A virtuoso on both piano and guitar, Tony MacAlpine has set the standard for shred guitar with numerous solo releases, recordings with Planet X and CAB, and tours with Steve Vai.
His 25 year career has now reached another benchmark with the release of his self-titled cd.
Featuring truly ferocious playing and compositional chops, Tony has stretched out even further on this release with the addition of an 8-string guitar and created a wild sonic journey that goes from the sublime to some of his heaviest tracks to date. (If you’re impatient, you can hear the first two tracks here).
In this interview, Tony was kind enough to field some questions about the new cd, his gear and offer some tips to guitar players in general.
Also, down at the very bottom, we’ve got a brand new video of Tony performing “Pyrokinesis” off the new album.
You have a great quote from the liner notes of the cd, “This collection of new songs represents another snapshot within a lifetime of work. These songs would not have been possible without a reason or inspiration behind their creation. My desire was to write an instrumental guitar album, and the urge to once again create and define myself as a solo artist has returned with a vengeance.” Was there anything specific that drove you to coming back to being a solo artist?
Well I took some time off from writing instrumental music that was solo oriented music to spend time in other areas and to play with other musicians that were writing stuff and being part of that compositional process with them – and that was bands like CAB and Planet X – and the ability to take time away from something that is so musically one-dimensional, and by that I mean instrumental music … your own stuff coming from your soul. Being able to take time away from it is just a re-charge of batteries.
I felt like I said enough stuff and didn’t really have much else to say, and when one feels that way it’s a good time to take a vacation. Basically that’s what I did, I took some time off from it and taking some time away really recharged the batteries and I really had an inkling to come back and play something that I really felt genuine about. I’d rather write a record that was genuine than just a filler record as something to be done. So that’s how that went, I took some time off and I really feel like I fulfilled a quest of answering something inside of me.
You have made a number of transitions from a solo artist to touring with other artists. Are there any challenges in those transitions? By that I mean either musical or mental – I’m specifically wondering if you have a different mindset for either one.
Not really…I’ve always been an ensemble player. I started playing classical music very early and there were so many different facets of that, like playing chamber music, or playing in duos where you’re playing with a violinist or a cellist – where you’re playing violin sonatas, different things … working with whatever someone specifically wants to say. Your job becomes one of a team member rather than a solo player. And working with other people like the guys in Planet X or Derek Sherinian or Steve Vai and trying to emulate the sound that he wants to hear out of the guitar is something that’s always excited me.
I’ve always liked being a part of something where someone else has a vision. I showed that early on when I started working with Vinnie Moore and played keyboards on a couple of his records. (Interviewer’s note: Tony played on Vinnie’s 1986 Minds Eye recording and 1999’s The Maze). I’ve always been a part of that and ironically Vinnie and I were part of a concert In New Zealand about a year and a half ago where we finally played live for the first time.
In regards to a creative goal in a previous release, you’ve said that, “Our everyday experiences in life is what fuels it. Telling a story about life is what drives us.” What story are you telling with the new self-titled release?
Well it’s me in this age, in this time period, in this year and I still have things that I now find are quite interesting and that I want to share with people and hopefully they find it interesting. It was interesting enough for me to put down and that’s how I felt when I started out on this journey, with the very first record (1986’s Edge of Insanity) and then followed up with all the other records that I did. I just feel like being true to yourself musically, really visualizing something and surrounding yourself with people who have that ideal is something that made me feel like the time was right for me to tell these musical stories.
A number of the tracks have titles that involve exotic locations or travels (Ölüdeniz is a small village in Turkey, Summer Palace in Beijing China or Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia) and I know you’re a bike fan. I’m wondering if that’s any kind of theme with this release.
No…it’s just really related to the places I’ve visited. We went to Turkey and quite a few places, and I went to China just recently and did a series of clinics with Ibanez guitars.
One of the beautiful things about being a musician is that you get the opportunity to travel. Because you get the opportunity to travel to so many of these places where normally people aren’t able to go. I didn’t want to take that for granted and I wanted that to be something that could be in an autobiography musically so I was writing about those places and those things I experienced.
The record sounds really good. I know Ulrich Wild did the majority of the mix, but did you engineer the initial tracking as well?
