Neil Young's Guitar Equipment

Guitar Player magazine

March 1992

Interview: "In The Eye Of The Hurricane"

Neil Young News

Neil's Guitar Photos

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sat, 31 Aug 1996 12:04:32 -0700
From: John Irving
Subject: Re: Part 2/Neil Young/Guitar World/March 1992

In The Eye Of The Hurricane
Interview by Jas Obrecht/Guitar Player/March 1992

JO: Could you have recorded 'Weld' with '60s era equipment?

NY: Not without the Whizzer, because that's how I get the guitar sounds to change subtly. The Deluxe goes up to 12---not 11---and with everything floored, if you back it down to 10-1/2 from 12, all of a sudden it's chunky sounding on the attack. If you have it up on 12, then it just saturates completely and opens up after the attack. But if you back it down, it'll catch the attack. So I've got one button just to change that one thing that much.

On a Fender Deluxe, there's tone and two volumes. The volume on the channel you're not using will affect the volume of the channel you are using, even when you're not plugged into it, because of the drain on the power amp. Having the ability to bring up the channel I'm not even using---so the overload thing comes on---or to change the treble here and there---those are the things I couldn't have done without this technology. Technology hasn't affected the sound, only the control of the sound.

JO: What's the source of your feedback? Amp gain, devices?

NY: Volume. There is no amp gain. We don't use a distorted effect at all. Just the Fender Deluxe.

JO: Do you take that amp on the road?

NY: Oh, yeah. I couldn't go without it. There is no spare. I've got 10 spares, but none of them sound like it. All Fender amps are different, made with different amounts of metal and windings, all these things. The transformers are all different powered. Everything used to be loose, y'know, so every combination of specs was different. I got mine for $50 at Saul Bettman's Music on Larchmont in L.A. in 1967. Took it home, plugged in this Gretsch guitar, and immediately the entire room started to vibrate.

The guitar started vibrating, and I went, "Holy shit!" I turned it halfway down before it stopped feeding back. But I do a lot of things to make the sound more distorted, like by introducing an octave divider in conjunction with an analog delay, which is before the octave divider. The routing of these things is really important---what hits first and then gets hit by something else. I have a line of six effects, and I can bypass them completely or dip in and grab one without going through the one in front of it. Or I can use all six of 'em or any combination that I want. I set them up in any order so that they affect each other in a certain way, and that's how I get my sound.

JO: Does anyone ever trigger effects offstage?

NY: Oh, no. It's all done by my footswitch, this big red box. I can't imagine anyone operating it for me offstage. No, they'd be dead.

JO: Have you been affected by digital multi-effects?

NY: I have a digital echo that I use because it has a particular gated-echo sound. When I tried it out at the Guitar Center in Hollywood, the salesmen were demo-ing all these sounds like on a Phil Collins record or the background of a Cyndi Lauper record. I said, "Let me try it for a minute," turned everything all the way up except for the mix, and then I started playing the guitar really staccato. I turned the mix up and got whop, whop, whop, whop, like this giant popcorn machine exploding kind of a sound. I like that sound, so I use it as an effect. When I've gone just about as far as I can go, I stick that on it and just hit harmonics and choke them. It splats out all this ridiculous noise all over everything. But I don't use it in a real sense to get a sound that it was meant to get.

JO: What effects do you use the most?

NY: An original tube Echoplex, an MXR analog delay, a Boss flanger, and an old white Fender reverb unit with new springs that are separate. The springs are on a microphone stand that goes on the cement floor of the building. It extends up to the bottom of the stage, and the spring stands on top of the microphone stand and the wire comes through a hole in the stage completely separate. I can't use it if I don't do that, because if I jump onstage, the spring rattles. It has to be isolated from the surface of anything that's vibrating.

JO: What if you can't drill a hole in the stage?

NY: No, we do it. We just put a hole in the stage. There's always a way. It can't be very far away, because with a long wire, you lose the fidelity, the high end where the reverb lives, so the magic is gone. You've got to keep it close and really short.

JO: What do you look for in a guitar?

NY: I buy guitars mainly to remember something by. If I'm enjoying a place, I will try to find an old guitar in that area, and that will always remind me of when I was there. The way it sounds is the way I sounded when I was there. I've written a lot of songs on a Martin D-18 that I really like, and I stole that out of [manager]Elliot Roberts' office. I always think of Elliot's office whenever I play it. And there are other reasons to buy guitars. You can buy them because they're classics. I collect 'em, so I'll buy an Explorer or a Flying V or a Black Falcon or a White Falcon just because that's what it is. But I got those now, so I don't need those anymore. Material things are becoming less and less relevant to me, so I'm not contingent to buy guitars.

