Aaron Melling: Blue Oyster Cult's Tech
Published in PM April 2008
People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
Aaron Melling has spent the last three years teching all over the world with US heavy rock pioneers Blue Oyster Cult. We chat to him about crew dynamics, lead axeman Buck Dharma's kit and what it's like to be guitar tech, bass tech, drum tech and cowbell virtuoso all rolled into one.
Back in mid-2004, when Aaron Melling was first drafted by his mate Eric Gormley to help out mid-tour after one of Blue Oyster Cult's guitar techs quit, he was a jobbing electrician with a long-term passion for all things guitar and all things music. For the last year, he's been pretty much a full-time member of their three-man road crew, and is absolutely loving everything his new career's been throwing at him.
"We have a really, really good strong friendship between the crew and the band," Aaron tells me over the phone from the States. "It's nice because everyone gets along and we're kind of like a second family. We just go out and have fun and do our jobs — it's really enjoyable and very pleasurable. They're a really nice bunch of guys to work for. I'm sure not every tech has the luxury of saying they're very good friends with everyone, so I do feel very honoured and lucky to work for Blue Oyster Cult!"
Aaron's love of guitar music almost goes back to the time he was still in nappies. Because of his father, Jack, who's a keen country guitarist and a big music fan, the Melling household was one where music was very much a part of the furniture.
"My Dad has played guitar forever and got me turned on to music when I was real young. I remember playing Beatles records down in my basement hangout at four or five years old — they're pretty much my earliest memories! I got into Kiss, AC/DC, Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath, then I got turned on to punk in about '81-'82 when a friend played me a Black Flag tape. Then thrash metal and speed metal. And I began playing in local bands, playing hard rock and heavy metal covers just for fun. We never took it too seriously; we just wanted to get free drinks and meet girls!"
Aside from the occasional on-stage guest appearance with friends' bands back home, Aaron now confines his own playing to the bedroom, where he's the proud owner of a nice little axe selection, including a black '85 Jackson Randy Rhoads Pro, a Johnny Ramone replica Eastwood Mosrite copy and a couple of customised Fenders — a Strat and a Jaguar — all of which he plugs into a Marshall NF250 half-stack.
"As far as playing in a band of my own, I really don't have the time," says Aaron. "All the gigs would be on the weekends and I'm usually out with BOC on the weekends, but I'm totally content with that."
With their current line-up (which includes founding members Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom, as well as Ozzy Osbourne's former bassist Rudy Sarzo), Blue Oyster Cult are still a big draw on the US live circuit, and clock up about 100 gigs a year, from small theatres right through to 5000-capacity casinos and major US and European rock festivals. They manage this with a united, tight and efficient road crew, who share the various roles and responsibilities between them: Aaron Melling is currently Buck Dharma's guitar tech, Rudy Sarzo's bass tech and Jules Rodino's drum tech; Eric Gormley is Eric Bloom's guitar tech and Richie Castellano's guitar/keyboard tech; and their tour manager is also the BOC sound engineer. Although Aaron's primarily a guitarist, teching the drums and keyboards if he's asked to is no problem.
"I'm not a particularly proficient keyboard or drum player, but I can do some stuff good enough for a line check," says Aaron. "The setups are pretty easy and there's nothing real extravagant!"
Aaron also keeps on top of the equipment he's responsible for when the band are on a mid-tour break.
"I bring stuff home to work on," explains Aaron. "We don't get much time on the road to do maintenance, so quite often I'll bring guitars home to adjust everything and make sure everything's cool. I bring home the racks and the amps, tighten up all the bolts and make sure everything's good to go for the next run out — just general maintenance stuff!"
When it comes to guitars, Buck Dharma's main axe is a unique breed indeed. The 'Cheeseberger' is a custom-made version of the Steinberger GMT 7. As with the regular GMT 7, it has EMG HSB pickups in the neck and the bridge, as well as a single-coil in the centre position. It has modified electronics to give the guitar a higher output, and fat chunks have been cut into the body to give it the 'Swiss cheese' look. Only one other Cheeseberger is in existence, and it's owned by a very lucky hardcore BOC fan. Buck Dharma only takes one other guitar on tour, and that's a sunburst Steinberger M series with the same pickups as the Cheeseberger.
"They're pretty interesting instruments," says Aaron. "I never messed with Steinbergers before BOC, but I really like the way they're laid out — a totally unique look for a guitar. They're pretty cool! And they have a composite neck, no headstock, so they're double-ball strings. So it's real easy to change strings, and they've got Trans-Trem tremolos, which are really unique. They have a little lock, so if you wanna go up a full step, you just go up and lock it in a notch from the middle position, or if you wanna go down a full step, you go the opposite way!"
Whilst Eric Bloom opts for a wireless system, both Buck Dharma and Rudy Sorzo still swear by their cables. Amp-wise, Dharma opts for 100W Marshall JCM900 Dual Reverbs (they hire them out while on tour), which he runs in stereo through an Alesis Quadraverb processor sitting on the rack alongside a power conditioner. He has a Behringer pedalboard with expression, volume and preset pedals, as well as two custom-made Jet overdrive pedals. This latter aspect is a relatively recent change.
