Andy Partridge says he doesn’t consider himself a guitar player – but he hasn’t given up searching for unique sounds to inject into his music.
With a 1975 Ibanez Artist in hand, Partridge was the catalyst for XTC’s seamless blend of art rock, new wave, post-punk, and progressive pop. Even if he’s not a technical wizard, his songcraft is first rate, as evidenced by his enviable catalog.
Take 1980’s Black Sea, which he says is “about as guitar-forward as the early ‘80s got for XTC.” It’s in stark contrast to The Big Express (1984) – “the closest XTC got to a concept album without it actually being a concept album” – which was filed with LinnDrum-inspired clunkiness and angular fissures of Squire Tele-driven ecstasy.
Then there’s Nonsuch (1992) – which brims with amp experiments manifesting from a sudden need to sell off vintage gear – a guitarist’s delight from end to end.
Partridge still owns his ’75 Ibanez Artist series, a Japanese Squire Tele and a ratty Martin D-35, all of which have defined his recording life. “I look for progress,” he says. “There’s players I admire, but most of them took things as far as it could go. I think someone should – or I hope someone will – take a genre of music that isn’t known for guitar and apply guitar to it.
“I can’t think of what genre that should be, but I’d like to see someone do what Hendrix did with the blues and take it all the way. The directions one could go are all there, right? You just have to go do it. Maybe I’m making no sense, or maybe I’m only making sense to me, but as far as guitar goes, that’s what I’d like to see.”
What did your guitar rig look like on classic XTC records like The Big Express, Skylarking and Oranges & Lemons?
“I don’t know if I had a classic rig. I’d turn up with whatever amp and cab I could rustle up for whatever session we were doing. Our producer, David Lord, would keep this diary, and all my amp settings and stuff were in it.
“I’d bring a couple of guitars, one of which was usually a Martin D-35 that I’d gotten around ’83. I still have it; the poor thing needs renovation! It’s getting very old and quite decrepit.”
You created a lot of lush textures on the electric side of the coin.
“The electric flavors were usually dominated by my 1975 Ibanez Artist, which I bought in ’77. I came to find out that it was a very good guitar – I’ve played other Artists and none were quite like it. Ibanez has even sent me others, which was very nice of them, even though I’m not an official Ibanez artist.”
What attracted you to that guitar?
“The only other person I’d seen playing one at that point was Steve Miller – you know, The Joker fellow. And I remember that someone in the Grateful Dead had one, or one like it [Bob Weir has played Ibanez guitars, and Jerry Garcia owned an Artist 2617]. It could have something to do with that.”
The Ibanez/Martin combination created some interesting sounds. What was at the core of that?
“Beginning with The Big Express, I wanted weird sounds. I knew it would be clanky-sounding, so I wanted instruments that would help do that. I wanted guitars that I could use to create sheet metal sounds and I thought, ‘What’s the guitar for that?’ It turned out I needed a Fender Telecaster for that, but I didn’t own one.
“So I went to a local shop and they had four or five, and I tried them all. They were all American Telecasters and well-made, but none were speaking to my hands. I’ve got to fall in love with a guitar at first touch. It’s not even the sound of it, as you can trick that up with pedals; the thing has got to feel right. I tried all these American Telecasters, and nothing caught fire.
“The owner – who was embarrassed – said, ‘Well, there’s this one that’s just come from Japan.’ I fell in love with it the moment I touched it. It was this mustard-colored Squier from when Squiers still had Fender’s name on them.
“It’s a great guitar. Others have tried it and they all say, ‘Wow, that’s a good-sounding Tele!’ I was lucky to fall in love with that Japanese Squier Tele. I used it on most of XTC’s albums.”
Which of your guitars means the most to you?
“The Ibanez Artist. That’s been my main guitar, and it’s literally been on everything. I wouldn’t do an album without it. It’s a bit like me – psychotic! It has many moods, also like me, and I can make it sound like a Gibson, a Fender, or even a Martian surf guitar.
“I put an out-of-phase switch in it and I just love it. It’s always felt good under my hands. I’ve had many guitars before, but it was the first one where my hands turned to honey as I touched it.”
How did your close relationship with the Ibanez inform your approach?
