By Brian Robbins
Welcome to the first in our series of BMF Interviews – conversations with guitarists about their influences, approach to making music, and (of course) gear. We begin with Philip Sayce, a master of psychedelic blues rock infused with hook-your-ear melodies.
As powerful of a player as Philip is onstage, he’s a total sweetheart to talk to: grounded, modest, and quick to acknowledge others.
Philip, let’s begin by jumping into the wayback machine: tell me about the music that first got ahold of you and made you say, “I want to do that.”
I’m super grateful that my parents’ music collection was so deep and widespread. Many of my early memories of first getting into music were directly from their library: things like Dire Straits, Ry Cooder, Eric Clapton, The Beatles – individually as well as together – Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, Jeff Healey, and on and on ... all the music I love today. I still remember the excitement I got from hearing it the first time.
You know, when I hear the same music today, it still makes me say it: “I want to do that.”
That’s a wonderful thing to be able to say. I’m thinking that, for a lot of people, the music that first grabbed their ear was intimidating to their parents, right? “Oh, God – turn that noise down!” Or the stuff that their parents loved wasn’t cool ...
I’m certainly grateful to have had that sort of upbringing. Music was always playing in the house; my parents enrolled both me and my brother in music at an early age; it’s always been a big part of our lives. I’m grateful that they encouraged me to follow my love.
Your first guitar – had you been asking for one, or was it a surprise?
My parents had saved up to get a piano for my brother and me – we were taking piano lessons at the time – so I would’ve felt really not-cool saying, “Hey, thanks for that piano ... but I want to play guitar.”
So, I waited a few years and about the time I was 15 or so, it was clear I really wanted to play guitar. Having all that music in the house ... it just lent itself to me wanting to be a guitar player and a singer.
My first guitar was from Sears: it cost about 90 bucks and it was an acoustic guitar ... we still have it!
Oh, yeah! (laughter) It was super ratty and the strings were 3 feet off the fingerboard ... as far as first guitars go, it was a really good one, because it was one of the hardest guitars I’ve ever played. (laughs)
The first concert I ever saw was Eric Clapton at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto – Mark Knopfler was in his band ... a serious introduction to heavyweights. Learning about Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music ... his passing and how it affected everyone ... Jeff Healey coming out of Toronto ... it was very natural for me to finally go to guitar when I was about 15.
Listening to you, it’s obvious at times that you were inspired by Stevie Ray –
Absolutely – Stevie was channeling something from the great beyond and he shared it with the world. A very, very special soul – one of a kind.
As well as Clapton, Jimi, and many of the other names you mentioned earlier. At the same time, you’ve crafted your own sound. What would you say to anyone – whether it’s someone just starting out or a more experienced player who finds themselves in a rut because they’re stuck chasing someone else’s sound – about absorbing influences while still finding your own place?
That’s a great question.
I think it’s something that’s personal; each person is going to have a different response.
I consider myself to be a student of the instrument for life: I’m always learning; it’s always a work in progress; I’m always trying to get better. Even something that I think I know how to do, I can always do it better ... and I have to stay on top of it. I think I’ve taken a bit of that headspace from certain athletes ...
Well, you think about the Wayne Gretzky stories: he was not only the greatest hockey player who ever lived, but the most dominant athlete of his given sport. He got to the hockey rink before everybody else and he left after everybody else. Even though he was the Jimi Hendrix of hockey, he worked harder and stayed hungry; kept refining his craft – to me, that’s what it’s all about. Continuing to work on it all the time.
I’m not going to be Stevie; I’m not going to be Hendrix – no one is ever going to be able to play like that. Those were sets of circumstances that were true to them, their spirits, and their journeys in this world.
My playing is certainly influenced by them and many others, but it’s going to come through the filter of what I’ve experienced in my life ... and if it reminds somebody of any of those players we’ve mentioned, I couldn’t think of a better compliment.
My goal is not to recreate or mimic – it’s more continuation and to remind. I think to stay connected to the fire and the power that’s in their music and carry it forward ... that’s my intention.
I have no interest in trying to copy something ... to, say, sit down with an Eric Johnson tutorial and try to learn it note-for-note? I’m not really interested in that; I’m interested in taking what I can and then make it sound a little different: “Oh – that’s kind of Eric Johnson-like but it’s not really.” I can’t play like Eric Johnson, nor do I want to ... I want to take the flavor of it and make it my own.
