Guitarist for Hire
By Paul Hanson
Pete Thorn has carved out his own niche in the insanely competitive world of guitar, enjoying a busy career playing with Don Henley, Chris Cornell, Melissa Etheridge, Alicia Keys, Jewell, and many other top artists. With his recent debut solo effort titled Guitar Nerd, Pete steps out of the sideman role and into the spotlight, showcasing his versatile style, amazing chops, and tasty songwriting.
Not long ago, I interviewed the Canadian guitarist for the BOSS Tone Radio podcast series. I taught at Musicians Institute in Los Angeles back in the ‘90s when Pete was a student there, and we had a great conversation, reminiscing and discussing his career and gear. Pete also offered some really great insights about how he approaches auditioning for the top gigs.
To listen to our complete conversation and clips of Pete’s music, visit www.BossUS.com/podcasts.
To learn more about Pete, check out his website: www.peterthorn.com.
I just got your Guitar Nerd CD, and it’s really good.
On the cover, is that a picture of you back in Edmonton when you were a kid?
Yeah, when I was like 10. My mom wanted to go do family photos, and I’m like, “Let me bring my guitar.” [Laughs.] That was my first photo shoot.
Growing up, did you feel like you were a guitar nerd?
Totally. I mean, that was me on the cover of that record: bad haircut, thick glasses, and the whole thing. But I could play. Around the fifth or sixth grade was when I discovered guitar, and I was crappy at sports. When I discovered music, and guitar in particular, I was just kind of obsessed. It was cool because you could then hang out with the cool kids. They’re like, “He’s pretty goofy, but he can shred.” [Laughs.] By the time I was 13 or 14, I was playing in little high school bands and I was practicing constantly.
Were you an eight-hour-a-day practicer?
Maybe at times, [and] when I have to get things done, I’ll still do that. If I’ve got a goal—for instance, I’m doing a tour now and I have a ton of songs to learn—I get pretty focused and diligent about it. But other than that, if I play three or four hours, I’ve got to get outside and go do something.
You’ve done so many different gigs, like The Surreal McCoys, Blinker the Star, and Five for Fighting. You must be kind of a chameleon to adjust for whatever the style is.
Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it. It’s kind of an interesting thing, and you need to feel it out with every gig. There’s going to be a degree of [the artist wanting] you to bring your own thing, and a degree of [them wanting you to] do what was there on the record. You need to feel it out, and no two situations are the same. I tend to veer towards [playing] it like the record, especially when you’re going in to audition.
I’ve got a theory on it: if you can cop the tones and the parts off the record and really hone in on them, at the audition [you’ll] make the artist feel like we could walk out on stage right now and play a gig and we’d be okay, and we haven’t even rehearsed. In a positive way, it strokes their ego. They’ve just [worked on] a record for maybe six months or a year, and they know every note, every little nuance. If you go in and show that you’ve paid attention to all those things, they’ll go, “Wow. This guy really cares about my music. He’s obviously diligent and put all this time in.” And that’s going to bode well towards you getting the gig.
Once you get the gig, they might [ask you to] be a little more of yourself, or stretch a little more here [and there]. They might even do that at the audition. But I think the safest thing is to be the chameleon a little bit, at least right at the beginning. Go in and try and cop whatever happened with who played on the album, then see if there’s room to stretch from there.
What kind of rig do you bring to auditions?
I’ve had different rigs over the years, but basically now I have a signature model amp from John Suhr called the PT-100™. I’ll bring that because it’s super-versatile. When I’m at home learning the music, I’ll put everything together as far effects and the amp channels and I’ll set the controls. I’ll get it all dialed in, so that when I get to the audition I’m ready to go. I think that one of my strong suits as a side guy is that I’ll tend to walk in and have that stuff dialed in. It’s a good thing to get comfortable with your gear and be versatile enough and have some different guitars and different things, so you can walk into those situations [having really spent] some time listening to the tunes and really dialing into the parts.
Many times they’ll say, “Just show up, and there’ll be an amp here.” [But] I tend to go all out, to the extent where I’ll even hire a tech and maybe cartage to get my gear there for the audition. It might cost you 200 bucks, but at the end of the day it might mean you getting the gig.
I’ll literally set up my pedalboard at home and stand and play the songs like I’m going to play them at the audition, with all the tones and everything all dialed in. I’ve even rented a rehearsal studio so that I could play full volume and sing through a PA at the same time with the music. [Laughs.] Those are the things that I’ll do. I’m kind of crazy about this stuff maybe, but it tends to pay off.
You’ve done a lot of TV shows like The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Show with David Letterman. What are those gigs like?
TV shows are funny. They’re over before you know it, and there’s a lot of hurry up and wait, some of them more than others. A show like Leno, typically you show up at 10:30 or 11:00 in the morning and you’ll get acquainted with your gear, and maybe do a run-through just for monitors and the sound people. Then you take a couple hours off, and you come back at 1:30 and do a couple run-throughs for camera blocking. And then you’re off for about another three hours.
Then you come back at 4:30 or 5:00 and actually do the show. The whole show tapes, and because the musical artist is generally at the end, you’ll sit there and be watching the show in the green room or something. And here we are, six or seven hours into the day, then eventually, okay let’s go! You run out on stage, and three minutes later it’s all over. [Laughs.] It’s the strangest feeling, and I don’t know that it ever gets comfortable.
