The Police: Ghosts in the Machine

For Andy Summers, everything old is new again as the Police reunite and Fender releases a limited-edition replica of the Telecaster he rode to stardom.

Every life contains some déjà vu moments, but Andy Summers seems to be having more than his share recently. For the first time in more than 20 years, he’s back onstage with the Police, playing hits like “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle” and “Every Breath You Take”—songs that defined the sound of pop music and culture in the Eighties and made major rock stars of him and his band mates, bassist Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland.

The Police reunion tour has become one of the season’s hottest concert tickets, and every night onstage, Summers has been recreating the band’s classic repertoire on one of his new, limited-edition Andy Summers Tribute Telecasters. Lovingly crafted by the Fender Custom Shop, each instrument is an exact replica of the road-worn, heavily customized, circa 1961 Telecaster that the guitarist rode to fame during his years with the Police.

“It’s been a very strange life experience,” says Summers, “because this guitar was obviously a major part of my life. It became an iconic guitar, very emblematic of my career success. And suddenly it’s like it had babies and there’s all these other ones.”

He recalls the odd sensation of receiving the first replica at his studio in Venice, California. “My original guitar was back home. But I opened the case, and there it was again! It was kind of freaky to see this thing exactly reproduced—every nick, dent and scratch on the guitar. It was like a map of the world from the 16th century—really beaten up. But they nailed it exactly, I don’t quite know how. I put the Tribute model next to the original, and they’re exactly the same.”

The painstaking reproduction process was spearheaded by Fender Custom Shop Master Builder Dennis Galuszka. The project got started early in 2006, before anyone, including Summers, even knew there was going to be a Police reunion. “Originally, it was going to be a small, 100-piece run,” Galuszka says, “and I was going to make all 100 personally. Fender Marketing said, ‘Take a year to do it. Take your time.’ Then the Police announced their reunion tour and the number jumped to 250, and I had to include the rest of the master builders here at the Custom Shop. Now we’re each doing a small portion of them, so we can take our time. We have eight master builders doing five to 10 a month.”

Summers acquired the original guitar in 1970 during a down-and-out period in Los Angeles. He’d had some success in the late Sixties with art rockers Soft Machine and Eric Burdon’s hippie-era band the New Animals, but by 1970, Summers was struggling to get by in L.A., giving guitar lessons while studying classical guitar at Cal State Northridge. He didn’t even own an electric guitar. Then, one day, a student offered to sell him a beat-up, heavily modified Tele for $200 dollars.

“Something took place on a metaphysical level,” Summers says of the first time he played the instrument. “I immediately bonded with the guitar. The weight of it felt really good; the neck played great; it sounded great. It just seemed to have a lot going for it. When you’re a guitar player, you pick up a guitar and in two minutes you know whether you’re going to like it or not. I couldn’t put this one down. It was one of those guitars. And it was the thing that sparked my re-entry into playing electric guitar. I went back to England, and the rest is history. So getting that guitar was a real turning point for me.”

The guitar itself is something of a mystery instrument. Although it’s nominally called a ’61, it’s more likely a hybrid. “I couldn’t find any dates written in the thing,” says Galuszka, who has taken the instrument apart and studied it in depth. “If I had to guess, it looks like the neck came off a Fifties Tele, because it actually had a little white blonde paint, like they used on Fifties Teles, left on the butt. But the neck pocket had no date written or stamped on it, which was weird. And the body has been routed out so much under the pickguard that all traces of a date are long gone.”

No one knows who did the mod work. It’s impossible to determine whether it was the labor of a single person or a succession of people who tinkered with the instrument. Galuszka rates the craftsmanship, “pretty good for some guy in his garage. But if someone here had done it, I would say it was a piece of garbage.”

Whoever did the work replaced the original Telecaster neck pickup with a 1959 Gibson PAF humbucker. The original bridge has been replaced with a brass one—all the rage in the Seventies—and the bridge pickup is mounted in the body, rather than in the bridge plate. A preamp and overdrive unit were added, along with a mini toggle switch to place the bridge pickup out of phase with the neck pickup. In addition, the original tuning machines were replaced with Schallers.

“I think the guitar suited me so well because it is a hybrid instrument,” Summer says, “which tends to suit my natural musical path. I’m fairly eclectic in nature; I’ve never been a guy who stayed straight in one genre. I’ve always been more about trying to create my own genre of guitar player, which to some extent is what we’ve done with the Police. The band is very much a synthesis of many elements, bringing them together to try and create a unique voice.

