An Open Book: Matt Scannell of Vertical Horizon

It's been written: Never judge a book by its cover. That is exceptional advice and well worth heeding when it comes to further investigation in the world of music. You never know what's lurking just below the surface.

Vertical Horizon is well known for their special brand of powerful pop hooks and memorable melody-laden hits. Songs such as "Everything You Want," "You're a God," and "Best I Ever Had" stick in your head like a piercing from the side stage at Lollapalooza. However, what you may not conclude from listening to Vertical Horizon is that Matt Scannell, lead guitarist, lead vocalist and the main songwriter for the band, has a dedication and passion for guitar that goes beyond the ordinary. When he starts talking about playing guitar, he's speaks from the heart and it shows.

Matt and the boys of VH (that's Vertical Horizon, not that other band which I wish would put out something soon... but I digress), have just released Go, their fifth CD on RCA Records. It's sure to fill the airwaves and pick up right where VH left off with their previous release, Everything You Want. That being said, let's get a closer look at Matt during production rehearsals for their upcoming tour. You'll be surprised to learn who Matt's favorite guitarists are, as well as what it sounds like to play through a one-hundred foot guitar cable. Let's join Matt and John - the interview is already in progress... What kind of pickups are you using on your guitar? 

Matt Scannell: It's what they call the Landau model from within the Custom Shop of Seymour Duncan land. But it's not really something they offer. I heard Mike use one and I really liked it. That's Michael Landau

Scannell: Yeah, he's kind of a hero of mine. I use two John Suhr single coils that cause the low-peak V60. The low peak is really the resonant peak of the pickup - it's a little bit lower than it is on a standard V-60. The pickup sounds a bit - a little bit less chimey, a little meatier. I love 'em. But it's still a single coil.

Scannell: Right, still a single coil. Yeah, it still hums (chuckles) Then, one of the coolest things that I do with all my Strats, is (install) this push/pull pot here. It gives me the Tele combination. It splits the humbucker and gives me one of the single coils. And it still gives me some hum cancelling. It's kinda cool. So what's the "Germ."

Scannell: The "Germ" is actually a line booster. The only way that I use it, it actually has two channels and I only use one side of this one. One channel is like a distortion pedal type side and the other one is just a totally clean boost. I like to use that to drive the signal. It just gives me control. I have such a long lead that goes from my rack up to my pedal board and back, that I like to have the "Germ" to help. I like to be able to adjust just how much signal that's getting to the front end of the amp. Do you notice any difference with the length of lead that you use?

Scannell: I do notice a difference with long cables, definitely. In fact I can tell the difference between different types of cables in about a seven to ten foot length. You probably wouldn't in a live situation but if we were to sit down and just geek out for a little while. You can definitely tell the difference. For me, as the cable gets longer, depending on the type of cable, the high end tends to loose a little bit of the clarity and it sounds a little more like you're rolling off the tone control on the guitar. I just don't like it. I remember reading stories about Albert Collins, I think, and he had like a hundred foot cable and he liked the way it sounded. But he also used an ash Tele with a maple board. It's interesting how cables really make a difference though. I sat and did some tests with a bunch of different brands and they all had their own tone.

Scannell: Oh totally, yeah. I would never have thought about that in my younger days.

Scannell: Never, never. You'd just go down to the guitar store and buy a freakin' cable. Now you go - The George L cable sounds different from the Monster and different from the Mogami. Right. Some of them squeeze the tone and some of them expand it.

Scannell: I was exactly sent a really expensive cable from Fender and I didn't like it at all, personally. I just didn't work for me. And so I called them up and said "I don't like this cable." And they said, "Well why don't you give it to your bass player, he might like it." And Sean plugged it in and he was like "Oh this is the greatest cable. I love this cable." And what it did was, it sort of attenuated the highs a little bit and brought out this really nice, compressed low end, which is really nice for a bass player but not so much for a guitar player. So did you go to college?

