David Rhodes Archive - Guitar Player Magazine - September 1987

David Rhodes Archive
Guitar Player - September 1987

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David Rhodes - Atmospheric Guitar for Peter Gabriel
by Mark Dery

During his recent So Tour, poker-faced Peter Gabriel offered fans a glimpse of his slapstick side. During “Big Time”, while Gabriel brayed in mock-macho tones about “the bulge in my big, big, big, big, big, big, big…”, bassist Tony Levin and guitarist David Rhodes stomped around in frizzy wigs, striking “Spinal Tap” attitudes. The inside joke on Gabriel’s onstage gag is that Rhodes is probably the least likely guitar hero on the circuit. A spare, understated player whose presence in Gabriel’s songs is more felt than heard, Rhodes favors short-and-sweet phrases over solo grandstanding. His buzzbomb power chording, tart fills, and floating feedback have added atmosphere to four of Gabriel’s six solo records, beginning with the singer’s third LP – Peter Gabriel (also known as Melt), Peter Gabriel (also known as Security), Plays Live, and recently, So.

On So, Rhodes’ guitaring is more than understated – it’s downright subliminal, with his 12-string strumming mixed down to a trebly shimmer on “Red Rain” and his chording blended seamlessly with synth washes on “ In Your Eyes”. Some guitarists would balk at being buried under Fairlight-synthesized choirs. Not Rhodes. “I think that’s fine,” he avows. “Often, I prefer that. I think sometimes it can be unnecessary to have a lot of definition between instruments. All the instruments should blend to make the song work, to build the atmosphere. The fact that you can’t hear your part, a particular sound, shouldn’t worry you at all. A lot of guitarists enjoy playing very loud and doing big solos. I’m not into that. I didn’t start playing until quite late. I went to art school and majored in sculpture. My interest was always in the visual arts. When I started playing, because I hadn’t grown up doing rock and roll, I didn’t feel it was right to be out there strutting my stuff. The idea of making things work appeals to me a lot more. I approach things texturally and build them up, giving the music space to develop. With Peter, we use a lot of effects, so that it sounds as little like a guitar as possible.”

The role of the guitar in Gabriel’s music, as Rhodes sees it, is “just to bring out the song. It should be very supportive – it’s to do with mood. Peter works hard on mood. It’s very important to understand the emotion that Peter wants to get across, or, for that matter, anyone you’re working with – whoever’s writing the song. Of course, although my role is supportive, there’s quite a lot of self-expression in it.”

Rhodes’ brand of self-expression is worlds away from the gutbucket blues and hard rock roots that many of his contemporaries draw from. It instead relies upon repeated minimalist figures and ambient droning. Highlighting crescendos with a daub of chordal color or a spattery string of notes, the guitarist’s style owes more to his art school days than to time slaving over a hot fretboard – although he’s done that, too. “I was in school bands,” recalls Rhodes with a grimace. “They were just awful! I got a band called Random Hold together as soon as I finished art school. We were playing at a club in ’79 and Peter came down with his manager. I think we were one of the first bands to use a rhythm box; we liked to think of ourselves as an electronic band. Peter was looking for people to do his third album, so he brought his manager and everybody down to this little club. After watching us, he asked us to play down at his studio and try some of his tunes. After that, he asked me to do the record.

“I was completely panic-stricken. I had just finished doing a record with Random Hold, The View From Here, and I didn’t enjoy being in studios very much then. I thought it was all a big fuss about nothing. I was an angry young man, and I thought that anything that got in the way of me being angry was a pain. I was really nervous because I walked in and [drummer] Jerry Marotta and [bassist] John Giblin had already been rehearsing with Peter for a few days – and they were of much higher caliber than me. Then I tried to learn how Peter did things; it was all so new. It was the first time I’d ever done anybody’s songs other than those of the band I was in.”

What did a refined, seasoned musician such as Gabriel see in a rough-hewn player like Rhodes? “A good friend,” David says with disarming candor. “That’s what I turned out to be. And maybe it was just the fact that I didn’t play like most other guitar players, because I couldn’t; I was technically so inept that I was more interested in ideas and sounds.”

Rhodes’ impressionistic fretwork has proved a perfect foil for Gabriel’s moody tone poems. From the lashing, slashing Fender Jazzmaster on Peter Gabriel’s “No Self Control” (aided by “a very good old fuzzbox called the Eurotec Black Box – quite rare these days”) to the clammy, brooding atmospherics of “The Family and the Fishing Net” (Security), the guitarist’s intuitive grasp of Gabriel’s vision has made him indispensable to the singer/songwriter.

Quizzed about a given tune, Rhodes recalls first mood, then mode. “I’m fondest of the things that really fit in with the mood,” he insists, “like the noises on ‘Wallflower’ (Security), the B chords tapped at the 12th fret on ‘I Have the Touch’ or the guitar gurgles on ‘Lead a Normal Life’ [both on Security] – it was just horrendous feedback on the Jazzmaster, using the wang bar.”