“And that Telecaster seemed to match all those desires, because it wasn’t a standard Telecaster with the usual back [bridge] pickup sound, and it wasn’t exactly like a Strat either, even though the sound was out of phase. It kind of crossed all those things. I could get a lot of sound out of that guitar—a lot of color.”

The distinctive back pickup sound of Summer’s mongrel Tele can be heard on “Roxanne,” the song that was the first big hit for the Police, in 1979. Summers remembers putting the guitar through a Fender Twin Reverb amp to achieve the icy, treble tone of that guitar track. For “Message in a Bottle” and other early hits, he added a chorus pedal to his setup. An Echoplex tape echo became another staple ingredient in his signature tonal palette. His route was radically different from that of guitarists in earlier rock trios, such as Cream, Blue Cheer or ZZ Top, who relied on massive, distorted tones to fill the sonic canvas. In contrast, Summers preferred textural and atmospheric clean sounds, a trait he shared with other definitive post-punk Eighties guitarists such as U2’s the Edge and the Cure’s Robert Smith.

But his style of rhythm comping also drew heavily from reggae, a stylistic influence that the Police shared with many other rock groups at the time, including the Clash, the Slits and the Ruts. However, the Police articulated their reggae rhythms in a smoother and more palatable way than many of their contemporaries. This, combined with some thinly veiled prog/jazz/art rock sensibilities, set them apart. Punk purists derided them for being too “accomplished,” but the pop charts surrendered to the Police without a struggle.

“We had a very different approach,” Summers confirms. “Sting came out of a background very similar to mine, with a lot of pop music but also blues, jazz and jazz fusion. When I started to hear all that in his voice, I was able to go for stuff on guitar that was not your standard, heavy rock, wall-of-sound approach. I could open things up a bit and go for a sound that had space and light to it. And the Echoplex was certainly one of the technical aids to achieving that, as well as the attitude and the playing itself, of course. Steward [Copeland] would react to that; Sting would start to play these reggae bass lines and his voice would go over the top of it. Suddenly we had a very unique sound. It happened sort of consciously but without much conscious effort at the same time.”

Summers hung onto his unusual Telecaster after the Police parted company in the late Eighties. Fender’s marketing and Custom Shop people were happy that the guitarist still had the instrument when they contacted him in 2006 to discuss creating an Andy Summers Tribute Telecaster. “We met at my studio eventually,” he says. “I brought my guitar down. They photographed it, videoed it, filmed it, licked it, gave it a kiss, measured it...all kinds of stuff like that, till they felt they’d documented it. Then they went off, and it wasn’t until about six months later that I heard from them again.”

Galuszka decided to tackle the guitar’s electronics first. A Duncan ’59 proved a very close substitute for the ’59 PAF pickup in the neck position. The bridge pickup was more problematical. Galuszka says it is probably a custom pickup, perhaps a Duncan. “We ended up having to have Abigail Ybarra here at the custom shop hand wind all the pickups for us,” he says, because the pickup on Andy’s original has staggered pickups, but they’re not beveled. They were wrapped with black twine instead of the standard white. Just a bunch of unusual things.”

By trial and error, Galuszka discovered that the bridge pickup was mounted to the body for grounding purposes, to keep the guitar quiet when the pickup was flipped out of phase. Replicating the elusive preamp circuit was even harder. To help with the process, Summers gave Galuszka recordings of the guitar in action. “It was a live Police recording that they had done in Germany, and in the solo section, Andy just went out of phase and overdriven. That’s pretty much what the guitar sounds like.” Even so, many elements responsible for the sound on the recording remained ambiguous. “What amp was he playing through? What is the board doing?” Galuszka asks. “There’s no way to tell. But ironically, once I got the electronics where they were supposed to be, then the recordings made a lot of sense. I could say, ‘Okay, that’s what you’re talking about.’”

When Galuszka felt the electronics were ready, he sent his handiwork to Summers. “The first thing I got,” the guitarist recounts, “is what they call a mule: an unfinished Telecaster body, but with all the pickups and electronics in place. It actually played great, but it wasn’t quite right for me. It was a little too generic. I wanted to get much more specific, much closer to the real sound. So the electronics were the first place we started.” Galuszka took his comments and went back to work, tweaking the electronics. “The second one came back,” Summers recalls, “and it was pretty much on the money.”

“It was so great to get that e-mail from Andy saying ‘It’s perfect,’ ” Galuszka recalls. “I was starting to get worried. But I slept really well that night.”

