Sound Signature: "Tom Verlaine's Rock Time Warp"
The Record / September 1982
by Chip Stern
Tom Verlaine is fragile, like some ancient piece of precious porcelain. The hairline fractures
around his eyes make it appear as if he's just waking up, or is it that he's simply trying to get
back to sleep? Verlaine (nee' Tom Miller in Delaware) is a natural guitarist, a homegrown Bohemian
artist who's fashioned a melodic signature and songwriting style that is a throwback to the fledging
days of tube amps and solid body electric guitars. Wonder if he spends a lot of time staring at
those long, expressive hands or does he simply face what's never there? |
Tough break, that new wave tag, but then Verlaine literally built the stage at CBGBs with his own hands, led one of the most incendiary bands (Television) and paved the way for groups like the Talking Heads, Blondie, and the Ramones. Haughty and detached, yet bemused and unassuming, Verlaine has the air of a man just doing his work-rock 'n' roll guitar. Perhaps the oblique , goofy, poetic airs of his singing and writing-songs that reveal themselves only in layers-dissuades casual listeners, yet anyone with more than a passing interest in the future of the electric guitar can discover inspiration by entering his time warp.
The sounds he gets on albums like his most recent Words From the Front - generally underscored by a Stones'-like rhythm guitar chug and punctuated by mysterious Dylanesque narratives and parables - range from bell-like crystal tones to reactor meltdowns where notes stutter, scream, expand and evaporate before one's eyes. Yet for his own part Verlaine's characterizes his style as simple "trying to play in tune, with mixed results... although a little out-of-tuneness is a good thing. A good piano tuner will tune the high notes sharp so it's off, because of the way the ear perceives upper frequencies-you get more brightness out of it. So often a little bit of sharpness way up the neck on high notes is appropriate. The ear hears it as pleasing, whereas if it was right in tune the ear might pick it up as slightly flat." As far as his famous vibrato "that's like digging in fairly heavy from fret to fret, rather than across the neck. The other one is mostly up, to the ceiling on the frets. Once in a while it's bending up , then hitting it and bringing it back down with a shake for a backwards sound."
That's the how of things. What he plays is a product of fascination with the best of '60s free jazz and rock, and an approach that demands as much from the player as from his ancient (often, cheap) equipment-in a word, character.
Verlaine's main guitar is a Jazzmaster (he also uses a Jaguar and Danelectro), now discontinued from the Fender line, but still the key to the Ventures surfing sound; a noisy, temperamental guitar with a totally unique sound. "I'll tell you what I really liked about it is when I went to put a band together I didn't have any money, and those were $90 on 48th St., back in 1972. The body contour was really comfortable, and the necks are a little different than the other Fenders. Jazzmasters aren't hard to find-but the good ones are. Iv just got a real , real old one in California, like from the first six months, with a copper-iodized pickguard. "I've seen a lot of people getting into Jazzmasters because of me, and, well, people don't know what they're in for. I mean if you're looking for endless sustain, you're going to have to get it out of your hands (laughs). Because a saxophonist gets it out of his breath. You've got to work for it on the guitar - it means you have to pull it out of yourself, otherwise, what are you doing? You end up playing a lot of noise or scale exercises."
Because the Jazzmaster needs some help to beef up the sound (I like the high end tone, and there's a mellow sound that has a richness to it, but there's a certain fullness of tone that's not easy to get.") Verlaine has scoured old guitar and electronic shops when on tour to find vintage tube equipment, like an old Fender tube reverb unit he used on "Days On The Mountain", closing up the springs by putting a cigarette box in between the lock, for just a touch of twang and slap to produce that pearly Jimi Hendrix "Rainy Day, Dream Away" sound; or a pair of tube compressors and an old German tape delay with a tube pre-amp. "I crank all this tube equipment before the amp, and the sound that comes out is like (makes exploding sound); I don't use it on everything, but for a louder lead-type sustain it's great, because when tubes heat up there's a whole different kind of sustain and distortion you get. Lindsey Buckingham does that, too, and Pete Townsend as well, I think.. They use some kind of tube tape deck.." A lot of old guitarists do that."
Yet for all the nuances of Verlaine's dusty old equipment and dedication to past technologies, it is his musical attitude that dominates. "When I first started playing, I found I was so wound up, I couldn't even hear what was coming out of my amp. There was just the joy and excitement of it - like getting something out of your system, and that was all that mattered. I don't think you can forget about that. You can't get so interested in just making sounds. The point of it all is some kind of expression."
Fair enough, putting ends before means. So what does one practice to keep the spark alive? "Practice?" Verlaine blurts out with an uncomfortable laugh. "I never practice. I just write songs and take solos."