Pressed for technical information, he continues: “On ‘Biko’ [Security], that was the Jazzmaster. It’s really just drones – two notes, open strings and an octave, A and D, played at the 7th fret. ‘Intruder’ [Security] (sic) was the first time I’d ever played an Ovation acoustic. I did that through a Roland Jazz Chorus, the same amp I always use. I was doing scratching noises, and I played some chords. There were some funny ones of Peter’s; all of his chords are a bit odd. The opening part of the song is just an E chord with a B Flat added on the D string, played at the 8th fret.”

“Gabriel’s chord shapes are often odd, primarily due to putting different root notes over chords, such as a C with an A added. The final chord in ‘Not One of Us’, from the third album, is E, E, B Flat, F#, B, E (low to high), with the root note the open low E and the octave E at the 7th fret on the A string. That’s quite a neat chord. And the clipped double-stops in ‘Big Time’ are an example of Peter’s funny piano thing – it’s C# with an F, played on the top two strings [14th fret, B string, 13th fret, E string], and then the top string just changes to an F#. Next, it changes to an E, and then to an E Flat. That’s the verse. For the chorus, there’s just a chug on two of those chords. Peter uses a lot of strange chords that aren’t particularly suited to the guitar. It’s just very small movements, from when Peter plays something on the piano, just moving one finger around. Now, some of them are not as complex as they used to be. He’s better on melodies.”

Composing with Gabriel is a surprisingly intuitive affair. When recording demos, they initially record right onto 24-track. Rhodes explains, “I just try to figure out what should be played. Peter never has the lyrics at the beginning, or maybe he’ll have one line. So he just plays, and we try to select the good bits and get rid of the bad bits. He has a [Sequential] Prophet and an [E-mu] Emulator and a Fairlight, and he fiddles around between all of them and the piano. He can fidget quite a lot.”

Gabriel’s latest album, So, is a catchy blend of funk, Afro-tech, and English soul. While Rhodes has shared guitar credits with other players before (Robert Fripp’s overdubbed guitar flak riddles Peter Gabriel), So is unique in that Rhodes found himself in the same room with Daniel Lanois, swapping licks in real time. “Daniel and I played very similar roles on So,” says Rhodes. “On ‘Sledgehammer’, it was just the two of us setting up a groove. It was great fun. He’s got a lot more knowledge of country and blues and those areas because he used to play in country bands.”

The Gamble & Huff inspired horn strut of ‘Sledgehammer’, together with its choppy chording and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, make the song a jukebox natural. “‘Sledgehammer’” was always a lot of fun to play,” Rhodes chuckles. “We were doing versions of it that lasted 10 minutes when we first learned it. The little brassy guitar part is quite funny. The groove riff is very straightforward kind of mock funk. I’m playing off an E Flat 7 nearly all the way through. It’s just single-note picking until the chorus, which is just ‘brass’ keyboard chords.”

Among other twists, Rhodes tried mixing it up on So by playing electric 12-string “with a radical EQ setting – taking all the highs, so that you end up with a very thin sound. So often, 12-strings take up way too much space. This way, it was just like the icing. There’s 12-string on ‘Red Rain’ – a horrible old cherry-colored Shergold – although you wouldn’t know it because it’s quite buried. That was in standard tuning. On other cuts Rhodes employs unusual tunings, dropping down to C, A, D, G, C, E, low to high, or D, A, A, G, A, D. He also detunes the G to an F# for a “quite open sound” or drops the low E to E Flat “to make playing E Flats easier,” as he did on “Sledgehammer” and “That Voice Again”.

For “We Do What We’re Told,” an Orwellian set piece that layers L. Shankar’s breathless violin rasp and Rhodes’ whacked chords atop the bloop and burble of Marotta’s processed drums, Rhodes used his vintage Jazzmaster. “It’s heavy wang bar,” he informs. “It’s two guitar tracks, both overdubbed by me, in two different rhythms. The first track is just A dropping to F#, beating the wang bar in one rhythm – straight four – bum, bum, bum, bum – and the second track is half-time. The backing track was done about four or five years ago for the third record – the one with ‘Biko’ on it. It used to have a baby crying on it, and it was a very worrying song. It’s a lot more optimistic now, even though it’s moody.”

When he’s not busy hammering out hits with Gabriel, Rhodes noodles away in his home studio. “I always try to do things,” he confesses, “but I haven’t managed to get a deal with anyone. I’m being very sluggish, going about things very gently. I’ve been doing quite a lot of little instrumental pieces. It’s all guitar. Very atmospheric.” In addition, he moonlights on LPs with artists such as Joan Armatrading (Secret Secrets), Talk Talk (The Colour of Spring) and T-Bone Burnett (tentatively titled The Incredible Wow) (ed. – this ended up being called Talking Animals). On the Burnett effort, Rhodes steps into the spotlight for two hit-and-run solos, something he hasn’t yet done with Peter Gabriel.

