Peter Frampton: The Guitarist

Peter Frampton talks about making his first instrumental album, Fingerprints.
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There are new surprises with each listen of Peter Frampton's first instrumental CD, Fingerprints (Universal, 2006). Doublings of the melody move around the stereo field, harmonies appear with unusual timbres, and there are plenty of subtle sonic touches to support his tasty soloing.

Frampton also keeps things fresh by exploring a variety of genres with numerous guest musicians: Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Hank Marvin and Brian Bennett of the Shadows, Matt Cameron and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes, English saxophonist Courtney Pine, and all-around string virtuoso John Jorgenson.

Many of the songs, and all of the overdubs, were tracked in Frampton's personal studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. The basic tracks were cut to a Studer 827 24-track analog recorder, then transferred to an AMD Opteron PC running Steinberg Nuendo. Outside studios were used for tracking some of the guest musicians, but most of the engineering is credited to Nashville-based Chuck Ainley and Aaron Swihart. A majority of the mixing was done by Swihart and Frampton.

It seems as if Frampton used nearly every tool at his disposal to make Fingerprints: myriad classic and modern guitars (each lovingly noted in the track listings), vintage amps, loops in Apple Garageband, various handheld recorders, and, of course, his signature effect, the Framptone talkbox. Yet all of this technology is used to serve one thing: the song.

What made you decide to do an instrumental album?
Well, it's way overdue. My passion has always been for the guitar: I started out playing guitar and composing music, not singing. And I've always wanted to do my own instrumental record album, ever since I learned my first Shadows record.

In fact, the reason why I started playing guitar in the first place was because of the Shadows — Cliff Richards's backup band — and because of the lead guitar player, Hank Marvin, in particular, as well as the American band, the Ventures. I knew that I'd started this solo project when I got the "Okay, I'm ready to do it" from Hank Marvin about doing "My Cup of Tea." Once I had Hank signed up to do a track with me, I knew that we'd started.

Even though this release is back with the major label that I was originally with, (which has now become a bigger major label, Universal), I said "It's all very good you wanting me to come back. But I don't think you're going to get what you wanted. The next record I'm making is instrumental." And they said "Fantastic." They got it. It wasn't like "Oh..." You know?

It's great that they didn't just expect you to make another pop hit.
Right. They've already got the catalog. That's what the basis of the agreement is all about, and it makes perfect sense because the record company has such an interest in my career that it behooves them to give me much more of a marketing budget than I would have with an independent label. Usually, when you ask an indie label what sort of budget do we have for marketing, they say "How much have you got?" It's such a thrill to not have to ask myself that. [Laughs.]

So, yes, it was great that they got it. For an instrumental record, I couldn't be more thrilled. I knew it was going to difficult and it wasn't going to have mass appeal. I wasn't about to change my mind, and I'm glad I didn't.

It must open other doors, if people can have an open mind that this is Peter Frampton, right? You have a Django-inspired tune, and you've got a blues song, which isn't really something people would usually associate with you.
No, it's not. But it's all stuff that I play and have played with other people. But people were polarized by Frampton Comes Alive, if that's the right way to look at it. People can't see anything else. Okay, they can see two other things: if pushed, they'll go "ah, yeah, 'I'm In You.'" and then the other thing is "Oh, Sergeant Pepper!" And, there, I've brought it up myself.

But Frampton Comes Alive was so big that they can't think about anything else. They've only got so much room in the brain to take in anything about Peter Frampton, and that's the thing that they remember.

It must be hard to overcome that. Is this record doing that for you?
Yeah, I think so. I think that since I started touring again, from around '92, it has been... I can't say "re-education" because it sounds so premeditated. The phenomenon of Frampton Comes Alive completely buried the musician, if you know what I mean. That's been the journey: To come back to the guitar player, and lead people there. And this record is obviously a major part of that game plan.

What are the difficulties in working on a project without vocals?
How you make the second verse more interesting than the first, because there are no lyrics. It's a wonderful challenge actually. I've written my fair share of instrumentals, so it wasn't like my first attempt. It was very interesting, I have to say.

I wasn't finished composing a piece until I was actually recording the melodies. I enjoyed composing and changing them on the spot. You'd have a pretty good idea, but then when you could take that idea and then expand on the theory and it starts to develop, that's when it gets interesting.