I worked with an engineer Geoff Alan Ambrose in a studio and we did the tracking while Ulrich did the final mixes.
How did Ulrich Wild (mix) get involved in the project and what did he bring to it?
His Grammy nominated skills! He’s definitely got a heavy sound, and knows about how to get a heavy sound, and he lives fairly close to me which was something that was important to me this time because I really didn’t want to send the record half way around the world. I really wanted to be able to just come to a guy’s place and listen to it and see what they were doing and get hands on if I needed to.
In terms of Ulrich, I really didn’t have to work that hands on. He’s got such a great track record and really understands guitar. He’s got a lot of modern techniques for bringing large waveform sound into a small cd.
I noticed that Virgil Donati and Marco Minneman are both playing drums on the cd. You’ve played with a number of different musicians over the years, what do you look for in the collaborative process in general?
I really like musical people … people that are able to be musical and adapt themselves. They might not see (what you’re going for) right away but if you throw it at them and they’re going to be able to come out with something that is very creative. I’ve always been attracted to the musicality that drummers bring. From the very first record I was lucky enough to use Steve Smith and went down the line from Deen Castronovo and Atma Anur and so many of these wonderful drummers and being able to continue that with the likes of Virgil Donati and Marco Minneman … it’s just too much! Both of these guys are so very different but bring so much to the table. I always center my music around rhythm and for the rhythm to be interesting is more than you can ask for.
Ölüdeniz, Angel of Twilight, Blue Mazaratti and Salar de Uyuni all feature programmed drums. In addition to recording how has the ability to program drums affected your compositional process?
Programming drums is something that I’ve done since the very first record. The drum parts that I actually wrote on “Edge of Insanity” are the parts the Steve Smith actually played. So being able to get that across is important, and being able to understand what you want to happen drum wise is important. I wanted those guys to play on tracks that they could really be a part of. There were some tracks that didn’t really need to have that. I really enjoy programming drums but on this solo record I wanted to be as rhythmically collaborative as possible.
How did the new 8 string affect the compositional process of the CD?
There’s a sonic fullness…the instrument is so full itself that I’m able to double harmonies and double concepts of sound with other instruments like lower keys and especially with the bass. Being able to strengthen the bottom end in a way that isn’t a bass – but a guitar sound was very important to the outcome of this record. It’s a very guitar sounding record and that’s what I truly wanted. I really wanted to have that effect and being able to duplicate that with an 8 string was important.
You’re using 7 and 8 string Ibanez guitars on the recording. Are these the RG models?
These guitars are my Ibanez Prestige models they were custom made in the Southern California shop.
It looks like the models you have use a Floyd style bridge and EMG’s but I’ve read that DiMarzio was winding some pickups for you.
What happened was the pickups weren’t finished … they didn’t have a die cast for the 8 string poles so they didn’t really have anything available. So when the guitar was made, the EMGs were put in and that’s what I recorded the CD with. They’re active pickups and they sound very nice.
Can you talk a little about the specific unique elements to the 7 and 8 string guitars and will these be available as a signature model?
I have cut gains on the volume so that I can really achieve cleaner sounds with an overdriven amp. Those are push-pull pots. It’s something I worked on with Carvin but took it a little further with Ibanez. It’s something that’s very important for me because I do a lot of things that would normally sound very distorted but it’s actually a cleaner sound and that’s from the push-pull gains.
Are these going to be available as a signature model?
I’m not really looking at that right now, because I want to just really take these very guitars around the world for a while to see what happens. Being able to play a guitar in a studio is one thing, but holding onto it every night and playing it is something different – and I think that once I experience that and see what the weight factor is like and how these things play then I’ll know what to create, but I don’t really have anything to bring to the table there yet.
What’s the scale length on those?
My 7 string is basically the same as all my other seven strings that I’ve had … it’s like a DC-727 (25.5”). The 8 string is just like Fredrik Thordendal’s (Thordendal has several scale lengths ranging from 27-30”. The Ibanez RG model is a 27”). I wanted to keep things sounding full and sounding like they should rather than a more compact guitar. It’s a lot of guitar to carry because they’re neck through too. The 8 string is extremely heavy. It’s almost like playing a bass.
Have you thought about having it chambered?
