SUITCASE BULGING by his side, Chris Spedding's ready to ride. In London for a week to sort out some business and make a promo film for his new RAK '45 'Video Life', ready for action should the single take off.
Meanwhile the guitarist's imminent agenda involved a trip back to New York, where he now makes his home. But not for long; he starts a tour with Robert Gordon almost as soon as he gets back.
Playing with Gordon's just the latest step in a career that's spanned most types of popular music and the workmanlike Spedding says he's made no drastic changes in order to fit in with the rockabilly sounds of Gordon's band. "I just use the Flying V and the same amp I always use. It's a Fender DeLuxe Reverb which I think has had a small amount modification done by electric engineer Pete Cornish.
Spedding says Cornish is "quite well known, but I don't know exactly what for. He's done the amp anyway. I wouldn't want to give any of his secret away but he's souped it up a bit, let's say. It always seems to work just right; when I've used anything else it just doesn't sound like me. I'd hate to lose it."
He says one of the reasons he's happy about having moved to New York is that although he's quite well known out there, people don't necessarily have preconceptions about what he does. "If people know you for anything at all then they always expect you to do that sort of thing. What my problem's been is that I've diversified over so many different types of things and worked with so many people that someone'll know me for something I did on someone else's record and expect that. Why should that be me when I was getting paid for the job?
"So when I put out a record like 'Gunfight' people think that it can't be for real, that I did it for terrible, tasteless joke. Whereas if it had been by The Shadows or The Ventures it'd probably have been taken as a classic piece of 60's bubblegum and been an enormous hit." He's referring here principally to cool music press reactions to the record and is, he feels, justifiably resentful. "I put a lot of effort into that. They like to have you all cut and dried and I refuse to be all cut and dried. Why should I be? I'd be really selling people short if I was. Because I'm not cut and dried and I've got a lot more to offer, and I'm offering the whole fucking lot. And if they won't accept that then I have a right to feel resentful about it".
Playing with Robert Gordon was approached with the usual minimal rehearsal, something Spedding's always emphasised. "We had a couple of afternoons of rehearsal and the next night we just went down to Max's Kansas City and played through the numbers we'd learned. It's all very spontaneous. Robert's often been criticised for not being spontaneous but he is; rockabilly is a very spontaneous music. He just gets up there and sings songs. And if it doesn't sound right, he does another song and if it does work it stays in."
The trusty Flying V is one of around a dozen guitars Spedding owns.
"It's about ten or twelve years old and it's a limited edition, I think. But I don't have this fetish about originals that a lot of guitar players have. I've taken everything off - pick-ups, bridge, machines; I've even had it re-fretted. A guitar's just a bit of wood to me really, I rip things off it and put things on it.
"It has to be fairly serviceable and, to play rock'n'roll on it, you've got to be able to treat it a bit rough and throw it around a bit.
"I don't agree with all that 'original fittings' stuff about original pick-ups and everything. They make better pick-ups today.
"People say it doesn't sound as funky as the old pick-ups did. But those pick-ups didn't sound funky then, they sounded new because they were new then, and now they sound old. And there's a lot of draw-backs to an old pick-up - a bad signal to hum ratio, for example. These new DiMarzio puik-ups are more efficient to get what you want, really. It's only snobbery that leads people to search for these old guitars."
Spedding is equally practical (not to mention economical) on the subject of effects.
"I found in the old days when I was using wah-wah ... I used to always have it plugged in when I was doing sessions, even when I wasn't using it. And I noticed that if I disconnected it and plugged straight into amp then suddenly there's a big clear-up to your sound and a lot more presence. So the mere fact of going via the circuitry of the wah-wah, even if it's turned off, is robbing you of both presence and volume.
"So you can imagine what these people who go through loads of pedals end up doing to their sound. What it is, is an extra bit of solder, an extra bit of wire and an extra jack-plug. And all this robs you of presence. It's like with transcription decks and hi-fi, you know how you've got to have a shorter bit of wire going from your pick-up arm because of that, right? Same with guitars.
"And part of the season is that you get a better sound. Because all these things are taking away from the signal all the time. And then, if you have boosters put in, then you're cooking the signal. You don't know what you're doing then, do you? Because it's been taking away and then it's been boosted and so you don't know you're playing with at all.
"And I always try to eliminate as many connections - bits of solder, bits of wire, bits of condenser - eliminate as much of that between the actual pick-up and the amplifier as possible. And then work just with the sound that comes out of the speaker."
What's more, Spedding believes the same effects are still possible.
