Vinnie Moore emerged in the 1980s as one of the decade’s premier rock guitarists, earning recognition for his extraordinary technique and melodic style.
Following the release of his debut album, Mind’s Eye, Moore was instantly ensconsed among the elite shredders. Subsequent releases reinforced that status, and proved he was a true virtuoso. In addition to his career as a recording artist, Moore built a reputation as a teacher and clinician, releasing instructional videos through Hot Licks.
In the early ’90s, he accompanied Alice Cooper on his Operation Rock ‘N Roll tour, and played on Cooper’s Hey Stoopid. His guitar work has also appeared on other Shrapnel releases, including Vicious Rumors’ Soldiers Of The Night (1985) and Deep Purple Tribute (1994), as well as a Sega video game track called “Burning Rangers.”
Over the years, Moore has expanded his interests as both a player and listener, incorporating a variety of styles in his music, which he demonstrates on his latest album, Defying Gravity. With accompaniment by bassist Dave LaRue, drummer Steve Smith, and keyboardist David Rosenthal, this collection of finely-crafted rockers, ballads, and Latin-flavored acoustic tunes showcase Moore’s guitar work and songwriting talents.
Moore recently filled us in on his early background as a player, and brought us up to date on his recent endeavors, including how he developed the material and recorded the tracks for his most recent record, Defying Gravity. There’s more to Moore than just lightning chops!
Vintage Guitar: Who were your initial influences?
Vinnie Moore: The first guys I was really into were Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, and Brian May, because I was into all of their bands – Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Queen. And also Jeff Beck.
What inspired you to play instrumental music?
After I had been playing for about six months, I heard an ad on the radio for Jeff Beck’s Wired album, and I went out and got it. That record ended up being a huge inspiration, as did his playing, in general. So it’s probably his fault that I’m playing instrumental stuff nowadays.
Hearing Beck so early on in my guitar career, and also hearing Larry Carlton and Al DiMeola, who were also big influences on my playing, led to the instrumentals. Later, I was listening to guys like Joe Pass and Pat Martino, so I was exposed to a lot of instrumental guitar music.
Which artists influenced you most as a writer?
Probably everybody and every rock band I listened to, as well as the classical stuff I listened to. I was also into jazz players, so a little sense of swing and bebop came from that stuff. I took lessons from an instructor who was studying with Pat Martino, so he was turning me onto a lot of jazz players and giving me a little of that influence. But I was young, and listening to a lot of rock stuff. Later, I started to get into fusion guys like DiMeola and Carlton, then more hardcore jazz guys like Pat Martino and Joe Pass.
So I have a lot of influences as a player. But as a composer and songwriter, I couldn’t really deem any one, or even a few, as influences. Everything I grew up listening to had an influence on my writing in some way.
After I had been playing guitar for a year and a half, I started learning scales and how to improvise using them. Every day, I’d make up chord progressions in different tempos and lay them down on tape, then practice improvising over them.
That really wasn’t songwriting – it was just making up chord progressions. But some of the ideas were two or three parts, so it was a starting point to build and hone my skills. I didn’t really start writing actual songs until I had been playing for five or six years. Then I got a four-track recorder and I started laying down ideas every day, and really working on writing songs.
In what ways has your writing style evolved?
I think the stuff I write now is definitely a lot less busy than what I did early in my career. The earlier stuff is more “notey,” because I was younger and there was more technique to my playing. It has matured… I’ve been showing more of my different influences in the stuff I’ve written recently. I think my earlier albums were more one-dimensional, stylistically, and now I’m mixing it up more and showing more of the Latin influences, some of the classical stuff, the heavy progressive stuff, and some of the ballady stuff. It’s just more varied now.
How have your style and technique changed, as well as your approach to playing guitar?
My technique is probably not as good as it was when I made those first records, because I don’t practice the way I used to. Now I pretty much pick up the guitar, have fun with it, and I write songs.
I think more in terms of writing songs and melodies, as opposed to writing technically oriented things. Melodies were always important to me. Even on the first record, there are lots of songs with catchy and simple little melodies, but there was a tendency to be busier back then. I was still trying to develop my skills as a player, so I was practicing a lot more.
