Andy Summers might have a sackful of Grammys and a hundred million-odd album sales under his belt from his time as the guitarist in The Police, but the success and adulation has never dulled his desire to learn and create. As he partners with Fender to release a hugely unique instrument that celebrates his twin loves of guitar and photography, we spoke to Summers about Strats, his love of experimental effects pedals, selling guitars to Eric Clapton, and why the early days of The Police was “a struggle for acceptance”…
“It seems like such a dumb idea to put all these fucking photographs all over the guitar, doesn’t it? But I’m really pleased with it!” Andy Summers is not one to mince his words about things, and that even applies to the brand new signature guitar that legendary guitarist of The Police has just released with the Fender Custom Shop, the Monochrome Strat. The guitar itself is certainly one of the most unusual signature instruments you’re likely to see, covered as it is in a collage of Summers’ own black and white photographs, and created in partnership with high-end camera maker Leica to celebrate Summers’ two loves.
“Photography is one of those things that’s been part of my life for many years,” Summers enthuses. Alongside my life as a guitarist, I was doing photography all the time as well. I’ve done exhibitions and shows, and it was always something that was very present in my life. Now that we’ve done it, it seems like an obvious thing to bring these two things together, but the result is something pretty unusual, for sure!”
Unusual is one word for it, but it’s a concept that has clearly enthused and inspired the 76-year-old Englishman. Having originally been dissatisfied with Leica’s idea for a Fender-inspired Summers signature camera, he has spent five years refining the concept with Fender and Leica, even coming up with the ‘dumb idea’ of the photo collage finish that covers both the Monochrome Strat and a Signature Leica M camera that has also been released to partner it.
“I’ve been recording with it, and the guitar is great!” Summers exclaims. “It’s a wonderful example of the Stratocaster, and it plays like silk! I was going to take it on my last tour of South America but at the last minute, I got a bit paranoid about what might happen to it, because it was the only one in existence at that time! I thought, ‘Christ, do I really want to be drifting around South America with this thing?!’”
On the path
It’s entirely fitting that Summers now has a truly unique and truly unusual signature guitar, as from the very start he’s always been determined to follow his own path and do things his own way.
“I was given a guitar when I was about 11, by an uncle,” Summers explains of his earliest guitar memory. “It was just a little Spanish guitar, minus one string, but the moment I got it in my hands, the road was set! I never thought about anything else ever again. It was incredible to me, and I was absolutely addicted to it from that moment on. The guitar is a very obsessive instrument – it’s the ultimate bedroom instrument! I’ve always had this feeling that I just want to keep pushing on – that’s never left me, now I think about it. I always have this thing of, ‘Oh I must practise…’”
It’s clear that this drive to experience the guitar in new and inspirational ways has been a driving force behind Summers’ varied and unique career – from a mid-60s London gun for hire to classical guitar maestro to new wave pop megastar and beyond. We can’t help but wonder if there’s one part of the ride that he cherishes more than any other…
“I don’t really do anything unless I feel like I’m really going to enjoy it, and be able to give my best skills and effort to it,” he explains. “And so all these things I’ve done, it’s all been outstanding… well not everything, because I’ve played a lot of shitholes in my life!”
Interestingly what he does find himself looking most fondly on is one of the most leftfield decisions in his career – when he left behind the London guitar scene in the early 70s to move to America and spend the next five years studying classical guitar and composition at California State University.
“That was a very nice period because I was living in California and studying classical guitar, and I just got to play like a maniac for about five years!” he chuckles. “I maybe had some semi-formed ideas about being a classical guitarist at that point, but really I just wanted to spend a few years getting really heavy and playing shitloads of Bach! It certainly didn’t do me any harm, and just being in Los Angeles at that time, there was a great guitar scene, so I was around so much great guitar playing all the time, which was great for me. It was just a time of giving myself over to my obsession with guitar and wanting to get better and understand music in a deeper way.
“And then I came back to the UK and in short order joined The Police, so it meant that by the time I had hooked up with Sting and Stuart I was fully loaded – I put in some ‘time in the wilderness’ with pretty extreme study and playing. The strange part of it was that I joined a so-called punk band, where you weren’t supposed to have all that knowledge, but of course, it all worked itself out!”
