Tony MacAlpine Interview—Guitar, Piano, and Concrete Gardens

Prog-rock, shred metal, neo-classical — whatever you want to call it, it can be pretty inspiring stuff for those who prefer their lead guitar playing fully revved up. It’s challenging stuff too. And of all the incredible guitar players who first caught our attention with this type of playing, often after releasing an album or […]

Prog-rock, shred metal, neo-classical — whatever you want to call it, it can be pretty inspiring stuff for those who prefer their lead guitar playing fully revved up. It’s challenging stuff too. And of all the incredible guitar players who first caught our attention with this type of playing, often after releasing an album or three through Mike Varney’s Shrapnel Records label, only a handful have stayed firmly in the public eye for the long haul.

Among them, Tony MacAlpine may be the most remarkably talented musician of them all. A leader of the Shred guitar movement almost since its inception, he is perhaps even more proficient on piano and keyboards, which we’ve seen short glimpses of on most of his albums.

In fact his sometimes bandmate and bass player Billy Sheehan told Guitar.com last year that Tony “is just genius musically. He will sit down on the piano and do Liszt and Rachmaninoff — for real, like not picking up a couple parts of it. He’s an actual, real classical pianist, not a guy who will learn a couple of classical thingies in his spare time. He’s the real deal.”

But perhaps even more impressive is MacAlpine’s ability to play both keys and guitar at the same time — and not just the simple stuff either. “He’ll solo on guitar with his left hand,” continues Sheehan, “while he’s playing the keyboard with his right, with his double, split mind thing. I’m like, “Tony, get out of here!”

So maybe you’ve seen MacAlpine playing with Sheehan in PSMS, the once-in-awhile collaborative group the two share with keyboardist Derek Sherinian and drummer Mike Portnoy. Or maybe you’ve caught MacAlpine and Sheehan together on stage with Steve Vai. Or you could be a fan of the jazz fusion outfit CAB MacAlpine shares with other equally phenomenal musicians, such as Bunny Brunel and Patrice Rushen.

Of maybe you’ve been waiting for MacAlpine to get back to his own thing, since he has only put out two solo albums in the past 15 years. At long last, the wait is over.

MacAlpine’s first new release since his self-titled Tony MacAlpine album in 2011 came out April 21. It’s both heavy and shreddin’, and as amazing as one might expect of the guitar (and piano) virtuoso. MacAlpine spent two years making the new record, Concrete Gardens. He is now preparing for a U.S. tour, kicking off in late May, and will announce dates outside North America in the near future.

In this detailed Guitar.com interview MacAlpine spoke with us about Concrete Gardens, his home studio, the status of his various side projects, and his love of motorcycles. We got a run-down of Tony’s favorite gear, insight into his songwriting process, and discussed how his piano playing informs his guitar playing.

Here’s what Tony had to say:

Tony MacAlpine: Hey Adam, how’s it goin?

Guitar.com: Good, how about you? So you live in Pasadena these days?

MacAlpine: Yeah, I do.

Guitar.com: Have you been in L.A. all these years?

MacAlpine: Not really. I lived in San Francisco, Long Beach. I lived all around California for a number of years.

Guitar.com: So you have a new album, Concrete Gardens, your first solo album in four years.

MacAlpine: Yeah. It’s got 12 instrumental tunes on it. It has drummer Aquiles Priester on it, and Jeff Loomis is playing some stuff as a guest. It’s a pretty exciting record.

Guitar.com: And you filmed a lot of these songs, people can watch the band play them.

MacAlpine: We actually did that, yeah, for EMGTV. That was pretty cool. We did that with the whole band. It’s pretty cool. Bjorn Englen plays bass. He’s been around for awhile, played with a lot of different cats. It’s an interesting collection of tunes, and pretty progressive stuff. [Editor’s note: The video includes bassist Pete Griffin — who played bass on five songs on the album — and guitarist Nili Brosh.]

Guitar.com: And you filmed this for EMG, the pickup company?

MacAlpine: Yeah, EMGTV. They do a lot of that stuff.