Scannell: I did, yeah, but not for music. I went to school, I went to boarding school and then college. I went to Georgetown University. I never went to school for music. I did study jazz history and classical music history but never performance in college. I was always so obsessed with the guitar that it didn't seem like I needed to spend any more time playing guitar. I had to spend time convincing myself that I needed to get an education. I think it worked out well. I'm a little more well-rounded than maybe I would have been, had I just spent time in my room and practiced my guitar all the time, which is really what I wanted to do. Did you take lessons during that time frame?

Scannell: I took lessons for about five to six years starting when I was about 13. Since then I've been learning other peoples stuff. I listen to a record and try to dissect it, mostly get the spirit of what someone is playing rather than learning something note for note. As a player I need to encourage myself to always try and find my own voice rather than take someone else's voice and just rip that off. For me a big player, a guy who influenced me tremendously, is Michael Landau. He plays - he's a huge session cat. He's played on all sorts of records but he also has some side projects. You can go to ( But he's got a record called Tales from the Bulge, with some amazing guitar playing. He's got this band called the Raging Honkies. They're one of the loudest bands I've ever seen.

Scannell: And he's an undeniable genius on the guitar. And so for me, I love going to see him play. He's really a wonderful player. A really nice guy. But it's important for me to sort of take it and then try to find my own way with it. 'Cause he's Landau and he's amazing and I just have to do my own thing. I felt the same way when I saw Eric Johnson. I've seen Eric play a lot and I don't have anywhere near the technical facility that he has, but at the same time I can appreciate where he's coming from and incorporate little bits of that into my own playing. It's a balance that you have to strike. I know some guys that can play all of Eric's licks and they can't write a song of their own. Yeah, there's the two - songwriting and the chops.

Scannell: Right, the songwriting versus chops debate. I think you have to focus on both, from my perspective. You have to learn both, in order to really feel comfortable and be creative with your instrument, you have to know your instrument. You have to understand - if you're looking for a particular emotion in your songwriting, then you have to be able to get that type of feeling from your instrument. The simplest things like, dealing with a major key like A Major or A Minor - or with the blues, that's a great place to start as far as your songwriting goes. It's easier to draw from your guitar playing experience if you are someone who has really been able to learn the instrument, you'll have a lot cooler musical ideas to draw the basis of songs. Nothing like having a bigger bag of tricks.

Scannell: A bigger bag of tricks. A bigger toolbox. Absolutely. Right. Do you have a daily practice routine, either when you're on the road or off the road?

Scannell: When I'm off the road, interestingly enough - one of the biggest challenges for me is my right hand. When I'm on the road, I generally don't have that much time to practice. I think people who think about being a musician, on the road, it's only about playing guitar. Unfortunately, it's really not the case. Generally the only time I have to play guitar is during the performance that night. Being the lead singer in the band, I have to spend an awful lot of time making sure that my voice is in shape. So in a way, my guitar playing, which I'm more comfortable with innately - I've spent more time playing my guitar in my life than I have singing - my guitar playing is something that, well, I don't take it for granted. But I have to focus on one or the other. So I generally want to make sure that my voice is in good shape. If my guitar playing is off one night, it's not the end of the world. If my singing is off one night, that's my job in this band that no one else can duplicate. So I sort of have a double job in this band, as well as being the main songwriter. I've got my hands full. That would be triple job.

Scannell: Yeah, my hands are pretty full. But I find that just working on things like your alternate picking and literally just running up and down scales (runs a flurry of scales). It's less about the notes you play with your left hand and more about getting some consistency with your right. And I hold a pick a little differently than probably the standard way - I see a lot of guys holding a pick with the long end down and I hold the pick with the small end down. Landau does that too.

Scannell: Does he really? A lot of guitar players that I've spoken to recently do this. For me, it comes from back when I was a kid I used to actually sand the edges down to a point. I wanted that real brittle, bright, squeally sound. You know, when you do the edge of your pick (plays squealing pick harmonic). I was really loving that then. But after a while I realized, I didn't want to go into a guitar store and not be able to use one of the picks that they had at the store. "Okay let me borrow one of your picks - now let me get out my sandpaper - hold on give me five minutes or so" (laughs). So I decided I'd start playing with the other edge of the pick. For me, it winds up having a slightly different tone. I like it a little bit mellower, interestingly enough, after all this time in pursuing a brighter tonality, I find myself going for a fuller sound. Compared to the other end, I can hear it. It does make a difference.

