Todd Rundgren on guitars

Todd Rundgren, Amsterdam, 23 september 2011

In september of 2011, Todd Rundgren was in The Netherlands for two shows with the Metropole Orchestra, organised and recorded by Dutch Radio 6. The recording went on air on January 1st, 2012.

You can read some info (in Dutch) on the programme’s web page.

Listen to the Co Live! radio show here.

The concert starts after exactly 2 hours. The hour before that you can hear several of Todd’s songs, as well as the man being interviewed in the studio.

Radio 6 producer Co de Kloet set me up for an interview with Todd, on a sunny afternoon in Amsterdam, just after he performed on radio with a local band. It was the first time I talked to him, one of my favourite artists of all time. Part of it was published in Dutch translation in Gitarist magazine, issue 251 of February 2012, but this is the complete transcription. Thanks to Imme for helping me get that done. Bart Versteeg took this photo while we were talking – check out his other Todd pics here.

(T) “I’ve had pretty good luck with the weather, recently. It’s not been too cold here in Amsterdam… We played, well, just about a year ago, we played in Japan, at a festival – I can’t remember the name of it – it was actually on the slopes of Mount Fuji. And it had rained the entire weekend. We were there on the last light, and we went on just before… a little bit before sunset, and it had rained the entire weekend, and it had completely clouded over, and nobody had seen Mount Fuji for the entire festival. But we came on for an hour set and just as we hit the stage, the clouds parted, and you could see Mount Fuji, and as soon as we were done, it all like closed up again. It was one of these, you know, big muddy festivals.

And then just last July we went to play another festival in Japan, called Fuji Rock, and it was kind of the same thing; raining all the time, like for almost everybody. And we came on for our set, and suddenly it stopped raining, and it didn’t rain for the entire set, and then after we returned it started raining again. So, I don’t know… we’ve been having some real good luck with the weather lately, which at some point will probably flip 180 degrees, and it will be really sunny until I come on, and then it will hail.”

(M) Hail, storm, thunder and lightning…

(T) “Yeah, a tornado, something like that…”

(M) I’d like to talk a bit about your guitars… Lately we’ve seen you play a lot on a green Stratocaster…  Is that a favourite guitar of yours?

(T) “It’s been pretty much my main instrument for a number of years now, going back… ooh, even into the 90’s. Uhmm, in the late 80’s we used to tour Japan a lot, partly because the Japan economy was so strong, and, comparatively, the American economy was weak, so that everything American looked cheap. And so it would bring lots of acts over to tour. I remember I was producing Japanese artists as well, because my fee suddenly looked cheap, considering it was in American dollars, and every time you’d go over there, people from guitar companies would come and bring instruments, just to give you, in the hope that they would get a picture with you playing it. And I started accumulating a number of these over several tours in the late 80’s and just sticking them in a warehouse somewhere. At some point I thought I had better go through these, make a real evaluation of them, which ones just look good, and which ones are really playable.

And that green one… The headstock just says ‘Project by Fernandes’, which essentially was, I think, the Japanese company that made Japanese Stratocasters. But they would also take the parts, the bodies and things like that, and build these other sorts of hybrid guitars, that weren’t like strictly Stratocasters. They had different kinds of pickups and different kinds of tailpieces on them. And that guitar – I wasn’t looking for something that just looked a certain way, it just had the best sound and the best playability and I have been using it ever since.

And I eventually gave it a name, called it Foamy, because it’s foam green. All my guitars eventually get names, usually some sort of nickname about the color they are. Even though I have played other guitars, I have guitars that I use as a spare, it’s pretty much the principal one. Except for the tours that I did the last couple of years, behind the Robert Johnson tribute record. In which case I actually got out and got myself a real guitar, a 1985 re-release of a 1962 Telecaster. And so I pretty much played that exclusively during a two-year period I guess, that I was touring the Robert Johnson material, because that is what I used when I made the record: I used the Telecaster.”

(M) I have actually seen you play so many guitars. In the 1970s – 1980s you had this weird shaped guitars and that made me presume that you didn’t really care what sort of guitar you played. You had your sound anyway…

(T) “Well, you could say for instance… I think you’re referring to the Veleno guitars, the chromium plated aluminum guitars. And we did that because of the look.  We needed something that could have this unusual shape, but would still be sturdy enough to tour with… And so, that was more or less part of a show concept. And the guitar was not really… You couldn’t really sit and play it, it was so odd, it wasn’t comfortable. It was only appropriate for actually doing a show with. I had two of those guitars, and they got burnt up in a warehouse fire. So they are completely disintegrated, unfortunately.