No I really didn’t. When they gave it to me I was afraid to do anything to it because I loved the sound of it so much.
Now the tuning on those are just standard tuning with a 4th down on the lower pitches (i.e. low B on the 7th string and low B and low F# on the 8 string.
What string gauge of the Ernie Balls are you using?
Well what I’m doing with the 7 string is I’m using a super slinky set and it’s the normal .009-.052.
With the 8 string I’ve experimented with different types of strings and I’m not done with my experimentation yet. I’m using different gauges all the time.
When we go into rehearsal, it’s a little different than it would be in the studio as it’s such a different atmosphere. You really don’t need to have things that are sounding so full. You need to have certain instruments to sound full like the bass and you need the guitar to be cutting obviously. So I’m really experimenting with (balancing) that. My guitar guy put all kinds of different strings on for different tracks on this record so there was no one real 8 string set that we were using.
In terms of amplification, you’ve used Marshall, Hughes & Kettner Triamps and Carvin Legacy amps. Now you’re back to Hughes & Kettner using the Coreblade. From a technical standpoint – the Coreblade has some crazy features – like being able to download and upload presets directly to USB sticks and the TSC tube technician with self-biasing. What is it about the Coreblade that drew you to it and what do you look for amplifiers in general?
Well, on the record I did not use the Coreblade. I used my trusty Triamps. I really love the sound of those amps in a studio. It’s just a great sounding head. The Coreblade I use in live situations. I use them in clinics and rehearsals now and I’m going to take them out on the road with these tours.
What I like about the Coreblade is … I love simplicity. It’s great to have a rig where everything is included in the head. All the delays and everything else I really need is there. I’m only using one external effect and it’s a Source Audio Multiwave pedal.
What I like about the Hughes & Kettner are the things that you mentioned. Being able to backup the sound if I ever have any problems with it I can back it up to another head and that’s a great thing. And I love the sound of it. It’s a more focused sound than the Triamp. The Triamp has more of a broader sound to me. It reacts a little differently. It definitely feels more valvey and the Coreblade has a tendency to feel more solid state to me which is something I like too. I really like the two of them together but in a live situation the Coreblade is very very helpful.
For recording – do you primarily use pre amp distortion or power amp distortion?
I use the pre-amp gain, and I also use Source Audio pedals. Sometimes I’ll go with a cleaner sound and then go with the Source Audio Multiwave unit that I love as an Eq. It’s a changeable type of gain structure so I can work with whatever fits that track better.
With regards to the guitars and the amps, were there any mixing issues involving the 7 and 8 strings? With the kick, bass and keyboards it seems like it would be a lot of things fighting for low-end space.
No! I wasn’t there when Ulrich worked his magic, but he said that these songs came together fairly quickly for him. When we were in the processing stage in the beginning and we were tracking it, we didn’t really have any issues. The way we cut this record was we cut the drums in San Diego and did Virgil’s drums in LA and then put the pieces together much later on at Ulrich’s place, but the songs were tested with 2 track stereo mixes of the drums so he really kind of knew what was going to happen. When we got to studio we were able to throw all of the parts into pro tools and so we were able to work that way.
I read that live you use an Ernie Ball volume pedal and a Source Audio Soundblox Pro Multiwave Distortion in the signal chain too. Do you use the distortion more as a boost or for saturation?
It’s a multi-wave so it does a lot of things to the octave or the 5th or the pitches that you set. There are six separate pre-sets that you can place. I use it for color. I use it a lot of time for soloing, for different harmonic issues and for different feels of placement of how the gain sounds whether it’s really fat or more or a narrow sound I can dial it in with the flick of a button which is a beautiful thing.
Adding a solid-state distortion to the front of a tube amp seems to give it a nice color.
Yeah! You’re bringing back all of the odd harmonics that were gone and you’re replacing the even ones that should have been there. All kinds of things are going on (laughs).
How important is the IDB noise gate on the amp for live use?
I think it’s great. I really haven’t had to adjust anything. It doesn’t clip my sounds at all. I haven’t had any issues with it.