Now, I don’t practice as much, but I’m more song-oriented than ever. I’d rather write a song than sit in a room and practice all day. If you practice all day, you’ll have killer chops, but you’ve got nothing to show for it at the end of the day. If you sit around and you work on a song every day, by the end of the week, there’s something recorded that’s a song and it lasts longer than the great chops you had that week. There’s something more tangible in writing a song.
Do you feel that songwriting is a more important skill to master than having killer guitar technique?
I think so. It’s essential to be able to write a good song, play a good melody, and more importantly, express something emotionally – something you’re feeling. That’s the whole point of being a musician – to express the way you feel through music. If you’re not doing that, it’s pretty much nothing but a bunch of notes.
There’s a lot of stuff where a great guitar player is shredding over chord changes with maybe one or two parts. That may be good playing, but to me the song and the ability to express something are more important. I don’t even care anymore if someone thinks I’m a good player or not. I’d rather have them think my songs are good.
How has your interpretation of great guitar tone evolved over time? Is tone important to you?
It is important, and it’s so much easier now because I’m recording at home – the guitar parts, anyway. In the early days, I’d go in the studio and I’d have no time to really work on tone. On the first record, I did all of the guitar parts in like four days. That was all the rhythm, doubling the rhythm, melodies throughout the whole song, harmonies, and then the solos.
Now, I could never do a whole record in four days. It’s ridiculous! Doing it that way, you don’t have any time to experiment with different guitars and amps. You just plug in, get a decent sound, press “Record,” and do the whole thing.
Now, because I’m doing it at home, I can really focus and experiment with different sounds. I have a lot of different amps and guitars, so I can try to give each song and each part within a song a different treatment.
Do you ever find that what sounds good live doesn’t translate well to tape, or what works in the studio doesn’t work onstage?
Yes! It’s kind of ironic, but it does happen. I’ve had things work in the studio when you throw a mic in front of the cabinet and it sounds really good. But then you try that same rig live and it just doesn’t work. And vice versa.
How have changes in technology affected your choices in gear?
The choice of pickup configurations in my guitars has definitely changed. I used to use two humbuckers, now I use a humbucker in the bridge and two single-coil size DiMarzio Hot Rails (model DP181) in the neck and the middle. They’re humbuckers, but they have more of a single-coil sound.
Another thing is that I used to use a distortion pedal, but now I’m getting the distortion/overdrive from the preamp of the head because it sounds more natural.
On the recording side, back in the early days, there weren’t as many resources. You couldn’t do a record at home because the technology wasn’t evolved enough. When I was 20 and doing my first album, I didn’t have a collection of guitar gear or recording gear either. Over the years, I’ve acquired some and built a home studio, so now I can just sit in my workshop and write things, trying different heads and different guitars.
Tell us about your collection of guitar gear, and which pieces were used on the tracks for Defying Gravity.
My main guitar is a purple Music Man Silhouette Special, which I’ve been using for about six years. I use it 90 to 95 percent of the time, and I have one or two backups that are exactly the same.
Another guitar I use a lot is a Music Man Axis. I have a Music Man Albert Lee model I used on one of the tunes on the new record called “Emotion Overload.”
I also have a 1960 Reissue Les Paul that was used for some of the tracking. I have three Strats, late-’80s models, an early-’90s Tele and an old Danelectro that I used a little bit on the new record and on the Maze record. I don’t know what year it was made, but it’s pretty old. A friend found it at a garage sale and paid $5 for it, then gave it to me. It’s one of the ones like Page used to play. It’s got a unique sound and I used it for some rhythm parts on different tracks.
For acoustic work, I have a 24-fret Washburn Stephens extended cutaway, which has a special cutaway that allows you to get all the way up on the neck. It was made by Stephen Davies and Washburn came out with it in the ’80s. It has a pickup in it, but I always mic it when I record because I think it sounds better.