For a long time, I think in the 70’s, I used to play a modified Fender Mustang. And I did that for two reasons. One was: I wanted a guitar with a Fender-style tremolo bar. And I also wanted a guitar that had 22 frets, and a standard Stratocaster only had 21 frets, and a Mustang had 22. So I went for that. But also, the funny thing about the Mustang is that it’s a short scale guitar. I guess it’s considered a student guitar, almost.

So I had to replace the pickups, I replaced the switches… almost everything in it. The only thing we kept, essentially, were the neck and body and the tailpiece. And you could do some ridiculous kind of work with the tailpiece, even more than you could possible do with a Stratocaster. I mean, you could push the tailpiece down and the strings would just bow out like that [illustrates this point with gestures] and just be hanging there, you know, and you could pull it, and they would just go into the stratosphere as well. So you had a huge range with the tailpiece on that, so I would do a lot of tricks associated mostly with that tailpiece.

Then, I guess, in and throughout the 80’s, I was doing a lot of solo shows, and playing acoustic guitars, which I am not really comfortable with. I can’t say there’s any acoustic guitar that I would prefer to play over an electric guitar. I kind of grew up as an electric guitar player. I never went through a folk phase, so I never got really comfortable with an acoustic guitar.”

(M) So writing songs, you never sit down with an acoustic guitar?

(T) “No, I probably do most of my writing… Or at least it got to the point at which I would do almost all of my writing on the piano, just because the guitar is somehow, somewhat harmonically limited in terms of the number of notes you can play. You can only play six and I like to do these really big clusters where all of my fingers are on the keys, and you’re also limited, kind of, by your wing-span here [illustrates this point with gestures]. Piano is great for songwriting because you have every note just laid out there in front of you.”

(M) I can’t imagine you as a real studying guitar player…

(T) “Well, I am not much a real studying anything.  [both laugh] There was a time that I was really possessed with the instrument. That was like when I got out of high school and there were guitar players that I was emulating. I wanted to be Jeff Beck at first.”

(M) Not a bad idea.

(T) “And then after John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton came out, that’s what I wanted to be. And went totally mental about it.”

(M) You were studying it note for note, that sort of stuff?

(T) “Well, yeah… Every guitar player that I know, knows Hideaway note for note, Eric Clapton’s version. And the solo to Sunshine Of Your Love, every guitar player knows that…  So I spent a while just being complete mental about trying to play just like Eric Clapton, and then eventually realized that… that is kind of… you know, it’s a fool’s errand:  you are probably never going to do it, and if you do, people are going to say: ‘Well, that’s Eric Clapton, what are you good for? We still have Eric Clapton, who needs you?’ So eventually I started incorporating other influences into what I was doing and didn’t get so single-mindedly Claptonesque.

I was going through phases when guitarists inspired me to change. Stevie Ray Vaughan had a pretty big influence on me, though it is not as obvious as it is for other people. It is sort of Ersatz; he boiled Jimi Hendrix down to something really more concise, so it was easier to get a little more Jimi into what you were doing, just by… You know, you can sometimes get possessed with a certain sound, and I tended to always play with the bridge pickup on, and not so often with the neck pickup. So I started to realize there were possibilities in terms of the sounds that I wasn’t exploiting.

But then there are guitar players like Eddie Van Halen, but I just said: ‘That’s too much work, I’m never going to do that!’. All the hammer-on techniques and stuff like that, and the shredding: I am too old for that.”

(M) You were never a Gibson man, I guess?

(T) “Well, I was. I started out as a Gibson man. I started out with a Les Paul that I got in a Hop Shop for, like, 85 dollars, with the wide soap bar pickups, and started playing that when I first started playing in a blues band. It seemed appropriate, especially because I was very much into Michael Bloomfield at the time. We used to see the Paul Butterfield Band play in a club in New York called the Cafe au Go Go. It was an interesting club because the stage was in the narrow part of the room. So, the room was wide this way [gestures] and the stage was in the middle, so if you get in early enough, you can be, say, 6 feet away from somebody’s amplifier.

And I remember coming out half deaf there, after night after night after night of standing in front of Mike Bloomfield’s amplifier, or Eric Clapton’s amplifier, or… And I was very much into what Mike Bloomfield was doing, so I was playing Gibsons. I was in love with my Les Paul because that was what Mike Bloomfield played.

And then I had an opportunity to play… to actually own Eric Clapton’s painted SG, which I did own for 30 years, I think, and I played that a lot, and then it came to a point at which I thought that it’d become too valuable or fragile to take on the road.

