An Interview with James Byrd
“I suppose that there does come a point in one’s musical development when they’re comfortable with who they are musically, and I felt that: What is there to “prove” really?”
After listening to Byrd’s Flying Beyond the 9 album, I felt I had to talk to this guy. The quality of the songs and this guy’s guitar skills made him an excellent candidate for an interview at Guitar Noise.
Guitar Noise: Flying Beyond the 9 is an original title, but what is the actual significance of the title? (Why the “9”?)
James Byrd: I had the album mostly finished except for final mixing and mastering in the fall of 1999. The title is reference to all of the Y2K hysteria and a play on my name. It was just a way of saying that I’m still Flying Beyond the 9 in 1999.
GN: You describe your sound as Symphonic Metal for the New Age. Do you actually mean a blend of Symphony, Metal and New Age music?
JB: No, I wouldn’t say new age music. Although I’ve heard some so called new age music that I thought was quite nice to listen to, I don’t actually listen to much music at all. The album’s lyrical content is loosely centered around millennial events, and the sub title is a general descriptive. Obviously there is a heavy symphonic element in the 70 + tracks of backing orchestration, and I needed to convey that unlike all my previous works, there was a shift in approach to the album. All my previous albums had made use of layers of guitars as a groundwork, and “Flying Beyond the 9” was a turn of direction to putting my guitar into a more concise context where it was not “competing” with itself.
GN: One of the nice things about it is that although you are quite a talented guitarist, the album is not overwhelmingly guitar. You leave a lot of place for the other instruments (contrary to other guitarists who would tend to bury everything with their guitar prowess). Are you searching for a balance between instruments?
JB: Absolutely. My previous album (James Byrd’s Atlantis Rising Crimes of Virtuosity) was both a water mark, and a turning point for me musically. I felt I had taken over the top guitar about as far as it interested me in a traditional heavy metal context. A lot of it was frustration at not having a wider voice harmonically in terms of instrumentation I’m not a keyboard player, so it was an album where intensity alone was the focal point in terms of production. But again, I began to see my guitar as competing with itself, and I began to hear in my mind the vision of a sound where the guitar was contextual, and as a result of that, it actually had more impact, not less. It was hearing some original Van Halen songs from their first album on my car radio in 1998 that made me re think my approach. It just hit me that one guitar could sound bigger than half a dozen, and I decided to par back my tracks to just a single rhythm guitar, and my solos. I leave space because space should only be filled when it’s called for and makes the music better.
I suppose that there does come a point in one’s musical development when they’re comfortable with who they are musically, and I felt that. “What is there to “prove” really?” That you can play a gazillion notes for an extended time? I’ve never had an interest in the “gun slinger” mentality of shred. I just want to communicate with music, and the guitar is my instrument, but so are many other instruments when I compose and my keyboardist creates the scores I present. So I feel free to express myself through all of the music and words, and this too tends to keep the focus musical as opposed to gymnastic.
GN: Avianti Suite. As this piece is Opus 1, No. 63, how many of these classical pieces have you composed?
JB: Six actually. In 1996 I recorded a concerto for guitar and symphony orchestra. It had the traditional 3 movements. This was actually a couple of years before Yngwie did it. At that point in time, I did not have a record company behind me and I managed to finish only the first movement before running out of money. I was not able to find funding to finish the work to the standard I wanted, so the tapes just sat for four years gathering dust. In 2000, I joined MP3.com and at the end of the summer, I found the master of No. 46 Mvt 1 (Byrd’s Bolero) on the shelf and thought “why not?”, and I uploaded it onto MP3.com. The track can be heard here.
The other two movements were never finished, but I haven’t forgotten about them. I may dig them up and finish some day. The other pieces are also unreleased and also not finished recordings, but the music is complete in my head and always there.
GN: (as a follow up to the previous question) Do you intend to release an album of classical pieces like this?
JB: I would love to do this from a purely artistic perspective. But the economics make it very difficult to do. Yngwie (Malmsteen) got according to what he told me, nearly half a million dollars to produce his concerto in 1998. I’m nowhere close to having that kind of support to make albums, and even if I were to spend a tiny fraction of that amount to produce an entirely classical work, apart from some obsessed guitar fanatics, there really isn’t enough of a commercial demand to facilitate it.
GN: Do you feel the response to the album has been up to your expectations?
JB: Well, I was naturally hoping it would be well received. My expectations have been exceeded in terms of critical acclaim by reviewers. Out of 40 or 50 reviews, I only found 3 or 4 that were actually negative, and the majority were absolutely stellar. I definitely don’t ignore what is said about my work by fans and reviewers when it’s criticized. If I read twenty reviews, and 15 of them said something negative about the same aspect of the music or production, I would take it to heart and try to be honest with myself. So when I release an album, I do my best to meet my own expectations, but I am pretty reserved about any conclusions until I see a bigger picture from the response. It’s very easy to develop tunnel vision when putting your heart into an album. It’s inevitable really. So the positive response to “Flying Beyond the 9” has been very gratifying.
