A Normal Life
By John Stix
Sometime after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and before the great collapse of last year's World Series, Boston was discovered by Tom Scholz. Here's how it happened.
"‘Rock 'n' Roll Band,' was written because Jim (Masdea), always the hopeless dreamer, was playing in bands in Hyannis, like it says in the song," Tom said. "He was always saying how so and so was going to come to see them. I had heard it so many times before. All these kids playing in bars thought some record guy was going to come in and discover them. You're a rock 'n' roll band and it's something special. That's what you like to think about when you're playing in a bar. I finally thought, I'm going to write a song about everybody who dreams about that. It's what I dreamed about. But that's not what happened with Boston.
"Here is the true story. I did a lot of demo work starting in about 1969.1 worked for about a year and bought a twelve track tape deck with my savings. I had to keep working full time through the whole thing to make the money to cover all the expenses. On some of the earlier demos there were other people involved. Barry Goudreau played on some of them. Epic became interested on the basis of six demo songs. Jim helped with the drum arrangements and playing the drums, Brad (Delp) did all the vocals and I did the instruments. That was it. All six of those songs eventually appeared on record.
"Those demos were started in 1974 and completed in 1975. The actual demos were not cut on the vinyl. There was a big back and forth thing about whether we should use the demos themselves and do some touch up work and re-mix or should we start over. I had to actually re-record exact copies of them. The demos weren't good enough because the drum sound wasn't good enough. In some places the meter wasn't very good. We had to record between the hours of 12 midnight and 8 a.m. because I was working full time at Polaroid. Brad worked full time. Jim played in bands either up north or down south. So we would record on days where he had to play afternoon sets. He would pack up his drums and drive two hours to the studio, meet me in the middle of the night, unpack his drums, set up; we'd mike him, get our sound, he'd play the part as best he could at 4 a.m., tear everything down, pack the drums back in the car, drive back down to the Cape and try to get a few hours sleep before his next show. He had to set his drums up again that night to play on stage. I had to get back in time to go to work. And this is what we did for one year.
"This was my last big shot at it. I was about 29 at the time and I had already lost a fortune. I lived in a rented apartment and I hadn't gotten anything that even amounted to a solid nibble on anything I had done up to that point. So when I bought that tape deck I knew it was a long shot and I was going to try it. I was making the ultimate commitment. I spent five years getting a degree so I could get the job. I got the job and used all that money to go for this. I spent every dime that I had saved for five or six years working at a professional level. If nothing happened with those demos, that was going to be it. I was going to cool it and go back to trying to live a normal life."
Twelve years and three multi-platinum albums and one Scholz Research & Development Co. later, we sat down with Tom Scholz to talk about his normal life as consummate inventor and musician.
On the first Boston album you wail on the organ as well as the guitar.
I was an organ player before I was a guitar player. I started on piano and then went to organ. I became a guitar player because I couldn't stand the guitar players in the bands I was in. I didn't like the way they played so I decided to give it a try myself.
Did you go through an imitation/innovation stage?
That's the only way you can learn how to play any instrument to start with. You can't invent a new thing on an instrument until you've at least mastered some of the basics. I listened to most of the Yardbird descendants, Jimmy Page, Beck and Clapton, plus Joe Walsh, and I have to put Todd Rundgren in there because he was really the guy who gave me the idea of getting involved with harmony guitar playing and playing melodies on guitar. "I Saw the Light" is a great example of what I mean. Those are pretty much the guys that got me interested. Iron Butterfly were pretty good when they first came out. If I listened to them now I wouldn't think so.
Did you have a rock'n'roll dream of playing in the arenas?
