The Rock Man
A Revealing interview with Tom Scholz, guitarist and mastermind behind BOSTON's classic-rock brilliance.
By Andy Aledort
"I had been working on some new jumps, fooling around in the middle of the rink and trying a maneuver called a 'scratch spin,' which I find very difficult. Suddenly, Whammo!, I fell, completely obliterating my left arm."
Tom Scholz, founding father and resident genius of Boston, is no stranger to taking chances. Most of the time he confines his risk-taking to the relatively safe environment of writing and recording music and designing revolutionary pieces of guitar-related recording gear, like the Rockman. But he is now talking about ice jumping, his latest passionate endeavor.
"It happened this past Fall, and it was a nasty, nasty crash," he says with a chuckle. "The larger forearm bone shattered into several pieces right at my wrist, and they had to operate, leaving me with this horrible, Frankenstein-like cast, with giant bolts sticking out of my arm. Now I wear protective gear over the forearm when I skate, because I couldn't support my weight with my left arm if I were to fall. Another big negative is that I am forbidden to play basketball with other players. But I can still jam."
As in, jam with other musicians? "No--jam a basketball," he laughs. "Playing the guitar hurts like hell! Excruciatingly, utterly painful. But I suffered no nerve damage, and my fingers all work fine. Once I get warmed up, it always starts to feel better."
As any true Boston fan knows, Scholz rules on the keyboards as well. Has the injury hampered his piano playing? "The only time it bothers me is when I play Rachmaninoff's 'Prelude in C# Minor,'" he says slyly, "because it has a lot of 'cross-handed' stuff in it. Other than that, I'm all right.
"The most important thing to remember," Scholz continues, "is that no matter how screwed up your wrist is, it really doesn't affect your ice skating."
Tom Scholz's irreverent attitude has served him well all his life. Born in Toledo, Ohio, on March 10, 1947, Scholz began playing music at the age of eight, studying piano and organ. His interest in rock music took hold when he picked up the electric bass as a teen and, inspired by Sixties rock guitar heroes Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page ("anyone who played with the Yardbirds," he likes to say), he dove headlong into the guitar.
Ever the realist, Scholz matched his devotion to playing guitar and writing songs with equal devotion to mechanical engineering, earning a master's degree from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the early and middle Seventies, by day, Scholz was a senior product designer for Polaroid. By night, he worked endless hours on committing to tape what would soon be known as "the Boston sound."
Boston, the band's debut, is the largest-selling debut in the history of popular music, with sales exceeding 16 million in the U.S. alone. But, hampered by litigation and record company wrangling, the band has released a mere four albums during its 20-year-plus career.
Now, with the recent release of Boston's first-ever greatest hits package, a 16-track collection that contains three new recordings ("Higher Power," "Tell Me" and "The Star Spangled Banner") along with perennial Boston favorites "More Than a Feeling," "Peace of Mind," "Rock & Roll Band" and scads more, Boston is hitting the arena circuit again this summer. The lineup consists of original Boston vocalist Brad Delp, guitarist Gary Pihl, vocalist/guitarist Fran Cosmo, bassist Davis Sikes and drummer Curly Smith. We sat down with Scholz as he gave us a guided tour through the intricate history of the rock and roll hamlet within which he resides.
MAXIMUM GUITAR: One of the new tunes on Greatest Hits is your version of "The Star Spangled Banner." What's the story behind that track?
TOM SCHOLZ: That's actually one of my favorite cuts. I recorded that tune in 24 hours the day before the 4th of July, starting early one afternoon, around noon. I wanted to create a rock and roll version of the song, because I never liked the song at all. I figured that there had to be a way to arrange and record it so that I would like it, so I set out to do that. It was going well, so I worked all night long, and the next morning, as the sun was coming up, I put the last few lead parts down. I finished the mix at about noon, so it took just about exactly 24 hours from start to finish. That is definitely the world record for the recording of any Boston song.
MG: At that speed, you really could put out a new Boston album every 10 days if you wanted to, instead of once every eight years.
SCHOLZ: If every song sounded exactly like "The Star Spangled Banner," then, yes, I could do that. But I was almost dead the next day, so, if I tried to do that, I'd have been buried long ago. The truth is, listening back to it now, I think it's one of my better recordings.
MG: Did you play all of the instruments on the new tunes?