JO: Is any guitar so rare that you don't play it?

NY: No, nothing like that. I've got a Hank Williams' guitar, but I play it all the time. It's an old Martin D-28. I bought it from Tut Taylor. It's always great when someone understands what this is that they're holding, who understands the effect Hank Williams had on all of us. They are sort of awestruck by being in the presence of anything that he touched---to the point that to actually play his instrument elevates them to another level. It's a wonderful thing to have a guitar for that reason. A lot of people who should have played it, have played it. I'm careful about it, but I use it all the time. It's not on a wall in a museum.

JO: Do you still have your Buffalo Springfield guitars?

NY: Yeah, I still have every guitar I ever played, except for the one I traded to Stills for something else. I also have a Gretsch that Jim Messina had that's like the one I played in Buffalo Springfield.

JO: Are you a fan of Fenders?

NY: I've got a Broadcaster and a Telecaster and a couple of Stratocasters, but I don't play them that much.

JO: It's been reported that a main ingredient in your sound is one particular pickup.

NY: Well, there's a lively Firebird pickup on the treble side of my Les Paul, but when I did 'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere', it didn't have that pickup, which had got a bad hum in it. I took it to a music store to see if they could do anything with it. I went back to get it, and the store was closed and everything was gone. I never got the pickup back, so now there have been two or three pickups in place of the original. I guess I used the Firebird pickup on all the things I played on my black guitar since 1973.

JO: In this age of high-tech whammies, what's the advantage of having a Bigsby?

NY: It works; it's expressive. The wang bars they have now are not expressive; they're too tight. You can go way down and come way back up and do these metal licks and still stay in tune. Big deal---stay in tune, great. You already were in tune. I go out of tune in every song, because the thing just doesn't stay in tune. But when you keep moving, you never know when you're in tune. It's like hand-controlled flanging. And if you have a tape repeat on, an Echoplex, and you just ever so slightly use the Bigsby, then your sound is going up and down, but the echo is always following behind it. So it's like you really have two guitars that are not only on two different attacks, but one's in a different pitch. It's a huge sound. I've got the Bigsby worn into my hand. I can't do anything else. It has to be a Bigsby.

JO: The British music paper NME recently named you "the grizzled godfather of gargantuan feedback."

NY [Laughs] I don't know what to say.

JO: One of the 'Ragged Glory' videos shows you shoving your headstock into a toilet bowl to create feedback.

NY: Oh. it's just Hollywood shit. None of that's real. A cinematic trick, but it was a nice toilet. The toilet was a good visual expression of my sound. I want people to know that that's where I get my sound.

JO: Everybody's heard stories of Jimmy Page recording guitars in a bathroom while miking 12 feet away. Do you experiment like that?

NY: Yeah, I'll try anything. That sounds like a good idea. If it's the right bathroom and the right kind of tile. He must have just liked the sound in there; it was very live, obviously, so he got a big sound doing that, for sure.

JO: What are your views on people going to college to learn guitar?

NY: Paints a pretty doomed picture of the future, doesn't it?[Laughs.] First of all, it doesn't matter if you can play a scale. It doesn't matter if your technique is good. If you have feelings that you want to get out through music, that's what matters. If you have the ability to express yourself and you feel good when you do it, then that's why you do it. The technical side of it is a completely boring drag, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, I can't play fast. I don't even know the scales. A lot of the notes that I go for are notes that I know aren't there. They're just not there, so you can hit any note. I'm just on another level as far as all that goes. I appreciate these guys who play great. I'm impressed by these metal bands with their scale guys. Like I go, "Gee, that's really something." I mean, Satriani and Eddie Van Halen are genious guitar players. They're unbelievable musicians of the highest caliber. But I can't relate to it. One note is enough.

JO: 'Cinnamon Girl.' The one note solo.

NY: Oh yeah---two strings, though. The same note on two strings. The wang bar made every one sound different. When people say "one note solo," I listen to it and every one sounds different to me. It sounds like it's all different in that one place. As you're going in farther, you're hearing all the differences, but if you get back, it's all one.

JO: The 'Weld' version is remarkably true to the original.

NY: Yeah, it is. We tried to do our best---put a little of 'Norwegian Wood' on the end of it that one night. That was the only night we did that.

JO: What do you look for in a solo?