I always imagined myself on stage at a local club. That's all I had in mind. I wasn't planning on being on those eight-foot stages. I wanted to play because I liked the instrument. I liked the sound of it. But I found it very difficult to play. I still do. It's very hard. I have to practice constantly if I'm going to record a part. For live performing I have to start months in advance trying to get my chops up. It's miserable. If I don't play the thing every few days for a good while, I just go downhill. It's such a physical thing for me. It takes me 30 minutes to warm up to the point where I can do anything that I would like to be able to do. So I can't just pick it up and play things and find it enjoyable because I have this limitation with my left hand. It's very different from keyboards where I can sit down and entertain myself endlessly because it doesn't seem to go away. I don't practice the organ at all. Not even once during the year. It's never been a problem for me to play it to the degree that I'm happy with. With the guitar it's not enough just to play the songs like being on stage. That doesn't do it. I have to be able to work on things outside of the group. I try to develop things that I would like to be able to do, moves that I have trouble with. I work on those to try and smooth them out, get them faster or cleaner. I try to find new things. I'll come up with ideas that I can't quite hack and I work on those.
Do you record yourself when you practice?
I never used tape for trying to develop some lick I might use here or there. When I'm practicing I know the kinds of things that I get traditionally weak on right away, like trills and playing in certain parts of the neck. I'll start with that just to get loosened up. There have been lots of things where I'm working on a lead and I try to stay away from doing the standard things. Often times I play more of a melody part. Sometimes things will come up that I've never heard. Somebody else has probably done them but I will pick those up afterwards and add them to my repertoire.
You seem to have mastered string bending.
I got interested in better controlling pitch changes with bending once I started trying to put things down on tape. I realized how important it was to the feel. It took a long time to develop the ablity to put vibrato on at the speed and intensity you wanted it. Of course, at the upper and lower part of the neck it's a completely different physical motion. That took a lot of conscious effort.
Did you have a role model?
Lots of them. Most guitar players, back when I was listening, had one way they put vibrato on notes. Every note ended the same way if they used it. I liked someone 5 in one place and somebody else's method in another. I wanted to be able to learn how to do it all different ways. There was a guy named Randy California that people told me used to give a little demonstration in the middle of the concert about how well he could play a funky lick, then a blues lick and so on. He had excellent control of the vibrato. I decided I wanted to learn how to do that. The vibrato has to fit in the spot in the song. It has to sit on the note. If you pick out a solo on Third Stage there would be places where there would be several different kinds. I do it strictly by feel. There are no rules.
You have mentioned that everything you did before the first Boston album didn't help much.
I meant that all of the playing in public I did was no help. It was no help because it didn't help generate any music. It was only playing or covering tunes or performing tunes that I had written or arranged. But nothing evolved from it, no improvement in my playing. It amounted to nothing. The recording efforts were helpful from day one. Anything I know about music either came from listening to other people many years ago or from learning in the studio.
Was your guitar style on the first album at the club level or did it too evolve totally in the studio?
It was in the studio. I was a struggling guitar player for a long time, trying to get to the point where I could play my songs. I listen to the first album now and I can see that it was right at the edge of my talent level. I could just barely do those parts. Now I think that would be so easy, how could that be hard for me? I was still struggling to get my competency on the instrument at that time.
So while a dancer works with a mirror to develop his or her talent, you worked with the studio in the same way?
That's exactly what it is. There is nothing that is more honest than putting something on tape, especially if there is not much else on the tape besides your instrument. Playing it back you get a good feel for how bad you do things. You also pick up when you do something good and you can remember it.
How much time did you put in on the bass?
I learned to play bass by listening to Ron Wood on the Truth album and a little bit from the James Gang. That's about it. With the bass I didn't feel that I learned a lot. I paid attention a little bit when I heard people playing good blues. I think I rehearsed with the bass, never having played it before, for a couple of months before I tried doing it the first time in the studio. I was reasonably happy with what I had in the studio. Going from there I never really did spend time trying to learn the instrument.
Do you have a special bass you like to use?
I have a Gibson EBO with the whole middle part of it milled out where the pickups would normally go. It has a Fender Jazz pickup mounted on it. It's a very unusual bass and nobody else can play it except me. In fact bass players have picked it up and gone ugh, you play this?