Guitar.com: You’ve been doing some dates…

MacAlpine: Yeah, we’ve been traveling all around the globe. We went down to Columbia for a festival. And back in the States. We’re just playing all the time. Keeping busy.

Guitar.com: What do you think about the South American audiences. They can get pretty wild sometimes.

MacAlpine: Yeah. I’ve played there two or three times, did a couple of G3 tours there. I played there with Steve [Vai]. The beautiful thing about all these different communities and all these different places, is that everybody gets together for the same love of music. They’re pretty intense, and they’re always very festive, so it’s always a lot of fun to play there.

Guitar.com: Right. So you have a U.S. tour starting at the end of May. Are you hitting Europe and Japan?

MacAlpine: Japan and Europe will come later.

Guitar.com: So what kind of gear are you using these days?

MacAlpine: Well, I’m using my Ibanez guitars, the custom-made 7- and 8-strings. They’re outfitted with EMG pickups. And I’m using HK Amplifiers [Hughes & Kettner], Coreblades. And everything’s built into the head. It’s a very simplified rig. Very effective. Two-by-12 cabinets.

I’m using a bunch of different things on the floor. I got some distortion units made by Source Audio. And I use some Voodoo Lab overdrives, a Sparkle Drive and a Giggity. And I use Ernie Ball wah pedals and volume pedals. It’s a very simple setup.

Guitar.com: Are you the kind of person who likes to keep it simple, or are you always out there looking for new gear?

MacAlpine: Oh, I definitely believe in keeping things simple. There’s less things to go wrong. But I’ve been using the HK stuff since the ’90s. I’ve used all their stuff, from the Access preamps to the all-tube heads that glow — the TriAmps. I’m just really happy with the Coreblades, with all the effects and compression built inside the head. I don’t really have to carry a lot of gear.

A lot of the gear is provided and I just show up with the memory stick and drop it in the head, and it knows the whole show in a second. That’s a great thing. All I bring is the pedal board. So I’m really happy with that. It makes traveling and dealing with the airlines a lot easier.

Guitar.com: Tell me about the memory stick…

MacAlpine: The heads are tube heads, but they have the ability to download all of your presets — all of your effects and that stuff — to your computer or a memory stick or flash drive or whatever. So you can just go amp to amp with the same kind of setup.

Guitar.com: That’s awesome.

MacAlpine: Yeah, it makes setup time a blast. You plug it in and you’re ready to go.

Guitar.com: Cool. When you started using more and more of the 7- and 8-string guitars, did you need to find any new gear to get the optimal sound out of those?

MacAlpine: Well, not really. I was using Marshalls for awhile, and they work with everything. And I was using the HKs for awhile too, so there really wasn’t anything. The 8-string I don’t use too much because it gets in the way of the bass. But in the studio it’s a very useful tool.

Guitar.com: So what is your daily schedule like these days, as far as practicing, or band rehearsal?

MacAlpine: Well we only practice as a band when we have a live show to do, or we change something. We used to get together for a couple of days and knock the tunes out. These guys are familiar with all of the records, so they’re really efficient players. We don’t have to get together for weeks at a time or anything.

I spend a lot of my time working on other projects for other bands I’m in, like the thing, when we have time for the PSMS, with Portnoy and Sheehan and Sherinian. Or CAB, the jazz band I have with Bunny Brunel and Patrice Rushen.

I’m doing all kinds of different things. And if it’s not that, it’s great to just get away and ride the motorcycles for awhile and hang out with my wife. I live a pretty normal life, like most people do. I definitely like to get away from music, because between that and the piano, I’m pretty much submerged in it. (laughs)

Guitar.com: Is that a picture of you on the bike on your Skype account?

MacAlpine: No, that’s not me, that’s just a cool picture I saw.

Guitar.com: So you’re not leaning into your turns quite that much, huh?

MacAlpine: No, I don’t have the full leathers and the boots. (laughs)

Guitar.com: What kind of bike do you ride?

MacAlpine: I have an R-1 Yamaha.

Guitar.com: So do you get up into the mountains behind Pasadena once in awhile?

MacAlpine: Yeah, all the time. I go and see my brother, so I ride up through the Crest and through the forest to go see him up in Lancaster. So that’s always fun. That’s a beautiful set of roads out there.