SCHOLZ: Pretty much. There is a great harp solo on "Higher Power" that was played by our drummer, Curly Smith. Dave Sikes, the bassist, sings "Tell Me," and Brad and Fran sing "Higher Power" together. And I got to sing on "Higher Power," too, one of my very rare vocal appearances. It's almost an a capella solo part, and I'm singing extremely low. You can't miss it. I get very excited when I hear it.
MG: Live, who handles the keyboard chores?
SCHOLZ: Except for Fran, every single person in the band plays keyboards. And each has to take over the keyboards at different points of the show, because there are a lot of keyboard parts in the music. We have keyboards on both sides of the stage so people can get to them without tripping over each other. Brad ends up playing just about every keyboard that's up there at some point.
MG: Besides yourself, Brad has remained the only constant in the Boston lineup. Where did the two of you meet?
SCHOLZ: At Natural Sound Studios in Manard, Massachusetts, back in 1970. Someone had given me his name, and I had him come down and sing on a demo I was recording. We were also working on another tune that night called "She's a Looker," but I wanted to call it "She's a Hooker." The song probably wouldn't have died if it had been called "She's a Hooker." [laughs]
MG: Except for drums, you played every instrument on Boston. How do you feel about writing and recording all of the music by yourself?
SCHOLZ: Usually, I would prefer not to do that. I prefer to have some other input, because it can sometimes get a bit homogenous when the music comes completely from one person. I like to have Gary play a variety of different parts, or solos, just to get another musical personality in there. Originally, the plan was to have this greatest-hits package out last year, but I decided instead to bury myself in it and do it this way.
MG: Besides playing the lion's share of the guitar parts, you also play bass on virtually every Boston studio track, right?
SCHOLZ: That's right. I used to think that bass playing is what I did best, but I couldn't play bass, guitar and keyboards all at the same time when we were on stage. I love playing the bass in live situations-so much power!
MG: Back in '76, when "More Than a Feeling" became a hit, it really sounded different than anything else at the time. This is records that sold at least six million copies!! That proved that all of those A&R people had their heads where the sun don't shine. Epic flat out rejected it-and sent me an insulting letter! I have that letter framed now, but it said that there was nothing new about this music, and they were in no way interested. Then later, someone went through the proper political channels with Epic and, all of a sudden, they were interested. Still, we didn't get signed until they heard "More Than a Feeling."
MG: Was "Peace of Mind" written before "More Than a Feeling"?
SCHOLZ: It was completed before "More Than a Feeling." "More Than a Feeling" was actually written over a five-year period.
MG: Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write "More Than a Feeling"?
SCHOLZ: It started with a love affair I had when I was in school, so the song is written about something I went through myself. There was another song out then that, whenever I heard it, caused me to pine miserably for this particular girl, and so I decided to write my own song about those feelings. That song was called "Walk Away Renee," by the Left Banke.
MG: There's a chord progression in "More Than a Feeling," right after the line, "I see my Mary Ann walking away," that goes G-D/F#-Em7-D, which comes right off of "Walk Away Renee."
SCHOLZ: Oh my God, you're right! It's right there in the song! [Hysterical laughter] You know, I never realized that! The Left Banke was one of my favorite groups at that time, and they were very classically-inspired.
MG: The definition of the Boston sound, besides the high-energy rock and roll thing, is the pure pop sensibility of big, giant melodic hooks, combined with massively heavy, classically-inspired guitar parts.
SCHOLZ: Left Banke had the same basic formula, but they had none of the raw energy behind it. I always wanted to write music with beautiful vocal harmonies, but what first got me into music was the Kinks, the Yardbirds, Blue Cheer... I was definitely into heavy-handed guitar playing.
MG: What kind of 12-string acoustic did you use on "More Than a Feeling"?
SCHOLZ: That was a $100 Yamaha. When the band was first signed, the so-called "band" went to L.A., booked studio time, and went into the studio every week. They stayed out there as a cover, pretending to record the album, while I recorded the album back home in Massachusetts in my basement studio. There is only one song on the album that was recorded in L.A., which is the last song on side two, "Let Me Take You Home Tonight." While Brad was in L.A., they bought him a custom-made 12-string that was $2000, and, meanwhile, I'm back in my basement with a $100 Yamaha, recording a track that's going to sell about 20 million records! I wish I still had that guitar! [laughs]
MG: Is that the total record sales of Boston?
