Neil Young’s Sound.


I’ve been listening to nothing but Neil Young for weeks now. I’ve worked my way through all of his studio albums, all of his live albums and a lot of bootleg recordings.

I’ve been thinking about Neil Young’s sound. Specifically his straight out of hell guitar sound on the likes of THIS.

Neil’s guitar is the dirtiest guitar I’ve ever heard and it comes from ‘Old Black”.


As you can see, Neil has lovingly kicked the shit out of Old Black over the years.


That’s Neil’s guitar tech Larry Cragg with Old Black showing us just how much of a beating it’s taken time and time again.

Old Black has a story all of it’s own and whilst reading about it, I found an interview with Neil Young from French magazine “Guitare & Claviers” where he discusses that sound of his. The interview is from 1992.

Q : Given the fury of your concerts, you must mistreat your guitars sometimes?
NEIL : No, I’ve never broken guitars by playing them. In fact, I’m very gentle with them. I don’t think I have to break a guitar to get a violent sound.
Q : Have you got a favourite guitar…one that you use especially for writing songs?
NEIL: Not really. Generally, I write with very cheap guitars and not very good. For example, I have a Japonese Epiphonie that I bought in New Zealand. The sound isn’t good, but it’s unique. I like to always buy second-hand guitars, because I know I’m going to write at least one or two songs with them. Because every guitar comes with its own history and the feeling of all the people who have used it before. That makes you play certain chords that you wouldn’t play normally, and pushes you towards something new. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a song out of it.
Q : You’re talking about an Epiphone acoustic, with the ornamentation ?
NEIL : Yes, it’s one of the cheapest. It’s probably lying on the floor in my bedroom right now. It looks like it’s in good shape but the action’s really bad and the neck isn’t too good. And it’s always going out of tune. But I like it. Most of the songs on American Dream were written on it. I think I also wrote Fuckin’ Up on it, too. But I also have very nice guitars, great for recording and composing. I have quite a few Martins, Gretschs — particularly White Falcons, old Explorers, Flying V s. Larry Cragg has more than I do. You should talk to him about my guitars and amps. My amps are something else.
Q : Do you use one amp in particular ?
NEIL : Well actually my amp is a sort of custom assembly. It has may different elements and controls to it. That amp has a gadget that nobody else has got. It’s unique…totally original, and I’m really happy with it. It’s called a Whizzer, and it’s on top of my Fender Deluxe Tweed, which is the backbone of my sound. The pots on my amp are motorized and linked to the Whizzer. I adjust my settings on the digital controls of the Whizzer, which sets of the motor which actually physically turns the pots, to set the position. This setting pushes a button that, once it’s set off, turns all the dials on the amp to the desired setting. I’ve got four of them, so there’s no interruption in the sound. My whole system is fairly complicated. I have an effects rack — actually not a rack, it’s a box full of effects. They’re all very old: echoplex, analog delay, Mutron octave divider, a Boss flanger that must be from 1969. I start them all from a set of metal switches — NASA quality stuff…I have some remotes to start them from a distance. I can’t use the small Boss pedals. Each time it’s the same thing: «Oh, we’re sorry» and the whole thing smashes to bits…
Q : Could you have recorded Weld with equipment from the Sixties?
NEIL : No, not without the Whizzer, because it’s the only way to have that immediate change in sound. The volume on the Deluxe goes up to 12. If you go from 12 to 10 and a half, suddenly the attack is different. At 12, the amp saturates completely and gives the sound after the attack. But at 10 and a half, the attack stays the same. So I have a button for just for that change of volume position. On a Deluxe, there’s one tone button and two for the volume. The volume for the channel you’re not using affects the channel you are using, even if you’re not plugged into it, because of the amplification stage. Being able to control the channel I’m not using or to adjust the highs here and there — that’s the sort of thing I couldn’t do without the Whizzer. It’s technology that doesn’t affect the sound, just the control of the sound.
Q : Where do you get your feedback? From the gain of the amp, or a pedal?
NEIL : The volume. There is no gain on the amp. And we don’t use distortion pedals. Just the Fender Deluxe.
Q : You use that amp in concert?
