Interview with Village Of The Unfretted Ed DeGenaro
Edward DeGenaro is a fusion guitarist whose unique mix of bebop and metal sounds, along with a whole lot of the DeGenaro personality, collectively called the “Nude Guitars” sound, has been compared to the likes of Scott Henderson, Frank Gambale, and Steve Vai. Ed’s journey in music began in Germany, where he was born and raised. At an early age, he studied cello but quickly picked up the guitar as his instrument of choice for venting his artistic expression. After receiving a degree in Performance and Teaching from the German National Conservatory of Music in Nuremberg, he worked as a “hired gun” guitarist and session player, performing all over Europe before relocating to LA and finally to Seattle, where he currently resides. His contributions, as a musician and an engineer, include numerous projects with major labels, musicians like Elliott Sharp, Steve Kimock, David Byron Band, Accept, Hammerhead, Alcatraz, and producers David Rosenthal (Rainbow, Robert Palmer) and Roy Thomas Baker. Recently, he just finished recording all the audio samples for Jack Zucker’s Sheets Of Sound Vol II. He is also working on his soon-to-be-released CD called Dog House. In addition to recording, Ed also performs at various venues like the NAMM show and the NYC Fretless Guitar Festival.
As with all fretless guitarists, Ed’s artistic expression and desire to create his own sound took him beyond the fixed frequencies of fretted guitars and into the realm of the unfretted. He is one of the few talented guitarists who can make shredding look effortless on a fretless guitar and make the guitar groove to just about any sonic exploration, encompassing funk, blues, ethnic, jazz, metal and much more. (Thankfully, Ed also kept the metal hairdo, so he really delivers the entire package and more.) It’s difficult for me to encapsulate the essence of Ed’s music in words without resorting to “Nude Guitars” (a name that came naturally to Ed but took me quite a bit of listening and thinking to truly appreciate its meaning) because his artistic expression is indeed limitless and fretless, very much like the nude fingerboards on his guitars. I think one of the most common misconceptions about making music is that people often think music comes from the instrument itself; what most people don’t realize is that instruments only make sounds, not music. This distinction is what separates those who just play and the real musicians who create. For real musicians like Ed, their guitars are indeed nude, as blank canvases are to painters, allowing them to create music that is truly personal and original. Paraphrasing what Michael Vick once said, the real instrument is the musician himself, and one’s will to create is all one really needs to “Play what [one’s] inner ear hears”. So, what is “Nude Guitars”? It is who Ed DeGenaro is; so long as he creates, Ed is the music. Needless to say, Ed is a well-known fixture in the unfretted community, and his music continues to influence others. I thank Ed for taking the time to respond to all of my questions, for giving such a detailed tour of his studio, and for sharing his humor, music experiences, and other interests in this interview. Never have I met a musician who has almost as many pets as the guitars he owns! He is truly one-of-the-kind!
Ed DeGenaro has been a working musician since age 18. His resume includes David Byron Band, Accept, Hammerhead, Alcatraz, producers David Rosenthal (Rainbow, Robert Palmer) and Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, Cars), and work on various feature movies, TV commercials and major labels such as EMI, Atco and Atlantic. As an engineer his resume includes Elliott Sharpe’s last release Secular Steel, and the upcoming Henry Kaiser release 156 Strings II. Currently he is finishing his new CD Dog House, available July..
MT: How were you first introduced to music?
ED: In general? By my old man playing violin. Then it was the obligatory diet of Beatles tune…those are my earliest memories of what I listened to.
MT: When and why did you decide to pursue a lifetime relationship with the guitar?
ED: …by my old man’s best buddy bringing over Electric Ladayland. That was it; Jimi was what I wanted to be. And then Blackmore, McLaughlin, Schenker, Roth…etc… Once I was hooked it became actually my outlet. You know the typical stuff, I sucked as a jock and got teased a lot so I locked myself in my room and tried to get better as a muso. And these days it functions as my form of therapy anyways… Having a bad day? Let me go into my studio and beat up a guitar.
MT: What was the first guitar that you owned? Do you still have it now?
ED: Acoustic…I don’t even remember that piece of firewood. There was this music store in my hometown that has Les Pauls and Strat knock-offs made in Japan, my first electric came from there. My dad wired up the auxiliary input on our tube radio (remember this was Germany in the 60s 🙂 to take my guitar cable, and I was rocking it with my Les Paul Gold Top feeling like…well, Les Paul sans Mary Fords. That guitar lasted about 3 weeks until the fingerboard came off the neck, after I brought it to the local repair shop they glued it on, shit was hanging over the edge of the neck. That guitar was a goner fairly soon after that.
