In Pound For The Sound, Phoenix New Times get technical with local musicians about what gear they use to create their signature tones.
Trey Rhodes, Surfside IV guitarist and founding member, once hung with the lead singer of Cake, and described him as "one of the coolest guys I ever met." That was in the 1990s, and well before the time of Surfside IV. However it was an experience that inspired him to push to new levels he constantly aspires to today, over 20 years later. And just to offer a little more history, he actually won a "Best of Phoenix" award in 2010 for "Best Poster Art," so he is not some newcomer to the Phoenix scenes by any means.
Rhodes was born in Columbus, Ohio, and moved here with his family when he was 2 years old, so he very much considers himself a lifetime Phoenician. He began guitar lessons at the early age of 5. His parents bought him a full-size, steel-string acoustic guitar that was too big for him. Neither of his parents are musicians, so they did not quite understand his struggle when first learning to play on an adult-size instrument. However, he stuck with it, and eventually graduated to playing electric bass, where he started to find his groove.
After playing in high school with friends, both on electric bass and guitar, Rhodes found himself into the punk, New Wave type of scene. He had a band called The Brass Cats, but that fizzled out when he decided to attend UC Berkeley. While in northern California, he landed some studio work with members of Parliament and Digital Underground. And because he didn't attend college for music, this was all pretty spontaneous.
After college, Rhodes returned to Phoenix and started playing in an alt-country band called Hog Leg, where he played lap steel. However, that did not fully satisfy his musical soul, as he really wanted to start a surf-rock band. Eventually, he started Surfside IV in 2006, of which he is the only original member. Now, he is something of a surf-rock machine, handling other work for the band like album art and recording.
Rhodes and the rest of Surfside IV have a show Saturday, May 19, at The Quail Lounge on Seventh Avenue in the Melrose neighborhood. If you are looking to get your fix, visit the Facebook page for details.
New Times was able to catch up with Rhodes via phone and email to discuss his love for surf reverb, advice for new guitarists, and his band's upcoming show.
Phoenix New Times: What's the secret weapon of your sound? And how did that help you find your "signature" tone?
Trey Rhodes: Secret? Despite the fact that you read all kinds of articles about “the secret to getting the surf guitar sound” or whatever, it’s no secret. In a word: reverb! And not just the common, in-the-amp reverb everybody has. No, I am talking about the Fender outboard reverb unit. It is the 6G15 circuit, specifically, and you have to plug in before the amp’s tone stack, right into the guitar-input jack. That is the secret. It combines best with a single-coil guitar. You can play almost any kind of music, but when you use a reverb, it magically becomes a kind of surf music. This unit has a “drip” that is, frankly, unavailable from any other device. Why did they call the spring reverb pedal the Holy Grail, you wonder? Because it truly is. I’ve never heard an amp simulator or plugin or digital-effect pedal that can make a convincing substitute; and, believe me, I have tried them all. They just don’t exist.
The outboard reverb has so many nonlinear artifacts that simply cannot be replicated by impulse responses alone, for instance, especially the mechanical distortion of the spring transducer. I would venture to guess that it will not happen anytime soon. It is a complex, chaotic effect at heart, but it is essential to surf music. As well, no two reverb units sound the same! Give me two outwardly identical Fender units from 1962 and you’ll hear two different sounds. It took me 10 years to find the one I use. It has everything to do with the springs in the pan and how they interact with the internal amplifier in the device. I use a spring tank from an old Hammond organ from the early 1960s.
What's your favorite piece of gear in your collection and why?
Another secret to the surf sound is a huge, clean guitar tone. You need big iron and a big speaker to do this. Headroom is key, but it can’t be sterile. You need character to the sound, otherwise I’d just plug right into the house PA. My favorite piece of gear is relatively new to me, a 1962 Brownface Fender Showman. It has a sound unlike anything else on the planet, save one of the other smaller brownface amps made from 1960 to 1962. They only made a few hundred of these and they are very rare, and very expensive! Most appear to be in the hands of collectors now. It is at once very refined, and also quite raw. It produces the most heavenly clean tone that I have ever heard, but at the same time, the distortion is significant. (I wish I could explain it better.) It is absurdly loud like most high-wattage tube amps; however, it is not “glassy” like all the blackface Fenders we’re all used to hearing. Especially in the upper midrange, I find it to be quite rough around the edges and very responsive to touch. Combine it with the legendary JBL D130-F speaker and “tone-ring” cabinet and it is heavenly for a surf player. I have searched for one of these amps for over a decade and only recently was lucky enough to acquire one for a reasonable price. Before that I played through trusty 85 Watt Twin Reverbs with rugged 15-inch lap steel speakers. You know that surf record that you love? Chances are, it was recorded through blonde Fender Showman piggy-back amps.
