Wednesday, June 25, 2014

David Grissom - Living The Guitar Life - The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

Photo by Matthew Sturtevant
"It was a long process, and I was very adamant that I had the opportunity to use it in the studio, and a lot of gigs to make sure it worked equally well in each situation, because I think if you spend that much money on an amplifier, it ought to be useful live, and in the studio, and that has not always been the case with amps in the past." ~ David Grissom on his signature series PRS amplifiers 
David Grissom truly lives the guitar life. He's played with Joe Ely, John Mellencamp, The Dixie Chicks, sessioned for the likes of Ringo Starr, Robben Ford, Chris Isaak, written hits for Trish Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack and others. He also has a solid solo career with four long players under his belt, including his latest, the excellent, How It Feels To Fly, which is a must hear that includes a half hour live set from his residency at Austin's legendary Saxon Pub, that includes a fabulous cover of ZZ Top's Funky Dogs And Nasty Kings, and a wickedly cool nine minute workout of the Allman Brothers' Jessica - oh yeah, did I mention he once subbed for Dickey Betts with the brothers?

As if that wasn't enough he's also designer of top flight gear in conjunction with Paul Reed Smith Guitars and Amps, doing almost ground-up work on his signature series DGT guitars, and the new DG Custom 30 and 50 watt powerhouse amps. He'll claim to not be a very technical guy, but by the time you're through reading you'll have a fine appreciation for his attention to the smallest details, and his innate ability to know what he wants to feel and hear from his equipment onstage, and in the studio. I've seen too many signature model instruments that just had a different finish and the star's name emblazoned upon them - it's refreshing to learn so much from someone who took the time to really make his signature models something very special.

How It Feels To Fly was recorded at Grissom's studio in Austin - it's a deep journey into Grissom's psyche and superb musicianship - musicianship that can now be found on his just released Truefire video lesson series, Open Road Guitar, which features 60 videos and almost 4 hours of material. Here's a sample:

The first question I asked David relates to the eclectic nature of the record, and its excellent blend of great songwriting and masterful playing:

David Grissom: "I'm probably a marketing man's nightmare, and not the easiest guy to deal with, but I think with this one there is a big emphasis on the songs. 
"Also, with the live tracks I added in, there's plenty of guitar playing on it! Since I moved to Austin, way back when, my first gig was with Lucinda Williams. I've just been able to work with great songwriters. For my whole career I've been lucky to be around people that really understood, or had a gift for it, and I developed a real appreciation for the craft of writing a good song. 
"I've spent a fair amount of time at it - I had a publishing deal in Nashville where I wrote a lot. I had some fairly big cuts with country artists. 
"I've always just enjoyed writing lyrics and I really enjoy playing the guitar on good songs. I had an opportunity to do that with a lot of the people that I've worked with over the years. The last record was a shorter record, and it was a little more focused straight down the blues rock type of line, but with this one I sort of gave myself permission to just write whatever was happening at the moment, and this combination of songs felt right to me. Whatever I choose, and whatever goes on the record is ultimately just a feeling - what feels right."

Lyrics are often the bane of the guitar player gone solo, but not with Grissom. His storytelling is  as masterful as the artists he's learned from:

David Grissom: "I have a lot of people that I look up to, and I have to be careful to remind myself that I'm not a Bob Dylan, or a John Hiatt. 
"But I do my thing, and I work hard on it and try to make it...there's some stuff on there that's pretty heavy. It reflects a lot of change that's gone on in my life, but I also tried to throw some stuff on there that's a lot lighter and fun. I'm not a full time dark, or heavy person, and I really like to have fun - I think there are some songs on this record that really reflect that, and it's important for me to have some balance. 
"I think what I've learned from people like Lucinda, and Joe Ely was the economy of words, that it doesn't take a million words to convey something deep and meaningful. That is really the trick of songwriting - if you talk to a great writer of prose, or books, they will express awe and wonder at how a great songwriter can get a whole story across in a matter of as little as twelve lines. 
"That was the biggest influence on me - from Ely I learned the value of never getting pigeonholed. Following your path, and not letting other people tell you what you should, or shouldn't do. I saw several times with Joe where he had rather blatant opportunities to go up a notch in popularity, but to him it may have felt like selling out a bit, and he didn't do it. 
"Consequently, he's now probably in the most fruitful period of his life because he stayed true to his vision. Once you give up your integrity, it's real hard to get it back. I have worked with a lot of people that really taught me the value of that."
Photo by Deborah K Coley

