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Interview: Tony MacAlpine Discusses Gear and Tone and Answers Readers' Questions

For this week's column, I had a talk with guitar legend Tony MacAlpine about the heavy tone on his new self-titled album; and he answers some of your questions. Enjoy!

Who are some of your all-time favorite artists?

Johnny Winter has been at the top of my list forever. George Benson has been at the top of the list forever. Steve Vai. There is a wealth of players that opened up so much and they are all so varied.

I really like Vinnie Moore a whole lot; he is one of my favorite guitar players. You played keyboards on his record The Maze. What was that like working with Vinnie?

Well, Vinnie and I, it’s interesting. We just came back from New Zealand and we finally did a live show over there for the Gtaranaki Festival. In all the years we've recorded in our groups and did things like that along those lines, we had never actually played together. So that was the first time and we've been friends for almost longer than the time we've actually been recording. So it's a good thing; he's a good guy.

So I'm curious: You do so much; you know, you're a guitar player, you play keyboards, all kinds of stuff. Are there ever going to be vocals from you?

There was, yeah. I did a vocal record years ago. It was a period in time when I was coming in and out, doing different types of things, different styles of things, you know. Like I had worked with Ring Of Fire for a while and I wanted to get involved and kind of do some different aspects of things and I did this record called Master Of Paradise.

There are a lot of big-name guitar players who are influenced by you. How does that make you feel?

It's such a small community, and I really am just excited to be playing with so many of these players and to be able to meet them on a one-on-one basis. So it’s pretty cool.

You just played a show at Musicians Institute. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and who is in your band right now?

Yeah, it was great. It was a lot of fun to get a chance to play with Marco live, Marco Minneman. He is quite a drummer. You know he's played with lots of guys; he's in the Aristocrats and done all sorts of different things. And Bjorn Englen, a wonderful bass player, lives in the LA area. He's played with a host of players like Yngwie and all kinds of different guys. And Nili Brosh, the young Bostonian. It was wonderful to actually to do something live with her and I'm looking ahead to Japan and we'll start the European tour hopefully soon.

Very cool. Back in the day, you released a Shrapnel instructional VHS. Are there any plans for an instructional DVD from you?

No, no more instructional DVDs You definitely will not see that. But yeah, I enjoyed doing those when I did them. But now I want to do something a little bit different.

What was the first artist who made you stand up and say, "Wow this music thing is for me"?

Well, there wasn't an artist. It was composers, really. I started playing piano when I was 5 and I studied classical music for the first initial 12 years at the Springfield Conservatory of Music in Massachusetts. And then I went on to other music programs like the University of Hartford and I stayed there for two years and studied under the direction of Raymond Hanson, and along the way I won various piano competitions. That was my first expression with music. I knew that I wanted to play music when I was a little kid, and along the way when I was probably 12 or 13 I started experimenting with the guitar. And my brother played guitar so I started to take on the two instruments at the same time. And I knew from the onset when I was 5 that that’s what I wanted to do. Play music.

The recording process on the new record -- what was that like for you? Did you go into a real studio or did you track a lot of stuff at home?

I used the facility I have at my place. We used Pro Tools HD and we used various things that people might use like Logic or Digital Performer. We recorded the drums in various locations but now these drummers all have studios that they use. Virgil Donati recorded in his place and Marco recorded in his place.

I really like the new album, and I like how there are a lot of cool melodies within the songs and how you kind of build and build it up. Since it doesn't have vocals, do you feel like that’s important to keep the song moving?

Music has to be what people can understand, and they need to identify with the main character. The process for me is really just writing something that I feel and being truthful to what I feel, and that’s important for when people interpret it. Because everybody gets something a little different out of music, and everybody puts a different value on what it is. For me it's really just expressing how I feel.

I also really like the heavy rhythm tones that you have going on. Was that a conscious decision you had going in? What amps did you use?