And at one point in the 80’s a Japanese guy gave me a reproduction of it – same model, year, guitar. Painted the same. But he had painted it from pictures in a magazine, so it is actually much brighter than the original, the colors were brighter because the magazine colors were brighter, and he was just guessing what went on the back, there weren’t many pictures of the back of the guitar. So I played that a lot in the early Utopia years.”

(M) What did you do with the original?

(T) “The original was auctioned off by Sotheby’s in the 90’s. After Eric Clapton had his first auction, and that Brownie went for about 550.000 dollars, I suddenly realized how much these guitars were worth and realized I had no business owning something that expensive. It could get stolen or broken, you know, and also at the time I was in trouble with the taxman, so I essentially auctioned it off partly to settle up the tax bill, and then I donated a percentage to Eric’s clinic.

So… I don’t know who owns it or what, but I still own the reproduction. And the reproduction actually sounds a little better, reason being is that Eric or whomever you know had the guitar in possession, they took some windings of the pickups, so it would have a more piercing sound, thinner, something closer to a Fender Telecaster sound. So when you compare them side by side, the one that hasn’t had the pickups altered, it just has the bigger sound, a bigger richer sound to it…

And I don’t necessarily have any issue with Gibsons, it’s just that I have gotten used to the other form, I think. And I have gotten used to also having a tailpiece. I don’t always use it, but sometimes I like to have it, you know…”

(M) What about the amplification through the years, have you stuck to anything in particular?

(T) “I think when I first started out, my ideal amplifier was a Fender Bassman. Back then, you hadn’t any nice sounding pedals. A typical fuzz song had a nasty sound to it. So this Bassman was a good way to get that overdriven sound. But it would still have a nice round mellowness to it.”

(M) Not just the top end…

(T) “Yeah, it’s not real piercing. It’d get overdriven fairly easily but would not get real piercing because the speakers were big.

And then I think when we were in The Nazz, we were getting endorsement deals, and for a while we were playing amps that I hated. Sunn amps – Sunn, with two n’s. Man, I couldn’t make them sound good no matter what I did. I think I tried some combination of a little fuzz box and that, and then try and get a sound, but it never was representative, and I think when we were doing our initial recordings I was still using a Bassman.

By the time I was working with Utopia I – there might be a gap here that I can’t remember, but I think by the time I was working with Utopia, I was using a Mesa/Boogie and I used them fairly exclusively.”

(M) A relatively new company then.

(T) “Fairly new, yeah, a pretty new company, but there was a big buzz about them, and the great advantage they had: that they had two sounds. They had a foot pedal and they had two kinds of sounds. You could set up one kind of sound and they had separate lead sound. So I used Mesa/Boogies for a long time.

And the next big step for me was, like, in the 90’s, the early 90’s. I was producing an act for someone, and they came in with Line 6 amps. Actually they were called Two-Tone amps at the time, the AxSys 212. And both guitar players had one. And I was just mystified about how good the amp sounded, and how many sounds they could get out of the amp. So, from that point on up until this day I have been using Line 6 amps. Or Line 6 PODs. Like, you go to some countries, and they don’t know what Line 6 is, so I have to bring a Floor POD with me and then try and get a Fender Twin Reverb, which everybody has, to sound good with it.”

(M) Do you have you have a deal with Line 6, I mean, I don’t recall seeing an ad or anything…?

(T) “Let’s say I have a special relationship with them; it’s not necessarily a sort of an endorsement deal. But I get amps at cost from them and some things I get for free.

It’s a… in the US there is a, some sort of a union between Line 6 and a company called Propellerhead, which is where they make Reason and Record, which is what I use for my records as well, so it turned out to be a good relationship. They come to my rescue every once in a while, when I get caught somewhere without the proper software, or a software key or something. So I do have a good relationship with Line 6. But I would use the amps anyway. It’s great, especially when you’re traveling without an amp, to be able to tune in your sounds. My guitar tech keeps them in midi format, all the sounds, so if we get the proper model of Line 6 amp, we can just download my sounds into it.

Record is built into Reason, which doesn’t have any inputs itself. But, yeah, Line 6 guitar amps and Line 6 bass amps are built into Record. So I don’t even have to haul an amp out if I’m making a record…”

(M) That’s incredible… So, your recording is set up in Reason and Record, and after that in Logic and…

(T) “And my laptop! And then I got a couple of audio interfaces, you know, digital audio interfaces, and that’s pretty much all I need. And then, depending on what kind of project it is, you just find a space. The last three albums I produced in Kauai. One was in some guy’s little project studio, and the other was in somebody’s barn, and then another one was just in a vacation house we rented from someone; all we do is set up monitors and bring in the mics and there you are: instant studio.”

