GuitArt interview, 2001

(This was part of the GuitArt website, masterminded by Bret Hart and hosted by Rotcod Zzaj. The page seems to be temporarily down, but the interview- one of the very first I did- turned out too good not to have it available, I said things in it I've never said anywhere else, so I'm hosting it here for the time being.

Here's Bret's original introduction and instructions to the interviewees, who were to answer a stock set of questions:

"Thank you for your thoughts.

This publication is here for one reason: to better acquaint readers with an artist.

Please consider the things about yourself and your work which interviews tend to not speak to... Complete this interview by adding to this list additional questions which GuitArt has not asked, and then answer them.

When finished, proofread things and edit as you see fit. When done, send to: (Bret's old email address)

This interview will be reprinted and made available in GuitArt precisely as I receive it.

Appreciatively and with respect,

Bret H. Hart

GuitArt "


1. Talk about your first significant musical or guitar experience.

First significant musical experience was probably being taught to visualize to music at around age 3 by my mother. (This, to the 1812 Overture- I went to sleep by it every night after that and since then I've found loud music/sounds to be very relaxing.) Learning to visualize to music this early indelibly linked imagery and music in my thought processes.

As for the first significant guitar experience- this is a strange story. Growing up I had no interest in playing music at all- I was interested in film. But at age 14 I had a very powerful dream which changed my basic perceptions for good. I found myself looking for answers to a big amorphous question that was suddenly there, though I couldn't define it. I was looking for something- but what, I couldn't tell. My search eventually led me down to an area of land associated with the dream. I made repeated visits there, until one day I found the gutted, cracked shell of a cheap electric guitar in the mud. No pickups, no strings, cracked headstock. I didn't know enough about guitars to know whether it was salvageable or not. I just had this weird feeling that this was somehow what I'd been looking for. I tried to fight this feeling, but when I picked the thing up there was an undeniable sense of completion. I tried arguing myself out of it, but something in me knew better and I was aware, in a way that felt very deeply true, that I would be playing guitar. The guitar ended up not being salvageable, but I kept its carcass around for a long while. The feeling would not go away, no matter how unlikely it seemed to me that it could possibly happen. I skirted it for a few years, with the help of those around me and my own disbelief. I even took up drums first and figured, well that's it, I had to be mistaken, after all you don't do both, right? But circumstances kept pushing me back in that direction. Eventually I did get a guitar and the rest, as they say, is mystery.

2. Talk about the first guitar/instruments you took a focused interest in.

I was always fooling around with instruments whenever they were around. Percussion instruments were around a lot, because my older brother (later my co-conspirator in Paper Bag) was a percussionist and jammed with people as often as he could. I was usually invited to these things and was even handed a shaker, a cowbell or some claves on occasion. Keyboards were usually in someone's home so I fooled around with those when I could. Guitar seemed much too intimidating to me until after finding that broken guitar. The first time I really fooled around with one was in a thrift store shortly after that.

a. What were you doing with it/them?

It was basically a toy, either a ¾ or ½ scale guitar, but fully electric with a matching midget amplifier. I sat down with it, turned on the amp, and rolled my index and middle fingers over the low e-string. I knew enough from watching musicians that you had to press down between the frets to change pitch, and I did this vaguely Spanish sounding thing.

b. How did people around you respond/react?

The friend I was with thought I was just making noise and wrinkled up his face at me, as if to say "What are you doing? You can't play!" I got similar reactions every time I picked up a guitar to fool around with one, until I finally owned one and had learned a few more moves.

c. Was it fun? - What made it fun?

You bet your ass it was fun. Despite reactions, I absolutely knew I was learning something every time I picked a guitar up. That first time it was just incredible to know I could actually get sounds out of it that sounded like something, and change notes. Before we left the store that day I had learned some basics. It was a wonderful experience because despite what it may have sounded like to my friend and the impatient elderly woman who ran the shop, I absolutely knew I could do this. I just needed an instrument and some time.

3. Formal training? - Lessons? - Significant "tutor"/"mentor" experience?

My formal training consists of a guitar class I took in Jr. College after I'd been playing a while. I was already experimenting with alternate tunings and had written quite a few songs but figured I'd better try to learn some "genuine" basics. The class was so huge they put it in one of those theater-type rooms, with the seats that rose up and back. The "audience" was actually the class, mostly full of first-time guitarists, and the teacher was down on the floor at the performer's level. We spent at least the first half of the course just making sure everyone knew how to tune. My final was "Mary Had A Little Lamb". So ended my formal training.