Guitar.com: Yeah, it sure is. Up on Highway 2, the Angeles Crest Highway. So as far as all of your other projects, can you give us an update? Where are you at with CAB right now?

MacAlpine: Well Cab is gonna be recording a new record, and we have some shows that we’re going to be doing around the L.A. area.

And PSMS, everybody is busy doing their own stuff. Those guys are busy doing the Winery Dogs, and I’m getting ready to go out on the road and do some shows with my band, so that’s pretty much on hold. So at the moment, my main concern is to get the band out there and play across the U.S., and then get to Europe and Japan.

Guitar.com: Do you split your time equally between piano and guitar?

MacAlpine: I would say I play a lot more piano than anything.

Guitar.com: Really?

MacAlpine: Yeah, it’s always been that way. It’s a backbone of my whole approach to music. I started piano when I was 5, and didn’t start guitar until I was 12. Piano is the type of instrument that you can start at an early age, and from that you can branch off to other instruments fairly easily because of the whole nature of the way piano is laid out. You’re able to see things rhythmically, and you’re can see chord structures so vividly.

It’s not like looking at guitar diagrams. Just reading the music and hearing it and understanding what goes on on a piano right before your eyes — it’s a very symphonic instrument. At the same time it’s a very progressive instrument, so you learn a lot of things about music just playing piano.

Guitar.com: And you studied piano pretty diligently from when you were 5 to, what, about 17 — or would you say beyond that?

MacAlpine: Yeah, from 5 to 21, when I left college to come out West, and did my first record a few years later with Shrapnel, with Mike Varney and the boys — Steve Smith and Billy Sheehan.

Guitar.com: What kind of a piano do you play at home?

MacAlpine: I have a Baldwin endorsement, so I have a bunch of Baldwin pianos hanging around here.

Guitar.com: And do you play a lot of electronic keyboards as well?

MacAlpine: On the shows I do, because it wouldn’t be feasible to actually move an acoustic around. Yeah, I have some different types of digitals I can bring out, and play some of the solo pieces that I did over the years, or some newer things that I do — as far as the solo section. On all those records I did, I always did some sort of classical thing. So that becomes part of the show too, and people have fun with that.

Guitar.com: What about organ sounds or other instruments like that?

MacAlpine: In the studio, yeah, I use different types of keys for whatever I’m looking for. But my sound is really centered around the guitar, with some string padding in the background.

Guitar.com: So when you’re getting ready to go out and do some shows, do you put in some extra time on the guitar?

MacAlpine: Well I play guitar on my own. I wouldn’t say it’s any extra time, but I play pretty much every other day. I can sit and watch TV and play, with the little amp that I have, and get a lot of things down. But before I even get to the point where I’m going to try and play these songs — I know them pretty well because I wrote them.

So it’s not really a matter of your chops going anywhere, because playing an instrument like the piano, that’s weighted keys. It’s a lot more physical to play that than it is to play any other instrument. And it’s an acoustic feel, so you really have to put forth a lot of arm weight, and stress. But the guitar is something I’ve always felt at home with. But I can’t play it quite as long as I can play other instruments.

Guitar.com: Other instruments besides piano?

MacAlpine: Yeah. I play the violin too. That was the second instrument that I started.

Guitar.com: And do you still play violin?

MacAlpine: A little bit. You wouldn’t want to hear it though! (laughs)

Guitar.com: You must have a home studio, right?

MacAlpine: Oh yeah.

Guitar.com: Are you always writing, putting ideas down?

MacAlpine: Yeah. I hear the stuff, and then when I think I’ve got something that’s good I come in and I record it. And then I have Aquiles come in and play it, and do that kind of stuff.

But I’m always around music and hearing music, and one way or another, it never atrophies. I’m always centered around it one way or another, either with friends, or different musicians that I know, or going out and seeing bands play.

Guitar.com: Do you find that when you have an idea, you remember it later, or do you need to record it before it slips away…

MacAlpine: I remember them pretty well. And if I keep hearing the idea, and I think it’s something that’s worthy, then I may try to compose something. But yeah, there’s a lot of ideas that I’ve heard that when I did compose them, they weren’t really worth very much. So that happens. Every time I have something I don’t really jump to it.

