As many know, L.A. Guns formed after guitarist Tracii Guns moved on from the Guns N' Roses to deftly combine glam metal and hard rock with a punk urgency to nurture a solid live music fan base. That popularity assisted with achieving a major label signing to create records that have since been certified gold and led to bigger success from touring with huge bands such as AC/DC. The musical chairs of personnel within L.A. Guns is vast and the resultant dual versions of the band has morphed back into a more stable, less volatile unit that is mostly still intact as evidenced by the coherency of their latest 11th studio album The Missing Peace. It also sees L.A. Guns returning to Australia to deliver some classic hard rock songs with some rip snorting new material to boot. Australian Guitar caught up with founding member and respected guitarist Tracii Guns to talk about equipment via phone, shortly before embarking on the current Australian tour.
You’re finally coming back to Australia. The latest album has a bit of Randy Rhoads styled playing happening in the last track, ‘Gave It All Away’. Also, there’s a clear Jimi Hendrix influence in the song ‘Kill It or Die’.
Oh absolutely, Randy has always been one of my top five players. As for ‘Kill It or Die’, I had a demo running around for about ten years but I just could never record it in a way that was appealing to me. Then Shane [Fitzgibbon – drums] had some ideas that swung around the rhythm a little bit like a disco feel when it was mixed. I was thinking this was not going to see the light of day but it is an ear catcher.
Similarly, a song such as ‘Speed’ was something that you had tucked away for ages.
I had written it in 2008 and named the folder ‘Bad 80’s Cheese Metal’ so I had to have a peek. I thought ‘oh, wow, this is ‘Bad Ass 80’s Metal’’, so we played it live in the rehearsal and it was just very powerful with a lot of energy. It was exactly what we needed and it end up sounding good.
Your live guitars are generally Chubtone California Classics and Gibson Les Pauls. What are you bringing on the tour?
I am only bringing two guitars over because I am going to Hawaii immediately after Australia by myself. So it is definitely the Chubtone and one of two cherry sunburst Les Pauls. They are both loaded with the same DiMarzio and PAF59 pickups in them and they are a staple for the live performance.
How would you say a Chubtone guitar differs from say a Stratocaster or an ESP guitar?
I was twelve years old when the first Charvel guitar was at Guitar Center. They had a different feel from a typical Stratocaster because of the humbucker, a brass Fender style tremolo, a smooth, unfinished maple neck and swamp ash bodies. Chubtone is my buddy Matt [guitar builder Matthew Evan Stone] who used to work at Charvel in the early eighties and late seventies. He makes these incredible Californian guitars. They are just kind of a bulletproof, hotrod Strat. They’re very solid guitars and the neck joint doesn’t split. I put Super Distortions [DiMarzio] in them for more metal sounding musicand they’re an affordable high end guitar.
Are your guitar pickups generally set up with one for lead and one for rhythm?
Well, in a two pickup configuration, I’ll have the PAF59 [DiMarzio] in the neck position. I never turn my delay effect offlive, so it can’t be pushed too hard from the front and I have to be able to clean the guitar up a bit with my volume knob with a massive amount of gain from my pedalboard. So I like the PAF 59 because they’re clean, loud pickups. The Super Distortionenhances the bass and the high end so I get tonnes of sustain with that mushy, little bit of Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen sound from the eighties but still with an open and not compressed sound. They are not as hot as the pickups mostmetal bands are using these days so their effects tend to not be very subtle.
Did you ever get into the active pickups such as EMGs back in the 80’s?
No because I am a blues guy and that is where it starts. There is a certain compression that happens with those which is great for metal but when you want a bright, clean lead tone, those kinds of pickups tend to get dark. Even regular passive pickups will do that too if the wiring is wrong on the guitar. I just like a very basic guitar; anything that was made in the fifties is good enough for me.
Your amplifiers tend to be based on Plexi [Marshall with Plexiglas faceplate] models.
Yeah but it depends. A lot of guys are into the [JCM 800] 2203 and 2204s circuit which has an extra gain stage. If I was just going to run through amps then I would find some stock JCM 800s, some JMPs and a Boss distortion to get a bit more gain. Right now I am using a HeadRush Pedalboard [amplifier and effect modeling processor] and get the most massive, controllable guitar tone that I have ever had in my entire life. At the same time, I have signature amplifiers [RJS TG100W] coming out which is a 2204 circuit with a bit more gain but the extent of their use is probably in the studio so when I bring them out live I’ll use a power amp effects send to run my HeadRush through some real speakers.
Yeah, it just seems as though everyone is using Kempers or Fractals.