The benefit of technology is that we can figure out what people were doing note-by-note ... but at the same time, doesn’t that take away some of the personal stamp we can put on it? We can slow it down on YouTube to figure out every nuance of what the original player was doing, but isn’t there something cooler about maybe not being able to figure it out note-for-note – but to figure it out pretty close and then take it your own way? I think so ... and I think that’s sort of where I’ve ended up a lot of times: I’m not going to be able to play something, because I really don’t understand what it is – but this kind of reminds me of it; I’m going to make it my own in this way.
Those guys wrote the book and said, “Here it is ...” We’re all learning from that. There’s something that’s beyond the notes – it’s the human touch; the uniqueness of that soul who’s playing it ... whatever that person’s gone through in their life that comes into each note and you feel it.
And it’s not just guitar, either: look at a vocalist like Aretha Franklin ... or Wayne Gretzky, for that matter.
You mentioned the late Jeff Healey earlier. Two of the people you’ve worked with in the past were Jeff, and Melissa Etheridge; I wanted to ask you about those experiences. I remember hearing Jeff Healey back in the late 80s and being blown away by his playing – before I ever knew he was blind. It was one of those moments that made you want to either try harder or quit playing.
I’m guessing he was as much an influence in attitude as he was guitar playing.
Yeah: Jeff was one of my deepest influences and role models in music, for sure. The guy was blessed and a very, very unique talent.
I’ve never seen anyone play guitar and instantly have that energetic reaction – or connection – with people. It was just insane. Jeff was operating at a level of musicianship that very few ever reach.
To have the opportunity to apprentice with Jeff was mind-blowing. I think we first met when I was around 19 and I toured with him for about 4 years.
Jeff was so generous with the time on stage: he would let me front the band every night for a couple of songs and extended jams and solos ... he really gave a lot. And when he wanted to – if he just shifted to second gear? It was game over. (laughter) It was just, “Holy shit ...” You realized that he’d been walking through the park up to that point ... he was so great, so generous, and a very, very cool human being.
Jeff gave me my start.
One of the first things that struck me about Melissa Etheridge years ago was her powerful sense of rhythm: that first album back in ’88 is a great lesson in driving a band with an acoustic guitar. At the same time, she’s no slouch on lead, either. My wife and I caught Melissa at an open-air venue here in Maine last year ... she can tear it up!
Absolutely. Melissa was both a mentor musically and an influence on me as a person. I’m extremely grateful for the time I got to spend with her – again, about 4 years.
Melissa was very generous with her stage time, as well. She gave me all kinds of room to play; it might be a 10-minute solo and she’d encourage me, “Keep playing! Keep playing!”
She’s a heavy cat: a ferocious guitar player, as you’ve said – and you can give her the phone book to sing and she’d have you in tears.
Melissa is a real ambassador for connected, heartfelt music in this world ... and she’s taken courageous stands on so many social and environmental issues. I think she’s amazing.
Those were such great experiences for you to have; not only musically, but in developing your views on life. Two good souls.
I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn from them.
Over the years – both in the studio and in live settings – you’ve never shied away from tackling covers and making them your own. I think it was on your 2006 album Peace Machine that you did Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl”, right?
Well, we attempted to. (laughter)
So, there’s a song that’s a perfect recipe of Crazy Horse grunt and grind and lumber as is, right? You played the main body of the song pretty true to the original ... but where Neil’s studio version ends with that little flurry of fuzzed-out notes, you kept it chugging along into an otherworldly freak out – and it’s easy to imagine that was where it was meant to go.
Well ... the original was the perfect track and you don’t need to do anything to it. I’m really turned on by Neil Young – as, I think, most people with a pulse are – and “Cinnamon Girl” is a song that I’ve always loved and never heard covered a lot. It was one of those things: “Let’s have some fun with it and see what happens.”
I was recording with Kenny Aronoff on drums and Mark Browne on bass – we were working with Melissa Etheridge at the time – and having an opportunity to do that with those guys was awesome. We just wanted to have fun with it.
Or, say, “I’d Love To Change The World” – a Ten Years After classic that you covered on 2015’s Influence.
Another song that didn’t need to be redone – it was perfect just the way it was. A couple of friends had suggested trying it as a cover ... we finally did and my friend Michael Neilsen who produced it with me had some great suggestions: “Let’s not recreate the original – let’s take it somewhere else.” And that’s what we did.