(M) Do you experiment with re-amping and that sort of techniques?

(T) “Well, that is kind of the point of the whole… of the way in which Line 6 is integrated into Reason: you are really recording the guitar dry. You’re recording it with nothing at all on it. So that if you’d bypass the amp, it would just sound like plain old unamplified electric guitar. That allows you, as you’re going through the process, to tweak the sounds to go with the track, as time goes on. And indeed, I did a Bad Religion album out there, and I talked them into recording that way. They had all their Marshalls and stuff like that, and we didn’t use any of them. I was using Pro Tools at the time, and the Line 6 Ant Farm plug-in and something like that. And so, on all original masters, if you bypass the plug-in, all these punk rock guys were lining up completely dry, dead guitar sound.”

(M) Funny.

(T) “But it was kind of for the same reason: instead of wasting time during the session and tweaking and tweaking and tweaking the sound because you think it’s going to be burnt on there and you can never change it, we were able to, you know, change the sounds infinitely afterwards, and just focus on the performance.”

(M) When you are on stage, the effect of a Marshall stack compared to a Line 6 amp…

(T) “Well, I haven’t… When I was playing with the New Cars… They’re the top of the line Line 6 amps, I think Vetta is the model name, and they actually are set up so that you can have two different amps on the same channel. In other words: every pre-set is not one amp; it’s two amps. So you can set up a Marshall-style amplifier and plug it into a Gallien-Krueger-style amplifier if you want, and it is still just one preset. So I think they factored in that whole thing of, you know, re-amping as well…”

(M) You’ve always been experimenting with the recording process. What do you think about – maybe they’re clichés –  but remarks like: ‘There’s nothing like analog’, ‘There’s nothing like tape to give the real atmosphere’, and all that?

(T) “Well, kind of the problem with that is: today, nobody’s listening to music that isn’t digitized at some phase of the process. Of course, there are probably people who are such purists that they will refuse to have anything released in any sort of digital format, so that you can only buy vinyl and only listen to it on a turntable. But in terms of, like, the broader audience: first of all, I’ve always had a philosophy as a producer of what the priority is. And biggest, hugest priority by 95 percent of the process is the song.”

(M) Yeah.

(T) “I mean, there is so much crappy music recorded; who cares whether it is digital or analog? First of all: you’ve got to have a bit of good music to play. And the second most important thing is that the act performs with some enthusiasm and sincerity, and they’re really into bringing the song to life. And the very last thing, the very least important thing, is the sound.

And I believe that’s (the) audience’s priority as well. You know, as soon as you’ve flipped from the musician’s head to the audience’s head, you suddenly realize that there is no standard of sound. There’s records that sound really clean and dry, and there’s records that sound huge and wet. There are records that sound like they are out of tune. There’s records like Louie Louie, where you cannot understand the lyrics, but there is something about the sounds, you know, that has a characteristic to it. It is not always the same sound, you know.

So, I think that people are completely adaptable to the sound. They think: ‘That’s the way it’s supposed to sound, isn’t it?’, you know. But the plain reality is that pretty much all media in this day and age gets digitized before it gets transmitted anywhere. What you hear on the radio has been… You know: they are not playing it on CD’s, likely the radio is digital.

And so it’s just a futile argument at this point, the analog-digital argument. It’s futile. There is no way to turn back the clock, for a little… sort of an enclave, a little cult audience who would go out to find a vinyl store that had your ‘vinyl only’ record in it.

What did you get in the business for? Was it to be some sort of audio purist, or was it to make music? Unfortunately people get distracted by that. And it has no impact at all on music.”

(M) I wonder what you’re thinking when you’re on your own and listening back to your guitar playing… Can you distance yourself from how you recorded it and all that…?

(T) “I think at least on record, once in the studio, I make, you know, an attempt to play as well as I can. Live… it seems like… It’s a factor of how often, how long I have been on the road. At first I’ll just be wild and crazy and sloppy and something like that. And then, as time goes on, I tend to actually improve. My problem is that I don’t practice like a demon when I’m off the road. So when I’m off the road for three months or something like that, all my calouses fall off, I get more fumble-fingered, you know. And so… it takes steady playing live to reach my peak as a player. But it’s surprising: it still seems to be true that the more you play the better you get.”

(M) Yeah yeah…

(T) “Damn!” [laughs]

(M) Were you trained at all formally?