And sometimes if I’m out riding the bike or in the car I can hear something pretty cool, and I might sing the idea into the iPhone. I’ve done that on the train, or the plane. That’s the cool thing about these inventions today. We couldn’t do that a long time ago. You had to run home and thread the tape on a tape deck. But now everything is so instant and at your fingers. It’s amazing.

Guitar.com: Besides being able to sing a melody into an iPhone, what other new technology have you really embraced.

MacAlpine: Well, these cool amp mods are great — these apps. Some of them are pretty cool. My friend Bernie makes a lot of stuff that’s really out of this world. He’s made some great plug-ins for Pro Tools and stuff. And he works across the board on Logic and Digital Performer. I think the plug-ins are pretty amazing today, which makes life a lot easier in a studio environment. You don’t have to use as much tube stuff that you had to use before to generate a cool sound.

Guitar.com: What is your friend’s name?

MacAlpine: Bernie Terelli. He’s the President of Nomad Factory.

Guitar.com: So do you use Pro Tools, Logic, or another DAW?

MacAlpine: I use all of them. Sometimes I get stuff, if somebody wants me to play on something and it’s in Logic, I just keep it in it’s native form, whatever it is, so I don’t really need to change it. But yeah, I use Pro Tools and all kinds of different things. They’re all pretty much the same once you’ve wrapped your head around them, they all pretty much do the same function.

Guitar.com: What would you recommend would be someone’s first choice: Pro Tools, Logic, something else?

MacAlpine: If you write songs a lot, outside of the guitar, like outside of audio, and you write with instrument and drum loops or drum machines, or MIDI-based keyboards, then Logic is a no-brainer. It’s so much faster. You don’t have to buy any outboard stuff to make it work.

With Pro Tools you’re always getting into spending to do other things because they don’t include everything. But they’ve come a long way since they stepped out of the whole Digidesign thing. And they make Native, which has a lot of inclusive stuff.

But hands down, Logic is just so fast, Pro 9 and 10… They’re just amazing. And that ability to work in that MIDI format is really great.

But from the standpoint of audio sounds, yeah, Pro Tools definitely is the way to go. If you’re just working with real drum and real guitar sounds… What I like to do, a lot of times, if I’m building a song, I will work in Logic, and then I’ll take that whole project and move it over to Pro Tools and work on the audio. Like the guitar sounds.

But I don’t mix these things. I’ve mixed lots of other things, but I don’t mix my own records. So that’s what I would recommend.

Guitar.com: So you feel like you can go back and forth between Logic and Pro Tools, without losing anything.

MacAlpine: Yeah, because you can bounce everything in place, track by track. And you can keep your original session the way it was, in whatever format you’re leaving. But to carry it over you just make wav files, and bounce them over, and just continue from there.

Guitar.com: So if a guitar player wants to use drum loops and things of that nature, but wants to play and record guitar and bass live, and record it, is Logic still the one for that?

MacAlpine: Well, you might have a limitation with the front end. There’s only so many things you can do. And the budget, you might be concerned with that. You’re going to have to get something to bring the front end in, with all your mics and all that. You might have a limitation with certain devices.

With Logic you can record many tracks at one time, but you’re limitation is going to be your ability to get that into the computer. In Pro Tools you’re not going to have that problem. You can use as many inputs as you want.

There’s ways around it, but it’s always a costly endeavor. The other side of the coin is that Logic uses the processor in your computer, so the more stuff that you use the slower it starts to run. Pro Tools doesn’t do that. It uses it’s own outboard gear. It never lags. Like I said, it’s a lot easier for me to write with Logic.

Guitar.com: So what interface do you use with Logic to plug in your guitar or microphone?

MacAlpine: To do that I use a Digi 003. That’s all I really need. For the HD Pro Tools it uses it’s own front end.

Guitar.com: So what have been some of your favorite plug-ins, the amp simulators?

MacAlpine: Outside of Nomad Factory, I love the Waves stuff. I have the whole Waves bundle. That’s pretty amazing. And the amp simulators inside of Logic are pretty amazing too.

