03.01.1980 - Guitar
Since forming in 1977 they have released two albums, 'Outlandos d'Amour' and Reggatta de Blanc, both of which have been very successful (the latter reaching No. 1 in the UK charts) promoted by hit singles like 'Roxanne', 'Can't Stand Losing You', 'Walking On The Moon' and 'Message In A Bottle'. The group are all excellent musicians and have created a distinctive reggae influenced rock sound combined with strong catchy songs. Despite the small line-up they create many different textures and moods in their songs, and have shown that the now neglected guitar, bass and drums line-up still has a lot to offer. Guitarist Andy Summers has had a varied career before The Police, and apart from playing with many rock musicians and singers also spent four years exclusively studying classical guitar. Just before The Police set off on their 1980 world tour we spoke to Andy in his London home, besieged and bemused as he was by endless telephone calls from giggling fans. We began by talking about his early interest in the guitar.
When I first started I was just like any other kid, listening to pop music, but the minute I was given a guitar it became a total obsession. After the first couple of years the first player who really blew me away was Django Reinhardt. He was a big inspiration, and after that I got into Kenny Burrell and Barney Kessel. Then I got into rhythm and blues, and later on rock music. I came to London pretty early on, and was fairly young when I turned professional. I formed a band with another guy and we were successful pretty quickly, so I was in the scene immediately, playing seven nights a week. We were doing thousands of gigs and never really looked back.
You've done sessions as well - were any periods particularly important to your playing?
You take a certain amount into a situation and get a certain amount out. I have so much that I can do on guitar, and musical knowledge, and if someone else is paying you shape it to the requirements. I worked with Kevin Ayers and Kevin Coyne in the last couple of years before I joined The Police, also with Neil Sedaka and David Essex, and in that situation you're being paid to make that person sound as good as possible through your instrument. With Kevin Ayers and Kevin Coyne it was a pretty open situation and I could do pretty well what I liked as long as it sounded good. I was playing a lot of slide guitar in those days. Through playing with them I was able to extend myself through my instrument in different ways and open up new areas of playing. In The Police I play with a totally different approach to the way I did with either of those guys. The only thing about being in one group all the time, especially at this intensity, is that you've only got the other two guys to turn to, and you haven't got time to turn to new tangents. Sometimes we're just trying to make it from gig to gig, and don't have time to practise except at soundchecks. At this point we definitely consider we play our best music at soundchecks, because that's when we feel much freer and can experiment a lot. On this next tour our policy is to start recording every soundcheck, because we often get into a riff or a groove which would have made a great song and of course we forget them.
Why do you think The Police are so successful?
It's lots of different things. I'd like to think it's the music, but it's not only that. The image of the group is right at the right time, we're very identifiable with only three of us, and we have a great singer. It does sound very distinctive on record too, and that and all the other things does add up to success, which is very gratifying, I tell you.
Are you entirely enjoying the success you're having?
Yes I am. It works on several levels. I love to play and enjoy the band, and obviously we're getting so much feedback and are so popular at the moment that it's great to go out and play to that kind of energy. We had some great concerts on this tour. The whole thing was so wild, the kids were incredible, like Beatle-mania. Sometimes I feel that I'd like more time off to think about seriously playing the guitar, because at the moment all you do is play the set and that's all the time you get to play guitar. The rest of the time is having photographs taken, doing interviews, travelling or whatever. That is slightly frustrating. I love having time off to sit and work and write because that's very fulfilling. You can't do them both at once. It's a bit imbalanced at the moment, all work, and it's difficult for the group as well because we definitely need to write more songs and revise our set.
Are there other areas of music you'd like to work in?
Oh absolutely, I never stop thinking about it. The Police is incredibly time consuming, 24 hours a day month in and month out, and it is hard to even think about other things. I certainly have a lot of recording intentions of my own, some of which will hopefully be realised in the summer when we're having two months off in France to record another Police album. I've written a lot of music of my own - I've got a 4-track Teac and a couple of Revoxes here - and it's all storing up on tape. It's mostly instrumental and some songs, and I'll probably make an instrumental album at some point.
