X-Static! Andy Timmons Interview: Shreds, Now and Then
Life certainly throws a few curveballs toward the plate of any determined musician. The play by play of how guitarist Andy Timmons ' born and raised in a small town in Indiana, one-time MTV hero of the early-'90s hair-metal scene, more recent sideman to Olivia Newton-John and LeAnn Rimes ' found his way to shredder heaven on Steve Vai's Favored Nations label is certainly an interesting tale. Along the way Timmons has definitely learned a thing or two about the music industry, and he's willing to talk. He admits he took some grief from his long-time friends when he joined the pretty boys in Danger Danger in the late '80s (though opening for KISS on two tours wasn't so bad), but he is absolutely deserving of a serious listen these days, and none other than Steve Vai says so.
Timmons, schooled in be-bop jazz and a dabbler in many musical styles, has just released his Favored Nations debut, and it rips. A compilation of some of his best tracks from two solo discs never widely distributed in the States, plus five new cuts, makes That Was Then, This Is Now (The Best of X-tacy) a truly inspired collection. Listen to the incredible 'Farmer Sez' and the bizarre 'Donna Lee' for proof.
In this in-depth Guitar.com interview, Andy details how hard work, chance meetings, and playing from the heart have kept the bills paid and his fingers on the frets.
Guitar.com: Andy, tell us how you hooked up with Steve Vai and his label Favored Nations?
Timmons: Steve and I first met about 1988. He was coming through Dallas with David Lee Roth. He was on tour and he had booked the studio out to edit a song that was going to radio, off that album. And it happened to be the studio where I had just recorded 'It's Getting Better,' which was my first instrumental recording. And the studio told me 'Steve Vai is going to be here. Nobody knows about it, but come down and maybe you'll meet him.' So I was a big fan of 'The Attitude Song' and 'Blue Powder' and all that. So he was there and he had finished editing his track in studio B, and they had studio A set up to do a presentation for him in their big studio, and they had my song cued up to play for him, because we had just finished it there. So he's sitting there listening to the track and looking over at me going, 'So this is you?' And groovin' and nodding his head. And he said, 'Now I know who I'll recommend if I ever leave David's band.' And I was like, 'Wow!'
I'm not even sure if he remembers that snippet, but fast forward to the early '90s when I became an Ibanez endorsee, and we started bumping into each other at the NAMM shows. We did a show together in 1993 called the Axe Attack, where it was all the Ibanez endorsees: Steve, Joe Satriani, Reb Beach, Paul Gilbert, and all these guys. And I had a guy at Ibanez that wasn't a Danger Danger fan, obviously, but he was trying to promote me as a solo guitarist. So he put me in the house band with drummer Simon Phillips and bassist Gerald Veasley. That's how I met Simon for the first time. And so Steve and I played together. And then in '97 for the 90th anniversary of Hoshino, which is the Ibanez company, we did a concert together in Japan. And every time G3 comes through Dallas they invite me to come out and play. So it's kind of one of those repeated little jams and meetings.
A couple years ago he started telling me about this record label he was going to form, and maybe we could do something together. So it worked out timing-wise to compile a record and get it out there. The initial thought was that he wanted to re-release my first two CDs (ear X-tacy and ear X-tacy 2) in their entirety and make it a double CD. But after thinking about it, we decided to take the best tracks, record some new stuff, and put it out that way. That seems to be working pretty well. There are a certain number of fans that may already have those first records. So we re-mastered those tracks, and added some new stuff. It would be nice to think that some of the older tracks will find a new audience for the first time. I've really never had a proper record deal for my solo stuff in the States. It's all been Europe and Japan. I'm getting calls from people across the States saying they saw my record in the stores. So I'm thrilled about that. Previously they had put my record out in the states, but with very limited distribution, mostly in the Southwest and Texas.
Guitar.com: Which are the five new tracks?
Timmons: The five new ones are the first four tracks on the CD, and then the surf track, which is called 'Donna Lee.' It's a be-bop tune played in the style of Dick Dale.
