Andy Summers Reflects on His Years with (and Before) the Police and His Most Trusted Guitars

Early on in his new documentary film, Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police, guitarist Andy Summers talks about needing a sense of closure on the band that brought him massive fame in the Eighties.

Before imploding from internal tensions at mid-decade, the Police racked up an impressive string of hit records, Grammys and other accolades, leaving a lasting influence on the sound of pop music.

Summers’ shimmering, echoey guitar work for the band provided an ideal tonal palette for the slyly jazzy sophistication of his chordal sensibility, also becoming a major touchstone for the quintessential guitar sound of the Eighties and beyond as exemplified by players like the Edge, Robert Smith, Robin Guthrie and Johnny Marr.

Can’t Stand Losing You tracks the rise and fall of the Police. And by the time he was finished with it, Summers had changed his mind about needing closure.

“If anything, the film had the opposite effect for me,” he says. “I don’t think there can ever be a sense of closure on the Police. And who would want that? A sense of, ‘Okay, close the doors; put it in a museum.’ That’s not what I want now.”

The film takes concert footage from the Police’s top-grossing 2007-08 reunion tour as its jumping-off point. But it digs deep into Summers’ own life story both pre- and post-Police, using archival footage, scores of photographs taken by Summers and passages from his 2006 autobiography, One Train Later.

Photography was a creative outlet and source of sanity for Summers throughout his wild ride with the Police, and his photographic work has been featured in several exhibitions and books. So Can’t Stand Losing You is a project that brings together multiple facets of his artistic life as a musician, photographer and writer.

“In the book, the literary device I used was to tell the story of my life as a musician as a series of flashbacks from the Police’s final show at Shea Stadium in August of 1983,” Summers explains. “We were breaking up, and there we were, the golden boys at the top of the circle. That was the way I told the story in the book. Obviously we couldn’t do that in the film, but we could use the reunion concert footage as a way in and out of my story.”

Some of the most interesting passages in both the movie and the book deal with the less well-known chapters of Summers’ life. Over a decade before the Police rode to fame in the wake of the punk/new wave explosion, Summers was a key player in the seminal mid-to-late Sixties Swinging London rock scene. As a guitarist with Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, Dantalian’s Chariot, Soft Machine, Kevin Coyne, Kevin Ayers and Eric Burdon’s New Animals, Summers hung with Clapton, jammed with Hendrix and generally took full part in the scene’s heady swirl of groupies, hallucinogens and fervent artistic experimentation.

It all came crashing to a halt at the tail end of the decade, when his tenure with Burdon was suddenly and unexpectedly terminated in Los Angeles. Summers’ story might have ended there. But he climbed back on top with the Police, reaching heights of fame that far outstripped anything he’d accomplished in his early career.

His post-Police musical output has been prolific and diverse as well, embracing solo albums, film scores and collaborations with other guitarists including Robert Fripp, John Etheridge, Victor Biglione and Benjamin Verdery. Last year he released an exceptional album of hard-hitting melodic rock as one half of the duo Circa Zero, together with singer Rob Giles. He’s currently creating some new instrumental music in collaboration with the New York based visual artist Ralph Gibson.

While his creativity has taken many forms over the years, Summers is first and foremost a guitar player. So, in the midst of doing press for Can’t Stand Losing You, he was happy to allocate some time to take Guitar World on a guitar-centric tour through his back pages.

The film’s coverage of your early years is interesting from a guitar perspective. You’re seen with a lot of jazz archtops—a Hofner and Gibson ES-175, among others. Is that the main kind of guitar you were playing early on?

Yes, the first music I got into, that I could play at all, was jazz. I was a complete jazz nut from ages 12 to about 18. And then I branched out a bit more, playing rhythm and blues. But as a teenager my real ambition, guitar-wise, was to be able to play jazz. Unfortunately that ES-175 got stolen. But I also had a dot inlay 1958 ES-335. A wonderful guitar that also got stolen. I got it because I was inspired by Grant Green.

Even when we get into your late-Sixties psychedelic period, you’re very Gibson-oriented. There’s footage of you with Explorers, Les Pauls and other classic Gibson solidbodies.

Yes, in the beginning it was more that. As I was getting out of the jazz sound, I was playing with a lot of vibrato. And I wanted a real rich sound. I was heading for the same place as Eric Clapton. It must have been in the air at the time. That’s why I liked humbucking pickups in particular at that point. But eventually I switched to a Telecaster and that became a part of me.

People who only know you from the Police might be surprised that you were a contemporary of Clapton, Page, Hendrix and all the iconic players of that age. Which of those were you closest with?

Clapton, I’d say. Eric and I were really close friends and we used to hang out. We’d like to go out together, as guys. And we were always on the same stages. All those guys—I mean I was in that group. We all started together—Jeff Beck, Albert Lee, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page.

So what precipitated your move from Gibsons to Fenders and that iconic sunburst ’61 Tele with white binding that you used with the Police?

