Frank Gambale is enjoying a busy life these days. He recently spent a week playing the Blue Note, in Las Vegas, with Vital Information in support of the recently released Show ‘Em Where You Live. The album is Gambale’s seventh with the quartet that also features keyboardist Tom Coster (Santana), bassist Baron Browne (Jean-Luc Ponty, Steps Ahead, Billy Cobham, Mike Stern), and Vital-founder/drummer Steve Smith (Journey, Steps Ahead, Jean-Luc Ponty).
Smith and Gambale have also collaborated on two fusion-trio barn-burners with bassist Stu Hamm, Show Me What You Can Do and The Light Beyond. If those lineups aren’t head-spinning enough, in August, the jazz/fusion stalwart plans to hook up with his old friends from the first incarnation of Chick Corea’s Elektric Band (drummer Dave Weckl, bassist John Patitucci, and saxophonist Eric Marienthal), in honor of Chick’s 60th birthday.
While all of the lineage suggests that Gambale is a huge jazz or fusion fanatic (and he certainly is), early on he really weaned himself on the electric blues of Mayall, Clapton, and Hendrix. Growing up in Canberra, Australia (“a fairly small town, about 300,000 people,” he deadpans), he picked up the guitar at seven, and began playing serious gigs at 13. Years of clubbing with his two brothers, playing everything from rock to disco to country/western, he saved up enough to come to America in 1982 and enroll at the Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT) in Los Angeles.
He graduated with Student of the Year honors, and from there it’s a blur. Four years of instructing at GIT, his first major-level gig with Jean-Luc Ponty, a five-album, Grammy-laden stint with Corea’s legendary Elektric Band, Vital Information, and 11 solo albums including Coming To Your Senses (the first release from Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label) and his latest, Resident Alien – Live Bootlegs, on his own Wombat label.
And besides the busy touring and recording schedules, he has remained active on the educational front. He currently heads the Guitar Department at the L.A. Music Academy, and has authored various videos and books, including Monster Licks And Speed Picking, Modes: No More Mystery, and Chopbuilder: The Ultimate Guitar Workout.
Gambale recently hooked up with Yamaha to design and produce a signature solidbody electric guitar, the AESFG, and there’s talk of a signature amplifier from Carvin.
Vintage Guitar: When did you first pick up a guitar?
Frank Gambale: I started when I was seven. I had two older brothers in their early teens, and of course they got distracted being more into girls than guitar. Which is understandable. But I was seven – too young to get into girls, I think. So guitar was it for me.
Were you taking lessons?
No, just learning by ear, off of records. Just simply copying and watching people play. No formal lessons, that’s for sure.
What were some of the records?
Some of my earliest were John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers Blues From Laurel Canyon. My brothers were really into blues. I remember East West, the Paul Butterfield record with Mike Bloomfield on it. And Hendrix, of course, was a huge influence. More of the rock and blues kind of thing, at the time. And Jerry Garcia; the Grateful Dead were a huge influence, too. I really dug the idea of a whole side of the record being one song. And then I couldn’t believe that you’d flip it over, and it was a continuation.
What was your first guitar?
My oldest brother wanted a trumpet, and mom couldn’t afford one, so she bought a $10 classical guitar, which was obviously a piece of junk. Nylon strings. We all started out on that.
Then my brother ended up getting a much nicer, maybe $100 classical guitar. We had those two, which was good because it meant a little less fighting amongst the siblings.
Our first electric was a no-name that we’d plug it into our home stereo. We used to take turns, because you had to hold the guitar jack, one end of it against these two points to get it to work through the stereo system. One of us would have to hold it, from underneath, on our back while the other played. It was hilarious.
My first good guitar was a real surprise on my 13th birthday. I was expecting a cheesy SG copy. My family chipped in; they could see that I was serious about the guitar, and bought me a nice, old, white L-series Strat – a ’63 or ’64. And that became my main guitar for quite a while, because it looked like Hendrix’s Strat. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
You still have it?
Oh no, it’s long gone.
Yeah, I sold it to buy a black Les Paul Custom that I used for a number of years. I went through various Gibson and Fender guitars, all of which I sold before I left Australia to go to the states, which was in about ’82.
Do you regret selling the first guitar?
A long time ago I was sentimental, but I certainly am not anymore (laughs).
What was your first amp?
I think a Fender Twin, which was a terrific clean amp. But for distortion, it didn’t really sound that good. So from there I went to Marshall, and I love those amps to this day. I think they’re the ultimate rock guitar sound, and great for fusion guitar sounds, too. They’re a lot more versatile than people give them credit for.