(T) [laughs some more] “When I was six or seven and I told my parents I wanted to play the guitar, we were sort of fortunate in those days that they would offer lessons in school. But the one instrument they didn’t offer lessons for was the guitar.”

(M) So you played the flute.

(T) “First I did the flute. But I couldn’t get the embouchure apart, get your mouth into the right shape, which takes time as well, to get that so that you know how that’s supposed to feel. But also, it is a kind of non-linear fingering and I couldn’t figure that out, either. I had a better time with my sister’s clarinet than I did with the flute. But I eventually pestered my parents into getting me a guitar, which they could get really cheap, like for 25 dollars, if they bought three months of guitar lessons. So, I took the three months of guitar lessons and then I was done. That was all of my formal training, in terms of guitar. Everything else was pretty much watching other guitar players and listening to other guitar players.

I probably could’ve used a few lessons to get to clean up my technique but… Like I said: I started out as a blues guitar player; your technique is your technique, that’s it.”

(M): What about other genres? Did you dig into jazz at all as a player, or..?

(T): “Well, I imagine that, you know, speedy runs aside, that I could conceivable learn how to play jazz; it’s simply a question of modalities, but…”

(M): Some of your chord progressions, some have a jazzy touch.

(T): “Yeah, that’s kind of evidence that… ehm… it’s really kind of a mental thing that I never really got into… I don’t have a lot of jazz theory, either. To me, when someone says jazz, what I conjure up in my mind is what it’s supposed to be. But it’s still just changes, and things like that, and sometimes more sophisticated changes than you have in typical pop music, but I haven’t been afraid to use those for my songwriting. So I should be able to understand it, it’s just that I never made the great effort.

I think what has happened is that over time I plateaued as a guitar player because I’ve invested all of my energy into trying to be a better singer. When I first started out I didn’t sing at all. And even my first couple of records I was nothing more than a studio singer. Cause I’d punch in all the out of tune notes and stop and take a breath, and things like that. When I first started touring my own tours, I couldn’t make it through a forty minute set. My voice would be blown out the first 15, 20 minutes. So it took years, I guess, of touring for me, to even develop the stamina to be able to do an hour. Now I can do, like, two and a half hours, so it doesn’t really bother me that much. But I think I made a decision, probably in the late 80s, that I wanted to be a better singer. And that is what essentially I invested my energy in: in being a better singer.”

(M): Relatively late, you had a considerable career already…

(T): “Yeah, I guess. And also, there are new generations of guitar players that come along who redefine it in certain ways, you know, and like, new audiences hear the instruments in certain ways and you would have to adapt your style constantly to what new audiences hear. I can’t… I’m not really gonna try and play like Jack White, you know. I’m not going to try and play like Dinosaur Jr, although that is more like the way kids hear guitar nowadays.”

(M): Yeah… I think: both ways, really…

(T): “It is sort of possible, and I’d like to push my own envelope if I can. But… I think it’s unlikely that I will hear another guitar player and suddenly say: ‘Oh, I got to get back to my guitar and learn this new stuff, and do that.’ As a matter of fact, I am kind of moving more towards this stuff I’m doing here, with an orchestra, or theatrical type things. I’m getting all to the point that I have to think about readjusting the way I perform live.

The hardest part about it is the touring. It’s the traveling at this point. Less so than the actual performance. It wears you out. You pick up all sorts of diseases and things on the road, so you wind up performing sick. I’d like to be able to get into more theatrical things, where you set up some place and you play for a week or two weeks, something more like that. Get comfortable with a place, get to a town and get to kind of know the town better. So it’s all a sort of lifestyle thing as much as it is a strictly musical decision.

And also the awareness that I am going to come up against some physical limitations at some point, probably. Well, I have physical limitations now. I can’t stand for an hour without my knees aching. So… But you know there’s something about performing live – it’s a combination of ibuprofen that I take before the show and the adrenalin that the show kind of generates that makes it kind of not painful to get through the show. But at a certain point my knees will be my knees…”

(M): I thought it was quite brave – the Wizard tour – the way you did it. It was not an easy way.

(T): “Yeah, I still don’t believe in necessarily doing it the easy way. In other words: I am as much as possible ignoring what my body is telling me, you know. My body’s telling me: ‘Slow down’, and I say: ‘Fuck you! I’m not slowing down. Make me! Make me slow down…’ [laughs] So, that is probably what eventually will happen; I will have to get a knee replaced or something like that, and I’ll be forced to slow down, but uh… No, as long as I can do it, I probably will do it. Like I say, I get a lot of enjoyment out of it while it’s going on… I’m usually… All day beforehand I’m kinda conserving my energy so thoroughly that I’m almost [in] a catatonic state in some ways. And then after the show I can’t fall asleep, I’m all jacked up when the show’s over.”

