Overnight Success

August, 1977
Guitar Player

Surely, it would have made a great ad for the back pages of some fan magazine:

"Now you too can become a rock 'n' roll star in just your spare time. Record tomorrow's hit songs right in your own basement. Millions of records sold almost overnight."

A rock and roll fairy tale? Sure, but one that has come true for Tom Scholz, the lanky (he's well over six feet) guitarist and spiritual motivator of the rock group Boston. His band has sold over three million copies of their first LP, Boston [Epic, PE 34l88] constructed almost entirely from tapes recorded in Scholz' 4-and then 12-track basement studio. For massive popularity, Boston rivals such established stars as Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac, and Stevie Wonder.

Equally out of character with the usually off-center lifestyle of a rock star on his way to the top is Scholz' background. It's not every hell-fire rock guitarist that graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and goes on to high-level work in Polaroid's research and development labs. Married and living in a Boston suburb, Scholz was, up until quite recently, a model white-collar, upper-middle class executive. But while his fellow execs would go off to play canasta with the neighbors, Scholz, who had always dreamed of stardom, would retire to his basement and doggedly work on his, studio and musical ideas.

Born thirty years ago in Toledo, Ohio, Scholz at first viewed music mainly as a pastime, though he did begin playing piano at the age of eight. Continuing to develop his keyboard skills, Tom eventually played keyboards with a few very young local bands. He later took up the bass and plugged his way through a few other groups.

Tom, who partially attributes his early leanings toward guitar to the early British rock he heard, recalls: "It wasn't till I was about twenty that I started getting into guitar. My first one didn't have a name on it. I would think that any self-respecting company would disown an instrument like that. I worked on the action enough to make it playable, hut ditched it as soon as 1 could in favor of a fat Yamaha hollowbody. That was one of those guitars that could feed back at sub-audible volume levels, but it was okay to learn on." Instead of parroting the heavy blues reworkings of popular guitarists of the Sixties, Tom got into the melodic qualities of vocal groups like the Beatles, the Hollies, and the Kinks. He also credits the guitar work of first Jeff Beck and then Jimmy Page of the Yardbirds and later Page's playing with Led Zeppelin as having influenced his own guitar chops.

Tom got the basics down pat by playing covers of standard songs in the usual clubs with the usual nondescript bands, until about three years ago, when he decided to devote his time solely to recording demos in his basement studio. With no formal experience in either music electronics or audio, Tom learned the ropes by trial-and-error: "I blew things up as I went along." Three years and about $30,000 (invested into a secondhand Scully deck and related equipment) later, the Boston sound was ready for the public. "It's really not all that complicated though, when it comes down to the actual sound we get," Scholz notes. "I've got a few gadgets that I built, and a lot of it has to do with recording technique, but there's no one gimmick to the sound."

Probably the most obvious departure in the Boston sound from your run-of-the-mill heavy metal sludge is Scholz' thick, yet clear lead guitar lines, partially accomplished with the aid of a device called a doubler, designed by Scholz and a friend. "That's what we call it," explains Tom, "though doubler is kind of a misnomer. It does more than, say, an Echoplex or a tape delay that just gives you a repeat. We designed it to approximate the same sound as when you dub over a guitar part twice: it adds a pitch change to the time delay. You can build the same type of unit with commercially available devices, but I think that unless you were filthy rich, it wouldn't justify the cost. You would need a regular delay unit, a harmonizer, and an oscillator-nothing very complicated. Since we were broke at the time, and since the technology wasn't very complicated, we built our own. Because the doubler gives Scholz such a rich, heavy sound, Tom is the only one of Boston's three guitarists [the other two are Barry Goudreau on lead and rhythm and singer Bradley Delp on rhythm] to use the device onstage. "Anything more than that would get too messy," Tom explains.

To simulate the sound onstage that he gets on record, Scholz runs the guitar signal and the signal from the doubler in stereo, which duplicates, he says, "the old recording trick of using two rhythm guitars panned to the outside." The device, however, can be used in mono, and Tom describes that result as "sounding sort of flanged."

Aside from the doubler, which Tom states is used judiciously throughout the album, his other techniques are less exotic, though just as effective. "A plain old wah-wah pedal is very effective on certain things," observes the musician. "To some extent you can follow notes on the fretboard. To do it, you find two or three notes next to each other on the fretboard, and then find the position of the pedal that sustains those notes. As you play up the board, press the pedal toward the treble side to sustain the higher notes, or if you're playing bass notes, push back on the pedal to sustain them. It's a great effect, but a little difficult to control."

Tom credits the biggest part of his sound to a Marshall 100-watt Super Lead tube amp cranked full up, though he notes that the tone settings on the amp (which he changes often are critical. "A little adjustment on the head will give you different distortions," he remarks. "Even the same tone settings on two different Marshalls will give you slightly different sounds." Tom uses a preamp that he salvaged from an old hi-fi system to boost his sustain in the studio, though he thinks that most commercial preamps will achieve the same effect.