NEIL : Sure! I couldn’t play without it. It’s irreplaceable. I’ve got ten other Deluxes, but non of them sound like that one. All the old Fenders are different, because of different metal alloys, and also the cables used in them. The power isn’t exactly the same either. Back then, everything was lost, you know…The construction was always different to a certain degree. I bought mine for 50$ at Saul Bettlan’s Music in Los Angeles in 1967. I brought it home and plugged in my Gretsch. Right away, the whole place started to vibrate. The guitar vibrated as well. «Jesus», I shouted, and I had to turn down the volume to half to stop the feedback. But I do use other techniques to get feedback, like for instance using the Octave divider with the analog delay, with the delay before the divider in the chain. For that sort of combination, it’s very important to know in what order things are hooked up. What is it that works first, before being modified by something else. I have six effects, and I can use them directly, without going through the others, even if they’re not on, or I can raise the power on one and lower it on another without going through the one next to it. Or, I can use all six at once in any combination. I have them in a precise order so that each one works on the other in a certain way. That’s how I get my sound.
Q : Do you ever have someone at the soundboard start certain effects for you ?
NEIL : No way. I control everything with the footswitch, that enormous red box. I wouldn’t let anyone do it for me. He’d be dead!
Q : Do digital multi-effects interest you at all?
NEIL : I have a digital echo that I use for a special sound. When I wanted to try it at the Guitar Center in Hollywood, the salesman was showing all the sounds that you could hear on Phil Collins and Cindy Lauper records. I asked to try it for a couple of minutes ; I turned all the controls to full, except the volume, the I started to mute the chords: «Whop, whop, whop», like a huge popcorn machine popping. I love that sound, so I use it for effect. But I don’t use it for the sound it’s supposed to make.
Q : What do you look for in a guitar?
NEIL : I mostly buy guitars as a souvenir to remember somewhere I’ve been. If I’m happy somewhere, I’ll try a used guitar in a corner, and that guitar will always remind me of the place I bought it. The sound of the instrument reflects my personal sound at that time. I’ve written lots on a Martin D-18 that I love, and that I stole from Elliot Roberts office. Every time I use it, I’m instantly back in Elliot’s office. But I buy them for other reasons. I might buy them because they are classics, standards. I collect guitars, so I’ll buy an Explorer or a Flying V, or a Black Falcon or a White Falcon just for what they are. But now I have them, so I don’t feel the need to have any more. Material things mean less and less to me, so I really consider myself a collector.
Q : Do you have one guitar that is so rare you don’t even dare play it?
NEIL : No, I don’t ever have that sort of reaction. I have a guitar that Hank Williams owned, but I use it all the time. It’s an old Martin D-28 and I bought it from Tut Taylor. Its always great to realize the history that you are holding in your hands…to understand the importance and the influence of Hank Williams for all of us. People are almost scared to be in the presence of something he could have touched…almost to the point where they think that just touching the instrument will elevate them to another plane. It’s wonderful to have that guitar for those reasons. Most of the people who should have used that guitar have used it. I’m very careful with it, but I use it constantly. It’s not on some museum wall.
Q : Do you still have the guitars you used with the Buffalo Springfield?
NEIL : Sure, I have all the guitars I’ve ever used, except those I traded with Stills. I also have a Gretsch that belonged to Jim Messina and that looks like the one I had during the Springfield era.
Q : Are you a Fender fan?
NEIL : I have a Broadcaster, a Telecaster, an Esquire and a few Strats, but I rarely use them.
Q : Apparently part of your unique sound comes from using a certain pick-up…
NEIL : In fact, it’s a Firebird pick-up that I used on my black Les Paul, as a treble pick-up. But during the time of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere I didn’t have that pick-up and I had an interference in my treble pick-up (Neil Young uses only P-90 s on his Les Paul, which are simple wound pick-ups). I took it to the store to see what they could do, and when I got back, the store had closed and moved. I never got my pick-up back. After I lost it, I think I tried two or three replacement pick-ups. But the Firebird I’ve had since 1973.
Q : In this high-tech era, why would you want to to use a Bigsby vibrato?
NEIL : It works. It’s expressive. The vibratos they make nowadays aren’t expressive. They’re too hard, too rigid. You can go down to the low notes back up to the highs as fast as you can doing metal bends, and you always stay in tune. Fantastic! Stay in tune! Brilliant! You were in tune before…it makes no sense to stay in tune! I go out of tune in every song, because my vibrato won’t stay in tune. But when you don’t stop playing and play around the melody, you never know whether you’re in tune or not. The control is in the fingers. And if you use an echoplex, and use the Bigsby very carefully, the tone rises and falls, but reproduces very faithfully what you play. It’s as if you had two guitars that had not only two different attacks, but also different sustains. It’s a huge sound. My Bigsby is practically attached to my right hand, and it couldn’t be otherwise.