Amp-wise, I used a Marshall JCM 800 50-watt head for a lot of the tracks. It’s one of the two-channel models with reverb (model 2205). That’s an amp that sounds great when you record, but if you crank it up, it sounds too bright and trebly. I also have a Boogie Dual Rectifier and a Carvin Legacy that I used on some of the tracks.
The amps all have their own unique tonal characteristics, so they were selected on a part-by-part basis, depending on what was right for the part. As far as effects, I’m using a Roland 1680 Digital Studio Work Station and that has built-in effects. So when I’m recording, I pretty much use the delays and reverb and everything I need right from the Roland itself.
I have some outboard gear, and one thing that’s really important is a Daking 52270 mic pre-amp. It’s a new design modeled after the old Trident and Neve models, so it’s got a real vintage sound. I run everything through that before I go to my digital recorder. I also have an ART Pro VLA tube compressor, which for acoustic guitars is pretty much a necessity.
I still have some stompboxes, like a Dunlop Crybaby wah, a Boss OC-2 octave pedal, a Boss DD-3 digital delay, a T.C. Electronic chorus and flanger.
Another thing I used on the record was a Digitech 2101 preamp/processor. When I was doing my demos, I’d use it to put down fake keyboard patch sounds. But I ended up keeping a lot of those tracks on the record that you might think are keyboards, like on the song “Out And Beyond.” There are no keyboards on that song at all – it’s all guitar. There’s also a lot of guitar/fake keyboards on “If I Could.”
If you were to do a live gig tonight, what would you take?
I’d have to evaluate the set list to see what each tune called for. For instance, there’s a tune on the Maze record where I use the octave pedal in one of the parts, so I’d definitely need to bring that. And I’d definitely bring the wah pedal, because I use that on a lot of the tunes. I use the Boss DD-3 a lot when I do clinics or a one-off gig. But when I do a tour, I tend to use a rackmount delay rather than the pedal. On the last tour, I used the Carvin Legacy head.
My sound is pretty straightforward. It doesn’t have a lot of effects other than just a bit of delay most of the time, and overdrive.
How are your guitars set up?
I use Ernie Ball .010-.046-gauge strings. I don’t like the action set real low, because you don’t get sustain and the strings don’t ring out as well. But I don’t like it to be high because then you have to muscle it around all night. I like it set somewhere in the middle. I have a Floyd Rose bridge on my main guitars. I used to have it floating, but my palm would rest on the bridge and it would make certain notes go sharp. Now I have it locked down so it can’t go sharp. It’s resting – not floating – so I can only drop it to make the notes go flat. My pickups are set a little bit lower than you might expect.
What kind of picks do you use, and do you use the same ones for electric and acoustic?
I do use the same for electric and acoustic – a standard-shape medium made by Ernie Ball. For many years, I used an extra heavy for electric, then went to a heavy. On the last tour I did, I was using a medium for the acoustic songs and a heavy for the electric stuff. Then I just started using the medium on the electric, too. It just started to feel better because it had more snap. So I’ve been using mediums for everything ever since.
How were the amps mic’d for this recording?
I have a Marshall 4×12 cabinet from the ’70s and it has 25-watt Celestion greenbacks. I use that for almost everything. I just mic it up with a Shure SM57. I have a couple of different spots where I place the mics, and they’re all marked on the grillecloth. One of them is right off the center with the mic pointed straight on. Another is with the mic angled into the side of the speaker. I do a lot of switching to see what works for the part.
A lot of it is how you’re feeling on a particular day, and how you’re hearing things. Sometimes I’ll just plug in and not even look at where the mic is. If it’s not working, I’ll go in and start moving it around a little bit. But I have a tendency to go back to these two spots I have marked. From the mic, I run right into the Daking.
What was the actual recording format used for the album? Did you record onto tape or hard disk?
I recorded onto a hard disk using the Roland 1680 16-track.
Did you engineer the tracks yourself?
Yes. I have a little room that’s isolated, where I keep my cabinet. All my heads are set up in the control room, and that’s where I work – in the control room.
How have recent advances in technology changed your approach to writing and recording music?