I didn't want it to be background music. That was absolutely the opposite of what I was going for. I was going for something that was very listenable, at a level that you would listen to a vocal. I had to keep it as interesting as possible, and that was that challenge. I think I did: I feel like each one has a mood.

Did you ever get to a point where you would listen to a nearly finished mix and say "Oh. This needs another part."
Absolutely, yeah. Sometimes I'd try it and keep it. And sometimes I'd try it and it was already finished. But the beauty of having the studio at home is that you can take that time and say "Okay, wait a second. We're going from mix mode back into overdub mode for a minute." Basically, that means you're not going to start mixing it again until tomorrow, because you've got to experiment for the rest of the day on trying to make it better. That's great. But on a normal budget, on a normal album schedule, one doesn't have the time or the money to do that. But I do. [Laughs.]

It seems like it would've taken a long time to record Fingerprints considering how many people were involved and all the different studios you used.
It took over a year and a half but, obviously, we weren't recording all the time. We were touring as well. If you put all the days together, I have no idea how long it took. But it wasn't break-neck speed, if you know what I mean.

So it wasn't like "You've got three months to deliver a record. Go do it."
No, it was not. There was no finish date. They kept on trying to give me finish dates. [Laughs.] I'm a sort of "It'll be ready when it's ready" guy. You can give me a deadline, but it'll only help a little.

Can you tell me about the session that included Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman on "Cornerstones?"
That was recorded at British Grove Studios in London. Bill has been a friend of mine — and Charlie for that matter — for many years. But I'm closer to Bill. Since I was about 14. He produced the first band I was in, when I was still at school, called the Preachers. I've known those guys a long time, and it wouldn't have been right for Bill not to be on the record.

So I just said "What do you think? Why don't you two play together again?" I think it's a major coup, actually, getting the original Rolling Stones's rhythm section together again. And they love playing with each other, too. It was fun to watch. Bill would go out there: "There's this one piece: I think I can just get this better." I said "Go on, then." Because he was doing some of his Wyman sliding: [imitates] "woov woov." Those things. And Charlie was watching the overdub and said "look at 'im. He's doing his Wyman thing. I love it." So it was good to see them enjoying each other. That was a fabulous day. Unbelievable.

What made you decide to cover "Black Hole Sun?"
Everybody's got those songs that just hit a nerve, big time. I have to stop and listen to "Black Hole Sun" whenever it comes on, and turn it up really loud. Chris Cornell has done some phenomenal melodic stuff. I'm a huge fan. And the guys in Audioslave are brilliant.

The song just doesn't go where you think it's going to go, and that's what's so attractive, melodically. It's not normal. [Laughs.] Maybe it is to Chris, but it's not to me. I just do not think that way at all, but I love the way he does. It's eye opening how differently people write.

What was your processing chain for the melody? It sounds like an autowah.
Yeah, it's a vintage Mu-tron III.

It responds so un-uniformly and musically. It sounds amazing on that track.
Yeah. Right before it, I'm using the Seymour Duncan boost pedal, which is very cool. It gives you three settings. One is flat and just boosts level. Then there are two different forms of boost added in there with a little bit of an EQ curve. But the reason I like it is that it's so simple. I use the flat setting and just boost the signal a little bit, and it overdrives the front-end of the Mu-tron a little further, to make sure that it hears every note that I'm playing.

It's very vocal sounding.
Because it's dynamically triggered, you are controlling it by how hard you play. It sounds really good live, too. It's just louder. [Laughs.]

Is there a favorite instrument or guitar-sound that inspires you?
For "Smokey" and "Double Nickels," it was a Gibson ES-175. Many years ago, I had an ES-175, the large-body jazz guitar used by Wes Montgomery and Steve Howe from Yes. I had one after I left Humble Pie, but somehow I must have sold it and got something else. Anyway, I got a 1959 at a very good local guitar dealer, Gary Dick's Classic Guitars. The sound that that guitar has! For someone that is immensely thrilled with the sound of Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, and George Benson, and all those wonderful silky sounds, this guitar can do them all. It's just phenomenal. Whether you play with your fingers, whether you play with your pick, it's just that jazz tone to die for. I'm very lucky.

Gordon Kennedy, my co-producer and co-writer, came up when I first got it and played it through another amp. I was playing through a Fender Tweed Twin that I have in combination with a Vox AC15. Funny combination, but the two just complemented each other. I do a lot of that: just mix and match. Wasn't very loud on either amp. It just had this silky sound. And Gordon said "That is actually the sound of butter." [Laughs.] I thought that was a nice way of putting it.