As it turned out, Summers’ five-year classical sabbatical armed him with the skills and knowledge that helped him find his feet in the band that would make him a megastar.
“Once I got to know them, it turned out Sting was also a lover of classical guitar – Villa-Lobos, Bach and the like – and I was actually able to play all this stuff, so that was an instant hook between the two of us,” Summers recalls. “We also both came from a background of listening to Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis… all the great jazz from that period, so we had a very common vocabulary between us.
“The stricture of that was that we were in a rock band! So whatever we did, we had to somehow turn it into popular music! That is really the miracle of The Police, that all this weird outside stuff got funnelled into these songs that went around the world.”
The Police emerged to become one of the leading lights of the new wave scene, but despite that genre’s roots in the energy and freedom of punk, Summers remembers that their innovative fusion of punk, reggae and pop wasn’t an easy sell to the mohawk-and-safety pins crowd…
“In the early days of The Police it was hard for us to gain acceptance because we were seen as a bit suspect as a bona fide punk band – it was all a load of bullshit really,” Summers insists. “But the thing is, we were trying very hard to be a band, just to make a living! But as we played together, the talent emerged to the point where other people pointed out to us that we had a style! And we went, ‘Oh yeah… I guess we’d better do that then!’ We did this unwitting thing that came about just because of what we could do, and it turned out to be rather popular!
“We always knew that we didn’t want to sound like anybody else. And so we started not trying to sound like a punk band. We were also pretty sure that we never wanted to play in a support slot, we only wanted to headline, even if it was in a tiny spot – we’d rather play to three people as the headliner!
“The first couple of years of The Police were just so exciting because we basically rose to become basically the hottest band in the world at that point. And then the career we had with it was great, but I’ve had so many years of enjoyment just making records after that – I don’t think I’ve ever gone off the ‘true path’.”
If your knowledge of Summers’ guitar playing is primarily focussed on the Police, you might be surprised that his choice of signature instrument isn’t based on the guitar that was a near-constant presence in that band… but his relationship with the Telecaster is a complicated one.
“I’m not really a purist – the standard Telecaster thing is not really my thing,” he explains. “A lot of guys who play Telecasters, their sound is very bright and twangy, which just isn’t really for me. So people associate me with it, but I don’t have the cowboy hat to go with it!
“My Telecaster was more of a hybrid, because somebody had replaced the neck pickup and put a Gibson humbucker in there, but had also messed around with adding a drive switch into it, powered by a nine-volt battery – this was a period when people took their guitars and did all that sort of stuff to them! That guitar just had an incredible tone, and then it had what was effectively an in-built fuzzbox, which you could then switch on for solos.
“It had something that was almost indefinable – what makes a guitar great? We could be here all day trying to analyse and quantify it, but that one had something magical – that’s why I kept going with it for so long!
“The Telecaster is a wonderful instrument, but in the history of the marvellous creations of Leo Fender… it was his first attempt! Of course, it was an amazing breakthrough, but the Stratocaster was the elegant, refined version of that – and it really is the greatest solidbody electric guitar ever made. There have been a million different variations on it of course, but really Leo got it right in 1954.”
We did say that he wasn’t one to mince his words… but if hearing one of pop music’s most iconic Tele players eulogise over the Strat seems surprising, it shouldn’t be. Summers’ long guitar life has seen him accumulate a hugely varied stable of instruments… but whatever you do don’t call him a collector.
“There are guys out there who just obsess over all that shit, but first and foremost I’m a player,” he explains. “I have a lot of guitars… as most people like me do! But I’m really ready to dump a load of them, to be honest – they just take up so much room! But I’ve accumulated a lot over the years: I have a load of old jazz guitars, I’ve got Nationals, Kleins… I’ve got vintage Strats and things like that. But I definitely don’t describe myself as a ‘collector’. They’re usually a certain type of person, and they’re usually not the players!”