The one major change is that it has essentially enabled my demo to become the final product. I used to write a song, then spend endless time making the demo because I’d be fanatical about the performance. Then I’d go into the studio and try to re-create it note-for-note and capture all the feel of the demo. Sometimes it was pretty frustrating because you just can’t capture the feel of a moment, even if you play a part note for note. That was always frustrating.
But with the new record, I did the demos at home with a drum machine. I played the bass and the keyboard patches myself, and spent a lot of time working on guitar tones and getting the right performances. Then the drummer played to a final mix of guitar tracks, and so did the bass player and keyboardist. I never re-did any of my parts. It was kind of like working backwards because usually the guitarist is last, but this time it was done first and everyone played to my parts.
Describe the songwriting process for the material on Defying Gravity.
It just starts with me playing guitar and not making a conscious attempt to write a song. But as soon as that one moment happens, where I come up with something inspirational that kind of captures my attention, I have a little Sony Walkman close by, and I start recording. If I come up with an idea that strikes me, I’ll keep working on it and start to build on it with a second and third part.
When I have enough, I’ll go into the studio and lay down a drum groove with a machine, then lay down the parts I’ve come up with, and start to build from there.
I can’t really write an inspired song if I sit down and try to write. The more magical, inspirational, and creative things happen when you’re not really trying to do it – when you’re just having fun, going with the flow and then all of a sudden, out pops an idea. To me, that’s the better way to do it.
Has this always been the way you’ve worked?
There were different periods when some of the stuff I was writing was more cerebral. Around the Time Odyssey record, a lot of that stuff was more experimental, where I would sit around and work on a tune and think about where I could go in the song. I’d try one part and then wonder what would happen if I did something different, so I’d try all these different things, then choose which direction I was going to go in.
Now, I don’t look at as many options. I just kind of write the song and let it write itself. Usually, the part just comes to me and if I like it, it’s done. There’s not as much exploration of whether something else would work better. I go with the flow and just trust my instincts.
Is it harder to write instrumental music than songs with vocals?
I think it’s easier because I don’t really have to rely on anyone else. If I was working with a band and a vocalist, I’d be considering his vocal range, and I couldn’t really finish a tune until the vocals were recorded. So there would be more limitations.
It’s something different, and it’s certainly something I want to do. But when I’m writing an instrumental record, I can just sit down with a guitar and I have no limitations. I can just do what I want and not have to work around somebody else.
What do you listen to for enjoyment?
Believe it or not, I get in the car and I put on the oldies station! They play a lot of old Motown and stuff like that. That’s so different from what I do, but it’s what I grew up listening to, like the Beatles and Motown. No one would ever expect that. If I’m listening to a CD, it could be anything – U2, Jeff Beck, or John Coltrane. I don’t play music as much as I used to because I’m writing songs all day, and the last thing I really want to do at the end of the day is to throw on a CD. So I’ll listen to music in the car or on weekends, when I’m not working.
How frequently do you practice, and what do you work on?
In the early days, I had a routine of exercises and scales, picking techniques, and left-hand exercises. But now I just pick up the guitar, start improvising, and try to come up with some new ideas.
Once I start writing a song, I’m not really practicing at all – I’m just working on a tune. So things are way more informal now with no exercises or things like that. Most of the time, I don’t even plug in the guitar. I’ll just play acoustically, and go for it.
What tips can you offer for improving one’s dexterity?
First, get a teacher who’s a really good teacher and player, because that can help you learn quicker. You’ll learn better technique and you’ll become better faster than if you work on your own – even though there are a lot more resources available. Now you can learn things on the internet, watch videos, and of course you can still listen to records and learn from other players. But a teacher will show you all of the exercises to help get your hands stronger and develop picking technique.
What advice would you give other musicians writing instrumental guitar music?
The more time you spend doing it, the better you get. Listening to different styles of music is definitely a good thing and will help open a lot of doors. You can also study composition and theory, which can help to make you more aware of things musically and theoretically.
But the most important thing is to have fun with it and just try to just express your life through your songs. That’s going to be the most magical stuff. Even if you have limited ability, if you’re speaking from the heart and really expressing yourself, that’s going to be your best stuff.
Photo courtesy of Ernie Ball.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.