Talkin' Guitar Shop with John Roderick of the Long Winters

Indie Rawk Blog
Publication date: 
June 18, 2007

Talkin' Guitar Shop with John Roderick of the Long Winters

Ever notice when you’re watching a band on TV, the camera never gives you a good look at the headstock of a guitar or the face of an amp? It never occurred to the cameraman that some people might want to see that. But I suspect there’s plenty of people in the audience wondering “Is that a lawsuit Ibanez or a vintage Les Paul?”

Likewise, most music critics just don’t think like musicians. I’m so weary of trite questions about emotional connection and literal interpretations of lyrics, a band’s interpersonal dynamics, blah, blah … I want to know what they use to make their sound. That’s the one and only thing you can pin down about a band: their gear, the actual hardware and why they use it. It’s as much a part of any band’s appeal as any poignant turn of phrase, yet it’s virtually ignored in the music media.

So, for the first in what I hope will be a series of Q&As with various indie-rock types, I talked with John Roderick of the Long Winters. These interviews will approach mainly from a casual musician’s perspective; you can read Tape-Op for the more obscure geek-speak.

CB: I know that you worked at guitar shops for years, Emerald City Guitars in Seattle in particular. Being surrounded by all manner of vintage gear must have helped you arrive at your personal sound.

JR: It's true. I was always curious about electric guitars, even well before I could play them. They had a talismanic power over me when I was a kid. Obviously they're beautiful objects, and in the right hands they seem to have magical powers, but they're also wielded like weapons somewhat. Plus, guitars are capable of being ranked and categorized in thousands of ways, by rarity, playability, provenance, and character. All these things, the beauty and violence and magic, attracted me to them long before it occurred to me that I could actually PLAY them and make music.

I started hanging out in guitar shops when I was about thirteen. Why did this Les Paul cost so much more than this Telecaster? Why was this guitar with a worn-off finish more valuable than this other guitar that looked new? And why did the guy behind the counter act so smug and unhelpful when I asked questions? It was a mysterious world.

Eventually I got a job at a vintage shop, Emerald City, and could sit there all day handling hundreds of guitars and listening to people discuss the arcane details of their histories and construction. I built up a vast knowledge of esoterica concerning guitars, but every day I met someone who knew more, or different stuff. I started being selective about what I retained. I didn't really care about Stratocasters, so I only listened with half an ear when people started blathering on about them. Like most geeks, I developed strong convictions about things that no one in their right mind would care about otherwise.

CB: Was there a particular band’s or player’s guitar sound growing up that had the most influence on you? You mentioned ZZ Top recently but I’m guessing that might be a bit of your trademark wit coming through. And on that vein, can you recall when you first picked up a guitar and what it was?

JR: Well, there was never a more perfect picture of a human being than George Harrison in '64 with his brown Gretch Country Gentleman, but he seemed like an untouchable god, not someone I could ever emulate. My first real guitar crush was on Chrissie Hynde's Telecaster, circa '81 or '82. Seeing her on MTV, slinging it around, I felt that feeling, a feeling I would have many times, that I wanted THAT guitar. I went down to the big music store in Anchorage and asked to see "the kind of guitar Chrissie Hynde plays", and was almost laughed out of the building. I was about thirteen years old. The guitar store guys led me around the store until I saw the guitar-- I recognized it instantly-- and then informed me that a new Telecaster was nine hundred dollars. It might as well have been ten million dollars, but I remembered the name, "Telecaster", and have never forgotten it.

It's funny to think that, of all the guitar heros, all the Jimmy Pages and Eddie Van Halens, my first guitar role model would be Chrissie Hynde. Once I could recognize a Telecaster I started seeing them everywhere, and then started learning the names of other guitars and developing preferences based on who played what. The Beatles played Rickenbackers, Jimmy Page played Les Pauls, Hendrix played Strats, etc. Little by little my knowledge grew.

My first guitar was an unplayable acoustic with a trapeze tailpiece that my mom found at a garage sale. My first electric guitar was a Harmony Rocket for which I paid twenty-five dollars, and which I still have. It reminded me of Chuck Berry and the Beatles, and I played it and "customized" it until it was almost completely ruined, sanding the neck, taking the electronics apart without being able to put them back together. It took me another five years to put the thing back right.

CB: I know that your Rickenbacker has an interesting history, some unique modifications and that you got it back when Rics where less fashionable than they are today. Tell us a little bit about it.

JR: I don't know if Rickenbackers are exactly fashionable even now. They tend to ebb and flow. Mine is a '66 which was modified with Gibson humbuckers many years before I found it. For that reason it had lost much of its "collectable" value, and I paid $650 dollars for it back in 1994. At that point I'd been fascinated with guitars for over ten years, but I still felt bewildered by the choices and the prices. The money represented almost my entire savings at the time.

