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Getting Real With Tesla Guitarist Frank Hannon

By Lisa Sharken, New York Contributor
Monday, June 4, 2007 @ 9:50 AM

"...we’ve always experimented

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In a time when so many great bands tend to burn out and fade away, Tesla has managed to survive the bumps in the road and keep on rocking hard. Formed in Sacramento, California in 1985, over the past two decades, the group scored an abundance of platinum hits and gold records. In addition, Tesla can be credited for igniting the fuse of what would later become MTV’s Unplugged phenomenon with the success of its own groundbreaking disc, Five Man Acoustical Jam. While Tesla had definitely made its mark in ’80s, the group was cemented by the quality of its musicianship, but never quite fit in amongst the other bands that were emerging in the midst of the hair metal revolution. Rather than going along with the current trend and embracing the teased hair and makeup image, Tesla had stronger ties to the past and relied on what proved to be far more important—writing good songs that would have longevity. They stuck by their beliefs, and it paid off. Tesla’s latest album, Real To Reel, is a two-disc collection of cover tunes which pay homage to its solid roots in ’70s music.

During the course of its career, Tesla was revitalized following a breakup in 1996, when the original members reunited in 2000 to the delight of its devoted fans. However, last year the group underwent a lineup change after guitarist Tommy Skeoch departed and was replaced by Dave Rude. Tesla’s original members—vocalist Jeff Keith, guitarist Frank Hannon, bassist Brian Wheat, and drummer Troy Luccketta—all remain onboard.

Shortly before the release of Real To Reel and commencing on the first leg of the upcoming tour, guitarist Frank Hannon spoke to us from his home. He explained how the idea for this album had come about and all that went into putting it together, including a description of the unique presentation the band selected.

“The package looks like a tape machine and the CDs look like tape reels,” Hannon said while describing the clever design and marketing strategy. “You get the first disc, ‘Reel 1,’ with the package, and there’s an empty slot inside for the second disc, ‘Reel 2,’ which you get at the show. It’s included with the price of the ticket.” So all who come out to see Tesla on its current tour will receive this CD to take home with them, and those who purchased the package will complete their set. What a cool idea and a special treat for fans!

KNAC.COM: Bring us up to date with what’s happening with Tesla and what you’ve been doing with your solo band.

HANNON: Tesla had been working on Real To Reel in October and November, then we were off from December through April. So I was out on tour with my band, Frank Hannon Band, doing stuff from my album Guitarz From Marz and some cover music. When I do my own shows, I go a lot more ballistic on my guitar, and I have more creative freedom to do what I want to do artistically. But it’s definitely different from doing gigs with Tesla when I’m playing to less than one hundred people in a dingy smoky nightclub in Kentucky on a Tuesday night.

KNAC.COM: Do you think that your solo shows are not promoted quite as well by the clubs as when they’re hosting a Tesla show?

HANNON: Yeah. When it’s not a Tesla show they don’t promote it nearly as well.

KNAC.COM: That seems unfortunate for the fans. People come out to see Tesla because they love the band, but they also appreciate your guitar playing and would certainly enjoy seeing your solo band.

HANNON: Well, thank you. You know, I’m not tooting my own horn, but we do put on a pretty darn good show! With my solo band, we always play for two hours, whether there are ten people or two hundred people in the audience. We play a lot of Tesla music and a lot of guitar solo music that has a lot of shredding guitar in it. It is a really good show, and people walk away going, “Man, everybody missed out!” I’m thinking of changing the name of the band, and instead of Frank Hannon Band, the name is going to be That Guy From Tesla, or just TGFT! I mean, people know I’m a pretty decent guitar player, but I’m known more as being the guy from Tesla, which is cool. I’m very proud of Tesla. I’m actually looking forward to putting one-hundred percent of my energy into Tesla for the next ten years.

KNAC.COM: It’s good to hear that Tesla plans to stick together for another decade. I think it’s clear that the band has an extensive loyal following and a reason to keep playing.

HANNON: It’s the songs. People still like to hear those songs, and the songs still sound as good today as they did when we first played them. That’s what it really comes down to—it’s all about the songs.

KNAC.COM: Tell us about Real To Reel. What prompted Tesla to do an entire album of cover tunes and how did you go about selecting the material?

HANNON: We were thinking about doing a covers album and we thought it was just going to be real simple to do quickly. But we wanted it to be the best covers album to come out, so we allowed it the time to develop. We started off having each guy in the band bring in their favorite songs and going through them. But then we realized that some songs just weren’t going to work. We were trying everything from Goo Goo Dolls, Nirvana to current music. We were trying to be clever, because usually when bands do covers, they try to be clever. So that’s when the idea for Real To Reel came in. We wanted to keep it as real and honest as possible, and in order to do that, we had to do songs that are from our roots—songs from the ’70s that we grew up on. So we experimented with songs that are more guitar-driven, more ’70s-rock oriented and real to us, and we filtered out all the baloney.

KNAC.COM: Of course, this isn’t the first time Tesla has recorded covers.

