Adrian Legg: No Bones About It
Awards don't always tell the story, but they can help put things in perspective. Adrian Legg won the Guitar Player magazine Best Fingerstyle Guitarist award four years running in the mid '90s, then was voted Guitarist of the Decade by English magazine, Guitarist. Get the idea? The guy is amazing.
Guitar Bones, on Favored Nations Acoustic, shows Adrian taking a step back from the sometimes effect-laden world in which he usually resides. Using a modern reproduction of a 19th Century parlor guitar and just a couple of microphones, Legg recorded Bones in the simplest of circumstances. Yet the album's sparse beauty only seems to clarify his fluent fingerwork. He's quick, and he's a master of many styles.
In this thorough Guitar.com interview, Adrian took time to discuss, in his own comical way, his choice in custom-made guitars, his struggles with P.A. feedback and overhead luggage compartments, and the anatomy of Guitar Bones. Scalpel, please.
Guitar.com: Adrian, with Guitar Bones, you were one of the first artists to release a disc on Favored Nations Acoustic, the acoustic arm of Steve Vai's record label. How did you hook up with Steve?
Legg: We met several times over the last ten years or so. At one point we were on the same label - Relativity.
Guitar.com: Oh okay, that's right.
Legg: And then I did a tour with Joe [Satriani] and later on I did a tour with G3 with Joe and Steve and Eric [Johnson]. When we did Europe, I traveled on Steve's bus. A very pleasant, civilized man.
Guitar.com: You were just doing a solo gig.
Legg: Yeah, they threw me on first to see what happened.
Guitar.com: I saw your note: "To see if anybody would shoot."
Legg: Yeah (laughs), see if they're aiming.
Guitar.com: That's cool. Steve seems to be a really good guy.
Legg: He is, yeah.
Guitar.com: Tell us about the instruments you used on Guitar Bones. It's a bit of a departure for you.
Legg: The primary one was a Brook Creedy. It's like a 19th century parlor size. And it was really quite a revelation. I really think they got the guitar right in the 19th century...the acoustic anyway, and I think we've made nothing but mistakes ever since. It was just such a lovely guitar, just so alive I suppose. It came out of a box and I was convinced that they'd done a deal with the devil. It just worked right away and I haven't had that happen really ever before where the guitar just had its voice...everything. Wonderful.
Guitar.com: This is 100 year old guitar?
Legg: No, no, I doubt it's a year old yet.
Guitar.com: I'm not familiar with this manufacturer.
Legg: They're in Devon and they have a website, www.BrookGuitars.com and they make some lovely acoustics. I went through a whole bunch of them in a store in London. Gorgeous instruments, but it was the little one that struck me. I think we're just trying to move too much wood and too much air with too little string. It always seems to me that the bigger guitars don't really have voices and it takes a long time to get even near it. And then I'm not sure...I still think really that the big guitars are basically things for singers. I don't really think they're player instruments at all 'cause they don't respond to a player, they respond to being banged. So I think in the 19th century they got about as far as a guitar needed to go. Then after that it was the electric... 'cause if you need more volume, ultimately you have to amplify it.
Guitar.com: These are beautiful guitars, I'm looking at their site now.
Legg: Yeah, they're lovely. You see the little Creedy there?
Guitar.com: Yeah, I'm looking at that one right now.
Legg: That's a gorgeous thing...perfect size.
Guitar.com: Did you play parlor guitars before.
Legg: No, no. At one time I had one 16" New Yorker, I had a D-1235, I had a cedar top Lowden, and I had a Larrivee. I mean they're all quite nice guitars in their own way, but they went sour for me really. It was just a struggle to get them on stage and every time I took one on stage with a pickup variation or another pickup or a different tweak, it always sounded like crap and there wasn't anything right with the guitar as it was without amplification, so I suppose I accepted quite early on what our predecessors accepted. What you actually need is to make yourself something that works loud, and that's precisely what I did. So gradually over many years I got to that point where I did away with more and more of it because it wasn't producing the result on the stage. And I don't think it's necessarily the question of being that loud, more often it's a question of overcoming the kind of P.A. you find in a club.