"Buck was using a footswitch on the Marshall to switch between the two channels," says Aaron, "but he recently started using the two overdrive pedals. So he's now just using the single B channel and not the A, and using the overdrive pedals for extra boost and gain when he wants them."
Rudy Sarzo plays a four-string model of his own Peavey signature model bass, which he plays straight into an Ampeg Classic head. He doesn't take a spare.
Blue Oyster Cult have to fly up and down the US for the majority of their shows, and for this reason they don't take a huge amount of equipment around with them, due to the high costs incurred if they go over their weight restrictions.
"We fly to probably 90 percent of the shows we do," says Aaron. "We'll use our own equipment if we play around the New York area — for New Jersey, Connecticut, we'll drive our own gear about. For example, last Friday we played in NYC, and on Saturday we had a show in Tacoma, Washington. We'll be on one side of the country one day and the other side of the country the next. I think they just throw a dart at the map of the US and wherever it lands up that's where we go. So we do get a lot of travelling in, which can be kind of rough sometimes. When we do fly, sometimes we have to get our own cars, and sometimes the promoter picks us and our gear up from the airport."
Aaron also carries little in terms of spares when the band are on the road, which seems to work fine. He has a Pelican case to house all of his bits and bobs.
"I just carry spare chords, a spare guitar and extra batteries," says Aaron. "We just carry the pedals we use and that's about it — we don't really carry spares. If we do have a problem, we'll try and send a runner out to a Guitar Center or a local guitar store to get a replacement."
On the day
On the afternoon of a show, the crew will usually get to the venue in the early part of the afternoon.
"We usually have load-in at about two or three o'clock," says Aaron. "We usually get two to three hours to set up, which is more than adequate time to get everything going, double-check and do a quick line check with the sound engineer. We get a rough dial-in, and usually the band will come out around five or six and play about 45 minutes to an hour soundcheck, dial everything in, and then it's time to wait for the show to start. We'll go on at anything from 8 to 10pm — that usually depends on the venue and whether we have openers or not."
Aaron has a few select favourite tracks to play when he's line checking.
"Well, our tour manager is a big Ramones fan and I am too, so I usually play some Ramones," laughs Aaron. "'Loudmouth' is one of my favourites, as is 'I Don't Wanna Go Down To The Basement'. I had to play some Nirvana when we were out in Tacoma — because we were near Seattle, I thought it was right to play an old grunge track — so I played 'Lithium'. But sometimes I'll just get up and fiddle around and do something off the cuff. It's usually a minute to two minutes of playing, so I don't get too elaborate!"
As far as changing strings goes, Aaron switches Buck's every other show and Rudy's bass strings every third show, after soundchecking. Buck's Steinberger guitars are loaded with a La Bella double-ball 'thick and thin' set, with gauges 46, 36, 26, 17, 13 and 9, whilst Rudy uses Blue Steel bass strings on his Peavey. Aside from 'Don't Fear The Reaper', which has a slight tuning change, Buck plays everything in regular tuning, so the spare Steinberger is literally just for backup if he breaks a string or there's a problem. As Aaron says, "If he does use the Cheeseberger all the way through, then I've done my job right!"
When I speak to Aaron it's mid-January and Blue Oyster Cult are just warming up with a few shows before things get into the summer's hectic swing of things. But that's the way he loves it; teching for a band that he classes as really good friends and whom he's personally been a fan of since he was a kid.
"Summer is really busy," says Aaron. "I'll maybe be home just two or three days in a row and then out for seven to ten days, then back for a few days, then out for ten days or whatever. We're real busy in the summer — that's when all the major shows are going on!"
When I ask Aaron what his dream teching job would be, past or present, it doesn't take long for him to hit me with an answer.
"I have to say I would've loved to have been old enough to have been Randy Rhoads' tech, just because he's considered to have been one of the best guitar players of all time and he only had two big albums to prove himself on. It's probably one of the biggest tragedies, because he never really got a chance to show everything that he had as far as his creativity goes!" 0
Bring out the bell boy!
One aspect that marks Aaron Melling out from many rock & roll techs is that he also regularly plays a part on stage, namely rocking out with a cowbell on 'Don't Fear The Reaper'! The catchphrase 'I gotta have more cowbell!' was made famous in a 2000 Saturday Night Live skit, in which a fictional reproduction of the 'Reaper' recording session was played out. The band's producer, played by Christopher Walken, repeatedly asks for more cowbell, and the catchphrase caught on to such an extent across the US that BOC have since incorporated it in their live shows.
"It's amazing how many people have come up to me and told me they need more cowbell, but the band loves the skit!" laughs Aaron. "Everybody likes it and it boosts the popularity of the band. The younger kids that probably would have never heard of Blue Oyster Cult have because of the skit. And, yes, I am the cowbell player! Usually, I have a crew mic standing behind Rudy and Buck's guitar speaker cabinets, and I'll sing backup vocals on certain songs and play the cowbell out there. But every now and again, Eric Bloom will come over and have me come out front and play the cowbell. In my first show, I had to play the cowbell on 'Don't Fear The Reaper', and I listened to the song maybe 100 times to listen to when I came in and went out! I put all the cues and stuff down, because I didn't wanna look stupid — I had to know my stuff!"
Published in PM April 2008
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