I’m not actually very keen on solos,” he reports. “I don’t normally do them. But on T-Bone’s record, ‘Monkey Dance’ is eight bars – eight whole bars – and I make it through them [laughs]. That was my Steinberger. It’s quite slow, kind of bluesy – a heavily rhythmic song. To make the solo, I did four tracks – two of low fuzz, and then a couple with an E-Bow [electronic bowing device]. I just winged it. I’ve not used it on any of Peter’s songs. I never liked the sound of it before – I always thought it sounded too easy. But now I’ve decided that’s not a problem. I use it with a lot of treatment – a couple of filters that are 20 or 30 years old, from the dawn of recording. With the E-Bow, you can only play one string at a time. That’s part of the charm of it, and also part of the drawback. On Burnett’s ‘Dance, Dance, Dance,’ I played a very hairy rock and roll solo. That was the Steinberger, clean. It’s an impressionistic rock and roll solo. It sounds pretty crazy – quite twitchy.

Can we expect banshee wails and harmonics tapping from now on, then? Rhodes laughs at the thought. “I’m quite reticent to start sticking my tongue out and waving my hand in the air,” he cracks. “I think I’m more of a three-note player. I never practice at all. That’s why it takes me years to get better.” Asked to describe his very idiosyncratic playing, Rhodes dubs himself – with a chuckle – “naïve noisemaker.”

Modesty notwithstanding, Rhodes has carved himself an enviable niche in the 6-stringed major leagues. Under the bright lights, adding cage-rattling howls to “Shock the Monkey” [Security], the one-time sculpture student must be a bit surprised to find himself sharing a stage with Peter Gabriel. Then again, maybe it was all in the cards. “I was born in 1956,” Rhodes confides, “the Year Of The Monkey.”

Rhodes' Gear
by Mark Dery

Since joining Peter Gabriel, David Rhodes has relied on an arsenal of guitars and effects. To begin with, there’s his trust ’63 Fender Jazzmaster, which he describes as “a very lovely guitar. It’s very wooden, with a beautiful, mellow tone. On So, when Daniel Lanois was playing – we’d often put things down together – he’d play the Jazzmaster.” Another member of Rhodes’ Fender family is a ’62 Strat.

On the more modern end, there’s the Ovation MIDI guitar and controller. In addition, he reports, “I have two Steinbergers – one with a whammy and one without. The first one I got – the one without – is actually No. 6, a very, very early one. The other one is called the G-2. I use the Steinberger tremolo system. I like it, but it’s a bit tricky to set up. I think some people are vulgar with the guitar, even without a whammy bar. I actually use it on quite a lot of Peter’s stuff – on So, in the background of ‘Big Time,’ ‘We Do What We’re Told’ and ‘Biko’. I love the whammy bar for adding texture.

Among his acoustics are an Ovation Adams 12-string and a couple of Ovation 6-strings; he also has an old Fender XII electric 12-string. He purchased a Gibson Chet Atkins solidbody classical last year for use with Talk Talk; he bought a Dobro about four months ago, although he admits, “I’m definitely not a Dobro player [laughs]! It’s one with a round neck – not one of those lap models. I love the sound. I just used it on a record with Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri, the drummer and keyboardist from a group called Japan. I think they’re going to call themselves The Dolphin Brothers and they’re on Virgin Records. I just did a little bit of slide work, in standard tuning. I was trying to play blues licks.”

Running down his pedal lineup, Rhodes kicks off with a string of Boss boxes. “I always use a CE-2 Chorus. I just like the way it wobbles the sound.” For that extra wobble, he usually couples it with a great deal of amp vibrato. For distortion, he relies on the DS-1 pedal or an SD-1 Overdrive – most notably on “Big Time,” and – live – on the choruses of “Shock the Monkey.”

“Onstage,” says Rhodes, “I’ve got a whole rack of my own – a couple of digital delays, including an old MXRDS-2, a Yamaha SPX90 multi-effects processor, and a Roland SDE-1000. I always have the MXR on a very short slap – about 17 milliseconds – just to fatten up the sound a little. I use the SPX90’s stereo delay on the verse of ‘Red Rain’; I have one side of the delay in quarter-note time, and the other side in triplet time. I use the same effect on ‘San Jacinto’, where I play one of the keyboard lines. And I’ve got a Roland SRV-2000 digital reverb, which I use pretty constantly with a few different settings. On ‘San Jacinto’ I use a very large room effect, and on ‘Red Rain’ I use a smaller room. I also have a Roland 31-band graphic equalizer, the SEQ 331, a T.C. Electronic 1140 parametric equalizer, and an Ibanez HD-1000 Harmonics/Delay on ‘The Family and the Fishing Net’ for doing sound effects an octave up. I have quite a long delay on it – about 310 milliseconds – with a lot of feedback.”

“In studios in England, they always have a lot of AMS equipment, so I always use that during sessions. I’ll use anything; I have no shame [laughs]. I’ve used paper clips and alligator clips on the strings – you can clip them on in different positions and they vibrate. It’s a bit like John Cage’s idea of the prepared piano.”


Copyright 2004-2012 Stacey Drucker & David Rhodes