Working with writers of the caliber of Ely, Williams, and Mellencamp, David garnered a reputation for playing incredibly hot guitar parts, but still being true to the song. I asked how he went about accomplishing this:

David Grissom: "Well, it's hard playing on other people's records, which I've been lucky to do a lot. 
"I have first and foremost tried to serve the song. Again, I've had the opportunity to play on some great songs, and when you have a great song, the rest kind of takes care of itself. I admire guys like Mike Campbell, and John Leventhal as much as I do Jeff Beck - for their ability to come up with the perfect part, and to play it for the song. 
"I've always tried to be that way, and I firmly believe that the guitar, the hook of the song can also become not only a part of the song, but it can even enhance a great song, make it even better and more memorable. There are thousands of examples of that throughout history, and when you get a chance to do that, to come up with a hook, or play with an artist that writes that well - they come in with an acoustic guitar, and it's a blank canvas. To me, that's what I crave, I live for that opportunity."
Photo by Adam Smith

Moving on to his new record, I asked David how it was recorded - this is no mailed in Pro Tools project, it sounds like a band in a room standing in a circle playing. It sounds live:

David Grissom: "It is! First of all, my regular band played on the entire record (keyboardist Stefano Intelisano, Bassist Scott Nelson, and drummer Bryan Austin) - of course, the last four songs are totally live, we recorded them one night at The Saxon. 
"I didn't even know we were recording, but the rest of the record, basically what I would do, I'd put down a guide vocal with an acoustic guitar and click track, so that when the band came over we could all play together, and the vocal would already be laid down. 
"All the tracks were played with a click, but that's the way almost everything is cut now, and the more you do it, the more you're able to move around the click in a musical way, so I don't really feel like it's a limitation. It's just part of the way, if you're going to make records on your own, which I do - it helps to lay down that foundation, and get the arrangement solid, but also be able to edit on down the road. 
"I didn't really do any chopping up of anything on this record. In the past, I've kind of used the computer as part of the writing process, in terms of being able to edit. 
"On this record we cut all the tracks in two days, and then I went back in and laid a bunch more guitars on, and background vocals, but it wasn't anymore complicated than that, really."
Kacy Crowley
One other nice touch is the judicious use of female vocals on several of the album's tracks:

David Grissom: "That's Kacy Crowley! 
"She's an Austin singer/songwriter that I've known for a long, long time. She is a really unique and special talent. Great writer, very cool singer. She's very comfortable in her own style, and has got her own identity, which I've always been attracted to - especially with background vocals. It's nice to have somebody that isn't 'cookie-cutter.' 
"We co-wrote the song, Overnight, and the other sort of ballad, Satisfy - with me, and the keyboard player Stefano. She's just another great Austin singer/songwriter!"

I came to this interview not via publicists, or record companies, but in the time tested way of the new millennium, through a Facebook friend. Knoxville guitar maven Itchy Bruddah, known to his mother as Phil Fuson. He had posted a link to the live track of Funky Dogs and Nasty Kings, and I was literally blown out of my chair by the incredible guitar tones I was hearing. Great playing for sure, but also some incredible sounds were coming from Grissom's guitars and amps - it was time to talk gear. I asked about the genesis of his PRS signature amp series:

David Grissom: "(PRS Senior Amp Designer) Doug Sewell and I got to know each other, obviously, I've been a PRS guy for a long time, so when they started doing amps, they sent me a bunch of them to try out. 
"Doug and I became good friends, he's a fellow Texan, and one thing led to another. A couple of years into them having an amplifier line, we discussed coming up with some amps of our own. We didn't know exactly what that meant - we certainly didn't think it was going to be two amps! 
"We started out with a fifty watt amp, and then I started realizing, especially for my Saxon Pub residency that thirty watts was about the limit of what was needed in that room, so we went to a thirty watt idea. 
"From the beginning I was adamant that we did not build amps that were yet another boutique version of a classic amp. That has been done very well, and it's been done a lot by a lot of different people. I was adamant that we could take the best elements of all the vintage amps I owned, and start from the ground up. 
"That kind of got my imagination going, and it was really intriguing to me - Doug seemed to be totally up for it, so to kind of cut to the chase, we had a couple of fifths, and a couple of thirties that were just first go arounds, and they got totally discarded. 
"We started honing in on the thirty, and got really close to what I was looking for, so I started using that amp exclusively on live gigs. Then we went back, and said let's look at this idea for a fifty watt amp - I didn't want to just throw more, and bigger tubes into what we've got here, but I want to have it react the same way in my hands, and have the same pleasing feel, and the same characteristics. 
"So, I thought it had to be a totally different circuit, so we did that, and the whole process was trial and error. We had a starting point, and then we'd fool with it - sometimes it wasn't even close, and other times it was like, 'Damn, this is sounding good!' 
"I'd play through it, Doug would come down, and we would go through say, a Tweed Deluxe, a Plexi 50, a Hi Watt, an AC30 - and one thing I learned about the AC30 was the way the midrange growled, and what I loved about the Hi Watt is that the middle control will go from almost black-face Fender to a very British thing. The Marshalls have that tight bottom end, but I really like the way the Tweed Deluxe records, and how the top notes are thick. 
"How do we combine all of these things into one amp? 
"It was the same process as when we were developing the DGT - we would get a benchmark, and then we'd go from there. Each time we convened things improved a little bit. And that became our benchmark. When we'd come back the following time, and we were constantly A/Bing to what had proven to be a really good design that I had been using at gigs, and to make records. 
"It's really easy to lose the forest for the trees sometimes when you're doing these sorts of things, which is why, I don't know what the term is to a statistical guy, but it's like having a control group. Just to have benchmark, so we knew really where we were, and what we were changing. We had a couple of days where we would come down, and we would open the amp up, set the chassis on top of the speaker cabinet, and he would change values of caps and resistors in the smallest increments, and we would listen for the difference. We would really play with the plate voltage vs. current, and then we would listen. 
"These are the only PRS amps that have tube rectifiers, so we would do things to get just the right amount of compression, and not have it cave in on you, or sag to much on stage. Literally, I can't remember a time when this didn't happen - we were really protective of our ears when we did this. We took a lot of breaks, but at the end of the day, and when we thought we had almost nailed it, we'd come back the next day, and almost every time I can remember, we had gone too far, and we'd have to go back one notch from where we had finished. 
"It was a long process, and I was very adamant that I had the opportunity to use it in the studio, and a lot of gigs to make sure it worked equally well in each situation, because I think if you spend that much money on an amplifier, it ought to be useful live, and in the studio, and that has not always been the case with amps in the past."

The mention of using a tube rectifier perked up my ears, especially considering that PRS utilizes them on no other amp in their line. I asked David to elaborate:

David Grissom: "We inserted that about a year and a half into the process. It might have even been two years in. 
"We spent somewhere between three to four years on the project, and I'm pretty sure in the last year of the project, I was playing the version of the amp that was about 95% of what we ended up with, and that definitely had the tube rectifier. 
"The 50 is definitely a bastard child! Being that I'm not the most technical person on the planet, and also having the desire in me to try to do something different, I asked Doug what would happen if we took four EL-34s with a tube rectifier, class A on a fifty watt amp. 
"I think a lot of amp designers would say, 'Well, you're crazy,' but he was like, 'Huh, that sounds interesting.' 
"That amp has ended took two tube rectifiers - one GZ-34 isn't enough for four EL-34s. But, it ended up being a cathode biased amp with EL-34s, and it's just gargantuan sounding. But Doug swears up and down it's fifty watts. It's kind of an overbuilt fifty watt amp, but on this particular amp, the amp we always used as our initial benchmark was my Park 75 from 1969/70. That sounds different from my Plexi 50, a little bigger, and more robust. That's an amp that I've used on a lot of records.  
"This amp does everything that amp does, and a little more - it's a little bit more microphone friendly. It's loud as hell, I don't use it on a lot of gigs right now. 
"Another thing I try to tell people that are asking me which one they should get, or what do I think about this, or that, is that I've come to the opinion that while the master volumes on these amps are very musical, if you have to turn the master volume below five, you probably ought to get another amp, because you're just choking the amp down. There's no output stage stuff happening at that point. 
"So, picking the right amplifier, people ask about that all the time, and I always tell them to pick one where you can set the master up between five and ten, and if you can't do that then you need to go down wattage wise. These amps really want to be turned up, but they also sound great with the master volume around six, or seven. In a lot of situations, I've used mine like that, and they still do what I want them to do."
Photo by Martin Cervelli
So, not only did Grissom and Sewell reinvent the wheel to a great degree, they actually kept going, and next came a re-think of the stock 2x12s PRS was offering. I asked about this next step - another redesign:

David Grissom: "Yeah, we did. I was not totally happy with the stock 2x12 cabinet that they were using. Again, being a tinkerer, I had the thing open all the time, I had been trying different speakers, and finally I asked Doug, there was a baffle in the middle of the cab, I was like, 'What does that thing do?' 
"Ultimately, he wasn't sure that it was conducive to what I was looking for, so we took a drill and took out eight screws, took a hammer and knocked it out of there. I immediately noticed that it sounded better to me, for what I liked. 
"Again, this is so subjective that I can only tell you what I like. I'm not saying that it's better than what somebody else likes, or what someone else does, because we all hear things differently, but to my ears it sounded better immediately. 
"Then Doug had an idea for a back panel that has, I guess technically they're ports. They're circular cutouts that also have grill cloth on them. The philosophy behind it is that it still retains plenty of low end, but it lets the sound move around and envelope you a little more, as opposed to a closed-back 2x12 that can be so directional. This lets it breathe a little bit more - so, the combination of no baffle, and the somewhat ported back panel - we're able to keep enough low end thump, but also to let the sound move around. That way, when I'm on stage, I can move away from the amplifier and I don't feel like the sound goes away."

One listen to David's new record and this all makes tremendous sense. The tones really jump out of my ancient speaker cabinets. I've seldom heard a better translation of tone to disc, and I told David this:

David Grissom: "Well good, I appreciate that.  
"If there was a buzz word throughout the process, it was harmonic complexity. We really want to have a richness throughout the range of settings on the amp. In much the same way that a magic PAF pickup will do that thing on the top end, it's hard to put into words - it's a great amp, and what I was going for was the same kind of magic when you hear that sweet spot, where you're getting this beautiful sustain that will go into an upper harmonic, but yet it's not too distorted. 
"It's very much influenced and inspired by Duane at the Fillmore, and early ZZ Top stuff, which is all output stage. Nobody's using a distortion pedal - that beautiful cleaner sounding feedback and sustain. 
"And having said that, I use a clean boost pedal (Xotic EP), and an overdrive pedal on top of the amp, and it takes pedals beautifully. Back in the Ely, and Mellencamp days I just used a clean boost, I didn't use any overdrive, but I've really changed my approach over the last fifteen years. I've moved more towards a philosophy that it's OK to use pedals, and making them work for me. I've found some stuff that is very musical, and it enhances the sound of the amp, as opposed to changing it so drastically that it sounds like a different amplifier."

In fact, Grissom's tone are sounding very much like what used to be accomplished back in the nineties by three amp setups:

David Grissom: "Well thanks. Honestly, and I've talked about this a lot, and to me, out of this single channel amp I basically have four channels. 
"If I turn down to six, or seven and use the coil tap on my guitar, which happens to be an incredibly usable sound for me, unlike coil taps I've had in the past. I can have beautiful clean tones that still have harmonic richness, I've got a crunchy rhythm sound, I have an Xotic EP booster for my next channel, and then a distortion pedal for my fourth channel. If you want a fifth channel I can put both pedals on - it's more gain that you could ever possibly want, but throughout the whole progression of all of that, I retain the harmonic content, and bottom end that I started with. 
"I've just not found a channel switching amplifier that allows me to do that. It always seems to be a little bit of a compromise to my ears for what I'm going for. The clean channel is a little bit too clean, and too dry, and the overdrive channel is a little too overdriven, it doesn't have that organic quality, or the touch sensitivity that a lot of vintage amps have, which is the feel I'm going for with these amps."