What guitars and amps did you use on the first record?
I used a Les Paul Goldtop. I used Marshall or Ampeg amps. I forget the number but it was the 100 watt Ampeg, not the SVT. There was a Power Soak on it pulled way down. I recorded at a very low level. There were EQ's in front of the amp and extensively after the amp, with a mike on the speaker, which was a standard Celestion. I put the mike right on the speaker. If you use a 4x12 cabinet you can get wildly different guitar sounds if you move the mike around even three or four feet away. But you can't repeat them, so if you want to do something that you want to change later, those sounds are gone. I tried it and even took coordinates on the mike locations. I couldn't put them close enough to duplicate the sound again. Actually I had trouble duplicating the sound when I had a mike right on the speaker. I think the speakers change with humidity and temperature. The amps reacted differently with different main voltage. By the time I got to the point of replacing that whole mess with the Rock-man, I had to have voltage regulators on the amps that held them at precisely a certain voltage. There was this accumulation of equipment for processing the sound that was distorted before it got to the amp and then it was clipped again.
You've always had this wonderful distortion which doesn't grate on the ears. It's distortion you could bring to church.
That's what I was trying for. It took a lot of experimentation originally and a lot more experimentation to learn how to control it.
Your rhythm sound is distorted and your lead sound is clean which is quite the opposite from a lot of bands.
I like to have a lot of high distortion harmonics in the rhythm sound. There is a lead style where you can use that exact setup and make it sound dirtier. A lot of it was everything that's in the Rockman. It's a matter of equalizing in front of the distortion stage and how hard you drive the distortion stage and what you filter afterwards. It's a complicated thing.
How exacting were you with your sound before you started playing around in the studio?
I was always trying to get a decent sound. It took a long time to figure out what that required. When I was younger I thought it required a better amplifier and a better guitar. I eventually got the better guitar and better amplifier and still sounded awful. Then I realized that you couldn't buy good sound by buying a Les Paul and a Marshall. I take that back. You can buy good sound. You certainly don't get a record quality sound. It took a long, long time. I ended up with lots of funny pieces of equipment to get the sound that's on the first record.
Is there a story behind your famous Goldtop?
I have two. I bought them used. The new ones were a little too expensive for me. It was very hard for me to play. I discovered later that it was a particular year that had a very thick neck. Apparently they only made that model one year. I thought I had the same guitar that everyone else had. When I got the deal with Epic I thought I better get a second guitar because we were going on the road and I needed a backup in case I broke a string. I hopped down to my local used guitar dealer and found another Goldtop for about $300 or so. By absolutely dumb luck, it looked the same as my original, with the same neck. I had two of them and now I was sure I had the exact same Les Paul as everyone else in the world. It wasn't until a couple of years later when I needed to pick up a third guitar that I realized I may have the only two in the world! There are others but I haven't found one since that had the same neck and sounded the same. The two I have sound pretty much the same. It came with two high-impedance soap-bar pickups. I don't know when they started with the humbuckers but the ones I bought had the single coils. You couldn't stick with those single coil pickups on stage. It sounded real good but was absolutely unusable in most situations. I had to use DiMarzio pickups.
Do you have a special acoustic guitar?
I have a Guild D-25 that I like a lot. I also use the same Guild body in a 12 string version which I think is the best sounding 12 string I've ever heard. I record it with a 414 AKG mike and compress it heavily. It's very important where the mike is located relative to the F hole. It makes all the difference in the world.
Since you are obviously someone who loves tinkering and inventing, I find it curious that with all the advances in recording you haven't hopped onto the digital bandwagon?
To tell you the truth, I just don't want to have to bother learning about them. Learning how to use a piece of equipment to its potential is what makes the difference between a real good engineer and producer and a guy who is not real good. You have to understand every little nuance about the device and what it can do and what you can do with it. You start with something new and you're no better than some guy who walks into a store and buys one. You may know all about music and sound but it's like the difference between somebody who flies a single engine Cessna and somebody who flies a 747. The Cessna pilot is not going to do a good job of landing the 747. There's a lot to know about it It's the same thing in sound equipment.