You walk into some rock 'n' roll P.A. that's beaten up and has an EQ that's all over the place and it's quite often in a room that has an appalling standing life of it's own. So with an acoustic guitar you're trying to do the impossible, which is amplify the unamplifiable in appalling circumstances. So you're hooking up a box full of vibrating strings electronically to another system designed to vibrate air and hoping that you might get away with it. And in basic practical terms you can't. You end up with a very compromised instrument. So why not start from the premise that we actually want to make music in a situation that's going to be difficult and make an instrument that works rather than compromise a lovely instrument and fuck it up, you know?
Guitar.com: So tell us about your regular gear. Where do you get your guitars?
Legg: Well, if I need a guitar I go talk to my friend Bill and we either make it or I phone up whoever it is who already makes it. I don't really pay attention to stock guitars. It's the bits I'm interested in more, I suppose.
Guitar.com: Who is Bill?
Legg: Bill Puplett. He's the bloke who made my stage guitar and he's probably the reason I stopped doing any kind of repairing or tacking because he's just so good I don't need to bother....the reason I started in the first place was I got some work done that was so bad by somebody else, I figured well I can do better than that....I'll do it. So I did it for quite a long time and I worked in the instrument industry and I wanted to get back to playing. And Bill was just so good at stuff and the other guy I work with who did things for me was Flip Scipio out of New York. So between the pair of them, I don't think I'm ever going to do work as good as that so I might as well quit and leave it to them. But I got a problem getting in touch.
Guitar.com: Does Bill build many instruments?
Legg: He built mine.
Guitar.com: Does he have a website or anything we can link people to?
Legg: No, no. He just a fixture in London and trying not to work too hard and not fix anything terribly old (laughs).
Guitar.com: What effects are you using when you play live?
Legg: I'm using the stage guitar that Bill made. I use an AG Stomp which has turned out rather good actually. I used to have junk all over the place, you know with leads and boxes and stuff all together. It was a terrible mess and I found that the AG actually reduced that mess to one useful little lump so I could then have other things to make the mess (laughs). I'm having fun with it since.
Guitar.com: Are you?
Legg: Yeah, I love it.
Guitar.com: What else are you using?
Legg: A GR33 and a JV1010
Guitar.com: Roland synths?
Legg: Yeah, but it's kind of cheese with cheese on top, but you know, if you like cheese it's nice. (laughs) I used to worry about it, but I just like the sound so much. I love having this big sound. It's a bit erratic. It's actually very organic for strings because they respond very oddly to a right hand. You can't always guarantee it's going to come out right.
Guitar.com: What do you use for a pickup to run through the synth?
Legg: It's....what's it called? It says on the front...it's a GK2 2A.
Guitar.com: I guess that's still the pickup of choice for synthesizer work, isn't it?
Legg: There doesn't seem to be much else. I did a demo briefly for Gibson when they had the gimmicks thing starting and they used a hex pickup that the Shadow bloke made. That wasn't working for me. The GK2 doesn't work terribly well either really, to be honest. The curve on it is too severe and there isn't enough compensation on the synth itself to balance it properly so it's kind of a mess.
Guitar.com: You mean the curvature of the pickup in relation to the radius of your fret board?
Legg: That's absolutely right. It's much steeper than the strings are at that point so that you get loads out of the mid two strings and very little out of the edges. There's not enough compensation in the GR33 to deal with that. So it really is a bit of a shambles, but I'm getting away with it.
Guitar.com: And you've got this on an acoustic guitar?
Legg: No, it's on the one Bill made which is kind of a swamp ash body that was hollowed out before it was joined. The idea was to produce the minimum amount of cavity necessary to produce the kind of tone you wanted on stage.
Guitar.com: But this is not an acoustic guitar?
Legg: No, none of them are. As soon as I go on stage it's not an acoustic anymore.
