Todd Rundgren - Space Age Guitarist

Though he flatly states, "Deep down, I don't want to play the guitar," Todd Rundgren continues to do so, and, in fact, stands at the forefront of what has been dubbed "techno-rock."
Born in Philadelphia, in 1948, Rundgren's first gigging band was a local blues outfit called Woody's Truckstop. In 1968, Rundgren came to national attention as guitarist with Nazz, Philly's answer to England's mod groups, which recorded three albums (now collector's items) before Rundgren went solo in 1970.
Todd's first solo effort, 1970's Runt, turned quite a few heads in the music industry, largely due to the fact that Rundgren wrote all the material, played all the instruments, sang all the vocals, and engineered the whole show.
Subsequently, he was sought after by the artists such as the Band, Paul Butterfield, Jesse Winchester, Grand Funk, Janis Joplin, Hall and Oates, Fanny, Sparks, Buzzy Linhart, the Four Tops, Johnny Winter, David Clayton Thomas, the New Seekers, James Cotton, Foghat, New York Dolls, Badfinger, American Dream, and Felix Cavaliere. Todd became as adept at playing the control board as at playing the guitar. His virtuosity with and knowledge of electronics make him the guitar's nearest equivalent to the keyboard's Keith Emerson.
Today, Rundgren has seven solo albums under his belt, as well as two major hit singles--"Hello, It's Me" (a hit first by Nazz, then later by Rundgren) and "We Gotta Get You A Woman," and four LPs with his current group, Utopia. Slightly tamer onstage (but not much) since his days with green hair and heavy makeup, Rundgren still employs props such as a giant Sphinx and pyramid, laser lights, and multiple video effects as part of his live act.
The band's present lineup includes Roger Powell on keyboards, Kasim Sultan on bass, and John "Willie" Wilcox on drums, along with Rundgren's masterful electric guitar and inimitable sense of humor.

What were some of your early musical influences?

Most of those relating directly to my guitar playing were English guitarists--most notably Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck--and American white blues players, like Mike Bloomfield and Harvey Mandel. I was never directly affected by black guitar players, only by derivative white musicians. I was really just influenced by the radio. And the kind of radio in Philadelphia probably had more black music than in other parts of the country. That's probably why Philadelphia has a much more distinctive sound than other cities. When I started writing songs, what got to me the most was English music, like the Beatles. But when I started writing, it didn't come out that way, because I guess I have more deep-seated influences. Light classics and stuff my parents used to play when I was younger had a greater, more lasting effect on me than even the Beatles. But actually, most of the stuff I write doesn't resemble any of that--it's more classical--or jazz- or possibly R&B-oriented.

What was your first experience with the guitar?

The first time I ever came across a guitar was when I was very young, and I didn't know what to do with it. It was my father's guitar. He had it down in the basement and never touched it. I didn't know what it was for. The action was terrible, and I used to think that the way to play it was to saw it with a coat hanger as if it were a violin. One time I was trying to tune it--with a pair of pliers and snapped the neck off. When I was eight, my parents started me on guitar lessons. Those lasted the minimum amount of time required to get a good deal on a guitar. You know, they give you a $25 guitar for $15 if you take so many lessons. Anyway, that didn't appeal to me. Then I got an electric guitar for Christmas, but I didn't get an amplifier. The electric guitar was unplayable without an amp, so I just messed around on it for a while and got rid of it.

When did you try again?

I got a Japanese acoustic guitar when I was 16 years old. One day, I went to audition for a band, and coming home from the bus station, I met this guy. I was really gullible, and this cat told me that he had a gig to play and needed a guitar. He said he'd bring mine right back when he was done with it, and I believed him. He took it, and I never saw him again. That was the end of my Japanese guitar. I didn't have a guitar of my own again until I left school and got my first band, a local blues band called Woody's Truckstop. That was a totally sapping experience. We went to Boston and spent some hungry days there eating. Cream of Wheat, stealing butter from stores, having trouble getting food the whole time. It was really weird. In those days I was using a Les Paul that I'd bought for $85. It was nothing fancy--I bought it because Mike Bloomfield used one. I came back to Philadelphia and was successful for awhile. Then the group got into acid, and they wanted to go to the country and get back to nature. So I split and started Nazz, and that lasted 18 months. Then I produced and did solo albums for a couple of years, and then Utopia happened. Eventually, I got to a point where I had collected a number of guitars, including a Flying V, and I even had Eric Clapton's SG for awhile, the multi-colored one he played with Cream. I played that guitar so much that it fell to pieces. I just put it back together again and framed it.

