George Lynch Interview—The Quest for Meaning

This interview was originally published in 2015. Mojave Desert. Just past The Middle of Nowhere, turn left. Follow the dirt road a few miles up into the mountains. That’s where you’ll find him — if he’s not on tour — either grinding away on the raw wood body of his next guitar with a hand-held […]

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This interview was originally published in 2015.

Mojave Desert. Just past The Middle of Nowhere, turn left. Follow the dirt road a few miles up into the mountains. That’s where you’ll find him — if he’s not on tour — either grinding away on the raw wood body of his next guitar with a hand-held router, or grindin’ away on the fretboard in his home studio, layin’ down some rippin’ solos for his next album.

That’s George Lynch we’re talkin’ about. One of the most revered guitarists of the past few decades, Lynch keeps himself busy not only playing guitars, but building and selling them as well. His hand-crafted designs lean toward the hot rod, and the rustic. Carved by his own hands, 3-D designs sometimes adorned in rattlesnake hides, and all revved-up too, as you might expect for a guitarist whose claim to fame is blistering hard rock and roll.

Lynch has always been a favorite of rock guitarists. He has had a long and storied career, beginning with the multi-platinum band Dokken, where he wowed everyone with blazing fast legato runs and killer tone. When that band disintegrated, he followed it up with Lynch Mob — which recently released the studio album Sun Red Sun, their 11th.

And when he’s not busy with the Mob, he’s never short of side projects and guest spots. A new release with former Stryper vocalist Michael Sweet, titled Sweet & Lynch, came out in January. He guested on the new Shred Force 1 album by Michael Angelo Batio. And he’s got a hard-hitting new documentary film out, Shadow Nation, exploring his interest in Native American issues as well.

In this exclusive Guitar.com interview we talked with George about all his projects, his guitar building, and his ongoing search for the perfect tone. He explained his recent project to make his home studio the most guitar-centric haven for recording guitar tracks in the known world.

Lynch: Hey Adam. Where are you calling from?

Guitar.com: I’m calling from Chicago. And you’re in Phoenix?

Lynch: No, I’m in L.A.

Guitar.com: I thought you lived in Phoenix…

Lynch: No I moved out of there around 2000.

Guitar.com: Oh OK. So I was just looking at the website for Shadow Train, and Shadow Nation, the Native American documentary you were involved in. It’s very interesting.

Lynch. Yeah.

Guitar.com: And you just recently finished the film, right?

Lynch: Yes, we released it in February. it took about five years and I was ready for it to be done. (laughs) There’s also a double-CD companion to the movie. But the business part of it — getting it out there. There’s dozens of film festivals…

Guitar.com: How did you get involved with this?

Lynch: I’ve been a political animal most of my adult life. I know that has not been reflected in my music very well. But I’ve felt compelled, and I’ve tried to fit my ideology and my belief system into my music in some way at some point in my life. And it proved to be very challenging. So this is just another attempt at that.

I actually met my business partner, Mark McLaughlin — the producer of the film — on a plane and started up a conversation that was just such a natural fit. We had an affinity for each other’s passions and both wanted to almost say the same thing. And he had the movie skills, I had the music skills, and a little bit of notoriety that would help open some doors. So we partnered up. And it’s been five years. A long, strange trip.

Guitar.com: That’s very cool. So what comes next with that?

Lynch: We’ve got a lot of business to deal with to get the film out to the larger population. Not that anyone’s trying to make a lot of money on it or anything, there’s not a lot of money to make. It didn’t take a lot of money, compared to what you traditionally spend on films. In five years I think we spent $150,000, which is nothing for a film.

But that’s not why we made it. We made it to pique people’s interest, and bring up things that need to be brought up, people’s opinions. And hopefully energy will go into changing policy towards Native Americans, and the greater population. The same thing that applies to anybody applies to all of us: Truth and justice is truth and justice across the board.

Guitar.com: Right. And from what I’ve seen in your trailers and read, I’m very interested. I’m probably of the same mindset as you about a lot of those issues, and the Native American way of life, and the way we’ve run the planet, for the past several hundred years. I’m actually heading out to Arizona soon.