Guitar.com: I was wondering about that, 'cause I'm into surf stuff, and I was thinking, 'Man, this is a pretty twisted surf tune.'
Timmons: Yeah. It's a Charlie Parker be-bop head, a jazz tune. And I thought, let's see what happens if we twist it into a surf tune. And that's the only time we've ever played it live, at that gig a couple years ago. That's just a board tape that was made that night. And I thought, 'Hey, this sounds pretty cool, and this is what I'm into right now, so I'm going to try to sneak it on the record.' It's a huge joke. For anyone who is familiar with the be-bop tune, it just adds that much more humor to it, 'cause nobody would expect to hear it done in that style. It was pretty funny. I played it on an old Fender Twin with a separate reverb tank. It's got a bit much reverb on it, but it works well. And it's got an old Ibanez Talman setup with .012s on it. So it gets the extra twang effect.
Guitar.com: 'Farmer Sez' is just ripping!
Timmons: What's funny about that is that I've never played a lot of country. But to me, all that track really is ' I've got an old Tele ' and it's really just a bunch of be-bop lines. That's kind of what a lot of those Nashville guys are doing anyway, all that chicken pickin' stuff is all kind of related. Be-bop and bluegrass and the country style are all kind of related. It's all the same kind of connected lines. You just add a spongy Tele sound to it and there you go, it's kind of a country thing. But that's a fun recording. I'm glad we did that when we did it.
Guitar.com: What is your main guitar these days?
Timmons: My main guitar since '94 has been a custom Ibanez, which eventually was released as a signature model in Japan and Europe. It's a Maple neck; Alder body; one humbucker, two single-coil guitar. We're working on a new guitar right now, and I'm about to open the case I received in the mail right before you called. They've got a new tremolo system that I'm trying out. I've been using the Wilkinson system, but Ibanez is coming out with something that I think I like even better. It seems to feel good, so I'm anxious to check this out. But this guitar is made out of mahogany. That's the guitar I used on a track called 'Super '70s' and 'Beautiful, Strange.' That's the new signature model that we're working on. We're going to try to get it released later this year.
Rig-wise, it changes every gig, it seems. I've been using a VHT Pitbull amp for a lot of stuff, A/B'ing to a pair of Mesa/Boogie Maverick 30 watt amps for the clean side. I've still got the Laney VH 100 that I used on a couple tracks on the new record, and live sometimes. I'm always kind of still looking, still trying to find the right thing.
Guitar.com: It never ends, does it?
Timmons: No. That's the blessing and the curse.
Guitar.com: Do you use pedals and effects?
Timmons: Absolutely. I've always got [depending on the gig] a volume pedal with a tuner in line before the amp. But I haven't been in tune since 1978, and I'm still trying (laughs). I tune in between every song, so I can turn the volume pedal down and go to the tuner. I have an old Vox wah, and an old (Ibanez) Tube Screamer, and always some sort of echo and delay thing, either in the loop, or before the amp if I'm using a pedal for distortion. The best thing I've found recently is the old Chandler digital echo. That's definitely the warmest, tape- sounding echo I've heard. I wanted to go with tape but I've had so much trouble with the machines breaking all the time. And I'm not much of a tech head at all, so for me to have to be messing with stuff, I'm just going to go with something that sounds decent. And that Chandler thing, they don't make them anymore, so they're kind of hard to find. Every time I get an extra $2 I've got to buy something. It's the junkie thing. But I can quit any time (laughs).
Guitar.com: What kind of picks and strings do you use?
Timmons: I use D'Addario's, .010 to .046. And I've changed picks several times over the years, but I'm back to using the Tortex H-3s, the little, tiny guys. They're not the best sounding picks, but for whatever reason, my time and my groove and my accuracy are much better with those. I'd switched to the jazz 3 XLs for awhile, and the tone is better, but I was sucking all the time. So I went to those older picks and there I was. It's a tradeoff. I love Fender extra heavy picks, there's a tone about them. But my personality seems to come out more when I've got the Tortex H3s.
Guitar.com: So are you going to hit the road with this CD?