I heard a great thing that Zakk Wylde said in an interview. They asked him how he prepares for big gigs and doing TV and things like that. He said, “You know what I do? Nothing. I do the same thing I did at the other 80 shows where everything went fine.” If you [think] this is important now, there are important people here, or this is TV, there are 5,000,000 people watching…you get that in your head, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.
You’ve probably played the song a hundred times already, so just go out there and have a good time and do what you always do. And lo and behold, it always ends up working out and everything’s cool. And at the end of the day, that’s all anybody wants to see you do anyway on TV, right? They want to see somebody cut loose and have good time. If there’s a wrong note or something, big deal, it’s rock and roll.
You toured with Robi Draco Rosa. How was that?
Draco’s gig was super-cool. He’s an amazing artist from Puerto Rico, mostly Spanish language. I joined around the time he put out an English album. He has a huge following in South America, Central America, and Spain, so we would tour those places. I think in the whole time I played with him, like two-and-a-half years, we maybe did six gigs in the U.S. That was a fascinating experience to get out and tour some of those places. The best audiences in the world are in South America.
You also recently toured with Chris Cornell, opening for Aerosmith.
It was amazing, almost like you got to experience what it would be like to be in a band like an Audioslave or a Soundgarden, at that level, because we were playing these huge rock festivals. A lot of sideman gigs that I’ve done are more with singer/songwriters or pop artists, not necessarily full-tilt rock and roll. We were playing a lot of Soundgarden and Audioslave and Temple of the Dog. So you’re out there warming up for Aerosmith, and you’re playing to 50-60,000 people, and doing songs like “Outshined” and “Black Hole Sun.” It was pretty epic. It was a blast. That never gets old, walking on stage in front of crowds like that.
Let’s talk about gear. I saw the YouTube™ video that you did describing how to use the ST-2 Power Stack pedal.
Yeah. That pedal is fantastic—really amazing. I watched the Power Stack one the other day, and it knocked me out again. In particular, the sound I dialed in using a Les Paul, I was like, “Man, that sounds good.” It’s a really cool pedal.
The technology in the ST-2 Power Stack and BC-2 Combo Drive pedals is unique. As opposed to traditional overdrive circuits, those pedals mimic actual amp tones. Do you have the BC-2 as well?
Yeah, I have it here. I’m going to do something cool with it, similar to the Power Stack video I did. It’s an amazing pedal. I’ve only plugged it in once so far, so I need to spend some more time with it, but it imparts that sort of forward-mid character that you would expect a British combo would have. And it’s got the [SOUND] knob, which essentially goes from one end to the other—it goes from pretty much a crystal clean sound, but with the British characteristic, all the way to screaming high gain.
Do you have an NS-2 Noise Suppressor?
I’ve used that pedal before in the past. Some of the other BOSS pedals that I have that I’m really digging…I still bust out the classic blue [CS-3] compressor. It has a really distinctive sound.
Do you use that on clean sounds?
Yeah. I generally like compression on clean tones. I use it more and more these days, compression on clean tones. I’ve succumbed to the compressor; I’m getting older and I like things easier. [Laughs.] It makes things easier to play. So, I like that a lot, and the other one I’ve used for quite some time now is the Space Echo re-creation in a pedal.
Oh yeah—the RE-20 Space Echo™. It’s such a cool pedal. And you can do tap tempo with the right pedal, something you can’t do with a tape echo.
Yeah, and you can make it run away with the repeats when you stand on it. It’s just got that distinctive tape-delay modulation on the repeats and stuff. They did a great job on that pedal.
You can also dial in some reverb, and you get all the advantages of the tape without the hassle.
Yeah. It’s such a problematic thing using tape delays on tour. Even in the studio, sometimes I’ll bust them out because a couple producers I know have them, and it’s like, “Oh, let’s try the Echoplex.” But they’re noisy, and if they’re not set up just right it’s a pain. [So we usually] just go back to the [RE-20] pedal.
Ten years ago, “digital” was almost a dirty word among guitar players. But nowadays, digital sounds great and offers so many advantages.
The advantages are many. Especially when we’re talking about a pedal like the Power Stack pedal. It’s kind of hard to deny. There will be naysayers, like somebody said to me the other day, “What about that pedal you did that thing for?” Kind of like poo-pooing it or something with the tone of their voice. I said, “Watch this,” and I pulled [the video] up on my iPhone and plugged it into his car stereo. He listened to it and he was like, “Oh, that sounds perfect. That’s really good.” [Laughs.] And it’s around a hundred bucks, I think. It’s pretty great what you can do these days.
Do have any final thoughts about BOSS gear?
When I think about BOSS gear, I think…you see guys like Prince, you know, and they’ll have a simple pedalboard with five pedals on it and they’re all BOSS pedals. [Laughs.] I think about my tuners and the classic [pedals]. BOSS stuff works, and it’s built like a tank, and they’re a completely unique and original design with the way the foot pedal is and everything. I feel like they’re the original legendary pedal company.
I also use the [Roland] MICRO CUBE® amp backstage to warm up. It’s great. You can throw batteries in it, and I’ll take it in the back lounge of the bus, or wherever, and the thing sounds amazing. It’s fun to sit there and play through. The thing’s great. It’s all you need. [BOSS and Roland] just make a ton of cool stuff for guitar players and I can’t say enough good things.