Pete Malandrone:Brian May's Guitar Tech
Published in PM January 2008
People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
This month, we chat to Brian May's guitar tech, Pete Malandrone, about the legendary Red Special guitar, getting it right atop Buckingham Palace and, erm, what it's like polishing telescopes for one of the biggest figures in British rock.
Pete Malandrone had been working as a BT engineer the entire 13 years of his working life before he happened upon a little guitar teching job in the mid-'90s via a mutual friend he was playing in a band with. But this wasn't just a gear-humping, toilet venue, sweat and sawdust kind of first teching job — it would be the first and potentially last teching job Pete would ever do. Enter stage left, rock music's most famous PHD of astronomy, Dr Brian May. After having a look around Brian's recording studio where his mate was working, Pete was given the odd-job bit of wiring, starting with a very important job for a certain member of Brian's family.
"I'd left BT by then because I was bored with it," explains Pete, "And I came up just to basically have a look at what they were doing in the studio because I was interested, and I just made myself useful really. The first job I ever did was to fix Brian's son's Scalextric! Then I worked on a few plugs and leads up in the studio and showed that I wasn't scared of wires hanging out of walls and getting my hands dirty. I was then invited back for a couple of weeks, and then I met Brian. They needed someone to help in the studio and I said, 'Well, I'll do it, but I'm not going to be just your tea boy, I want to learn stuff!'"
With his black boot firmly in the door, it wasn't long before another little twist of fate threw a promotion in Pete's direction.
"Brian had a tech then, but he left to join Blur, I think it was," says Pete. "And then Brian had a gig coming up. He was just playing one song with Meatloaf at Wembley, but he didn't have a tech, so I said, 'I've been nosing round your gear. I don't know what I'm doing, but I've got some idea. I'll do it for you, but just don't shout at me when I get it wrong!' He said, 'OK!' and that was it! That's how I started teching!"
Pete Malandrone enjoys what can only be described as a luxury when it comes to his teching career. He's Brian May's permanent employee, which means, unlike many other guitar techs, he isn't forced to spend his spare moments punting for future tour work. Because of this unusual situation, he claims that while he's very useful to Brian, he wouldn't be so useful to other guitar players.
"I know loads and loads of techs, and most of them just know so much," says Pete. "I could never learn that much, but I don't have to. I don't need to because I only work for Brian. The only thing I need to know about is Brian's kit. I don't need to know what the neck radius is on a '59 Strat. I don't need to know what the original buttons look like. I don't need to know about any of that stuff. I know a tremendous amount about his stuff, but practically nothing about anything else!"
As Brian May and Queen fans the world over will undoubtedly know, the core of Brian's gear setup has remained the same since the mid-'60s: a Vox AC30 amp whacked up to the max, backing up the legendary home-built Red Special guitar, which Brian has rarely deviated from. The Red Special was built by Brian and his father mainly using items they found around the house, including a discarded fireplace mantel, which provided the majority of the wood for the body, and a reinforced steel knife-edge, which they fashioned into a tremolo system. This remarkable piece of amateur luthiership is an absolutely essential ingredient in that famed Brian May tone. Pete Malandrone is understandably wary every time he has to do any work on it.
"I steer clear of it as much as possible," says Pete. "I hate it — well, I don't hate it, but it's like having the crown jewels. Just the thought of doing any damage is too much to bear! But every now and then, the scratchplate comes off if I need to clean the input jack. I take the scratchplate off it and all the strings and stuff, and I just try to clean everything while I'm in there. But that's as far as I will go with it, because I just don't wanna touch it!"
When Brian goes on tour, he obviously can't rely solely on his beloved little red axe. For 2006's Queen plus Paul Rodgers arena jaunt, Pete packed a total of eight of Brian's guitars into the truck, which is not a huge amount for an arena rock guitarist. As well as the "old girl", as Pete affectionately calls her, they took two Guild 12-strings, two Yamaha Silent nylon-strung guitars (for 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love'), two Red Special copies, hand-built by luthier Greg Fryer, and one Red Special copy, hand-built by another top luthier, Andrew Guyton. The only time Brian ever plays in a different tuning is when he's hammering out 'Fat Bottomed Girls', which is in drop D.
Amp-wise, it's AC30s all the way for Brian May, and it's a case of all the way when it comes to volume too. On that last 2006 tour, they took 16 AC30s in total, of which Pete would be using nine at any one time. Three would be sitting in the backline, three would be on the frontline, with three spares raring to go if any of those failed. The central frontline AC30 is always ''clean', whilst the two on the outside are for effects. Pete also maintains a good mix of different models of AC30.