We’re going to be going into full rehearsals coming up in a couple of weeks so we’re really going to be able to find out some things. A Hughes & Kettner guy is going to be on hand to help us dial in some things so I’m learning my way through these Coreblades, I just haven’t been in a situation where I’ve recorded with them because, like I said, I used the Triamps. It’s all going to be new to me when I do the clinics because it’s a much different animal when you have a drummer hammering it out and a bass player making all of these different sounds. So it’s going to be a learning experience.
Are you using the Hughes & Kettner CL cabs with those?
Exactly, but I’m using the 2×12 version of those.
You’re playing acoustic on Flowers for Monday has some really nice piano and acoustic interplay. What acoustics did you use on the recording?
I used an Ibanez acoustic that was on loan to me. We couldn’t get something finished in tracking in quick enough time so we went down to the shop and tried some different things and came up with a guitar that could cut it. It was really a loaner.
The Schumann quote in Dedication is a nice touch as well. Can you talk about the inspiration behind that and how you put your own stamp on it?
It’s a piece I loved to play. Years ago I did a piece called porcelain doll that was a transcription of movement from a Chopin Sonata and I think that I really wanted to bring that feeling of doing a classical piece … something from the Romantic era back again with something else. I really wanted to add a really Brian Mayish feel to it because I love that stuff, and that’s how we got into doing that with stacking all the guitar harmonies. It’s probably going to be next to impossible to play that song live without the aid of the dreaded computer (laughs) but really it was just a lot of fun to record it.
The playing on the cd is really impressive. As a producer, what do you look for in takes to determine what constitutes a keeper?
For me it’s a lot of arguments and processes with the powers that are involved in helping to create this record, yourself and the surrounding musicians because I always test this music on people and try to get their reaction. I’m not really that concerned with what I might feel would be something good. For me it’s really what the listener thinks and what they’re getting out of it. I’ve always done that. I’ve always tested music and different solos on people to see if I could get a collective decision based on something and I generally go with that because that’s the strongest drive that you have. You want to get the feedback of what other people are going to feel because once the record is out there there’s no bringing it back. It’s going to live out there and whatever I might find particularly attractive might not work for somebody else.
That’s why we’re doing these records really. We’re putting a stamp on something musical and trying to really tell a story, and the solo – when you really think about it, is the smallest part of a song. Where the song is, where it’s going and what it’s trying to say has already been said – and if we really have a solo that has to pick up that many pieces then we have to probably think about redoing the song. So I put such an emphasis on the song itself and then I go to different a place all by myself to create a solo that works.
Sometimes these solos happen quickly and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they can be a couple of takes or maybe it’s just left for another day.
I think that guitar players in particular have a tendency to loose the forest looking for the tree when it comes to soloing versus the overall importance of the song.
Exactly. It’s so easy to do when you’re working inside of these things and in a closed environment. When you’re not working in a room with other engineers and other people it tends to happen more. I find that when people work by themselves and do their own self-punching that the music is more self serving so I try to stay away from that altogether.
The cd is being released by Favored Nations, which appears to be doing quite a bit to promote it. Most artists have had a series of ups and downs with record labels over the course of their careers, what advice would you give to guitarists that were looking to sign to a label?
I think the most important thing is to have a good understanding of the type of music you’re doing. Then think about the type of label that you’re going to want to have involved in this music. It’s very important that they understand the feel and understand the type of music that they’re attempting to market.
Steve (Vai owner of Favored Nations) obviously understands guitar music. In this day and age we can’t throw so much in a record label’s lap and say, “hey promote this record and make it what it needs to be.” The artist today has to be totally involved in everything that they’re doing. It’s such a different market today. And being able to do that with Steve…I’ve worked with him for a lot of years and he’s a dear friend and a great inspiration to me. I thought that it would be a perfect union of sorts to have the record put out by them.
I didn’t know if you could talk about the upcoming gig playing at The Benefit for Cliff July 10th at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. (From the press release on Tony’s website: “Cliff Cultreri is the A&R executive who ‘discovered’ both Satriani and Vai, as well as many other popular recording artists, while working at Relativity Records and Koch Entertainment. Cultreri is suffering from a host of Auto-Immune and Connective-Tissue disorders that are simultaneously attacking his immune system, a 1 in 100 million occurrence that causes severe pain and physical debilitations.”)