Let's say you are going to record a melody for a song. Do you know what guitar and amp to go to, or do you experiment to get the right sound?
Knowing whether it's going to be a clean sound or a dirty sound, like on "Double Nickels" or "Smokey:" I knew exactly what guitar and amp will make that clean-sound sound rich. With something using electric guitar, I'll go for the Marshall and the Les Paul first. There's just a plethora of mix-and-match options from then on.

Options you know already?
Each guitar has a sound. If I'm doing a heavy riff, I know that if I go to my '58 Les Paul Junior with the one P90 by the bridge, I know what that's going to sound like through every amp: it's going to sound incredibly good, rich—a great sort of Who rhythm sound. You get to know characteristics of guitars with different amps.

I recently got a Hank Marvin-model Strat, with the special tremolo. I've been playing that through different Fender amps. I've got a '62 and '63 Vibroverb. I've got a '62 Vibrolux. The Fender Twin is a '59. Just choosing the guitar and the amp can take a couple of hours. [Laughs.] It's very enjoyable, though.

Is Aaron Swihart your house engineer?
Aaron is someone I've been working with for two records now, so yeah. I wish he lived in Cincinnati, or that this studio was in Nashville, because he has to drive up and spend time away from home. He knows his stuff and is very methodical. He's the guy that knows the room and is a wonderful person to work with.

He has the same outlook towards sound as I do: there are no rules and let's experiment. But he's also got a lot of new stuff that he's learned from working with other people that play a completely different musical style than I do. He's well rounded and has a good pair of ears.

Do you ever engineer your own tracks?
Yes, I have done. The one thing I really like is to have someone around for recording drums, because it is so critical. I'll start engineering drums myself because my son plays drums and we're doing some demos for him. But it really is an art to recording drums. Everybody does it differently and there are no rules. But it's very, very important. If you can make those drums sound as good, if not better, than what they sound like in the studio, then you're a good engineer in my book.

You're recording to 24-track with 2-inch tape?
Yes, 2-inch tape to start with. Fill that up. Get the take you want. Then blow it over to Nuendo. And then we have 48 tracks going out of that, so it's like we're using two 24-tracks, which is wonderful. But it's as if they're linked, and you don't have to wait for them to wind back. [Laughs.]

So your studio is big enough that you can track basics with drums, guitars, and keyboards?
We've had five people track at a time here. A little tight, but it works.

Do you know ahead of time what mics and preamps you'll choose for each guitar setup?
Again, there are no rules. If I was doing a straight mono rhythm guitar or riff guitar, slightly distorted — say it was with a 20W Marshall head through a 4-by-12, which is a nice sound with a Gibson — there are two schools of thought that would generally work. Use a Shure SM57 up close, possibly with an AKG dynamic mic. If I want a room mic, I would probably use a Neumann U 67. I have a matched pair of 67s, originals. And they are phenomenal. That's one way.

The other way would be go with the 67. Where, in the previous scenario, the Shure SM57 would be right up close in the center of the paper, not the cone (so it wouldn't go straight in, but to the side), the opposite would be to have just the 67 about 18 inches away from the speaker. That's a richer sound, if that's what fits with the track you're doing. It all depends on what the track's like.

If it is a guitar solo, where it would be a more fully blown, flat-out sort of sound, I might put stereo room mics further away and use the 67s for that. And then put the dynamic mics up close.

What' s your mic preamp of choice?
It would have to be either the Neve 1073 or the Vintech X73. I love the Neve sound, and all the Vintech gear is like having Neve stuff, really.

When you were tracking drums in your studio, were you using your mics or does Aaron bring his setup?
A combination. He'll bring some bass drum mics: I don't have any of those at the moment. So he'll bring up a complete set of mics, but ends up using half mine and half his. Sometimes he'll use the 421s on the tom-toms. Sometimes he'll use something completely different. I never know what he's going to use, but it always sounds great. He's always experimenting, too, with different mics.

What made you decide to record "Souvenirs" with John Jorgenson?
Ever since I first heard guitar in the house, it was either my record, the Shadows, which I bought when I was young, or one of the ones my parents listened to — Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club de France. I didn't like it, but I heard Django Reinhardt in the house all the time.