Lynch: Nice. We were fortunate enough to travel with a good friend of mine, Richie, who is in the film a lot, and he’s Navajo — he lives in the Chuska Mountains — and a couple other people. So we didn’t have to deal with any of the constraints of traveling, so like in Monument Valley, we spent the night! You can’t do that unless you live there and you’re a Native American. So we got to do that. Just on a personal level, the stuff that we got to experience was just, “Wow!”

Just sitting way up there in the backcountry of Monument Valley, and then just sitting there for an hour watching the sunset, and having your can of beans dinner over a fire, and then sleeping out in the open desert at night. Watching the stars, and waking up in the morning to the sunrise, and then filming all day, and traveling through this insane beautiful country, where all kinds of stuff happens around you, which was an everyday occurrence. Critical challenges, And beautiful stuff would happen to us too.

But vehicles would break down, and we’d be stuck for days, and all this crazy stuff would occur right in front of us. It even got dangerous at times. There’s some sketchy stuff going on when people are disenfranchised, and poor, and have had basically everything taken from them. And it’s just sad.

We rolled into White Clay, Arizona, and they were blowing up dry ice bombs while we were there. Battling with the police, and all the liquor distributors and truck drivers were bringing in all the booze, and there were all these people who were fighting the alcohol that’s being sold illegally.

Guitar.com: Wow. Well I look forward to seeing Shadow Nation. So let’s talk about some music. You’ve got a lot of musical stuff going on right now. Recent albums from Lynch Mob, and Sweet & Lynch. You’ve been busy.

Lynch: Yeah, and actually while we’re speaking, I’m going in in about 30 minutes to record guitars for the next Lynch Mob record that’s coming out later this year. I’ve got a lot of stuff in the pipeline.

Guitar.com: Two records in six months?

Lynch: Well more than that, really, because the Shadow Train CD is ready to go. I’ve got the Infidels project, we finished vocals on that. And then this new Lynch Mob project, we’re just waiting to finish vocals on that as well. So yeah, there’s a few other things too.

Guitar.com: Do you write music on a daily basis?

Lynch: No. I write music any time I sit down with a guitar. Something comes out. But it’s always there. Every time I go to the well, it’s never dry. Fortunately.

Guitar.com: How do you capture your ideas? You have a home studio, right?

Lynch: iPhone. I do have a home studio, but initial ideas, half the time, are just captured on an iPhone wherever I’m at. And the next time I’m sitting in my studio, I don’t fire up the studio. I’ll just play something on an acoustic guitar into an iPhone just to capture it.

And then when I need to catalog all that I bring it back to the main computer and then that gets put in folders. So I have this bag of resources, of ideas that I just keep dropping in there all the time. And then when I’m working on a record, writing, I’ll look back at some of that stuff and check it out. And I’ll hear something and go, “That’s cool!” And I’ll have the initial ideas.

And then the other half of the time it’s just at-the-moment inspiration. For instance when I wrote the Sweet-Lynch project, it was just me and my engineer. He programs drums and I write stuff. So we’ll be like, “Here’s a beat we want,” or “Here’s a riff.”

It’s the same way I’ve ever written for every project I’ve ever been in — Dokken or anything beyond that. Who knows where it comes from, whether you’re sitting in a room, or at sound check, or you’re at rehearsals or in the studio. It’s always the same. I think it’s the same for most of us guitar players. If you’re a guitar player, riffs happen.

Guitar.com: Yep. For me ideas tend to come right when I pick up the guitar. Does that happen to you?

Lynch: In my formative years I had less production. I actually would have blocks. There were periods of time, when I was in Dokken, where I couldn’t come up with something as easily. But nowadays, in recent years — or decades — it just seems, not effortless, but I can always depend on it happening.

It’s strange how that works. I don’t even question it. It works. I know a lot of creative people I talk to, inspiration can come in the strangest places. I hear a lot of people say it hits in the shower. Or driving. Or just waking up in the morning with ideas rolling around in your head is very common. Probably the ideas that we didn’t document out-number the ones that we did.

Guitar.com: Absolutely. So do you play guitar daily?

Lynch: It ebbs and flows. I go through periods where I won’t really touch it all that much, or that industriously. Mostly just in passing. I’ll pick it up, I’ll screw around. I’ve got tons of books that I’ll try to play to, like I’ll try to play some classical pieces, or this or that. Or play along with some backing tracks off the Internet.

