Mikey Demus is the left-hooker riff merchant with dub metallers and festival favourites Skindred, and he’s got a strong penchant for the soldering iron and the spraycan. Interview by Lars Mullen
For most people, including guitar players, it’s a right-handed world,’ sighs Mikey Demus, guitarist with Skindred, purveyors of pulsating metal riffs mixed with infectious hip hop and reggae grooves. ‘Only an estimated 10 or 15 per cent of us are lefties – but there are very few guitar shops stocking that proportion of left-handers.
‘I’m a left-handed guitarist, and I’m left-footed too, but everything else that my body asks me to do is right-handed… for example, a knife and fork or holding a pen, so I suppose I’m a bit mixed up. My mum is left-handed and so is my dad, and I learnt guitar on his lefty, which to me seemed really natural.
‘I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing, but I read that the way to find out is to play air guitar for a while and see which feels right for you. It was a problem at school, though. There were a few of us who were leftie, and that was a time when the teachers were trying to get everyone to be right-handed, so I escaped the net. Saying that, my handwriting is crap, but playing left-handed has always felt cool to me.’
Skindred is a busy band – and it can be a very loud one. ‘Yeah,’ Mikey laughs, ‘anyone who’s seen us live will know we aren’t the quietest. For a few years now I’ve been using Orange amplification. Not only is it awesome in the studio, but it really comes alive at festival gigs where I can have a big rig.
‘At the UK’s Sonisphere festival we thought we’d raise the bar a little visually with head-to-toe silver stage clothes and a load of black Orange cabs with silver-weave speaker cloth. I think we had something like 24 4×12″ cabs and four 8×10’s on stage, which was way cool, to say the least! My rig was powered by a tower of Rockerverb 100W MkII heads, which was awesome! Not every venue has room for that set-up, but my minimum rig is no less than four cabs. Some are black and some are the original Orange orange. Orange is also one of my favourite colours for guitars!’
Mikey has a variety of guitars for live work. Most are loaded with single coils, and with the amount of gain and volume he uses he finds it wise to run a noisegate on his pedalboard, like an ISP Decimator or a Boss Noise Suppressor. He never uses his amps’ clean channels at all, preferring to stick to the dirty side but to control the gain via the guitar. This need for fingertip control has led him to become a keen guitar customiser.
‘I can’t leave them alone,’ he admits. ‘I’ve been taking things apart from an early age. Most of my guitars have had the electronics altered, especially the ones that I use live. I’m just a tinkerer… I’m always redesigning the wiring or changing the hardware. One of the best birthday presents I ever had was a really cool soldering iron. Not “cool” in that sense, but cool in that I can control the temperature so it doesn’t fry anything it gets near. I just love that soldering iron…’
The choice and availability of guitars for left-handed players has now expanded somewhat thanks to the internet, but for Mikey, growing up in Wantage in Oxfordshire, the options were slim.
‘It became a ritual, calling various guitar shops asking if they had any left-handed guitars in stock. It made me feel like an alien,’ he sighs. ‘When I was about 17, I struggled with a friend’s Ibanez RG strung upside-down, and I used heavy strings which pulled everything out of place. The Floyd Rose was hard work that way round, and the controls got in the way. It was a nightmare when I think about it now. I eventually found a really nice white Mexican Strat, but that got stolen and I was heartbroken, so I took the plunge, got a bank loan and headed to Denmark Street with the intention of finding a decent left-handed guitar.
‘I can’t remember which shop it was now, but this one guy said he’d give me a sick deal on an SG Special complete with hard case – it was about a grand. So off I went, feeling really made up, until I found out that if I’d done a little more research I could have got the same package for about £600! But I’ve still got it and, you know, in hindsight it’s become such a cool guitar. It’s about 14 years old, it’s covered in stickers, and it’s been banged around the world on loads of tours.
‘It’s also the first guitar I modified. I’m not a fan of off-the-shelf guitars – the more worn they are the better, and I can’t abide new shiny-feeling necks. The SG was mint until I started to install a Seymour Duncan Dimebucker at the bridge, and while adjusting the pickup height with a screwdriver that was far too big, I slipped and put a scratch right across the body! Ever since then I haven’t been bothered what condition my guitars are in… that was the first and last time I tried to keep a guitar nice.