I’m not sure what got me into it. I don’t even know why I got my first Telecaster. I started out with a white 1958 Telecaster that’s probably worth a fortune now. I don’t even remember when I got it. But it seems like there was a point in history when playing solidbody guitars were almost like pushing the envelope, certainly in England. American guitars—a solid piece of wood.

And then in your California period, circa 1972, you got the ’61 sunburst. What was the magic of that particular Telecaster?

It’s just always been a beautiful playing instrument. By the time I got it, somebody had really fooled around with it and put in a Gibson humbucker in the front [neck] position and added this overdrive circuit.

It had a phenomenal out-of-phase sound, which was great. Sadly, at the end of a tour that pickup got knocked out. But it was still a great guitar. Physically, it had perfect ergonomics. So that became the guitar that I really used for years. I did nearly everything with the Police with just that one guitar. This funky old guitar that somebody carved up and got rid of was just magic.

Do you feel like that guitar changed your luck in a way?

Yeah, I was completely down and out when I got it for $200. I was in L.A. giving guitar lessons to get by. I always remember clearly that I got that Telecaster off a kid I was teaching guitar to at the time. I offered him a chance to back out of the deal.

I said, “Hey, do you really want to get rid of this? It’s a great guitar!’ He said, ‘I need the money. I really need the 200 bucks.’ And yeah, shortly after I got the guitar I got together with Kate, the woman who became my wife. We moved back to England and I joined the Police.

Did your guitar sound with the Police come together right away? Was there a period of trial and error?

Not really trial and error…you know how it is: You get in a group and it’s a new situation. We didn’t really know one another that well as people. So we just started reacting off one another musically. It was a very unique texture musically, with the three of us. It was unrepeatable. Beneath the surface, though, Sting and I had very similar musical backgrounds. So I came up with these extra chords and harmonies. We started to make what became the Police sound. I decided to incorporate an Echoplex into my setup and we were off and running.

The rock trio format up to that point had been about a heavily distorted Gibson through a Marshall stack kind of sound.

Very much so. In a way, we were the exact opposite of a band like Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience. They were all very heavy, powerful trios. We went into a very different space.

Do you remember any of the specific effects devices, apart from the Echoplex, that were involved in creating that sound? What did you use for chorusing and flanging?

In the beginning I did have an MXR Phase 90 taped to the floor. I used chorus pretty early on. Certainly by the second album. And at first I think I had a Boss chorus—whenever the first chorus pedal came out. We’re all used to chorusing now. But in those days it was a very new sound—this beautiful, shimmering, lovely stereo sound that no one had ever heard come out of a guitar before.

But the main thing was really the Echoplex. I always had it onstage. I’d set it on a chair or whatever and use it to set up a rhythmic echo, particularly on a song like, “Can’t Stand Losing You.” I’d basically play eighth notes on the strings and get 16ths out of the Echoplex. With that and a big reverb, you’d get this tremendous rhythmic effect. It became very unique and different from anyone else.

To some extent, you’re responsible for starting what became the guitar sound of the Eighties.

Yeah, absolutely. I do think that’s where all that started. It was widely copied, but that’s fine. It was around. I also did it out of a desire not to sound like every other punk band out there in London at the time. We started to develop this very spacey sound with a chorus and envelope filter—all the things that started to come out at the time.

But wasn’t there something of an agenda to fit in with what was happening with punk at the time—at least to come up with something compatible?

In the very first stages of the material, it was a little more punk. We had a few songs that Stewart [Copeland, the Police’s drummer] had written and we just hammered our way through. We managed to play a set one night and finish in 12 minutes—the whole show! But as we started to really be a band and rehearse a lot, all this other stuff started to come out. We made our way and forged an identity, based on our musical ability and also these new technical devices that were coming out.

Who was the band member who brought the reggae influence into the Police?

That’s a weird one. There was a year before we made it. It was Christmas and we had no gigs, nothing. We were all hanging by a thread, desperate to make the next month’s rent. I went with my wife to Cincinnati to be with her family for Christmas. I was only in the States about 10 days or so. And it was either me or Stu who gave Sting his collection of Bob Marley records to play over Christmas. And he came back to our rehearsals with the idea of playing a reggae bass line.

But there’s a very important distinction to make: We were not a white reggae band at all. We used some elements of reggae in our songs. But I have no interest in reggae culture or anything like that. That wasn’t the thing at all. It was a technique to accompany our songs—the bass line and maybe the way some of the arrangements worked. But if you listen to the records, the sound itself is the Police. It’s not reggae at all. We weren’t the same thing as UB40 or someone like that.

Were you playing Marshall amps throughout the Police’s career?

I started off with a Fender Twin and graduated up to Marshalls once we had money. By the end, I was using two Marshalls with two 4x12 cabinets, and I also had a Mesa/Boogie amp in the system for solos.

And I guess the guitar arsenal grew as the band got bigger and bigger.

Well it was the classic thing in those days. We were constantly traveling in the U.S. We’d end up in these little towns and invariably go down to the pawn shops to buy guitars. Great guitars were still available then and you could get phenomenal deals. I got my first red Stratocaster—a ’61—for about a hundred bucks. I picked up a beautiful Gretsch and a Martin D-29… Yeah, I got a few along the way. And then of course everyone started giving me guitars.