This isn't the first time that David Grissom has taken Paul Reed Smith down a path towards design nirvana - he did it first on his groundbreaking DGT signature guitars. To look at them, you might just think it's another PRS, but wait until you check under the hood:

David Grissom: "We changed many, many things on this guitar! 
"It starts with the McCarty model that came out in 1991 - I was playing with John Mellencamp, and I was looking for some different sounds than I was getting from my other to PRSs that I had at the time. I wanted something that had more low end, and pickups that weren't quite so midrange-y, so I ordered a guitar that had quite a few changes to any other model that they were making at the time. 
"That guitar that I ordered became the McCarty model - it's exactly the same guitar. That guitar had a stop tailpiece, then I got one that had a tremolo, and I had several of those over the years. I ended up with a gold top McCarty with tremolo that they had originally sent to Robben Ford - he didn't like it, so I got it, and I said, 'Man, this is my guitar.' 
"I played that for about fifteen years, but along the way, two things happened. One was that I would put it in the hands of Pat Buchanan, or Kenny Greenwood when I was doing records in Nashville, and they were like, 'If I could have this guitar, I'd buy one.' The other thing that happened was I was making notes about how we could make the guitar even better. 
"I've always been really reluctant about putting my name on an instrument. I just felt like, you know, other guitar players don't want a guitar with someone else's name on it. 
"At the end of the day, we compromised, and put my initials on it. Initially, when Paul and I were talking about it, we said, let's just start with a new model. I said that we should call it the McCarty II, and the first two prototypes that I still have, say McCarty II prototype on the back of the headstock. But they're DGTs. 
"We just did a lot of things. The pickups themselves were a labor of love over the course of a year. The electronics, the whole electronic layout I thought about for a long time, and I was really frustrated that in the middle position I couldn't the variation that you got from having two volume controls. I was real frustrated with the coil tap sound on the McCarty - I always thought that  it was very thin, and it went down in volume too much. 
"I thought that there had to be a way to make that more usable. I also wanted some different tuners that had lightweight tuning pegs on them. 
"I felt that the neck shape, we could take my two favorites, my '87 Standard, and the McCarty I had been playing, we could measure both of those two necks and interpolate, and that's how the neck resulted. The fret wire I had been using is a big factor in being able to go up a gauge in strings and still have it feel good, and to be able to do bends, and all thee pedal steel licks that I do a lot, probably too much at times, but I was also finding that those bigger frets were giving me a nice bloom in the notes. 
"I think a lot of folks were like, 'Man, those frets are too big, blah, blah, blah,' but now I think PRS are using them on several other models as well. 
"So, there's just a whole lot of things that came together in this guitar. Fifteen years of playing that McCarty with tremolo, and thinking about all the things we could do to improve upon it. Once again, to have the opportunity to really have it road tested, and studio tested, so that it's not just a theory - that these things really work in the real world."

It says much about Paul Reed Smith and company that they allowed David to have such sway in the design of his signature gear - it's not always like that in the world of 'for profit' instrument manufacturing:

David Grissom: "It's been a dream, to be frank. 
"An honor, and an incredible opportunity to have worked with a guy like Paul, who's brilliant. If you ask a question, he will be able to answer it five different ways. He's kind of our generation's Leo Fender. 
"To have the opportunity to work with him, Doug Sewell on the amps, and have a company that's consistency factor is just off the chain - I've never picked up one of my models and felt that it wasn't up to snuff. They're always set up perfect. I go do clinics, and I don't even take a guitar, I just take one off the wall. It's great to be a part of that team. 
"They've also had an uphill battle to become an amp maker, and an acoustic guitar maker, but the acoustics have come into their own, and the amps are just fantastic. It's tough to be a company that is so respected for making electric guitars to be taken seriously in those other realms, but I think they're finally starting to get their due."
And so it goes. Once again, it's the guy who is the most team oriented and willing to do his job, and give credit to his co-workers to get the opportunities, the great gigs, and the chance to make a difference in the world of musical instrument design and manufacturing. It ain't rocket science, but then again....

1 comment:

Bobby Faria/ Boston, MA said...

Hey Tony,

Thank you for putting out such a detailed interview with David.

After reading guitar magazines (once in a while) since the 1980's, he's the only national-act guitarist who says anything that makes sense to me.