Onstage, Scholz controls his effects from a pedal board, which, along with individual on/off switches for each effect, also features the "kitchen sink"-a switch that turns everything on ("for those times when they start picking up bottles"). The guitar is first fed into a homemade preamp which has an active high-end boost, to allow Tom to get away with using all his other inline effects without overpowering noise. "Most of those devices are designed to take much larger input signals than even the most powerful guitars put out," Scholz explains. "If you kick up the signal in front by 3 or 4dB, and start boosting the highend at around 2kHz around 6dB per octave, you can get the signal-to-noise ratio down to a usable level.

"After the preamp," he continues, "I have a 6-band MXR Graphic Equalizer that runs on batteries-which in itself is noisier than hell, but sounds all right after it's preamped. I have a wah-wah pedal, but I often use the MXR to simulate the wah-wah sound. After that is a volume pedal, and then a Maestro Echoplex which I modified the hell out of to make it semi-usable."

Modifications to the Echoplex include a foot pedal to control sustain, volume, and head location (the latter by means of a homemade mechanical hookup). Though Tom modified the delay unit over five years ago, it took up until about a year ago to get the unit working to his specifications. "Part of the reason is that the raw materials are of really poor quality," says Scholz. "The electronics, the heads, hell-everything you can name on the thing is really cheesy. Even after having modified it, I still have to tune It up every other week. When I have some time, maybe before we do the next album, I'm going to throw the whole thing out and build a decent one from scratch. I don't think that will be too hard."

Another studio trick that Tom transferred to the stage allows him to get the tone he wants from his Marshalls without blowing himself or the rest of the band off the stage. "With two stacks of Marshalls full out, I don't think there's a guitar made that wouldn't go crazy." Tom believes. He has devised a resistive network that he positions between the head and the speaker bottoms to cut volume without affecting tone. "They're variable: we can tap off however much of the signal as we want," is about as much detail as the Guitarist offers.

The only other piece of modified equipment that Boston uses onstage is a fuzz box run between singer Bradley Delp's Gibson L6-S electric guitar and Ampeg V-4 bass amp head. "I think the thing is called a 'Fresh Fuzz'," says Tom. "It's a cheap little box that I traded for a six-pack a while ago. I put in a few resistors and capacitors to boost the high end and give it a shelf. You get more raunch than fuzz out of it now, which isn't bad at all!"

Scholz feels that both live and in the studio, the manner in which the group's Marshall cabinets are miked greatly alters their sound. "Marshall cabinets in particular are very directional," he notes. "You get a completely different sound quality as you move the mike around. Personally, I put the mike a few feet away from the cabinet so it picks up the reflected signal from the floor, as well as the direct signal from the speakers."

Despite Scholz' apparently broadly detailed knowledge of studio and stage equipment, he states: "I really don't know too much about guitars; I'm still pretty ignorant about them."

After wrestling with his Yamaha hollowbody, Tom got the guitar he uses today-a Les Paul gold-top. "I bought it off a kid for about $300," he recounts. "The guitar had a little wear around the 5th fret period. I picked it up for the first time and couldn't play it to save my life. It was like a completely different instrument. Now I can't play anything else." Tom has no idea of the exact age of this guitar, but the body, a single piece of mahogany in the Les Paul style of the late Fifties, is unaltered. Beneath the gold-top .'s a two-piece face which Scholz finished in clear lacquer. The guitar retains its original cream single-coil rhythm pickup, though Tom put in a DiMarzio Super Distortion humbucker in the saddle.

"The DiMarzio is installed differently than usual," Tom notes. "The screw holes that would normally adjust the pickup height were reamed out, and I screwed the pickup through some rubber grommets directly into the body. I still have the cream mounting ring around the pickup, although there are no screws for height adjustment; the pickup's height is fixed."

He explains that the grommets act to filter out unwanted vibration from the body to the pickup. "Those are the vibrations that cause a squawk at high volume when you hold the strings and move close to your amp," Scholz elaborates. "Those are body vibrations. as opposed to feedback which involves the strings. You tighten the screws enough to get the maximum sound out of the guitar without any squawking."

The refinished gold-top is Tom's sole guitar since his backup axe, an original gold-top, was irreparably damaged by a hack repairman. "I wanted the thing drilled out for some DiMarzios, but the guy in a flight of genius leaves the guitar outóoutside--overnight," Scholz recalls ruefully. "The guitar froze up and the neck turned into a ski jump.

"I figured 'What the hell, I'll just get another one."' And then I find out that they're not making gold-tops with fat enough necks anymore, and the ones that you could find cost about $800 and are all beat up anyway. I desperately need another guitar. I might have to get a couple custom made."

For all his acoustic work in the studio and onstage. Tom uses a Guild D-40 with "brand new strings" to get brightness This guitar is recorded through a dbx 119 Compressor [dbx Inc., 296 Newton St. Waltham. MA 02154] to bring the level up and cut back on noise.

With the band's recent heavy touring schedule, Tom hasn’t had much time to start work on a new album, though he thinks that the material not included in the debut LP would cover at least another two disks. Regarding Tom Scholz’ unusual background and plans for the future, he muses: "I don’t consider anything in the past as a surprise, really. We really use the technical knowledge to bring out the best in the songs. If you don’t have good tunes, and you don’t have a good time doing them, all the gimmicks in the world aren’t going to produce worthwhile music."

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