GUITAR HEROES. IT’S INSPIRING TO HAVE THEM. AND IT CAN BE A MAGICAL EXPERIENCE when we get to see them in action or even meet them. Now imagine the life-changing implications if one of your most-beloved musical idols reached out to you, offering career guidance and the opportunity to record your own album with his production assistance.
For Canadian David Barrett, this fretboard fairy tale came true when Rush’s Alex Lifeson— intrigued by the compositions he heard on Barrett’s solo acoustic instrumental CD The Dead Arm—contacted him and offered both the use of his own Lerxst Studios and his expertise as producer. At Lifeson’s suggestion, Barrett took his music in a more rock-oriented direction, forming the David Barrett Trio (a.k.a. DB3) with drummer Alexander “Sascha” Tukatsch and bassist Jason Farrar. The resulting sessions yielded David Barrett Trio [Anamnesis], a spirited, mostly instrumental 11-song sojourn recalling the classic progressive rock of Rush, Yes, Mike Oldfield, and Alan Parsons (who also produced one track on the record), spiced with liberal doses of Barrett’s exotically flavored acoustic strumming. The David Barrett Trio is quickly establishing itself as a rising star in the prog community, sharing stages with Carl Palmer and Saga, and is currently prepping a live DVD for release.
You’ve captured the spirit of classic progressive rock records by remaining musically engaging and compositionally rich as opposed to recording a shred fest.
That’s because I approached the album not as a guitarist, but as a songwriter. I had a conversation with Steve Howe in which he said that he considered himself a composer first and foremost. And it’s the same with Alex Lifeson. He’s written as many classic riffs as anybody. The record was not about just putting up a bunch of chord changes and soloing over them. In fact, a good portion of the solos were added to the compositions later on because we thought they would enhance the arrangement and emotional impact of the song, not just for gratuitous shredding.
What were Alex Lifeson’s primary contributions as producer?
He brought so much to the table at every stage of the process. When he first offered to produce, I gave him a bunch of demos that had layers and layers of guitar parts that sounded good, but he said, “Look, you’re going to need to be able to play this material in the trio setting, so we’re going to have to edit stuff down to what’s most important.”
And if anyone would know how to edit guitar parts down for a trio setting, it would be him.
Exactly [laughs]! The funny thing is, it wasn’t just about the logistics of the format. As soon as I started writing with the trio in mind, the material got way better and the arrangements just came together, which is exactly what Alex said would happen. Another thing he’s a master at is knowing how to take an otherwise pedestrian-sounding riff and change one little element—maybe the key or the time signature—to give it an extraordinary quality. A wonderful example of this is the end of “Great Eastern Sun.” The last section was originally going to be based on the same riff as a previous section, but Alex suggested we change the time signature by adding bars of 5/8 in certain places, and then he had us put the riff in a minor key. Before long, the song had evolved into what I believe is the best track on the record. Also, at the end of “Sonar” there’s this abrupt key change and solo, suggested by Alex, that wasn’t on the original demo. Aside from his input on arrangements, Alex also had a big influence on how I tracked my parts. In the past, I had always tended to record at low volumes and tried to cut out noise, but he encouraged me to turn things up—sometimes to the point of feeding back in the studio monitors like on “Hollowbody”— and it really freed me psychologically to be a little more in the moment.
Your guitar tracks are drenched in bubbly choruses, gooey flangers, and creamy phasers. Were those analog effects, and did you print them while recording?
Almost all of those effects were created using either Electro-Harmonix or Pigtronics pedals, most of them analog, and they were part of my recorded signal chain about 75-percent of the time.
Aside from the stompboxes, what’s in your current live rig?
My main guitar for more than 30 years has been my 1968 Gibson ES-175, which I string with D’Addario EXL-115 strings gauged .011-.049. I also have an Epiphone G-1275 6-/12-string double-neck. For a while, I was using Alex’s iconic white Gibson double-neck, but that’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now. I also have a Gibson Console C530 lapsteel guitar. You can hear that on the solo on “Anamnesis.” My cables and accessories are from Planet Waves. I use Mack amps, which are handbuilt in Toronto. Live, I use a tri-amp setup that includes Mack’s Heatseeker HS-18 and Skyraider SR-15 heads into 1x12 cabinets for stereo effects, as well as a Mack Gem 2G for dry sounds. Running a third amp dry up the middle was a trick Alex taught me that allows the sound person to add more definition and clarity to your tone if need be.
Was that the same amp setup you used for recording?
I used the Mack Heatseeker on about a third of the record, but I also used a Mesa- Boogie Mark V for cleaner sounds like the electric 12-string, and an Orange Tiny Terror TT 15 for a lot of the crunchy rhythm sounds.
You’re also currently working with Mack on a signature model.
It’s called the Atomsmasher, and it’s essentially a deluxe version of the Heatseeker with Groove Tubes, a Celestion G12M Greenback speaker, and a cabinet made of thicker wood. It’s going to be offered in both 18-watt and 40-watt versions. It’s also just one channel. I’ve never been a channel-switching kind of guy. I just like to turn up the amp, with one volume knob and one tone knob, and go from there.
One of the more unusual instruments you used on the DB3 record was an Alhambra 12-string laud.
That’s a small-bodied guitar with a really big sound. It doesn’t intonate all that well, so I generally keep it in an open-E tuning (E, B, E, G#, B, E, low to high) or a sus tuning with the third string pair raised to an A. “Knot” and “Sonar’ were written almost entirely on the laud. Other songs, such as “Dive,” were originally written on and tracked with a Trinity College mandolin in standard tuning (G, D, A, E, low to high). When I perform these songs live with the trio, though, I translate a lot of the mandolin and laud parts to the double-neck 6- and 12-string electric in standard tuning.
Does that present any unique challenges?
It has definitely taken my playing to some interesting places and forced me to discover certain chords on the guitar I might not have otherwise voiced. For example, the intro on “Dive” is based on a minor triad with the fifth moving up and down in half-steps, but because I originally played it on mandolin, which is tuned in fifths, I voiced the chord without a third, which gives it this unique quasi-Middle Eastern quality. Translating that chord voicing to guitar led to something I might not have discovered otherwise. To make the trio sound as full as possible, I try to have all my strings ringing out as much as I can, and I often fret the bass note with my thumb. There’s an example of that in the live version of “Dive,” where I play an Fmaj triad on the first three strings, then reach around with my thumb to grab a Bb on the sixth string.
On your previous records, you composed for solo guitar. Did you involve Jason and Sascha in any part of the writing process for David Barrett Trio?
They were more a part of the production process. Another great thing I learned from Alex was to do things in stages and make refinements at each stage. Mostly, I would demo guitar parts in Apple Logic Pro and give them to him, and he’d make suggestions. Then I’d demo them again without a rhythm section and give those demos to the band, who would work out their parts. Finally, we’d demo them in rehearsals and bring in Alex for more suggestions. It sounds like it’s overworking things a bit, but what I found was that by doing it that way, when we went to record, we’d essentially eliminated all the problem spots.