Scannell: Yeah, it does. The other thing is I use a really heavy pick. I use a pick that is probably like, I think it's 1.14mm, a really heavy pick. For a long time I used to use the thin, and then went to medium. I find that one thing that I really benefit from with a thicker pick is that there is less play in the pick. It allows you - when you're trying to execute something quickly - it's not forgiving. Your motion is very economical. The player who's instructional videos are wonderful and I encourage everybody to go get them are Eric Johnson's. He talks in depth about his use of a pick. He actually uses a very small Dunlop jazz pick. But he talks about there being very little give in the pick and as a result a very efficient pick stroke. And I think that's important. So for warm up routines you're basically running through scales?

Scannell: Yeah, I'll run through scales for a warm up. And the other thing I'll try to work on is my hybrid picking. It's something that I'm really trying to work through now. I'm not great at it but it's great practice - I'll start slow and then get a little quicker with each pass. It's a nice thing to learn how to do. You'll see a lot of country guys do it and you have more flexibility. You don't have to rely on just the pick. You can use your whole hand. It opens up all sorts of possibilities.

Scannell: Yeah, it's just really cool to work with your fingers as well. The pick has a very specific tone to it but your thumb will have a tone all its own. Use your fingers. Don't feel limited by your pick - it's an important lesson. I know from listening to Mark Knopfler's (Dire Straits) guitar playing, Jeff Beck's guitar playing - they don't use a pick. As a result their guitar playing is very easily identifiable. So when I do that, I hide my pick between the second knuckle on my second finger, just tuck it and hide it away and I can still use all my fingers to play. Do you use that in a live setting?

Scannell: Yeah, I do that all the time. If I'm playing a solo, I'll alternative between playing with a pick and playing with my fingers. I think that just broadens your palette. Do you, in the context of a live setting, are you switching a lot between your pickups? Even within one solo?

Scannell: Yeah, absolutely. Actually a pet peeve I have sometimes with guitar players when I listen to a solo and it's just one sound the whole time. Sometimes it's real nice but I love it when guitar players will change the pickups. You know Stevie Ray Vaughan was THE master of that. As a result, I think the tone - you're always captivated by both the notes that he was playing and the sounds that were coming out of his guitar. One of the ways he would do that would be to switch pickups in the middle of a phrase or to roll off the volume knob. If you've got a little bit of distortion on your amp, you can play something and then back if off a little bit. The difference in gain and tone is appreciable. It definitely gives you some tonal options. It's great to keep it exciting, from start to finish.

Scannell: Yeah, I think as a soloist - and I'm still learning - I'm a student of this, as much as anything. I'm listening to the greats - Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen. Eddie Van Halen did it with one pickup and a volume knob but he always kept his tones interesting. Michael Landau, like I mentioned. As a soloist it's important to keep peoples attention. It's important to have a beginning, middle, climax and an ending. When you're just throwing riffs together, it's very often a slightly lazy way to construct a solo. If you can really work something out and have peoples attention sort of captivated, make it more of a piece of music, that's also expressive to you as a soloist, I think you're just better off. Someone who really does that well for me, is Steve Howe from Yes. There's a tune - they did a tune - they did the Simon and Garfunkel tune "America" years and years and years ago and his solo on that song is unbelievable. But it's all these really cool musical ideas. So as a listener, I'm not bored with the guitar solo. All the guitar players out there are going to be into it but as a listener, a music listener, I wanted him to keep playing. Right, it's not just a collection of riffs. It's actually much more melodic.

Scannell: Yeah, yeah and don't do your real cool stuff, too soon. I see a lot of guys play and I've been guilty of this too. You know, you've got this new arpeggio that you've been working out and man, you're just going to play it. You're going to play it from the beginning of the solo. Well, that's okay, but maybe play some cool pentatonic stuff for a while and then when you get closer to the end of the solo, then bring out your really ripping licks. The climax.