I did learn plenty from other players, especially early on. The guitarist in my first band, Watcher, taught me about hammer-ons and pull-offs (I was still playing drums and singing at the time). Someone I only met once while at a friend's house explained the concept of scales to me in such basic terms that after no more than 10 minutes of talking the neck was almost completely unlocked for me. And other people I've worked with or known have shared tips with me at times that turned out to be extremely useful. Otherwise it was all books and experimentation. (As far as books: I was fortunate enough to find Ralph Denyer's Guitar Handbook right as it was released. I learned quite a bit from it and I recommend it to anyone I know who tells me they want to learn to play.)

4. Have you taught?

In a very basic sort of way. I've had two "students" and they both decided they'd be better off sticking to vocals, so what does that tell you?

5. Initial recording-experience memories?

Very first recordings were about as primitive as it gets, screwing around with a mono tape deck, collecting sounds; snippets off TV, a bunch of wind-up music boxes playing all at once, a shopping cart full of bottles being smashed in a long concrete tunnel. At the time I didn't play an instrument but was fascinated with sounds. Next, after I'd been playing a short while, I used two mono tape decks for very primitive sound layering. It sounded pretty fuzzy but I at least discovered what I sounded like singing with myself or playing multiple lead lines over chords. First proper recording experience was in a 24 track studio that a friend of a friend of mine was the janitor at. He had the keys and we used to sneak in there in the middle of the night and record. I used the studio's drum kit and my amp, guitar and effects to record my first actual multi-track song. It was the first time I'd been able to actually hear it clearly enough to know that not only could I do this but that it would sound good. All I have is a beat up cassette of it now. The track was never finished because this friend of a friend had better things to do, like spending 3 hours running a recording of a fart through the studio's state-of-the-art harmonizing equipment trying to make it repeat infinitely.

6. What gear/stuff do you play in a performing context?

a. Presently.

Guitars: I have a strong preference for my SGs- a '67 and a '63 Junior. I recently picked up a 7-string and am enjoying the extended range but have not had the opportunity to take it out live or record with it yet.

Amp: Mesa Boogie, a reissue of the MK 1. An absolute monster, loud and clean. (I've never used amp distortion, always used pedals.) I've almost never had to turn it up past 3- and that's on the 60W setting! That's playing against full rock instrumentation, not in coffee houses.

Effects: Quite a lot of 'em. This is the current signal chain order: Korg AX30G multi-effects (rarely used); Boss CS-2 Compression Sustainer; Boss OC-2 Octaver; Digitech Whammy Pedal; DOD Supra-Distortion (I swear by 'em); Electro-Harmonix Small Clone Chorus; Electro-Harmonix Small Stone Phase Shifter; DOD FX70 Stereo Flanger; Cry Baby Wah; Ernie Ball Volume pedal; Boss DD-2 Digital Delay; Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler. Most of these are fixed to 2 very portable boards which link together and permit one plug to power it all. And yes, all the effects are originals. I'm that old.

Extras: E-Bow, slide, at easy reach in a custom fitted holder that rises off the left pedalboard to about hand-level.

b. In the Past.

Guitars: Forget it. I wouldn't know where to start. Always something unique about each though; 12 string or doubleneck or fretless or built-in effects. Also the infamous "bowed device", a home-made job which was an inexpensive guitar with the sides cut off and a makeshift hardwood bridge that curved the strings for bowing. With Paper Bag live I usually had no less than 3 guitars, sometimes as many as 7. And of course in the studio I brought everything.

Amp: Before the MB, I played mostly through a very old Fender Twin. Early on I blew the speakers out and replaced them with 200W EVs, making this one of the heaviest amps ever devised. Obviously I wasn't thinking about my back at the time.

Effects: More like what didn't I use? I tried everything I could get my hands on. For a couple of years with PB my board was a double decker, and in keeping with that I had practically 2 of everything. This enabled me to set each effect differently, use very eccentric combinations, swap positions in the signal chain, etc. I did get sounds different from anything I'd ever heard, but after a while found I wasn't using them all enough to justify lugging around a 100 lb. board. One of the most effective things I had for a while was a home made job I called "The Splitter", which created some kind of bizarre feedback loop which could only be controlled by the knobs and dials on the equipment, or stopped momentarily by playing. It sounded good but it eventually fried every amp I put it through, so I had to retire it. I do miss a lot of my departed effects. I used to really enjoy my Morley Slimline Echo Volume because it was great to be able to sweep in the amount of delay. Most mourned is my beloved EH 16 second digital delay, which stayed in service for 16 years before it finally croaked. I haven't thrown it out in the hopes that someday I will find someone who can repair it. (A word from the future: it was fixed and returned to service for the 2003 sessions!)