GN: When did you start playing the guitar?
JB: I can’t remember not having a guitar of some kind around. But September 18th 1970 the day Hendrix died was the day I got serious and devoted myself to really learning to play theinstrument. Yngwie also cites the same day as I’m sure tens of thousands of kids who saw Hendrix on the evening news for the first time also do.
GN: Did you take lessons or teach yourself?
JB: I have a cousin who was a very accomplished musician and band leader during the 70’s who taught me how to tune the guitar, and he gave me about half a dozen lessons where he showed me bar chords. I had the old Mel Bay self instruction books with chord diagrams too. Other than that, I was self disciplined and self taught. I used to play along with records and learn the solos note for note. I was extremely meticulous opinionated about who I listened to and learned from, and very dedicated to not only leaning the notes, but duplicating every nuance of phrasing and vibrato. I played along with albums by Hendrix, Deep Purple, Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, UFO, Al DiMiola, Django Reinhardt, B.B. King, even Peter Frampton.
GN: As you were learning the instrument, what were the difficulties that arose? What did you find was easiest to learn and what was more difficult?
JB: I was always intent on developing the hand strength and string control to make one note sound expressive. From the time I was 13 years old, having an even, controlled vibrato was an obsession. I would spend hours on end developing this alone. My first models for what I considered the single most important aspect of expression, were Paul Kossof of Free, and Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t really care about any other aspect of playing if I couldn’t master the string itself as a single expressive vehicle. And my efforts finally satisfied me by the time I was 14. I had a fully matured vibrato by this time, and then I moved on to learning more about scales and music.
GN: What were the difficulties in adapting Classical techniques to the electric guitar?
JB: Well, if by classical techniques you mean classical guitar technique, I don’t play with a classical guitar technique because I use a pick. The most difficult aspect of translating classical music however, depends on the source you’re deriving from or studying. I listened to a lot of violin concertos. The two difficulties with translating solos played on the violin to the guitar, are that of scale length and tuning. Violinists generally or often play four notes per string in solos and cadenzas. The guitar’s scale length being longer, and the intervalic off set between the G and B strings, tend to make playing fluid sounding 4 note groups difficult. The geography of theguitar itself, encourages triplets. The longer scale length also means that three note arpeggios on a single string which is natural on the violin become very difficult on the guitar unless one uses finger tapping which I don’t care for. So for me, the challenge of playing lines which are classically derivative, is to overcome the limitations imposed by the geography of the guitar. I’ve developed a lot of unorthodox fingerings and approaches to scales as a result. Hearing Paganini’s 24 caprices when I was 18 and reading about his focus on single string playing was very helpful. I eliminated many of the guitar’s hostility to four note phrasing by adapting scalar ascents and descents to only one string, and then learned that I could eliminate the “over the string” jumps with the pick, and also tie into scale string changes at many more points on the fingerboard if I stopped looking at the neck from a guitarists point of view. This freed me up to also begin listening to many other instruments like piano and clarinet for phrases which became possible when the pattern “box” was not the center of my thinking.
GN: There isn’t much Classical music which has been written especially for the guitar (as compared to piano, violin or other more “traditional” instruments). What are your feelings on thesubject?
JB: Well, if I was a classical guitarist who depended upon existing repertoire to make music, it would bother me. But I’m not, so it doesn’t have much impact to be honest.
GN: What sort of gear do you use?
JB: I have a 1966 Marshall 50 watt plexi head and 8X10 speaker cabinet. It’s all stock except for having a safety fuse added across the mains, and having some of the pre wires physically re routed to reduce noise. I use a DOD overdrive 250 pedal and a Jim Dunlop Cry Baby. That’s the extent of my rig.
GN: Do you have any particular techniques that you would wish to share with our readers?
JB: It’s probably impossible to translate something as subtle as technique into words. I would just say that to listen and learn music from instruments other than the guitar is invaluable to developing an ability to find productive technique.
GN: If you were teaching the guitar to a beginner, where would you start and why?
JB: I would probably be inclined to begin with listening to music and developing an ability to hear the finer points of what constitutes both good, and amateurish playing. I think an ability to recognize correct pitch and time is a prerequisite to being able to play well. Assuming one has a gift for music in the first place, it’s critical to be capable of self evaluation, so I think that’s the first order of business. As far as actual physical technique, I don’t think it matters as long as it’s working for you. Technique should be the result of listening critically, and making adjustments that facilitate a good musical result. I can’t think of his name at the moment, but there is a blind blues rock guitarist (Editor: Jeff Healey) who plays the guitar on his lap with his right hand fingering the notes from above. He has wonderful sound and musicality, yet his “technique” is literally backwards from the rest of the world. What it shows it that he developed his technique with his ears, not a book or a teacher, and whatever you want to call it, it’s good technique because it allows him to convey his music as he feels it. So I have to say, I’m not really much of a believer in the idea that you can actually teach anyone anything. What I believe, is that if someone has the right mindset, there is nothing that they can’t teach themselves. Even if one has a “teacher”, they are still responsible for teaching themselves aren’t they?
