Having weathered fame and changing musical trends, guitarist Ian Crichton has carved an indelible niche as the guitarist in Saga, the Canadian progressive-rock group that has spent four decades recording and touring. Their latest album, Symmetry, is an acoustic recording with reimagined classics and potent new material.
Crichton plays with passion and effortless authority, and Saga is a big part of his ongoing musical odyssey.
How did Symmetry become an acoustic record?
It started in 2017, when we did our last tour with my brother, Jim. He took a sidestep, so we had another bass player for a couple of years, but during the tour that fall, we opened for ourselves acoustically. We’d had this idea for a while; Jim and I had been working on arrangements to do live and it went down really well. In 2018, we took a hiatus. When Covid hit, it kickstarted getting this project finished.
Using acoustic instruments adds a new dimension to your older songs.
I’ve always wanted to play banjo (laughs), and I played a bit on The Beginner’s Guide to Throwing Shapes. I’ve been toying with it ever since, and I like it – it’s an easy instrument to bring out. I tracked “Always There” with banjo and acoustic guitar. We also re-wrote the ending to “Wind Him Up” just to make things a little different.
Which guitar are you using on “Prelude #2?”
That’s a Takamine nylon string guitar. Recording acoustic guitars was my biggest experiment. I used a Focusrite interface with a microphone and a line-in. I plugged in direct and played around with mics and positions. I just had the two sounds; then I mixed it. The direct sound was always the winner. The miked track was good for giving it a little ambiance and size without using different EQs.
Are you still playing Music Man guitars?
I am, and I’m also using Lado guitars; I’ve had Lados 30 years. I’m endorsed by Diezel Amplification and play the 180-watt Herbert. I also have a 100-watt Soldano I got from Mike Soldano in 1986. Those are my two main amps and I use them with 4×12 Marshall cabs with Vintage 30 Celestions. I use an old Shure 57 and 58s to mic it, plus I go direct.
Are you a fan of effects pedals?
I’m using this little tube preamp called the BluGuitar Amp 1, made in Germany by Thomas Blug. It has clean and dirty sounds and I can throw it in my carry-on, which is great because playing through a backline is a crapshoot. The Amp 1 gives me consistency.
What did you use in the early years?
I was using a Roland Jazz Chorus for my clean sound. I had an A/B box on the floor going into the Soldano, then back to the Roland. I like a little chorus on my clean tone. I’m pretty much a plug-in-and-play guy – straight into the amp. There are a couple moments where I use delay, but I let the guy out front do it because it has to be in time.
Saga explores concepts related to classical music and sci-fi. Is that a source of inspiration for you?
It’s all about mood. Sometimes there’s nothing there. Other days it’s like, “Wow, this is all happening!” My writing starts with the guitar, and goes from there. I find something cool, melodic, something I like, and build a song around that. For a Saga song, I have the help of four guys who know their stuff really well and make it sound like Saga – Mike Sadler’s vocals and Jim’s arranging play a big part. We’re a real band (laughs).
Your fan base is incredibly loyal.
Yeah, our fans are great. They’ve stuck by us all these years.
Looking back, Saga has had a pretty great run.
I was 20 years old on the first record; when we started taking off, I was 22 or 23. Even though you’re working really hard, at that age you take for granted all of the great things that are happening. I think about that stuff now and think, “Oh, brother (laughs)!” We were on the road for two years with Worlds Apart. I got married and a week later left for three months. We were always on the road. MTV was all over us, and it made us pretty famous.
This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.