Q : The NME recently called you the «Grandfather of Gargantuan Feedback.»
NEIL : (Laughs) I don’t know what to say to that…
Q : One of the Ragged Glory videos shows you sticking your Les Paul in a toilet bowl to get feedback…
NEIL : Oh, that’s just Hollywood shit. None of that’s real, but the toilet schtick was nice. It’s the perfect visual expression of my sound. I want everybody to know that that’s how I view my sound.
Q : Everybody knows the story of Jimmy Page recording his guitar in the bathroom, with the mike several metres away. Are you interested in that sort of experimentation?
NEIL : Sure. I’d try anything. That story is a good idea, if it’s a good bathroom with good tiling. He must like that sound, very live. A big sound, that’s for sure.
Q : Of all the guitarists that came out in the Sixties, it seems you’re the only one capable of playing in a real trash style.
NEIL : Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I think I’ve gone as far as I could in that style, even when you look at what I’m doing right now. I don’t know if I still have any reason to keep on in that direction.
Q : It’s a real punk attitude…
NEIL : No, it’s just rock and roll. But real rock and roll. In fact, punk and rock are one and the same. What has degraded what we now call «rock and roll» is not rock in itself, but rather « pop». Commercial product. It’s an imitation, a pale ressemblance of what it once was. It’s Perry Como compared to real rock. You remember how it started? There was real rock, then that other music that everyone listened to. Today, our parents listen to rock. It’s over. Even if I’m a parent, OK. But that’s how it is.
Q : What are the groups these days that you would classify as rock and roll?
NEIL : It’s obvious that I like Sonic Youth. In my book, they really do modern rock. They make magnificent music. You know that one, Expressway to Your Skull? It’s incredibly good, so beautiful. It’s a classic. Superb melody, and even better live. They have quite a few that are that good. So that’s one great group. U2 is a good rock group. I haven’t heard their latest album, but the others really rock. You’d almost think they had been recording in their home.
Q : If you could time-travel to meet the musician of your dreams, who would you choose?
NEIL : (long silence) Hound Dog Taylor. I’d would have loved to have met him. Also Leadbelly and Robert Johnson. And I also would have loved meeting Chopin and Beethoven. All in the same room.
Q : Of all the guitarists you know, who has made the biggest impression on you?
NEIL: Bert Jansch (Pentangle guitarist) is the best acoustic guitarist ; he’s my favourite anyway. For electric guitar, I’d say Jimi Hendrix.
Q : Have you met Jimi?
NEIL : A long time ago. Nothing really memorable, but I ran into him a number of times. Stills knew him better than I did.
Q : In your opinion, why is he still considered the best?
NEIL : He was excellent. He was one with his instrument. At that time, no one had pushed the electric guitar so far, and that goes for today, too. He was over everybody. Totally gone. So fluid, using the feedback to create such beautiful things. For a guitar fan like me, it was a revelation. But as for acoustic guitar, Bert Jansch is on the same level as Jimi. That first record of his is epic. It came from England, and I was especially taken by The Needle of Death, such a beautiful and angry song. That guy was so good… And years later, on On the Beach, I wrote the melody of Ambulance Blues by styling the guitar part completely on Needle of Death. I wasn’t even aware of it, and someone else drew my attention to it. I’d met him in England in the early 70s, with Pentangle, but I this huge limousine and all that shit and they had a strange attitude with me, considering me as one of those bonehead superstars.
Q : You’ve often described your method of working live in the studio as the work of a photographer rather than that of a painter.
NEIL : That’s how I’ve worked for years. Very quickly. I leave it to other people to take the songs and make records out of them. As far as I’m concerned, I just want to sing my tunes, play them, record them as faithfully as possible, then move on to something else.
Q : Were some of your rock song written on acoustic guitar?
NEIL : Out of the Blue was written in my living room on an acoustic guitar.
Q : What inspired that?
NEIL : I don’t remember now. Elvis had just died an I was thinking about that. But I was a year late. That’s one reason. Then there was Johnny Rotten.
Q : Did you meet any punk groups, at the end of the 70s?