Guitar.com: Well that's true.
Legg: It's just more or less electric by definition. I'm quite happy to accept that definition. I think the major point at issue with taking an acoustic on stage - it doesn't sound good. So it's a bit of accepting what you're going to do on stage and coming to terms with it rather than being religious about the acoustic.
Guitar.com: Sure. And what's the normal pick up that you have on this guitar?
Legg: An Ovation one.
Guitar.com: An add-on pickup?
Legg: No it's an Ovation pickup. I played Ovations for quite a long time. The thing that impressed me the most about them was the pickup. I think it's the core of the whole thing, I mean the round back stuff doesn't matter a damn, the pre-amp doesn't matter a damn. It's the actual transducer that really matters and I think that Ovation got that right. It's not pressure sensitive so you don't have pressure sensitivity issues.
Guitar.com: Right. And then you run this through the AG stomp also? And then into an amp or straight into the P.A.?
Legg: Usually straight into the P.A..
Guitar.com: Yeah, so there you really are at the mercy of the club's P.A.
Legg: Then you're in trouble.
Guitar.com: Why don't you carry your own P.A.?
Legg: I can't afford it. It would cost a fortune. We tour out of a rental car, my wife and I. That's how it works. Carrying a P.A., wow, that's a truck straightaway, isn't it?
Guitar.com: How many guitars do you bring on the road with you?
Legg: Just the one.
Guitar.com: Oh really?
Legg: Uh huh. Well we have to get there in a plane.
Guitar.com: Yeah that's true. Do they let you carry it on these days?
Legg: Mine, yes. The first thing that happened when they introduced the Boeing 777 on the Trans-Atlantic run was they were terribly nice to everybody cause it only had two engines and they didn't really want us to look out of the window too much. They really nudged us in a cabin. So they were very helpful and took my guitar which then was Ovation Adamas. They took it and put it in a closet for me and the first thing I did was get out my tape measure and measure the overhead because I had heard stories, but nobody had told me exactly how big it was. So I measured it and it was 37 1/2 inches. Perfect for the guitar Bill made cause there had to be 36 1/2 inches.
Guitar.com: ...in the case...
Legg: Yeah....in the bag. And that's it. And that's it. It just locked in neatly. I just wandered on the plane very coolly and pop it in the overhead no hassle.
Guitar.com: You know, it's aggravated me a few times when I've had stewardesses and flight attendants tell me I couldn't bring a guitar on board and then you see all these businessmen with their garment bags that are way bigger than my guitar case, you know, but....
Legg: I've never heard it from a flight crew....never hassles from flight crews except once I got upgraded to first class on Continental and I think the only reason they did it was that I was only person on the flight with a Continental Air miles card and I hardly every used them and the first class steward had nothing to do. So they upgraded me and then he gave me a hard time about the guitar because he had nothing else to do. That's the only time....oh yeah and Virgin were terrible, Virgin flight staff were just horrible about the guitar. And that guy made all his money to start his damn airline out with musicians! He's a bloody old blinker.
But United has always been very nice to me and the cabin crew has been fine. But it's always the ground staff that's the problem. You know you get some bullshit little minimum wage security guard who's trying to justify his existence and they give you the trouble. It's always been ground staff that hassles. And Canada was terrible too. Ground staff at Winnipeg ....they have a folk festival there every year and every year they kind of work up to it and do this Horatio at the bridge thing..."thou shall not pass" and they want to destroy an instrument at the folk festival. Then when you get on the plane having had a terrible time with these people, the airlines have no idea what you've been through. They just don't know. I'm surprised that folk festival is still going....they must have pissed off so many folkies and smacked so many instruments; I wouldn't go back there!
Guitar.com: Do you have any tips for people when they're flying other than to get their guitar designed to fit in the overhead?
Legg: No that's really it. There's no point in having a nice sound if you can't get it to the gig.
Guitar.com: Have you had to check guitars at certain times?