Any special pieces of gear acquired over the years? Any special story, or stories, behind your collection of tools?
My reverb unit is special to me. It is a handmade clone of the old Fender unit, except for the fact that it has a Brimar tube rectifier instead of a diode. It is all point-to-point wired, real military-grade work there. I was on an extremely strict budget when I was starting out and so I traded a small amp builder in exchange for doing some work on a guy's website about 20 years ago, I guess. I still had to come up with some cash, though. He called it a Blues Reverb, which I still find pretty amusing; it has nothing to do with the blues. Ha! I don’t think he sold many of these things. I spent years trying different, antique spring pans until I got just the right one. I’ll never part with it; it is perfect.
Just listened to the band’s rendition of “Margaya.” Loved the heavy emphasis on the psychedelic surf sound, especially from the guitar. How did you gonabout getting those tones on tapes?
Thanks. I think "Margaya" is an angry-sounding number, but it struck me as somewhat psychedelic, also. It’s a classic surf tune, and one of my absolute favorites. We have recorded all-analog before in a studio, on a 2-inch Studer 24-track using Neumann microphones, and very precious gear. It was a lot of fun, but it was pretty expensive, and the time pressure is crazy. An indie band with no money really doesn’t have time to mix things properly, I feel. This go-round was our first foray into the DIY world of digital recording. I spent several thousand on mics and hardware and it is now set up permanently in our private practice space so we can record on a whim. It is actually a pretty nice room, and the isolation is good. Drums sound fantastic in it for some reason. I use Logic. Be on the lookout for our new record ... it will be out in late summer.
You had mentioned in our phone conversation that you started playing electric bass before learning to play electric guitar. You also said that anyone wanting to be an electric-guitar player should learn bass first. Can you offer some advice here to those learning electric guitar?
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Two things: First, get the right guitar and, two, use a metronome. Learning electric guitar is not as easy as learning piano, for instance, in a mechanical way. It requires real strength to be able to fret notes. This is beyond the physical capacity of many small children. It is a shame that parents force youngsters to somehow adapt to playing an instrument that is truly designed for someone twice as tall and heavy. A workaround might be to introduce a 3/4-size instrument with way lighter gauge strings than adults play. Unlike when I was a child, many really nice, perfectly playable guitars are available for children nowadays. I wish I had learned on one of these. As it was, I gave up early only to return as a teenager.
As I said, the very best guitarists I have ever played with started out on bass, no question. I started on the bass, and then rhythm guitar. Being able to play on the beat helps learning how to play in a group immensely. You can get away with being less flashy or not knowing all the hot licks yet when you simply play in time. Whole genres of pop music are built around this simple idea. Playing bass and rhythm guitar are two sides of the same coin, and you graduate with an impeccable sense of time, and a real ear for following a drummer. (Or you’re out of a job!) This is something that is sorely lacking in many — even professional — guitarists. It drives me crazy when guitar players are oblivious to the beat. (That and guitarists who are out of tune or play on badly intonated instruments.) I think it's what separates the truly great from the wannabes. When a band plays tight, finds the groove, and locks in, it’s unstoppable.
Surfside IV have a performance this Saturday, May 19 at The Quail Lounge. Any words you wish to share with readers about your upcoming shows?
This is a funny time for the band to be plugging shows. We have played hundreds of gigs here in town and in California over the last decade, but we are recording a full-length record right now so we really haven’t been taking gigs. It’ll be worth the wait. I think it is our best work yet ... I love these tunes! By summer we ought to be out in support of the disc. Anyway, we had to make an exception for our friends Daikaiju on tour from Alabama. They don’t come around too often. This is the most exciting live band I have ever seen. Ever. It is a mind-bending experience. The Rebel Set is also on the bill and they are a hell of a lot of fun. This is a killer lineup and a pretty unique chance to see three very big-sounding bands up close and personal at an intimate venue.