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Ty Tabor: “I developed my entire sound and style around one type of guitar pick. If I use a different one, I can’t get the same tone”

Ty Tabor
(Image credit: Lisa Lake/Getty Images)

In addition to serving as one-third of King’s X, singer/guitarist Ty Tabor has also been spotted in a variety of other projects throughout his prolific career, including The Jelly Jam, Jughead, Xenuphobe and Platypus.

But since the late ‘90s, he has been regularly issuing his own solo albums, the latest of which, Shades, arrived in its entirety on March 4, and sees the electric guitar titan handling all instrumental and production duties.

Tabor spoke to Guitar World shortly before the arrival of Shades to chat about his unique gear choices, penchant for modding guitars and how the next King's X record will hark back to the "magic" of the band's early days.

How does Shades compare to your previous solo albums?

“It’s pretty different from Alien Beans [Tabor’s 2018 release]. It’s a collection of songs that I think fit together, but when I hear it, it’s kind of a surprise to me – that that’s what I recorded and what came out. I was just going through a bunch of stuff, and this material just seemed right.”

Did any of the material on Shades prove challenging? 

“I didn’t feel a lot of, ‘This is hard to do.’ For me, it was more, ‘How do I express this on guitar? How do I express this emotion at this place of the song on guitar?’ It wasn't normally anything that had to do with difficulty or a technical aspect – but just, ‘Does it feel right?’ 

“And to me, it was always about trying to capture ‘feel’ – trying to find what worked at certain spots in each song. And because I am doing bass, drums, vocals and everything else, I don’t just think in terms of guitar when that is happening. I think in terms of everything that’s going down.

“To me, none of that is super-difficult, but I have to have patience to find certain things. I actually enjoy the ‘finding’, and experimenting until something feels right.”

The song One Drop of Water is a particular standout.

“That’s one of those that I wrote and was thinking, ‘Man, where is this going?’ and, ‘I don’t think this is going to be on the record!’ [Laughs] It’s very different to any other song on the record.

“I knew One Drop of Water felt ‘epic’ – like, I really needed to produce it to where, at the end, it’s a lot of everything: a lot of guitar, a lot of vocals. And I wanted it to have a slow build that takes a long time to get there. 

“And while it's getting there, I wanted it to be introspective about life and all kinds of stuff – difficult things and good things. Just getting through things and ending up at the end okay.”

What gear did you use?

“I used a load of guitars on this. I used one of my Guilfords, a Gibson Les Paul Special, a Goldtop Les Paul Standard, my original Fender Stratocaster Elite, and probably five other Strats that have different tones.

“The two amps I used mostly were a Lab Series L5 – like I used to use – in combination with an Orange CR120, to get a thicker, different kind of vibe.

I didn’t really use a lot of pedals on Shades. Most of it is just straight in to my Lab Series L5 and Orange CR120

“I didn’t really use a lot of pedals on this. Most of it is just straight in. I did occasionally go through a couple of things, but I don’t even remember what most of them were called. One was a RotoSIM [by DLS Effects]. 

“With a RotoSIM, it comes with instructions where you can open it up and modify it yourself. So, I use that to get a really thick lead tone. If you hear a lead tone that is extra thick, it’s probably through the RotoSIM.”

You mentioned that one of the guitars you used on Shades was the Fender Strat Elite, which you used on the early King’s X albums.

“These days when I play it, I’m sitting down in a chair and not breaking my back, because it’s the heaviest guitar I’ve ever owned in my life. I stopped using it for a few reasons, but one of the reasons was that it was really causing me back problems.

“I sit down with it now, and all of a sudden it feels like a ‘new’ guitar. I used to think of it as such a beast that was so difficult to play. But I pick it up these days and I think, ‘I wonder why I thought it was so difficult to play? It plays really good.’ So lately, I’ve been loving the thing.”

There’s a specific guitar pick that you’ve used solely throughout your career. Do you still use them?

“I’m looking at about five of them right now in front of me on the desk at the studio! I guard these like they’re $5,000 bills. They’re very hard to get, and I’ve been playing with them my entire life. On the rare occasion that we run across the real ones, we buy them – whatever the cost.

