Talking Tone With Blues Saraceno
By Martina Fasano
Most of you will know Blues Saraceno from his solo work, his time playing with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker (Cream), or his stint with poison. A lot of fans will remember his Parallel Axis Blues Saraceno pickups, and his regular appearance in guitar magazines around the world. Don’t let Blues hear you say “How come Blues Saraceno isn’t releasing any new music?” Why, you ask? What most people don’t know is that anytime you turn on your TV to watch your favorite show, whether it be on Netflix, HBO, Showtime, or any other network, you’re hearing guitar virtuoso Blues Saraceno. That cool song that plays as the intro to “The Men Who Built America?” That’s Blues Saraceno. Dexter, The Hills, even NFL Football. The list is endless – a quick look at his website will give you just some of the shows/programs he’s done production music for. Blues Saraceno has evolved and in his words, “moved on” from the guitar albums that had him in the limelight. What hasn’t changed is his dedication to his craft.
How did you first get into composing for film and television, and how did you make the transition from that world into the one of film and TV?
A girl I was dating at the time used to be an assistant for one of the people over at this jingle house and she was always very well liked, and remained on very good terms with everyone after leaving. We ran into one of the people that she had worked with who turned out to be a closet guitar fan who read all of the magazines, and he said “Hey, would you be interested in doing anything for TV or trailers?” and at first I said “I don’t know”, I mean I thought it was going to be very corporate and I didn’t like that, but these guys were really cool. They were kinda the outlaws of this entire thing, so I did a little work with him, and then he introduced me to this guy over at Fox. His name was Geoff Calan, and he was the senior VP of promo at Fox. It was him, and another friend Ron Scalera, who was working under Geoff, and then eventually took over Geoff’s job and became the guy at Fox, and then went over to CBS.
These guys were cool. They would hire me to play their trade shows, they’d fly Harleys out on stage while I was soloing in the background, so for that world, they were very rebellious, and we got along well. They liked me because I was edgy enough, but you know, I took it real serious, like I showed up on time, worked with their deadlines, so they liked me because I was left of center and in their world probably considered really wild, but the thing is they knew they could count on me. If I said I could do something I would, there was no flaking out, and we kept a very good business bottom line.
As they got to know me more and more, they’d throw me more stuff. They would literally call me in the middle of the night and say “Hey, my kid just did this marching band thing. Can you make that into something?” Next thing you know I’m in the studio in Santa Monica with the engineer that did Michael Jackson’s record, and they’ve got this whole drum line. It was interesting because it was a kids drum line and they knew their rudiments really well but you couldn’t veer from what they knew because that’s all they really knew. So I went in with one game plan and then on the fly I realized really quickly that that was not going to work, so then it was like “Okay, you guys just do what you do and I’ll build something around it.” And we did it. That became their whole fall campaign. They were using marching bands and drums…it was hip before Gwen Stefani was doing it, you know? (Laughs)
They were so cool with me because they knew that I’d get them there one way or another so we would literally just show up and do the craziest stuff that no one would have done that shouldn’t have worked but we always ended up making it work, and they kinda just let me do everything. They’d sit on the couch, stay for an hour get bored then leave, and I’d do everything, it was done, and it always went really well.
That became the beginning. In all honesty, I kind of took the guitar thing, in my opinion, as far as it needed to go. Yes I could have done more, and yes there could have been more records, but in all honesty there was more out there for me. The challenge for me with the guitar thing was that I think I had made enough of a statement that, you know, even taking it further, I don’t know if the amount of effort it would take to push that skill further was worth the return. It just got to the point where it was “well, I think at this point I want to try something else.” And keep in mind I was always a band or a song guy. I just got an opportunity to do guitar stuff so I took that opportunity because I was a kid from middle town Connecticut living in his parents’ garage who wanted a better opportunity, so anytime I got a better opportunity, I always took it. The whole thing with me playing with different people and being a side man and doing that, was just me trying to work up the ladder a little bit in all honesty. I enjoyed every experience, I can’t say anything bad about any of them because they were great experiences and I got to use all those things in my skillset later on. Even if I played on a record that was not not my favorite, I got to take that skillset and build my craft, and that was part of the plan. I had kind of done the guitar thing, and I had been on all the guitar magazines, in every ad, and I sincerely felt like you do when you sit down to watch a movie and you know how it’s going to end. I lost interest in it, and I wanted to try the next thing. I wanted to play with the big boys and try something new. Grunge was kicking in, and when grunge started guitar definitely had to take a backseat and at the time I thought it was going to die but I was wrong because what it was doing is lying dormant to come back stronger with the whole YouTube generation.