MT: Besides the guitar, what other instruments do you play?
ED: Depends on the definition of playing. I dabble in anything stringed, like bass, lap steel, sarod, and oud. But the only thing I PLAY would be guitar. I think there is actually some organ playing of mine on Dog House that I haven’t replaced with a better player.
MT: Do you teach music or give master classes? If so, what are some of the topics covered in your classes?
ED: I’ve been approached, and actually am considering it. SO…lets talk about this after I decide to do it. 🙂
MT: After your graduation from the Conservatory, you worked as a “hired gun” guitarist and session player in Europe. What kind of music/gigs did you play during this period?
ED: Back then Rock and Metal stuff. I try to avoid talking about it because that entire period, although fun at the time was pretty much me walking through life in a self induced haze.
MT: Could you share some of your most memorable experiences from this period?
ED: The ones that are memorable are way too embarrassing to share. They are the stuff AA meetings are made of.
MT: You developed the “Nude Guitars” sound, which is a unique fusion of your many talents and music styles. Why is it called “Nude Guitars”?
ED: I thought it was a good name at the time. No deep thought went into it at all.
MT: Which one of your tunes do you consider as the very first song showcasing this “Nude Guitars” sound?
ED: The original version of Hip To Hop comes to mind.
MT: Your impressive resume includes collaborations with David Byron Band, Accept, Hammerhead, Alcatraz, producers David Rosenthal (Rainbow, Robert Palmer) and Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, Cars). What did these collaborations entail?
ED: Mostly work for hire. I did the gig, got paid, and it was all over.
MT: I read that you also worked on movies and TV commercials. What are some of the projects that you worked on?
ED: All B-stuff, T+A Florida beach stuff. Like Spring Break Forever, parts 1 through 3443665346536. Commercials: typical stuff like PacBell, Goodyear, just stuff where somebody calls you to come in to lay down some guitars and get a check.
MT: You have also worked with major labels like EMI, Atco, and Atlantic. What was it like working with major labels? In your experience, were they supportive of your artistic expressions, or were they more driven by monetary incentives?
ED: It was entirely driven by money and marketing decisions. It was a great time because we all got to play Rock star and burn through money like it grew on trees. But it all comes to an end.
MT: In recent years, the music industry underwent many major changes. Many accomplished musicians are breaking away from major labels and are releasing albums themselves or starting their own labels. You have many years of experience working with various labels and are a veteran in the music business. For the indie musicians who are caught in the middle of this revolution and are trying to get their music heard, do you have any tips for them on how to survive in the music biz without sacrificing their individuality?
My most important piece of advice that got handed to me…If you don’t think you can make it you won’t….If you don’t believe in what you do nobody else will. The flip side is that just because it has become fairly easy to release a CD doesn’t mean it’s a necessity. Get some friends that will be honest with you and not just back pad you. Pressing a 1000 copies and having 800 sit in your bedroom is a recipe for depression.
MT: On the artist page featured on the website of your current label, Rocket City Records, I read that you are working on a CD tentatively called Gods and Monstas. Have you changed the CD name to Dog House, which is mentioned on your own website, or is that a separate CD? How did you come up with this name?
ED: Same CD, different name. And it likely will be released on Jeff Berg’s label if for no other reason than its fretless content. The name is pretty much a description of our house.
MT: When can we anticipate the release of this CD?
ED: I expected it to be out in June but since I decided to hand off stuff it will be postponed until the end of the year.
MT: How long have you been working on this CD?
ED: On and off? An awful long time, I think I cut some of the basic drum and bass tracks for it 4 years ago. And subsequently tossed them away. Every once in a while I’d load them in the studio and play over them and go, not what I want it to be. When I finally started working on it again it took about 2 months to finish the stuff.
MT: Between now and the release date, what remains to be done on the CD?
ED: I have to do two more guitar solos, and I’m waiting for one more track from the Orlando Marin the bass player I use back east. As well as two from the kid I just discovered in Germany, a bass player that reminded me of Jaco’s spirit like no one before. His name is Thiago Espiurio Santo and we’re about to hear lots more from him methinks.
MT: You have worked as an engineer on other musicians’ CDs. Does this mean that you are doing everything yourself on this CD, from recording to mixing and mastering?
ED: Oh hell no. I work with guys I trust; usually I use Anton Pukshansky whenever I can. He’s an amazing multi-instrumentalists and engineer. Also on this I have David Torn to mangle my audio and mix it. I’m looking forward to his take on my material. And since I’m really familiar with his own work, I pretty much give him free reign over it.
MT: What does this album mean to you personally?
