Australian Guitar’s Jez Ford catches up with beloved shredder Steve Hackett to talk about 40 years of prog-rockin’ across the globe and revisiting the classic Genesis catalogue.

After 40 years of solo releases, Steve Hackett is enjoying his greatest success in years with The Night Siren: an album which involved sessions in Sardinia and Hungary with a global mix of musos. Yet, he’s also fully reconciled with his classic Genesis period, and for his upcoming Australian visit in August (which includes a stop-in at this year’s Melbourne Guitar Show – see pg. 6), he’s bringing the Genesis Revisited show – delighted prog fans can thank his promoters for the nostalgia trip. And if you listen closely, you may even hear shades of the late, great Gary Moore.

Your recent tours elsewhere have mixed Genesis material with more of your solo work. Why are you bringing the full Genesis Revisited show to Australia?
In a way, it’s an introduction to Australia. In the past few years, I’ve ceased performing exclusively Genesis and moved into more of a ‘half and half’ setup. But it depends on the place, and as this is a new territory for me, I’m happy to come back with what I’m best known for. I fought hard for those songs back in the day – the ethos of the band and where it went – so it doesn’t feel too much like a compromise. I’ll do one or two of my own things.

And do you bring your very favourite guitars on tour, or do you have workhorses for the road?
It’s a mixture. Actually, some of the most valuable guitars I’ve had on the road have since been retired. I’d rather use my Fernandes live because it’s got the Sustainer. The relationship [with Fernandes] goes back to the 1990s, when someone gave me a white Strat copy which had this interesting facility that sounded like an onboard EBow – for those initiated in the joys and vagaries of EBow! I’d been waiting for guitar manufacturers to make something like that for about 20 years, and it finally arrived. It didn’t play wonderfully as a guitar, but the facility itself was extraordinary. I first used it on the closing track of the Blues With A Feeling album.

I’ve had various models over the years, all slightly different. Just recently, I acquired two of Gary Moore’s guitars, both Fernandes Sustainer models. We shared a guitar tech, and when Gary passed on – which was completely unexpected – I said to Graham Lilley, who was handling the family estate, to please consider me if they were thinking of selling those at any point. So for these shows, I’m playing Gary’s Fernandes. We can’t tell the complete progeny of it — it’s about 20 years old, and Fernandes made a gift of that to him at the same time they made a gift of one to me. The one they gifted me was the Goldtop Fernandes, which was designed to look like a Les Paul Goldtop with the addition of a Floyd Rose trim – the only custom feature, as far as I can tell. I used Gary’s one on “The Gift”, the closing track of The Night Siren, which is really just guitars and some orchestral samples, so you get some idea of how the guitar really sings under its own steam.

The new album, The Night Siren, is proving to be a success for you — you must be tempted to throw a bit of that into the live set?
Yes, it’s done very well — it reached the Top 20 in England, Germany and Italy. I haven’t had an impression on the Italian charts for many years! So ironically I’ve got one thing taking off on the charts, and the promoters and agents wanting something else live. It’s funny, isn’t it? Hopefully there’ll be a next time — we’ll see how we go.

There are a lot of unusual instruments on the album, including a Persian tar and Peruvian charango. Do you collect unusual stuff?
I do. It’s an extension of having made friends with people all over the world: it’s not hard to do what I just did, with 20 people from all over the globe playing on the new album and sometimes bringing their instruments, sometimes making gifts of those to me. So I’m able to absorb a whole bunch of things beyond what I’m best known for, which is the guitar.

And on “Other Side of the Wall”, is that the 1973 Yairi nylon – your “Blood On The Rooftops” guitar?
On that flamenco-inspired introduction, yes. That’s actually more than one Yairi – one of them was wrecked in a plane situation recently, so I’m now back to working with some older ones. Luckily, I’ve acquired a few of them over the years. Easy come, easy go, I guess.

How about electronics, do you have a secret weapon on the road? We presume the Gizmotron has long since been retired.
Funnily enough, Gizmos have reconstituted themselves and I’ve been sent a new one, so I’m interested to find out what it does; I haven’t had time to ‘engage’ it yet. Of course, there’s lots of good pedals out there at the moment — I don’t think I have a ‘secret weapon’ as such, but I use a SansAmp for distortion and a Line 6 for a different kind of distortion. There’s an a Iron Boost made by Pete Cornish, which is so old that even he can’t remember what he put in it – no chance of a replacement there. And I have some analog mics: there’s a Beano Boost, which is very basic but very effective, and if I use it with a clean sound, it virtually turns my Fernandes into a Stratocaster; sound-wise, it’s the difference between single- coil pick-ups and humbuckers. I use a DigiTech Whammy pedal, and I’ve got a Mini POG for octave changes. Many of these things have since been updated, of course, but I’m working with things that I think do the business. At times, I’ve gone back to antique kit such as an MXR Phase 90 – ironically, I use the Eddie Van Halen model of that [the EVH Limited Edition]. I had the originals back in the day, and now I have a very brightly coloured one!

How do you keep in practise? What’s your daily guitar habit like these days?
Right now I’ve been on the road for almost two months non-stop, so I get to play three or four hours a day, what with soundchecks and rehearsing backstage and playing for almost two and a half hours with the mixture of solo and Genesis stuff. I was marvelling recently about the fact that my fingers don’t seem to crack quite as much as they used to, and having good callouses means you can slide around more. I’m not a great believer in hitting every note – I like to slide with salvos and cadenzas, and I prefer to slide between notes.

And you were tapping and sweep playing well before most people took it up — who inspired you there?
I think I was trying to channel Bach at the time; trying to figure out how he would have played a certain phrase if he had been a guitarist. The great man must have spoken back to me and said, “Why don’t you just do it all on one string, and use the flat of the nail to hammer on and off so you get more hammers from that?” And so it was 1971 when I started using that method with Genesis — the first recorded example was the Nursery Cryme album, on which a couple of tracks use it quite fully: “The Musical Box” and “Return Of The Giant Hogweed”. We used it quite extensively back in the day, and I chanced it live a few times. At first, I wasn’t able to do it in time at all – I was all over the place with it – but I found that by centring yourself and thinking more like a keyboard player, perhaps, it was possible to be the fastest gun in the West there – for a few seconds, while people were trying to figure out what I did.

The Bach is interesting — the correlation between complex guitar playing and classical composers.
With classical playing and composing, it’s a given, isn’t it? In Bach, you’ve got to have great technique, otherwise you won’t go anywhere near it. Those guys were so drilled back in the day that what we might consider exceptional in rock’n’roll terms wouldn’t be at all exceptional for a classical genius such as the great J.S. himself. I’m sure he’d shoot my technique full of holes. “You must go back and start again from the beginning, Herr Hackett!”

Let’s run through some quick-fire questions! True or false: You’re a distant cousin of AJ Hackett, who invented the bungie jump?
That would be something! But as far as I know, it’s just a coincidence. I can’t say for certain, of course...

True or false: “Spectral Mornings” was actually recorded at night.
Much of it, yes!

And finally, Genesis legend #37: you crushed a glass and hurt your hand when you heard the final mix of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Is that true?
That one is partly true. I did accidentally crush a wine glass in my hand and sever a tendon and a nerve, but they got stitched up and it works pretty well, luckily. It wasn’t because I heard the final mix... Though it wasn’t terribly good.