Legg: I used to. I used to check the Adamases in flight cases and the Adamases are no problem really. They're pretty much bomb proof anyway.
Legg: I've had chunks knocked off the case, but the flight case is just so heavy to carry around that it was just a nuisance. Just a major hassle. But then, there I was carrying around this dirty, great big air box that was actually a problem on stage, so it suddenly looked really stupid.
Legg: You know, why carry this big box all around. It takes up a huge amount of room and then there's a problem. So there's the argument for electric guitar, isn't it?
Legg: There it is.
Guitar.com: So how did you migrate to the AG stomp from all the pedals you used to use before?
Legg: It was just getting to be a dreadful mess repairing them all the time and there was always a broken cable....it was a nightmare to set them up.
Guitar.com: It wasn't particularly about the sound.
Legg: Primarily it wasn't, but when I did get hold of the AG Stomp it was ridiculous. I stayed with the multiple boxes before because prior to that every time I tried to use a single unit, it seemed to lose signal between the different stages and the sound coming out the far end, whatever you did to it, had half of it chopped off.
Legg: And so I kind of avoided them for a very long time and I suppose during that time the whole digital thing improved and now you go through the first A/D [analog to digital] stage and it's digital all the way through to the far end. With the AG I found I could preset the stuff pretty much where I wanted it and the sound was wonderful and it also did away with the DI boxes. So I did away with this whole stack of stuff all in one go. It comes out balanced line in stereo and you can back it up on little floppy discs. Yeah, I was really so impressed with it.
Legg: It suddenly reduced my set up time from half an hour to 2 minutes, and that's where my synths really went crazy and put the set up time back up to half an hour. (laughs)
Guitar.com: Uh huh. But on Guitar Bones, though, you pretty much did it all with an acoustic and a microphone....no effects.
Legg: A couple of those kinda' creamy gray Rodes microphones....I don't remember what number they are. Phil knows what they are [Editor's note: Producer Phil Hilborne.]. I just sat in front of him and played. He had nothing....just a guitar and there were a couple of tracks done on a stage guitar. The initial compression in the AGs are really nice....very smooth. They've done a good job on that, it's funny. Yamaha: They're pretty boring, but sometimes they get designs on things really together. You know, when you look at that Silent guitar, it's really functional.
Guitar.com: Which guitar?
Legg: The Silent guitar...have you seen them? Oh it's just a bullet from the headstock through to the tail piece with the stock... Yamaha Silent Guitar
Guitar.com: Oh, I saw their violin like that.
Legg: Yeah, I think Lori Anderson's got one. It's just great. You just reduce the thing to function. That really appealed. Unfortunately you can tell they don't have the Boeing 777 between American and Japan.
Guitar.com: Why's that?
Legg: [The guitar is] 38 1/2 inches long ....oops.
Guitar.com: So do you have one of these guitars?
Legg: I have been to take a look at them. I borrowed one to use at NAMM because I needed one to play Dean Markley's new strings on and the acoustics in their booth are always absolutely crap...dreadful PA. It's funny how NAMM...there are all these people at NAMM and they've got access to all the best toys in the world, the best gear and everything...they've got it in their warehouses and not one of them that can put a decent PA out...a decent show without fail.
Guitar.com: Well I think they're trying to bop us all over the head at those shows cause that's what it feels like after you leave those shows.
Legg: It was a nightmare and I have Frankfurt coming up. Do you do that?
Guitar.com: I've never been to it and I've heard it's ten times as big.
Legg: Ten times worse than NAMM. The best thing I ever saw at a trade show was this thing on the disco floor and it was like a great big cement mixer and it blew smoke rings! Huge smoke rings that made this great noise. Big smoke ring comes rolling out...it was wonderful. Of course everyone went up there and was trying to jump through the smoke rings and everything and after a while you couldn't see anything on that floor so they had to turn it off. The best thing I ever saw at a musical instrument show.
Guitar.com: What manufacturer was it, do you remember?