Who made the Ankh-shaped guitar you're playing now?

It was made by John Veleno [3131 Tyrone Blvd., St. Petersburg, FL 33710]. I have two of them that are more or less identical in case I break a string.

What makes it different from regular, mass-produced guitars?

Chrome plating [laughs], and it's got these specially wound Stratocaster pickups.

Does your sound depend heavily on special effects?

Yeah, I use a lot of special effects devices. Several are connected between my guitar and the amplifier. The amp's speaker cabinets are located offstage. A microphone picks up the signal from those speakers and runs it through a second group of effects before it reaches the PA and monitors. I'll trace the order of connection for you: the guitar's signal first goes to a preamp and then to some synthesizer components, including voltage-controlled filters, a voltage-controlled amplifier, and an envelope generator--I use the envelope generator to get a reversed sound effect. Then I run it through a preamp again, and then to a graphic equalizer, a Sunn Concert Lead head and into the speakers. The microphone is placed right in front of the amplifier's speakers. It sends the signal into the second group of effects, which includes a Harmonizer, flanger, and echo. The Harmonizer is tuned with a special foot pedal. I can also turn the pedal off and use the Harmonizer to give the guitar a double-tracked sound.

Who makes your equipment?

The Harmonizer is an Eventide [265 W. 54th St., New York, NY 10019]. The flanger is an Electro-Harmonix [27 W. 23rd St., New York, NY 10010] Electric Mistress, and I'm using Tapco [3810 148th N.E., Redmond, WA 98052] graphic equalizers, and E-mu [3046 Scott Blvd., Santa Clara, CA 95050] synthesizer modules. The preamp is part of the E-mu setup. It triggers the synthesizer modules--the voltage-controlled filters, amplifiers, and so on.

How do you control all of these effects?

There are several switches in front of the stage, one to turn on the effects and one for the straight guitar sound. I essentially have two identical signals going through, but I can switch in effects on one channel and have both sounds happening at the same time. I have other buttons to activate the Harmonizer, the flanger, the synthesizer components, and the echo. They can all be independently controlled and mixed together in many different combinations.

Do you have all of that gear so that you can recreate your studio sounds onstage?

I guess, although it's not necessarily studio equipment except for the Harmonizer. The system provides a whole range of flexible sounds to make the guitar more interesting. It doesn't have to come out the same all the time. Like, particularly when you're using that hard-driving sound, it can get monotonous. I've been changing around, making it softer, making it fuller with the Harmonizer, just getting some synthesizer-type sounds with the voltage-controlled filters and pedal, and things like that. I use the graphic equalizer because I can't get the sound I want when I just go through the amplifier.

What's your speaker configuration?

We actually have two kinds of cabinets that we use--one with two 12s, and a custom cabinet with one 15 and two 10s. Since the monitor's signal is coming through the microphone from the offstage speaker cabinets, we can adjust its level independently, without affecting the sound that reaches the audience through the PA.

How do you alter the guitar's signal when you're in the studio?

It depends. In my own studio at home I have graphic equalization on every channel, so I don't have to do any unnecessary patching. Three-band equalizers give me more flexibility under normal circumstances, and I can get very unusual sounds if I want to. For example, I can get a strange sound by knocking out two bands. I can also add the usual things like delays and flanging. I usually prefer to flange the guitar before it comes to the console, because flanging at the console sounds too electronic.

Do the special effects you choose depend upon the type of guitar?

Oh yeah, because each guitar has its own sound. Even two guitars of the same make can produce different sounds.

Do you use certain instruments for specific jobs in the studio?

Yes. Fender guitars are good for rhythm. If you want a rhythm guitar that still has a lot of highs to cut through, use a Fender. Gibsons will give you a punchy and midrangy sound. They are more moderate rhythm guitars, whereas Fenders have a little more bite to them. For rhythm tracks I prefer a Fender. For lead tracks I really like to use my old Fender Mustang, because it has a vibrato tailpiece on it. I really like to fool around with that. These guitars that I'm using now, the Ankh-shaped ones, are supposed to have vibratos on them, but they haven't quite been perfected yet.

