The Interrupters’ Kevin Bivona shares what he learned from Sublime – and the secret to great ska guitar tone

Kevin Bivona
(Image credit: Chris Simms)

After spending his youth recording friends’ bands, and then a decade working in the studio and on stage with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, Kevin Bivona of SoCal ska punks the Interrupters knows the recipe for the perfect ska guitar tone.

“I’m a big fan of the bridge pickup,” he says, “but the thing is, if you’re on a clean tone on a bridge pickup, it doesn’t have a lot of body.” To balance, he runs his main guitar, a Fender Telecaster, through a Fender Blues Deluxe with the drive set at 4. “That way it’s got some body coming from the gain, but it still has this bright top. It doesn’t break up too much.” 

Bivona landed on his skankin’ good tone by experimenting with gain stages on his guitars and amps before he could get pedals to do the heavy lifting. It’s still the core of his sound – with some added reverb and delay here and there – and he used it all over the latest release by the Interrupters, In the Wild.

Loaded with bouncy ska-driven songs like In the Mirror and pop-punk singalongs like the leadoff Anything Was Better, In the Wild captures the band at the height of their powers.

Their penchant for earworm hooks is a product of Bivona cutting his teeth on the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but for guitar tips he studied how Roddy Radiation of second-wave ska legends the Specials balanced upstrokes with rock ’n’ roll leads. Discovering Sublime and learning how to play their hit Wrong Way also had a huge impact on his playing style, he says.

“If you listen to the way Brad Nowell played ska, he’s got so much finesse, but there’s also so much going on with his left [fretting] hand; he’s muting and engaging for each upstroke. His right hand is really strumming through, and on early ska records, there was no muting.

“What’s exciting to me about ska is the energy [and] the syncopation,” he says. “The energy you can get across with having the guitar playing on the upbeats, the bass driving through and walking around, and then a kind of mid- to up-tempo, four-on-the floor [beat]. It just becomes a big dance party, and I’ve always loved that.”

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Jim Beaugez

Jim Beaugez has written about music for Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Guitar World, Guitar Player and many other publications. He created My Life in Five Riffs, a multimedia documentary series for Guitar Player that traces contemporary artists back to their sources of inspiration, and previously spent a decade in the musical instruments industry.