Justin Derrico: Pink’s guitarist

Stealing the Show

Published in PM December 2009
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
Now the subject of many a teenage fansite, self-styled ‘shameless’ guitarist, Justin Derrico is currently wowing the world for the second time on Pink’s Funhouse tour. PM caught up with him in Australia to find out how this 27-year-old is coping with life on the road.
Joe Matera
Hailing from Charlottesville, Virginia, guitarist Justin Derrico moved to Hollywood to study at the famed Musician’s Institute of Technology. During his time at MIT, Derrico was given the chance to tour with rock band the Calling and soon hit the road with the group. After his stint with them ended, he joined Robin Thicke’s backing band and spent some time recording and touring with him. Soon after, Derrico was asked to audition for Pink who, at the time, was looking for a new touring guitarist. After blitzing the competition, Derrico secured the position and has been with Pink ever since. “I auditioned for it with several other guys,” says Derrico, “and because we hit it off right off the bat, they hired me on the spot.”
Once officially in, Derrico only had a very short time to learn the set before venturing out on the road with his new boss. “After the audition, they informed me, ‘We’ll see you in Budapest in a week’,” says Derrico. “So they gave me a list of about 26 songs and I only had a couple days to learn them before rehearsals would begin. At the same time, I had another gig with Robin Thicke that was in Washington D.C. So I had to fly over there and, while on the flight, I listened to Pink tunes. I continued doing this during sound check and on the flight the next morning before I had to go to Center Staging in Los Angeles and begin five days of intense rehearsals for the Pink tour.
“When I arrived in Budapest, we did a rehearsal, but Pink didn’t join us, she just stood by the side of the stage, watching us. So my first time actually playing with her was the very next night in Budapest in front of 125,000 people! They had told me beforehand that it was going to be just a small gig.”
When Performing Musician caught up with Derrico in Melbourne, Australia, Pink’s current Funhouse tour was nearing the end of its record-breaking 58 performances. By the time the world tour wraps up in Europe around Christmas this year, Derrico will have performed a staggering 155 shows across the globe.
On with the show
Having been an instant hit on Pink’s I’m Not Dead tour, Derrico is now on his second world-wide tour with the singer.
Having been an instant hit on Pink’s I’m Not Dead tour, Derrico is now on his second world-wide tour with the singer.
Performing Musician: You’ve now done two extensive world tours with Pink, how has learning her set list evolved?
Justin Derrico: “Because I had to learn the initial set fast, and retain it fast, it taught me a lot. So I came up with my own method of organizing how I learned songs. Usually, I’ll put on headphones as that way you can hear every little nuance and, especially when I’m learning stuff off the record, there are a lot of guitar parts. On this tour, we have Kat (Lucas) who is also playing guitar, so she’s covering some of the other parts, which was something that was missing on the last tour. The last time I had to amalgamate parts, and fill the most space, texture-wise, all while making the song come to life. But now I can be a little bit freer and have more room to move.”
PM: When it comes to pre-tour rehearsals, do they also vary in the scope and time frame?
JD: “Once we’ve learned the songs, we’ll work on arrangements and spend about a week with just the band, figuring out arrangements, interludes and things like that. At the same time our musical director is in constant communication with Pink, discussing how they’re going to tell the story choreographically and fit it within the music’s framework. Then the dancers will come in and we’ll do a quick run through of the set for a couple of days, fine-tuning anything we need to. We then move to a soundstage where Pink can run through the sets during the week. Because she is changing outfits a lot, we have to work out time allowances for her costume changes to fit the music, too. Because we started our current tour in France, we went to Nice for about a week or two and had the arena all to ourselves, so we could run through the whole show as a dress rehearsal. That helps with getting all the crew familiar with the cues, prop changes and the mechanics involving all the acrobatic stuff. Every single person, as part of the whole thing, really counts. If one person makes one mistake, it will lead to a chain of mistakes with other things. It’s a well-oiled machine.”
