Frets Magazine 2002 | By Andy Ellis, Photos by Jack Bingham
Even before he started recording House of Guitars [Virtue Records], Ed Gerhard knew it would differ radically from his previous albums. The concept would be simple, but daring: Round up a bevy of inexpensive pawnshop guitars and play them as is – without even changing the strings.
You’re known for playing high-end instruments, so why go with pawnshop guitars this time around?
Over the years I’ve played some really fine guitars, such as my Somogyi, my Breedlove, and my ’67 Martin D-18. But I also remember going into shops as a kid and seeing these cheapo, funky looking guitars hanging on the walls. For some reason, the sound of those old instruments never left my head. I guess I connected that sound to the blues records and field recordings I’d loved,
such as Texas Songster by Mance Lipscomb. He’s holding a Harmony Sovereign on the cover.
A couple of years ago, I was in a guitar shop and saw this old OM size, solid-mahogany Harmony. I started playing it, and I was thrilled by its sound. That gave me the idea to make a record using nothing but old, cheapo guitars.
Some of this, frankly, is a reaction to the current mania for high-end guitars. I’ve met guys who have gone through 20 or 30 boutique steel strings looking for their tone. Basically, when you’re playing a guitar of that caliber, it’s telling you what you don’t want to hear, which is, “Dude, your tone sucks.” No matter what you play, your tone isn’t in the guitar. It’s in you. A different instrument will bring out different aspects of your tone, but it doesn’t provide it for you. You have to develop it yourself, one day at a time.
Why didn’t you set up your pawnshop prizes. or at least change the strings?
I thought it would be more interesting to play the guitars as I found them. Some of the strings were pretty rusty, and, at times, it felt perilous to play them – I was concerned that I’d slice my fingers! But I only changed strings on the lap steels, which were strung way too light for playing with a heavy steel bar.
Did you face any other difficulties using these off-the-wall guitars?
I had a few intonation problems recording the Beatles tune, “I Will.” I tracked the song’s first part on a Harmony Sovereign, and the intonation was a little dicey-the notes would go a bit flat in some of the higher positions – but it was forgivable.
Tell us about some of your other cheapos.
I have two Oahu acoustic lap guitars – one has a round neck, the other is a squareneck model. These are 00 size guitars, and, unlike a Weissenborm, they don’t have hollow necks. You can hear the squareneck on a “Promised Land.” It has an explosive, Weissenborn-like sound with a beautiful, silvery high end. Actually, I think the guitar was ready to explode. I doubt it had been tuned up to open A/ before!
I also used a ’50s plastic Maccaferri archtop that still had its original strings. It makes this cool, acoustic distortion that reminds me of early R&B or Motown records where the singer hits the mic so hard it distorts the preamp. The Maccafcrri is the main guitar in “Because of You, This.” Also, on “Poor Wayfaring Stranger, you can really hear the distortion on the third verse, where I used the Maccaferri to harmonize with the squareneck Oahu. I added a touch of chorus which spread out the distortion and made it audible in a beautiful way.
That’s a Turkish, banjo-like instrument. This one has a fretless, 12-string oud neck, and its six pairs of strings are tuned in unisons, not octaves. It’s great for creating eerie, droning sounds. That’s what you hear at the beginning of” Just Can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes.” I tuned it to open D [D, A, D, F#, A, D], but pitched down to about C.
What other tunings did you use on House of Guitars?
In addition to standard and open D, I played in dropped D [D, A, D, G, B, E] and open G [D, G, D, G, B, D].
You recorded House of Guitars with a hard disk system. Has digital recording technology changed the way you work?
I used a 24-bit Ensoniq Paris Pro system, and I’ve found that hard-disk recording provides so many options that what used to take me four hours now takes 36 [laughs]. It’s like Nintendo-you get addicted to playing with it. And the convenience is unbeatable. I could record a tune and set up a rough mix to determine if I wanted to keep the parts. And whenever I got bored or stuck or uninspired, I could immediately go back to another tune with its previous mix intact.
Ultimately I discovered that I was putting off all the decision-making until way late in the process. I racked up take after take, figuring that I could create a tune by assembling the good stuff. I amassed about 30 gigabytes of music that I was never, ever going to listen to again because that would have been too tedious. So I just decided to commit myself earlier in the recording process. I discovered the essence of this record was performance, and I wasn’t going to be able to conjure that up by piecing together bits of music.
Describe your signal chain.
I have a TL Audio PA-l, which is their top-of-the-line, 2-channel tube mic preamp. The mics go into the pre, and I feed that signal straight into Paris.
What mics and miking techniques did you use on the album?
Mostly a pair of Neumann KM 184s. Sometimes I’d use a pair of KMS 140s or a large diaphragm TLM 193.
I’d occasionally default to an XY mic-placement pattern, because you get good stereo imaging and a perspective that holds up well in mono. But, to me, XY placement is a dull, unexciting way to mic a guitar. So I usually started with one mic pointing straight at the guitar near the 18th fret. Then, I’d move a second mic around until I got a sound I liked.
Because my room sounds good, I was also able to pull the mics back a bit to capture some natural ambience. For a strummed part such as “Wayfaring Stranger”- I’d move a mic in close to get some pick noise, but generally, the mics were back at least 18″ from the guitar.
Where did the second mic typically end up?
It depended on the guitar, but generally around the bridge area. Sometimes I’d move it up or down a foot, or point it at a different angle whatever gave me the most wood and body. I find it’s best to keep one mic static, and move the second one, rather than try to shift both mics around.
Any final advice for guitarists who want to make their own records?
You have to stick your neck out and not be afraid to fail. The only fatal mistake is bad material. A bad recording of good material is still way better than a good recording of bad material.