(M) Party all night…

(T) “Yeah, that’s another thing that kind of makes the traveling hard: the fact that you may have to get up early in the morning. And the thing that, at least for me, is the single most requisite thing is enough sleep. The thing that will wear you down and make you sick and make you perform poorly is being fatigued all the time.”

(M) I’d like to – we could talk for hours, but – go through a couple of guitar things.

(T) “Sure…”

(M) Do you have a preferred set of pedals that you like to have with you always, that you use or you like to get back to, in the studio or live?

(T) “I’m trying to recall… At one point I used to have a Univibe as a regular part of my set-up. That’s the one sound that usually isn’t built into an amp in any way, although all Line 6 amps do have a Univibe effect that you can use. But I discovered that it didn’t sound as much like the real Univibe as I want. It’s not as controllable. But I used to like that sound a lot. It was very hot in the early 80’s.

My very first fuzz pedal, I remember, was the original [Gibson Maestro] Fuzz-Tone. And there’s something about… [pauses, reflects…] No, I’m thinking of a wah-wah pedal… It’s funny – I was never much into wah-wah pedals. I always felt that was an overused effect, and so I wasn’t crazy about it. Also it is hard to keep your balance when you’re stepping on it. And I don’t like to stand still that long. Yeah, the original Fuzz-Tone gave you the exact sound of Keith Richards on Satisfaction, that real buzzy thing. That was fun for a little while. But the problem with that was the cord. The guitar cord was, like, attached to the pedal and it was only about six feet long. So you were really… whether you were using the pedal or not, you were pinned to the pedal: you couldn’t get more than a couple of feet away from it. Then, I think, you know, smarter devices came out. I’m trying to think of any I might have depended on…”

(M) Electro-Harmonix stuff maybe?

(T) “No. It’s funny… Those little small pedals, I didn’t use many of them. My guitar player Jesse [Gress], he travels with a suitcase  full of them, his set-up – which I hector him about constantly. I’ll say: ‘You’ve got too much junk there’ – but it’s two full pallets of pedals, which he is constantly getting combinations of [illustrates something with hands]. Stuff like that, you know… And I say: ‘Jesse, I want you to go from this sound to that sound, you know, this sound for the chorus, that sound for the verse…’, and he’s like [imitates dull voice] ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do that, you know, because there’s too many buttons to push…’ And I’m thinking: ‘Hey – get a Line 6’, you know. [laughs] But he’s like totally possessed with the little stomp boxes.”

(M) I think it’s an addiction.

(T) “Yes it is. For some people it is. For me not. I always go for the simplest thing that I can possibly get. It goes along with my basic philosophy about the music being more important than the sound. I pretty much hew to that, except for those instances where I can’t get the sound I want.” [laughs]

(M) It happens.

(T) “I have some nightmare scenarios. For instance of the Montreux festival, where somebody asks you to sit in with them but you don’t get a soundcheck, you just get up on stage and plug your guitar in and hope that it sounds like something. And I just don’t know why I don’t learn, you know, but I keep on saying: ‘Oh, okay, I’ll come on with you, Carlos, and play’. And then Carlos will purposely pick the most complicated song they know so that I can’t play it. [laughs] And the amp will be hidden under the stage somewhere, and I can’t even figure out where the sound is coming out, let alone change anything on it. So… I guess that’s why I like… I kinda like the Line 6 stuff. I have a Floor Pod, as I mentioned, which substitutes whenever we can’t get the regular sounds, and I carry that around with me in my guitar case in such instances, and that gives me some confidence. But, yeah… I don’t like depending on too many of those things.”

(M) Do you always have the same string gauge?

(T) “It’s funny, at one point I was like down to .008’s. I don’t know why, just for some reason I was using .008’s. And I thought that the strings I was using were .009’s. Like, normally I like .009’s. And then I discover from my roadie that I’m using .010’s! [laughs] And maybe I just gotten more muscular in the hands or something – but I think it’s actually more a product of certain instruments and playing certain kinds of music… I had a tendency to break a lot of strings… I am thinking of the time that I was using .008’s or .009’s and they started sneaking .010’s in just to keep me from breaking so many strings. And nowadays I don’t break as many strings as I used to. I think it is likely the heavier strings as a factor.