I'd just been fired from my job as a clerk in a broker's office, and was bragging to my friend Chris that I had saved almost a thousand dollars while working which I intended to spend almost exclusively on beer, staying drunk all summer until the money ran out. He got very serious with me and said, "The whole time I've known you you're always talking about starting a band, but you don't even own a guitar. If you drink that money away you'll have nothing to show for it. We should go right now and buy you a guitar." So we hopped on a bus, before I lost my nerve, and the two of us went to the Trading Musician in the U District (in Seattle). As soon as we walked in the door I went right to the Rickenbacker and bought it on the spot. I couldn't believe I owned a "real" guitar, and I was incredibly grateful that Chris talked me into it. It was my only guitar for the next seven years.

CB: On average, Fenders (strats, teles, jazzmasters, etc.) seem to cross all genres as the guitar of choice. Did you ever go down that road?

JR: Not really. My early love of telecasters morphed into a fascination with hollow-bodied guitars pretty early. I've never owned a Strat or a Jazzmaster or a Jaguar, and the few Teles I've owned have all slipped through my fingers. I think the ubiquity of Fender guitars is partly what I find uninteresting about them. Kurt Cobain really made the Jaguar look cool, and suddenly every band in the world had two. Hendrix played a Strat, but so did Ritchie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Jimmy Ray Vaughn, so the coolness more than evened out. Even Doug Martsch from Built to Spill, whom I greatly admire, can't redeem the Stratocaster for me.

Instead, I loved Gretch and Rickenbacker and Gibson big-bodied guitars, and the cooler guitars by Mosrite, Hamer, and Harmony. I did end up owning a Fender-- one of the strangest Fender guitars-- a Starcaster. It was Fender's attempt in the mid '70's to mimic a big, hollow, Gibson, and it was a commercial failure. They discontinued it after three years, and I bought it at a time just before the vintage guitar market started to include all the "uncool" guitars outside of the normal Strats and Les Pauls. I could never afford a Starcaster now, but it's one of my favorite players. It's worth enough money that I should probably stop taking it out on tour, but I love it too much to just keep it in its case.

CB: Your acoustic guitar lately is an Italian-made Eko. Hmmm … obscure, to be sure. Where’d that come from?

JR: Acoustic guitars are even more mysterious than electrics in some ways. They all look more or less the same, so they don't have as much sex appeal, but there's as much if not more variation in construction and tone and you could spend a lifetime understanding them. I've always played the cheapest acoustic guitars, Yamahas mostly, because I couldn't begin to imagine spending two thousand dollars on a Martin. I bought that EKO for just a couple hundred bucks. It has a bolt-on neck and a magnetic pickup, so acoustic guitar purists would blanch at the thought, but it's perfect for me because I play my acoustic through an amp half the time, with (gasp) a distortion box.

Lately I've taken a greater interest in understanding acoustic guitars, sitting down with them and trying to train my ear to hear the differences. Way more than with electrics it seems like every acoustic is a living thing; two guitars made on the same day are going to have appreciable differences in tone. Jeeze, how are you supposed to ever choose one? If you go into Dusty Strings and buy the best sounding guitar in the place, who's to say the next day they don't get one you like better? It's daunting considering how expensive they are.

CB: If you look through photos of shows from the last year, you’ve used a wide array of guitars. I’m assuming you occasionally borrow from friends. How many guitars do you actually own? Who do you know that has an impressive collection?

JR: I own about twenty-five guitars, and most of them cost me less than three or four hundred dollars. I have an unusual collection of guitars in that very few of them are what you would call prized or vintage. Most of them are weird, cheap guitars that happen to play really great and sound really unique. I spent so much time in guitar stores that, although I did learn how to tell the difference between a '55 and a '56 goldtop and all that crap, what I really figured out is that most guitars, no matter how expensive, aren't that cool. Sometimes you find one that's really cool, and when you find one, you buy it. People spend thousands on guitars that just feel lame, that sound plain, and that smell funny. Meanwhile, they turn their noses up at some Japanese or Italian or off-brand guitar that, from the second you pick it up, you know that it's been made with love and it's full of music.

Lately I've been playing a lot of Gibsons, because the Gibson company has been incredibly generous about loaning me guitars to use on tour. They've opened a showroom in Seattle and are supporting a lot of touring bands. It's a fantastic resource. I get to play Les Pauls and ES-335s that I wouldn't be able to afford otherwise.

I've known a lot of musicians who've had incredible guitars over the years, but most musicians buy and sell guitars right and left to finance their habit, so although they've had a world-class "collection" over the course of their lives, they really only have one or two guitars at a time. Because my guitars are mostly cheapos, I've never had much success selling them off. I even tried to sell my Rickenbacker once, years ago, because I thought I wanted a Les Paul, but the Ricky just sat on the wall in the guitar store for months until they asked me to take it back. No one wanted it because it had been modified. I'm grateful it didn't sell, because eventually I discovered my own "tone" through playing that guitar, and that taught me a lesson about selling things. One guy I know with a great collection of eclectic guitars is Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie. He's got a fantastic eye and ear, and he uses them all.

CB: I love to play all manner of guitars but I also view guitars as works of art that are just as pleasurable to look at across the room as a fine painting. Plus you get to fondle them. Do you feel that way at all?