NY: Elevation. You can feel it. That's all I'm looking for. You can tell I don't care about bad notes. I listen for the whole band on my solos. You can call it a solo because that's a good way to describe it, but really it's an instrumental. It's the whole band that's playing. Billy Talbot is a massive bass player who only plays two or three notes. People are still trying to figure out whether it's because he only knows two or three notes or whether those are the only notes he wants to play.[Laughs.] But when he hits a note, that note speaks for itself. It's a big motherfuckin' note. Even the soft one is big.

JO: What's the appeal of working with Frank Sampedro?

NY: Frank uses the biggest strings of any guitar player I've ever seen. Frank is probably even more of a crude player than I am, because his lead isn't as developed as mine. But his strings are so big! .055 on the bottom, big wound third, .012 on the E string. He hits a note, and it's a big note. I hit a note, it's like here today, where's it going, what's happening? Without Crazy Horse playing so big, I sound just normal. But they supply the big so I can float around and sound huge. The big is them.

JO: Is jamming a lost art?

NY: I don't know, I haven't seen any jams lately.[Laughs.} You see all these concerts---what's happening?

JO: It's like hearing the record.

NY: I know. It's disgusting, isn't it? Welcome to the '90s.

JO: You've said jamming is like having an orgasm.

NY: Well, yeah! That's why a lot of my instrumentals are too short![Laughs uproariously.]

JO: Do you often feel that your playing is reaching a new level?

NY: I thought it reached a new level on 'Arc' and on 'Weld.'

JO: 'Arc' is a pretty daring release.

NY: I don't think so. It's a logical extension of rock and roll today---if you want to go the other way, past Sonic Youth, just off. Feedback has always been there. There's always been a temptation to go that way. It's like jazz. It's the jazz of rock and roll, without a beat.

JO: Coltrane with feedback.

NY: Yeah, maybe. Coltrane is a big influence on me. I love a lot of his things. 'Equinox' and 'My Favorite Things' with McCoy Tyner---those are my favorite of his music.

JO: Which records couldn't you live without?

NY: See, I don't listen to anyone. I only listen to what other people put on, because I don't want to make the decision of what to listen to. I listen to what's going on in the world, what people like, because I hear it coming out of the car radio or the jukebox. I'll walk up to a jukebox and play things. I like to listen to B.B. King or Ray Charles or an old country thing, but it's mostly just for rehabilition purposes.

JO: What do you owe your audience?

NY: My life. Without my audience, who would I be playing for? What a lonely job that would be. I owe a lot to my audience. I'm not beholden to them---I don't have to actually send them something.[Laughs.] Maybe another record, if they like it.

JO: What's planned?

NY: An acoustic album with the Stray Gators, the band I did 'Harvest' with: [drummer] Kenny Buttrey, [bassist] Tim Drummond, [pedal steeler] Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham on piano instead of Jack Nitzsche. Working with different bands is what keeps me going. It keeps stirring the pot to put myself in a different situation, I don't ever try to tie myself into one group of people, because it stifles the music.

JO: Any words of encouragement for young players?

NY: Just start playing. Learn a few chords and play with someone who's maybe a little better than you. Don't learn from a book any more than you have to. Learning from other people is what music is all about. Pick up things and put them back together yourself. Use them to write new songs, to make new sounds, new chord changes, new time changes. Just create. Even if it's all shit, just keep creating. Pretty soon it'll be great.

The End

  • For more, read excerpt from the book "Shakey - A Neil Young Biography" by Jimmy McDonough with an interview with guitar tech Larry Cragg about Neil Young's guitars and equipment.

    Also, see Neil Young Interview on Guitars, amps.

    Read excerpts of books on Neil Young's guitar style and sound.

    guitar-anthology-book.jpg The Guitar Styles of Neil Young

    Neil Young Guitar Anthology

    Neil Young Complete Music (Vol.1 , 1966-1969)

    Neil Young Complete Music 1969-1973

    Neil Young Complete 1974-1979 (Neil Young Complete, 1974-1979)

    Neil Young: Anthology Easy Guitar

    Also see more on Neil Young's Music, his songs, lyrics, albums and concerts.

    Also see tabs and chords for songs in the book Neil Young Guitar Anthology and The Guitar Styles of Neil Young

    Guitar equipment discussion on Harmony Central User Forums - The Neil Young Gibson Les Paul Project

    old blackThe Sound of Neil

    Neil Young Interviews

    Thrashers Wheat - A Neil Young Archives