Yes…it’s a serious affair as we know and it’s the type of thing where people have to come together to do things, and we’re all coming together musically. To see all these people that I’ve played with and known over the years coming together – it’s an important thing. It means a lot to us to be involved in it.
I’ll be playing with Steve again so I’ll really have to do my practicing because it’s been a while since I’ve played keyboards and guitar at the same time. So I’m playing 6 songs with him as part of his set. So we’re looking forward to having a few joyous moments of music. (Tickets for the benefit can be purchased here).
Obviously you’ve had to put a tremendous amount of time in practicing both piano and guitar. You’ve talked before about good practicing versus bad practicing, but I’m wondering if you could give our readers any tips for maximizing practice time.
Most of the time when musicians have a tendency to practice something, well they say it’s practice, but it actually involves them going into a practice room and just doing what they can do and then they just come out and do it again.
I think that practicing is more of a self-discovery. Good practice habits means trying to develop things you might have found interesting or might not have been exposed to – so expose yourself to that. Maybe have some listening time and learn with your ears as well as your eyes and your hands. Reading is also important.
All these things are meant to educate your mind musically. That’s an important aspect for me. People say they have a practice schedule they get in and they do this or that. I kind of work with what I think really needs to be focused on. One of the things I’m very thankful for is that I play piano so I don’t have to practice guitar only. I can spend time practicing piano as well and that actually helps with my guitar playing. So I can play some pieces on one that I might not have played (on the other) so I can understand some pieces conceptually, theoretically and compositionally in the music and that helps me as a guitar player.
Do you find that your practice is typically goal oriented? I imagine that when the record was being recorded you might be practicing and focusing on different things than when you’re about to go on tour with Steve Vai.
I really have to spend quite a bit of time when I’m preparing for something. [I’m] learning parts and perfecting those parts by playing them repetitively and just getting to the point where I feel it and can make some music out of it. That comes from just old-fashioned shedding. (laughs) Getting in there and hammering those things out. There’s nothing that replaces that. I look forward to being able to go inside a practice room and get results. Going in one day and coming out with a building block and knowing that when you go back in tomorrow that you’re not going to have to do the same thing again.
It seems like you have a really good team behind you right now, Tony. I think that many players get so caught up on the technical aspects of playing music that they forget there are a whole series of mechanisms in place that also need to be developed in order to maintain a career. How do you think the industry has changed and what career advice would you give to guitarists who are looking to establish themselves as solo artists?
I could probably answer both in one. I think that the industry has changed because it’s become more of a people’s industry and less of a power’s industry. Before there was only one way to get a record and that was to listen to a radio, getting turned onto something and then going to a record store to buy it. That’s really changed because people are able to research things on the internet and they’re able to download songs instantaneously if they want to hear them. They could go to You Tube to watch or hear it and they’re able to really be their own middle-people instead of only having something provided to them.
In turn, this whole internet has drawn us all closer together because we’re able to see things quickly and are able to bridge gaps between continents and see players from all over the world instantly. You can see what someone is doing and suss it out and compare it to what you’re doing to say, “Maybe what I’m doing now is really original or maybe it’s not” and you can determine this now with the click of a mouse which is something that you couldn’t do years ago. Before you’d have to really go by what someone told you was going to be successful and work it that way. Now artists are able to see things first hand and they’re able to see what works.
The ages (of players) are younger and younger which is a great thing. Seeing such talented people at such a young age and playing with such magnificent skill whether it’s rock, classical or country whatever it is.
Secondly, I think that they need to be really educated in the business. Surround yourself with people who really know your field like managers and influential people that can help you.
By the time this interview is published, the cd will be released. Can you talk a little about the promotional tour and what else is on the immediate horizon for you?
The tour is currently being scheduled and we will definitely have all of the information up on the website and talk about what we’re going to do. We have a show coming up at M.I. on the 14th. We really want to test out the music with the students there and we always have a wonderful time going to Musicians Institute and playing. Shortly after that we’d like to hit the road.
Tony MacAlpine performs “Pyrokinesis” from his new self-titled solo album:
Thanks again to Tony and also to Michael Mesker for helping to set up the interview. You can get full information about Tony’s new cd and the upcoming tour on his website: http://tonymacalpine.com .
Credit for all photos: Alex Solca