By: Russell Hall
Beginning with Boston's mega-selling 1976 self-titled debut, the pioneering guitarist has always insisted on creative autonomy, hunkering down in his basement studio, often for years, to craft the songs, sounds and arrangements that meet his exacting standards. Seemingly interminable gaps between albums have been common, but the musical riches on each Boston release have always been worth the wait.
Life, Love & Hope, Boston's first album in 11 years, offers perfect proof of that fact. Rife with Scholz's majestic guitar work-distinguished by one of the most recognizable tones in rock--the album hews close to the classic style that first put Boston on the map all those years ago. Roiled by the tragic death of lead singer Brad Delp in 2007, Scholz settled on a vocalist-by-committee approach for the disc, even stepping up to the microphone to sing one song himself. And, as always, he turned exclusively to his legendary '68 Les Pauls to produce those glorious guitar sounds.
"These are all songs from the heart," he says, "each of them taking many months of effort to write, arrange, perform and record, always up to the demands of Boston's harshest critic, me. They have all been meticulously recorded to analog tape on the same machines and equipment used for Boston's hits for the past 35 years."
Scholz spoke with us recently about the making of the album, his distinctive guitar sound, and why he regards the guitar as a "symphonic" instrument. He also talked at length about the new Tom Scholz 1968 Les Paul signature guitar--#10 in Gibson's Collector's Choice™ series--which he and Gibson worked together to produce last year.
Did you approach making this album any differently from previous Boston albums?
Actually I approached this album in the same way I made all the albums except the last album, Corporate America. I've always worked pretty much alone in the studio, which gives me the freedom to go in whatever direction my musical ideas take me. But with Corporate America there were other players, other writers, and even other people working in production. It was an experiment, and it just didn't work. After that album was released, I immediately went back to work on one of the songs, "Someone." I wasn't happy with it, and I was bound and determined to re-record it, with the idea that someday it would be re-released. For this new album, I went back to what has worked for me for all these years, which is doing it as a DIY project, working in my basement.
Your songs go through lots of permutations and arrangements before they see the light of day. How do you know when you've gotten it right, when it's time to stop?
One of two things happens. Either I become so burnt out on the song that I just can't work on it anymore, or I'm afraid that if I change anything else I'll ruin what I've got. That's when I stop. Sometimes when that happens I'm really thrilled with how it's turned out, and other times I'm not so sure. In the latter case I put it on the shelf, and come back and listen to it months later. Anything can happen at that point, when I listen to it again. The one that sticks in my mind most is "The Launch," from Third Stage, back in the ‘80s. After it was finished I thought it was just a piece of junk, that it had been a waste of my time. But when I put it on the shelf, and listened to it six months later, I was shocked. I thought, "My God, how did I get all these sounds? It's amazing." So that can happen, but the opposite can also happen. Many times I've spent six months working on a song, and then I go back and listen and think, "Yep, I was right. This is crap." And so I throw it away.
Does that process not drive you nuts?
Well, it would be nice if everything always worked out, if everything I did turned to gold. But that's not the world we live in. Everybody has their successes and failures, and I've had lots of failures. I'm just thrilled when something actually does work out.
You've always used your '68 Les Pauls for recording. Was that true for this album as well?
That's right. That's basically the guitar I use. I rarely use any other guitar on a recording.
The story behind how you came to own those guitars is fascinating.
I still can't believe it happened the way it did. The first one I bought just happened to be a '68 reissue, which was made for only a short period of time. And then, even more amazingly, I just happened to see another one when I was passing by a used guitar store. I bought it, and it was virtually identical to the first one. It turned out that the second guitar was another '68 reissue. It was statistically almost impossible that that would happen. By pure coincidence I stumbled onto these two guitars, not knowing they were any different from any other Les Paul. In fact, I was shocked when I found out that the neck on those guitars was completely different from the neck on the ones that were being made later in the ‘70s. I discovered that when I went to buy a backup. I was also surprised to find that those '68 Les Pauls were made from parts left from the '59 production run. I bought one of the '68 Les Pauls for $300, and the other for $350. It still amazes me.
Tell us about the process of making the Signature model?