JR: I do, but I'm torn too. Working at a vintage guitar shop like Emerald City, which has made a name for itself as having some of the world's greatest guitars, it's somewhat of a mixed blessing to see great guitars treated as works of art. Never mind that a '59 Les Paul in fair condition is worth a million dollars, which guarantees that no working musician will ever seriously play a '59 Les Paul again. It also means that a '79 Les Paul is worth thousands of dollars, where a '79 Les Paul shouldn't be any great shakes. As the market for "guitars as collectibles" has gone through the roof, the side-effect is that working guitarists don't have access to those instruments. Every Microsoft millionaire with ten vintage guitars in a humidity-controlled vault means ten other guitarists who have to save for a year to buy some crappy, second-rate Strat. I wonder whether it's just a yuppie phenomenon. All these middle-aged guys who love Clapton are driving up the price of guitars, but when they die the market could crash. Their kids who love Eminem might not care.

CB: You used to plug into two amps on stage, one clean, one dirty. Tell us a little bit about that combination and how you arrived at that.

JR: I have used two amps, in stereo, one a Fender Deluxe and one a Vox AC-15, but I quit doing it a while back. It's a great sounding rig, but there's such a thing a guitar-geek overkill. Who am I kidding? Guitar-geek overkill is a major factor in rock music. I meet guys on the road who have a guitar rig that cost tens of thousands of dollars! The fact is, no matter how cool your amps and guitars and effects pedals, the sound is always mic'd into the same $100 SHURE SM-57 microphone no matter whether you're playing the Crocodile Cafe or Madison Square Garden. I saw Weezer play one time where they had no amps at all and played their guitars through PODs, and even ZZ Top uses some shitty modeling amps now. I'll never go that far, but I started to feel like two amps was some silly-assed shit.

Amps are just as fetishized as guitars, and again, a great amp is worth its weight in gold. But when you're touring six months of the year, you try to strike a balance between sounding great and being reliable and easy to use. A Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier has more knobs and switches than a 747, and a 747 takes three guys to fly. It's not worth the headache. Meanwhile an early '60's Fender Vibroverb will set you back ten thousand dollars in good condition. Only collectors can afford that stuff now. My reissue '65 Deluxe might not sound like manna from heaven, but it cost five hundred dollars and I've been using it without incident for five years straight.

CB: How about your effects setup, what’s going on in between your guitar and amp? You seem to be pretty minimal, fairly clean with some breakup. Is there something on your pedal board you step on like once a year but just can’t bring yourself to put away?

JR: I use three different line boosts: a micro amp, an EH LPB-1, and a tube screamer. They just hit the amp harder, one, two, three. Then a delay pedal at the end. I keep trying to find a magic fifth pedal and have tried every kind of chorus, flange, pitch shifter and envelope filter, but I end up never using them except as a joke. Since I'm also the singer of my band, I can't really be the "color" guy who lays down the tasty tremolo/chorus fills. I just hit the amp hard and saw away at the strings. Maybe for the next record I'll spend more time making my guitar sound like a underwater cello.

CB: Are you still tinkering with your guitar sound? Do you think it’s always something to experiment with? I’m guessing your fans would be a bit thrown off if you started using a Crybaby or some nu-metal distortion box.

JR: I'm always messing around, but in general I've figured out how to get any usable guitar through any normal amp to sound like "me". I've tried hundreds of distortion pedals over the years, and after a week or so I've tweaked them so they end up sounding exactly like a micro amp. There's a trade-off between being creative and keeping your identity, and although I'll put plenty of effects on stuff in the studio, when we play live I usually find a way to play it with my regular set-up. A lot of neo New Wave bands are using a super trebly clean sound these days, but I find it annoying. Likewise the hyper-saturated, compressed arena-rock tone. I like a guitar to go "Kerrang!"

CB: For many musicians, there’s this fine balance between what you want and what you can actually afford. Is there a “dream guitar” that you covet but just can’t find or can’t bring yourself to lay down the cash for?

JR: Sure, at one time or another I've coveted every guitar there is, but like I say, the truly great American electric guitars are not just priced out of my range, they're priced unreasonably considering how they're meant to be used. I always wanted an early-seventies Tele Custom or Deluxe, for example, but for the same amount I could spend two months in Argentina. Why the hell would I buy a guitar for that much money? You can get a cheap-assed copy, made in Korea or Mexico, run it through a Tube Screamer, and sound as good as Franz Ferdinand, at least. I'll be the first person to tell you that a great vintage guitar sounds noticeably, appreciably warmer and fatter and plays more wonderfully than a cheap, birchwood copy, but guitars are first and foremost tools for making music, meant to be bashed around and leaned against amps and sweated on. If all the nice guitars cost five thousand dollars or more, then people had better get used to rock bands making music on shitty sounding guitars. Oh, wait, I guess we're all WELL used to that.

That said, I've always wanted a Mosrite Ventures model, and a Gretch Country Gentleman, and a white Gibson Explorer. Maybe this year I'll splurge and get the Explorer before Dave Grohl breaks them all.