Andy Summers

Creating Light From Dark
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Andy Summers: Mo Summers.

For Andy Summers, it would be easy to compose Police-like music – reggae rhythms, clean/chorus guitar tones, etc. But fans learned to expect the unexpected beginning with his 1982 collaboration with Robert Fripp, I Advance Masked, along with his soundtrack work on the 1986 hit film Down and Out in Beverly Hills, his 1991 jazz-fusion solo effort World Gone Strange, or the 2007 guitar duet with Ben Verdey, First You Build a Cloud.

He continues the approach with his latest solo effort, Triboluminescence. Its title, he said, “means creating light from dark, which I believe is a great metaphor for any creative act and, especially music,” and it shows how one of the most influential guitarists of the late ’70s/early ’80s is still trying new approaches.

How does Triboluminescence compare to your 2015 solo album, Metal Dog?

In a way, I think it’s an extension. It’s interesting, because I haven’t made a solo record like Metal Dog for a while; obviously, I had time on the road with the Police [in ’07-’08], I made a record in Brazil, and I put out a rock-band record. So I feel like I’m just getting back to it, and it started again with Metal Dog, which actually started as a project for a dance company in New York that didn’t quite work out. So, I re-molded those tracks into what became Metal Dog. Between discovering new areas and new sounds, trying to make everything sound fresh and new, the record went really well. It was well-reviewed, which got me fired up again. So, Triboluminescence is extending that idea, going deeper into it.

“We made Reggatta in 10 days and at that point we had a musical identity; we were full of fire and couldn’t wait to prove it.”

You describe the music as “new exotic.”

When you put out a term like that, the media goes, “Oh, we haven’t heard that one before.” So, it gets picked up. But I think it’s a fair enough description because it’s not exactly a jazz record, it’s not a jazz-fusion record, it’s not an instrumental-rock record. It goes to other interesting areas where I’m creating sounds with weird alternate tunings. On guitar, I’ve played with chopsticks and drumsticks and looped different percussion instruments, trying to create interesting, fresh guitar tones that don’t sound like any old-style stuff. I try to bend it and create a new genre with it. And I think it is exotic – it certainly has influenced my life, which has involved a phenomenal amount of travel around the world, particularly these days in China and Southeast Asia.

So, I take all these things playing into it, and that’s the way it comes out. You can dream of this, aesthetically, but you’ve got to have the ability to create it.

(LEFT) Fender Esquire. (RIGHT) Summers bought this ’61 Strat during an early Police tour of the U.S.

So it’s like you’re a sponge, soaking up what is around you as you travel?

Well, “sponge” sounds too passive. When I travel, it’s a much more active participation. I do a lot of photography, so a lot of my travel is fairly obsessive because I go with a camera and I’m observing and taking part in the culture in a very interested way. I’m not a tourist – I go into a very different mode. I think my sensibilities are informed in a different way than the average tourist, and photography gets me into it. But, music is part of it. One of my great experiences of the past couple of years was in West China, photographing this amazing orchestra that played old Chinese instruments – incredible 11th-century music that sounds sort of 21st-century avant-garde. So that’s more my participation.

Do you get noticed when you visit out-of-the-way places?

Not so much “You’re the guy from the Police!” It’s more like “You’re a white guy with blonde hair. What the hell are you doing here?” But I get it occasionally. The world, as we know, is shrinking. They have internet even in far parts of Western China. There isn’t much they haven’t seen.

(LEFT) An L-plate Fender Jaguar. (RIGHT) National Glenwood

What gear did you use on Triboluminescence?

I have a sort of magic paint box for a studio, where I have many guitars, many effects pedals, a couple sets of electronic drums, and a bunch of loopers including a Roland 505. My standard working guitar is an old Strat – I always start with that to make the tracks, then later see if I want to change it to a Les Paul, 335, a Gretsch, or whatever. Generally, when I have the overall picture of a track, I’ll get specific about the guitar, the tones, and just see if the solos are really where I want them to be. In terms of gear, most of the last two albums started from a sound – a slight quality created by whatever pedals I marry to get something interesting and idiosyncratic. I’ll find something like that and record 16, 32, or 48 bars, then play against it and see if it creates a spark. That’s basically what I do.

Summers ’79: Richard Galbraith. Summers onstage in 1979 with his fameed Telecaster Custom; here’s how it looks today (RIGHT).

Tell us a bit about the Telecaster you used in the Police.

I bought it off a kid in Los Angeles prior to the Police for like, 200 bucks. He wanted the money and I needed a guitar. I was very fortunate; I realized later that night, “This is a really great guitar. It’s magical.” And I offered to give it back, but he didn’t want it. For me, it was a life-changing instrument. I still have it, obviously – I can’t get rid of a guitar that changed everything for me and I used to record almost every single Police track. It’s a hybrid instrument, whoever had it put a Gibson humbucker in the front and an overdrive switch powered by a nine-volt battery. There was an out-of-phase switch on it, as well. So, somebody really played around, and it was an absolutely kick-ass guitar. I barely play it anymore, though.

What year is it?

I think it’s a ’61.

And what about your red Strat?

I acquired that very early on in the Police, when we were touring the States; it’s a great guitar with fantastic tone and a beautiful neck. I ended up using it more than the Telecaster. Fender remade the Telecaster (the Custom Shop Andy Summers Tribute Tele) and copies of the Strat, which I thinik is a ’63. They’re both very significant guitars for me. The reissue of the red Strat is what I play every day. It’s a wonderful guitar.

