This interview was originally published in 2010.
Andy Summers changed the face of pop music with his heavily affected yet crisp playing during an all too brief seven-year run with the Police. The band’s chart-topping releases Outlandos d’Amour (1979), Regatta de Blanc (1980), Zenyatta Mondatta (1981), Ghost in the Machine (1981), and Synchronicity (1983) earned the trio both critical acclaim and mass exposure on radio and MTV. They were undeniably one of the most visible, successful, and influential groups to arise out of the late-70s/early 80s New Wave movement.
Still, bassist and frontman Sting set it all aside in 1984 to follow his acting and solo aspirations, leaving millions of adoring fans not to mention his bandmates, Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland around the world in the lurch. But time marches on. Summers has, of course, followed his own muse as well, and it’s been as would be expected an eclectic road he’s followed.
His output of the past 15 years has included adventurous recordings with the likes of Robert Fripp and John Etheridge. Summers’ most recent disk is Peggy’s Blue Skylight, a collection of tunes by jazz bass and composing legend Charles Mingus, and a direct follow-up to his 1999 release, Green Chimneys: The Music of Thelonious Monk.
During a recent pass through Chicago, Summers stopped by the Guitar.com offices to show us how he played all the great Police classics and to demonstrate some of his newer, more intricate musical explorations.
Guitar.com: You experimented over the years with a variety of styles, from rock to reggae to jazz. How did you develop such an eclectic playing style? Can you demonstrate how you managed to combine so many different styles without losing cohesion?
Andy Summers: I think you develop an eclectic style from what you’re drawn to, what you’re attracted to. There are lots of kinds of music I’ve liked. Mostly I’ll hear a harmony or maybe something played on the guitar. I think it’s just curiosity. In my case I’ve been drawn to a lot of different styles where there’s Brazilian music, or classical guitar, or jazz, or some blues stuff, and in some funny way you kind of combine them all until finally you kind of forge your own style out of all that. And I don’t know exactly how you keep it all together, except I think your style somehow becomes recognizably yours, and it’s sort of eclectic. Not just straight-ahead blues, or straight-ahead be-bop, or rock, or fusion.
In my case, I don’t like getting stuck in only one genre. I think the guitar is a very unique instrument and if you have the time, you can find a unique voice on it. I think you just try to play the sounds that you like.
I mean, I like a lot of open stringed chords darker, stringier chords where you open up the harmony a bit and give it a more modern voicing. I’d rather hear something, possibly mystical, coming from somewhere. I like all that minor second kind of thing, like I kind of did with the Police.
Guitar.com: What advice would you give guitar players searching for their own unique voice?
Summers: Well, how do you find a unique voice? It’s what a lot of people have done. We’re all searching trying to get something to reflect who you are in your playing. And it takes a long time to get to that. I think the first thing is you start off just emulating what you like, and a couple of other players. Try to learn the language whether that’s rock, jazz, blues, whatever. And then maybe you’ll combine all the things together. You start playing what you like.
I think it’s hard trying to do something so you just don’t sound like anyone else. I think you just have to keep going with the right sincerity and it comes to you. I mean, it’s a lot of work to play the guitar really well and to take in a lot of music takes many years. I think if you do that you become aware of the history of guitar playing, and the field, and what other people are doing, and you find your way. Whether it’s the way you hold your pick, the kind of attack, the way you attack phrases, the sort of amp sounds you use, your sense of time.
I think one of the most important things in playing is time. It’s the first thing to be really good at. Really how you phrase and how you place the time, how you fill time. That’s really the first thing. We all know how to play in tune. You’ve got to understand the form. Like if someone’s playing behind you, like a bass player and a drummer, and if you’re playing something as simple as a twelve bar blues a three-chord, twelve bar blues you’ve got to sense that form so deeply and easily that you can play within it and outside of it, and in your time. You always know where the form is, you always come back in the right place.
That’s the first thing to get, a sense of form and time. Then you can get more sophisticated with your harmony and stuff. But the first thing is to get the time thing, to really play with a drummer.
Guitar.com: How do effects and other types of amps play into creating your own voice?
Summers: Well the trouble is with a lot of effects it can have the reverse affect. It’s going to make you sound like everyone else. Because basically if everybody is buying the same sort of boxes available, a lot of people are going to sound the same. I think if you really want to get a sound, you’ve got to kind of find it with other means, unless you want to become a sort of real electronic guitar player, like someone as brilliant as David Torn, who has really taken it in sort of a deep way, but he’s not buying commercial boxes and stuff like that. He’s creating them through very deep knowledge and creating very amazing stuff. But that’s kind of a whole different field.
You’ve got to be very careful with effects. The longer I play, the more I don’t want to use effects. Because you start to like what really comes out of the sound of the guitar and what you can do with your hands, and your choice of notes and time. I mean someone like Jeff Beck, who is a great rock guitar player, and he doesn’t use a lot of effects. He plays with his thumb now too, and he gets a great sound, and he’s not getting it out of effects.
So, you have to be very careful. I went through a period when it was all new and sort of ’80s. It was fun for awhile but I think you can lose a lot of your identity with effects. I think they should enhance your playing rather than- you know, sometimes they can be a whole thing in itself. I found that your ear gets tired of them quickly. It’s like eating a certain flavor of ice cream: After a while you’re tired of it. You always come back to the real thing. You can have really good pickups and really good amps with valves (tubes). That’s the real thing. Anything else on top is gravy. That’s what Im talking about.