SCHOLZ: Yeah, just about, according to the last number I heard. That put us over Hootie & the Blowfish, which I consider a personal triumph.
MG: You were 29 at the time you recorded Boston, and you've said in the past that, had the record been unsuccessful, that may have been the end of your rock and roll career. Did you have any idea that those songs would be so incredibly successful?
SCHOLZ: Absolutely not. I didn't quit my job at Polaroid.
MG: Did the songs feel huge for you, personally?
SCHOLZ: I thought that, musically, it was about as good as anything that I was capable of at the time. I thought that I would become a better guitar player, a better keyboard player and a better songwriter as time went by, but as far as putting music on vinyl then, I didn't think I could do much better. I thought I could do more, but I thought, if people don't like this, they won't like anything else I do, either.
MG: In the melodic figure of "More Than a Feeling," right before the final chorus, you changed the arrangement ever so slightly by playing a two-note lick twice instead of once, as it is everywhere else in the song. Why did you throw that subtle twist in there?
SCHOLZ: [laughs] Just to be different. By that point of the song, it was right before the third and final chorus, and I figured that, if I was going to repeat a chorus three times, I had poetic license to do absolutely anything I wanted there.
On that same subject, in the tune "Higher Power," they wanted a shorter, "single" version, because the long version is five minutes. On the short version, the final chorus sounds the same as the long version, but it's actually in a different key. It was quite a trick, because I had to re-record all of the parts in a different key just for the single version. The chorus on the single version is a half-step up from the original, because the song goes through a lot of unusual key changes and, to accommodate shortening the song, I naturally end up in a different key. I basically had to reconstruct that section, so, on the original, there's a vocal part in that section that repeats three times. I thought, wouldn't it be cool if I played guitar there instead? So, the single version has guitar instead of vocals. Sometimes, you have to do things that are a little out of the ordinary just to see if anyone will notice.
MG: Another signature element in Boston true in terms of production, with the heavy accent on the balance between acoustic and electric guitars, and, of course, in term' of the sound of the electric guitar, fat with endless sustain-which soon would be recognized as "the Boston sound." Rarely has debut sounded so fully realized, distinctive and individual.
SCHOLZ: In those days, I didn't pay any attention to what other people were doing, so the sound of the record was the result of what just came naturally for me. In other words, it was purely accidental! [laughs]
I was always a big fan of classical music-those people really knew how to make some powerful instrumental music. A lot of the tricks in the arrangements of those early Boston songs were right out of the classical school. I don't know why more people weren't doing those thing-switching from the acoustics to the electrics, keeping a good balance between them, and setting the listener up for the change that's coming up in the music. That basic concept had been used for hundreds of years in classical music. I had been exposed to classical music at an early age. Though I never studied it academically, when I was very young, I listened to classical music for hours and hours on end. To this day, I'll hear a snippet of a classical piece and I just know it. I could sit right down at the piano and bang it out, because so many of those classical melodies continue to occupy brain space.
MG: The classical influence that is apparent in the heavy guitar part in particular, the harmonized figures and the guitar solo was still pretty new to rock in the mid Seventies. Harmonized guitar solos had been explored to a degree by bands like the Allman Brothers and Queen, but no one had so successfully stacked two-, three- and four-part harmonized, composed guitar solos. You also made abundant use of baroque melodic devices known as mordents, and inverted mordents, on such classic solos as the one in "More Than a Feeling".
SCHOLZ: You know, I always wondered what the word for that was! I think that grew out of having spent endless hours playing the same blues-based licks that everyone else was playing, and getting really sick of it. The "More Than a Feeling" guitar solo bears no relation to the blues riffs that were heard in most other rock guitar solos in those days.
MG: That's another thing that set Boston apart from most other bands at that time: the music is extremely organized.
SCHOLZ: It is organized that's a good word for it. The funny thing is, that tune, "Peace of Mind," and several others, when I was first working on them, which was several years before the first record came out, someone at a record label said to me, "You know, blues is really marketable right now. You should really be submitting stuff with more blues and r&b roots." I did try that for a while. I tried to come up with music that I thought record company executives would respond to. I finally reached the point where I realized that was ridiculous. I thought, if I'm going to do anything good, it's only going to be something that I really like. I thought it probably won't work out anyway, but at least I'll know that I did what I wanted to do.