I used to find that most of the amp heads that a lot of people like to use, I just couldn’t get enough head room out of those combo amps. So fairly early on I went for the preamp/power amp situation. I know the majority of guitar players prefer combo amps, so I’m sort of not in the mainstream when it comes to amplification.
I went through some Boogie gear at some point, but now I’m stuck on this setup of a JMP-1 Marshall pre-amp, with a Stuart power-amp. Stuart makes a beautiful one-space power-amp. And I use a G-Force TC Electronics box for multi-effects, a mini-pedal, and a couple of volume pedals. That’s it. And I use a nice quad box, usually a Marshall.
The latest setup is with some Carvin speakers, and we’re talking about designing a signature amp, which is quite exciting. It’ll probably be a preamp with an amp head, and also a combo.
Early on, were you a Strat guy or a Les Paul guy?
Well, there have always been the two camps. Now, I use a variety of guitars, and then there’s the new guitar I’ve designed with Yamaha, which has a Strat scale.
The thing about vintage guitars is they’re interesting. But to me, the design is so old. I mean the Strat, God love it, but when you look at it from a design standpoint, the way the neck joins the body is really clumsy. And it was done that way because that it was the absolute cheapest way to put neck to body. It was a successful design, obviously, nobody can fault it. But for me, as a serious player, when I get to the 12th fret on that guitar, there’s so much wood that hits the palm of your hand – to me, it’s just not very ergonomic. When you’re on the higher frets, it’s like holding an L.A. phone book.
So with my new guitar, we’ve retained the string length and put the pickups in the same place as a Strat, but made the guitar much more ergonomic. There’s nothing between the first fret and where the frets join the body – it’s all neck. To me, that makes more sense. The old Strat design is like having speed bumps in the road. It’s like driving down the Audubon and hitting a cow at the 12th fret.
You also worked with Ibanez a while back.
Yeah, when I was playing with Chick Corea, the Ibanez company approached me with a guitar that’s called the “S-body.”
And you were the Saber poster boy for awhile…
I was a Saber guy for a long time. I put a lot of my ideas into that guitar, and we ended up making four versions over a 13-year period. They all sold very well. I didn’t really design the shape of that guitar, but for my version I did the low profile, something Ibanez has done with several other models. Basically, the top of the pickup was flush with the top of the guitar, and the bridge was recessed. A low-profile bridge means the angle that the string comes through the body and over the bridge is greatly reduced. So you just never break strings. And it felt really felt slick. I also had a lot of input on the way the neck joins the body.
But it wasn’t until I got this deal that I really got to design a guitar, and Yamaha gave me carte blanche. I designed it with a guy named Dave Cervantes, who now works for Fender. I feel really connected to this guitar, it’s our own concept.
You know, it’s harder than you think to sit down and make a guitar; you can’t reinvent the wheel. Most shapes have been done. I just set out to make a great guitar, I didn’t expect it to be earth-shatteringly new in any way. But it’s funny that when we started out with just the expectations of making a great guitar, we actually found some things that make it unique, and that’s hard to do.
One of the things was the construction. I wanted to have the whole neck, with all the frets, free and clear from the body. And I always wanted pickups mounted from the rear. I always liked the way that looks, without all the hardware around the pickups [visible] from the face of the guitar. The pickups just look like they’re part of the body, you can’t even tell they’re there.
How did you attach the neck?
Well, when you have pickups mounted from the rear, attaching the neck becomes a bit awkward. So when we attached the neck, getting the rigidity we needed was quite a labor. We really went to the absolute extreme with the way this neck joins the body. The neck goes about half-way down the body, and that’s no big deal, really. Except that when we went to put the bridge on – you know, with a tremolo you’ve got the block and springs under that, and the springs are attached like a claw, like on a Stratocaster, and that usually goes straight into the body. But we didn’t have any body left, really. So the only place to put it was on the end of the neck. So as far as we know, in about 50 years of electric guitar design, that’s never been done, where the tremolo-arm assembly returns straight to the neck.
We didn’t really think much of it, because it was sort of our only option. But the result surprised us once we plugged the guitar in. The sustain and brightness are uncanny. Something happened when we returned the bridge to the neck, it sort of created a string loop. So when you play the guitar, you immediately notice something bizarre is going on.
What types of woods did you use?
I’m kind of traditional in that all of my guitars have had mahogany bodies, and this is no exception. There’s something about mahogany that I just love, it’s a very warm tone. The neck is maple with an ebony board. So it’s basically a Les Paul in terms of materials, but it has a Strat scale. So I’ve tried to combine the best of both camps. I wanted to end up with a guitar that was somewhat in the middle, and I think we achieved that. Whoever plays the guitar, whether you like it or not, couldn’t dispute the fact that it’s a high-quality instrument. And that’s important to me.
