By Paul Hanson
Andy Summers is a true renaissance man, recognized for his work as a musician, film composer, photographer, and author. But he’s most famous as a member of The Police, the legendary group that also featured bassist/vocalist Sting and drummer Stewart Copeland. Incorporating elements of punk, reggae, and jazz, the trio created a fresh rock voice that greatly influenced the sound of popular music that followed. The Police have sold over 50 million records to date worldwide, and their recent 30th anniversary reunion tour ranks as the third-highest grossing concert tour of all time.
Andy’s distinctive guitar approach was a defining element of The Police’s sound, and his signature tone, inventive chord voicings, and pioneering use of effects and guitar synthesizers continues to inspire guitarists in many genres of music. Roland and BOSS chorus effects played an important role in Andy’s guitar rig with The Police, and he prominently used early Roland guitar synthesizers such as the GR-300 and GR-700, both with the band and in solo projects. His current favorite piece of Roland gear is the VG-99 V-Guitar System, which he’s employed throughout his latest music project.
I recently talked with Andy for the 30th BOSS Tone Radio podcast, where we discussed gear, music, and his recently released memoir titled One Train Later. Andy also speaks at length about the development of The Police’s unique sound, which came about through a process he calls “procedure by negation.” To listen to our complete conversation and clips of his music, visit: www.BossUS.com/Podcasts.
The following is an excerpt from our talk.
Which Police songs did you use a Roland guitar synthesizer on?
Obviously, one of the famous ones I used it on was “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.” I did that whole instrumental chunk in the middle of the song with [one].
I remember seeing a Police video where you were playing a Roland GR-700 guitar synth.
I don’t remember which one was which. Was that the silver one?
Yeah, I used that one. I don’t have it anymore unfortunately. I think I did some stuff with Robert Fripp with it back when we did a couple of albums together.
I remember the album you guys did. You both played guitar synths, and it was pretty groundbreaking. Can you tell us about that?
Well, we did two albums: the first one was called I Advance Masked; the second one was Bewitched. You know, that kind of technology was just starting to emerge then, and everybody was sort of excited about all this stuff. I had a Pete Cornish pedalboard, and then [I got] this Roland gear. I had two [GR-300s] hooked up together.
I was sort of known for it then. Obviously, I was in an extremely high-profile band, and I sort of went with it. I was starting to use all this technology and we were always on tour, I was always playing; I was obviously in the position of having to fill out two hours in a trio, trying to keep the sound interesting all the way, rather than being just one straightforward guitar sound. That was our style at that particular time.
I found a way of tuning [the guitar synth] to fourths and fifths. For a guitar, at the time—you remember how long ago this was—it was impressive. It added a big element at the time. By today’s standards, of course, it wouldn’t be much, but we’re talking a long time ago.
The Roland synths played in quite well, though I wasn’t able to use it so much on stage. But, in fact, I did use it a bit when we did “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.” One little comment about it: the original was in F, and there’s a sort of guitar lick with it. By the time we actually got to perform it on stage, Sting had decided we’d do it in E Flat. [Laughs.] It just makes the guitar figures kind of impossible; you can’t play it in E Flat and keep it sounding the same.
We would do it toward the end of the show. I had the Roland guitar and the synths all ready to go, so I’d just strap it on. But I had to drop the whole guitar down to E Flat, which is not such an uncommon practice, except for triggering the synth sounds. So, I had to have super-heavy strings on the guitar. I had a .060 on the bottom string just to hold the tuning. [Laughs.] I’ll always remember that.
Did you have the G-303 guitar that came with the GR-300?
I used that brown-colored guitar, which I’ve still got. It was actually a great guitar. I mean, just the instrument itself, apart from what it’s supposed to do technically. It was a nice instrument to play.
When I Advance Masked came out, I remember reading that you were a fan of Robert Fripp, and that’s how the album came about.
No, that’s not true. Fripp and I grew up in the same town. We passed through the same band at one time, and we’re about the same age. I hadn’t really met him much around town, but there was definitely a connection through various people, and obviously we came from a small town in England.
But the reason we ended up making an album together…I was sort of in the cage of The Police at the time. As you can imagine, it was like being in a fishbowl. And [for] my own self-esteem as a musician, I just felt like I should play something with somebody else, because I felt like all I could play was The Police songs at that point. I heard Robert play a great solo on a track he recorded with The Roches—he produced the album. I just really dug this solo, and it really made me think about it, [along with] the fact that we came from the same town and so on and so forth. Anyway, long story short, we ended up getting together and chatting about it, and thinking that we could probably do something.
We ended up going back to our hometown, in fact, and went to the studio of another guy we’d grown up with, who by this time had a studio. Actually, it was great fun. We had a great time together. I really enjoyed it. But it was sort of a separate thing; I wasn’t hanging around listening to King Crimson. I think Robert’s a really interesting musician; I like more of the stuff he’s done with [Brian] Eno. The last one, The Equatorial Stars, was terrific. We’re very, very different players.
I want to ask you about your guitar tones with The Police. Unlike many other guitar players, you often played with a pretty clean sound. Was this a conscious decision?
No, I didn’t decide to play clean. In fact, I probably didn’t really play clean; there’s a certain amount of dirt on the signal. I always like a so-called clean sound to have a little bit of fur on it. It gives it more warmth, you know. There are plenty of solos on The Police records where I’m using whatever fuzz boxes were around at the time. What are you talking about? “Walking on the Moon,” or something to that effect?
Yeah. And the beautiful chorused sounds you are known for.
Well, I think the whole style comes out of reacting to the people you’re with. One of the things that makes [The Police’s music] so authentic, it was three people really reacting; three very different players coming together and finding a way to make these songs sound like that, partly because we really didn’t want to sound like anyone else. As we were getting into the process and Sting was starting to develop as a songwriter and bring these things out, we were sort of conscious of the fact we didn’t want to sound like just any old punk band out there.