Is it hard work playing guitar in a three-piece?
Well I've adjusted to it. It's the first three-piece band I've played in, although I have done it on occasions. It's something I'd always wanted to do, but you do have to cover a lot more ground. In The Police we do like to make as much space as possible in the music because if you leave big holes it suggests a lot more than if you fill it all in. The style of The Police didn't come over-night, it took us a few months to get into it. Certain songs started to point the direction, and then finally in America, where we were playing two sets a night for about a month, the band really gelled and we found out much more of what we could do. I started to get the role of the guitar much more in perspective as time went on, and we were able to see how to play together and make it different from other three-piece groups.
The Police use dynamics very well - have you always considered that important?
In any band I've always tried to emphasise dynamics as much as possible, because it is extremely important. Unfortunately it's an area most rock bands fall completely down on. They play with no dynamics at all, and virtually one volume from start to finish, no light or shade. It's a fantastic musical tool to use, you can make your music so exciting, and I don't know why rock musicians don't take it much more seriously. I went and saw Blondie last Sunday night and there were no dynamics at all from beginning to end. In a three-piece you can use dynamics and they sound very obvious, but we do try to use a lot of them. We stop playing completely sometimes, and go from very loud to very soft, and you can get a lot more out of your set that way. You can draw an audience right into the group by the use of dynamics alone, it enhances the music so much. If you do play quietly, when you go flat out it's ten times more exciting. If you're playing flat out all the time it soon gets to be a turn off. I like to be seduced, not experience aural rape.
Do you find it easy to sing and play at the same time?
Well it takes practice. Sting is a genius as far as that goes. He has tremendous independence between his playing and his singing. At first I found it rather difficult, but when you practise it, it's like learning to play another instrument. At first if you sing a rhythm you automatically play it, but it gets better if you practise.
Can you describe some guitar techniques you use, relevant especially in a three-piece?
There are certain sound effects I use on guitar which I think are very worthwhile in a three-piece, because you can change the colours and textures and the sound of the band all the time. I use an Echoplex and a Peter Cornish pedal board with six or seven effects on it, like compression, phasing, flanging, analogue delay, a Mutron and fuzz. The guts of the pedals are built into this beautifully made board - I think his boards are the best in the world. It has very strong footswitches and a light over each to tell you whether they're on or not. There's also an overall on/off switch, so when that's off you can for instance put the echo, flanging and compression on, and then hit the button and they're all on, like programming the board. Obviously with all those different sounds you can mix them up incredibly and continually find new things and work out how you want them in songs. So with The Police there's a judicious use of effects throughout the songs, and they do enhance them. The use of the Echoplex has been particularly beneficial with the band, like on 'Can't Stand Losing You', where I get a double rhythm effect. It does make a difference and is very exciting.
People get very snobbish about effects pedals, but they're here and you can't stop it. A lot of pedals are terrible, 90 per cent you can ignore, but some are really worthwhile, and they're making better ones all the time. Flanging is definitely worth using, phasing is sounding a bit dated now, compression is great, a good echo is worth using, and fuzz too. There are millions apart from that. Electro Harmonix have made God knows how many. A lot of them are really junky and just sound like novelty things, and they don't enhance the sound. Wah-wah is nice but very dated now, and an envelope filter like the Mutron is much better, but even that you tend to associate with a certain type of music, like Graham Central Station, those American funk bands. When you use an effect pedal you don't want to find out it makes you sound like everyone else on the market. Individuality is important.
