Billy Zoom On Finding Your Studio Style

As a founding member of X—which is currently touring to celebrate its 31st anniversary—guitarist Billy Zoom brought jazz and R&B chording to punk guitar without compromising one molecule of vicious energy or feral tone. He built his own amplifier around 1984—a near indestructible monster that he still brings on the road—and he continues to do amp modifications for scores of today’s rockers. The perpetually smiling rockin’ rebel was recently honored by Gretsch with a signature version of his iconic Silver Jet (the G6129BZ), and he produces acts in his own Studio A.
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As a producer, how do you identify, expand, and document a guitarist’s uniqueness?

I just try to get them comfortable. I designed my studio so bands can go in there and actually play like a band, instead of being locked up in little isolation cubicles. I think it’s important for guitar players to just play, and play the way they’re used to playing—which is with other people, and usually quite loud. We might try playing a song before I even start recording anything, or maybe we’ll just do something straight to 2-track, and use it as a reference. The goal is that I don’t want the player feeling like he or she is in a recording studio where every note has to be perfect, and it all has to be done in a hurry, and their entire career hinges on this one moment. In my studio, we don’t even keep track of the hours, because I want the musicians to relax. If we don’t get it today, we’ll get it tomorrow—there’s no rush. Also, the pre-production phase is where I can really get to understand the band, its material, and the musicians’ strengths and weaknesses. I like to do a lot of rehearsing before we go into the studio.

Do you find that young guitarists want to emulate what’s popular, rather than mine their individuality?

Not too much. I try to stay away from bands and players like that. I try to seek out musicians that I think have something special, and I try to help them bring that out. I don’t tell them what to do. I just suggest better ways to get what they’re trying to get. It’s like, “I see what you’re going for, but you’re not quite getting it. Why don’t you try this?” If they don’t like what I suggest, they don’t have to do it, but, usually, they like it.

How do you open up a guitarist’s mind to visualize new approaches, new tones, and maybe even new parts?

You have to get them to realize that everything is a combination of everything. A recording isn’t just a copy of what you do live. You have to trick people’s ears into hearing something different than what their ears are hearing—that is, something bigger and more exciting. Playing something that sounds good live, and then just recording it as is, is sort of like making a movie from a Broadway play by setting up a camera on a tripod in the center of the action, and filming the actors playing their parts. That would be the most ridiculously boring film you’ve ever seen—even though it’s exactly the same thing the audience sees when they see the play live. To make an interesting movie out of that play, you have to have all the lighting, camera angles, close-ups, long shots, two shots, and every other appropriate perspective. It’s the same way with recording. You need to find the right sonic angles and perspectives to really make the recording jump out.

Any specifics?

Not really. You add little things. It could be using different amps and/or guitars for certain parts. It might be EQ and compression. It might be little counterpoint lines. It’s different for every band, every player, and every song. It’s the old “whatever works” approach.

The ability to listen to a performance openly and critically is essential, of course, but are there other ways a guitarist can develop a facility for coming up with more options to make something work better?

This is probably a really bad thing to say to a music journalist, but guitarists probably need to spend less time reading in magazines and on the Internet about how to play, and just spend more time playing. You have to experiment. Ultimately, that’s the way you learn.