Timmons: That's the hope. The rest of the year is filled out pretty well. I'm going to Asia for a few weeks, mainly to promote this new guitar that we're developing. I'm going to China for the first time, for about five gigs. I've been to Hong Kong with Olivia before, but this is the first time into mainland China, so it should be very interesting.
Guitar.com: What cities?
Timmons: Shanghai, and some stuff I can't pronounce. These are like clinics, and I'll perform. I'll go into a music store, I've got my backing tracks on a CD, and I'll go play and meet some folks.
Guitar.com: They have music stores in mainland China where they sell Ibanez guitars?
Timmons: I guess so, yeah.
Guitar.com: One day those people will be just like us!
Timmons: Slowly but surely (laughs).
Guitar.com: So where else do you go?
Timmons: I'm going to Indonesia for three gigs, Taiwan for a gig, and then to Japan for five days.
Guitar.com: What do you go through in your clinics?
Timmons: I always structure the thing so that I'm playing as much as possible. I've got tracks so that I can do the whole gig playing if necessary. But I always end up doing a thing in the middle where I take questions from the audience. There was one point where I thought that maybe I should structure things, like 'Here's a sheet of licks.' But that just doesn't seem to be the right thing because you're going to get a few accomplished players, you're going to get some fans, you're going to get some beginners. So I think keeping it loose and open is always the best way. And I can always gauge it for each crowd. When you start getting technical, you're going to lose some folks after awhile. So, it's always a general thing because people want to know about your gear, your guitar, your influences, and specific songs or licks. But also I talk a lot about the music business, and they want to hear some stories from the road. So I try to keep it entertaining more than anything. There are always people who want specific information, and if they're brave enough to ask the question, I'll get into whatever they want.
Guitar.com: And you do a lot in Japan, don't you?
Timmons: Yeah, this will be like my eighth or ninth trip over there. Danger Danger did two tours there, in '90 and '92. I did a tour there with Simon Phillips. I've done a couple of clinics. I still haven't had my own band over there yet. So I'm hoping that by early next year, this record will help build things and we'll get over there with a live band. We've never really toured together. We did a few dates in Europe a couple of years ago. For touring it's so expensive. I've always tended to make my living by touring with large organizations, as a side member, or to do studio stuff. So now with a proper label deal and proper distribution, it makes more sense for me to get out and tour. So I've got lots of irons in the fire and I'm trying to find the right thing to do.
Guitar.com: Andy, something in your bio caught my eye, and seems pertinent to your career path: You said that when you were 13 you realized that making it in a rock band was such a long shot, and that you had better figure out other ways of making a living playing guitar. You've pretty much done that, haven't you?
Timmons: It was fortunate that I had that foresight at such a young age. I don't know how that epiphany happened, but it just did. I guess growing up in kind of a small town in Indiana, the thought of really making it just didn't seem like a possibility. But I was reading Guitar Player magazine and learning about studio players, from Tommy Tedesco, to Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather. And I thought, 'That's what I'd love to do.' I was into rock 'n' roll, but when I started taking lessons a couple years later I started really getting into jazz and other styles. Anything that involved guitar just really turned me on. So I got into all different styles, and I thought I'd eventually learn to read, and get into that kind of work where I could go in and play on peoples' records. That's kind of been a saving grace for me in between my own music and different bands that I've been in and out of. To do studio work, but also to do gigs that aren't just straight ahead rock 'n' roll gigs. I can do a jazz gig, or casuals, where you've got to know a zillion songs. So I've always been able to somehow make a living, playing guitar, and I feel very fortunate. But it is certainly through a lot of hard work as well.
Guitar.com: And when you're doing studio sessions, isn't that where you pick up a lot of other work, like touring gigs?
Timmons: Yeah, some have come from that. But largely the touring gigs have happened from word of mouth. That's how the Danger Danger thing came about, or with LeAnn Rimes or Olivia Newton-John. It's all been through reputation, and somebody knowing somebody that recommends me.
Guitar.com: How do you recommend a player get their foot in the door with studio work?
