John Vanderslice Reveals 3 Ways to Torture Beauty

“Rock and roll needs some sort of sonic violence for me to get excited,” says San Francisco-based musician/producer John Vanderslice when asked about the sounds he crafted for his latest album, Emerald City [Barsuk]. Interestingly enough, Emerald City is almost entirely devoid of the key element most artists rely on to achieve nasty rock sounds—namely, electric guitar. Instead, Vanderslice set out to cultivate musical aggression by abusing acoustic instruments. Here are Vanderslice’s tips for getting acoustic guitar and piano sounds that are simultaneously grungy and tuneful.
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Work With What You’ve Got

“I had just two acoustic guitars to work with on this album—a Martin 000-16, and a 1952 Gibson J-45,” says Vanderslice. “I wish I had a control room filled with all kinds of vintage outboard equipment to apply to those instruments, but I don’t. Scott Solter, my producer, came up with a fix—to send my acoustic guitar signals into an old film dialogue recorder that was lying around. We dialed in its 40:1 limiter, instead of trying to track down an expensive piece of gear with similar specs, and it gave us the crushed acoustic sound we were looking for. It sounds amazing.”

Mod That Which You Cannot Accept

“Our go-to preamp is a custom Bogen made for us by Skip Simmons—Sacramento’s own audio genius. It’s this old tube mic preamp from the ’50s that he modded to add a lot of saturation to the source signal. This is what you hear on the guitars on ‘Time to Go On.’ When you crank the gain on the preamp, you get this out-of-control distortion. We thought we were going to have to run it into a Universal Audio 1176 to back the signal down, but we found that we didn’t even need it—the tubes on the Bogen are hit so hard when you crank it that it does this very cool limiting.”

Use Effects to Morph Instrument Sounds

“I don’t have a control room full of modular synths, but I wanted to get a real tinny, oscillating sound for ‘The Parade.’ So I ran my acoustic guitar into an old Eventide H-949 harmonizer that I picked up for cheap. Brian Eno and David Bowie used it on Low—which is one of my favorite records of all time—to warp sounds, so I figured I would give it a go. I took the acoustic guitar signal, and inserted the H-949s pitch shifter into the feedback loop of the delay to get this shrieking, bird-like sound. It’s terrifying. It sounds like the apocalypse.”