But a lot of times I’ll go through huge chunks of time where I’m not really applying myself. And then I’ll get into a phase where I’m real busy, and I’m in the saddle every day for many, many hours, and my playing accelerates.

I think that’s a natural, healthy thing. I’ve never been a guy where I can just maintain a certain status of abilities, and then keep that consistent. I don’t know why. It’s an ebb and flow thing for me.

I think it offers the opportunity for me to re-invent myself slightly every time. And approach things a little differently. And maybe forget some things, and learn some new things, and change. I like that. I don’t want to be the same guy every time I pick that thing up, and start to bore myself to death, like, “I’ve played that lick so many times. How many more times can I play this thing?” You know what I mean.

And it’s tough, because re-inventing yourself, even in a minor way, is painful, and challenging. If you were good at one thing, maybe you’re not so good at this new thing, so you’ve got to try to get good at that. (laughs) And you’ve always got that pressure from people who liked your music 20 years ago to be that all the time. And that’s not even an option for me.

I’ve actually been hired to do ’80s music, to record ’80s style music, and I failed at it, because I can’t remember who I was back then, or where any of that came from. It was very organic at the time, and I’m not that person anymore. Things have changed, everything’s changed, and this is what I do now.

Guitar.com: What do you listen to these days?

Lynch: It’s all over the map: James Brown, Django, Meshuggah. Bluegrass. African blues. I don’t know dude, I just listen to everything. Nothing in particular.

Guitar.com: So how did you get into guitar building? Were you always just working on your own guitars, and it evolved into actually building guitars from scratch?

Lynch: Yeah. Long term, I always dabbled, even when I was a kid. I used to saw my guitars up and re-paint them and change the electronics. And I used to do that with my amps too.

I’d screw everything up of course — I didn’t know what I was doing. But then in like the late ‘70s, I was actually bolting a lot of stuff together for my students. I was teaching guitar a lot back then and I would combine bodies and necks and parts, and just bolt them together, and I’d sell them to my students.

And that kind of evolved until I kind of got involved in my equipment. I know a little bit about everything, not a lot about — I’m sort of a jack of all trades, a master of none. I know how things work, I know how to put them together, but I’m not like a bona-fide luthier or anything.

And then about five or six years ago I was in a wheelchair. I had back surgery, and I was pretty frustrated. I wasn’t very mobile, and I couldn’t get around. And so I started dabbling in artwork, and that sort of translated onto the guitar bodies. Initially I was using ESP guitars. I was just doctoring them up and modifying them cosmetically. And I got to the point where I did a few of those, and I started selling them.

And then I decided I wanted to build them from the ground up because I did the carved thing, and all of that. And I wanted certain woods, I wanted certain weight, and certain dimensions and specs. It’s harder to take an existing guitar and do that. So I started building from the ground up. And a lot of it was trial and error, and a lot of it was just, “Wow! I did that!” You walk away from it, and it felt like you sort of went into a meditative, trance-like state, and you come out of it later and go “Wow! That’s really cool! How did I do that?”

You get into the problems and try to figure things out. And after a while you walk away from it and go, “Wow, it’s beautiful!” It’s just another creative avenue. I love doing it.

I build about ten guitars a year. Most of the work I do right here at home with hand tools: hand routers and drills and so forth. And then sanding, gluing, firing, painting. I actually shoot nitrous in my backyard (laughs). Everything is done very primitively and wrong, but it works.

My initial cutting I do at a shop in the Valley where they have drill presses and band-saws and sanders and stuff like that, but then I bring everything up here and finish it here.

Guitar.com: So you do all these carvings yourself, all these bodies.

Lynch: Oh yeah. Absolutely. When I first started, some of the days I was working out here in the snow in my backyard (laughs), with heaters and jackets and gloves. Initially I didn’t even have enough tools. I knew what I wanted to accomplish but I didn’t really know how to do it. Like doing side-cuts on the body, I used a 1/4-inch hand router with the guitar held between my knees. If the thing got away from me, there could be a lot of damage — to the guitar, if nothing else.