‘A few of my guitars are still spotless, but in general they’re all covered with tour-inflicted injures. As long as a guitar works, I’m not that fussed about the looks. It’s only when things start to break or drop off that I get worried, although I have every faith in Jack Mackrill, my guitar tech, who has looked after my stuff for years now.
‘I like to add things along the way, like the metal trussrod cover on the SG. You can also see on the face of the headstock how the lacquer is all cracked – that’s from getting frozen to death in the hold of a plane then going back to a normal environment time after time. I think it looks cool.
‘I have a similar black SG Special that dates from around 2005. I bought this one as a result of having a load of guitars stolen while we were touring America. Dan Pugsley, our bass player, had a couple of Music Man Stingray basses swiped and I lost a pair of Ernie Ball Axis Sports, which I’d been using to write and record the Roots Rock Riot album at the time.
‘We both needed guitars pretty quick and as luck would have it our next gig was in Houston, Texas, where I knew of a cool shop called Southpaw Guitars that could fix me up. Luckily they had the 2005 SG Special, and having played the other one to death I knew what I was getting. All it needed was setting up for me – heavy strings, detuned to dropped A, a low action. They said they had a German in-house tech called Martin who could handle it with no problem, and true to form he was just amazing. He was the Terminator of guitar techs, born in a factory, I reckon – so we did the deal and were back rocking within 24 hours, and I got myself another SG.
‘Needless to say, I’ve modified it to hell and back. It’s pimped up with a Seymour Duncan JB humbucker at the bridge, a Pearly Gates at the neck, locking Sperzel tuners and TonePros nickel hardware, all of which improves it no end. All my guitars are strung with my 11-54 gauge signature Rotosound MD11 strings… they’re perfect for heavy riffs and chugging chords.
‘Soon after my Axis Sport guitars were stolen Ernie Ball sent me a pair of replacements and both of those have now been played to within an inch of their lives, as you can probably see. They’re ace guitars from the ground upwards, and built by ace dudes. To me they feel a bit like a cross between a Telecaster and a Les Paul.
‘Believe it or not I haven’t done any modifications to the white one, which I requested with a matte finish and white humbuckers. I thought it had a kind of Star Wars stormtrooper look, so I added the AT-AT transfer, which looks like it grew there. I still use this one a lot in the studio.
‘The other one they gave me came in high gloss black, but I chipped the crap out of it through doing loads of gigs and decided to scrape it right back with the intention of refinishing it with a funky paint job. But under the top coat was a really nice quilted maple top, so I’ve left in natural… well, at least for now.
‘As I mentioned, Skindred are not a quiet band, far from it… but while subtleness is out the window, I am into finer shades of guitar tone and the differences between various woods. Having said that, I’m not that fussed if a guitar has a rosewood or maple fingerboard – anything is fine. I’m not a fan of ebony boards, although there is one on this ESP Eclipse. ESP sent me this a while ago, and it’s never been gigged, so it’s still pristine. As a left-handed model, it’s pretty rare. It’s a wonderful guitar with a really fast neck… a bit of a rock monster. I used this a lot on the 2011 album Union Black. It’s a cool guitar and it lends itself very well to a dropped A# tuning.’
The next guitar, a Les Paul with a mysterious silver-grey look, is far from mint. ‘I’d always had guitars that were pretty lightweight, but around 2006 someone suggested that I should try a heavy guitar like a Les Paul to get a certain sound for the Roots Rock Riot album. I asked our record label, which at the time was Atlantic, and they supplied a mint Les Paul Studio in see-through wine red. This was the dying days when labels still had budgets for bands!
‘It wasn’t long before I got itchy and started to change things around… fitting Seymour Duncan humbuckers, changing all the hardware to nickel, and rewiring it like the Jimmy Page Les Paul. I used it for gigs and on the Shark Bites And Dog Fights album, but it just didn’t feel part of me. I put it on a stand and pondered about it for ages, and then decided “You’re ’aving it, you’re getting the Demus Touch”. So I attacked it with a series of sanders and chemicals!