HANNON: We’ve always done covers, like on Five Man Acoustical Jam, and in our shows we’ve always done Beatles tunes, Frampton tunes, and we’ve always experimented with covers. For this record, we spent almost two years trying out songs. At first, when Tommy Skeoch was still in the band, we recorded some covers over at Brian’s studio that are eventually going to end up on a box set. We recorded them digitally in Pro Tools at Brian’s studio, and then we decided that for this album we wanted to go full on analog and keep it as real to the ’’70s sound as we could. We decided to record in a fully analog studio down in Texas—a place called Sonic Ranch. The owner, Tony Rancich, has a ton of vintage guitars, amps and pedals, and all kinds of really cool ’70s gear that we used on the album.

KNAC.COM: How did you and Dave capture all of the guitar parts in the studio?

HANNON: All of the guitar tracks and all of the music was recorded live. What we did was rehearse the songs in the morning and then record them when we had things down. Typically, the first take would be awesome and we’d be really fired up. Then we’d try a second take and try to beat it, but nine times out of ten, we wouldn’t. So then we’d try it one more time and do a third take. The guitars are panned so Dave is in the left speaker and I’m on the right—so it’s like what you would hear when you see us live.

Dave and I were each using multiple tracks to record the different amps we played through, but it’s all one performance. It’s not double tracked. Since we were only doing 24 tracks and we were each using three guitar tracks, there was no room to overdub stuff. So everything you hear is pretty much live and all one take from the band. I was using two 100 watt Hiwatt heads. One was stock and has a really bass heavy sound, and the other was modified and has a lot of gain. Both of them are probably 1979 DR models. I was also using a 50 watt Marshall JCM900 head. I had three separate cabinets—one for each head. One cabinet was an old purple Marshall 4x12 with 25 watt Celestions that Tony had in the studio. Another was a Marshall 4x12 with JBL speakers. And the third cabinet had 100 watt Celestions. We miked each one and assigned them to their own tracks. I also used a Leslie 360 rotating speaker cabinet, so I burned a few more tracks on “Thank You” and “Bellbottom Blues” on the first disc, and “Do You Feel Like We Do” on the second disc. Dave was using some 100 watt Marshall plexi heads that belonged to the studio, and his Marshall Slash amp.

KNAC.COM: What types of guitars did you each use?

HANNON: I used my old cherry red SG that I’ve been using forever. It’s a ’96 reissue of a ’68 SG Standard. We had played a party for Gibson earlier this year and they gave us a few guitars and we also bought a few guitars from them. I got a sunburst ’60 Les Paul Classic, a white 3-pickup SG Custom, and a white SG with mini humbuckers and a vibrola. I used that one on “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” It almost sounds like a Tele. There’s also a ’57 reissue goldtop Les Paul like the one Dickey Betts plays that my wife bought me for my birthday, and I used that one a lot. So it was all Gibson guitars, but I did do a dive bomb in the middle of one of the songs with a Washburn Nuno Bettencourt model guitar because I needed a Floyd Rose tremolo.

Dave’s main guitar is a mid-’90s flametop Les Paul Standard with coil taps. He also borrowed some guitars from Tony. One of the guitars he had used belonged to Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s a white Fender Esquire and you can hear it on a lot of the rhythm tracks, like “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “I’ve Got A Feeling.”

KNAC.COM: Some of the songs you covered were originally recorded by guitarists known for playing Strats, like Robin Trower and Ritchie Blackmore. Did you play those songs on Gibson guitars?

HANNON: Yes. That was a Les Paul Classic ’60 reissue for “Day Of The Eagle” and “Space Truckin’” was my SG with a fuzz box. Dave played the solo for “Space Truckin’” on his Les Paul Standard with coil taps.

KNAC.COM: What types of effects were you using?

HANNON: We plugged in different effects, depending on the song. The fuzz box on “Space Truckin’” is a Homebrew Electronics UFO fuzz/octave pedal that I bought at Boston Guitar Works. The UFO is a great-sounding fuzz box. There’s an Emma Effects Reezafratzitz that’s like a tube-amp overdrive which I used on some stuff. I used an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff on “War Pigs” with an MXR Phase 90. On “Day Of The Eagle,” I used a Univibe. The wah pedal is a Crybaby 95Q on the second setting up from the lowest on the Q switch.

KNAC.COM: How did you and Dave split up the solos?

HANNON: Basically, it’s the same way we’ve always done it in this band. If a guy was really feeling it and capable of taking the solo, then he would take it. Dave has a really cool and funky right hand technique, and a trebly and twangy kind of style, so the Ritchie Blackmore thing fit perfectly for him. He also played the twangy Clapton-style guitar licks in the verses of “Bellbottom Blues.” My style is more aggressive, so I took the solos on “Rock Bottom,” “Thank You,” and “Day Of The Eagle.” We trade off solos on “Walk Away.” Dave does the funky rhythm stuff, so he starts it off and plays all the rhythm, and I do the blues licks in the verses with the rhythm pickup on my guitar. And that at the end, Dave takes a solo that you hear on the left side while I’m doing the wah part that you hear on the right side. On a lot of these songs we played solos simultaneously, and that’s all kept live. When you go to overdub a track after everybody leaves the room and it’s just you and the engineer, it’s not the same. You can make it sound cleaner, but you’re not necessarily going to make it more energetic. When you’re playing live on the spot with the band and the pressure’s on, you’re forced to jam and have a great time. It’s a whole different energy.