Gibson went to a lot of trouble to get it right. My original Les Paul has a blond finish--I had the gold removed at one point. It's known as my Mighty Mouse guitar, because it has the "Mighty Mouse" swoop across the front of it. Gibson first measured that guitar very carefully, which took quite a while. And then they built a "first shot" prototype and sent it to me. I played it to see how it felt, and went back to them and told them it was very close, but not exactly right. And then I got out my tools and made all sorts of corrections to the dimensions. I checked everything--not just fret height and obvious things, but details about the shape of the neck, all up and down the neck. Then I went back to Gibson a second time. The guitar came back many months later, and it was exactly like my original guitar, so much so that I couldn't distinguish the prototype from the original. I also sounded almost exactly like the original.
What initially made that particular model Les Paul so special for you personally?
It was simply the sound of the guitar. I bought the first one because I heard it being played in a performance, and was immediately struck by its tone. And as luck would have it, that particular guitar came up for sale and I jumped on it. I was pretty shocked the first time I played it. Up to that point, I had a pretty cheesy practice guitar with a neck that was completely different. It took me about six months to get used to the shorter scale of the '68 Les Paul, and the different size neck. Now, of course, it's more or less the only guitar I can play.
Does it give you comfort knowing you're no longer limited to your two originals?
(laughs) Of course every guitar has its own unique audio characteristics, but the [Collector's Choice™] guitar is very close--just surprisingly close to the original.
Looking back, how surprised were you by the success of the first Boston album?
I was shocked. I was expecting abject failure. In fact, I had been warned by people in the industry--people who were supposed to know about these things--that I shouldn't expect too much. They said disco was what was happening, and the kind of music I was doing had nowhere to go. After I finished mastering that album I actually went back to work full-time at Polaroid. The first time I heard "More Than a Feeling" on the radio was when someone at the company came running into my office shouting, "They're playing your song! We're listening to it in the drafting department!" (laughs) I was like, "Really?" I didn't even resign from work when I went on the first Boston tour. I just took a leave of absence. I was sure that this would all blow over and I would once again be working a regular job, like everyone else.
Are you surprised that no one has successfully mimicked your sound, that it remains so distinctive after all these years?
I don't know the reason for either of those things--why it hasn't been exactly copied, and also what makes it unique. Whenever I go into the studio, each time, I don't have that sound set up, or cast in stone so that it never changes. It's true that I always plug into the same equipment, but I'm always changing the sound, and I'm never quite satisfied with it. It's always a new challenge. Still, somehow I always seem to end up sort of in the same place, with the sound. It's interesting. Whenever I walk into a place where rock and roll is being played in the background, I can tell if it's a Boston song even before I know which song it is. I can't explain it, but I do feel very lucky things turned out that way. It probably has something to do with working alone, with working in isolation for such a long time. Being left completely to my own devices, I suppose I gravitate toward that same sound every time, as I'm dialing things in. It also doesn't hurt that I use the same two Les Pauls every time I record.
You've often said one goal you have, with your guitar playing, is to elicit emotions in the listener. Can you elaborate?
I think that's the job of a musician, to get the most feeling out of the music and create emotion in the listener. Certainly all types of music can do that. My first experience with that was in childhood, listening to big symphonies. Most of the time that was on an early high fidelity record player, but I was also taken several times to see a symphony orchestra in Toledo, Ohio. I remember being thrilled with the power of that experience. I realized you don't necessarily need lyrics--or anything of that sort--to create emotions in people. You just need the right person putting the sounds together in the right way. That's always my goal when I'm working on a song.
What pushed you toward the guitar as the instrument to accomplish that?
I heard that same symphonic power in the guitar when it was played by the right people. The first time I heard it was in The Kinks, The Yardbirds and Iron Butterfly. I'm not talking about "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"--I'm talking about Iron Butterfly's first album. There was a cut on that album called "Iron Butterfly Theme" that was in a weird time signature. That song got me turned onto the whole idea of playing guitar. The power that was at your fingertips was extraordinary. And of course that hasn't changed. A guitar player, with modern equipment set up the right way, has phenomenal power on-hand for anything he or she wants to do.
You have lots of live recordings of Boston, many with Brad Delp on vocals. Is there any chance a live Boston album might soon see the light of day?
That's a project that's always in the back of my mind. That's why I make the live recordings, and I do have a lot of them. But every time I think, "Well, I think it's time to start putting that together," something happens and life gets in the way. I'm concentrating on the new studio album for now, and the next thing on the agenda is a tour, for this year. A live album will have to wait a little longer.