Scannell: Yeah. Are you spending any time writing out your solos or composing your solo's, or is it more off the cuff, when you play them?

Scannell: When we play, I try to play as off the cuff as I can because so much of what I do is scripted. I have to sing the same words every night. I have to do the same patch changes on my pedal board every night. So when it comes time to play a solo, it's really refreshing to me to be able to play something off the top of my head. But when it's time to record, very often I'll actually spend some time trying to sing the solo in my head. I find that a melody, something that's memorable, very often will come more easily when I think of it as a singer than it will when I think of it as a guitar player. I think in terms of guitar playing, if you're playing in E Major, let's say E Major pentatonic will come up, or something in "the box." Not too inspiring or anything. But if you think about it in terms of a melody, there's so much more you can do with is. It's just nicer. If you think of it as a singer, for me, it becomes more memorable, sometimes. It's not just following the scale or falling victim to "the box." You're giving it a little more life.

Scannell: Yeah, yeah. And that's a challenge. It's a challenge for me. Night after night, I've learned those patterns and they're patterns that work. But it's really good for you to step out of that box and fall back into it if you really start screwing up - I mean, run back to the box in those circumstances. It'll be okay (laughs). Do you have any suggestions for players out there on how to get out of that "box?"

Scannell: I do, I do have some great suggestions and it actually follows the line of thinking about something like a vocalist. One of the ways to break out of boxes, of patterns, is to listen to singers. Listen to a song that you like and learn how to play the melody of the vocal. Very often it's simpler than you would imagine it would be. When you listen to the voice, it's very expressive, it's very beautiful. But when you sit down and start to listen to it, it turns out to be just a couple of notes. A singer is not going to sing (plays a guitar run filled with sixteenth notes). It just doesn't work that way. So now you're thinking outside of this box by thinking about things more melodically. And that can be very helpful. The other thing to do is, instead of thinking about the pentatonic box, think about things a little more linearly, I supposed you could say? Learn the same patterns from the major scale but instead of playing it the way you would a pentatonic scale, learn it in different positions. Also with interval skips - they're really nice and can add a lot to your playing. Try and get yourself up and down the neck. I think that's a really cool thing. And expression seems to be a thing for you. Just the tonality of it, for example, when you're copping the vocalists' lines. A little bit more vibrato, a little bit more tone like a human voice.

Scannell: Yeah. Instead of just hitting the notes within the box.

Scannell: Absolutely. That's a really good point. When you're playing a solo, try to play the way you'd want someone to sing it. So instead of just bending a note or even better, sliding up or not even giving it any vibrato - play it with a little feeling (plays strong vibrato with long sustain). Vibrato is another really important element that I think a lot of people maybe don't pay enough attention to. I hear a lot of guys play vibrato with more of a spastic thing or jerking motion or a bit of a nervous feeling to it. And I think if you go back and listen to like Eric Clapton's vibrato on some of the old Cream records. It'll be really nice for you to just slow it down. And that again, brings it back to something more like what a singer would do. How about gear? Give us a quick gear rundown for Matt Scannell.

Scannell: Gear rundown, hmmm. Okay, yeah. What other guitars are you using?

Scannell: I use PRS Guitars. I particularly like their guitar called a Hollowbody II. It's almost like a 335, a Gibson, but it's a little different. It's got a piezo bridge system in it. So you can alternate between an acoustic sound and an electric sound. And for me that's great. With the two of us on stage, Keith Cane and myself, we both use them sometimes and it's like having four guitar players on stage. First time I ever heard one live was Alex Lifeson from Rush was playing on the Test for Echo tour (1996). They're my favorite band. I went to see them play and Alex, in the middle of one of these tunes, busts out this acoustic sound, out of this guitar. And it's incredible.