Yep but the HeadRush just crushes those. I don’t know whether it is the sampling or how they are doing their amp models but it is the most comfortable sound. I like to have three amplifiers running at the same time; one with chorus, one with delay and one with overdrive. I am able to get this ping-pong delay effect out of the HeadRush in stereo that emulates that and has a bit of a tape warble. Plus it has got a seven inch touchscreen to put the effects, amps and cabinets where you want them in the signal chain and you can split the chain into stereo or add a stereo effect. It has two different sets of EQs; one for the XLRs and one for the quarter inch out so if you want to run through amps behind you and go direct into the PA, you can run two simultaneous things live. For recording, plug straight into your computer and go through cabinet simulators until you are happy. Man, this sure makes life easy.
Nice. You mentioned a signature amplifier, is that more based on a 1960 Bugera amp or a Plexi?
The 1960 is the two gain circuit where it doesn’t have the third gain stage which is like a pre-amp tube. I really like the Bugera 1960 [Classic 150W] or any ’59 Plexi, they’re great amps. For L.A. Guns, if I am going to use a pre-amp it has to have more dirt at a lower volume. So, the amp is more like a JMP or a JCM 800 than a stock Plexi but the Bugera has a master attenuator on the back so you can crank the amp up to eight and have a master volume that you can cut maybe 20dB which is about right because a 100 watt tube amp with no gain stages is really loud. I was using 100 watt Plexis but I was just getting yelled at everyday and my initial comeback was, ‘well, you tell Ritchie Blackmore to turn it down’.
Before Slash became famous, you could probably pick up a Gibson Les Paul at a reasonable price. Did you get a bunch of those guitars before Guns N' Roses became huge?
I did. I got my first Les Paul for $720 brand new. It was a ’79 custom, natural finish and I immediately put a DiMarzio pickup like a Super Distortion in the bridge and a PAF in the neck. I was working all the time. So I traded up and eventually had an alpine white Les Paul custom, a black Standard and a tobacco burst. I had those guitars for a long time. Then when LA Guns started really rolling, you could still get a Les Paul new for under a grand. Then, all of sudden they just went nuts and it was like, ‘oh, jeez’.
You used a ’59 reissue [Gibson R9] on the latest album too.
Yeah, certain things you can’t argue with and a worn out Alnico V pickup is the guitar sound, especially in the neck if you want a bright and clear sound. A friend of mine named Sean with a company called Pariah pickups hand made me some PAFs. I have a set in two of my Les Pauls and one is wired kind of out of phase to get that Peter Green thing and those are really good sounding guitars.
You worked briefly with Michael Schenker in the Contraband side project. Did being around him create a big impact on your guitar playing as a result?
He had an impact on me before that. Strangers in the Night is one of the five records that I learned to play guitar from and most of the albums that I listened to as a teenager were live albums like Frampton Comes Alive, Strangers in the Night, stuff by Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Ozzy and obviously Led Zep’s The Song Remains the Same. I learned how to play guitar by jamming over all of those songs so when I got the call to do the Schenker record, I was confused because I knew I couldn’t just play fast and fluid like that or else you really wouldn’t be able to tell who is doing what, especially at that time. So it made me rethink my style so it was a good adventure doing that record. I played a Stratocaster into a Fender Bassman and leaned really heavily on more of a blues influence. The cool thing is that you can put the record on and there are two different lead guitar players doing stuff. We did a couple of live shows, only and they were pretty cool, man. Schenker was God.
Did his use of the wah pedal alter the way you approached the wah pedal?
That half-cocked wah thing is kind of a myth. I think that for a while in the seventies, he had a wah that had a different potentiometer in it and when he turned it on, it would give him more gain like a spike at around 3 kHz so that underwater sound is just rolling the tone knob back and that kind of stuff. I am still friends with him to this day and he finally got a delay pedal ten years ago. He is not real big on putting anything between the cable and the amplifier but he did always have the wah-wah. I talked to him about that and he said, ‘how could you, every night, know exactly where the halfway point is on the wah-wah pedal?’ Yeah, that makes sense to me. So much of my playing comes from his style, especially when it comes to playing cleanly where I would have a choice in my brain between a Jimmy Page type of blues solo or a Schenker kind of blues, legato style and a lot of times Schenker wins in my brain.
Finally, L.A. Guns got lumped in with the eighties shred guitar era a little bit.
Yeah, we got lumped into a lot but you just let the music do the talking and we’ve got a great chemistry like Phil [Lewis – vocals] and I do which I ignored for twelve years, it is really obvious. It’s up to me to make great records from now onbecause we’ve got to reward the fans that want our music and they want it to sound like L.A. Guns. It is a lot easier to do now, there is a lot less competition which is great for us but the eighties were the eighties. That is when our first records came out and I am proud to come from at least a section of that era.