ED: Hopefully the same it will mean to buyers…I tried to put a bit of everything I do on there, Fusion guitar fretted and fretless, fingerstyle stuff, ethnic stuff…you name it. I wanted it to be a guitar album without it being a guitar album. Hence lots of trumpet as well. 🙂 Guess that’s the Miles influence. Heck, I’m still trying to convince Henry Kaiser to do another Yo Miles album so I can be part of it. 🙂
MT: What other projects are you working on now?
ED: I just finished all the audio for an amazing instruction book I’d suggest to anyone that wants to get better as a guitarist. Jack Zucker’s Sheets Of Sound II. Jack hired me to play and record all the examples for this. And I’m really pleased with how it turned out, as well as how much it kicked my ass in the learning department. Also just finished a track for Out-the Derek Bailey tribute CD that will likely become the opener of Dog House. Also I finished the guitar parts for my friend Anton’s project, which is 70s Funk meets my stuff. Then it’s time for a vacation.
MT: How were you introduced to fretless guitars? What was your first fretless guitar?
ED: Well my introduction to fretless guitar was through fretless bass. I wanted to be able to have mmmm-wah sound Jaco has, and the other thing was the equal temperament of the guitar being sharp 14 cents when hitting a third drove me nuts for years. My first fretted guitar was a Vigier, my first fretless bass a Steinberger. I then found out about Ron and Fuze, but that was my knowledge of fretless guys.
MT: How did you find out about unfretted.com (our favorite site for everything unfretted)?
If I remember right, Jeff Berg put a link up to my stuff. I then cruised the site for a bit and was amazed how many more fretless knuckleheads there were.
MT: How would you describe your style of music now? Over the years, how has your music style evolved from your original concept for the “Nude Guitars” sound?
ED: That’s a hard one…it used to be that I wanted the intensity of a Metal rhythm section, but with hip Jazz/Be-Bop lines on top. Over the years it has become more 70s Funk and Rock with me just going off on top. Kinda 70s Miles meets the 80s We Want Miles band approach.
MT: How has the discovery of the fretless guitar impacted your artistic expression?
ED: I like to think so. If anything my fretless approach spilled over to the fretted guitar. There are times when folks are certain it’s fretless when it’s just a regular old geetar.
MT: Do you think your training on the cello, another fretless instrument, facilitated you in making the transition from fretted to fretless guitars? How long did it take for you to master the fretless guitar?
ED: Master? Like Itzhak Perlman on violin or Yo-Yo Ma on cello? I’m a long way from having command over the fretless guitar like those guys have over their instruments but I’m working on it. But I’ll answer it like this…it took me 3 days from start to finish to make my cats stop howling when I started on fretless.
MT: Which one is more difficult to master—playing a cello or a fretless guitar? Why?
ED: Cello, the right hand technique on guitar is cake by comparison.
MT: Do you still play the cello?
ED: Haven’t in decades. Every once in a while I’m thinking of starting again, but it’s more likely I end up getting a double bass instead.
MT: What is the setup inside your studio? Please list all the instruments in your collection.
ED: Seriously? Okay…Amps…some old Marshalls, one that I had used on all my 80s stuff in Germany that I bought back two years ago. Another one modded by Mike Soldano which is one of my fave Marshalls I have ever played. Then a mid 70s 50 watter I’ve been using for a good decade now that came from Lita Ford. Another one of my old amps I really dig is a 64 Bassman I got recently and that thing is a honey. Then there are of course a bunch of THD amps, a UniValve, BiValve, one of the old Plexi models and of course a few Flexi-50 that I pretty much use on everything. It’s my go to amp.
Then some high gain stuff like a Soldano Avenger with SLO power section (amazing for singing solo stuff), a Rivera KH2 (very cool clean especially when you push it into break up). Of course the obligary Dual Recto, and my newest high gainer and one of my fave amps period the VHT Deliverance.
Guitars…I go by the belief that the only thing cooler than a 3000$ guitar I like is a 200$ guitar I like as much. My main guitars are my Vigiers and O’Donnels. I’ve been using Vigier for 7 years now and every one of them is perfect for my needs. A Surfreter fretless (one of the earliest ones), another Surfreter this one with a pretty top and a sustainer. Then the guitar that finally retired my Steinbergers, a Vigier Excalibur with EMGs and a Floyd, this is one of my go to guitars for burner stuff. A Shawn Lane model, which I just had to have because of my friendship with Shawn and his family. Also this guitar has a completely flat board so I can bend strings farther than on a regular guitar without choking the note. I just got a Bumblefoot model 3 weeks ago and haven’t played anything else lately. The coolest simple Rock guitar I’ve come across…ever.
