More Than a Feeling: Talking Les Pauls with Boston's Tom Scholz
Friday, May 16, 2008
Ted Drozdowski
gibson.com

Tom with guitarTom Scholz’s metamorphosis from rock and roll dreamer to living the rock and roll dream is legendary.

Toiling long and hard in his basement on funky used recording gear he’d stitched and bolted together, Scholz, primarily with the help of his friend and singer Brad Delp, crafted the Boston album during nights and weekends off from his engineering job at the Polaroid Corporation.

The lanky six-foot-six MIT grad had nearly gone broke after years of making tapes and having them rejected by record labels.

“I had enough money for one last demo and sent it off to 24 companies, then figured I’d sit back and wait for the rejection letters,” Scholz says today. “Lo and behold, three major labels were interested. I couldn’t believe it. Nobody knew who we were, so I wouldn’t even say we were struggling. It was groveling.”

Scholz signed with CBS Records, and when radio stations began playing “More Than A Feeling” and Boston was released on August 8, 1976, the album--which its breathtaking sonic architecture and hopelessly romantic lyrics--became the feel-good cure for a nation suffering the hangover of Vietnam and Watergate.

“Suddenly,” the Les Paul wielding frontman says, “we were ’70s superstars.”
 
Boston album coverFast forward to 2008. Boston remains the best-selling debut rock and roll album in the history of Billboard’s charts, at 17 million copies. Four more Boston studio discs and a greatest hits set have followed in its wake, racking up more than 30 millions albums sold worldwide. But the yin of Scholz and Boston’s success has been countered by the yang of divisiveness and lawsuits, and, most tragically, his friend Delp’s suicide in 2007.

This summer Boston is reconvening for the first time in four years to celebrate the group’s triumphs. There will be a North American tour built around its musical cornerstones: “More Than a Feeling,” “Don’t Look Back,” “Smokin’,” “Peace of Mind,” “Hitch a Ride,” “Long Time,” “Amanda,” and other tunes stitched into the lives of many who came of age in the classic rock era.

The tour, which starts on June 6 in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and ends August 26 in Syracuse, New York, sports a surprise: singer Tommy DeCarlo. The North Carolinian was plucked from his job at a Home Depot when Scholz heard DeCarlo’s Delp-like pipes on his Myspace page, where DeCarlo had posted his own version of Boston tunes in tribute to his late vocal idol.

Less surprising is Scholz’s choice of guitars. That’s because he’s used the same pair of 1968 Les Paul Goldtops both on stage and in the studio throughout Boston’s entire history.

For an inveterate inventor and tinkerer who created his own Rockman line of electronic amps and effects and is always tweaking Boston’s sonic arsenal, Scholz’s unshakeable devotion to his Les Pauls’ dependability is astonishing. So when we spoke recently, we opted to talk guitars.

Boston groupWhat first turned you on about Les Pauls?

They sound great--period. The first time I saw somebody play one was Jimmy Page and then I heard Jeff Beck use one on Truth. Then, I heard someone play a Goldtop in a bar and I thought it was the sweetest sounding thing. “Where do you find a guitar like that?”

A couple years later that guy had to sell his equipment and offered me that very guitar for 300 bucks. It’s the same one I use today. Now it has a Mighty Mouse on it. That was a bumper sticker I cut out and stuck on, then buried under 14 layers of lacquer. It’s been there for 22 years now so it’s not going anywhere.

So you still play your first Les Paul on-stage?

Yes, this is my Les Paul story. After I got a deal and had a chance to go on the road, I realized I had to get a second guitar in case I broke a string. So I went to a local shop that had some used and consignment guitars. They had a Goldtop that looked exactly like my first one and they were selling it for three-fitty. I bought it and had my two guitars.

Fast forward to 1978 and I’m getting ready to go out on the road again and I’m thinking, “I use both of those guitars in the studio. What would happen if the equipment got destroyed or the truck got stolen or something.”

Both of these guitars sound very, very similar, so I thought I could get just another back up and leave one of them at home.

By then we were a big deal so I sent a guitar roadie down to the music store. He bought a beautiful brand new sunburst Les Paul and brought it to sound check. I picked it up and started playing and said, “This isn’t anything like my Les Paul. It’s not like my neck.”

The roadie said, “Of course it is, they’re all the same.” So I grabbed mine and we compared, and the new one was much, much thinner. The guitar tech was surprised. He said he didn’t know there were different model necks for Les Pauls.

He went back and played every Les Paul in the store, about 50 of them, and none of them were right. Somebody at the store told him that in ’68 there was a reissue that had a fat neck, and they only made it for about six months. It turns out both of the used guitars I bought were built within six months of each other in 1968 and both had the fat neck, and I couldn’t find another like it. Apparently the original ’57s also have that very deep neck.

Tom ScholzHave you tried the Custom Shop Reissue ’57 Goldtop?

I have not. I will go check it out. I still don’t have a back-up guitar that I can use, and I don’t like bringing both of these guitars on the road with me, although I do that. The differences between my two guitars are very slight.

You’re famous for having gigantic tone. How much of that comes from your Les Pauls?

They do have a huge sound. It’s tough to quantify that. I’ve compared them in great depth to lots of other guitars, and I couldn’t even put that into technical terms. But the sound is big with lots of character, and if you want a chunky sound it’s there or if you want a pure, crystal clear tone it does that. I just don’t get that range from other guitars.

What did you have before you got your first Les Paul?


I had a really cool Yamaha beginner’s electric guitar made out of balsa wood. It weighed about a pound-and-a-half. I would play it though a transistor radio and that sucker would feed back, but it was quite useless for a real stage with actual amplifiers.

