An Interview with James JY Young of Styx

The contribution that Styx has made to rock and roll is irrefutable. But the true magic of the band lies in their ability to survive the roller coaster ride of commercial success over the past 40 years. The band’s hits have been immortalized in countless movies and television commercials. Meanwhile, true Styx fans have enjoyed a rich back catalogue of music and a steady stream of tour dates. Styx is a timeless band whose music remains relevant today. You’re a Stratocaster guy, right?

James “JY” Young: Yeah I’m a custom strat type of guy. All of them have been modified in various ways by different people. I never use stock strats. I’ve got 3 or 4 guitars that I take with me on our "A" Rig and our "B" Rig which we use on the European tours, there are only 2 or 3 there. We use two different setups so that we can play a show one night in Las Vegas and then do a show the next night in Atlanta or something like that where it’s just simpler to have two sets of gear rather than lugging around one setup everywhere with those quick turnaround gigs.  Tell me about some of the modifications that have been made to your guitars.

Young: Typically I’m a guy who plays a strat, and that’s mostly due to Hendrix and his influence on me. All my strats have locking tremolos so they stay in tune. Starting back in 1990, I discovered these Sustainiac devices which were on Kramer Guitars. Then Kramer went out of business I realized that the feedback which is so hard to get and control in a live setting, this allows us to get that. Normally in order to get feedback, you need to crank your amp up really loud. This device allows you to get feedback at lower volumes, it’s an amazing thing. I’ve been using those devices for 20 years. I was using Kramer Guitars in the 90’s and then I found out I could get Sustainiacs installed on Stratocasters and that, along with some pushing from Tommy, I found my way back to the Stratocaster. Did you keep any of your early gear that by today’s standards would be considered vintage?

Young: I’ve got a vintage ’65 Stratocaster which I was the second owner of- I got it in ’68 I think. And I used that on all the classic Styx albums in our heyday all the way up until the 80’s. It might have some vintage value had I not put different pickups and things like that to it over the years.  How did you come to find the signature sound you were looking for?

Young: I was never afraid to venture into uncharted territory when it came to sound. I just love to play the guitar. In the very beginning I just wanted to play the guitar and let the engineer make it all sound good. As I became more of a producer type guy with my own studio, I learned a lot about recording guitars which helped me to learn how to tweak my guitar sound to my liking. Still, I have an amazing guitar tech that I’m sure can play better than I can and he is great to bounce ideas off of. Do you record with the same rig you play live with?

Young: At this stage I record on Marshall Amps, they’ve got a great clean sound. If there’s another amp laying around, I might try it out. So there are a few different amps that are used on the records these days but the Marshalls are my primary recording amps. Live, I was talked into getting one of these stereo rigs – I’ve got an Adana preamp for my crunchy sound and a Pierce for my clean sound. From there it branches off into two systems with a number of outboard devices. I’ve got a TC Electronics Digital Delay and an Eventide H3000 Processor, it changes all the time really. But I run that through Marshall 4x12 Cabinets with Greenback speakers in them.  Do you still use that Yoshinarator pedal?

Young: Ha! It was a device that was created by a guy I went to college with named, Dave Yoshinari. We went to engineering school together. It just happened that we sat next to each other in class because our names were next to each other in alphabetical order. But we became friends. He was a great keyboard player. We was designing circuit boards for companies like SHURE. Unfortunately he did pass away a few years back. The original design was based on the fact that in the old days, transistors weren’t exactly clean, they would distort. It was like tube distortion but it just happened because they were a crappy design. That whole design was designed for me to play “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix. I used it to get feedback on an F#, which is how the song starts out. It’s really difficult to get feedback on an F# which is the 11th fret on the G string. It’s not a very resonant position. So this device made the resonant frequency that I needed. It worked for me throughout Styx’s heyday and even into the early 90’s. It is retired now.  Are there any tricks you’ve learned from your experience in the studio working as a producer and engineer?

Young: It took me until probably the new millennium until I became enlightened to the sound of specific guitars through specific amplifiers. One trick I learned over the years is to turn the volume down on the guitar itself. That’s what ACDC does; you can get a bit more of a pure guitar sound when the volume is turned down. Whereas when you turn the volume all the way up, it gets a little crunchy with a bit more edge. The engineering mindset was to turn the guitar up because there was less chance of something interfering with the pickups when the guitar is turned up all the way. We’ve learned to work with the volume pots now and use them to our advantage in the studio to tweak the amount of crunch and clarity in our sound.  Do you have any new material in the works?

Young: It’s very difficult to get airplay of new material from a band like Styx. We’ve been spending a lot of time on the road because that the best way for us to spread our music to the new generations. And we love playing live more than we ever did before. There are some ideas for a new record but we just haven’t taken time off to commit to making a new record. It takes us 6 to 9 months to make a record. From a radio standpoint, it makes more sense to just put out one track out at a time as we get them done. We did just videotape a live performance where we played the Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight albums in their entirety. That DVD should be out this fall sometime.  We’ve got a great new lineup that has evolved over the past few years and this DVD will be a celebration of that. But there will be some new music from Styx at some point in the future.

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