I suddenly realized, after listening to it for about two or three years (I was only about 13 at the time), that there's this other guitarist that sounds incredible — this guy called Django Reinhardt. I enjoyed his technique, but I just couldn't get into the music. I've always said how melodically influenced I've been by him, although not necessarily technically. But you aspire, obviously, to greater things when you hear someone like that. [Laughs.]

Even going back to the Frampton Comes Alive-era, you're soloing has a jazzy feel to it, rhythmically. Not necessarily a rock-and-roll feel.
My style is definitely a hybrid, yes. It's never been straight blues. I guess it's just a mixture of all the different styles of jazz and blues I've listened to. I have to say I've listened to more jazz than I have blues.

I definitely hear it in your melodic writing. Your melodies have an extension that goes away from minor thirds and flat sevens. It crosses into other modal areas.
Well, I try. [Laughs.] I love playing guitar and I love melodies, and putting melodies over chords. And that's what writing music for me is all about: the effect of a melody over what's underneath it, however sparse that may be. If it's the right collection of notes, you've got magic.

What keeps me going musically is to find that new triad with this note that works, and all of a sudden a melody comes immediately, because it's such a turn-on. And that's what it is: it's just a search, for me, constantly looking every day for that new little phrase that will melodically go with this chord or whatever. And then you're off. It's called inspiration.

Take me through your songwriting and demoing process, if you will.
Say the tune "Grab a Chicken," with Gordon Kennedy and I. I had this rhythm part that is really the intro there.

The part you created in Garageband?
Yes. I had the top and bottom Es of the acoustic guitar tuned down to D. I just came up with that acoustic-guitar rhythm. Then we found the Garageband loop, and then Gordon and I set about writing the rest of the piece.

I log all the little bits that I like into iTunes now. I've got all these little digital recorders, like the M-Audio MicroTrack. I've got the Nagra one, and I've got the Edirol one as well. I have them in different rooms in my house, so that I can capture the little 15-second to 2-minute bits whenever I feel like sitting down and playing. Later, I go through them to find something where I say "wow, let's work on this." Even if that part gets trashed, I've started somewhere and there is an inspiration point. Gordon will play me bits, too, and we might start on one of his bits.

On "Grab a Chicken," we put a couple of guitars down over the top of those rhythms. We did the whole little demo track, the funky guitar parts and everything using Garageband.

When it was time to do add [drummer] Chad Cromwell, we decided to just do it from the demo. So we put the Garageband tracks onto Nuendo, and everybody else played to that. I think [bassist] John Regan and Chad probably played at the same time. Then we started overdubbing: Gordon and I replaced a few little bits, making better guitar sounds. So really, Garageband was like a sketch pad.

"Ida Y Vuelta" shows another way we worked. When I would see Stanley Sheldon, the original bass player from Frampton Comes Alive, I'd say "Do you want to do a track?" He's into Salsa and South American music. Every time I'd think about him, I'd think in that vein, and I came up with the opening lick of "Ida Y Vuelta." [Sings the lick.] That little chord sequence there. And, so, again, I put it on Garageband and put down the solo.

When it was time to actually do the track, we used the same tempo and everything. But the opening of the solo was so perfect, with the mood, because I had just written the idea: I hadn't even finished writing the melody yet.

I recorded the solo using two Audio-Technica mics into an iMic interface in my living room. We lifted the solo and put it into the track. And because the arrangement changed and the solo got longer, I had to then pick up where I left off. We only knew we needed to do this when we finished the tracks and did the solo. I tried redoing it from beginning to end, but I said, "What I want is on the demo." You know, demo-itis. So we just lifted it.

Once I went all the way through to the end, obviously there was a sound difference. Same guitar, but different mics and all that sort of stuff. Aaron had this plug-in that took an audio snapshot of the sound of the recording from upstairs in the living room on Garageband, and imposed that on the new guitar track, which was recorded with the more expensive mic, in the studio with the better sound. And bingo, we got the new track to sound like the old one. We had to tweak it a little bit, but not much. I've asked engineers if they can hear where it switches over, and no one's caught it yet.

It all goes to prove that vibe, performance, and inspiration far outweigh any piece of recording gear. Even if you record it on a cassette: no, it's not going to have the sound it would have on a digital or analog multitrack. But you've got an idea there. And if it's recorded decently, you can do a lot to save it.

The vibe is what counts. It's all about the moment. When the moment is right, it doesn't matter what you recorded on. If it sounds half-way decent, it'll work.