I use an 8-string guitar now and it really adds a lot of definitive heaviness to the tracks. It has a low F# on it. And I’m using Hughes & Kettner amplifiers. I use the Hughes & Kettner Coreblade live and I use the Hughes & Kettner Triamp for the studio. That adds for a lot of crunch, and I’m a guitar player so I am always thinking of having a full guitar record. That’s my approach with it.

Some of the readers want to know what your practice routine is like and if differs depending on whether you’re doing a tour or recording an album.

There is no practice routine. I just don’t. I was speaking once to a colleague of mine. It’s almost like you know when you’re speaking English. You don’t go back and start practicing your ABC’s and nouns and pronouns. You just speak the English I’m sure we all really know. Pretty much all of the touring musicians have that in common. There’s really no need to go back and start practicing things that you know. I think from a lot of playing over the years, you develop different aspects of understanding music and the building blocks of it and the fundamentals. And there really is no real reason to start again. The time that is spent really playing the guitar for me is mainly spent learning other people’s music on my own and learning the actual charts. Or whatever it is that I have to play. That’s all I’m really practicing. I’m not practicing music fundamentals.

Laurie in England wants to know if you would ever consider recording an anniversary edition of Edge Of Insanity with modern production.

No, but in our set when we head out we will play the entire Edge Of Insanity record on tour.

Randy from Florida wants to know if there will be anymore work with CAB or with any of the badass band members.

Who knows? Right now I’m really involved with getting this band out, and we’ve got to start rehearsing. All of my focus is on that right now, so I can’t really say.

John in Pennsylvania wants to know: Did switching to the 8-string guitar change your approach to writing and playing?

Not at all, it’s just a fuller guitar with a greater range and register. I’ve been thinking a lot about having a guitar with a higher range. Maybe higher than the E string somehow, or something with a different twist on it, but I look at music the same way that I always did.

So we might see you go to a 9-string then, right?

(Laughs) Exactly.

KG in Atlanta wants to know: Who is the best guitar player you’ve ever played with?

I don’t think anybody’s the best. You know it’s not sports, it’s music. Everybody is so very different and I’ve been lucky to play with so many great and different players and it’s been wonderful.

From Pete in Chicago: Who are some new current guitar players you really like and why?

I really like my friend Tosin Abasi. He’s a really happening, innovative player and he plays the 8-string also, and he plays it so well. I like Guthrie Govan’s playing a lot. He’s really coming along quite well. Nili Brosh is another one of these stunners and I’m just really amazed at this woman and she really plays very very well. There is a host of them out there you know, there really is.

From John in Boston: Your live tone is amazing; how do you get it and how do you approach performing live versus playing in the studio?

I have a very simplified setup and I’ve been getting a lot of compliments on the live tone. I just did a couple of live TV dates on "That Metal Show" and all of the guys who were guests on the show like John Sykes were all digging the tone. But it’s a really really simple setup. I’m really just using a Hughes & Kettner Coreblade amplifier, and I don’t use any external effects or anything. The effects are built into the amp. On the floor I just have an Ernie Ball wah pedal and an Ernie Ball volume pedal and I use an audio storage multi-rig distortion pedal for some certain effects. But the key to it is just to keep it really simplistic and very simple. It’s a pretty much straight in sound and I keep everything that way. And in the studio its almost the same thing except I’m using the Hughes & Kettner triamp’s which have no effects on them at all, its just a tube amp. So simplicity has always been the name of my game.

I agree. Kelly, another one of my Guitar World readers, asks, what was your most memorable concert that you’ve ever played and what’s your favorite country to play in?

I don’t really think I have a favorite country to play in because I like all of the countries. I’ve been lucky enough to travel around and see many of them. But many many years ago I was playing with the Michel Polnareff band, the French pop star. And we played at the Eiffel tower celebration and two million people saw it. And Nelly Furtado was on the bill and it was just a wonderful event. There was like 20 musicians in the band and that was probably one of the things that I’ll always remember. It was just amazing to be playing outside like that in France.

Very cool, man. Congratulations on the new record and I wish you great success with the tour and everything else. Thanks for taking the time!

Thanks, Dave. Good talking with you, brother.

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