PM: In what ways has the show been the most demanding of your musicianship?
JD: “On this tour I’m getting a lot of solos, so one of the most demanding things for me is to keep it interesting. Doing the same show every night, you find that things tend to get stale if you play the same thing everytime. And every night you feel different, like sometimes you get up there and it’s just pouring out of you, while on other nights you just fall back on what you have. The other thing that can be quite difficult is the amount of pedal changes I have to do. I do a lot of dancing on that pedalboard because I need to have a lot of different sounds.”
PM: How important are backing tracks to the overall show?
JD: “The only things we have on the backing tracks are synth sounds and sound textures. There are no vocals and only a couple of minor guitar parts, just bits and pieces here and there. We have a backup for everything. If it goes down, the guy running the backup will switch it on without it missing a beat. But even then, a backup can go down as well. That’s happened to me twice at the most crucial part of the night when I walk down the trestle and do a four-minute solo. I suddenly had no guitar so they quickly switched on the backup rig and, again, there was no guitar. We had to quickly go into the next song, which happened to be a cover of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. There was still no guitar until almost the end of the song before they plugged me straight into the head and I played out the rest of the show that way. We later found out the cause was that the power supply to the pedalboards was broken.”
Centre stage
Derrico’s current pedalboard for the Pink tour: the effects are all on a loop that returns to one of the volume pedals, allowing him to ditch them all for high-gain soloing.
Derrico’s current pedalboard for the Pink tour: the effects are all on a loop that returns to one of the volume pedals, allowing him to ditch them all for high-gain soloing.
Photo: Frank Micelotta / Getty Images North America
PM: This current world tour is quite a large undertaking so obviously there is a lot of pressure to be on top of things
JD: “Yeah, in total there are about 80 band and crew. By the time we finish this tour, we would have done over 150 shows. We started promo for the Funhouse album back in October of 2008 and the actual arena tour started back in February of this year. I’ve only spent two months at home, but it’s been broken up in blocks of 10 days a-piece. Because I love to travel, it’s not hard on me at all. When you do a tour this long, it becomes a big part of your life. All the people around you become your family. Every now and then it gets tough, like when you get sick — you can’t just call in sick, you still have to play.”
PM: Is it always challenging for you to capture the studio nuances of the songs when recreating them in a live environment?
JD: “It can be hard sometimes because you have to figure out a way to make it translate live. I’m always trying to make it as beefy as possible because, when you’re playing live, sometimes things can be a bit bare, so I try to make-up for that by combining parts. Some songs are easier than others to recreate what was done in the studio.”
PM: Being versatile in your musicianship is obviously an important element in being a guitarist for a touring major label act?
JD: “It is very important. We have often been adding and taking out songs, and we’re doing different arrangements all the time. Sometimes she (Pink) will say, ‘I don’t want to do it like this,’ and you’ve got to be able to go in any direction that she wants. On the last tour, I had a flamenco piece that I did. Before that, I had never played any flamenco in my life. But she wanted a flamenco piece for the section where she did a costume change, so I quickly went and downloaded a bunch of flamenco stuff. The end result — far from being traditional flamenco, which is something that takes years of study — was my own ode to flamenco, and it worked. So you’ve got to be able to pull something out as fast as possible.”
Scene setting
In addition to his comprehensive underfoot pedal board, Derrico employs a second delay unit that resides on a sub-board with the wireless systems by his amps.
In addition to his comprehensive underfoot pedal board, Derrico employs a second delay unit that resides on a sub-board with the wireless systems by his amps.
PM: Let’s discuss your set-up. You have quite an elaborate pedalboard?
