Ever since Andrés Segovia elevated the nylon-string guitar to a serious classical instrument a century ago, players have been performing the music of J.S. Bach – the gold standard of classical-guitar literature. Today, Harvey Valdes is continuing the tradition, with one huge difference – he’s using a solidbody electric. On Novare: J.S. Bach Lute Works on Electric Guitar, Valdes displays a virtuoso’s approach on a Teuffel Tesla, a steel-string that sounds full and beautiful, yet is wholly electric. What would Maestro Segovia think?
First, why Bach on electric guitar?
The electric guitar has a tremendous amount of sonic range and I’m interested in exploring contrapuntal music on it. Obviously, it’s not the instrument of choice in interpreting works from the Baroque period, but I believe playing Bach on electric guitar widens the audience for that music, and breaks down the perceptions of how it should sound.
Did you record the whole album with the Teuffel Tesla?
Yes. I believe [builder] Ulrich Teuffel had clarity and resonance in mind when he designed the Tesla; it produces a clear, articulate, and balanced sound. The Tesla has two pickups – a single-coil in the neck position and humbucker in the bridge. There is no piezo. I played everything on the neck-position single coil.
What do all the knobs and buttons do?
It has a standard Volume and Tone knob, and a pickup selector. The three buttons below the strings are noise buttons; one activates 60-cycle hum, another is a kill switch, and the last activates a small mic under the neck pickup, for controllable feedback.
Your tone is extraordinary for a plugged-in guitar. There’s a bold acoustic dimension.
I spent a lot of time thinking about tone for this music. I wanted a full-bodied and focused clean tone, with reverb for dimension. I played everything on the neck pickup because it produces a full and open sound.
The other part is the titanium saddles on the bridge. When I roll off the treble with the Tone knob, I get a warm sound, but retain a focused tone because of those saddles; it adds an acoustic presence, or shine, to the notes. I also use my right-hand nails and a bit of flesh on the string. I do daily maintenance to my nails – keep them filed, buffed, and at the right length. If they’re not maintained, my tone suffers significantly, even if things are dialed in properly on the gear side.
What kind of electronic processing are we hearing?
Essentially, I created a wet/dry/wet rig. I recorded the album in my home studio through a Fryette GP/DI 1-watt amp. The GP/DI has an analog-speaker simulation, and I sent the cab-sim signal to a channel into my DAW. I sent another signal to a Two Notes Torpedo VB-101, which is a rackmounted speaker-and-mic simulator. In that, I set up a stereo cabinet rig with two cab and microphone combinations panned hard left and right, and then sent that into my DAW. We used a Bricasti reverb, Lexicon 224 reverb, a touch of Roland Space Echo, a Highland Dynamics BG2 compressor, and Manley EQ. Finally, we bounced the mixes onto tape, which sweetened up the whole tonal spectrum.
Was there one Bach piece that was particularly difficult?
All the pieces have detail I had to contend with. For the bass notes in “Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-Flat Major, BWV 998,” I worked to keep them big and resonant, yet not to overpower everything else. I had to pay close attention to a balanced right-hand attack, so the bass never overpowered the melody. On “BWV 998 Allegro,” which is a really fast piece, I had to work on staying relaxed to play at a faster tempo and not have any notes jump out or sound louder in the phrases. Basically, the right hand dictates everything. If it’s not functioning, the music falls apart very quickly.
How do you approach dynamics, which are so important to classical guitar.
Again, there’s a bit of compression before the amp, and a little in post. I used it to fatten the tone and not squash the attack – the last thing I want is for a compressor to color the dynamics in my playing. I also do most of my practicing on a nylon-string classical because I enjoy its intimate relationship to sound production. I try to approximate that approach onto the electric guitar. Again, it all comes down to right-hand control, since that’s where the sound begins. With the Teuffel, I like to feel the guitar and amp working together as a breathable instrument.
This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.