‘I admit that it’s sacrilege – there are players out there who would give there left ear for a guitar like this – but it wasn’t a cool wine red, it was dull and looked insipid, so it had to go. The wood underneath wasn’t that pretty, either, nothing like the maple under the black paint on the Ernie Ball. So far, it’s turned into another of my ongoing projects without a foreseeable finish date. I start something then we go on tour for months or I’m locked in a studio, but I will complete it. I’m thinking of spraying it with some sort of graffiti orange artwork… maybe. We’ll see!
‘As I mentioned earlier, orange is one of my favourite colours, and I’ve sprayed several guitars at a buddy’s recording studio – he had this spare room where I’ve refinished a lot of my stuff. I wasn’t all that popular, as the paint got in the ventilation system while bands were recording. I must get a respirator of some sort next time… that nitrocellulose lacquer is scary shit! I was seeing wizards and dragons for weeks afterwards.
‘I originally tried to spray my Highway One Strat in silver over the original colour, but it wouldn’t take, so I stripped it back and attacked it with Capri Orange. I wanted black hardware, but apart from the tuners, black left-handed hardware isn’t that easy to find, especially bridges… I’m still looking for one. This one is kept in dropped A and has a Seymour Duncan in the bridge and hot single coils. I’m gutted that they don’t make this one any more. They came with massive frets and that large headstock which I love.
‘The reddish-orange guitar next to it is a custom build by First Act with my initials at the 12th fret. They’d built some custom models for a buddy of mine who’s in Nine Inch Nails, and he had a Fuzz Face installed in his, with a killswitch.
‘I thought that was way cool, but I wanted something a little different that would fit in with the Skindred theme – and that was a dub siren, which is an effect built by a company called Dub Mekanix. The process involved researching a load of components and going back and forth with the Dub Mekanix people, who were great to work with.
‘It took me a while to work out how to avoid having the whole body covered in knobs, and I got around that by using various slider switches, but they had to be in all the accessible areas of the body. At my request First Act installed my favourite Seymour Duncan JB and Pearly Gates humbuckers, and finished it in a great shade of orange. It’s such a cool guitar. It’s been on several albums now, and with the Dub Siren going at full tilt through an echo box, it sounds like a lost submarine!
‘I thought I’d give the spray room a rest for the next project, and took up the “guitar at arm’s length” position in my back garden and set about this EVH Wolfgang Special with a spray can. Insects were a bit of a problem. The company was great – they sent me two and I asked if I could personally customise this one, and they were cool about it.
‘I love this guitar, it looks like it grew on me, and I used it all over the new album, Kill The Power, just released in the UK. The colour is a mixture of all the orange graffiti paint I could find, with a black burst. It looked okay brand new in white but it was a bit like somebody else’s guitar. It always seems as if I have to rat things up to my own spec! I also sprayed the clenched fist, which is the new album’s logo, which I designed. The other one is black and again has a Floyd Rose so I can do a few divebombs on the move. Add that to the Digitech Whammy I have on my pedalboards and it fits right in with our metal, punk, alternative rock and reggae stuff.
Fender guitars are a big part of Mikey’s sound, and he tends to switch between Strats and Teles; at the moment Teles see the most live use, so Strats are taking a back seat.
‘Hendrix influenced me a lot, so I’m quite big on white Strats,’ he explains. ‘A lot have been modified. One of my favourite Fender mods is to rewire one of the tone controls as a second volume so I can vary the outputs, leaving enough lift on one of the pickups for a solo boost. This idea came as a necessity when I was using amps with just one channel. Nowadays I have all kinds of gear that’ll do it for me, but it’s a kind of habit, I guess.
‘The first Strat started life as a 2009 Highway One. I’ve replaced the hardware, resprayed it and installed a set of these amazing Lace Hot Gold single coils with a high-output bridge pickup. The clarity is awesome, and their famed low noise is a bonus at the volume and high gain I use.
