.strandberg* signature artist Alex Machacek sat down with us to discuss a wide range of topics encompassing the current state of the jazz/fusion field, recent projects, his recording process, and how he uses his gear. One of the most accomplished and exciting guitar players and composers in the jazz/fusion scene today, check out what makes Alex tick and continue to expand the idiom into new musical realms.
You recently recorded a live album/DVD in LA. Please tell us about this project and when can we expect the album’s release?
Last November I was invited by film composer Sujin Nam to play with FAT (Fabulous Austrian Trio) at the Apogee Studios where she hosts an evening of music every year. The entire gig was recorded by the famous Bob Clearmountain and also filmed by the equally famous Robert Brinkmann.
It won’t necessarily be released as a DVD, but a live album release is planned along with some professional video clips for social media. Right now, I am still in the editing phase.
Since Bob Clearmountain will be mixing the album, it depends on his schedule as to when it will be finished. But I’d say it should be out around the end of this year
Can you provide an insight into your writing and recording process?
No, but here is my meager attempt…
I am always looking for a sing-able or memorable part to begin with. A “hook” so to speak. Maybe in my case it’s not the typical hook but nevertheless for me it must be a hook. Then I elaborate from there. Even though my music might sound a bit complicated to some listeners there are plenty of sing-able melodies in there.
I usually have a very clear picture of what I want to write, and I always keep the line-up in mind.
In the case of my current trio FAT I know exactly what I can get from my bandmates and also know how to torture/challenge them. For instance, Raphael Preuschl is a harmonically very advanced player who doesn’t shy away from playing chords, so I often write more than a few chords in his bass part.
One constant factor in my writing is the decision-making process: does a piece have to be playable live or is it just a recording project. Whenever I write to improvised drum solos (a specialty of mine – I did that based on drum solos of Terry Bozzio, Marco Minnemann, Gergo Borlai and Herbert Pirker) then I don’t expect this music to be reproduced live.
Recording: I prefer to record my guitar parts in my home studio where I have enough time to be as playful as I want. Also, I usually get a better sound and monitoring situation at home.
I always record with the AxeFx just using the amp/cab simulation into Logic X and add effects later. Only for special sounds that have to be “that” way I record with effects right away.
You have been involved in jazz education for some time. What are some of the aspects involved in being a good educator in the field of jazz?
My basic teaching approach: I try to teach the way I would have liked to be taught. When I was developing an interest in jazz, I didn’t just want to learn a “lick” by someone, I also wanted to find out what was going on and how I could come up with something similar myself. Sure, we all need some licks in the beginning to have something to play but after a rather short while I do think it is worth it to look behind the scenes and take the extra effort of understanding a concept or idea behind any licks.
Another aspect of my teaching is that I am a big advocate of knowing the entire fretboard as well as possible. Tabs are great, but knowing all the notes is even better 🙂
My ultimate goal as a teacher is to make myself obsolete for the student. I give them tools that they might need and encourage them as much as possible to be their own teacher.
You started out as a rock fan and player and then gravitated towards jazz and fusion. What prompted you to move in this direction? Was it an instant epiphany or a gradual development?
The drummers!!! That was the instant epiphany – once I heard higher tuned snares I was hooked! I was really intrigued by the different sound and playing approach of jazz or fusion drummers.
Once I started listening to jazz and fusion, I realized that there is so much interplay between the drummer and the soloist which I found quite appealing.
There was also a gradual development: my interest in harmony was growing over the years which made me lean more towards that kind of music.
The jazz harmonic vocabulary can be difficult to absorb and understand, let alone master. Do you have any insights you can share for the rock player to make the transition?
First of all, one has to have an appetite for harmony and also be in musical situations where a harmonic vocabulary is actually needed. I don’t think it makes sense trying to learn new voicings just for the sake of learning them without any practical application.
When I was young, I was a huge Joe Pass fan and I learned many of his chord solos. But at the same time, I also played in lots of bands where I could use these chords constantly.
I guess curiosity is the key for a transition. If you start listening to harmonically more complex music and happen to like it, it is almost granted that you will start diving into this never-ending topic organically.
Your impeccable and comprehensive technique encompasses rapid alternate picking a la McLaughlin/DiMeola, the fluid legato in the vein of Holdsworth and the sweep-picking in the style of Gambale but applied in a way that is seamless and coherent. Did you work on developing such proficiency for each technique individually or simply as a whole to achieve a musical end?
I wish I had that kind of technique… 🙂
When I started to get more serious about playing the guitar, I realized that my alternate picking sucked. So, I started to come up with exercises in order to get a little bit better at it. Then I heard about sweep-picking and thought that would be the solution to my problem. I ordered Frank Gambale’s Speed Picking book and practiced sweeping quite intensely.
