Private Collection: Sonic Explorer
Marillion founder member Steve Rothery has gathered a well-honed selection of instruments to cover the many sounds of the band’s lengthy career and also to inspire his many collaborations and solo projects. Interview by Lars Mullen
Formed in 1979, Marillion is one of the longest-standing bands to have evolved from Britain’s neo-progressive rock scene, with close to 16 million albums sold worldwide to date. ‘I got a call from a band who took their name from a book by JRR Tolkien called The Silmarillion. So I travelled down to London in my little Renault 5 rammed with amps, guitars and a 4×12” cab, got the job, and have never looked back,’ smiles Steve Rothery, songwriter and guitarist. ‘It’s been a long time, and we’ve done a heck of a lot of touring and recording… but, you know, I still love every minute of it. We have a big back catalogue, and when we play live we cover most of the albums from 1983’s Script For A Jester’s Tear right up to the last album from 2012, Sounds That Can’t Be Made.
‘We tour a lot – and the amount we tour depends on the success of the current album. Some trips have taken us around the world two or three times in a year and a half. When that happens, you can get pretty dysfunctional as a human being… you get home and wonder why there’s no room service, or why the bed hasn’t been made!’
Guitar & Bass met the reassuringly functional-looking guitarist at the band’s studio headquarters to be guided through a maze of effects and guitars. ‘I must confess to being a total tech-head when it comes to equipment,’ Steve admits. ‘I think I’ve managed to keep up with technology fairly well over the years. I actually tour with two completely separate flightcased rigs – one for the early material, the other for the latter part of the band’s career.
‘I have a fair number of amps and cabs on hand, but for vintage Marillion the Roland Jazz Chorus 120 combo has to be the main ingredient. It’s a classic guitar amp in its own right. I always keep a spare JC120 to hand just in case, but it’s been really reliable over the years. It has a very identifiable sound and it’s very much part of what I do.
‘For the early material I rely on the Boss DS1 distortion pedal – although I actually have the Analog Man modified version, as it’s a bit cleaner – and a TC 2290 rackmount digital delay, which I feel is the best-sounding effects unit ever built. It used old one-bit converters so it has an ultra-high sampling rate, and the result is better than CD quality.
‘I do have a lot of effects running in the chain but I try to keep the original sound of the guitar as pure as possible. The TC 2290, for example, cleverly mixes the analogue signal with whatever effects are selected.
‘I always try to have a subtle approach with effects so they don’t dominate the sound of the guitar… not too much overdrive and not too deep with the modulation, or you lose the characteristics of the pickups and the guitar itself. I’m fairly happy with my set-up right now. I have six large pedalboards at the moment, but there are always new pedalboards and rigs to build or modify.’
When it comes to guitars, Marillion fans will recognise two of Steve’s older flagship instruments. ‘This black Squier Strat has been on countless albums and many world tours,’ Steve reveals. ‘It’s loaded with a set of EMG SA pickups and fitted with a Kahler vibrato. I bought it secondhand back in 1985 for £150 from Chandlers in London. It was my main guitar for many years, and it was on every album from Clutching At Straws in ’87 to the Radiation album, released in ’98. I can go nuts with the Kahler and it returns to pitch 100 per cent every time! There might be a little loss of sustain as a trade-off, but it’s really minimal… it’s a great unit. I also use a capo a lot on this guitar. I started that many years ago… I think it makes open chords sound so much more interesting, especially if the capo is on the third or fifth fret.
‘The other Squier, the black one with the white pickguard, is a mid-’80s JV model that I had sent over from Japan. It’s as good as any expensive vintage Fender that I’ve played. It’s all down to the woods they used. These JVs are quite collectable now, and they’re pretty close to the originals, from the neck profiles right down to the stamped bridge saddles. This one plays and sounds wonderful.
‘I’m not that bothered whether a guitar has a maple or a rosewood fingerboard. Maple works well on the Squiers, but I think it’s more of a combination of all the woods used and how they resonate together. High quality tonewoods are becoming rarer now, and they’re often only found on very expensive guitars.