This guitar was used for 99 per cent of the clean sounds on Kill The Power – the extra output is ideal for pushing the front end of an amp rather than letting the amp do the talking. I also have a set of Lace Nitro Hemi humbuckers, so it’ll be time to get that soldering iron hot soon… although I may need another guitar to put them in.
‘The Strat with the graphics is a Mexican Standard Strat which I bought in the US. The band went into a guitar store to buy a crate of drumsticks so I had a noodle on a few lefties and this one really stood out, so I bought it. I thought it looked a little plain, so when I got back to the UK I took it to a friend’s tattoo shop called Sideshow in Hove and let them loose on the body.
‘I really have a thing about white Strats. It’s like leather jackets… I just can’t stop buying them. I’ve got a white Mexican one which replaces the one I had stolen years ago, but this Custom Shop model, again in white, is the daddy. Fender built it to my specs with hot pickups, big frets, locking Sperzels and a worn neck. It’s one of the rare guitars that stays at home or is used just in the studio.’
Next up is Mikey’s absolute number one, the Ratocaster. ‘Ha, now this is my baby,’ he chortles. ‘The Ratocaster is the epitome of all my mods and paint jobs rolled into one. It basically started life as Mexican Tele, and I replaced the neck with a Strat one that just slotted in without any shims. Originally it was black, but I wanted to spray it silver for that Sonisphere gig. I had tried to paint a few Strats in silver before, but it usually ran everywhere as it wasn’t real paint, just hooligan graffiti stuff – but it did stick to this Tele, which has now cracked and worn in quite a cool and arty way.
‘I swapped the pickguard for a black one, fitted Seymour Duncan Hot Rails with dual volume controls, wired it up and it worked first time – and I’ve never looked back. It’s been on all the albums, all the world tours, and pretty much to outer space and back. If Fender ever made a Mikey Demus Signature Telecaster, then this would be the one.
‘There are some relic’ed guitars out there that to me just don’t look right, but this is the real deal. I don’t think there’s any substitute for playing the crap out of a guitar for authenticity, and I’ve played this one literally every day for years.
‘I also have a backup, a Japanese reissue with upgraded hardware and a Strat neck. At the moment it’s still a fairly clean see-through white… but it probably won’t be for long.’
Taking a momentary break from Fenders, we check out couple of humbucker-equipped guitars. ‘When I first joined Skindred I didn’t have that many guitars, and I needed a decent spare and had an inkling for a Les Paul Junior. Apart from not having that amount of cash, finding a left-handed model was hopeless. A friend suggested I check out the British maker Gordon-Smith.
‘As it happened we were touring an area where I knew there was one for sale, so I made the truck swing by the shop and I bought this little single-pickup GS-160. It’s got a coil-tapped humbucker and a brass nut, and that’s about it – really simple, like an original Gibson, but it rocks like a good ’un… they’re very underrated. It’s built really well, and Gordon-Smith don’t even charge extra for left-handers.
‘I also needed a semi-acoustic for some recording. If anyone asks me what made me start playing the guitar, it would be seeing Jimi Hendrix with a white Strat at Woodstock, and – wait for it – Marty McFly playing Johnny B Goode on a Gibson 335 in Back To The Future. I couldn’t really warrant having a proper 335 just sitting around, but at the time I was sponsored by Washburn, and they sent me this neat HB-35 in a nice see-through wine red, with a quilted maple top, bound body, bound neck and f-holes and split block inlays.
Even though it has a centre block for the humbuckers it doesn’t really like Skindred’s super high-gain settings, but it’s a great studio guitar when the need arises. I didn’t like the gold hardware so I replaced that with nickel and installed the humbuckers that were in the stripped-down Les Paul. It’s a cool guitar in its own right.’
So far a pristine Fender Jazzmaster has escaped the ‘Demus touch’. ‘This Japanese reissue also came from Southpaw, and this is the only one of my guitars that has thin vintage frets,’ he explains. ‘They seem to work okay on this guitar and it’s really nice to play, but I normally hate that fret gauge. I’ve used it live quite a bit, especially on a song called The Fear.