With all this talk about solidbody guitars, on the Live Around The World tour with Vital Information, you used some hollowbody jazz guitars. What are your leanings there?
With Vital Information, basically Steve wanted us to look more like a jazz group, so he was insisting that I play a hollowbody. But I’ve since been playing my own solidbody with the band.
But there’s pros and cons of endorsements, right? One of the pros is that you have a very strong company that’s interested in having you play their guitars, and if they don’t have something, they’ll build it for you. One of the guitars I’ve been playing a lot is an AS-2200, which is basically a 335. It’s a beautifully made guitar. But before that I was using a GB10 George Benson model, which I really love.
Do you lean more toward solidbodies?
I love jazz guitars. In fact, I recently bought a ’68 Johnny Smith, absolutely mint. I’ve always wanted some classic guitars. I do love the way jazz guitars sound. I use flat-wound strings for a very traditional sound. I recorded the entire album, Thinking Out Loud, with the GB10. A lot of people want me to play that style more, but I’m still more into my fusion mode at the moment. Which means a solidbody. Maybe when I’m older (laughs), I’ll mellow out a little bit.
What other projects are you keeping yourself busy with?
I do various things; I tour a bit with a famous classical guitar player named Maurizio Colonna. That’s a wonderful acoustic duet… people love that in Italy. There’s a possibility of dates with Alain Caron, the French-Canadian bass player from UZEB. Dennis Chambers usually plays drums with that group. And there’s also an Elektric Band reunion planned for later in the year.
It’s Chick’s 60th birthday this year. He played the Blue Note in New York in December with various people; every week was a different ensemble. I went on the 22nd and 23rd, and Brecker, Steve Gadd, and Eddie Gomez were there. I had to go. Plus, I wanted to go to Ground Zero. Not long before September 11th, I was at the top of the Trade Center. I have digital from up there on my website. It was just eerie.
But anyway, regarding the Elektric Band, Chick called us all up in January and said, “You guys free in August?” I said, “Sure, what’s going on?” On the west coast he’s planning it all in one night, he’s booked the Hollywood Bowl on August 28th. And it’s going to be various ensembles, and the Elektric Band is slated to play. And that led to, “Well, I’ve been offered this festival in October, you guys got a couple of weeks free?” So it’s just evolving, we’ll see what comes up. It would be what I would consider a real supergroup, because everybody’s gone off to have pretty good careers.
It seems the only difficult thing would be scheduling – you guys are all pretty busy.
Yeah, but the thing is, when Chick calls, we all jump. We love Chick, man. He’s one of the greatest composers who ever lived.
Earlier, you said that with a guitar it’s difficult to reinvent the wheel. With the prospect of doing an amp with Carvin, what are you doing differently here?
I’m going to go into this the same way I went into the Yamaha guitar. I want to create a really great-sounding amplifier, bottom line. I really want to work with them to dial in what I consider to be some great basic tones. I want it to be very versatile, I want to be able to use it with a jazz guitar, with a lot of headroom clean, as well as great distortion tones. I don’t like one- or two-channel amplifiers. The thing I like about the Marshall preamp, is you have about four presets, two clean and two distortion, and those have basic EQ starting points. Then you go from there with the tone controls to dial in something else.
I love the Yamaha DGAT, which has eight starting points. Two clean, two crunch, two drive, and two overdrive or distortion. I’d love to have at least that many starting points [in the Carvin] and of course have it all completely programmable. I don’t know if I want any effects built into the amplifier, because I tend not to use that kind of stuff. It just takes up space inside the thing. Basically, we’re all after a great tone, and that’s going to be the most important thing. I want it to sound brilliant right from having everything at zero. I want the presets to sound awesome.
I’m all for the idea of having tremendous range of equalization. You know, there’s all these modeling amps and stuff, I can’t get into those amps for some reason. They sound like a bad simulation of a lot of amps. I don’t know, I guess they’ve pulled the wool over the eyes of a lot of people, they’re tremendously popular amps. The thing is, I dial in a Fender Twin Reverb Blackface and I go, “I don’t think so.” If you believe enough, a lot of people are into this blind faith, “Oh yes, it really does sound like a Marshall.” Sorry, I don’t think so.
If you’ve ever played a Marshall cranked, and you listen to that against an EQ preset, it just doesn’t hold water for me. I’m hard to convince. McDonald’s is popular, but is it good food? I’m not saying that something can’t be great and popular, but that’s what I’m shooting for. I don’t want [my amp] to be a McDonald’s amplifier.
For more info on Gambale, visit www.frankgambale.com.
Gambale with the Yamaha AESFG he designed.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.