind of rhythmic trickery—where actually there’s some very basic skeleton behind something that sounds more complicated. Maybe it’s a conventional time signature and you put the accents in unexpected places. And I think it works. I think most of the people who listen to that are confused at first as to what time signature it is.
The guitar playing is amazingly fluid in a lot of places on the album. Are you one of these guys who practices the guitar for 16 hours a day?
No. In my teens I did spend a lot of time playing guitar. But I never liked to call it practice. I was never a metronome warrior. The idea of having a regimented thing that you do every day didn’t appeal to me: “I will now do my sweeps for 10 minutes and then I will take a 30-second break, turn the metronome up 20 percent, do sweeps for five minutes, relax, do alternate picking…” Blah, blah, blah. For some people that works.
Some people like that Olympic-weightlifter kind of mentality, and that helps them master the instrument. I personally don’t have the patience for that. Or the attention span. So all I ever did was play. Psychologically, for me, there was a big difference between the word play and the word practice. Practice sounds like push-ups or Hail Marys or something. It sounds like something that you’re made to do. But play sounds like fun.
I always believed in precision and playing stuff properly, but a big part of that is just trying to make the note sound good. That’s the one thing that people forget sometimes. They get blinded by that quest for speed or whatever. The actual tone of the notes is hugely important. I guess I’ve spent a lot of time subconsciously trying to work on that.
Of your many musical projects, which most reflects what you’re all about?
It’s really hard to say. At the time it came out, that Erotic Cakes album probably expressed what I was about in the decade or so leading up to its release. Some of the music on there was more than 20 years old, essentially. So that solo album was trying to get some of those things out of my system and into the public domain, just so I could move on. Certainly, that was an accurate snapshot of who I have been as a musician. It’s not necessarily an accurate snapshot of who I am now.
I’ll probably do more heavily overdubbed, layered multitrack solo recordings in the future. But right now I’m having a lot of fun with the Aristocrats. There’s so much freedom just to be yourself. And somehow we’re compatible, and when we interact, a lot of stuff happens telepathically. And I think the rawness of the trio thing is helping me to write in a different way. When you play live in a trio there are only two people capable of playing notes from the chromatic scale. It’s fun to make that sound as full as possible harmonically and come up with something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Photo: Tara Stewart