O’Donnell…I met Craig O’Donnell when I played in Melbourne last year and I have not come across any guitar builder more passionate about his craft then him. I use a chambered single cutaway model that is a cross between a really good Les Paul and a PRS. Next he build me a double cutaway that he calls his Fusion model, another guitar that has a completely flat finger board and that guitar together with my Vigier Excalibur is my other go to guitar. Unbelievable instrument. Next up is my O’Donnell Fusion fretless…which is my first fretless with a wood board, and my instrument of choice for clean Jazz lines. It also has this cello quality to the tone I have not heard from a fretless guitar unless you start messing with compression or gain. He’s somebody that will make it very big methinks. He’s also making me a fretted/fretless double neck that I think will be the last instrument I will aquire. 🙂
For more traditional stuff I have a pair of Tylers…a Strat and a Tele when I need a vintage tone. Except those also are total players. More in that direction I have 2 Suhr Strats and 3 Fenders. Then there are a few 80s Rocker guitars, a firewood beat up around the camp fire acoustic.
MT: What else is there?
ED: A Korean Les Paul knock off I have set up for slide, a Taiwanese Tele I like for Mike Stern type stuff. A Taylor T5 hollow body that I used on all the acoustic tracks on Dog House. And I think they’re making me a fretless version of it. I still have my Steinbergers (a M and GS model) I used in the 80s and 90s on everything. Then there are a few Patrick Eggle guitars that are my PRS type guitars. A 5 string Fender bass for quick bass takes, a Supro Lap Steel. And boat load of efx. Some mic pre’s and my fave recording software Sequoia, and I think that about covers it.
MT: What are some of your musical influences and favorite musicians?
ED: The earliest was of course Jimi. Then the usual Rock guys like Blackmore, Angus Young, Jeff Beck, etc… The turning point for me was Ray Gomez. He was the one that send me back to the drawing board, one of the most overlooked artists of the last 30 years. And a dear friend. The next guy that had that kinda impact on me was Don Mock whom I studied with a decade ago when I moved to Seattle. There is nothing Don cannot play. Other influences… Jaco Pastorius, Miles Davis, Billy Cobham, Stephane Grapelli, and of course Allan Holdsworth.
Fave musos…Shawn Lane (another one that didn’t reach the success deserved while he was alive), Brett Garsed, Thiago Espirito Santos, Chris Nix (who virtually nobody knows but that guy has tone and ability for days), Ron Thal who has an amazing sense of humor and it comes through in his playing, Craig Erickson who has a Jimi type approach with Shawn like chops, Jason Macedo who can outshred just about anyone but doesn’t sound anything like your regular shredder, he’s very much his own man, Dave Torn for doing things nobody else even thought of, and Matte Henderson for kicking my ass with humanly impossible lines. Also two years ago I met the guys that are out on the road with Bette Midler, and it turns out the one guy Mike Miller is the cat that played on Outside Man-Band Overboard, one of my fave CDs. Another guy who also plays fretless occasionally is Paul Shigihara, who is a session guy in Germany and is currently on the road with Zawinul.
MT: What is your favorite guitar solo?
ED: That would have to be a Holdsworth solo, which one…you pick. Or on second though Jeff Beck’s version of A Day In The Life. Him and Kimock are the two guys that overcome the out-of tuneness of a fretted guitar.
MT: I noticed that you are performing in Austin, TX at the 2006 Summer NAMM show and at the Knitting Factory at the end of September during the Fretless Guitar Festival. For shows like these, do you have a permanent band that you perform with, or do these venues usually provide you with the supporting musicians?
ED: Up to about 15 month ago I used the same band for everything. But this was mostly a set of tunes where everybody needed to know certain parts. As I went into a more improvised direction, some may call it the Jam Band approach I started to hire guys appropriate for the gig. I have guys I use for local stuff, the drummer Fritz Wolf has been playing with me for a decade. However the rest of my local band was never on par with the guys I worked with out of town, which changed with the new guys…young players that are passionate and can burn.
Anyways, for the Knitting Factory stuff I use guys from NYC that are absolute monsters. Actually the bassist Orlando Marin and the trumpet player Satish are on Dog House as well. The Texas gigs will be with Craig Erickson and the bass player will be Trip Wamsley, who does a lot of Cajun gigs AND tons of solo bassist gigs. We haven’t decided on a drummer just yet. The fun part about these gigs is that we don’t send material around and everybody learns their parts. We go up and start, and usually we won’t train wreck it. It worked out really well in New York last year, as well as when I played with Shawn Lane’s Powers Of Ten band in Memphis.
MT: Before you step on stage in front of live audiences, do you still get nervous or have you gotten used to performing live?