Just a note about the use of effects: I don't think, as some people do, that they play themselves or relieve the user of any responsibility for the music. They're like colors on a palette, and if you're not careful with them you will turn everything to mud. I've seen players guilty of this. More often though, I've seen critics guilty of automatically assuming that this is the case, that a large array of effects is something to hide behind; this attitude to me is a kind of lazy, reverse snobbishness. I feel that gadgets are like those other effects, "special": used judiciously in the service of the art, they're wonderful. But if what you're applying them to has no substance to begin with, they won't save you. You'll end up trying to feed people a cake made of frosting.

c. Future aims and objectives?

Getting myself more well known. In the not too distant future I'm planning on recording new solo material, and hopefully recording more work with Jugalbandi. I would like to assemble a band and tour, money permitting. I am at the stage where hiring a band and becoming benevolent dictator is probably a necessity, as forming a band has proved unsuccessful time after time. I personally do not see, and have never seen, why a band cannot do 3 minute pop songs AND improvisation, or why a mix of styles is such a problem. But for many people, it is.

7. How, if at all, does the performance paradigm differ from the zeitgeist during the documentation/recording process? Which do you prefer, and why?

Funny, I addressed this question very fully in a recent piece I've got posted on my site. I'll sum it up quickly if I can. I have a love/hate relationship with live situations: love the performing, hate just about everything else. I have always been pretty heavily into the documentation/recording process, and it struck me recently that it may have to do with my original goal to be a filmmaker. You don't perform a movie over and over again, you craft it and release it. Visual art is usually much the same. I picked up collecting books and records at an early age. I suppose to me there is a more lasting value in documented work. Yes, it will all be dust someday but it's certainly less ephemeral than a live show. Of course live, you get immediate feedback, something fairly rare with recorded work. If I had to choose one over the other it would be recording.

8. Five favorite recorded songs/compositions (by others).

Very tough question. 50 might be easier. Let's see if I can manage this:

1. Atom Heart Mother/Pink Floyd

2. The Gates of Delirium/Yes

3. Strawberry Fields/Beatles

4. Rubycon Pt. 1/Tangerine Dream

5. Lark's Tongues In Aspic, Pt. 2/King Crimson

I will now have to resist the urge to change that 100 times before completing this interview.

9. If you could edit your ten favorite recorded/experienced sonic moments together into a seamless loop, what would they be?

A very interesting question, one I've never heard before.

1. A snatch of the Ligetti vocal stuff used in the "2001" soundtrack

2. The last few notes of guitar from the live "Groon" off King Crimson's "Earthbound".

3. The last few notes of keyboard at the very end of Amon Duul II's "Sleepwalker's Timeless Bridge" (from the album "Wolf City").

4. The "sonar ping" piano from Pink Floyd's "Echoes"

5. The fuzz guitar riff of the Guess Who's "American Woman"

6. One particular section from the chorus of "Ride Captain Ride" by Blues Image (magic moment c/o Mike Pinera)

7. The first rising piano slam during the last section of "Rubycon pt. 1"

8. The last half of the last verse of Blue Oyster Cult's "Mistress of the Salmon Salt" ("As if inclined to bend or pray….")

9. The last few bars of Vincent Crane's wonderful, insanely dissonant organ solo on "Nightmare" (from "The Crazy World of Arthur Brown)

10. The climax of Bernard Hermann's end theme for the first season of "The Twilight Zone".

10. What are your feelings about improvisation?

Never touch the stuff. It's obviously for people who can't play their instruments and are trying to hide their inability by making it all up as they go along.

Well I suppose I'd better not leave that as is, since I'm sure there will be people reading this who've never heard of me or Paper Bag or Jugalbandi. Yes, I'm a fan of improvisation and a practitioner too. (See my articles up at The Improvisor and Perfect Sound Forever.)

Improvisation is a fully legitimate way of making music, as legitimate as "straight" composition, I enjoy both and dislike being limited to one. I get very annoyed with people who think improvisation is just so much musical fucking off. Playing the L.A. club scene through the 80s with Paper Bag, I ran into a lot of them, believe me. They still constitute a large portion of the listening public. Good thing there are a lot of us who won't be stopped by that!

11. What strategies have proven effective to you in terms of successful group interactivity?

Always put the music first and ego second. (Long version: make sure what you add or don't add is in the best interest of the piece as a whole- always important but doubly important in improvisation.) This not only makes for better music but in most probability for fewer points of contention.

Be flexible in your opinions and tastes, to the best of your abilities. Be willing to try things asked of you that you wouldn't normally do- push yourself to accommodate a request; and be willing to let people try things you hadn't originally imagined. The results may pleasantly surprise you.

Try to find your way into situations where you can at least get along with the other members, if not be bestest-buddies with 'em.

12. Are you friendly with any resources, publications, or collaboratives which might be of utility or interest to our readers?

Nothing which can't be found by surfing through the links. That's how I found GuitArt, for example.