“Partly because I’m a frustrated drummer, I look for the rhythm rather than the ‘correct’ notes. I’ve had friendly arguments with Dave Gregory over that, but my mindset has always been based on the rhythm.
“That tends to dominate the guitar when I’m playing – especially when I need it to be fatter, fuzzier, or more chiming like a piece of glass. With the Ibanez, the possibilities are endless, which is good because I’m always thinking, ‘What sound do I need?’ It’s the one guitar that’s carried me through literally every song.”
What amps would you pair with those guitars on an album like Nonsuch, for example?
“I can tell you exactly what I used: a solid-state amp. I used to use big Marshall amps, but I got rid of them because when XTC came off the road, we had shockingly large freight bills from dragging all this heavy shit back from the States.
“All my stuff was locked up until I’d paid the bill, and we didn’t have the money, so I got rid of two Les Pauls and my Marshalls. Instead I treated myself to a solid-state amp, the same that Eric Clapton used, called a Sessionnette 75, made by Session.
”I would add a bit of compression before it, as I always found amps work better that way. I got the best edge of breakup ever while using that amp. I also used a small Fender Tweed, which gave me the best guitar sound I’ve ever had.”
Which of XTC’s records best represents you as a guitarist?
“Oh, that’s tricky, as I don’t see myself as a guitarist. Some albums, like Black Sea, are guitar-filled. That album is two guitars, bass, and drums. At the time, replicating that sound live was very important, probably because I wanted fans to see us playing the instruments and hear what they saw was coming from the amps.
“But then there are albums like Nonsuch or Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2), where things were powered by the Sessionette 75 or that little Fender Tweed. With Wasp Star, I used some early modeling amps that gave me great Fender Blackface tones. I don’t think of myself as a guitar player per se, but I can get pretty technical when pushed!”
So do you not think of XTC as a guitar band?
“XTC isn’t flashy, so many people think, ‘Oh, they do pop songs’ – and yes, we do. We don’t do extended solos and we’re not pushing guitar boundaries. It’s more the classic thing of, ‘What does the song need?’ We do guitars, but we don’t go on forever and a day until we’re all falling asleep.
“Everything is very tightly structured, like The Beatles, The Kinks, The Small Faces, and The Rolling Stones. All those bands had players who were certainly adequate, and that’s what XTC is: from the school of adequate. We can be fancy, but we focus on the song’s need. Too many bands can’t do that and flash unnecessarily.”
Do you feel the modern guitar scene overvalues technical wizardry?
“The really great players tend not to be writers. You’re either working for the song or you’re working for the sound of the instrument – meaning the thing that impresses people. Getting the two together is almost impossible. I can’t think of many wonderful players who are also songwriters.
“One of my favorites was Ollie Halsall, who was around in the early ‘70s. He really could burn the guitar down and blow the ashes away, and I was like, ‘Whoa, I’ve never heard anything like that.’ And to some extent, I still haven’t. He was a rare player who could do both. It’s a shame that so few people know him.”
Were there any other players who came close?
“Today, Matteo Mancuso is very close. I loved Jimi Hendrix and learned a lot from Rory Gallager, especially when he was with Taste. They had a nice blend of blues, jazz and rock. They were amazing until Rory sacked them, formed another band and played basic pub rock shit, which was a real shame. Then I discovered Allan Holdsworth, who was like a Martian playing guitar.
“All those players were amazing guitarists, but not such great songwriters. I’ve found that most of the great songwriters are people who, by technical standards, can barely play the guitar. A perfect example of that was John Lennon, who was a great songwriter, but his guitar playing was, at best, clumsy.”
Where would you like to see the guitar scene go?
“I get the sense that guitar playing is returning. I see young kids online playing some advanced and interesting things. Some of it is stuff I can’t do. But then again, that doesn't matter; I like a sense of surprise within my playing.
“I don't know if the kids’ playing will separate itself from their songwriting; the two never seem to intertwine fully. Maybe the two need to split for one of them to be great. Or perhaps I’m just too old and can’t find a way of playing that’s only about the thrill of it – as Hendrix once did.”
- Partridge recently published Popartery, a book containing 56 of his paintings inspired by XTC songs. It’s on sale now via Ape House.