ED: I still get nervous, but it’s over after I play the first note. It gets worse on high profile stuff. Things at trade shows with cats like Verheyen and Holdsworth there. Funnily enough I don’t get this when I record, that’s kinda like second nature to me.
MT: What inspires you to make music?
ED: As I said before, it’s therapy. I need it as an outlet. It’s the addict personality thing. I have to pretty much channel my obsession into something.
MT: Of all the achievements, what are you most proud of?
ED: Absolutely, when guys that influenced me get in turn influenced by me. For example, Ray Gomez came to see me at the last Fretless Festival and walked away interested in fretless guitar. Also last year I hung with Steve Kimock and did a gig with the Steve Kimock band where I sat in with them for like 45 minutes and as a result he now regularly pulls out a fretless for one gig.
MT: What would you like to convey or communicate to the listener through your music?
That varies from tune to tune. If I had to compress it into a global one liner: Play what your inner ear hears…regardless of what self proclaimed critics think.
MT: What do you enjoy doing when you are not making music?
ED: I don’t know whether I say enjoy…but what I do with my remaining time is animal rescue.
MT: You were born and raised in Germany, but you currently live in Seattle. What brought you to the US years ago?
ED: The mistaken impression that I could be easily a big fish in a big pond LOL!
MT: In your experience, how is the German music scene different from the US music scene?
ED: Absolutely, but remember I have really no point of reference to Germany now but rather 20 years ago. Back then you could make 2 grand a night in clubs in Germany. When I moved to LA in the heyday of 80s poodle hair, and pay to play we made about 1500 a night when we sold out places like the Roxy, Gazarri’s or the Troubadour. Then moving to Seattle you’re looking doing 500 a night with Top 40.
MT: What do you miss most about living in Germany?
ED: What I miss is that when somebody tells you we’ll do lunch they’re there the next day, and it doesn’t mean sod off.
MT: Seattle is known as the coffee capital of the US, if not of the world. Do you have a favorite café that you go to regularly for coffee?
ED: Yes, my studio. I have a fave coffee stand where I grab my Quad Venti White Choc Mocca before I start working.
MT: Don’t you find the weather (the constant drizzle) in Seattle gloomy and depressing?
ED: Heck, that’s why I moved from Germany to LA 20 years ago. I hate rain. That said I won’t be here for the rest of my life that’s for sure.
MT: Germany is famous for their sausages. What is your favorite kind of bratwurst? And what kind of beer would you like to have with that?
ED: Funnily enough my preference is Beef Panang or Chicken Vindaloo. Beer…sadly enough, and my German passport will likely be revoked for this statement…Guinness. But usually I prefer Red Bull+Grey Goose.
MT: In the photo gallery on your website (very cool photos by the way), you have this one photo of you holding a guitar with what looks like 3 squirrels. What was that about?! Are those your band-mates?
ED: 4 Squirrels actually, my wife used to work at the zoo and their mom got poisoned, so they all fell out of a 20-foot tree when they got hungry. She brought them home. We lost 3 but one made it, and we had her live in the house for a while and then released her in the yard, where she actually had a grand old time.
MT: Like Michael Vick, you also have long hair. How long have you had long hair?
ED: About 25 years, but about every 8 years I cut it all off just to come to the conclusion that I don’t like to look at myself with short hair.
MT: Do you use duck-butter too?
ED: Only when doing Vick’s hair. 🙂
MT: How many tattoos do you have? What are they? Will you get more tattoos in the future?
ED: 3: a Hammerhead shark, a weird mystical thing, and a rat on skull. Of course I’ll get more. But I rarely have the time to sit around for a few hours.
MT: How many pets do you have? What are they and their names?
ED: Let’s see…a 350 pound pig named Lucy; two sugar gliders named Lily and Iris; cats…Spider, Stevie Ray, Jengo, Alphonse, Schmieg, Heidelberg, Francis; Dogs…Pastorius (blind Aussie shepherd), Frankie, Eve and Polli (American Eskies), Natsha and Desi (Papillions), Nina (Toy Fox Terrier), Betty and Holly (Pomeranians), Annabelle; Chicken…Gabe, Raphael, Jake, Pogo, Loui, Jericho, Ms. Wilson, Goldie, Bella, Thumper.
MT: Do you have names for your guitars? If so, what are the names?
ED: Only one…Betty, the fretless O’Donnell.
MT: How tall are you?
MT: Okay, one last question just for fun: What’s the vice in being 18 or looking like one?
ED: None, unless you’re in Wales and Jeff Berg is nearby.
MT: Haha….Isn’t Jeff always nearby? “Proximity of Wales”!