It was just dumb luck that it all worked out. I had no idea that there would be any audience for that type of music. Apparently, neither did most of the record labels, including Epic. They rejected it, as did 90 percent of all the labels I submitted the early demo to.
MG: What were the songs on the first demo? Did they all end up on the first record?
SCHOLZ: They did. The original demo had four song "Peace of Mind," "Rock & Roll Band," "Hitch a Ride" and "Don't be Afraid." Then I added "More Than a Feeling" and "Something About You." With the four-song demo, I only got responses from about 10 percent of the labels I sent it to. And all of those songs ended up on arrangements is for all of the instruments to drop out, leaving just the guitar by itself. This is done very effectively in "Peace of Mind," where everything is gone but the electric rhythm guitar.
SCHOLZ: You forget about the basic rhythm part when it's got all of the other junk on top of it, so it's good to bring a part like that back into the forefront sometimes.
MG: When Brad hits those incredibly high notes in "More Than a Feeling," they blend in a magical way with the high guitar parts. Was that just killing you when you recorded the song?
SCHOLZ: Yeah, but it doesn't anymore. After I heard him do it a couple dozen times, I realized that it was just part of his nature. People always talk about Brad's range, but, besides his ability to hit the high notes, the guy is the most amazing musician with his voice. You could show him a densely complicated line, with exact timing and phrasing, and he can do it perfectly right away. He'll add some twist, and then sing three harmony parts to it without even stopping the tape to hear what he did. His inherent musical ability is amazing.
MG: Did the stacking of the vocal harmonies inspire the harmonized guitar parts, or vice versa?
SCHOLZ: They were two entirely separate things. The vocal harmonies are inspired by British bands like the Hollies and the Left Banke, and the guitar harmonies are a hand-down from classical stuff. There were a few people who'd touched on this combination a little; Todd Rundgren had done it some, Led Zeppelin did it a tiny bit. That's what got me into it. I heard that and thought, wow, there's a lot of territory to explore here.
MG: Were you a fan of the Allman Brothers' use of guitar harmonies?
SCHOLZ: Not really. I heard the records, but their guitar harmonies didn't have that classical ring to them that I was hearing in my head. Whenever I thought about guitar parts, that's all that went through my mind.
MG: Some songs on Third Stage have as many as four-part guitar harmonies.
SCHOLZ: Yeah, there's some four-part stuff on "I Think I Like It," "Can't You Say" and a couple of other spots. Those are usually real short. Most harmonized figures are only two guitars, and I would only use three or four guitars if I wanted to fill out whole chords while the melody progresses. So, those additional third and fourth parts will come in and then drop right out. You don't really hear them coming in and dropping out; it's intended to be subtle. When we recreate that live, we cover the prominent guitar harmonies only, and only occasionally get three people playing lead guitar together.
On the recordings, there is always a left-and right-side rhythm guitar and, usually, I can't leave that alone, so I'll double 'em. There is no real "average" for guitar density, but, during most instrumental sections, there are at least six or seven guitars happening at once.
There are virtually no leads that were done on a single track. All of the leads are double-tracked, which makes it extremely time-consuming, but it allows you to do illusionary things where you follow one melody, but there is a countermelody happening simultaneously. For the guitar solo on "Surrender to Me," from Walk On, it sounds like a relatively high-powered guitar solo played by one guitar, but it's actually two guitars playing parts that are very different from each other. That type of compositional convention would be impossible with one guitar. I've done that a few times, where there are left and right lead guitars, and they are intentionally different from each other. "Cool the Engines," from Third Stage, has a bit of that, too, in the solo in the middle. It confuses you just enough that it sounds like brilliance! [laughs]
MG: Were you inspired by Eric Clapton's arrangement of three complementary guitars, all of which play different single-note improvisational figures, on "Politician," from Cream's Wheels of Fire?
SCHOLZ: Yes, very much so. That was very, very neat. I really like some of that old Cream stuff.
MG: In stacking single-note guitar parts, did you work hard at matching articulations and vibratos in order to make the parts sit together absolutely perfectly?
SCHOLZ: I made sure that they were never exactly right. Since I played all of those parts, the vibrato would always match up, because it was my vibrato. But I always made sure that I wasn't right on the money, because I didn't want it to sound mechanical, like it just had a delay on it or something. The way you get the really interesting things is to put a little bit of style onto each track, as if each were to sit alone. Now, of course, I know exactly what the other track is doing, but, whenever I record one of those tracks, the other track is always shut off. That's when the really nice things happen. The only time I would ever leave it on is if I'm just fooling around and having fun.