But the ’61 Tele remained the one, for concerts and everything?

It did. A lot of companies tried to get me to put down the Telecaster and play other guitars. But nothing sounded like it. I never could do it. It was always a compromise, like, “Yeah, okay, well…” To a point where I didn’t want to take their guitars anymore. Like, I was gonna play this Telecaster whatever happened. That was the sound.

Did you have a backup? Something that would be second best?

Yeah, I had the red Stratocaster. That was my other guitar. And I played that quite a lot in the end too.

Is that the one you used for the reunion shows, that we see in the film? The red Strat?

Well, sort of. It’s a copy that Fender made. They made a copy of my Telecaster and then copied the Stratocaster. They gave me two and they were brilliant, both of them. They’re great-playing guitars. And basically everything I do in the studio is on the Stratocaster, at least in the demo stage, unless I want to change over. I do have a lot of guitars. [laughs]

You can never have too many.

Right. It’s the old joke, “Just one more…”

In the film, we get the sense that the tensions within the Police, and the eventual unraveling of the band, seemed to occur in tandem with the unraveling of your marriage in the early Eighties. Was the one situation feeding the other?

It took a toll on all of us. We all got divorced. All the tragedy came out of the dark side. Unfortunately, my wife told me to get out and that was it for me. But we got back together in 1986 and we’ve been happy ever since. So it all worked out…well at least in my case. I was the lucky one, really. Sting and Stewart remarried—got together with different women. We’re all married now. But I was able to get back together with Kate and have two more kids.

What was the hardest thing to get used to about life after the Police?

When you come out of something as incredibly phenomenal and intense as that, and suddenly one day it’s not there anymore, it’s very difficult. It’s like being dropped into the abyss. It’s hard to adjust—to get a real sense of reality again. I remember how strange everything seemed. And of course, that sense of loss. Suddenly it’s like your whole family is gone—this entourage that you’ve had around you for many years is not there anymore. It was very difficult emotionally. Not that I went to pieces, you know, I didn’t go to pieces. But when I think back to my state of mind then, it’s pretty bizarre for me to remember myself as a sort of loose cannon wandering around between L.A., New York and London, back and forth, back and forth. But I finally started to settle down. I got back in the studio and started to record and that’s what really helped me get my feet back on the ground. Because I had something to do—go around and tour. I started to play again. I’ve made many records since the Police. It’s always about the music.

Speaking of which, is there going to be another Circa Zero record?

I don’t think so. I thought it was an incredible record we made. I worked with Rob Giles, who’s just an amazing singer. But without going on too much about it, we’re not going to do any more. It was a two-year period putting all that together. And then, basically, trying to take it all the way was too much. I had to face that. I certainly didn’t want to play in clubs again. It’s very difficult to sell CDs. It’s very difficult to get on the radio. We had, I think, 12 hits on that record. It’s still a great record, but the reality of what the music business is now is just a bit overwhelming.

So did you have to be cajoled into doing the Police reunion in 2007?

Not at all. It was, “Now or never, we gotta tour.” The time was right. The whole thing was sort of blessed. It came at exactly the right time—two years before the financial recession hit. Everything was going strong, apparently. It was one of the top-grossing tours ever. A phenomenal tour and also great fun. Who wouldn’t want to go out and play to 80,000 people in a stadium?

Is the door open to doing another one, or was that the final reunion?

You never know where life is gonna go. But it would have be very well set up if we were going to do it again. That tour was such a phenomenal success, it’s sort of daunting. The next tour would be smaller, so oh dear, you know? We left it on a gold plate. So to come back and do that again…and then a new album? I don’t know.

So what’s up with the new music you’re making?

It’s much more experimental. I wouldn’t call it avant-garde, because some of it is fairly lyrical. But it’s definitely pushing the envelope more, with instrumentals and a lot more effects and strangeness with the music. The idea of it originally was to create music to accompany contemporary dance—like an ensemble in New York. To which end I’m working with a New York based visual artist, Ralph Gibson, who’s connected to the dance world.

But musically, it’s completely solo, or are there other players involved?

It’s all me, which is really one of my favorite spaces to be in. I sit there with my Pro Tools guy and I compose. That’s what I do every day now. It’s very rewarding.

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Alan di Perna

In a career that spans five decades, Alan di Perna has written for pretty much every magazine in the world with the word “guitar” in its title, as well as other prestigious outlets such as Rolling Stone, Billboard, Creem, Player, Classic Rock, Musician, Future Music, Keyboard, and He is author of Guitar Masters: Intimate Portraits, Green Day: The Ultimate Unauthorized History and co-author of Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Sound Style and Revolution of the Electric Guitar. The latter became the inspiration for the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibition “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll.” As a professional guitarist/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist, Alan has worked with recording artists Brianna Lea Pruett, Fawn Wood, Brenda McMorrow, Sat Kartar and Shox Lumania.