This was the music that was within. I’d been playing for a while at that point and was able to come up with this stuff. You know, playing things like D Minor 11, and suspended chords or fragments of chords and then using chorus as it came available, and of course, in particular, the Echoplex [tape echo], which became a big hallmark of our sound, particularly live. That changed the sound of the band once I got the Echoplex. It made the sound of the band so big, and also I could create these rhythms with the Echoplex, which I wasn’t really hearing anywhere else at the time.
You know, it’s like suddenly you’ve developed this sound, partly from avoidance of trying to sound like anyone else. It’s sort of what we call “procedure by negation”—don’t want to do this, don’t want to do that, don’t want to do that. So, what am I left with? [Laughs.] This is it. It sort of comes about, and then suddenly you’re going, “Hey, I think I’ve got something here.” And you realize it’s a signature sound, and you stay with it.
Would you have your tech adjust the Echoplex to time the echo for different songs?
Well, I did it all in those days. Obviously, things have changed considerably. It’s sort of laughable when I think back about it. [Laughs.] On stage, I had one of my Pete Cornish pedalboards in front of me. I was typically stabbing away at everything, changing the colors through the song. And then over on the side I had a table with a couple of things, but definitely the Echoplex. I had the arrow that moved up and down to adjust the speed of the repeats. I had it marked, so I knew like on “Can’t Stand Losing You,” I’ve got to go up to 32, you know? I’d move it around, but I’d just go over and do it by hand.
Yeah. The Echoplex just had that slider to move the tape record head.
It’s old, simple technology. Very simple, but kind of marvelous.
Back in The Police days, were there any BOSS pedals that you gravitated to?
Yeah. I obviously had the Roland and BOSS chorus.
The CE-1 Chorus Ensemble, or the CE-2 compact pedal?
That’s the little pedal right? There was a bigger box, you know?
The CE-1 and CE-2 were BOSS pedals, and there was a rackmount Roland chorus called the Dimension D.
Yeah, I had the big box for a while, because it was very good. You know, for a long time in that period, I operated [it] with my Pete Cornish board once it was all set. Obviously, as time went on, I got the BOSS pedals.
I heard that you’ve used one of the BOSS loopers, the RC-20XL.
I have. I’ve got a looper in the studio. I’ve been recording for months. But I’m very happy to say my main thing that I’ve been using is the VG-99—it’s killer.
It’s so good. I mean, it’s the best [modeling processor] anyone’s ever made, as far as I’m concerned, of the ones I’ve tried. You know, I’m standing in front of my recording desk, and I’ve got all my amps out there, and I always go through this guilt trip like, “Oh my God, I better go and plug in an amp.” And then I end up plugging in the bloody VG-99. [Laughs.] It’s so good. You get it out through the speakers, you know, it’s great.
Do you use the different guitar models inside, or different tunings?
I’m not a big alternate tuning player. I use a bit of it here and there. [Some] guys, that’s all they do. Every song they play has a different tuning. My criticism of alternate-tuning players is, well, why don’t you learn some chords? [Laughs.]
I always say, standard tuning has got it all. The problem with altered tunings is that you can immediately tell it’s an altered tuning, and you can only do one thing. Whatever you tend to do with it, it starts to sound modal after a while. I find that my ear tires of the altered tuning.
Playing standard tuning is like playing the piano. It’s infinite, it’s still the greatest tuning, you know? Anyway, it’s clever that they do [alternate tunings], and there are moments where you can use it, but I’m not big on that, actually.
Do you plug the VG-99 into the console, or do you go into an amp?
We’ve done both; generally [I plug it] straight into the desk. I’ve tried it through an amp, but I usually find it efficient to go through the desk. I’ve also used other boxes with it as well.
I heard that you once sold a guitar to Eric Clapton.
Well, that’s all in my book [One Train Later.] Yeah, I did. We were good friends at the time. We were playing a lot, in the same clubs, at the same time together, and I went and bought this Les Paul for about eighty pounds at the time. Eric came to me and said, “God, I love that guitar. Where did you get that?”
I said, “There’s another one. You should go and get the other one.” So he went and got it. And then, of course, it eventually got stolen. By that time, I had really sort of stopped playing the Les Paul, and I was really into the Telecaster. Then Clapton really started coming after me to ask me to sell it, and I didn’t really want to sell it. And, of course, none of us had any idea what the value [would be today]; it was probably a ’59, worth about a million dollars. [Laughs.]
I sold it to him for two hundred pounds, I remember. He kept calling me, and I finally gave in and said, “Alright.” I should ask him for it back, I suppose. [Laughs.] I think he recorded most of Fresh Cream with that Les Paul.
When you were in The Animals, did you tour with Jimi Hendrix?
No. You know, I was around Hendrix a lot. You should read my book, because there’s a great anecdote in there about me playing with him, and him playing bass while I played lead. [Laughs.] Those were the days.
Do you have any last words about Roland and BOSS gear?
I’m a big fan of Roland gear, obviously. This album I’ve made now—it’s a rock album coming out shortly—definitely features a lot of Roland stuff.
You already mentioned using the VG-99; are you using some Roland keyboard synths, too?
Yeah, I’ve got [the Fantom]. There’s that, I’ve got bits of the Roland drum kit.
Any BOSS pedals?
Yeah, probably. I’m replete with this stuff, you know? [Laughs.] But the VG-99, in particular, it really was terrific this time.
Do you have any advice for guitarists?
Do it if you’re doing it for the right reasons, because it’s a long haul. You’ve got to love it. I’ve had a lifetime doing it, and I’ve never gotten tired of it.