I really don't like the idea of music being mechanical. If I get the feeling that I want to hear a wailing, two-part harmony at the top of the arrangement, I'll go for it. If there is a third harmony that could add something, I'll play with it for a while. I hate when someone says, "Oh, just stick one of those melodic, harmonized guitar parts on there," because it can start to sound like you're recording music for a commercial!
MG: Did you ever study any kind of formal arranging or composition, or is it all done by feel and ear?
SCHOLZ: It's all by ear, because I never studied music in that way at all. I think I just absorbed a lot of the classical conventions by listening to the music so much as a kid.
MG: How did you arrive at the famed Boston sound? Was it a sound that was always in your head, or was it stumbled upon?
SCHOLZ: That sound grew out of what I did naturally-it's that simple. Left to my own devices, with no outside interference, the sound of Boston is what I come up with. I didn't become familiar with that sound until it was on tape. Once it was on tape, it was "my sound."
MG: What was the first quality electric you owned?
SCHOLZ: The '68 Les Paul Goldtop that I've used for just about every Boston track. At the time, that guitar was a reissue of a Fifties Les Paul. I had the misfortune of buying one and learning how to play on it, because it has a neck like a log! It had P90s non-humbuckers on it originally, and I replaced the P-90s with DiMarzio Super Humbuckers.
MG: What percentage of your sound comes from that guitar?
SCHOLZ: None. It's a really nice-sounding guitar, but if I had to get my sound with another guitar, I could definitely do it.
MG: What kind of amps did you use on the first album?
SCHOLZ: That was a combination of an old 100-watt Marshall head and a prototype Power Soak. I never recorded anything without that Power Soak. I built the Power Soak because of the need to bring down the gain, but without losing the saturation of the sound. I also used an Ampeg V4. For speakers, I used standard issue Marshall cabs.
MG: How would you describe your miking techniques?
SCHOLZ: I used whatever was handy. If you dare to mike a Marshall cab, you will never get the mic back in the same place and get the same exact sound twice. If you move the mic even just a few inches, the sound will be utterly different. It won't even sound like the same amplifier. Those 4x12 cabinets yield a lot of phase cancellation, plus the cabinet has unbelievable directionality. I used to have to keep those cabinets pointed anyplace except towards the audience, because one person would hear the sound 10db louder, with a totally different tone, than the person standing five feet away. The best solution was to come up with a sound and then feed it through the PA. Eventually, I stopped using Marshalls and 4x1 2 cabs altogether, because, even though I carried a dozen with me on tour, I couldn't keep two at a time in proper working order-they were too temperamental.
Eventually, I sprang for my own serious AC power supplies, so I could set the voltages exactly. Then I could get a good, repeatable sound, and much better lifespan out of the amps. When I got the Power Soak thing together, I took measurements of voltages and currents in various parts of the head, and then set the resistance of the Power Soak, which is strictly passive resistance. But it was still so cumbersome to use the Marshall stacks, and there was no way to switch sounds as effectively as I needed. Later, I designed more streamlined things that I could change tone easily with.
Back on those old recordings, there were a few times when I was able to get a rhythm sound that I liked, but, most of the time, I was going crazy with equalizers after the track had been recorded. I didn't get that under control until Walk On, when I used the Rockman system combined with Marshalls. I would switch between the two set-ups, and could not tell which one was which. There are little nuances at the beginnings and ends of notes that do sound different, but that's it. I'd have them both cooking, and I'd just pick one or the other, depending on what I was looking for. I'd switch back and forth even for a different chord within the same chorus section. That worked really well, because I finally got some direct sounds out of the Marshall that I was really happy with. I felt I finally got the process together; I didn't have to listen to the track over and over, and listen endlessly to previous tracks and all that. That used to drive me crazy.
MG: Boston is about to hit the road for the first time in a number of years. Is there a new Boston album of all new material in the works?
SCHOLZ: Yes, it is. I plan on getting a handful of basic tracks down before we get too heavily involved in the rehearsals for the upcoming tour. I was just banging out a new tune on the piano right before we started this interview. I work on new songs all the time, and my approach is that, when I have enough new material together, that's when it's time to put out an album.