Legg: No I don't, but it was wonderful. A cement mixer... it blew smoke rings....gorgeous. I want one.
Guitar.com: That's cool. So tell me... give me some of your basic thoughts on this most recent album. It certainly seems like you took a little step backwards to a simpler situation.
Legg: Yeah, I suppose it is in a lot of ways. Looking back on it now it feels like a period of strength...get a grip on the guitar again before I go rolling off making even more noises. It's just so nice to play an acoustic sometimes. It's such a nice instrument. It's very personal because you hear a lot of it through your rib cage, you know, you can actually hear it because it sits against your rib cage. You find that with an electric sometimes if you put ear plugs in and hold an electric you'll hear it through the bones in your body. An acoustic does the same thing but it's a stronger feeling and I think that's why it's such a personal instrument, because the way you are physically affects how it sounds in a lot of ways. You know, someone like me who's a bit overweight stands back a bit.
An interesting thing, the Royal Society did something a few years ago, they're actually a very scientific organization. But they do kids lectures every Christmas and apparently they'd show holographic photos of somebody playing a violin and the vibrations going up the bones in his arm. Of course, that's why everybody sounds different playing the instrument. The way different people hold the guitar effects it.
So it's something immensely personal about the acoustic. And I think it gets more personal with a small one because you have an instrument that responds, you don't have this great vacant space that you're desperately trying to fill. You have an instrument there and then. I think what really appeals about the acoustic is the sense...the completeness about it...which is a complete myth, you know, because as soon as you go and play it to anybody else, you have to start adding stuff on. But at its basic, simplest...it has a sense of completeness. You hold the hold thing and that's very satisfying.
But then if you try to get on the stage and you get tragic and like I said before, the kind of acoustics I have were kind of soured by the experience of trying to get them on stage and constant failure. And it colored my feelings about the instruments. So I ended up not liking them and getting rid of them. So I'm trying to avoid that with this one. I just want to keep this as a personal thing and just play it sometimes and you know, not try to get it on stage and trash it and spoil it. So the album is that kind of feeling to me, anyway. I don't know how it feels to anybody else. That's how it felt for me...it's quite personal.
Guitar.com: You go through a lot of styles in a sense. I mean you touch on Celtic, you touch on blues, you touch on jazz, you touch on Chet Atkin. What leads you in all those directions?
Legg: I never thought of it like that. To use whatever language works, not even a language...style you use...whatever vernacular you need to express yourself and all those things are part of the European vernacular. I mean if you watch European television over the course of [a day] you'll hear just about every kind of music you can think of. It's quite normal and it's very diverse. You know we have all these different constituents within as our ancestors, from all over the place! Some of my ancestors are French, some of them Jewish; you know from all over the world. However my grandchildren are, let me see - they're English, French, Irish, Jewish, Welsh, Jamaican, Philipino, you know...we are diverse so why limit ourselves to one way of saying things?
Guitar.com: Are you saying that when you watch TV in America you hear a much more mono-cultural soundtrack.
Legg: Well American television is very homogenized. But I intend not to watch it because I don't get any news. Being in America is very isolating so I bring the computer and try to get the papers back home. At least I know what's going on in the world. I mean it's kind of an offensive thing to say at the moment isn't it, but I always felt like that in the 10 years...12 years I've been coming to America, until I started taking the computer with me, until the Guardian went on-line, I had no idea what was going on.
Guitar.com: Other than the point of view of what you see here.
Legg: Yeah, there's no access to the rest of the world. The news programs are just kind of cliches. Cliche upon cliche you know, the local murder, the big bad news, so it's essentially a corporate perspective and then a heartwarming local story. And then you get the wacky weatherman.
Guitar.com: Yeah, that's true. It's sad. And you're right, it's largely because big corporations are almost monopolizing the news business, which isn't exactly great news for the First Amendment. OK, well, Adrian, I look forward to seeing you next time you're playing out my way.
Guitar.com: Thank you very much for talking with us.
Legg: My pleasure. Bye.