‘I think if you find a guitar that works for you personally, then you can dial in the effects and the amp around that guitar. I find that I approach different guitars in a variety of ways, depending on how they play and resonate, so yes… I really must be a total tone head!
‘I’m often given CDs by people when we’re on the road, and I’m often disappointed that the guitar sound is brittle and harsh. My advice is always to get the guitars recorded well. You can be playing the best riffs in the world, but if the guitars suck, nobody’s going to want to listen to them. That’s something I learnt at a very early age.
‘When I was about 15 I was heavily influenced by progressive rock – Genesis, Pink Floyd, Camel – along with Hendrix and Carlos Santana… I loved his sustain. But I soon discovered that with good amps and the best overdrive pedals I could get that kind of sound from a Strat rather than a guitar with a high output and more natural sustain.’
Steve is a big fan of the Japanese-made Levinson Blade guitars, and he’s got a few. ‘The sunburst one with the white guard is actually a bit of a hybrid at the moment, as it’s got a Blade neck on a Squier body,’ he explains. ‘I was experimenting with mixing and matching bodies and necks – it’s that combination of woods working together thing again. This one has a Kahler vibrato, and it’s mostly a back-up guitar in case I break a string on the black Squier.
‘Another very longstanding guitar of mine is a Levinson Blade RH4, the one with the black scratchplate, which I started using around 1999. This guitar seems to have a little extra something in every department, especially with the mid-boost and beefy Levinson humbucker, which drives the front end of my amps a little more. I’ve also recently fitted the new Fishman TriplePlay system – it has some very interesting synth possibilities which I’m still experimenting with. It’s ideal for songwriting in my studio as I can assign it to play keyboards or percussion… I’m using it with Apple MainStage 3 in Logic at the moment.
This guitar made its recording debut on Anoraknophobia in 2001. On that album I took something of a new direction when it came to effects, using things like the Groove Tubes Trio and Dual 75 preamps and a Lexicon MPXG2 FX processor, which contributed a lot to the sounds on that album. I stayed with this set up for a while and added the TC 2290 for the Marbles and Happiness Is The Road albums.
‘Another Blade I have has more traditional single coils and a vintage-style bridge. I use a lot in my own studio and for other band projects – for example, when Pete Trewavas and Steve Hogarth from Marillion and myself venture out as Los Trios Marillos.
‘I also have a Blade Delta Classic T2 with a set of calibrated pickups. There’s an honesty about this guitar I like; it isn’t the easiest to play though but it’s got a great sound, and, the mid-boost is handy for solos. This one can be heard on several tracks on the Somewhere Else album. I got this one from Jason Castle from Blade; it was actually his personal guitar, he was just showing it to me, and I was so taken aback when I played it that I managed to get him to sell it to me!
‘I have access to a fair few guitars, but these Levinson Blades have been working instruments that really do it for me. I’m not a badge snob by any means… that little transfer on the headstock makes no difference to me whatsoever!’
Steve also has a bent for the unusual, a fact emphatically confirmed by this next one-off. ‘In the early 1990s the Steinberger company asked if they could build me a guitar, so I asked for a six and 12-string twin neck! As far as I know, this is the only twin neck they’ve made in this format. I started using it on the Afraid Of Sunlight album in the mid-’90s, where it played a major part in the songwriting, and I’ve also used it an awful lot live. It’s loaded with EMGs, an active tone control, and a transposing vibrato. It’s not the lightest but it’s not a back-breaker, and it’s really well-balanced in the playing position.
‘I also have an Italia Rimini twin neck in the same string format. While the Steinberger has those distinct single coil sounds, I wanted a warmer, more vintage-style Rickenbacker kind of sound for my solo studio album Ostara, featuring Hannah Stobart. The Rimini does this really well with its Wilkinson mini-humbuckers, especially on the 12-string neck, which I prefer… and it looks rather cool with the white mother of pearl top!
‘I like guitars that offer inspiration for writing. Here’s another Italia, a Modena, which is a kind of innovative sitar guitar. The upper part of the body has a mini harp configuration that resonates with the primary strings, and that has its own lipstick pickup. The sitar effect is created by a Gotoh Buzz Bridge, which sounds quite authentic. I bought this on eBay from America. The shipping numbers got mixed up and I couldn’t get my hands on it even though it was in the UK; it actually went back to the USA and then came back again… it was a very frustrating situation! I haven’t recorded with or used it live yet, I’m just still having fun experimenting with it.