I think the heavier strings are better because I keep the action high on the top of the neck and high on the higher strings than on the bottom strings [gets tangled up in the jargon, explains] Bottom, top, I don’t know! I always think: ‘bottom: low pitch…’ – but, in any case: the lower [ones] I always kept them down, closer to the neck than the high strings. Because I need to choke them really hard, and prefer to have my fingernails go under the other strings. So if I have enough action I can go under the other strings if necessary, rather than grabbing a whole wad of strings and pushing them.”

(M) Interesting theory.

(T) “Yeah. Nowadays, it has been surprising: I’ve gotten really good about the string breaking. Probably also because I have a good guitar tech who sets up the instrument properly and that sort of thing. It’s surprising how hard it is to find a good, a really good guitar tech. All the real good ones are with the really expensive acts.”

(M) Do you have any special wishes as far as guitars go? Did you ever think of just designing your own instrument from beginning to end?

(T) [reflects for a while] “Well, I can’t say I really understand everything that goes into the making of a good guitar. Like I said – I was playing Fender Mustangs at one point, playing the cheapest guitar available. And, you know, a lot of people like that. Some people like those old Kay guitars and Framus guitars [laughs], these old peculiar Silvertone guitars that got that strange clanky sound, you know, Danelectro, all of that stuff… And I think for certain kinds of music that’s great, and for certain kinds of players those things are great. Nobody has come to me and said: ‘Design a guitar from the ground up’, so I’m not exactly sure what kind of instrument I would make. I mean, the most important thing, if you’re designing a guitar of your own, is the body shape, isn’t it? The characteristic body shape? And just about everything has been done. Just before I left, I met with a guy, I’m trying to remember the name of the guitarist…. His father was the illustrator or the animator who originally did Felix The Cat… They have a whole lot of guitars designed, a lot of them have Felix The Cat in it.”

(M) I can look that up. (and I did; Todd is talking about Don Oriolo’s Felix The Cat guitars)

(T) “Well, I can wreck my brain but… They brought a bunch of guitars for me to see to one of the gigs recently, and they had one guitar that had the oddest shape you’d ever seen. It looked totally distorted, like it had gone into a… you know, like in The Fly, the movie The Fly, where two things that don’t belong together wind up in the chamber and what comes out the other side is some freak of the two. It just had this odd body shape, like on the up side it came up real far like this [gestures towards his left] , and it was kind of fat, and then it had two giant f-holes, it was semi-acoustic, and it went right around here and then went straight up, straight up, right here, and then totally flat on the other side of the neck. And I said: ‘Well, where did that shape come from? I mean – does that affect the sound or anything like that?’ He said: ‘No, when I was real little, about eight, and I was learning how to draw, I would just draw this bizarre-shaped instrument.’ He had never played the guitar, he’d just draw what he thought looked cool. Then when he started making guitars later, somebody he was working with saw the drawings and went: What’s that? We should make a guitar out of that drawing.’ So it’s literally the drawing that he made. That’s not based on any kind of guitar or knowledge of how a guitar should be built or sound. But it certainly was arresting-looking, and apparently – I didn’t plug it in to see what it sounds like – it sounds like a real guitar. So that, kind of, pointed up the fact that practically every shape for a guitar has been manufactured in one form or another.

“I was into, for a while, uh, when I was playing with The New Cars, Italia guitars, which I think are made in Canada, by the way [laughs; actually Italia is a Korean brand]. They had a knock-off of every distinctive body shape of every guitar that you’ve ever seen, plus a couple of their own shapes. And they have… they’re made out of this sparkly, like, toilet seat material, and things like that, and they’ve got like piping around them and that sort of thing… And they’re really super cheap, but they sound pretty good and they are playable. So… guitars like that I like to get for fun, not because it’s a serious instrument.”

(M) How many guitars do you have at the moment? Stupid question, but…

(T) “I’d be guessing, I’d be guessing, but I’d say not more than eight.”

(M) Oh.

(T) “Eight to twelve, and some of them are odd instruments that never get played. I had somebody give me something that resembled a baritone guitar that he’d designed. Actually, the guy who gave it to me wasn’t a designer but he was good friends with the designer, and the designer somehow had got it into his head to make it this super heavy guitar, but the strings were like… Like you started with the second bass string from a bass guitar, and the whole thing had to be tuned down like a whole step. And the only selling point of it was that it was always perfectly in tune. But it was just [lowers his voice a little] awful to play, for me. And it was a gift and I felt kind of guilty that I never really seriously played it, but it just was somebody’s idea that didn’t mesh with my style of playing. So, I’ve got this guitar and maybe, some day, there will be a project that will be just perfect for it. I keep it in a prominent place. I have a…. Have you ever heard of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark?”