JD: “The guitar goes into a junction box in my pedalboard and that goes into the piezo switcher, then into my Dunlop wah, an Ernie Ball VP JR. volume pedal, a Rocktron Hush, a Xotic Effects BB preamp pedal, and an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG. Then I have another Ernie Ball volume pedal, a Boss CE-2 Chorus Ensemble, a Boss TR-2 Tremolo, a Boss BF-3 Flanger, a Deja’Vibe from Fulltone, a Boss DD-20 Delay and a Boss RV-5 Reverb, and all of that is in the loop. It’s set up like this because I can pull back the volume pedal that’s in the loop and get full gain if I’m on a distortion channel. I like to drive it from my guitar as well, like on songs such as ‘Funhouse’ and ‘Crazy’, I’ll dial it back on my guitar. The last thing in my loop is another delay pedal in another board — the wireless board that is totally separate. The reason for the wireless board is that, for some strange reason, everything in my effects loop works, while everything in front of my amp doesn’t.”
PM: In what ways has your rig evolved over time?
JD: “It has evolved quite a bit. When I started to add more and more pedals, I noticed a little bit of signal loss — general degradation in tone. When you take everything out and plug straight into the amp, like we did that night when my gear shut down, everything sounds amazing. We also knocked-off quite a bit of cabling and from that I got a lot of high-end back into my signal.”
PM: I notice you chose an in-ear system over wedges.
JD: “Yeah, I use Ultimate Ears. On this tour the stages are really big and I also move around a lot. My cabinets are very directional and if I’m in front it, it’s very loud. But if I step to the side you almost miss the sound. Pink uses one ear in, and one ear out as she uses the wedges all over the stage in order to have her mix.”
PM: When it comes to different room acoustics, how do you go about adjusting accordingly?
JD: “Sometimes if it’s a little bottom heavy I’ll push the treble up a little, but I really don’t do a lot of tweaking. I usually leave that up to the front-of-house guy because where I am, for the most part, the sound I get from my amp is very consistent. In certain rooms like this one (Rod Laver Arena), I can hear more of the highs and mids, and the low end is really nice.”
PM: What sort of procedure do you follow, if any, when it comes to soundchecking?
JD: “Most of the time we’ll do the same songs every day, so we’ll pick a couple of songs that get us warmed up and where everybody is playing something. Our mix is saved every night, so you have a good place to start at the next venue and it’s consistent. I notice if I am too loud I don’t play quite as hard, or even as confident. It is because it seems like I’m sticking out on everything, so I usually try and get the guitar to sit slightly behind the other instruments in the mix so that I can dig in a little harder. When Pink comes in she has a routine that she likes to follow so we check a lot of the same songs. Soundchecks are fun for me because we do get a bit of jamming in every now and then.”
PM: When it comes to capturing your guitar tone in the live environment is there any specific setup you prefer?
JD: “Yeah, I’ve got two Sennheiser mikes on each cabinet. I also crank my master volume to about one o’clock to get the tubes cooking. But really it is all about a great guitar, the Bogner Shiva, and really good pedals. Simplicity is always a good thing.”
Heading home
Derrico favours mostly Gibson Les Pauls for his on-stage work with Pink.
Derrico favours mostly Gibson Les Pauls for his on-stage work with Pink.
PM: Obviously every tour has its challenges, so for you, what have been some of the most challenging aspects?
JD: “I’d say none of it is easy. But the biggest challenge has been getting my rig to accommodate what I have to get done. You go through things like changing pedals, adding pedals, losing pedals, and the same with guitars to get the right sounds. Tone is one of the most important elements, if not the most important. Pink likes to pitch off the guitar for a lot of songs so my sounds need to have clarity as well. Another thing that tends to be hard is ear fatigue, when you’re doing this many shows in a row your ears become tired. But a few days off always does the trick to nurse them back to health.”
PM: After being on the road for very long periods of time, is it hard to come back to a normal day-to-day existence?
JD: “You always get the post-tour blues after having been constantly on the move and literally throwing your body all over the world. So when you finally get to that one spot where you’re not moving and everything just stops it takes a few weeks to adjust to the fact that you’re not going somewhere. You also suffer from boredom because you’ve been working so long that your life at home is not really there so it’s like you need to start it all over again.”  0

Published in PM December 2009