Neil Young Interview on Guitars

Guitare & Claviers Magazine (French)

April 1992

Neil Young News

A Neil Young interview from "Guitare & Claviers" Avril 1992 (Article translated from French by David Ostrosser). Discusses guitars, amplifiers and equipment.

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 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.

(Note: For more, see interview with guitar tech Larry Cragg about Neil Young's guitars and equipment.)

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, Zéjo! [Translator's addition :-)] 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.

end of Part #1

Go to Part #2 of interview with Neil Young on his guitars and sound.

  • For more, read excerpt from the book "Shakey - A Neil Young Biography" by Jimmy McDonough with an interview with guitar tech Larry Cragg about Neil Young's guitars and equipment.

    Also see, Neil Young's Sound on guitars, amps, and whizzer equipment.

    Neil Young Interviews

    Thrashers Wheat - A Neil Young Archives