There were some mishaps and mistakes, but the beauty of the guitars that I do is that they’re so forgiving because they’re so rustic. I’m usually able to fix anything I screw up. If I use a router bit that’s a little old and it starts going sideways on me, and I take out a chunk of wood that wasn’t supposed to come out, or it catches the grain the wrong way — I can usually sand my way through the problem. The most challenging model I have is the Snake Charmer.

Guitar.com: Is that actual snakeskin on there?

Lynch: Oh yeah. Yeah, in fact, the first one that I made, I actually captured those rattlesnakes myself with a forked stick and machete out at my property. My property is in a remote area in the Mojave Desert. I’m up a three-mile dirt road up at 5,000 feet, in the Joshua Tree vicinity, in the California desert.

Anyways, so I learned to skin the snakes. I learned to tan them. I took them to a taxidermist and I learned the chemicals you need to use for tanning so that they’re pliable and flexible and don’t dry out. The cutting of these snake hides is a painful process. They’re not easy to cut.

I use an Exacto knife and commercial superglue and I sit there and have to cut every single angle, accurately, throughout the whole guitar, and then piece it all together so the grain matches. And snakeskin is not easy to cut. It’s got very hard scales. I’ll use about a hundred blades doing a guitar, and about three hides.

You end up gluing your fingers together. It can get very messy, and there’s a lot of clean-up. It’s a really difficult process. Every time I do it I say I’m never going to do another one. I’ve done four now. That’s the most challenging part. They’re expensive. But the guys who have them say they blow everything else away. I do feel that way about them, but I’ve never bothered to build myself one. They all get sold.

Guitar.com: You haven’t kept any of them?

Lynch: No. I never have. And there’s been quite a few where I’ve really had a hard time letting them go. Or I’ve actually thought about buying them back from the customer. I plug them in and I play them for quite awhile before I let them loose. I make sure that they just settle in and they sound great, and I try recording with them.

I ended up using a couple of them on certain recording projects that I had going on concurrently while I was building, and ended up just falling in love with them. And I have gone back to the owners and said, “Hey, man, is there any way I can, like, rent this back from you?” (laughs). And they’ve always been very cool and gave it back to me for a little while.

I actually had a guy let me take it on the road. He wanted me to play it on the road. So I did a whole tour with it, and then he showed up at the last gig — he lived in the city with the last tour date. So he ended up right at the front of the stage — we had this planned out — but I played a guitar solo, and I held it out and it was feeding back, and then I just held it out in front of the audience, and I gave it to him. As far as the audience knew, I just gave the guitar away. It was his guitar, he paid for it. (laughs)

Guitar.com: So you’ve still got signature model guitars through ESP…

Lynch: Yeah, they’ve been just so wonderful allowing me to do this. I’m hoping that someday I’ll be able to put the two together, and make Mr. Scary Guitars part of ESP, as it should be. That’s what I was always hoping it would be. We’re actually starting to talk about that now. I’m hoping something will happen soon.

Guitar.com: Did they ever make an agreement with you, like, “As long as you only make 10 a year,” or anything like that? How much time goes into each one?

Lynch: It’s been a casual, handshake understanding that I limit how many I make. I don’t have the time to make that many. I had to cut it off when I still had five on the bench that I had to finish. I can’t take anymore on.

It’s hard to say how much time is involved because I work on them when I can. I’m doing a lot of other things. I’ll be traveling, recording. I’ll set aside a chunk of time when I can do something specific on a guitar, and then I walk away from it for awhile. It’s just the way I have to work. I’d love to be able to work from conception to completion on one project, but that’s something I can’t afford the time for.

And I tell people that when they order a guitar: “It could be two months, it could be six months.” Usually it takes longer than I estimate, unfortunately. But people are always very understanding that I’m busy. And they want it to come out right, and not rush it. Everybody has been very happy.

Guitar.com: So what are you playing when you’re performing these days?

Lynch: My rig is always — it’s like a two-fold rig, whether it’s studio or live. I always get a Randall Lynch Box, my signature amp, and at least one other amp. That other amp is always something else (laughs). In fact yesterday I was tracking solos and I just switched to this old Marshall the engineer suggested. I brought it up, I said, “I’ve got this old 50-watt, Dokken-era Marshall.” It had been modified. I used it on Back for the Attack, but I hadn’t plugged it in in awhile. So I plugged it in and it was like, “I’m off to the races!”