My sound also has a lot to do with my guitar, an old '63 sunburst Telecaster Custom which has become quite a hybrid guitar. It has a Gibson humbucker built into the front, a little pre-amp built into the back, and an out-of-phase switch. I had it customised years ago in Los Angeles when I first got it. I'm amazed that it keeps going on because the pre-amp is just sellotaped in the back. I'm always afraid the guitar's going to fall to pieces but it keeps going year after year. It beats every other guitar I've heard or had hands down. I have other guitars but I'm so used to playing the Police set with this guitar that to change would be very difficult. I'm sure it's true for most guitarists, that you get one guitar you really like and you always play it. It just has a great sound, and you can try to analyse it but l think it's beyond analysis. Some guitars are like that. It just is.
What other electric guitars do you have?
This guitar here is a '55 Strat which I bought in the States last time. It's really beautiful and plays fantastically well. I tried about 12 Strats in New York and this was the best. I've also got a beautiful '61 Strat, a Les Paul Custom which I'm knocked out with, a '56 Junior and a '59 SG Les Paul.
At the moment Hamer are making me a guitar - I do have a couple of Hamers - and it should be very nice, a combination of the Explorer-type guitar, the Standard, and the Sunburst. I have both of those, and the Standard has a beautiful neck, better than that on the Sunburst, so they're going to combine them for me on a cherry red body and fit a pair of Gibson '58 PAF's for me.
Do you regard yourself as a guitar collector?
Well not really. About three or four years ago I thought 'Yes, I'm going to collect guitars', and I started getting into it, but after a while the idea palled on me. I don't really want to have thousands of guitars and gloat over how old they are. I do enjoy old guitars and have some - I paid a lot of money for the '55 and '61 Strats - but the only reason for having them is that they're great guitars to play. I know guys who get so excited about old guitars, and then either they or the guitars don't play very well, and I think generally it's a bit overrated. I consider myself a player first and foremost, not a collector.
Is there any problem translating records with overdubs into live performances?
Not, really. There are certain songs that we feel we can't really do justice to live, but 90 percent of it we can play live, because we keep that in mind to some extent. There is the old argument that recording is one thing and being on stage another, but I do feel that you can't totally cheat the public if you play live and the songs don't sound anything like the record. Generally I think the songs we've recorded come out better live. We play them night after night and get into all kinds of subtleties and nuances that we weren't maybe into when they were recorded. On the first American tour we only had about eight songs and we had to really dig into the material and go deeper and deeper into it. Some of the songs are only three chords, but it's amazing what you can do with a three chord song when you're playing it every night. There's so much scope. So although you're working within a limited framework you can really mine it and find it's a very rich vein of music if you're forced to just keep looking. It makes you very inventive. whereas if you had a huge catalogue of songs every night you maybe wouldn't go into them so much because you'd have another song to go on to. We had to stretch eight songs into an hour and a half, and got into an improvisational style and reggae through a lack of material initially. It was a shaping force in the style of the band, and what might have seemed a negative thing about us in the beginning worked out to be a positive thing. We still don't have as many songs as we'd like because once we got going the demands on us were so intense that we never had time to write more or get into the studio. People ask 'How do you do this and that?', but it's all been so quick we haven't had time to establish set routines or procedures. We have definite attitudes about the way we want to do things, and those we carry out, but there's no set pattern.
Do you think the influence of jazz guitarists is still apparent in your playing?
Oh absolutely. Throughout the years I've always liked jazz, and I went away from it for a while. but I came back to it, and I'd say right now that it's my favourite music. There are contemporary players around; not so much the older ones. that I think are really worthwhile, like Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, Philip Catherine, Larry Coryell. I never used to like Larry Coryell at all, but two years ago I saw him in concert with Philip Catherine in Munich, and although he's actually a very sloppy guitar player he's very exciting and has millions of ideas. He has tremendous enthusiasm and there's a spirit that comes over. I got really turned onto Larry after that and bought a couple of his records, playing with Philip Catherine, and both of them are good, especially the second one. Philip Catherine's Guitars album was brilliant, especially the composition. He writes amazing tunes. I like a lot of ECM music too.
