Garth Webber Part II
This interview was conducted between Brian Scherzer and Garth Webber via email in August 2008. For a bit more background, make sure to read Part I of the feature on Garth, along with a review of his last blues CD, "Man On A Mission", which is also located on the OSG webzine.
Scherzer: How did your guitar playing move from passion to passionate profession?
Webber: For several years, as a teenager, I played in bands that either never, or rarely, played a paying gig. They just rehearsed. There is definitely a place for that when you're starting out but ,of course, it only takes you so far. When I was 22, while I was still living in Boulder CO, I thought that maybe I would get a five night a week gig in Denver, where I knew there was work to be had. I was taking a few lessons from Robben Ford at the time and I asked him whether I should stay in my fusion band in Boulder, playing original music, or take a top 40 gig in Denver. He said "Why don't you do both?" So I took the gig in Denver and intended to keep playing with the fusion band, but that band just sort of dissolved, as I recall. It was a good move, even though I didn't like the music I was playing in the clubs as much as the original stuff I had been doing. Performing for an audience teaches you things about performing that you will never learn in your basement.
Scherzer: Although I have known you as primarily a blues player, your early career included a stint with Miles Davis. Can you describe some of your better memories playing with such a jazz great?
Webber: Well, there are many moments burned into my memory but here are a few. After the very first gig I did, which was in Rio De Janeiro, Miles turned to me and, in his raspy voice, said "You played your ass off." It was certainly the most meaningful compliment I had ever recieved and it surprised me. I guess I didn't expect anything of that sort from him. There were surprising moments onstage (some being the times he would come over to me and lead me to the front of the stage and then walk away, leaving me to play my solo, which I then felt had his stamp of approval). I always felt support from him. It made me feel like I could be myself and play the way I felt. That, in itself, is a huge gift but the chance to absorb some of his energy, night after night, changed my playing forever. There was one time when he didn't cue the end of my solo after the usual amount of time. (Miles always cued the end of everyone's solo) He just let me keep going, flapping in the breeze! I felt I had pretty much run out of ammunition at a certain point and would liked to have ended the solo but Miles wasn't allowing that, so I was forced to dig deeper and come up with something else to play. It's a revealing and empowering thing when you learn that you have more to say than you ever realized.
Scherzer: What brought about the transition from jazz to more blues-root playing?
Webber: Well, that's not exactly how it is. I was first a rock player, listening to Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Blackmore, Tommy Bolin etc. There were bluesy aspects in those guys' playing but I thought of them, and myself, as rock players. Then in 1976 I heard Robben Ford and I discovered my brand of blues, which is a hybrid of blues, jazz and rock. I had never heard music that moved me like that before. At that point my playing began to change rapidly. I began to hear more harmonic depth and more rhythmic complexity. But honestly, when I joined Miles' band I had, arguably, no, or very few jazz chops and that was OK for the type of stuff he was playing at the time. I do have a jazzy constituent in my playing but I have never called myself a jazz player. There is some mixture of blues and jazz that I feel most comfortable in and in which I think I do my best playing. That being said, I have noticed that jazz players think of me as a blues player and vice-versa.
Scherzer: You have done a lot of work with the Ford family, including Robben. What are some of the highlights that come to mind sharing time playing with Mark, Patrick and Robben?
Webber: Well, actually the main highlights are experiences I had playing with Mark. I feel a strong brotherhood with him and we had a kind of symbiosis when we were playing together a lot. He brought out some of my best playing and there were moments of real magic I experienced with him onstage. It was a great partnership. Our band The Blue Meanies was the tightest and most cohesive blues band I've been in. There were a lot of big rockin' nights playing at Bay Area clubs.
Robben has always been a mentor and a teacher for me since I met him. He plays in a way that moves me more than any other guitar player. There have been times over the years when I felt stale or unexcited about the guitar and he has pulled me out of those doldrums several times just by the brilliance of his playing. He's always been extremely gracious and generous to me and I owe him a huge debt.
Playing in Patrick's band was a lot of fun. He has a clear vision of what he wants in terms of arrangements and he lets his players stretch. When we toured in Europe he always made sure that the traveling was comfortable. I have spent a lot of time with him in the studio recording his productions even after I was no longer playing with him.