"It's beginning to become a lost art, getting actual tone out of your guitar. Because you can get a great variety of tone if you pluck a guitar - even an acoustic guitar - between an eighth of an inch away from the bridge to about two inches away from the bridge. There's all the different tonal variations you could ever wish for in that area. And if you do it when you actually plug it into an amp, that still pertains, you still get the same variation of tone. So why use all these things?"
Because it makes it easier?
"But in a way it doesn't. It's a vicious circle. Alright, if you wanna sound pretty disembodied and inhuman and stuff, you use a tone control for all these tonal variations.
"But wouldn't it be easier and a lot more human, and a lot more acceptable to most people's ear just to use your natural human variations instead of having to cook it? It'd sound a lot better. I just think it's like everything else, abusing technology for technology's sake. And there'll be a period - like the old 'Back To Mono' thing - there'll be a period when people will realise how good it was in the old days, how much better it sounded.
"It's like tansistor amp versus valve amp. There are some very positive things about the old things and the old way of doing things and some very positive things about the new things. You have to take the best of both.
"At the moment people that are using a lot of pedals aren't necessarily getting the best, they're just being hyped by advertising and consumer-mongers and planned obsolescence, all that number. I mean, they're pretty smart, the people that make those pedals, they find out what musicians want. Like, you get all the pedals and then you realise there's all this noise coimg through your amp so then you have to get another pedal which is a noise gate andthat's to get rid of the noise. So your sound is really fucked up by the time it comes out of the amp at that stage, it don't stand a chance.
"And I know I must be right 'cause of the times I've come to a session with nothing and just plugged in and there's all these other guitarist and I'll be blasting away and they're always very impressed with the sound I'm getting. And they've got all these pedals and they just can't get anywhere near it. So I must be on the right track. But these other guys, they've relied so much on the pedals that they've lost their self-confidence in their own ability to produce a sound without them. And they reply on their pedals so much that they're scared to throw them away. I know what I was like with a wah-wah. And when I threw it away I felt ... free!" he laughs.
"Another thing is if you're using all these things ... if you're onstage for instance, you've got all these little things to press. And instead of playing to the audience and trying to play a bit music you're sort of going: 'Now which pedal do I press with this solo? Oh, no ...this one over here ...' and stuff like that.
"There's this classic pose of the Heavy Metal rock guitarist; before they take a solo (extends a foot tentatively) there's always the same gesture. Foot on pedal, then play solo."
Spedding says his use of picks stems from writing left-handed.
"So my right hand's not too good at finger-style, I can't really get me fingers working well. That why I never got into classical, I suppose." The only difference for a left-hander playing guitar in the normal fashion is one of relative dexterity, say Chris. "You tend to have to work a bit on your right hand technique because the left tends to play faster."
He likes his action pretty high, his strings slack.
"So that way you can bend them very easily and get vibrato very easily. And also you can play very hard if it's high action. Very directly and hard, say, if you play staccato."
Stings are Ernie Ball - "Because you can get them in every shop. I like things that you can get all over the world. So if you're touring somewhere you don't have to suddenly try something new because you've been using this really rare set of strings that you can only get in a certain shop. That's not very professional. That's why I use proprietary brands, as it were. That's why I'm a bit upset about my amplifier, 'cos if it goes I'm gonna have to get Pete Cornish to build me another one.
"Actually I have got another one but it doesn't sound the same simply because the usual onr has been used for nine or ten years, and for about five of those years it was in the studio for nine to twelve hours a day and all the time. So it must be really welded into a solid lump by now."
Did he ask for anything speacial from his amp builder?
"No. I just asked him to make it raunchy. It's only thirty watts but it seems to really get through. And I can have it up full without drowning anyone else out, and I use monitors for feedback and stuff and there's still a sound balance on stage."
"I don't really want to give anybody any advice. I've arrived at what I'm doing through years of playing, so what I can tell a kid who's just starting? He'll find his own approach. I play what I play now through all these years of experience and I ain't about to tell a kid that this and that are right and you must do it this way and so on.
"Cause i know what I'd have said to that when I was their stage, I'd have said balls to that.
"They can try it. I just experimented and made loads of mistakes, did everything wrong. I've been playing for about twenty years and it's only been over maybe the last five years that I've even thought I had it together to get a sound on an electric guitar. If what I've learned is of any use to others, okay, I'll pass it on. but they really have to get it together for themselves. Because they have to understand the reasons, not just do what people tell them to. You have to understand why you don't need any pedals or whatever ..."