Have any other styles influenced your playing?
Well at one point, when I lived in Los Angeles for about five years. I stopped playing electric guitar and played classical guitar for about four and a half years. I was at college there and was very heavily into it for a long time, so it's obviously left its mark upon my approach. I play some things without a pick, chords and so on, and continually use lots of different voicings and inversions over simple chord sequences. When Sting is singing and playing a simple bass line on those chords, and Stewart is playing a fairly minimal drum rhythm against it, it leaves me plenty of space to play around it, and use all kinds of inversions and extensions and rhythmic changes.
When you do that, with flanging and echo, it really starts to somewhere and take on a nice feel and sound. I don't think at the time of which inversions I play. I just do it. I use lots of 9th extensions on chords, like in So Lonely - all sorts of things really - extensions, chords that are made up of just fourths, fragments of chords, two notes. In the situation we're in, with a strong bass line and drum rhythm, it works really well to do that. You don't have to play big fat chords all the time. The Police sound is very sparse and economical, so I don't need to do that kind of thing. Playing that way, with small chords, also gives a new sound.
When I use my fingers I play more with the flesh of the fingers than the nails. It's much more a rhythmic thing than classical guitar style. There is one number, Bring On The Night, which is all classical arpeggios up and down the fingerboard, through a flanger. When you're playing it at 2,000 watts through the PA it sounds great.
Why did you switch to classical guitar?
Well at that period of my life I had been in rock bands for five or six years and been quite successful, but I felt there was something missing, that I wasn't into music enough. I wanted to understand much more of the theory of music, so I started taking classical guitar lessons with a guy who was going to college. I got really turned on by some of the stuff he was telling me, and eventually I applied and went to college and studied everything for four years. I learned the general classical repertoire, all the standard Bach pieces, most of the Villa-Lobos pieces, a lot of 20th century stuff, Sor, Spanish music, and I ended up giving some recitals in Los Angeles.
It was just something I went through. It required so much time and dedication, and maybe I came to a sort of personal crisis, because I didn't know if I wanted to practise that heavily and become totally obsessed with the guitar. I thought I had got very good at it, but after four or five years maybe the challenge went out of it, and I decided that I wanted to play electric guitar again and get back into a band. It was a big adjustment for me and took a while to make the change. But I did it, got a guitar and into a band in Los Angeles, and after a year came back to England and picked up the threads again, with a very different attitude to when I went away. And this time it's obviously paid off.
Do you still have a classical guitar?
I have a Jose Ribay, who's actually a guitar maker in Los Angeles. It's a great guitar, and leaves most Ramirez guitars standing. I'd never sell it, even though I'm not seriously interested like I was before. The one acoustic guitar I really like is a Gibson B29, but unfortunately that got smashed on the way back from New York last time. The edge has been smacked in, so that's being repaired at the moment. I have a few Dobros, a cheap 12-string, and I'm planning to buy a few more next time I'm over there.
Does the rock world appeal to you more than the classical world?
Well there's a tremendous amount of bullshit in either world, having experienced both to some extent, but it's just people really. One has different types of bullshit to deal with in either situation. These are the big questions really, and I got to the point where I think I could have carried on and made a career as a classical guitarist, but it's very hard to make any money. I think I was a bit late in starting probably. I think a lot of the people I met in that world seemed very dull to me. I take music absolutely seriously, even though I'm playing rock 'n' roll, and think of myself as a serious musician, which will probably get up a lot of people's noses. I don't think you have to be a classical musician to be serious about it. There are millions of examples of great musicians who aren't so-called classical musicians who are every bit as creative and innovative, and creators of beautiful music. So all the possibilities are open to goon and study and take it as far as you can. It's mostly a question of time and opportunity. I never stop thinking about music, where I can take it and what I can do with it. I'm always excited about it, there's always a new challenge. You never really master the guitar, it's an instrument which defeats people all the time, no matter how many years you play it. I'm enjoying what I'm doing right now with The Police, because I'm playing, which in the final analysis is what it's all about.