“The original ones – which I have – were originally made by Mel Bay. The ones that are out there these days that claim to be Mel Bay ones are nonsense – they’re nothing like the originals. The original Mel Bays used a different kind of material for the pick, which I’ve never found on any other pick before. 

“Mine have a gritty top half, where you can really hold it, and then the bottom half is very thin and flimsy. That means you can play in drop B without having to hit the pick hard across the strings, which can make it go out of tune. So, I can play with finesse with these, just because of the combination.

I developed my entire sound and style around Mel Bay guitar picks. If I use a different one, I can’t really get the same tone

“Most people, if they try to play with one of these, can’t even use them. But because it’s what I learned with, I developed my entire sound and style around that guitar pick. If I use a different one, I can’t really get the same tone.”

When you get a new guitar, do you usually modify them yourself?

“I usually modify most of my guitars – mostly Strats. But recently, PRS sent a couple of guitars to me, and they did all the modifications that I asked for, and just sent it to me ready to go. I guess both ways happen, but if it’s just something that I purchase, usually I do some modifications. 

“I usually change all the pickups, especially in any Mexican Strat that I buy. I really prefer Mexican Strats because of their necks and the way they feel – they’re actually really well-made. I’ve had several American Strats that I’ve ended up selling and just not playing, because I love the Mexican Strats so much more. 

“But the guts of the Mexican Strat, it helps to install some better pickups and put a full block in, like an American Strat. And then, it’s the real deal at that point. It just has that Mexican Strat neck that I love, and I love the frets on them, too. I’ll always modify the pickups and occasionally put a treble bleed in. It just depends on how the guitar is sounding.

“I’m doing different pickups these days, and I have several Strats that have the classic Fender Noiseless pickups. That’s for live situations, because you know how bad it can be when you get into a room with horrible electricity with single coils. I use those so I can play the guitar every night, no matter what the situation.

“Lately, I’ve also been putting Seymour Duncan JB Juniors in the bridge, which gives it another aspect. It kind of puts it between a Les Paul and a Strat. I love that.”

What can fans expect from the upcoming new King’s X album?

The upcoming King's X album is the best we've done since we were young. We really stepped it up to make it the best we could

“I don’t know what they can expect, but I can tell them it’s the best thing we’ve done since we were young. 

“Everybody really gave everything they had, for the first time in a long time. All three of us. We really stepped it up to make it the best we could.

“That’s how we approached it, and I’m extremely happy with what we were able to accomplish at this point in our lives, because it does remind me of the magic of the early days.”

Did you attempt to recreate any of the early/classic King’s X guitar tones on the upcoming album?

“No – I didn’t at any point try to make it exactly like that, but I did use the Lab Series L5 on pretty much everything. I used them in combination with some Vox amps, some Marshalls, some Oranges. Most tones are a combination of things with the Lab: the Lab is used all the way through the album.”

In recent years, it seems like there is a new appreciation of King’s X – the band has had a book (opens in new tab) written about them, and now a documentary is being filmed. Why do you think this is?

“I have no idea. Maybe it’s a matter of being like some kind of crazy anomaly, that these three dudes are actually still alive and still playing together.”

I think King’s X is comparable to the Ramones or the Stooges – it took years for people to catch up and recognize the band’s uniqueness.

“That’s certainly how I felt about the bands you just named. And if we fit into a category like that, that would make me very happy.”

What's your next move, and what have you got planned now Shades has finally been released?

“I’m already six songs into whatever my next solo album is going to be after Shades. I think it’s a bit heavier than Shades, and has a different vibe altogether. 

“Because we’re not touring and I come to the studio every day, I am continuing to record and write – and try to just make the best of this time to be prolific and record as much as I possibly can. That’s kind of the state I’m always in – I always just keep moving.”

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Greg is a contributing writer at Guitar World. He has written for other outlets over the years, and has been lucky to interview some of his favorite all-time guitarists and bassists: Tony Iommi, Ace Frehley, Adrian Belew, Andy Summers, East Bay Ray, Billy Corgan, Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee, Les Claypool, and Mike Watt, among others (and even took lessons from John Petrucci back in the summer of ’91!). He is the author of such books as Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, Shredders: The Oral History of Speed Guitar (And More) and Touched by Magic: The Tommy Bolin Story.