"Brian really likes the sound of the early ones — the '70s ones — and the only mods we've done on those is put newer Celestion Blue speakers in them if they didn't have them already," Pete tells us. "I've also changed them to have a standby switch, because some of those '70s ones didn't have a standby facility. We also have some Brian May Custom AC30s, which were made by Vox, and we also have some that were modified by Dave Peterson. Those just have an input and a volume and an on/off switch, and that's it. The rest of the circuitry, we don't use — the trem or the big trem circuit, the brilliant circuit. That's all taken out, and it just helps reliability a bit. We've also got some Greg Fryer modified ones, which he modified for the 'We Will Rock You' shows. They're point-to-point wired, rather than dip-soldered. We use the best of what we can get transformer-wise, and the best components in general. The blend between the old and the new amps is a good mix, I think. We measured [the new amps] and they actually do go up to twelve, so we actually find that we have some headroom on those. We can turn those down a little bit so they cut through a lot on the stage, and that, added to the warmth of the older amps, is a good blend."
Just like many vintage amp hounds, Pete suffers from a general shortage of good quality, robust valves.
"I get the valves from places that I know have given them a real battering before I get them," says Pete. "At the moment, we're using a bit of a mix really — anything that I can get that's recommended by either Mike Hill or a guy called Derek Rocco, who runs Watford Valves. Derek does most of our valves, and he's got a soak tester, so he will batter them and match them for me before I get them so I don't get duds. The reliability on the valve front, I've got to say, has gone down a lot. With what we use, the valve failure rate is as good as you're going to get it. In this day and age, trying to get hold of Mullard valves is nigh on impossible. I have good people that I can ask about what decent valves are out there at the moment and what should I be using. We have experimented with cryogenically freezing the valves. I was very sceptical about that at the start, and still remain sceptical as to whether it makes a difference to reliability. The jury's out for me on that one, I'm afraid!"
Rigging up hits
Brian's touring rig has been spec'ed and built gradually by Pete Malandrone over the years the two have worked together.
"It's my setup really," says Pete. "When I started off, I poked around until I fully understood it. I didn't change anything, but then as I got to know Brian more and what he wanted, I did begin to. It was really a back-of-a-fag-packet job with Mike Hill. I said, 'This is what I want to do, can I do it?' And he sat down with me and said, 'Well, you can do this, but why don't you do it this way?' He's brilliant, Mike. So, I designed it on the back of a fag packet, gave it to him, he came back with it and we've messed about with it ever since!"
Starting at the Red Special end, the guitar goes straight into a Greg Fryer custom treble booster, which sits on Brian's guitar strap. Through trial and error, Pete has found that the treble booster — key to Brian's rich tone — must go first in line, before any wireless elements come into play.
"You have to have the treble booster first in everything, we've found," says Pete. "If you put it second in line, it doesn't sound nearly as bright and crisp. We found that putting the treble booster after the radio tends to squash the sound a little bit, and it just seems to work much better with the treble booster first."
Next comes the Sennheiser wireless radio system, and Pete has some handy advice for any performer having teething problems with their wireless setup.
"The treble booster then goes into the Sennheiser radio," Pete explains. "From that, it comes to the receiver, and from the receiver, it goes into the rack via a passive DI wired backwards. This is to level match it the wrong way. You can't use an active one, because it only passes one way, so we have to use a passive one. We send the signal the wrong way through it into the output and out the other side, and that gets round a lot of our problems with matching the high pins. I've given that tip to a lot of people who have problems with radios, and it seems to work very well. They think it's great!"
We now get to Brian's effects, which he's famous for using pretty sparingly.
"The Sennheiser goes through the passive DI and straight into the wah-wah (a rack-mounted Dunlop Crybaby DCR1), because Brian wanted to be able to use the wah-wah on anything," says Pete. "We put that before the loop switching so it's basically the first thing it hit. Then, I've got a VCA Control pedal, which is out the front for Brian. It's a great bit of kit, because, if you lose the wah-wah, then I can defeat the wah-wah from the rack. There's an on/off on the rack, so if, in the heat of battle, Brian leaves the wah-wah on by mistake or he doesn't hit it hard enough to turn it off, I can turn it off at the rack end. From that, it goes into a custom rack-mounted loop switcher, which is made by Mike Hill — it's basically got 10 ins and outs and is controlled by a footboard. Brian's got one and I've got one. Apart from the wah-wah, Brian will never have two effects on at the same time, so he just hits one button to do one effect. He has 10 choices: some of them have nothing on the end of them, but it gives him options to have 10 different things."
Brian then has a TC Electronic G-Force on the rack, which he uses for his chorus effect and the pitch-shifter effect for the solo at the end of 'The Show Must Go On.' A Rocktron is also used for both the weird effects on 'Another One Bites The Dust' and delay, with 800ms and 1600ms settings for different tracks. He also has a Hughes & Kettner Tube Rotosphere to emulate the effect of a Leslie on the Paul Rodgers' song 'Wishing Well'. Pete has built safety into the rig by ensuring he can switch all of Brian's effects himself from the side of the stage.
"If he hits the wrong thing, because it's too dark or he's forgotten to go there — he might be down the front of the stage and forget to do something — I can do it," says Pete. "I can probably switch all his pedals for him now, because I know what he's going to do! Then, after the effects, we go back into a custom-made amp switcher. We like to have options to smaller amplifiers if we ever need them. It goes into that and comes out left, right and centre, and that's it. It goes out to the amps and away we go — big fat noise!"