With the electronics sharply in focus, Galuszka turned his attention to the physical aspects of the guitar. All the hardware had to be custom sourced and/or fabricated, even the tuning machines. “The mini Schallers of today have one mounting screw. The tuners on Andy’s guitar have two. So we had to special order those from Schaller. Nothing’s been easy on this guitar, not a single thing.”

The luthier even had to reproduce the crack that runs through the brass bridge on Summers’ original instrument, a detail that many speculate might make a sonic difference. But this task, Galuszka says, was “easy: I just scored the back of the bridge [by tracing the contour of the original crack], stuck it in a vice and wiggled it till it broke.”

More painstaking to reproduce was the well-worn body, with its four decades worth of dings, dents, gashes, scrapes and worn-off finish patterns. Galuszka uploaded photos of the guitar to the personal computer at his workbench. “I just came in during Christmas break, when nobody was here. It was a period of few weeks. I grabbed microscope slides and razor blades and started chipping away, based on the photos. And then, of course, I had to okay it with Andy. Based on that, I was able to make some computer templates that we use as a road map, so that all the guitars come out the same. But the actual work is done by hand. It takes forever. It was the same thing when we did the Blackie project with Eric Clapton [i.e., Clapton’s signature Strat]. We did a road map, so we knew, for instance, where the finish had to be removed. But we still had to take it off by hand. We had to tone out the big areas, chip away the little areas and bang keys on the body for dings. But it was cool when I took the guitar to Andy and he opened the case. Man, he was really blown away. I wanted to come back and make revisions. He said, ‘Why? It’s already perfect.’ Of course when I made the revisions it was even better, and he said, ‘Okay. Now I understand.’ ”

The first Andy Summers Tribute Telecaster was ready in time for the Police’s high-profile reunion on February 11, 2007, at the 49th annual Grammy Awards ceremony in L.A. For the group’s 2007 reunion tour, he’s taking four identical Tribute Telecasters on the road with him. The guitars get plugged into a high-end rig based around Custom Audio Electronics amps, four 2x12 cabs, and a Bob Bradshaw switching system that blends rack effects, such as Andy’s redoubtable Lexicon PCM 70, with stomp boxes that include Boss and TC Electronics chorus pedals, an MXR Phase 90, an Ibanez Tube Screamer and a Love Pedal Eternity Overdrive.

It’s been quite a lot of work to set this up,” Summers says of the musical preparations for the reunion tour. “We’re doing a whole unplugged set as well as our whole electric concert. So we’ve been having to rehearse acoustically as well.”

But Summers says the band is approaching its classic repertoire with typical rock star nonchalance: “We’ve always been very casual about listening to our records and trying to recreate them. We’re very disrespectful of our classic recordings. We get on with the job and try to make the songs sound very exciting now. Obviously, we know the songs like the backs of our hands. It’s more a question of revitalizing and playing them so they sound completely modern and full of fire.

“So we sort of start from scratch with them. We might change bass and drum patterns. I’ve completely rebuilt my equipment to make it sound state of the art. I’ve got the best that you can possibly get. I mean we can’t change the songs beyond all recognition. That wouldn’t be fair to the people who paid their money to hear the songs. But they just sound completely blazing at this point. We’ve upped the ante on them.”

Summers confirms that some new songs began to emerge while the group was busy in rehearsal. “But we were actually instructed not to do new material on the tour,” he adds. “People don’t want it. When you do a so-called reunion tour, what people essentially want to hear is the hits. And this has proven to be very much about business. It would be mistake to make a new album and then go out on tour. People would be disappointed. An album of new material might be a move next year or something. We’ll see how it goes.”

In the meantime, Summers has plenty of solo projects in the works, including a collaborative album with classical guitarist Benjamin Verdery titled First You Build a Cloud, which will be available as a download in the States and on Real Artist records in Europe. He has also just released his third photography book, I’ll Be Watching You: Inside the Police 1980–83, a deluxe coffee table volume published by Taschen. It seems that, along with forging the sound of new wave pop guitar in the early Eighties, Summers was also chronicling every aspect of the Police’s rise to fame in photographs.

“I got really serious about photography right about the time I joined the Police. I just wanted to be a real good photographer. And that turned into, Oh, I seem to be documenting everything. And I got a lot more conscious about doing that.”

Apparently, his new relationship with Fender will continue to blossom as well. “They’re making a couple of other guitars for me,” he says. “And it’s wild now, because they’re really in production to meet all the orders, ’cause the whole edition sold out. And there it is, my guitar, coming off the belt! It’s the most bizarre thing to see.”

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