With regard to your interest in jazz, have you ever played semi-acoustics?
Yes, I've got a couple actually. One of the first guitars I ever had was a Gibson 175 - God knows what happened to it but I really liked it at the time. They have a sound of their own, which is associated with the old jazz guitar bepop sound. For a young guy today I think it would be a bit of an anachronism to play that music. Obviously there are guys who play it and are very good at it, but it seems a bit strange to me if you're in your early 20's and playing music from the 40's, great as it is. There a lot of bepop players that I like, but I can't see the point of playing that in 198. It just seems absurd in a way, and guitar technology has developed so far that it should be used to create music of this era, music that reflects life now. Playing bebop on the guitar is very difficult, like classical guitar, and you have to really work to get good at it. I can see the challenge in it, but you have to consider if it's really worth it, and maybe you should be doing something newer or more innovative. There are certain guitarists who are managing to cross and fuse it with modern styles very well - Pat Metheny is doing a really good job, though he's tending to be a bit repetitive at the moment. Abercrombie is good, and manages to make it sound a little more contemporary.
What do you think then of classical musicians who play music of other eras?
Well in a way it's not that different. I fell that the big bugbear with classical guitar is that most audiences around the world want to hear the Segovia repertoire, and unless it's somebody like Bream pulling off brilliantly difficult modern music they won't really give it a second glance. Unfortunately the classical guitar audience is generally a very square one, and they want to hear all those old pieces - Villa-Lobos Prelude No 4 is the be-all and end-all. There's a lot of fantastic modern guitar music, but for some people it's still too angular and atonal sounding, and they find it very hard to adjust to. It's a great shame, and at this point it would be a lot better if classical guitarists played more 20th century music. The Britten Nocturnal is a fantastic piece, and a lot of Leo Brouwer's stuff is interesting.
What sort of things are you planning for the next Police album?
Ideally we would like to make some sort of departure from what we've done so far. That's one of the things we pontificate about, that we don't want to keep recreating what we've done, or adhere to a successful formula just because we've made a million... Oops! No, it's hard to say that at the moment, and once we get into it we'll start seeing it and felling our way. A lot of it is just instinctive anyway. It's not cerebral, you can't prepare it all on paper and then go in and record it. More specifically, Sting and I are both experimenting with synthesisers to some extent - we've both got synthesisers. Mine turned up last night, a 360 Systems slave driver - you attach a pick up to your guitar and can play through any synthesiser.
I've also got a Mini-Moog. So that's something that we're going to experiment with. We're not intending to turn into Kraftwerk on the next album, but we're interested in technology. We're not interested in building a vast armoury of gadgets, but it's here and we believe in using it. In a three-piece you can use it really effectively to build up the largeness of the sound. I have the pedal board and Sting also uses two of those Taurus bass pedals on stage, and it helps, and is all very simple to us. Simplicity is the key word really, and in the kind of stage act we do, we don't have time to be fiddling with lots of knobs, so anything we get involved with has to have speed and simplicity in operation. Something I have seen which I think is extremely good is the Roland guitar synthesiser, the synthesiser that you can plug your guitar into, not the guitar and synthesiser, which I have. You have a synthesiser in the rack and just stick your jack plug into it, and it's amazing. It's a fairly simple synthesiser I think, two oscillators, and you can only play single lines on it, but to be able to just plug your guitar in is just lovely. And I've found out that if you expand on that with a synthesiser with a memory in it, you can programme your sounds - there's eight memory banks in it - and then just by pressing one button you've got the sound. I'm working on that at the moment, seeing how I can hook it up to a pedal board. So things like that are of interest, but it's the way you use synthesisers, because they can be very boring. So there may be some of that on the next album. As our best stuff comes that way. Maybe we'll get into more instrumentals, because we get into a lot of that at soundchecks and never us it.