It was amazing that even the first time around you were able to get a great rock feel working by yourself.
I didn't think it was possible with a band. I couldn't understand how other people could make records with a band. I never had any luck trying to get somebody to play giving them a chord progression and saying, 'I think the bass line could go like this.' They just wouldn't do it how I thought it should go. The only difference between playing bit by bit with a tape deck versus playing with some other people in a band, is that it takes longer with a tape deck. If you play each one of the parts the way you think it's going to go, it's an iterative process. You go and put the lead on and you realize you have the wrong chord in the middle of the solo. So you have to go back and change the chord on the rhythm guitar part, then the bass part doesn't work. You change the bass part and then that doesn't fit with the chorus that comes after it. It's a big puzzle. If you did that with other people you would have to listen while you were playing. Then you'd have to stop and say, okay, you play this. But I wouldn't know what to tell them to play. I'd have to pick up the bass. I'd have to try playing to it to find Out what to play. That was always the problem. I knew I could find the parts I wanted and I wasn't having much luck with anybody else finding them. The only exception to that was that Barry Goudreau came up with a couple of leads that were pretty good in some things. He did the leads to "Long Time" and "Used to Bad News." He also came up with the opening and closing solos in "Don't Look Back." He played a little slide on there too. He did some good stuff. That was a help. That was the nice thing about his involvement, especially when you're getting down to the end of the project and you only have so much gas left. "Don't Look Back" was the last song recorded for that album. But that is one thing you don't get from a tape deck. You get no ideas. I got ideas from Jim and Brad, who also came up with some real helpful things.
You are so meticulous when it comes to records, how can you stand the compromise of the stage?
With the first shows, especially, I said 'Thank goodness we played arenas.' The reverberation time is about 10 seconds and it's tough to take it out. This time I'm determined to do a first rate job on the production end of it. Anything that we got that was really good on the record I want to achieve that live.
Aside from the sound, how did it feel to go out with Boston the first time and suddenly find yourself in big stadiums where you are compared to well seasoned touring groups like Eric Clapton? Did you feel confident in your playing on the first Boston tour?
I felt confident to play the songs on the records and do some lead work outside of that. I didn't feel like Eric Clapton or anybody else that was a prominent, well-known guitar player. I used to be concerned about the fact that I'm not a fast guitar player. It took me years to get to the point where I stopped worrying about it because if I was a fast guitar player it would buy me absolutely nothing for the music I do. I'm just fast enough to do the licks that I want to be able to do. Where would I put that fast kind of playing on my record?
In the past you've expressed many regrets about the second album. Is there anything good you can say about Don't Look Back?
It's got my favorite song, which is "The Journey." On all three albums that's still my favorite cut. I wish it was longer, because it's over so fast. It took me about three days to do that. I spent six months working on a single piece and that took three days. I just love the feeling it gives me and it just fell together. It came out just the way I wanted it. If I listen to that song I'm floating through space, cruising in an airplane over the clouds. If I'm having trouble going to sleep at night I think about that song. It puts me in a state of mind that I really like.
Do you feel the second album is unfinished business that you want to finish or would you just let it lie as is?
It's not something that bothers me night and day. I like side one and where it went The performances were the best I was capable of at the time. I wasn't happy with the overall sound which was primarily a mastering problem. There was no mastering. It was almost to the point where the tape was hauled oft and printed onto the plastic and that was it. There was no listening at all. Compare that to Third Stage where it was mastered four or five times and it changed after it was mastered. The second million sound different from the first. And the CD is different from the disc. I don't think you'd be able to hear it unless I showed you what to listen for. I'll keep that a secret.
You said you were at the edge of your abilities for the first album. Did you feel the same with Third Stage?