(M) Yeah, sure.

(T) “She had some guitars made, that were actually sold in guitar stores, and saved one for me. It comes in a coffin-shaped case. That one never gets out of the case, either. I’ve got another guitar, that’s a reproduction of a Vox Teardrop. Actually, I think it is a Vox Teardrop bass. Cause… I never had any bass guitars, so a friend of mine gave me this Teardrop bass. But they are not guitars that get a lot of work, they are just guitars I have. Recently I got given a guitar that – see, this is where I get really bad, because I didn’t even memorize the manufacturer on the headstock – but I had a birthday recently and we were doing a little summer camp thing, and for my birthday a bunch of fans pitched in and had a guitar made for me. And it is actually a really nice instrument and it sounds really good, a really beautiful-looking instrument. Probably the most remarkable thing about it is the wood and the way that it was colored and things like that. So, I don’t even think of going out to buy guitars. The guitar that I used when I made the Robert Johnson record, was actually a guitar that a friend of mine, another guitar player, built for me out of parts that he had. And when I started doing the record it was the only guitar that was around. All my other guitars were on the mainland and I was in Kauai. And so I used it and I started playing. I never shop for guitars, except, as I said, recently when I was looking for a Telecaster. And a good Telecaster, not just any old…

Well, I thought I was just going to go in and get a contemporary whatever, and look for one that sounded right. But it’s surprising, even the newer ones, they don’t sound like each other; each one sounds a little different than the other one. And my wife said: ‘This is too important, you need to get like a real Telecaster.’ So we went… We were in… San Francisco. Was it San Francisco? No, I think it might have been LA. We went to the Guitar Center in LA and down into the vintage guitar department and looked at Telecasters that were there. They had one hanging up there that was 45.000 dollars, from 1957 or something like that – a true original. I got to play it, but I wasn’t considering buying it. But it was surprising, like, how through the years… how much the sound had changed on Telecasters. And then the thing that really kind of threw me was, I found one that they had listed at about 4500 dollars. And I thought: ‘That’s pretty stiff’, but it’s a price range that I can afford and it sounded good compared to a couple of other ones. And I finally gave it to my guitar tech, you know, to just give it the once-over, and he opened up the back, and it was just like somebody had been in there with a soldering iron doing something, and there were just gobs of junk all over the inside of it and… [laughs] I suddenly realized that is something you’re supposed to look for in the music store, if you’re buying a vintage instrument: you have to almost disassemble it and see what’s actually in it. So someone at some point had taken it out of its standardized condition, not exactly sure what they did, but we cleaned it up as much as possible and took out whatever funny business was in there. It still sounded really good. Still sounded good… I take it if you get the right pickups in it, that’s most of the battle. And otherwise, I guess, trying to get a neck that feels good.

“One of my first guitars – I had a Gibson but I also had a Telecaster, because I liked the way that it sounded mostly for chords, not so much for lead. And that had a rosewood fingerboard. So the biggest adjustment was the guitar that I bought had no rosewood fingerboard. It was just the maple neck. That was… That’s something unusual for me: not having an actual fingerboard. Just playing right on the neck. But I got used to it pretty quick. Not so bad.”

(M) It’s more like a change of mind that you have to make…

(T) “Yeah, well – it’s mostly being used to seeing the two layers when you look down the neck, you know. And suddenly it was all the same color and the dots were really tiny. That’s a problem that I have now that I’m getting older: I sometimes can’t see the dots [laughs]. So I have to get my guitar tech once every while paint them a little larger, so I can see where they are.”

(M) You see: don’t let your body get you down.

(T) [laughs] “Well, constant compensation in some sense…”

(M) Thank you very much.

(T) “My pleasure.”


7 thoughts on “Todd Rundgren on guitars

  1. Dear Mark,
    Great interview! Thanks a lot! I had already been looking for this interview, because I was the guy sitting next to Todd and listening in. So happy to sit next to the man, with a beer in the sun at the terrace of the Westergasfabriek ;-).

      1. Yes, Mark, I did miss the first part, but it is really great to read it back here ad verbatim! Greetings to you too and thanks again!

  2. Great interview. Usually guitars are the only things not discussed in these interviews. Thanks so much. I really enjoyed it.
    It’s funny that Todd liked the short scale mustangs. His hands are quite large.
    I’m not a Line 6 fan. They don’t sound good to me. Just saw Keith Richards with the Stones. His fenders sounded awesome.
    Looking forward to seeing 3 shows on Todd’s current tour in July.

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