Have you used those guitars in the studio yet?

Not yet, no. But I probably will, because they sound better than my other guitars. I also have an Alembic that I use when I want a very present, clean sound. I take it direct into the board.

Do you have a favorite guitar?

No, not really. I don't feel that I like any one in particular. There are people who look at all different guitars and can play only one of them very well, in a certain style. Sometimes someone else can play his own guitar, but you won't be able to handle it at all. It's a matter of getting used to whatever you're playing. You usually get attached to one if you use it long enough. Now, I'm probably attached to the guitars I'm playing because of habit.

Do you usually compose on guitar?

It varies depending on the song. When the melodic and harmonic content is a little more complex, I'll do it on piano. When it's something with a single strain, I'll do it on guitar.

Let's say you were going to record a tune with six or seven overdubbed guitars. In what order would you lay down the tracks?

Well, I'd lay down the bass and the rhythm guitar together with the drums. Of course, that varies with the tune. If there are no free sections in it--if it's just a straight rhythm from one end to the other, then I'd lay the rhythm guitar down, double it, and then add the lead part or parts. You can even do a double lead, though you don't necessarily have to play seven guitars to get that sound. You can use a Harmonizer or something.

How do you use the Harmonizer? Do you double the instrument an octave higher than where it's being played?

No, I would never do that. It sounds too electronic when It's an octave higher. I just use it mainly as a delay line doubling the pitch of the incoming signal.

What other gear do you have in your studio?

Aside from the graphic equalizers on every channel, it's pretty much a normal studio. It's a custom-made board with complete echo send/receives, panning, and stuff like that. It also has a Stephens 16-track recorder with DBX noise reduction.

You play a lot of different instruments.

Yeah. I fool around on them, but I couldn't get a gig on any of them.

In what order did you pick them up?

Well, the guitar was first. Then I fooled around with piano. Then maybe came the drums, saxophone, other reeds, and things like that. I don't really devote a lot of time to developing my technique on all of these; maybe I will eventually. I just picked up the saxophone again after not playing for awhile. Right now my mouth is collapsing, because I'm just getting used to it again. When I work in the studio, I usually know what kind of sound I want, and I'm capable of getting it. But if I need somebody more professional, like for a sax solo--I would never touch one--I would rather get someone good like Edgar Winter.

Have you found that playing all of these different instruments has affected your style of guitar?

No, I actually have a different style on each instrument.

So playing drums hasn't helped your guitar playing?

Oh, no. Guitar is mostly fingers; drums is in the wrists and arms. Piano--I don't play piano that well, I just play the changes on it. The only reason I really play those instruments is so I can have an understanding of what they do.

Do you find yourself wanting to get into different timbres on the guitar because of your exposure to the synthesizer?

The concept intrigues me, you know, as applied to other instruments, but I'm not trying to duplicate sounds that you can get on the synthesizer. The problem I am finding with guitar synthesizers is that if you want them to work properly and also to sound like real synthesizers, then you have to completely relearn the guitar. You might as well just go and play the keyboard and not mess around with any of that other junk. I like to have effects that more or less retain the sensitive nature of the guitar as compared to keyboard.

What kind of strings do you use?

Ernie Ball Extra Slinkys, with the .008-gauge first string.

Do you have a preference for picks?

Just the conventional plectrum--in the conventional shape. Hard. I wear them down a lot and go through a lot of picks in a night.

Are you a structured player?

For purposes of live performance, I'm a limited guitar player. I only know how to deliver. I never get down to a real structured type of playing, probably because I never practice. Deep down, I don't want to play the guitar. I want to do other things. I know that if I want to be really ostentatious on the guitar, I can learn the technique to do that. Gut it's just more or less a tool that I can develop--it's not necessarily some projection of my ego.

What would you rather be doing?

I'm getting more into the visual arts. Video. I'm just exploring another aspect of experience. I have always played music that's visually inspired, and now I'm getting into the actual expressive thing of the visual.