But I never switched to sweeping exclusively. I rather combined those two techniques. And I have to admit that back in the day I overused my newly acquired sweep arpeggios quite a bit.
And then there was the point in time where I got interested in Allan Holdsworth, so I focused on my legato technique. Over the years I got better in combining those techniques and that’s how I play now. I still practice each of these techniques individually but combining them seems to be the best way for me.
What are your thoughts about the jazz/fusion scene today? In a recent interview, John McLaughlin lamented about how difficult it is for young jazz musicians to break into the scene as a professional.
Seeing many clubs closing down doesn’t really make it easier for young musicians. Neither does it make it easier for older ones like me. On the other hand, there is YouTube now and some players basically started their career on this medium. One thing is for sure: live music is a very special experience for the audience and that makes me think it won’t disappear.
Although you live in LA, you seem to spend a good deal of time in Austria. What are some of the projects you work on there and how do you manage the challenges of maintaining two “bases”, so to speak?
It’s true, I spent quite some time in Austria in recent years, but my main home base is LA.
I recently got my Masters Degree at the University of Vienna. Back in the day I studied Jazz Guitar at the Conservatory of Vienna and received a diploma for that. But in the meantime, this Conservatory turned into a university and you can now earn a Bachelor or Masters Degree. So, I went back to school for a little while and did what I had to do to get my Masters. While in Vienna I worked mostly with FAT.
You’ve been an advocate of headless guitars for quite a while. What do you find appealing in headless guitars?
There are mostly pros and only one con.
Pro: superior balance, the light weight, easy to travel with and even taking it on board when flying.
Con: people still have to make remarks about the headless design. I heard ALL of them and I tell anyone who gives one of these unsolicited remarks: If I received a penny for every remark about headless guitars, I could easily buy the State of California!
Please tell us about the development of your Strandberg Artist Edition model and how it fits into your music-making process.
It all started with Ola Strandberg contacting me – asking if I would like to try out a Strandberg. After testing the one I received I gave him and Ed Yoon my feedback. This went back and forth for a while until we reached a point for a signature model.
For me the guitar is a tool to make music and I am looking for an instrument that lets me focus on the music and not on overcoming any obstacles. My Strandberg signature model is nothing but a pleasure to play and I get all the sounds I want, what else can I say…
What are some of the unique characteristics of your Strandberg that sets it apart from other guitars you’ve played?
Things that set it apart from any other guitar I have played before:
– The light weight. This is by far the lightest guitar I have ever played, and my back is nothing but grateful about that.
– The neck profile: The Endure Neck is something very special. It took me a bit to get used to, but I really like it a lot.
– The body: the shape of the body is simply a stroke of genius – it enables you to play it in two different positions when you sit down. And at home I always sit down when playing.
Please tell us about your guitar rig and some of the sounds you achieve with it.
Guitar – pedalboard into my Port City Pearl amp. When on the road I use whatever amp is available, mostly Fender amps such as a Twin or any of the HotRod. As long as it is tube amp with enough headroom in the clean channel.
My pedalboard keeps changing constantly (which one doesn’t?) but right now it is:
Keeley Compressor which fattens the tone into a BB Preamp for overdrive. From there the signal goes into a Line6 Helix Stomp which also acts as my looper for two audio loops: Loop 1 sends the signal into my JHS Angry Charlie and Loop 2 sends it to the Eventide H9.
Of course, I use the Helix Stomp for a multitude of effects such as Delays, Reverb, etc… I control the Helix Stomp with a Morning Star MC6 and I power the whole board with a SweetFoot Isobase 5++. With this setup I can generate pretty much all the sounds I need live.
What are some of your plans for the near future? We assume that the live album isn’t far off. Any tours and other exciting projects?
Right, the live album needs just a little bit of attention as I mentioned before…
At the moment I am in the finishing stages with an album of Sumitra which I am producing and mixing. Sumitra sings and plays piano, Carlitos DelPuerto on bass and Brian Blade on drums. I did play guitar on a couple of tracks, but my main role is to produce it.
Next month I’ll go to Europe to play a tour with FAT and in August I’ll go back again to teach at a Jazz Summer course, which I have been doing every year since 2007.
I will probably do more video lessons for MyMusicMasterclass.com. In fact, I just finished two more videos for them.
In the fall, I have more gigs in Canada with Brand X, I recently played with them at the Cruise To The Edge.
In between I am quite busy with recording sessions for lots of different people. I just finished 3 tracks for Thomas Lang’s new album and 2 tracks for Gergo Borlai’s upcoming album.
Also, I want to finally update my website to today’s standards. I know, it’s a disaster at the moment…but I will make time for that… I am already in preparations for the next FAT studio recording which will happen in January 2020.
And and and….