This interview was originally published in 2010.
In a world where everything is amazing and nobody’s happy, I was very happy when I was told I’d be interviewing my guitar teacher. I’d never met Guthrie Govan, but for the past ten years I’ve been studying his lessons in Guitar Techniques magazine. Guitar Techniques calls him “the world’s most outrageous guitarist,” and anybody who has studied his columns will swear to this fact. Govan’s playing is amazing, but he has the rare gift of being a super-effective teacher. Some of the greatest guitar players on the planet are rotten teachers, so what he gives to the guitar community is not lost on me.
Not only does he take complicated music theory concepts and make them understandable to slow kids like me, but he also transcribes and interprets the work of the masters so we lesser players can get it. He can go from Albert King to Allan Holdsworth in a heartbeatâ€”and then show up to his own gigs and be his unadulterated self.
If you’re wondering how Govan got where he is today, here’s the scoop: He replaced Steve Howe in the prog-rock band Asia from 2001 to 2006, he teaches guitar clinics all over the place, he is the author of two books, Creative Guitar 1: Cutting Edge Techniques and Creative Guitar 2: Advanced Techniques, and he is currently prepping for a follow-up to his first solo record Erotic Cakes. You could call Govan a “guitar player’s guitar player,” but there’s a lot more going on with him than that. My time spent with him revealed an artist searching for something deeper than creating a guitar chops record. For certain, he was blessed with having achieved technical virtuosity at an early age (his first gig was at age five), but today he’s on a spiritual path to use his talents to not only speak to guitar players, but to lovers of fine music as well.
Guitar.com: What have you been doing lately?
Guthrie Govan: Trying to get my next album done. Things keep getting in the way, which is nice. In this economic climate, being too busy is not a problem anybody should be complaining about. My policy at the moment is to say “yes” to everything, do as much work as possible now, and when I think I can feed myself for a few months, start saying “no” to everything. I’ll just lock myself in a room, draw the curtains, and then try to do the album in one go. I want to go from the initial writing stage to, Okay, now it’s ready to put live drums on it. I just want to do it all in one period. The next album should be a snapshot of where I was in my life.
Guitar.com: What’s getting in the way?
Govan: I’ve been keeping busy doing sample replays. The dance music guys will make a demo and take four bars of a James Brown loop or something like that. A lot of it is old disco stuff or The Red Hot Chili Peppers. When it’s time to release the record they realize that they can’t use the actual loop from the original record for legal reasons or financial reasons. There are companies who recreate those loops and get other musicians to try and get the same tones. They basically try to come up with a facsimile of that loop.
Guitar.com: So they bring you in to replicate the guitar parts?
Govan: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of guitar and a bit of bass. It’s been good for my disco bass playing. [Laughing] I pretend to be a bass player. I’ve inadvertently found myself playing on Dizzee Rascal’s latest album in a sample replay capacity. He’s the foremost rapper in the UK. He was approached by the BBC. They did a thing called The Electric Proms, where they take popular artists and try to put them in an unusual context. The year before they had Oasis playing with an orchestra. For this they wanted Dizzee the rapper to play with a rock band and a choir. So I ended up in this band for a televised gig with a twenty-piece string section. There were horns, a male voice choir, and then me just shredding and playing acoustic! I played about five minutes of every musical style known to man. It was a really fun gig. I think Dizzee liked it as well and saw real potential in doing the rap thing a little bit differently. So, I’ve been gigging a lot with him lately. It’s like missionary work. [laughing]
Guitar.com: What’s the deal with you and the band Asia?
Govan: It’s an interesting and long story. There were some problems when Geoff Downes, the keyboard player, found it irresistible to do a reunion tour with all the original members: Steve Howe, John Wetton and Carl Palmer. They wanted to celebrate the 25th anniversary of that huge first album. It created an awkward situation whereby the original guys obviously wanted to go out and be billed as Asia, because they are. The band who had been playing all the Asia stuff for the previous ten or fifteen years, which was pretty much the band that I was in, was kind of Asia. They were clearly Asia, but we did it. It split into two factions, and the band I was playing with was renamed Asia Featuring John Payne, which kind of works because he had huge creative input into everything the band had done in more recent years. If you’re called Asia Featuring John Payne, and there’s another Asia out there, it affects the kind of gigs that you can get. The situation was, everyone else in that band lived in the LA area and I lived near London, so we’d get one-off gigs at festivals or casinos. Every time there was a gig, I would have to fly for eleven hours from London to LA to rehearse for the gig and get all the gear sorted, then maybe to fly to Philadelphia to do the gig. Then fly back to LA so I could cash in on my return ticket to get back to London. It was a week out of my life and a world of jet lag, and another week of feeling ill once I got home. I just couldn’t justify doing it. It was killing me. I loved the guys to death. I really enjoyed playing with them, but in the end I had to say, You should get an American guy who will appreciate this gig, rather than the guy who is doing it out of love or whatever. Those guys have been working with Mitch Perry, so I think that’s going to be a good thing.
Guitar.com: Have you done any tracking for the new record yet?
Govan: Not really. I have enough material to make a new album, but I don’t want to do it that way. You want to do it all in one big shot. Yeah. I’ve tried one way of doing an album, which is using some tunes that I wrote nearly twenty years ago, some tunes I wrote ten years ago, and a couple that I wrote fairly recently. It’s this big sprawling conglomeration of things that I’ve done over the years. I know what it’s like to make an album that sounds like that. I want to explore doing it the opposite way so I can learn something about the whole working process. It’s more about continuity and just being able to come up with everything in one period of time. I find that if you can lock yourself away from the rest of the world just for a few days, gradually you start to go mad in all the right ways. You start to feel more creative and then you’re surprised at what comes out. So, rather than planning what kind of album it’s going to be, the plan is to lock myself away, go slightly mad and see what comes out.