Other than the Mighty Mouse sticker, are your Les Pauls stock?

No. I do a lot of messing around. That year and model came with the big soap bar P-90s pickups, which I love, but I had a lot of trouble with them in the ’70s. The lighting systems back then made everything buzz. They put out tremendous amounts of RF. I had to take out the bridge pickups and install humbucking pickups so I could get on stage.

On one guitar I have a tuning device that changes the tension on all the strings by the same amount, so I can go up or down incrementally. We do a lot of outdoor playing so temperatures affect the strings. With a quick one-knob adjustment I can bring the guitar up or down a half step. It is purely a mechanical system. I was going to build an automated tuning system for the market--a one-button system that would tune all your strings to a programmed, pre-determined tension. But in general my Les Pauls stay in tune so well I never bothered to develop it.

I have another device that lifts the string so there’s very little friction up at the nut, and a custom built roller bridge so there’s no friction at the bridge. It’s mostly things that make the guitar easier for me to play.

The open strings on a guitar are never going to be quite perfectly in tune. And what size string you use and some other factors affect this, but in general the G is often a little flat, the high E will often be sharp. So I changed the shape of the nut and added pieces of steel to the neck to lift the string. I even have a fake fret behind the second fret on the high E string, so when I play an open D chord the F-sharp will be a little bit flat, which puts it into mathematically perfect pitch for a D chord.

What gauge strings do you play?

I use .08, .11, .15, .24, .34, .44--which makes for pretty slinky high notes and pretty resilient low notes. I have to put some muscle into it to bend the lower strings and be pretty careful pressing down on the high strings. I like it that way because it gives me enormous flexibility for controlling pitch in the top end and I can muscle down on the rhythm parts without having to worry. I have to be careful to use two different touches: a firm, heavy touch on the big three notes and light as a feather on the top. It took a little getting used to.

What about your amplification?

Our live stuff is all Rockman gear. I have added some tweaks, which make my amps sound a little bit more like a tube stack. The Rockman sound is a smooth distortion so I added a couple of boxes that allow me to dial in the amount of buzz-saw roughness that I want. I’ve been using those distortion boxes in the studio and just started using it in the live gear.

In the studio I use my live rig in combination with some tube amps. I use Marshalls. I’ve used Mesa-Boogies over the last few years that I really like. And sometimes I’ll try an old Fender. I have a couple of old Rockman prototype amps and speakers that I like to use. It’s a collection of junk.

Are you working on a new Boston album?

I am. I had planned to have that album done before touring, but I was unable to finish it in time. The good news is, I also remastered the Sony greatest hits album and revised the song list on it, and that’s going to be released in June when we start our tour. On tour, we’re concentrating more on the classic Boston hits.

Do you have to do anything special to recreate the sounds of those hits, like “More Than a Feeling” and “Foreplay/Long Time”?

All of the equipment we’ve had has been tailored just to produce Boston sounds. The reason we use what we use live is that it would be impossible to present a Boston performance without amps you can repeatedly make instantaneous changes in tone, sound, and effects on.

I could plug into a regular guitar amplifier and play you the lead part to “Peace of Mind” or the rhythm to “More Than a Feeling,” but to play the whole song would be impossible. You’d have to make a half-dozen changes in EQ, gain, output level, and effects, and there’s no way to do that with standard amps. With the Rockman stuff, we can do anything we want. It’s all programmable and you can run through every sound you need while you play each song. It becomes second nature after a while.

That’s why when people say, “Why don’t you come down to our party and play a couple songs? We’ve got an amp here,” we just can’t do it. There’s no way it would sound like a Boston song unless you had three engineers in the house running a mixing board to change all these settings.

Every great guitar player has an immediately recognizable tone--and you set out to invent your tone from the first diode on up. It has to be a lifetime preoccupation.

I’m not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse, but it is true. And I’m always on the spot, because if something doesn’t sound quite right I know it’s because something I built, designed, or decided to do didn’t work.

But it does enable us to create all the crazy things you hear on a Boston album live, and it wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t have my engineering background. And my experience at Polaroid, because strangely enough that was my apprenticeship for getting into rock and roll. That’s where I got my background for understanding the physics of music and musical instruments and tape recording.

How important are these summer tours for you?

Being a band that doesn’t tour regularly--the last time we went out was four years ago--we don’t get out much, so when we do go out on the road it’s a big deal. It’s a blast, to be honest with you.

Well, do you miss the road when you’re not out?

I’m usually entertained with other projects. But playing Boston songs on the road … Well, it’s an extravagant sound and it’s moving. But it’s very difficult. The parts you have to play and sing are very difficult. Even though all six people are excellent at what they do and have drilled and practiced and rehearsed, it’s still right at the edge of your abilities.

That’s why you don’t go into bars and hear people doing Boston songs all that often. They’re hard to sing; they’re hard to play. It’s difficult. And in getting the sound out into the house, because of the many sounds that happen during the course of a Boston tune, there are a lot of technical issues. So everybody has to do their part and it all has to pull together at each moment for the audience to be swept into it. It’s like going out to compete at a free style ice skating championship: you’ve studied, worked, and conditioned for it--and then a moment comes.

So, on one hand it’s very high pressure, but on the other you’re going through it with a bunch of people who are very talented that you really like, so you have a great time despite the difficulty of what you’re trying to do. And you get the warm fuzzy feeling of being one of the people that gets to do it.

It’s both a blast and very hard. With that sort of intensity it’s not the sort of thing you’d want to be doing 50 weeks out of the year. But when we do go out and do it, it’s very exciting.
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