Of the many guitars that Summers has owned and parted ways with over the years ended up playing a part in rock ‘n’ roll history. In 1966 Summers sold Eric Clapton a Burst Les Paul to replace the one that he’d used on the ‘Beano’ album, and had famously been stolen, never to be recovered, shortly after the album’s release…
“I didn’t just sell Eric my Les Paul, I’d told him where to get his in the beginning!” Summers exclaims. Indeed, legend has it that Clapton saw Summers on stage at the Flamingo in London with his ’59 and asked him where he got it. Summers responded that he’d bought it from a shop in Charing Cross Road, and that they had another one there for £80… the rest is rock history.
“Of course, if I’d been thinking straight, I would have bought the other one as well!” he chuckles. “I turned him on to buying the first one, and when that got stolen, he pursued me to get my Les Paul! I wasn’t really playing it that much, because I thought there was something wrong with it, but by that time I’d got my first Telecaster – which I thought was a very hip guitar. So after a long time of Eric calling me up about it, I finally let it go… I’d like it back but I’m not sure that’s going to happen!”
Andy’s days of Les Pauls and Telecasters seem to be behind him in the main, however, and if you’ve seen him perform on stage recently, chances are he’s been using that aforementioned “greatest solidbody electric guitar ever made”, the Strat.
Summers did start using Strats in the latter days of his original run with The Police, but his journey to finding his current number one guitar ironically came about as a result of creating a replica of his famous Telecaster with the Fender Custom Shop in 2007.
“When they did the Telecaster, they came to me with a request to make it, and I said, ‘Yeah okay, great!’” he recalls. “This whole idea about signature guitars hadn’t really occurred to me back then. Usually I have that Telecaster hidden away, but I brought it with me to the studio for them and they took the whole thing apart! It was just… shocking to me! So they took it to pieces and measured it and photographed it and micrometered it and tried to log every possible variance that they could find. When I got the first replica, man, I couldn’t tell the difference – quite incredible… and scary, almost!
By pure coincidence, the release of the Andy Summers Telecaster Tribute model coincided with the announcement of The Police’s 30th anniversary reunion tour, and the good people at Fender couldn’t let Summers go on a 151-date tour without some backup to his trusty ’61 Strat…
“They made me Stratocasters for the tour that were replicas of my old ’61 – they were never put out for sale, they just made them for me while they were doing the other stuff,” Summers recalls. “In fact, one of those red Strats has become my standard workhorse guitars in the studio, it’s just there all the time, and I generally start recording on that.
“So when it came to putting this new Stratocaster together, I had these two guitars that they made for me for the reunion tour, and they were both such wonderful guitars. So I said, ‘Let’s make it as close to those as possible, because they’re both so comfortable for me’.”
While his heart might belong to a guitar perfected in the 1950s however, Summers’ never-ending obsession with ‘pushing on’ doesn’t just apply to his practise routine, but also concerns the instrument itself and the sounds it makes.
“I just think guitar making is such an interesting field, and one that has got more interesting as we’ve gone along,” Summers says. “Which is why I think there are some absolutely fabulous guitars being made by modern makers – some great stuff is being done. The first test for me is that I’ll pick up a guitar and ask ‘Does it play well? Am I having this transmission of my soul to the soul of the guitar?’ If the answer’s no then I’m not that interested.”
But while modern guitars have long been an interest of his, what currently stokes Summers’ creative fires are a good deal more compact…
“I’m actually more interested in pedals these days,” he reveals. “Because some of us are always looking for the newest weirdness you can possibly find, and that’s where it tends to be. We’re absolutely in the golden era of guitar pedals. It’s a real Renaissance, because it never used to be like this!
“Sometimes in the compositional process, to keep things fresh, I start with something sonic, instead of ‘here’s the verse and here are some chords’. So we start from a much more remote sonic place, create a really interesting sound and see if we can make this into a composition that makes sense.
“There’s a guy in England, MWFX, who makes this glitch pedal called the Judder – things like that are so good. And it’s also the way that you hook them up as well, because we’re always messing around trying to combine them and see what happens. It’s a lot of fun to have all these nerdy pedals and play around with them and see what you can come up with, and there are some great surprises along the way.
“It turns into a bit of a hobby in itself – putting these things together and thinking, ‘Oh my god, how on earth did I do that!?’”
The Andy Summers Monochrome Strat is available now from select Fender Custom Shop dealers.