There’s so many different pedal boards that Logic has come out with, and we can actually swap out different foot pedals, and you can move microphones around on the amps, and change the speakers. It’s really getting pretty crazy, the stuff that you can do.

As far as clean tones, it’s a lot of fun to blend the clean tones with some of that stuff, with the actual clean tones of your amplifier. I do that a lot, but I don’t really use distorted sounds, or try to record those from a session. I prefer the tube sounds and a microphone for whatever I’m trying to do with a real amp sound.

Guitar.com: Sounds like you can get lost in there for a long time just tweaking knobs.

MacAlpine: Yeah! (laughs) You would.

Guitar.com: Does that happen to you sometimes?

MacAlpine: Yeah, it does, when you get really involved in it. Or when somebody comes out with a new app, you might want to compare it against something else that you’ve done. And then you spend days doing that, and then there’s always the debate of “What sounds better — Pro Tools or Logic or Digital Performer?” And then you start A-B testing all of that stuff for days.

What it comes down to is that half of this stuff that we listen to on the radio, you never know what it’s mixed on. It could be mixed on anything. It’s just the ability of these engineers and mastering engineers to make it sound great. That’s the cool thing.

Guitar.com: So with all the different people you play with, in different variations of your career, what have you learned from some of these guys? How do they affect your playing? How does Billy Sheehan affect your playing, for example?

MacAlpine: Well, the most important thing, we all kind of started pretty early, and so we have our own respect for each other. And we were friends before we were really [playing together as] musicians, as was the case with Steve Vai — I’ve known him for years. And a lot of other players that I’ve worked with, like Bunny Brunel. It really isn’t so much us being able to teach each other things, but life experiences are the most important thing.

You might be in an area where you don’t understand how something might function in another country, and you can talk about that, and get inspiration from that, and gain from those experiences, from their life experiences, and apply those to your own.

But as far as that camaraderie, that’s important. With all the experience that all these players have had. When you get together with Mike Portnoy or Derek Sherinian whoever, and you sit down and talk about the experiences that they might have had in Dream Theater, or that Derek and I might have had in Planet X. Those are all the type of life experiences we all talk about. That’s fun.

Guitar.com: You spent a lot of years with Steve Vai.

MacAlpine: Not too many. It was just four years. But I was still always doing my own stuff on the side. And at the same time that I was doing that, I was doing a big pop gig in France and Europe, with Michel Polnareff.

Guitar.com: How did that come about?

MacAlpine: Bunny Brunel, the bass player, is from France, and he is very good friends with him, and he hadn’t done a concert since the ’70s, and he decided he wanted to come back and do it again. And he loved CAB. He would always come to Los Angeles and see us play. And CAB consisted of Bunny Brunel, at that time, Virgil Donati on drums, and myself on guitar, and some different keyboard players.

And he just loved that nucleus. And he hired that whole nucleus, and that whole three-member group became the centerpiece of his band. He outfitted it with 18 other musicians — other guitar players, and two keyboard players, two drummers. It was a lot of fun, to go through some stuff where you don’t have to struggle as much with the unpleasantries of life on the road. It was a pretty fun thing to do.

Guitar.com: You played in front of a lot of people with him.

MacAlpine: Yeah, night after night it was 20,000 or 25,000 people. He sold out Bercy [venue in France] for 18 shows in a row, which is really a lot of people. The biggest show we did was at the Eiffel Tower, and two million people. He’s a legend. It’s him and Johnny Hallyday — those guys are just really big. (laughs)

Guitar.com: Two million people! Wow!

MacAlpine: Yeah. And they had the video screens going across the field where the Eiffel Tower is and all that. It was amazing.

Guitar.com: And I bet you could probably only see the first four or five-hundred thousand, right?

MacAlpine: Yeah (laughs) And they’re kicking balls around. It was kind of fun. Nelly Furtado was on the bill. She was great. It was great to see the pop people. It was fun. I like all forms of music. But I still like to be able to get into a small club and rock out.

Guitar.com: What do you listen to when you’re taking a break from playing? What do you listen to when you’re on your motorcycle?

