Secrets of Randy Bachman's Guitar Sound

Jul 2, 2003 12:00 PM, George Petersen


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This wasn’t exactly a Mix-type question, but as a long-time Randy Bachman fan, I wanted to know more about how he gets his signature guitar sound. Fortunately, he’s a nice guy and was more than willing to spend a few minutes talking (guitar) shop.

Mix: So what’s the secret to the Randy Bachman guitar sound?
Bachman: “Part of it comes from the fact that from the age of five to 14, I grew up playing violin. Then I discovered guitar and saw Elvis on TV. Seeing Elvis was a revolutionary thing—as was TV at that time—and I knew I wanted to play guitar. I took lessons from a guy named Lenny Breau (, who taught me every Chet Atkins lick from the late-50s, when Chet was in his peak. I learned Merle Travis and Les Paul and jazz before I went into rock and roll.

“But when I wanted to play a rock solo, I played like it was violin—very slow, like the old Eric Clapton slowhand. Then I developed this thing called the Herzog—which has now been reissued by Tech-21 as the American Woman footpedal—and it got me the sound of a cello. I never wanted my guitar to sound like a guitar—I always wanted it to sound like a viola or cello. That ended up being my solo sound on 'American Woman,' 'No Time' and a lot of the BTO tracks. When you're playing violin (especially in a duet with a piano) you're mostly playing melody lines—essentially leads all the time.

“Violin is mostly slow, melodic stuff. So my guitar solos tend to be smooth, slow lines. Maybe my left-hand vibrato is like the vibrato I learned to play on violin—it's nothing like guitar vibrato at all. Most of my solos start out with what people call that 'American Woman' tone. It sounds like a woman singing, like Eric Clapton on [Cream's] 'I Feel Free.' At the end of the solo, I usually slip into my treble (bridge) pickup for the higher notes and the more cutting, busy end of the solo, like on some of my signature solos on 'Roll on Down the Highway' or 'You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet’.”

Mix: Who were some of your other guitar influences?
Bachman: “Neil Young—who also grew up in Winnipeg—and I both grew up influenced by Hank Marvin of The Shadows in England. Hank played with an Echoplex and used the wang bar all the time. That causes you to play slower, letting the wang bar do most of the work, rather than you left or right hand. Neil Young can do a solo with one note but it sounds like a guy going nuts, because he's going nuts on the Bigsby tremolo on his old black Les Paul. I do a similar thing sometimes.”

Mix: Do you have a favorite amp these days?
Bachman: “I've been using the Johnson Millennium amplifier a lot—it was one of the first modeling amps. In 1999, I was getting back together with the Guess Who, I was looking for something that could create all my vintage sounds and Burton Cummings asked me to do some of my ‘70s BTO sounds. I needed something with real 12AX7 tube warmth but had lots of effects, like the sound of playing through a Leslie and Echoplexes and stuff. I have a Johnson combo and a 200-watt head, and it has a MIDI dump, so I can copy all my settings and put them into any Millennium anywhere and instantly have the exact tremolo and 'verb I used on [the Guess Who’s] 'Clap for the Wolfman' or the exact sound and studio effects from 'American Woman'—and the footpedal displays the title of each tune. Onstage with the Guess Who, I don't even need to change guitars. It's an incredible amp and and it has XLR outputs, so when onstage you don't have to mic the amp: Every FOH engineer I've worked with has said that the guitar sounds perfectly sweet out in the house.

“When recording, I often use that original [Line-6] Pod going direct. Between it and the Johnson head, I can get almost everything I want. These days, I can do most sessions with just a worked-over Telecaster, my Les Paul and the Pod.”

Mix: What’s your overall guitar philosophy?
Bachman: “The sound comes when your heart and your mind say what you want to say at that time. I grew up listening to a lot of great players, like Chuck Berry playing those great solos. Every Beatles solo might not have had the best guitar playing in the world, but they were the best solos for those songs. They put what really enhanced and fit each song, and were different, and so melodic that you could sing every guitar solo. That's another thing I learned from Lenny Breau: If you sing it in your head first, and figure it out on the neck of the guitar, then people will be able to sing along with it. Everybody can sing every one of Santana's guitar lines in 'Smooth.' People don't want to buy stuff that they can't sing to.”

For more info about Randy Bachman, visit

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