I think a lot of people don't check it out because they think it's really complicated or something. It can be really simple: There's two cables out of your guitar; one goes into a DI and into the house PA and the other one into your rig. It's like getting two guitar players for the price of one. It's really nice. I also have a Hamer Flying V, although they call it the Vector, which I think is wonderful. It's a Korina wood guitar. And I use Taylor acoustic guitars. I have a 910. It's a dreadnaught. I have a Leo Kottke signature model six string. And that's about it.

Well, wait - I have a couple of Fender guitars that are pretty fantastic. I have a Relic Telecaster with an alder body and a rosewood board. One thing about Tele's for me, Tele's can be a little bright - a little strident sounding. So that I found that the rosewood board with the alder body on a Tele is a really nice combination. I've played some ash bodied, maple necked Tele's, like the Albert Collins thing we were talking about, but those can be a little unmanageable for me. Heads? Marshalls? 

Scannell: I'm an amp junkie. I love amps. I have so many amplifiers it's ridiculous. When we play live I use Marshall VSL50's. I like a 50 watt head. I see fewer tubes and fewer things to go wrong. We also don't play that loud on stage. We have in-ear monitors. I like to have my amp working harder but at a lower volume. As far as cabinets go, I use cabinets from a guy name Pete Cage, who makes Cage Amps out of Maryland. In there I have four green back, re-issue Celestion speakers. Sometimes they sound a little tight at first, you just have to work them through. But I have a whole lot of old Fender amps, black faced amps. Matchless amps. I love amps. I think that's one of the greatest ways in the studio to fill up the frequency range. Rather than going from a Les Paul to a Telecaster, very often I'll use the same guitar with a different amp and it can just fill up the recording in just a certain way. Plus you don't have to deal with the intonation issues that you sometimes do when you're switching guitars. It's almost the best of both worlds.

Scannell: It really can be. It's really nice to record a couple amps at once. You're playing one track and you've got three or four different amps. I have a Custom Audio Electronics amp splitter that allows you to do that. So you can plug into one box and then out of that box you can plug into the input of four different amplifiers. You can turn them on and off as you want and find the right combination. So for lead perhaps, you might use a different amp combo?

Scannell: Yeah, a lot of guys I see play have an amplifier for rhythm and a different amp for lead tones. I don't do that because I like the simplicity in a live situation. I actually only use one channel on my Marshall head, and I do most of the changes for cleaner tones just by turning down the volume on my guitar. But my needs as a singer, as the lead singer in the band, that doesn't come as naturally to me. My guitar playing is very second nature to me at this point. So keeping my rig simple allows me to focus on the things that I really need to focus on, mainly my singing.

And for guitar players out there, that's one thing that I would really encourage them to do. Learn how to sing, because if you're trying to get gigs, if you're trying to be in a band or market yourself as a musician, it's almost essential. When you come to the table, and they ask you, 'Can you sing?' You say, 'Yes, I can sing.' It's great to be able to play sixty-fourth notes, Mixolydian diminished-seventh arpeggios. But when it comes to do it, to have a career in music, you have to be a well-rounded musician. Learn different styles, playing it for no other reason than to say at the end of the day, maybe I can incorporate a country lick into one of my solos. But then if you can sing too, it's like you're a double-triple threat guy and you'll always get the job. It's like being a musician - more than just a guitar player. The guitar is just the tool...

Scannell: Yeah, I know I hear guys talk about being anti-technique: 'I just wanna plug into my guitar and play.' I just don't buy that personally. One thing I would recommend to kids is when you're playing chords. try and play something interesting. Try and experiment with interesting chords. For example, a C-sharp (C#) power chord. If you try and add a ninth in there - that's a chord I got from Andy Summers (of the Police). A lot of people play it - (think "Message in a Bottle"). But also if you switch the fingering around, still playing the C# chord, add the G# on top. You can do the same thing with major chords - an E Major chord - by throwing in the ninth. Those things sound really cool with a lot of distortion. Just try and make your playing interesting. With an E Major chord, one of my favorite substitutions is adding that ninth on the E Major. I use that all the time. It's just a thicker chord - a lusher chord. Matt - thanks for giving a peek into your world. We appreciate your time.

Scannell: No problem.

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