Guitar.com: What tips can you offer people inspired by your playing? What is it about your playing that’s so effective?
Summers: I can’t always say, you know? I’ve been playing all my life and I believe that I’ve had a very sincere and heartfelt approach to music. I’ve always really loved it. I’ve never done it for commercial reasons. I still believe I’m a humble student of the instrument and music. You’ll never master the guitar and you’ll never master anything. It’s just too vast. But you keep going and you enjoy it.
In my case, I’ve been attracted to a lot of different things, probably more sort of 20th century sounds. I like more advanced harmonic stuff than just straight ahead blues or rock. Thats fun to do as well. So, when I played for a band like the Police, I tried to introduce other elements into playing behind a singer that kind of made it, you know, it’s like adding a twist of lemon to everything. I’m making things a little more stringent, a little more interesting than just, because it sort of perks the ear up, wakes the ear up for the listener. And that’s what I like to try and do, pushing the unexpected elements.
But you need to have a wide vocabulary in your head. And that doesnt mean you have to be able to play everything, but you need to be aware of a lot of different kinds of music and sounds. Naturally as a musician, you’ll be curious, like maybe listening to Middle Eastern music, or [classical composer] Bartok or [jazz pianist] Thelonious Monk, or I don’t know indigenous music. You don’t have to play everything but you become aware of these other ways of playing the music. And somewhere along the line it gets into your own playing and you start finding yourself trying to make those sounds. That’s what builds you as a player. And eventually, it’s going to come out, however it comes out through your particular grid.
So, that’s been my path. As being an overall aesthetic, it means studying and learning how to do things and being very comfortable and physically facile on the instrument. Thats hard work to do over the years, but its work that you’ll have to do. There’s no formula. It’s just who you are and it’s your journey through the music of the world.
Guitar.com: Can we talk a little about your new album Peggys Blue Skylight?
Summers: Yeah. Well I did a record of all Thelonious Monk music last year. This record is all from Mingus, Charlie Mingus. I sort of felt empowered after doing the Monk record to do Mingus. I think after this, I’ll get back to doing my own stuff. But it’s come out very well. It’s 12 tracks, the ultimate track being a piece called “Myself When I Am Real”, which I recorded with the Kronos Quartet. But there’s some very beautiful melodies on it, particularly something like “Reincarnation of a Lovebird”, which is a famous Mingus tune.
Guitar.com: And you’ve re-recorded “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. ”
Summers: Yeah, I’ve played that for a few years on and off. In fact, I recorded it on The Last Dance of Mr. X. This version, this time, is very different because it’s got Q-Tip on it and it’s done with a Strat. It’s got kind of like a more funky, hip-hop, electric guitar to it. Yeah, and it’s a boogie-stop shuffle, which is done like a funky reggae. It came out well.
Guitar.com: So, what was it like working with Q-Tip?
Summers: Well, it was an amazing experience, I’d say. It wasn’t long because we were only in the studio a couple of hours together but he was very sweet and really ready to try things. It was very easy. Yeah.
Guitar.com: Do you listen to a lot of rap?
Summers: I listen to some rap. I’ve started to get more interested in it this year. Particularly, Q-Tip’s stuff. I think there are some very creative tracks done by Tribe Called Quest. Yeah, there’s another one, the Roots, I like, too. I listen to that one a lot. The group is out of Philadelphia. I also like Dr. Dre, the new one, whatever it is. Yeah, I like that record. I also like some Rage Against the Machine stuff.
Guitar.com: What do you think of Tom Morello?
Summers: It’s interesting what he does. To me, he is the band. Without him, it would- you know. He’s come up with a whole bunch of new stuff thats really based on, not effects, but an effective way of playing and all the little things he does. And he gets a very interesting kind of guitar backing behind that kind of intense sort of rap vocal. That’s why it works. Because without that I don’t know what it would be. Yeah, he’s an interesting guy.
Guitar.com: Do you ever find yourself sitting down with the guitar trying to figure out what he’s playing?
Summers: I haven’t yet. I might. I might try to cop some Tom Morello licks, at some point. We’ll see how it goes. My kids say I should copy him. You know, they like him. I think he should copy my licks, actually. Maybe we should meet and have an exchange. Hey, Tom!
Guitar.com: One last question, Reunion? Is it in the works? What are your thoughts on that?
Summers: Is there going to be a Police reunion? I pray to Mecca every day, but nothing’s happened so far! Actually, I shouldn’t say that, I might offend a lot of people….Uh- I can’t say anything about that anymore. Is there going to be a Police reunion? I have no idea, but I live my life and carry on. We’ll see.
Guitar.com: That doesn’t really leave us with much
Summers: Man, I wish I could say yes, actually. I’d be going out in January. I would love to tour with that.
Guitar.com: Well, just throw your hat over the fence and say yes- commit yourself
Summers: OK, is there going to be a Police reunion? Yes, there’s definitely going to be a Police reunion. I’m starting it, and as soon as I can talk Sting into doing it, it will be real. But it’s gonna happen.