KNAC.COM: So you and Dave had obviously spent time working out all of the dual guitar parts beforehand, just as you would for a live show.

HANNON: Yes, and we kept it all live like that because I had started to want to fix things, but redoing any of my parts wouldn’t sound right. At the beginning of the solo of “Rock Bottom” there were a couple of notes that I didn’t like and I wanted to try to fix them. So they plugged me into the input and we listened while I played along without recording, and it didn’t sound as good as what I had played with the band. The live energy of actually playing with the band wasn’t there, and the only way I could fix it was if I erased my original track and redid the entire solo. I didn’t want to do that, so I just left it all. Everything is really raw, and everything is pretty much either the first take or the third take.

KNAC.COM: Were Jeff’s vocals done live with the band or did he redo his parts after the band’s tracks were down?

HANNON: Jeff sang with the band live, but we couldn’t get a good sound with the mic he was using, so he went back and used a really nice mic to record the vocals.

KNAC.COM: How are your guitars set up?

HANNON: I use Dean Markley .010-.046. I have the action set really high on my guitars. I don’t like it low and I don’t like it to buzz at all. I like it high because it makes the guitar sound a lot louder than if you have the action low. Plus, you can grab a slide and play, and you can get under the notes when you’re bending them. You can also bend more aggressively when the action is higher.

KNAC.COM: What type of slide do you use and which finger do you typically use for slide work?

HANNON: I use a glass slide on either my ring or middle finger. I’ll switch fingers depending on what chords I’m playing in the song. If I’m playing bar chords, I’ll throw it on my middle finger. But if I’m using open chords, then I’ll use my ring finger. I used to experiment with open tunings for slide, but now that I’ve gotten better at playing slide, I try to stay in standard tuning because it’s more challenging.

KNAC.COM: What type of picks are you using?

HANNON: I use Dunlop Tortex picks, but the gauge I use depends on the song. I’ll use a thin gauge for strumming an acoustic, or a heavier gauge if I’m playing a song like “What U Give,” or something that has a lot of picking. On those types of songs, a heavier pick sounds a lot better. For the heavier picks, I’ll use the blues [1.0 mm], or the yellows [.73 mm], which are more like mediums. The lighter ones are orange [.60 mm] and red [.50 mm]. I really like regular celluloid medium picks, but the plastic is so flimsy that they’ll only last me through one song and then they get a rough edge. For doing pick slides, those are the best.

KNAC.COM: Tell us what you’ve been listening to lately for inspiration and entertainment.

HANNON: I’ve been checking out YouTube a lot and listening to the original artists of the songs that we covered. I found some great Joe Walsh footage on YouTube. I’m also a huge fan of jazz guitar and country fingerpicking. I’ve discovered Merle Travis, and Thom Bresh [the son of Merle Travis], Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, who is a freakin’ monster guitar player. I’m listening to a lot of that kind of guitar playing right now. I’m digging back into a lot of stuff. My problem with the newer music is there’s not a lot of playing—I’m talking about playing serious chords and notes, and stuff that’s really challenging. But as far as new music goes, I like the new Godsmack song, “Enemy” It’s really good.

KNAC.COM: Do you have a favorite song or solo from this album?

HANNON: On this one, it would have to be “Rock Bottom.”

KNAC.COM: Which recordings from Tesla’s catalog would you put on an essential listening list?

HANNON: I would say Five Man Acoustical Jam and this album, Real To Reel, because it was done in the same sense—it’s live and it’s real. These aren’t our songs, but we played them as if they were. We put as much integrity and time into making this album as we do on all of our records. This new record is definitely prime material for Tesla because it’s 25 songs and we put as much energy into making it as we would our own music. I think that some of the best original songs are “What U Give,” which is just a very heartfelt, soulful kind of song with acoustic guitar to “Modern Day Cowboy,” which is the quintessential political anthem side of Tesla that has as many fast guitar riffs in it as we could play, and killer lyrics. That’s what we’re about—killer guitar licks and killer lyrics.

KNAC.COM: Where will Tesla be touring through 2007?

HANNON: Starting in June, we’re touring the US, and then we’re going to play in Europe and we’ll be doing a festival in Holland for the first time in 15 years. After that, we’re going to take a break, then we’re going to tour all through August, September and October.

KNAC.COM: Do you plan on recording another solo album?

HANNON: Definitely. My next solo project will be more of an acoustic-based record with lots of finger picking. If I do play electric guitar, it will be something psychedelic. I have tons of ideas that I’ve recorded on my home studio, but I’m not even concentrating on that right now because Tesla has been keeping me so busy—and I have no complaints at all about that!

For more info on Tesla, visit the band’s official website www.Teslatheband.com.

"Reel 1" of Reel To Real can be (pre)-ordered from the KNAC.COM More Store. Click here to get yours now.

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