Strings and things
Yet another way in which Brian May differs from your average major rock guitarist is the infrequency with which he chooses to change the strings on the Red Special. For major artists, they will usually be replaced every single show, but Brian resolutely prefers the sound of well worn-in strings.
"Brian doesn't really like the strings being changed, because they sound a bit too bright when they're brand new," says Pete. "So, basically, they get changed only when they break, which I know is very unusual, but that's what Brian wants. We use the Optima Gold Plated ones, and they don't go that dull. Sometimes, there might be a string that's been on there the whole tour, but I doubt it. He did manage to break five strings in one night once — all different strings, which was very special. We were taking bets on whether he could do a whole set, but he didn't manage the sixth one!"
When Pete does change the strings, he gives them a lot of stretching in. Tuner-wise, he favours a Korg DTR-2000, because he likes the big display and two Peterson strobes — a VS1 and a StroboStomp.
Another absolute essential for Pete's workbox is a big bag of Brian's favourite pick of choice good old English sixpences, which actually cost a lot less than you'd think.
"I probably take 500 of them everywhere I go!" laughs Pete. "People always want them, and because Brian usually plays quite light, he drops quite a few and they go bounding across the stage. They don't just drop obviously; they go right across the stage! But they're not expensive; they're cheaper than picks. The first time I went to buy them, I think I took 500 quid with me in cash, because I didn't know how many I wanted to buy — I didn't have a clue. I said to a guy in a coin shop, 'Have you got any sixpences?' and he said, 'Yeah!' And I said, 'What do they come in?' He said, 'They come in bags of a hundred'. So, I said, 'How much is that?' and he said, 'A fiver!' I said, 'How many have you got?' and he said, 'I've got 500'. So, I said, 'Right, I'll have the lot then!'"
It's quite an exciting time for Brian and Pete at the moment, as Queen plus Paul Rodgers are recording some new material at Roger Taylor's studio, potentially for a new album for 2008. Pete will never forget one particular session, where something very strange occurred.
"One interesting thing that did happen on this one session was, for the first time ever, Brian played a Strat," says Pete. "There were some things he just couldn't get the right sound on. And Rodger's a big guitar collector, he's got some real nice old guitars. Brian picked this '54 body and '55 neck Strat off the wall and started playing it, loved it and plugged it in. And I said, 'Are you sure? It's going to sound ever so harsh!' But it didn't — it was a gorgeous sounding guitar! So that was something new, something I thought I'd never see: Brian playing a Strat!"
As far as the future goes, Pete is happy to go in whichever way Brian leads him, whether that be a massive global tour or something, erm, slightly less rock & roll.
"I never have that much of an idea what I'm going to be doing even tomorrow, let alone the next few years," says Pete. "I hope they finish this album. I hope they release it. I hope they go on tour. I hope lots of things happen, but it's Brian's call. He might say, 'I'm bored of music, I wanna be an astronomer now', and then I'll have to polish his telescope instead of his guitar!" 0
The Buck stops here
In his fairly short guitar teching career, Pete Malandrone can claim to have rigged up a venue that no other guitar tech has ever been able to. The roof of Buckingham Palace for The Queen's Golden Jubilee, anyone?
"That was technically and emotionally challenging," says Pete. "I'd have to say I don't think I'll ever do anything more high-profile than that. It was scary, and not because of the height. I always feel like I can look after Brian — when he's out on stage, I'm very confident in my own abilities to get him out of any situation. However, on that day, I felt completely powerless, because once it was working and the sound was OK, there was nothing more I could do for him. I couldn't even look, really — if he broke a string, there wasn't time to change the guitar; there would be nothing I could do, I couldn't go running out there. I just felt completely powerless to help him! Because of security, I had to get all the gear craned up there about four days before, but I wasn't allowed up there, because I didn't have security clearance until the day. I couldn't wire it up and I didn't know if it would work. We got up there on the day, and I got there literally to soundcheck at about four o'clock or something, not knowing if it was going to work. I'd love to watch it through my own eyes again, knowing that it would be alright in the end, because I think I would've enjoyed it more!"
Pete's got some sound advice for anyone who's in a band and just started playing the odd gig or two: Don't believe a word your loved ones tell you! To have and to hold, and all that.
"I would say never take any notice of your friends and your family when you ask them how it sounded out front," says Pete. "You could have the most fantastic monitors, the most brilliant sound on the stage and it could sound like crap out the front. I've seen that happen so many times, and the trouble is, if you ask your friends or your girlfriend or your boyfriend or your family how it sounded, they're going to say you sounded great, so you'll never know. You won't ever get anyone like that saying to you, 'The performance was great but the front-of-house sound was absolute garbage!' because no one wants to hear that. You need someone unbiased, because you know yourself whether it's the sound you want on the stage, but you'll never hear yourself play off the stage. You'll never get a decent opinion on it unless you ask someone who really isn't going to bullshit you. I'd say that's incredibly important — it's the most important thing, I think, for a live band. Oh, and always look like your enjoying yourself. If you look like you're pissed off, then nobody's going to like it!"
Published in PM January 2008
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