By the time The Police hit big with their 1978 debut LP Outlandos D’Amour, Andy Summers was already in his thirties, and a seasoned guitar player. He’d got his break as a teenager in the 60s, playing with Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band on the circuit, rubbing shoulders with Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. He was once mooted as Mick Taylor’s replacement in The Rolling Stones, but instead rose to worldwide fame as a third of one of the all-time great rock bands.
The Police’s best-known songs bear the hallmarks of his guitar style – sophisticated chord voicings, clever lead salvos, percussive rhythm work and inventive use of tone. His much-imitated echo/chorus combo became an era-defining guitar flavour. Outside of that band, Summers has had a long and fruitful solo career, his catalogue rich with explorations of ambient, fusion, world music and more. He’s also a writer (his recent short story collection, Fretted And Moaning, is all about guitarists, and a great read), and an avid photographer too. This latter passion directly inspired his hypnotic current album, Harmonics Of The Night...
Musical inspiration comes in many forms.
I’ve got a photography show at the Mayfair Gallery in London, and Harmonics Of The Night came about because I wanted to create some music for it, instead of having some naffradio program going on in the background as people look at the work. I got this little pedal from TC Electronic [Brainwaves Pitch Shifter] and it’s amazing. It’s got this intervallic thing – you play a note and you get a second one with it. I was in my studio and came up with this 20-minute, one-take improvisation I called A Certain Strangeness. It was a real moment of inspiration. That will play on a loop during the whole exhibit, and it prompted the music on the rest of the album. It’s like guitar chamber music, I’m really pleased with it.
Improvisation is a valuable skill.
I’m an improviser. I grew up playing jazz guitar, influenced by Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Raney, Miles and Mingus – that was my background, not pop music. And you pick up a lot of things along the way, but I definitely had the skills. I could play the whole solo on [Montgomery’s] West Coast Blues when I was 16. I learned it all by ear – I just slowed the record down and kept trying to get to the notes until I got the whole thing. That kind of stuffgets right into your soul and stays with you for the rest of your life. In the early days of The Police, there was a lot of improvisation. People think it was all set out and it wasn’t, we were kind of making it up as we went along. We were always stretching ourselves and seeing where our chops could go. In soundcheck, as long as the sound was there we wouldn’t have to rehearse Roxanne or the rest of the set. We would just jam and sometimes things would come out of it, and we’d come back to ideas and develop them into something. And we made our albums really quickly – we didn’t sit around labouring in the studio for a year at a time. Some bands would take two years to make an album and I’d think, ‘Why? Ours are made in five days!’
Playing music is a gift.
Occasionally I’ve been amazed at the thought – how do you get through life without playing music?! And people do of course, but to me, when I got my first guitar in my hands when I was ten, the commitment was there immediately. I never thought about doing anything else except being a guitarist. I’d already played piano for five years as a kid so I was used to reading music, then ultimately I went to university in California and did a four-year music major program. But I absolutely wanted to be a guitar player. It was just who I was, and who I am.
It helps to work with people on the same (musical) page.
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