And before that it was my old Soldano from the first Lynch Mob record. And I’ve got my ’68 Plexi, which I’ve used on so many records. I’ve got a myriad of other wonderful amps. The combination possibilities are endless because I could use two or three different amps with a variety of speaker cabinets, and a variety of mics and pre-amps. There may be a thousand variations there. And it takes a lot of time to try out all those different varieties and options. You never get around to trying them all out.

What I’m doing right now, the last couple months, I’ve been working on building everything into the walls of my studio, where everything is pre-wired into distro-boxes, isolated transformers, buffered. It will allow me to take any particular amp — there’s about 20 amplifiers — into any cabinet, with any mics, and any signal path or mic-pre’s. So I can select any of those combinations.

So I can say, “I want to try the Magnatone through the Hiwatt cabinet with the ’50s RCA microphone into the Chandler mic-pre. And I also want to use that in combination with this other amp, with this other cabinet…” at the flick of a dial. So that’s what I’m working toward. I’ve already built all the framework into the studio, and I’ve just got to do all the wiring. It’s a completely guitar-centric studio.

Guitar.com: Do you do all the wiring yourself for a project like that?

Lynch: I’m gonna try to get some help, but I can.

Guitar.com: That’s some pretty tedious work though, doing all that wiring.

Lynch: Yeah. It’s like opening up a can of worms, because every time you try something you have to figure out, “How am I gonna run this all together, because this is gonna be permanent.” So you don’t want to zip-tie everything, and you need to shroud everything and wrap everything. So I’ve got this wiring harness going through wherever it’s going, and then that all has to come back.

And you have to wire things up so it’s flexible. The same with my racks: I can’t have things wired into my racks that are permanent because I’m changing pedals out all the time. So, yeah, I have to make it modular to where it’s changeable. It’s very challenging.

Guitar.com: What kind of pedals and effects are you into these days?

Lynch: Oh geez, dude! I’ve got hundreds.

Guitar.com: Are you always trying new stuff? Are manufacturers sending you new stuff to try all the time?

Lynch: Sometimes. And I’m always on the search for old vintage stuff too. And finding new stuff that’s really, really cool — that’s difficult because there’s so much new stuff out there. But I’m a partner with a company called Dangerous Guitars and we have another company called Tone XTC, and what we do is we run gear through it’s paces. We’re going to be putting out these videos of me and other guitar players testing all these different pedals and amplifiers, for instance.

So that does get me in front of all this stuff, so I have an opportunity to try the stuff. That’s something that’s really difficult for guitar players to do, is try even a tiny fraction of all the stuff that’s out there.

Guitar.com: Yeah, it’s pretty mind-boggling these days.

Lynch: Yeah, for myself as well. So working on this website Tone XTC is giving me the opportunity to try a lot more stuff than I’d normally be able to try, and condense that down into a couple of days. People send us stuff and we acquire stuff, and they put it all out in front of us and we go through it real quick and run it through it’s paces while we’re taping. And we discover stuff that way.

But most people don’t get the opportunity to do that, so we’re doing that for people, as a service. “Check out me and other guitar players playing through, let’s say, a re-issue of a pedal, and the vintage version of that pedal. Does it live up to the original?” Usually it doesn’t.

Guitar.com: Do you have some vintage pedals that you’ve owned since you started playing, that still work and sound good?

Lynch: Yeah. Actually I’ve got one particular pedal that I bought when I was really, really young, first starting out on electric guitar. It’s called a Jordan Bosstone. And I still have that. It’s a distortion unit that plugs into the jack of your guitar. It operates on a 9-volt battery. It’s awesome. (laughs). I mean, I’d probably never actually use it to record with, but it was my first distortion unit.

Guitar.com: I had one like that from Electro-Harmonix.

Lynch: Aw, their stuff is great! And their new stuff is great too. They still make great, viable stuff. And they’re always trying new things. I just got the B9…

Guitar.com: The Hammond organ emulator…

Lynch: Yeah, the organ pedal.

Guitar.com: Are you diggin’ that thing?