GN: What would be your recommendations to another guitarist wishing to improve his/her skills?
JB: Listen to yourself. Record your own playing at every opportunity and listen critically. Be willing to make difficult changes to your physical approach to the instrument when you run up against problems that need work. Once you know how to play something perfectly, forget it and move on. Challenge yourself by concentrating on what needs improvement, not what does not.
GN: With the variety of different models of guitars with so much difference in hardware, why would someone want to make his own guitars?
JB: It’s all a part of thinking outside the box. Why should I be satisfied playing a guitar designed 50 years ago by a radio repairman who wasn’t a guitar player? Because it’s popular or some rock star plays one? I’m not bagging on Fender, there was a lot that was very right with the Stratocaster, and I chose to incorporate those positives into the design of my patented Byrd Super Avianti GuitarsÂ®. But in 27 years of playing the things, one can’t avoid finding the inherent design faults if they think about it. It was a bloody lot of work to design and patent an instrument from a brand new beginning, and it’s certainly not worth it for most people to invest that much time, energy, and money to do it. But I was in the position of a unique set of personal skills for a musician who wanted to do this. I worked in the automotive field for many years with metal fabrication and shaping skills, and prototype development and pattern making as well as many other abilities needed to design and build parts and assemblies were a second profession I depended on as an independent recording artist not making sums playing music. So for me, I just got it in my head that I really didn’t have to subject myself to the whims of others in the guitar industry about what I was playing, and I took it on to have a better guitar than I could buy.
GN: What distinguishes a Byrd guitar from another guitar?
JB: Apart from the 25.5 inch scale length and 3 single coil pickups derived from the Stratocaster, everything. It doesn’t look like any other guitar out there, and it’s actual shape is derived from ergonomics and physics. The body shape is a general “V” shape, but it is asymmetrical, and the asymmetry is backwards from other asymmetrical “V” shaped guitars like the Randy Roads models by Charvel for example . There is reason behind every element of the instrument’s shape, and in this case, it was a question of addressing two issues: First, by putting the longer of the two wings as the lower wing as opposed to the upper wing, the physical balance of the guitar is maintained by compensating for the routing out of the control cavities. I was granted a nation registered trade mark on the phrase “balance compensated wingÂ®” for this design. Now the guitar does not “flop” towards the floor as other “V” shaped guitars will do on the strap. It balances perfectly. The shorter upper wing of the body also results in greater player comfort because the upper wing is no longer forcing the players arm forward unnaturally. So this shape, was arrived at by experience and logic. The body design allows complete access to the very last fret, and this was also very important in a guitar designed not to hinder the player.
The Byrd Super AviantiÂ® guitars also feature a precision inlayed electronics assembly as opposed to the old “just screw the pick guard on top of the guitar and call it good” designs that have graced every other guitar on the market. I wanted a playing surface devoid of unnecessary sharp edges and protrusions, and this was again, “outside the box” thinking to actually sink the entire assembly into a precision carved recess in the face of the instrument. Sure a guitar doesn’t have to be made this way, but if you want to design something that’s a bit better, I thought it should be. The fit is so close, it almost looks painted on.
The neck joint of my guitars are also completely unique. I prefer bolt on necks. Personal experience convinced me that all arguments about “quality” aside, bolt on neck guitars definitely sound better than their set neck counterparts. I could go into the physics of glue barriers as they pertain to acoustical resonance’s, but I won’t. But what the set neck guitars did have going for them, was player comfort. So I designed a 5 bolt neck joint that was off set to fit the players hand as it’s shaped, and was contoured more like a glued in neck by blending it’s shape into the neck. I got rid of the cold metal neck plate, and counter sunk the neck’s bolts sothe player never feels them. The patented headstock design on my guitars is also rooted entirely in function. It combines the advantages of a left handed tuner array on the D thru E strings, andeliminates the requirement for string trees to keep the strings in the nut slots. During my Fender years, I had had my guitars made by them for me with left handed necks. A left handed tunerarray creates less disparity in string tension between the strings. It decreases the disparity in tremolo range between the highest and lowest strings. But when you’ve got all six on the sameside, it requires either string trees, or non traditional tuning machines to keep enough pressure on the nut. The 2 on the bass side, and four on the treble side placement of my design is the best all around layout for balancing the various considerations of string tension and tuning stability. This element of my design enabled me to stop using Floyd Rose tremolos on my guitars becausethey stay in tune without them. The tone is markedly better without the Floyd.
There are many other unique design developments in my guitars like U.D.C. fingerboard scalloping. If someone wants to know about all the features, they can go to http://www.JamesByrd.com and scroll down to the Byrd Guitars logo on the front page. I’m not actively taking orders for instruments right now due to a severe back injury I suffered in May, but I am interested in hearing from any manufacturers who would be interested in attaining a license to produce these multi patented guitars for wider distribution.
Byrd “Flying Beyond the 9” soundclips and album can be found at Guitar9 music and Lion Music.
Thank you very much for your interest in my music and my guitars A.J.