You also have an ES-5 Switchmaster…

…Because I grew up listening to great American jazz players. For some reason, I associate that guitar with Tal Farlow, who was not one of my greatest influences – he was too fast for me, and not quite as lyrical as some of the other players I preferred. But it’s very much that ’50s/overbuilt jazz guitar. It’s wonderful – large, with three pickups. I don’t even remember where I got it, but it was many years ago.

(LEFT) Summers’ Gibson Johnny Smith. (RIGHT) Gibson ES-150.

You also have a Panormo classical.

I was lucky to get that. That guitar belonged to the first guitar teacher I ever had, when I was about 12 years old. He was an old guy and he died, and many years later I went back to the hometown and found his brother. I asked, “Whatever happened to all of his instruments?” and I bought them off his brother – a beautiful 1920s English banjo and the Panormo.

Louis Panormo was one of the very early classical guitar makers. I think he was Italian, but worked in London in the 1840s. He’s fairly well-documented – his guitars are in museums.

The only thing about the Panormo, it sounded very sweet – it’s a very quiet little guitar – but of that period, my teacher carved his initials in the neck! Years later, I hooked up with this great luthier in Los Angeles who rebuilt the neck – basically restored it. So, the guitar looks really beautiful now. It’s not one I take out and play, but I connect it with that teacher so I’ve never let go of it.

(LEFT) ’55 Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster. (RIGHT) Recording King.

And you have an old Martin.

I bought that at a guitar shop in Sydney, Australia. I can’t remember the name of the shop or whether I was on tour with the Police or on my own when I heard about this shop with all these beautiful vintage guitars. The first time I went, I got all these guitars – $5,000-$6,000 each. They were high-priced, but they were genuine vintage instruments. When I went back many years later, they had Strats and Teles that were $70,000 and $80,000! Everything had changed – I was gasping at the prices. I’m trying to be anonymous and friendly, chatting and saying, “These prices are insane.” And a sales person pulled a guitar from under the desk – a beat-up old case with a Martin that was beat to s**t. So, I started playing it, and I thought to myself, “Hmmm, this is the greatest guitar I’ve ever played!” I figured, “It looks like crap, he probably doesn’t want anything for it. I’ll maybe offer up to $20,000.” I looked up, trying to act uninterested, and said, “This is kinda nice. How much?” He says, “$200,000” (laughs) I said, “What?!” He goes, “It’s a D-28 from 1945.” Obviously, I didn’t buy it, and I was kind of pissed – I really wanted that guitar.

I was involved with Martin at the time, and spoke with a person there when we got back to the States. I told him, “Man, I saw this D-28…” and he said, “We just made 10 reissues of those in our Authentic series, where we go back to the original way certain models were made including using animal glue, which makes all the difference.” Long story short, I did get a Martin D-28 Authentic.

Which amps did you use in the Police?

I started with a Twin Reverb, and eventually graduated to Marshalls. I used old Marshalls back then.

Andy Summers: Dennis Smith.

Your clean/chorus guitar sound became a trademark and was often copied by other guitarists at the time.

I created it sort of out of necessity; my mission was “We’re going to play for two hours each night as a trio,” so I wanted to have this fantastic, colored guitar sound that was different for every song. So, I used the Echoplex, then a chorus, and a few other pedals… envelope filters. As we went on, I acquired more stuff and got a Pete Cornish board. But what was driving it was to invade and push the edge of what the guitar was supposed to sound like, and make it really interesting over a show. So, it wasn’t just one straight sound all the time. I could move it around. And it was appreciated by many millions of people (laughs). Of course, it’s very tired and a bit “retro” now; I’m not very keen on it anymore. But in those days it was new, fresh, and exciting.

Is it true that your guitar part on “Every Breath You Take” was added at the last minute?

On the surface, it seemed like a simple, straightforward song – I, IV, V, backward and forward, with an interesting section where it goes to the flat 5th from A to F in the middle. But there just was no agreement on how. These were the days when things were getting a little tough, personally, and in the interaction between members of the band. We couldn’t agree on how the song was going until we had lunch one day and Sting said, “Go in there, make it your own.” And of course, I had this whole “Police guitar thing” down because we hadn’t stopped playing for years on end. So I kind of knew what to do with it; I put the arpeggios down and they all stood in the control room and looked out the window as I went in, pretty much played it in one take, and everybody applauded. That was it – “the guitar riff heard ’round the world,” and it became our first #1 in the U.S.

(LEFT) This Panormo, made in 1843, belonged to Summers’ first guitar teacher and was aquired from the teacher’s family years after his passing. (RIGHT) Summers found this Martin O-21 at a shop in Australia.

Which Police album is your favorite?

Maybe Reggatta de Blanc. Because the first album (Outlandos d’Amour) was great, but by the second one we were starting to take off. We made Reggatta in 10 days and at that point we had a musical identity; we were full of fire and couldn’t wait to prove it. It’s the one with “Message in a Bottle.” We were flying. Everything was going so well.

Is it true that much of the material for the third album, Zenyatta Mondatta was thrown together quickly?

Well, but we were supposed to have a month to make it, and we went to Holland to record. Then, in the middle of it we were told, “You’ve got to go to England now for a week, to do this giant gig at Milton Keynes Festival. It’s a big deal.” So, in the middle of the album, we stopped and went to London for a few days, did this big show, then came back to finish. But when we listened to it, we didn’t like the mixes. So, we remixed the whole album in one night, then left for tour the next morning! And that’s the album that broke us in the States.

Would you consider performing again with Sting and Stewart?

Well, I’d have to have the most money… and they’d have to beg.


This article originally appeared in VG September 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.