13. On what project(s) are you currently involved?

At this stage I am primarily a recording artist and am heavily engaged in getting my back catalog cleaned up and put out on CD. I'm currently pushing a compilation of my solo stuff, 1984-1993, and the new Jugalbandi set (3 discs that also function as individual albums). The solo stuff is mostly composed. The Jugalbandi stuff is mostly improvised, and we were so sick of explaining to people what was and what wasn't that we came up with an Improvisation Level Classification System, included in the liner notes of each disc (and also explained in full on the Jugalbandi site). Each song on all the discs gets a rating according to where it fits on the scale.

14. How can interested readers learn more about your work?


a. URL(s)? which is all about my solo stuff, products, different bands I've been in, my writing, artwork, etc.- sound clips available; which covers that project, including the Improvisation Level Classification System and the Jugalbandi Manifesto- sound clips available; which covers pretty extensively the history of Paper Bag, an all improvised band that had its own method, which was followed strictly; our 4 albums on SST, our work before and after those, etc.

b. Postal Address?

PO Box 82525, Portland, OR 97282-0525, USA

c. Available published work? (Note: there's a whole lot more now, of course- see products page)

Greg Segal:

"Always Look On The Dark Side Of Life: selected recordings, 1984-1993" CD

"Experimental Guitar Sampler" cassette

(available through my website);



"The View Is Better From The Top Of The Food Chain"

"Yellow Star Mailing List"

"The Cram And Stuff Method"

(available through the Jugalbandi website from Great Artiste Records)


Paper Bag:

"Ticket To Trauma" (vinyl & cassette only)

"A Land Without Fences" (vinyl & cassette only)

"Music To Trash" (CD & cassette only)

"Improvised My Ass" (vinyl & cassette only)

(SST Records; as far as I know they are out of print. Whether they are or not, I and the rest of the band urge you to find them used since we will never see a dime off them.)

Additional Questions:


15. What do you feel is most important thing to concentrate on as a player? Technique? Feel? Ideas?

I feel, obviously, that you need a combination of all three. But I think probably the most important thing is to have a voice on your instrument, a unique and identifiable voice, a personal style. You get that through working extensively with all three of those elements, but also through how you integrate your weaknesses as a player into your overall sound. Not just integrate them, but overcome them in that way, by integrating them. You also get that by allowing the rest of your tastes and personality to influence how you approach the instrument.

Sometimes you get it in other ways, or more accurately are forced to find it. In the early days of Paper Bag it was very common for people to come up to me after a show and say "Wow, you sound like Robert Fripp." He being one of my biggest influences I of course took this as a high compliment. But after a while it began to worry me. Was that all they were hearing? Did they think I was a Frimitator? After one particularly jarring encounter with a starry-eyed ex-Guitar Crafty who tried to convert me to her religion, I'd basically had it and vowed I would a) actively explore all my other influences with a vengeance and b) try to find out what individual quirks and concepts made me unique as a player. (None of this is a knock on Fripp, who can't help what his students do of their own volition.) So sometimes you have to be forced into that level of self awareness, after which you can use it actively to train yourself. You also have to learn to keep it at a distance when you're playing though, lest you fall into a rut of your own cliches and become too predictable. So getting bored with your own playing is sometimes a very healthy thing too. It forces you to grow and take chances.

16. How do you feel about abstraction vs. traditional song structure?

In a perfect world- or at least in my idea of a perfect band- there'd be room for all of it. There certainly is on my CD changer! I feel that traditional structures usually benefit a great deal from some slightly unusual twist, and that too much abstraction can be dead boring. Unrelieved atonality is, to me, easily as boring as unrelieved tonality (the only thing that can save it is interesting use of sound texture). Without the interplay of opposites there is no tension and without tension there is only stagnation.

17. You frequently use sounds that make the guitar almost unrecognizable. Is this a rebellion against guitar cliches and the general overexposure of the guitar's sound?

No. People have actually asked me that though. I was also recently passed over by a local improv group because they were trying to escape from being associated with the dreaded six-string and its alleged predictability and omnipresence. Everybody plays guitar, right? Well, yes and no.

The reason I make the guitar sound like something other than guitar is that I love other sounds too. I love other sounds to the point where I have to play other instruments to be satisfied. But I also like finding new sounds, especially when they speak for me personally; when they seem to match some hidden thing in my unconscious, or create an image or an emotion in my head- and so, hopefully, in the heads of listeners too.

I do not generally dislike traditional guitar sounds unless they are played in a way that seems to me to be devoid of individuality. Everyone draws that line in a different place. I have a deep love of most guitar sounds up to around the '80s, when it seemed to me that even the supposedly hard and heavy players lost their balls and became very, very safe.