‘When we’re touring I like to take a travel guitar with me. I have several, but I do like the G Sharp, built in Norway. This little black OF-1BK has a mahogany body and neck, a maple fingerboard and a single coil pickup. It has a 520mm scale length and, as the name suggests, it’s tuned to G#. It’s like using a built-in capo. The inventor very generously gave me this one when we were in Oslo about five years ago. It’s really a cool little guitar.’
Steve has a couple of thinline semi-acoustics for variety. ‘The Cort M900 is excellent value for money, and suits my needs perfectly. It also has an acoustic pickup in the bridge, which is quite handy.
‘I used the Ibanez Artstar AM200 for a few tracks on Anoraknophobia when I wanted the sound of a semi-hollowbody guitar. It works really well as a small jazzy guitar and it’s got some cool trimmings like the gold hardware and the inlaid ebony fingerboard.
‘When I put time aside to concentrate on writing, I might have my mind set on a one amp, one guitar combination and see what I come up with. I write and record a lot at my home studio, but 90 per cent of the recording and all the albums are done in the band’s own studio. We spend a lot of time here, often having a couple of hours improvising and jamming before we start rehearsals, all of which is usually recorded in Pro Tools. For that I usually consider the Blade guitars, which are always ready to go, but at the moment my first-choice guitars for live work and recording are these Jack Dent models built in North Carolina, USA.
I have six different Jack Dent guitars, and I’ve used them on the latest Marillion album, Sounds That Can’t Be Made. Jack is an incredible American luthier; I first met him at a Montreal guitar convention about five years ago. We got on really well and I liked the way he built his guitars. He was originally a furniture maker and has a huge supply of exotic tone woods and some great ideas when it comes to electronics and hardware. I flew out to his workshop and we discussed and designed my signature guitar, based on one of his models called the Sludge Rooster.
‘I asked for a mahogany body with a tuned chamber, a one-piece mahogany neck, and a bookmatched 5A grade maple top with a cherryburst finish. It didn’t take long for him to realise I was a total tone head, and he fitted a pair of custom coil-tapping humbuckers, a Graphtech Ghost saddle pickup system complete with onboard EQ, and a Graphtech hexaphonic MIDI system with a 13-pin output, all of which can be used separately or blended in any combination. It’s a guitar that totally keeps up with technology, and it has a versatility which covers my every need.
‘Jack Dent’s guitars have this common denominator when it comes to sustain – the necks are set a long way into the body, which adds to the resonance. It’s incredible… played acoustically you can still feel the body vibrating when the audible note eventually dies away. He’s studied the science and the mass of the body woods. The SR model is a little quirky, and certainly an eye-catcher! I first used it when we toured with the Less Is More album in 2009. If anyone would like to hear it, there’s a YouTube demo out there.
‘You may have guessed by now that when it comes to guitars I’m primarily a single coil man. I got word that this sunburst figured-top JD was hanging on the wall of a guitar shop called The B String in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, so I had it sent over and haven’t looked back. It’s just awesome, with great woods. It’s superbly balanced on the shoulder, and sounds stunning with the Seymour Duncan pickups. This has been a real workhorse guitar.
‘I also had a yearning for beefed-up single coils, something a little more gnarly, so next from Jack Dent came this double-cut Raven finished in cola burst with a pair of P90s. I’ve travelled a lot with this guitar on solo projects, plus working with American composer Jason Hausman and on Steve Hackett’s album.
‘Pretty soon after the JD SR guitar arrived, I put an order in for one with three single-coils… I used it in New York at the Apple guitar clinic. I also decided that I needed a guitar that would cope with both electric and acoustic requirements, so I settled on this JD Celeste. It’s a semi-acoustic design with a hollow mahogany body, a neck profile like a modern electric, and fitted with a humbucker at the bridge.