If this was a game show and the category was “Well-Worn (And Loved) Strats,” I’d probably list Stevie Ray’s “Number One” ... Rory Gallagher’s ’61 with the finish pretty much blistered off it ... and your ’63 you named “Mother.” I’ve heard bits and pieces about Mother over the years – you changed out the pickups after an unfortunate incident with a bottle of beer, right?
Yeah: an expensive lesson. I was just having fun, playing at a bar somewhere, and I was using the bottle to play some slide. I guess there was a little beer left in it and some got all over the guitar. A couple weeks later none of the pickups worked anymore.
And the replacement pickups came from ...?
A ’58 hardtail; my friend Brad in Edmonton has a great collection.
Let that be a lesson to all you kids out there: make sure there’s no beer in the bottle when you use it to play slide.
But I don’t know as I’ve ever heard the story about where you first crossed paths with that guitar.
I feel super grateful to have two ’63 Stratocasters. One of them I got many years ago when I was playing with Jeff Healey: I saved up and a good friend of mine from Toronto named Bob Blazevski helped me find it. That one is Mother – you’ve got to love your mother – and it came from the west coast of Canada. When I held it for the first time, it was instant: “This is a serious guitar ...” She’s been by my side ever since.
Okay – so here’s the setup: you have to get on a spaceship for a gig on another planet. There’ll be a backline amp waiting for you. You’ll no doubt grab Mother to take with you; what will you take for pedals to get your core tone?
That’s a super cool question ... let’s see: some kind of great fuzz face; some kind of not-too-grainy overdrive; and probably a wah pedal. Those would be it.
The basics! Before we get into the BMF pedals you’ve experienced, let me ask: where did you first meet BMF Scott?
I’m trying to think ... we’ve seen each other so many times and it’s so fun to see him ... I want to say the first time we met face-to-face was at the Baked Potato, which is a venue in Los Angeles. Scott had come out to a show and I met him. From there, we started communicating through e-mail, forming a connection and a friendship.
I remember immediately being aware of what a gentleman he was: super cool; very friendly; it was so easy to chat with him.
At some point after that – at another Baked Potato gig, I believe – he shared some of his pedals with me to try them out. Everything I’ve tried has been incredible ... Scott knows tone.
Tell me about the BMF pedals you’ve bonded with so far.
First of all, I have to say I love the names Scott has for his pedals; they’re badass – you have to have a certain kind of swagger just to pronounce the names of his pedals because they’re so cool.
And all of Scott’s pedals that I’ve seen are built incredibly well – really rugged housings ...
And the heavy-gauge thumbscrews ...
Right! And the funky, tough finish, too. They’re awesome.
One of the ones that comes to mind first is the Sisyphuzz: a silicon fuzz face with Scott’s flavor and finesse. That pedal is a beast; it sounds really great ... it’s got the goods. ’m very thankful to have an original ’68 Fuzz Face BC183 and the BMF Sisyphuzz will hang right there with it ... it’s a great pedal.
Another one is his take on the Octavia ...
The Octadelica fuzz/octave?
Yes! It’s cool – a wild pedal for sure. You can dial in that vintage Octavia-style sound ... and you can go to wild places. I really like that. Those two come to mind immediately.
You mentioned a wah as being one of your go-to pedals. If you haven’t already, you should try Scott’s with the swappable boards. His stock circuit is a nice blend of low end that doesn’t woof out and a top end that cuts without getting overly bright, with a smooth sweep between. My personal favorite is his “Derek” spec board.
Which is ...?
Based on the wah tone you hear on the Derek and the Dominos Live At The Fillmore album – and it’s a total time machine. Scott nails it.
You know, I’m going to have to dig into it. Ever since I first played a “picture” Clyde many, many years ago – a showroom edition out of the box; not a scratch on it – that’s been the sound I’m always looking for: pure honey.
Well, Scott has a Clyde board ...
I am definitely going to dig in and report back!
Before we go, tell me about the new album that’s coming out.
Thank you for asking! The album is called Spirit Rising and it’s dedicated to my dad. It’ll be released worldwide on April 24th. Right now, we have three singles out and a fourth coming right up.
You mentioned your father, Kenneth Sayce, who passed away in September of 2018 ... this much I can tell you, Philip – they never leave us. My folks have been gone for years, but on another level they’re right beside me and we’re doing this together.
Thank you for sharing that, Brian – and I couldn’t agree with you more. My father’s energy and spirit are always with me.
Philip, thank you for taking the time to do this.
Thank you – I’ve enjoyed it.
Philip’s new album “Spirit Rising is due out April 24, 2020. For more information, please visit: http://philipsayce.com