Hearing the three brothers play together has provided some of the most inspiring music I've ever heard. Maybe it's something about being brothers, something about unspoken communication, but its fun to witness.
Scherzer: When playing with such notables as John Lee Hooker, Greg Allman and Mose Alison, I assume that each experience had an impact on your own playing. Is there anything in particular that you learned from them that impacted your own style?
Webber: In some cases I have simply superimposed my normal playing over the situation because I didn't do enough gigs with the artist in question for any influence to take place. I think one always adjusts their playing to the immediate situation at hand. With Mose I tried to play as jazzy as I could, although I don't think it was nearly jazzy enough. With Greg Allman, I had listened to enough Allman Bros Band in my youth that I just tailored my playing to what I remembered. It's almost like a mood. I used some tools but not others. With Miles I felt it was important to make every solo something epic so I had to rise to the occasion. I used all my tools (and then some). But I'm probably not as much of a chameleon as some players. I kind of do what I do and try to make it fit.
Scherzer: It is one thing to play guitar, and quite another to switch from musician into the role of recording engineer and producer. What led to your interest in the recording end of the music spectrum?
Webber: Yes, they are different disciplines but I'm equally comfortable in both roles. Sometimes I even engineer and play at the same time as I did on the first Ford Blues Band CD. That can get a little hairy if I'm cutting basics with an entire band, especially because I have never used an assistant engineer.
I had an interest in recording, starting at the age of 14 or so. When a brush fire threatened our home in Boulder CO, the one possession I took with me while evacuating was my table-top reel-to-reel tape recorder. (I didn't own a guitar yet) Later, when I was about 19, I bought a 4 track Dokorder 1/4" reel to reel tape machine, the Edsel of tape recorders! That thing never worked right, but I loved it anyway. I could record along with myself! I think I am a natural tekkie. I like gear and I intuitively understand how to use most of it. In 1981 I put together a more serious studio for my own use and then I started getting calls from people to record their bands. Over the years the business has grown by word of mouth. I've never advertised. It was a natural evolution to what is now a full-time business for me.
Scherzer: I have listened to a number of your recording projects and have been pleasantly surprised at how well you capture individual instrument sounds and then blend them into a cohesive “whole”. Can you give some tips on how you go about recording each instrument?
Webber: Well first, thank you for saying that. I try as hard as I can to make good sounding records. I believe in natural and honest sounding recordings. To me that means minimal effects or gimmicks. I hear a lot of projects that are hard for me to listen to because I think they overdo the processing. I especially like recording acoustic instruments, drums, acoustic stringed instruments and percussion. You have to have a good signal chain to make an acoustic guitar sound good--an accurate mic, a good mic preamp and a good recording platform. iZ RADAR is such a platform. It's fidelity is pristine and beautiful. It doesn't add or take away. It simply gives you what you put in. A lot of engineers of my age lament the advent of digital recording but I enjoy the lack of hiss, the repeatability and the accuracy. I had an MCI 2" recorder and I wouldn't want to go back to that.
Along the way I've picked up little tidbits about how to record drums, guitars, whatever. There are some well known rules of thumb and there are some specific things like certain mics to use and where to put them, but most important is the sound source itself. A $100 mic on a great sounding drum is much better than a $3000 mic on a mediocre drum. If a guitar amp is putting out an ugly tone there is only so much you can do, regardless of what equipment you use.
Scherzer: If I remember correctly, you often have different instruments recorded in several rooms of your studio. Is there a certain philosophy you use in mixing that helps to better separate each instrument, yet have the project sound so well integrated?