The acoustic sound comes from a Graphtech Ghost System with a 13-pin hexapower MIDI output. But I had to explain to Jack that none of them sonically quite took the place of my main Blade with the single coil/humbucker and midboost system, so he set to work and produced this Custom Raven with a honey burst finish.
‘The pickups and electrics are more or less the same as the Blade, but ironically it doesn’t sound like the Blade at all! Still, it’s gorgeous – it chimes and sustains forever. This guitar came into its own at the Plovdiv Guitar Festival in Bulgaria in October 2013. I was asked to play there as a solo player, which I thought might be a bit scary, so I put a band together with a Dave Foster, a dear friend and an exceptional guitarist. It went down so well that I’ve decided to record my solo album, The Ghosts Of Pripyat, later in 2014, and that’ll be done in between touring with Marillion. Also, all these JD guitars can be heard on Sounds That Can’t Be Made.’
As with many successful songwriters, the acoustic guitar plays a major role for Steve. ‘Yes, indeed, I have several lying around. This nylon-strung guitar was built in Spain by Manual Rodriguez, one of the oldest Spanish guitar builders. They use woods that have been stored for decades and it gives a really mellow, mature sound, I used this for a track called Made Again on the Brave album – I wrote it for my daughter when she was born. I’m self-taught when it comes to classical playing; I’m more ragtime syncopated picking than classical, really, using my thumb to fret the bass notes.
‘I’ve got an affordable but good-quality electro-acoustic made by Cort, a jumbo-bodied CJ-10 with all the trimmings; it’s a great guitar for the price and just seems to perform spot-on every time. I also have a very lightweight signature acoustic built for me by Farida, called the A-SR. They asked me what woods I wanted and I had a pretty good idea in my head, with a single-cut auditorium-size body. The top is solid spruce, the back andsides are rosewood and the fingerboard is ebony. There’s also an indication of my love of folk music with the inlaid Celtic knot design on the headstock. I wanted a smaller-bodied guitar with a huge output and exceptional tone, and Farida certainly achieved that.
For the electrics I requested a system blending an undersaddle pickup and a soundhole microphone with Fishman’s Ellipse Aura preamp. I have three of these A-SRs, one of which is away in the USA having the Vo-96 Acoustic Synthesiser system fitted and a Tronical tuning system. I’m looking forward to writing with this one and also with the Blade fitted with the Fishman TriplePlay.
‘I have two Takamines, a six-string Santa Fe which I bought in 1991, and a 12-string. They’ve done a heck of a lot of work so they’re a little battered around the edges, but like all my guitars they have a purpose in life – they aren’t left getting dusty in a corner! Over the years they’ve had various pickup mods and hardware changes. I have to spend a little time with the EQ on the desk to get a decent sound when mic’ing up the six-string, but the 12-string is really nice… it records well and it’s very inspirational as a writing guitar. I’ve used it ever since the early days of Marillion, way back in the ’80s.’
Lastly, Steve strikes up a tune with a Portuguese guitar.
‘This is an unusual but beautiful highly-strung Portuguese 12-string guitar which comes from the family of instruments known as the citterns, and is used in their traditional music, called Fado. I believe this is the Lisbon model, and it’s strung in octaves from D to A. I was given this by Marillion’s Portuguese fanclub.
‘The engineering in the machineheads is an achievement in itself, and it arrived with a tuition book which was beyond complicated! Everything you know goes out the window, so I’ve been having a lot of fun creating my own chords. It has a wonderful semi-Eastern flavour to it and it rings like a bell… a million miles away from effects and electronics. It’s found its way onto the new album and it sits very well in the tracks.
‘I get a lot of inspiration from all my guitars… in reality, that’s how my collection has slowly built up. As I said, the name on the headstock doesn’t really mean that much to me… it’s all about the woods. All these guitars have a very different sound, and I have the option to reach out and grab a different guitar each time that will bring the best out of the song I’m writing at the time.
‘Having been in Marillion for 34 years, I’m still writing and recording with the band, and that and the solo projects just take up all of my time, but I love every minute. It’s what I wake up in the morning for.’
For information on Steve Rothery’s latest solo project visit http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2090204348/steve-rothery-the-ghosts-of-pripyat
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