Gary Pihl of Boston (part 1)

October/November 2003
Gary Pihl of Boston
Part One
by Will Phoenix
Musicians Hotline

Here at Musicians Hotline we recently had the opportunity to chat with Gary Pihl from the band Boston. We talked about everything from his live rig to recoding a live album and even talked about recording suggestions. Here's the info for all of you gear heads and Boston fans out there. Enjoy!

MH: First things first, I've got to say that you probably have one of the most distinct tones that has stayed fairly consistent from the late 70's up until now. There hasn't been a lot of drastic change, which isn't true for most artists that stay in the business for that long.

GP: Well thanks, I'll take that as a compliment.

MH: It was definitely meant as one. I am a huge fan. So how do you create the Gary Pihl tone? Don't hold back on the details, all your gear.

GP: Ok, well for the Boston stuff here, as you can imagine, I'm using a Rockman. Now most of your readers will be familiar with the traditional Rockman headphone amp. The small Rockman X100 or the Soloist or whatever model that may be. Tom (Scholz) took that technology and circuitry and put it into a half-rack module so that we could rack-mount them and take them on the road. So that's what we use on stage. Now that particular preamp is called a Sustainer. It has the four basic Rockman sounds, two clean and two distortion settings with some variations to adjust gain and of course volume for different channels. That's what we use live to get that Boston sound.

MH: Alright, do you use any extra effects pedals? For instance, do you still use the Scholz R&D pedals?

GP: Yes. Well of course these days we use the midi pedals. The way that we access the functions through midi is that the Sustainer, the Echo and the Chorus units, again all Rockman units, have foot-switchable features. Again, the Sustainer has volume and channel select, those kinds of things. The Chorus unit has bypass along with chorus and different mix options. There's a lot of different foot- switchable features there so instead of trying to tap dance to get all those things to happen at one time, Tom came up with a device that we call the Midi Octopus. This too is a half-rack module that does switch enclosures. There are some other products out there on the market that do the same sort of thing. You can program it through midi so that whenever you step on program 22 for instance it turns this thing on and that thing off, this one on and that one off so that you can get all of those different combinations of things; channel, volume, on & off chorusing, whatever it happens to be all at one time. So you just have to step on one button.

MH: I have got to get one of those.

GP: Yeah. Just as a side note to it, Mesa Boogie amps have many foot-switchable features. I think one of their amps had like six different foot-switchable features on it; simulclass, channel switching, volume, reverb and this and that so they had the same problem. To help their users, they used to recommend that they just get the Rockman Midi Octopus to be able to switch all of the stuff instead of having to tap dance. So if you wanted to set up a combination, for instance, I want reverb on, the simulclass off and this channel on, you just call up whatever program you want to set that as, hit the button and there you are. So it's nice that other people have recognized that as a useful tool.

MH: Very cool. Now I noticed that when you play live as well as recording, you play everything from lead guitar, to acoustic, 12 string, back-up vocals and even keys. Are there any luthiers or brands that you are partial to?

GP: Yes, right now on the road my main number one guitar is a Steinberger. It's the model GS which unfortunately they don't make anymore. It has a wooden body and then a graphite neck with a headstock. It has the special rototuners up at the top so it's a nice gearless mechanism for tuning. There are a couple of advantages, I feel, to a graphite neck. One is that it doesn't need a truss rod because it's always straight. So as we travel across the country through different heat, humidity changes and all of those kinds of things, the neck is always straight. That's a big plus for me for traveling. The tuners keep it in tune really well so I really like that for taking on the road. I've got EMG pickups in it, which are active pickups of course. That helps when you have long guitar cables so that you don't loose any high-end because of the capacitance factor.

MH: Now you said that when you play live you use the Rockman rig. Do you use a different rig when you're recording?

GP: Really, no. It's the same sort of stuff that we use at home. I've got my little home studio, which I do most of my recording in and then I'll take that tape over to Tom to add it to the rest of the band's tracks. We all have small studios but of course these days you can do that. They're digital quality and all that so you can get a great recording. The key there is that we're recording direct. That's the other thing I was going to say about our live rig as well that is unusual. The original Rockman was designed to listen to through headphones, right?

MH: Right!

GP: Well headphones are a full-range speaker system just like a hi-fi stereo. Your hi-fi system usually has a woofer and a tweeter of some sort. The point is that its designed to reproduce the entire spectrum from 20 to 20,000 cycles as opposed to a traditional 4X12 guitar cabinet, which doesn't go all the way down to 20 and certainly doesn't go all the way up to 20,000. Those cabinets tailor the sound but they're made that way for traditional guitar amp heads. there's nothing wrong with that, I like the sound of traditional stuff. For us, live, because we start with a Rockman preamp our signal gets split directly out of the preamp right into the house board and of course that's the way we do it in the studio as well. We go right out of the Sustainer into the tape deck or mixing board if you want to go through there for any extra EQ or effects. The point is, it's direct. So, although we do have speaker cabinets on stage which look like 4X12 cabinets (same size and shape) but inside there's a 15" a ten inch and a horn. It's a full range cabinet. It's like a P.A. cabinet behind us, which is completely unusual. You couldn't plug your tube amp into this thing. It would just sound terrible because it would have too many highs and lows. It just wouldn't sound right at all. When you are tailoring the sound with this preamp like we do with the Rockman Sustainer, then its definitely correct. So, we know if it sounds correct coming out of our speaker cabinets on stage, which again are like P.A. cabinets, its gonna sound correct coming out of the Big P.A. cabinets. Keyboard players have been doing that for years. They want full-range cabinet. Keyboardists don't play through tube amps and 4X12 cabinets because they want a full-range very clean system behind them.

Part 2 coming in the November/December issue.
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