“So many ‘latest’ and ‘greatest’ pedals are coming out that I had to get off the train… most of them were trying to do things that had already been done”: Ian Thornley knows what tones he’s looking for – but he’s still searching for the perfect song

Ian Thornley of Big Wreck
(Image credit: Steve Jennings/Getty Images)

Though he’s been at it for 30 years, too few have feasted on the multi-layered playing inherent within Ian Thornley’s virtuosic guitar buffet.

Perhaps it’s because he’s a native of Canada, a country that’s produced a ton of outstanding music, but outside of Rush, never seems to get its due. Or perhaps it’s because he and his band, Big Wreck, refuse to stagnate – instead using their albums like a blank canvas for a technicolor-splashed paintbrush.

Regardless, when Thornley takes the stage, it’s must-see stuff. And when Big Wreck drops new music, it’s best to sit back and listen. Stunning as it is, not even Thornley fully understands how he brings it all together.

“I don’t know if I really have an approach per se,” he says. “It’s more that I follow what I’m hearing and see it through to determine if it works. Often, when I hear those sounds, I will have some kind of inkling of how to get there, usually through a certain amp, pedal, or guitar.”

It seems that despite the loss of long-time rhythm guitarist Brian Doherty, who passed away from lung cancer in 2019, and the new addition of Sekou Lumumba on drums, Thornley has been wading through a lot of those ‘inklings’ en route to 18 new songs, released in across a trilogy of EPs now grouped as the album 7.

Thornley remains effervescent about writing new music: “I still love that feeling when the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you get chills,” he says. “The fact that music can do that keeps me returning for more.”

“No matter where you are, what language you speak, or what you believe, music is powerful. I still feel lucky to be doing this; I still am 100 percent motivated to pick up my guitar each day.”

What led Big Wreck to release a series of EPs rather than a full album? Did that affect your approach?

“I don’t think it affected how we approached the songs or how I looked at the guitars. It was more an idea we’d been kicking around. I thought it would be interesting to do several EPs, which we recorded simultaneously, rather than having it be a full album.

“There are a few reasons, like the fact that I feel Big Wreck is more of an album-cut type of band rather than singles-driven. I’d get bummed out because our best songs would be at the end of the album and never get listened to. So we thought that dividing the songs into EPs would give some of those songs more playing time.”

Has your source of creativity changed at all?

“Honestly, no, I don’t think it’s changed. I’ve always written at the rate that I do. And I believe that as a band it’s still the same, too. We’re still in the same rhythm, which leads to the same output level – like the 18 songs on the EPs. The big thing now is that we’ve been staggering it, so maybe it feels like we’re churning out more music. But it’s the same, just at a different frequency.”

The three EPs represent Big Wreck’s first recordings without Brian Doherty. Did that impact you on the guitar side of things?

“Well, Brian was never a big fan of being in the studio. And even when he was around in the early days, I would generally take care of most of the studio guitar work. That resulted from wanting to save studio time and having an idea of how I wanted to set up and get different sounds.

Ian Thornley performs onstage at The Independent in San Francisco, California on March 8, 2018

(Image credit: Steve Jennings/Getty Images)

“Brian would sometimes poke his head in to let us know if he was happy with things. Brian was important, though; one of the big things when I was looking at a guitar tone or part was to think, ‘Okay, does this pass the Brian test?’ He was never one to mince words, and that’s still in my head – it must pass the Brian test before it goes to the next stage.”

And what has Chris Caddell brought to the table?

“With Chris, again, it’s a situation where we want to keep studio time at a minimum, and I tend to work very quickly in the studio to save time and keep the juices flowing. The sooner I can hear the completed picture, the better, as it keeps us from laboring. So I tend to sail through quickly and do most of the writing and guitar tracking to keep the time down.

“Chris becomes important by offering opinions and doing the live thing. Live is where Chris can take what I’ve done, put his spin on it, and make an impact. Starting in rehearsals, he works to make things his own. If we had a bigger studio budget it would be a much different scenario, but that’s how the cookie crumbles.”

It could be an out-of-phase pickup; it could be anything. And through that process, I’ll often stumble across something unexpectedly, which leads to new inspiration

What’s your approach to creating interest with songs with textures and sounds as you do?

“It could be an out-of-phase pickup; it could be anything. And through that process, I’ll often stumble across something unexpectedly, which leads to new inspiration. It’s a lot of dicking around with knobs on my guitars, amps, and pedals! I’m a guitar nerd through and through, so I’m always looking for something fresh.”

Are there any guitar and amp combinations that have you particularly inspired of late?

“Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of mixing and matching – but right now, the Suhr Lumberjack [Thornley's Classic T signature] gets used a lot. It has a unique voice and reacts differently with my amps than most of my other guitars. It’s getting a lot of playing time across many different applications and in different tunings, and it did a lot of heavy lifting on the new songs.

“But there were some usual suspects paired along with that as far as amps, like the Matchless DC30, which creates a great canvas for clean sounds. And then I have my smaller amp setup, which has my Fender Pro Junior; I like to pair that with a Suhr Andre Nieri. Those glue the heavier sounds together, and they fit together well. And I’ve got a Suhr PT100 and an OD-100, which have been in my library for the hot-rodded Marshall sounds.”

What does your signal chain look like these days, and what sorts of pedals tend to catch your eye?

“Honestly, so many ‘latest’ and ‘greatest’ pedals are coming out every week that I had to get off the train. It felt like most of those pedals were all trying to do things that had already been done, you know? So, if I want a phaser, I’ll go with an EHX Small Stone or an MXR Phase 90. And if I want a Tube Screamer-type sound, I’m gonna go with an Ibanez Tube Screamer.

“There’s one pedal that Brian got me for my birthday one year, the Prescription Electronics Experience pedal, that’s been on every record since. I’ve had it for like 25 years, and it still gets used all the time. That, along with the Suhr Discovery Analog Delay, are big ones for me.

“But if I want a heavier sound, like I was saying, I’ll put a Tube Screamer out front, turn the gain down, and just sort of goose the output up a bit to where I’m hitting the amp harder, but it tucks the low-end and tightens things up.”

I like to use a lot of different shades of the same color… that’s what I love about Suhr guitars – I can get three or four sounds out of the same guitar within one song

Are there any subtle nuances within your playing that are important but that the average listener might not pick up on?

“I don’t really know because I’ve never made a record the way a different player might make a record, you know? I don’t know how other people do it. But, for instance, with Chris now in the band, the choice of pickups I use for different parts of the song, both live and in the studio, has changed. I’ve always felt that being more dynamic with my pickup choices was important.”

And what goes into those choices?

“Some pickup choices have a way of reinforcing the vocal, but others might take over the vocal. Looking at it that way, there’s rarely a song where I stay on one pickup the whole time. If Big Wreck were more like AC/DC, that would work.

“But with me, I like to use a lot of different shades of the same color throughout a song. And that’s what I love about Suhr guitars – I can get three or four sounds out of the same guitar within the context of one song.”

Avoiding redundancy seems to come naturally to you. 

“It does. And that’s because learning new things keeps me inspired. I’m still learning so much every day. I still want to write the perfect song. I’m still hungry. I’m still searching for all those things. And I’m still really inspired by the music we’re making. Like I said before, when I have an idea, I’ll chase it, which will spark other interests I want to pursue.”

The amount of exciting tech must be inspiring to a gearhead such as yourself, too.

“Oh, for sure. I love that the technology available these days allows me to have an intact song, with a chorus and everything, within a couple of hours. I can have a rough roadmap of a song quickly and even have the guitar parts doubled.

Within a couple of hours I can have a rough roadmap of a song… and even have the guitar parts doubled

“All that keeps me inspired, and it helps keep me on track when I’ve got ideas coming to me – it quickly lets me know if I’m barking up the wrong tree. There’s been many times I’ve spent putting a piece of music together, only to say, ‘This is awful,’ and scrap the whole thing. But that’s just part of the pursuit of inspiration.”

Some guitar players lose the fire to pick up their instruments each day. I take it that’s not the case for you.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t want to. And if I don’t, I notice it. I was recently reminded of a Django Reinhardt quote that goes like, ‘After one day without playing, I can hear the difference. After two days without playing, my bandmates can hear the difference. And after three days without playing, everybody can hear the difference.’

“And that rings true for me, so I like to stay loose and keep a guitar in my hands as much as possible.”

  • Big Wreck’s 7 was released as a complete album on August 29. They launched an EP titled Pages on November 24. A vinyl edition of 7 arrives in February and it’s available for preorder now.

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Andrew Daly

Andrew Daly is an iced-coffee-addicted, oddball Telecaster-playing, alfredo pasta-loving journalist from Long Island, NY, who, in addition to being a contributing writer for Guitar World, scribes for Rock Candy, Bass Player, Total Guitar, and Classic Rock History. Andrew has interviewed favorites like Ace Frehley, Johnny Marr, Vito Bratta, Bruce Kulick, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Rich Robinson, and Paul Stanley, while his all-time favorite (rhythm player), Keith Richards, continues to elude him.