MacAlpine: On the bike I don’t listen to anything anymore. I used to, but I just put earplugs in and just concentrate on the motor. It’s more of a mind-clearing thing. I can listen to any kind of music. I’ve never been particular. I can find some enjoyment in anything. If I get on a plane and I don’t have anything to listen to, I can plug into their thing and just listen to that airplane music, or whatever. There’s no real particular thing that I go for.

Guitar.com: How did it come about that you played Wes Montgomery in a movie?

MacAlpine: That was a movie that the president of Guitar Center did with Steve. It was an interesting movie, and I played Wes Montgomery in the movie, and that was my first movie experience. (laughs).

Guitar.com: I’ve heard that working on a movie is boring, boring, boring. Is that what you experienced?

MacAlpine: I don’t know, but yeah, it took like 12 hours to shoot one stupid shot. But it was pretty easy work. I wouldn’t mind getting into acting, if I had the time, and the talent. (laughs). This was a non-speaking role.

Guitar.com: “Crazy,” The Hank Garland Story…

MacAlpine: Exactly. That’s what it was.

Guitar.com: So this came from Guitar Center?

MacAlpine: The president of Guitar Center funded the movie. He started the company with Steve, and that’s how they got it together. Steve was actually in the movie too.

Guitar.com: I haven’t seen it. I’ve got to check it out. You can get it as a DVD, right?

MacAlpine: Yeah, you can. Sure.

Guitar.com: Did you actually play guitar in the movie?

MacAlpine: Yeah, I did.

Guitar.com: What Wes Montgomery tune did you play?

MacAlpine: I can’t remember… We did like three or four different tunes, and they cut the scene for the song they thought was the most fitting. It was a small jazz band.

Guitar.com: Have you spent much time with Montgomery’s music before?

MacAlpine: Oh yeah. Jazz is one of my loves. That why I got the CAB band. I love that. I was doing that band for years with Dennis Chambers, and Simon Phillips, and all that. But yeah, I love fusion, I love straight-ahead jazz.

Guitar.com: Do you spend some time in your regular routine working on straight-ahead traditional jazz?

MacAlpine: Yeah. I’ve worked with other guitar players that were really good at interpreting different things, like Ray Gomez, and I’ve sat down with Frank Gambale — who is a great jazz player — and worked on different ideas, and different approaches to standard Real Book music. But I don’t really have hollowbody guitars that I really like, so I’m always leaning more toward the fusion side of it.

Guitar.com: Are there any other styles of music that you dabble in that we don’t know about?

MacAlpine: Not really. Some pop stuff that I might work on, on the side. But that’s not stuff that I’m creating.

Guitar.com: No chicken pickin’, no bluegrass?

MacAlpine: No, I’ll leave that for Johnny Hiland. (laughs)

Guitar.com: So are you still doing some clinics?

MacAlpine: A little bit. I recently did a tour of Australia with Ibanez. And I’m supposed to go to Japan. We moved that back to when the band is on the road. But primarily I’ve been doing a lot of Ibanez clinics. I’ve been to China, and played nine clinics over there with Jennifer Batten and some other people. It was great. I had a lot of fun doing that.

Guitar.com: Any U.S. clinic stuff coming up?

MacAlpine: There’s nothing that we have planned right now. The only thing that we really have, that we’re concentrating on is the tour.

Guitar.com: I did see that you’re doing some online lessons.

MacAlpine: Oh yeah. I always do that in my free time. I have fun with the students, and try to pass it on. So that’s always fun to hang out in the guitar community and see how people are doing, and help them out with certain problems that they might have. I enjoy that.

Guitar.com: You do that via Skype, right?

MacAlpine: Always, yeah. It’s easier.

Guitar.com: And how should people contact you about that?

MacAlpine: They should email tmaclessons   at    gmail.com

Guitar.com: OK. Cool. I’ll let people know. I know they love to get together with people like you and really clarify some things.

MacAlpine: Yeah. Thanks Adam.

Guitar.com: All right, so Tony, thank you so much for your time.

MacAlpine: All right brother, you have a good one.

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