I felt confident. Even though I had very little opportunity to rehearse or practice on the guitar, especially during the later years of that project. I was extremely rusty and I'm extremely rusty right now. I was rusty while I was doing a lot of those parts and I still didn't feel like it was difficult, so I feel very comfortable with it. I don't think I'm going to have any problem with that. The hardest thing about Third Stage live is the enormous number of different sound changes. That was all done primarily with one guitar. But there are enormous differences in the way it sounds from track to track and even from chorus to verse. Also there's lots of acoustic work and piano keyboard work. That will be the hard thing for us to do.
Were you as meticulous on the first album as you were on Third Stage?
I pushed myself as hard. At that point I didn't know nearly as much about making the record or music in general. Certainly the Rockman helped a lot.
Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted to develop?
There were lots of things that were ideas. Some were patented, some weren't. Some were attempted and we got to the drawmg or even hardware stages. The Rockman is one which went well. It was first envisioned as a device that you could use to write songs with, that would give you a real good guitar sound with all of the production qualities that you would get in a studio situation. That went so well and was so close to the guitar sound I wanted for recording that I decided to go a few steps further with it. A year or so later I came up with the Rockman X-100 which I used for better than half of the Third Stage album. That little pocket amplifier went straight into the board. I used one of those ten band equalizers in front of it for changing sounds. The first song that I did that totally with the Rockman was "Can't Cha Say." That was done with an older model. The X-100 was used on all the songs on side two. "To Be a Man" is a good example because the guitars stick out by themselves. That was what I was after. In "The Launch," the electric piano that hammers away and keeps the time was played through the very first model one prototype Rock-man using the clean sound.
The first ad for the Rockman had a lot of famous players endorsing it. You had players like Neal Schon, Steve Morse, Joe Walsh and Santana on there. Did they give you good input?
The input we got was that they really liked it. That encouraged me. That's when we decided to refine it and improve it and make it into something more than it was ever intended for. The fact that it was embraced by all these people made me realize that I was close to something. These guys all know great guitar sounds. That's when I really went to work and produced what finally evolved into the professional modular series. You had the same Rockman sounds but with the whole gamut from clean to just a little bit dirt to totally raunched out and with all the adjustments you need.
What speakers did you use for your cabinets?
For the stage monitors we use the standard Celestions 75 watt speakers because they don't blow out and you can get them anyplace. The power amp is a plain old typical power amp. Our end of it is in turning the guitar signal into that sound before it gets to the amplification stage. That's the only way you can do it and have total control. That's what lets us have a device on there that enables you to go from a clean sound to a distorted sound without ever touching a button, but by turning the volume up and down on your guitar. You can put it in stereo or mono or change the mix. You can only do that stuff if you have all your distortion stage prior to your power amp stage.
As I understand it, SR&D will be putting out new products like the Octopus and the Sustainor which were developed to get the sounds you needed for putting Third Stage on the road. Are you still in on the designing aspects of these new devices?
I'm always in the thick of it. We're just getting done with some major revisions on the Sustainor. It won't be out for a while but it will eventually provide an even better clean sustain sound and an even better lead sound. I'm always working on those things.
Is completing a Rock Module as big a high as completing a record?
Better and a lot less hassle. There's something about doing something like that that nobody else does. Lots of people make music. Nobody else recorded Third Stage, but there is something intrinsically exciting to me about developing these products. That's what the guys feel who are on the design team. They are all musicians too.
In hindsight, if you were happier with the second album, do you suppose you might not have come out with the SR&D products like the Rockman?
That's right. I wanted to avoid all the things that happened with that record. I didn't want to be a writer who was writing as a job ever again, because I can't do that and make good music. So I started the company. I'm sure it was in the back of my mind as I worked on this last album too. There was no way I was going to compromise that baby. Once I got "Amanda" down on tape that was all I needed. I liked the way it came out and I was determined I was going to do the rest of the album to its maximum potential. It wasn't going to get shortchanged.