‘Like a lot of Jazzmaster players, I’ve changed the saddles; these are Graphtechs, and I’ve also installed Seymour Duncan Hot Jazzmaster pickups. I think the body is alder, and it has a great sound. For me having a Jazzmaster is a massive tip of the hat to Elvis Costello, who was another guitar hero for me. It was odd, really, as I grew up listening to various punk bands, but apart from the Sex Pistols I didn’t know what half of them looked like. When I saw Elvis Costello, though, I was shocked that a guy who looked like that could be in such a cool band. You have to remember that when I was at school I had glasses and ginger hair… I was an über-geek!’
The sunburst guitar next to the Jazzmaster isn’t a Fender, but a G&L. ‘Here’s another from Leo Fender’s stable, an Indonesian-built G&L Legacy which was a present from my father in law, who bought it in Seaford Music in Seaford, Delaware on the east coast of the USA, and I have to say it’s pure magic,’ Mikey enthuses. ‘It’s totally stock and unmodified… how rare is that in my collection?! I can’t say enough good things about this guitar; it’s been faultless since the day it came out of the box, and the pickups are so cool. There’s a song we wrote with Russ Ballard on Kill The Power called We Live where this guitar was used from start to finish. It just has this wicked chime, and it’s loud.’
The black guitar Mikey’s holding on the previous page is another British-built guitar, a Manson MA1. ‘I really admire this brand because of the way they are building new guitars in this day and age – they look cool, and they sound awesome,’ Mikey says. ‘This one has a mirror scratchplate, a matt finish and no neck position markers, and this time the looks instantly make it feel like it’s my guitar and not someone else’s. It’s super, super cool… in fact, I’m still not sure if I’m cool enough to be playing it. With a P90 at the neck and a humbucker at the bridge, it covers just about every need. I won’t be leaving the Teles behind, but I’ll certainly be using Manson guitars live now.’
This is one man not averse to using another player’s signature model, if it feels right – and one that does is a single-pickup Ibanez ORM1WH. ‘This is so pretty,’ praises Mikey. ‘It’s the signature guitar for Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the Mars Volta guitarist. It’s from the same stable as the Jet King, with a similar body shape, tailpiece and retro scratchplates.
It’s got a really fast neck, and like the Gordon-Smith it couldn’t be any more basic when it comes to the electronics, with just a single volume control and a Seymour Duncan Hot Rail at the bridge. It’s wicked, really, and because it’s quite small I use it a lot as a travel guitar and for warming up on the tour bus. The only other Ibanez I have is an RG model. I was desperate to write and record some riffs with a Floyd Rose for Kill The Power. This one was set up perfectly for me before they sent it, and I just couldn’t put it down – I played it for days. There’s nothing subtle about this one, it’s just built to rock. A lot of Skindred riffs were born on this guitar.
‘I have a left-handed USA Fender Jazz Bass which is invaluable when it comes to finishing up putting a song together at home. I’ve sprayed the scratchplate black. I use it a lot but I find that after a few hours it feels like the tendons in my fingers are getting ripped out. I have a million percent extra kudos for Dan for the physical input he delivers as Skindred’s bassist.’
Nearly every songwriter has an acoustic or two for those quieter inspirational moments. ‘Writing in Skindred is a joint effort,’ says Mikey. ‘We all bring ideas and riff to the table. I have two acoustic guitars: this little Fender Tim Armstrong signature plays a big part in my writing and it looks great with the Hellcat position markers and the concert-size mahogany body with a satin finish. The other is this Taylor Big Baby. I was doing some demo’ing for Orange at PMT in Birmingham and during the day I played on every left-handed model Taylor had, and I was so impressed that I bought it there and then.
‘I’d shut myself in the acoustic booth when this black geezer came in, a real cool rude boy with a porkpie hat, and he picked up a classical nylon-strung guitar and we started jamming. I was playing all this bluesy reggae stuff, like a mix of Robert Johnson and Dennis Brown, and he’s playing a mix of Paganini and Metallica… it was so surreal! That’s what I like about music and my band and my guitars. It doesn’t matter what you are about – music always unites people.’
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