NEIL : Never. I heard about them, and I saw them on TV and could see the effect they had on people.
Q : What do you think about those who go to school to learn how to play guitar?
NEIL : It would give you a rather sad view of your future, wouldn’t it? First off, nobody cares if you know how to play scales. Nobody gives a shit if you have good technique or not. It’s whether you have feelings that you want to express with music, that’s what counts, really. When you are able to express yourself and feel good, then you know why you’re playing. The technical aspect is absolute hogwash as far as I’m concerned. It bores me to tears. I can’t play fast. I don’t even know my scales. I know that most of the notes I play aren’t where I play them. They’re simply not there. So you can play any note you like. I think about it on another level, I don’t care about that sort of shit. On the other hand, I appreciate really great guitarists, and I’m very impressed by those metal groups with their scale guitarists. When I see that, I go «Holy shit, that’s really something». Satriani and Eddie Van Halen are guitar geniuses. They are incredible musicians, at an amazing level. But it does’t really grab me. One note will do.
Q : Like Cinnamon Girl, that one-note solo.
NEIL : That’s right: two chords. The same note on two chords. The vibrato makes each note sound different. People say it’s a «one-note solo», but in my mind, every one of those notes is different. The further you go into it, the more you can hear the differences.
Q : The Weld version is very close to the original.
NEIL : That’s true. We try to play it the best we can, with that part of Norwegian Wood on the end.
Q : What do you try to get in a solo?
NEIL : Transcendance. It’s a feel. That’s what I hope to get to. And you can blame me for not caring about off-notes, but in my solos, I listen to the whole group. You call that a solo, but for me it’s an instrumental. The whole group takes part. Billy Talbot is an excellent bassist, yet he only plays two or three notes. People always asks if he plays like that because those are the only notes he knows, or the only ones he feels like playing. (laughs). But when he lets go a note, it speaks to you. It’s a fucking huge note. Even the soft notes sound enormous.
Q : How would you define Frank Sampedro’s playing.
NEIL : Frank uses the biggest guitar strings I’ve ever seen a guitarist use. He’s probably the most violent guitar player I know — much more than I am, because he doesn’t really do solos. His strings are so huge! 012 to 055, with a wound G string! When he plays a note, it’s like a hurricane! In the midst of all that, I play and I don’t really know where I’m going. Without them, my sound would be ordinary. The biggest part of it is theirs.
Q : Is the art of jamming in danger of extinction?
NEIL : I don’t know, I haven’t seen a lot of jams recently (laughter).
Q : What happens when you go to concerts? Most of the time it sounds like the record.
NEIL : I know. It’s disgusting. Welcome to the 90s!
Q : You’ve said a jam is like an orgasm.
NEIL : Sure! That’s why my instrumentals are so short! (Hilarious laughter).
Q : Do you think your playing has reached a new level?
NEIL : I think I’ve reached a new level with Weld and Arc.
Q : Arc is a rather daring disc.
NEIL : I don’t think so. It’s a logical extension of today’s rock. Feedback has always been a part of it. There’s always been a lot of temptation to go in that direction. It’s like jazz. It’s like the jazz in rock, without the rythm.
Q : Like feedback John Coltrane ?
NEIL : Yes, possibly. Coltrane has had a big influence on me. I love some of his things. Equinox and My Favourite Things, with McCoy Tyner, are my favourites.
Q : What are the records you couldn’t live without?
NEIL : I hardly listen to albums. I just listen to what people make me listen to, because I can’t make that kind of decision. I hear what goes on on the radio in my car or on the jukebox. But I always like to hear BB King, Ray Charles and old country stuff.
Q : What do you think you owe to your fans?
NEIL : My life. Without my fans, who would I play music to? For myself? Talk about lonely…I owe a lot to my fans, but all I can offer them is a new disc, if they like it.
Q : What are your future plans?
NEIL : An album with the Stray Gators, the group that played with me on Harvest. Playing with different groups lets me continue to move forward. It forces me to adapt to all situation. I don’t try to get used to just one group, it’s not good for the music.
Q : What advice would you give a guitarist just starting out?
NEIL : Start playing, learn a few chords and play with somebody a little bit better than yourself. Don’t try to learn from books anything you don’t already know. Music is learning directly from others. Takes certain riffs from here and there and use them to write songs and to discover new sounds and new chord progressions. Create. But even if the results sound shitty, keep creating. Soon, it’ll be great.