Webber: The reason I record different instruments in different rooms is to have acoustic isolation on them. I don't want the sound (for instance) of the conga drum leaking into the sax mic. Leakage makes fixing the possible mistakes on a particular track much more difficult and it can color the sound of some instruments, although sometimes that coloration is a good thing. Listen to a Led Zepplin record. The hugeness of the drum sound is partially because of leakage of the drums into other mics. However, your question goes to a different subject, that of how to make sonic space for each instrument in a mix. I try to make space for any given instrument, first, by recording the parts in such a way that there is no conflict to begin with. For instance, some keyboard players play low left hand notes which can interfere with the bass guitar. That can force an engineer to subtract bass from the keyboard to prevent a clash in the low end. While that may solve that particular problem, it can compromise the sound of the keyboard. So it's better to avoid problems before they appear. Assuming that the parts aren't getting in each other's way, then the issue becomes primarily one of finding space for each instrument. A lot of that is done with panning (right-left placement) and of EQ (tone). I try to subtract frequencies that aren't a natural component of a sound source. For instance, a woman's voice doesn't have much bass in it so bass can be attenuated on that track without ruining the sound of the voice. Mixing is a complex field and much has been written about it.
Scherzer: What are some of your favorite mics, techniques and preamps when recording guitar?
Webber: I keep coming back to the venerable Shure SM-57. This is the most vetted mic in the world. They just don't fail to work or to sound at least decent on almost anything. I've tried a lot of other mics, including the Royer ribbon, Audio Technica AT 4050 and Lawson L-47MP. In some situations one of these mics can beat the 57 but not usually. I almost always record at least two mics on the amp just so I have a choice when I mix but 80% of the time it's the 57 that mainly gets heard. As far as positioning, I normally put one or two mics right up against the speaker cloth pointed at about a 45 degree angle. Then, if I have room, I put a condenser mic a few feet away and I point it away from the amp, out into the room to capture some ambience. When I mix I sometimes pan the close mics and room mic apart. This creates a sense of space for the guitar that digital reverbs cannot. Occassionally I'll mic the back of an open speaker cab. You have to flip the polarity of the mic pre or you'll have phase problems but this can give some substantial low end to the guitar. When I mix I almost always add a bit of light compression to keep the guitar present in the mix and to bring out subtleties of playing.
Scherzer: Can you give some details about the live gear you use and why you prefer certain amps and pedals?
Webber: I run my guitar into a Peterson Stomp II strobe tuner and then to a Zendrive overdrive pedal. Both the tuner and the Zendrive have hardwire bypass and this makes a difference. Pedals that have buffer amps just seem to put a veil over the sound even when they are in bypass mode. From there I sometimes go into a Carl Martin compressor pedal and then to my mid-90's Fender Concert Amp with one 12" spkr. At present I'm having my 1969 Super Reverb repaired and I hope to start using it again. The Concert Amp lacks a bit of low end and the four 10's of the Super are nicely balanced. The Zendrive is the best overdrive pedal I've come across. It still needs some help from the amp saturating, though. I have yet to hear a pedal that gives me what I want while going through a completely clean amp.
Scherzer: You have played the Fender Robben Ford Model for quite some time and it seems to remain your favorite. What is it about that particular guitar that made you bond with it so well?
Webber: My particular guitar was a (very generous) present from The Man, himself! Mine is a 1990 or so. As far as why I like it, one thing is that it has a certain well defined attack that I like. The notes just jump off the guitar. There is also a voice-like midrange quality that I'm drawn to. Nuances that are unheard on many guitars seem to come through on this guitar. It gets across more detail in my playing. Hammer-ons and pull-offs seem to be more audible than on many guitars. It's also a beautiful looking thing.
Scherzer: What do you see as your future direction in your music career?
Webber: I have two CD projects in the works, one a blues thing and one an instrumental project in the same vein as my most recent release, "i". I'll continue to freelance on the gigs I feel right for, and I'll produce bands in the studio. I'm at a comfortable place in my career where I have enough variety in what I do so as not to get bored, and I don't have to take gigs that I don't enjoy. The studio supports me and gives me another creative outlet.
Scherzer: If there was one thing you would tell a moderately skilled guitar student that might help them along their journey, what would it be?
Webber: Well, if I had to pick one thing, It would be simply, time spent on the instrument. There are no shortcuts, and very few times, in my experience, when giant leaps are achieved. Of course history has examples of geniuses who advance at incredible rates but, for most players, it's a very laborious and glacially-paced march toward mastery of the instrument. I suspect that one's rate of improvement as a player is almost totally a function of raw desire and time spent. If you want it bad enough you'll find a way to make it happen.