Lynch: Yeah. I am. I probably wouldn’t use it a whole lot, but I actually did use it on “Black Waters,” a little guitar piece that I did on the new Lynch Mob recording. There’s a little guitar piece on there, and one of the tracks is that B9 Electro-Harmonix organ pedal that I’m using to kind of lay an organ bed in behind my playing. Yeah, it’s very cool.

Guitar.com: Yeah, I’m sort of a wanna-be Hammond organ player too, so I’d love to play around with that pedal.

Lynch: Yeah. And another one that I haven’t had a chance to try yet, which I need to find, is the Ventilator. The Ventilator is supposedly a Leslie in a pedal configuration, but it really nails it. It’s been tried before. There’s other things out there — rotating speaker emulators — but this one is supposed to be the Holy Grail. On the Shadow Train record I actually played through an actual Leslie. It was a 127 I believe.

There is a way to run those things that I haven’t quite figured out. I’d love to talk to some guitar player from the ’70s and ask them how they did that. I think they had modified Marshalls or power amps or something that was more guitar-related so they could get all that guitar distortion through the Leslie. And I haven’t quite figured that out. But I did play it, and I loved it. It just sounds huge. It’s very addicting.

Guitar.com:  Didn’t the guy from Focus do that?

Lynch: Jan Akkerman? I don’t know..

Guitar.com: I think he might have been one of those guys that played through a Leslie.

Lynch: It was a thing that everybody used back in the day. For practicality you don’t see it much anymore. But there’s nothing like standing in front of a real Leslie. Miking it is another thing. It’s analogous to a folded-horn bass cabinet. Back in the day I used to love when the bass players used to use the folded horn bass cabinets, the Acoustic 360s, or the Cerwin-Vega folded 18s. And they just hit you in the chest like sledgehammers. They were just awesome.

Because of the long bass wave, the sound doesn’t really develop until half-way across the room, 20 feet out from the stage, or in the studio. They’re really challenging to mic. And that’s the same problem with a Leslie, because it’s coming out of so many places, and it’s got rotating speakers.

It’s like, “How do you mic that and hear what you’re hearing?” If you’re in a room with a Leslie, it’s overwhelming. It’s huge. But when you put a mic on it, it’s like, “Where did the sound go?” (laughs)

That is an old school thing. I don’t know if there’s very many engineers left who know how to do that. I work with a wonderful engineer named Chris Collier, aka The Wizard. He’s a very talented guy, but he’s new-school. He didn’t grow up in the tape days or anything like that. It’s all Pro Tools.

But there’s stuff that’s been lost, you know. It’s a lost art.

Guitar.com: I did an interview with Tom Dowd, the Allman Brothers producer — and engineer or producer for hundreds of other Hall of Famers — probably 15 or more years ago. He produced Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Blvd., and Layla, and a whole lot of other classics…

Lynch: Clapton used a Leslie a lot.

Guitar.com: I was living in Miami at the time, so Criteria Studios, where Layla and 461 were recorded, was right there…

Lynch: Criteria — oh that’s awesome!

Guitar.com: Yeah… So I went down there with Tom for the photo shoot, and he showed us how he miked a Leslie…

Lynch: Oh man!

Guitar.com: And, sorry to say, I don’t recall exactly how he did it, but somewhere in my house I have a copy of the magazine that it came out in, and I think they printed the photo. I’ll try to find it and scan a copy for you…

Lynch: Oh Dude! If you ever do get that, oh man, I’d love to see that! You know with Shadow Train we have a keyboard player, Donnie Dickman, and he’s old-school. He has the Hammond B3, the Leslie. And he’s dieing to figure out how to use it right. How you use it for guitar properly.

Oh, that would be wonderful. Interesting stuff.

Guitar.com: Yeah. Dowd was a pretty awesome dude. The guy started recording in 1947 for Atlantic. He was the engineer for Coltrane, and Miles Davis, and all kinds of old jazz guys.

Lynch: Oh, Jesus!

Guitar.com: You’ve got to look him up. There’s a documentary about him, Tom Dowd. He was a pretty amazing dude.

Lynch: Oh wow. I’ve got to see that documentary.

Guitar.com: Yeah, you’ve got to see it. All right George, I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Lynch: Yeah, no problem. OK man, thank you, I really appreciate it.

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