Guitar.com: In your columns you’ve transcribed everyone from Robben Ford to Yngwie. How does that inform your personal style?
Govan: The core of what I do is being a kid and listening to a lot of Cream-era Clapton, Hendrix, Alex Harvey Band and stuff like that. It was working out Beatles chord progressions, Clapton blues licks or whatever. It’s always been about using my ears. I’ve never had a guitar lesson in my life.
Guitar.com: Not one lesson?
Govan: Yeah. I found that in general I’ve always learned the sound of something first, then gone to the library to read up on things and find out what the name was for that sound. When I was a kid I remember having one of the Joe Pass Virtuoso albums and trying to work out some esoteric harmony that I never heard on a Chuck Berry or Beatles album: What the hell are these chords? I don’t know what they’re called! So I would try to find a shape that sounds like that. Then you associate the shape with that sound. Then six months later you’re reading about altered chords in a library book: I knew that! I just didn’t know there was a word for it! That way you can incorporate new stuff into the way you play more naturally. I think if you sit down with a scale book and say, “Today I’m going to conquer the Lydian Dominant,” you’ll end up knowing all these shapes and playing them at a certain speed. You still have to assimilate that into the more subconscious side of how you play. How do you make that feel as natural as the blues licks that come so easily to most of us? It’s tough when you learn something that way round. It’s just a cold morsel of theory. I’ve seen so many people over the years where you give them a minor pentatonic shape and they will play beautiful well-phrased musical stuff, because they don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s imprinted on them on some very basic level. So then you say, “Can you play modally or put in some chromatic notes?” Suddenly the musical player isn’t there anymore. You can hear that they’re thinking too hard to play anything that’s meaningful. So I’m quite glad I learned the other way around.
Guitar.com: You found a context for the sounds first as opposed to starting with an exercise or a pattern of notes?
Govan: Yeah. If you think you’ve learned the scale, can you sing it? Can you scat it without having a guitar there or without having a shape to guide you? If you can’t sing it or feel it, then you don’t really own that scale. You just memorized the short cut to those notes. The process has to be imagining some music in your head, then being able to play what you hear in your head by ear.
Guitar.com: What was your big guitar epiphany when you were younger?
Govan: It was figuring out that a lot of blues players use the same blues boxes and the same licks, but I know after one note whether it’s Freddy King, Albert King or B.B. King. It’s the same note, but I knew which guy it is. It’s about the way you play and the tone that compliments what you’re trying to say best. Sometimes the wrong note played with the right tone and the right attack works better than perfect notes played with apathy. I spent a lot of time trying to make my one guitar and my one amp sound like all these different players. I’m really glad I spent time doing that. The other epiphany was Jimi Hendrix. There was no division between lead playing and chord playing. ‘Little Wing’ has a rhythm part but there’s melody buried in it. The other extreme was ‘All Along The Watch Tower,’ which is one of my favorite moments. It’s very disciplined, organized Jimi. He composed the solo in all these different sections and one of them is “Oh, you’re inventing funk rhythm guitar playing and you’re doing it in the solo!” That blur between those two camps I thought was a really interesting thing. It really helped a lot with my rhythm playing and the idea that you don’t have to be stuck in a block.
Frank Zappa was an epiphany with the way he phrased. I just got it one day. For a while I loved everything about the music, but I wasn’t quite sure about the guitar playing: this guy a genius or can he not really play? Then I got it one day. He’s phrasing like people talk, which is why it looks so horrendous when you see it written down. It’s hard to quantize that stuff, but we all phrase like that when we speak. There’s a floating tempo when we speak, so it makes sense when you hear it. When you put it behind any kind of pulse it becomes a really intriguing thing to listen to.
Guitar.com: What’s your favorite guitar right now?
Govan: I guess I have to say my signature guitar. [laughing] If I helped design it and I still didn’t like it, there would be something wrong. It’s a mahogany beast made by Suhr. There’s a new version of it that just came out. It has a mahogany neck, a set neck joint, a mahogany body, and pretty much no finish. It’s pretty much one lump of resonant tree. It’s got big frets and a pau ferro fretboard, which I think is Bolivian rosewood. It’s harder than other rosewoods. It has moderate output pickups, not too loud. If the pickups get too meaty, you lose some of the character of the guitar and that’s a shame. It’s two Suhr humbuckers with a single-coil in the middle. The push-push switch is set so you can get different flavors, so it’s something of a Tele. You can get the neck coil and the bridge coil. You can get a Mark Knopler sound or a Stevie Ray sound. I was raised on old-style amps. An amp with four channels is a luxury I’ve never known, so I’ve always tried to do things with the volume knob. There’s a lot of new sounds in any guitar if you explore what the volume knob does. The switch was born out of a desire to be able to set the volume knob to that perfect sweet spot where you can get a clean tone through an overdriven amp. It’s just loud enough and just clean enough, and then it remembers that when you switch to the solo sound. It’s a simple button you can push on the guitar. It’s the bridge pickup straight into the output jack of the guitar for maximum meat. Then when you push the button again, the guitar remembers the volume knob being in your favorite place. I love that.