Timmons: These days it's hard to say. You've just got to find out who in the area is doing what kind of production, whether it's jingle work, or local record production. And if you have a reputation in the area, if you're playing out live, that helps. And if you get a good demo package together, that helps too. Every producer is different, as far as what their needs are. There are some decent guitar samples out there, but there are so many sessions I do that the guitar is the only live instrument on the gig. It's sad. And it's such a treat when you get to do sessions and there's an actual rhythm section. But getting a good demo package together with a nice variety of styles that you're able to play well is helpful.
Guitar.com: You have a manager getting you work too, right?
Timmons: No. I've been handling everything myself to this point. That's the next step, finding somebody that has a bit of weight. That's a whole other can of worms. So I'm really in a spot now where I'm looking for the right guy.
Guitar.com: Being a person that handles everything himself, what advice do you have for young players about getting into the business?
Timmons: There's no one easy thing to recommend. And maybe I'm the wrong guy to ask. I kind of cut myself off from the business a little bit. From what I went through with Danger Danger, I learned so much about the industry, and how much the industry isn't involved in music ' it's just a huge business. There's a lot of turn offs for me with that. I just wanted to make the music I wanted to make, and after four years in New York with Danger Danger, I ended gravitating back to my home in Texas and put out my own records on my own.
But, man, what would I recommend? The best thing musically is to do what comes naturally to you, what you believe in the most. That's the thing I learned with Danger Danger: It was a band that was chasing the tails of the big bands of the time. By the time they got it together, it was just too late. You can't look at the charts and say, 'This music is big, let me do this.' By the time you get it together it's over. And then people are going to know too, if it's not the real deal. So just do what's in your heart, first and foremost. And obviously it's very helpful if you can find management or a lawyer to represent you, if your goal is to get a label deal and all that. But these days, is that the thing to go for' It's really hard to figure out where the industry is right now as far as labels and indies and the Internet, and how they all affect each other.
I think there's quite a bit you can do on your own, by developing a website, and promoting it on your own, and trying to get people to come check out your music. It's hard to say. You've just got to get your music together, and get out and play some gigs in your area. The bigger the buzz you can get, the better, wherever you are. It doesn't have to be L.A. or New York. I'm convinced that you could be in Enid, Oklahoma, and still become huge. If your music is great, people are going to find out about it.
Guitar.com: I think where a lot of young musicians fail themselves is promotion. They just don't work hard enough at it.
Timmons: Yeah, you can't over-promote. You have to figure out what is the most beneficial thing, whether it's flyering or emailing, or whatever you can do to promote. And for me, I have to say I've never been the best at self-promotion, because I just want to make great music. But OK, now if I want it to get heard, I have to promote it. Promotion skills are a great thing to develop. And one thing that I've learned is, if there's anything you want to do in life, find somebody that's doing that, and kind of model yourself after them, not musically speaking. If there's a band from your area that became successful, what did they do? How did they get to that point? Was it through promotion? Was it through particular gigs? Was it all their music or was it image? By the time I joined Danger Danger, I'd never really considered image at all. I wasn't concerned about it. And then I got that gig and the first thing they said to me was, 'Well, don't cut your hair, and you might want to lose five pounds.' I had never thought about that, it didn't matter to me. But that was a band that was very much based on image, all over Metal Edge magazine and MTV. So, OK, I played the game for awhile.
Guitar.com: Regardless of how much your friends may have bashed you, it must have been fun.
Timmons: It was an awesome, awesome opportunity. Musically I got some s--t from people who knew my music, and where I was at musically. But after making that statement in my teens about making it in a rock band being such a long shot ' there I was, in a band touring, and opening on two different tours for KISS. That's the childhood fantasy! The first concert I ever saw was the KISS Destroyer tour in '76, and I was in the very last row of the arena going, 'Man, this is what I wanna do!' So for something like that to happen, regardless of the s--t that I went through from the industry or whatever, it was all completely worth it. It was a huge education, and yeah, just some great times with the boys from New York. It was pretty cool.
Guitar.com: Well, it's been a long road, since your MTV premier with Danger Danger more than a decade ago, hasn't it Andy?
Timmons: Yeah it has been. And let's not wait 15 years before we talk again!