Back in ’79, when Sunset Strip was all new wave strut and quality blow, young Glen Ballard had just scored his first chart single, “One Step,” for sassy Brit soul-singer Kiki Dee. Back then — long before Ballard was an A-list producer who made multi-platinum, multi-million dollar records — he was making a hundred bucks a week to play piano in Dee’s band and writing tunes for anyone who would take them. He saved up to buy a brand new 1979 Fender Stratocaster — a unique year for the iconic ax, as it was the last model to have the large headstock and, at a hefty eight pounds, one of the heaviest versions of the guitar ever made.
As a producer and writer, Ballard has always taken chances (who else would get behind a trio of harmonizing chicks calling themselves Wilson Philips during the reign of flannelled growlers?), and if there’s an artifact that embodies that spirit, it’s probably the chopped-up ’79 Strat.
“When you start making modifications to an instrument you really love, you do it with some trepidation because you could ruin the thing so easily,” Ballard says. “But I kind of went crazy on it, and it’s still my favorite guitar.”
Ballard tore out the first and third single coil pickups, and replaced them with humbuckers to beef up the classic Strat sound by toggling between the pickups with a five-position switch. Running it through a “surgically modified” AC 30 or a Matchless amp, he’s used the guitar on almost everything he’s produced.
“I have 30 guitars, but that’s my baby,” he says of the creation. “It performs with a lot of the Gibson feel but still has enough of the Fender sound. It’s the hybrid sound that I go for, and it’s amazingly dynamic. You can get a heavy burn, or you can get a little bit of the Strat thing by going between the pickups. It’s an enormously versatile guitar.”
For Ballard — who’s done time with everyone from Quincy Jones to Shakira — versatility is a central issue. While working with Aerosmith he learned one of his favorite tricks for getting total control electric guitars.
“In the studio we have these big Anvil cases that are padded on the inside,” Ballard says, explaining a secret he learned from Joe Perry. “I have my heads back in the studio and have the cabinets in the troughs of the cases. We have a built-in microphone in there so you get no reflective information out of that cabinet at all. You only get what is coming out of the speaker. It was an amazing discovery for me, because of just how different that sound is.”
But Ballard’s latest project, an acoustic re-recording of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill required techniques a bit more delicate. Ballard’s collaboration with Ms. Ironic on the original was both artists’ biggest commercial success, and they commemorated the albums’ 10th anniversary by revisiting the songs unplugged.
The acoustic instruments were captured at Westlake Audio Studios (where Ballard once jammed on the synth of Michael Jackson’s Bad) with his cherished standbys — a vintage [AKG] D12, and a trio of Neumann mics — a 49, 47, and 67. These went through outboard Neve 1073 preamp, a classic Neve BCM-10 “sidecar” console. ‰
“There isn’t one trick to getting that perfect guitar sound,” Ballard says. “We audition the guitars as much as we audition the microphones and placements and players. Every single acoustic guitar is different from the next, so it was a matter of taking the time to do it right and getting a player who can articulate their instrument well. Once someone is playing well on the right instrument, capturing it is easy.”