It’s interesting because the level of guitar playing is higher than it’s ever been, that being said I don’t think the artistry is higher than it’s ever been. I feel that part’s in reverse. I feel that the technical abilities are just “wow”, and it’s impressive as fas as just you know, typewriter mechanics, for sure. As far as the artistic part, that’s suffering tremendously, and I think that’s a byproduct of YouTube. Yes, you will learn every Hendrix tune, exactly the way Hendrix played it, the problem is, congratulations, you’ll never ever, in your wildest day do it better than him, so it’s kind of a fool’s errand on that level. It makes for a lot of good conversation, where everyone says “you know, you gotta get out there and do your own style” and there’s a lot of words, but at the end of the day, they don’t deliver. I felt where my strength was is I definitely had a signature sound, and a style, and it was influenced by a lot of people, you can hear that, but it was it’s own thing. People tried to copy it and they can’t, and the funny part is now, I’ll watch guys on YouTube and they are literally playing my stuff, but it’s mixed in with other stuff. I hear it, but they’re totally missing the point. They’ve got it technically correct, but they’ve forgotten the artistic part behind it so I guess that’s a sign of the times. I take it as a flattering thing and I move on.
And yet you’re reaching so many more people than the guys that are on the front cover of Guitar Player or Guitar World.
Absolutely, but it’s very behind the scenes, and you have to be willing to do that. I’m not credited as “Blues Saraceno, the guy who wrote this”. I’m fine. As long as my name is on the check, I’m okay with being behind the scenes. And that’s not to sound unartistic, but I’ve done all of the artistic stuff to such an extent, so now it’s a different league. It’s like buy cars or buy houses. And there are people that have taken it way farther than me. I mean I went to Hans Zimmer’s studio, and wow!
Now there are so many people into it that there is kind of a real estate battle. With technology improving – people using laptops to record – there are people that aren’t using a big studio to do it. There is such a gluttony of stuff out there that it’s becoming hard to decipher the good from the great, from the bad. That’s where I think being in all these bands has helped me because initially it helped separate me from the other people that were doing it, and that was a good thing.
I’m so busy doing stuff that it’s almost 24/7. There hasn’t been a time in the past 10 years where I’ve said “You know, let me sit down and I don’t know, garden.” (Laughs) There is always something else.
What advice do you have for a guitarist who wants to play that role of hired gun, who wants to go in and play sessions? .
It’s a combination of this: the really truly great ones get through. When your skillset is at that level, sooner or later the cream will rise to the top.
In all reality: look at yourself as product. Sell yourself as a product. If you want to be a guy that goes on the road, market yourself as that. Realistically, I’m 44 years old and a touring band would probably want to hire a young 20 year old kid with really great hair, a low slung guitar, and a shirt that’s cut the right way, instead of hiring me. (Laughs) So you have to know your audience. Know your market, package yourself and use social media. Use every tool to your advantage.
Don’t wait for someone to be doing something for you. That’s the wrong spot to be in. You should constantly be moving forward. You’ll get there if you’ve got the skillset to back it, and you have to have the combination platter. There are thousands of guys out there that have the skills but they just don’t look the part. Then be realistic about it: you’re going to be a session guy, not the touring guy. (Laughs) Systematically go about it. Work ethic + preparation+ talent + meets all that stuff. It can definitely be done. It happens every day. If you wanna be a session guy, then part of the skillset is to be a chameleon.
You helped voice the Seymour Duncan Parallell Axis Blue Saraceno pickup, but what other gear is currently in your rig, and how much does your rig change from project to project, because of the nature of what you do?
It changes a lot, depending on what I’m doing. I try and stay a specialist. I like to use the stuff that plays to my strengths. All the rock, pop, dark country stuff, blues stuff, that’s really in my wheelhouse. I stay away from anything that is not my thing.
In terms of pickups, I tend to stick with the lower output stuff. That was the point of the Parallel Axis when we built them year ago. It was a way to take a guitar with a tremolo and put it to a place where a non-tremolo guitar used to sound. A good, strong, punchy, rich, warm sound, with the good overtones. Especially with the amps they have these days, you can turn a great sounding guitar into anything. But a crappy guitar just sounds like a crappy guitar. And sometimes crappy is the way to go.
I’ll be honest with you, I either like really awesome, or really awful. It’s the stuff in the middle that I don’t really know what to do with or care to want to use. I don’t mind if a guitar is terrible and sounds like a pawnshop guitar, but if it does one thing really well, then I build around that. But I tend to keep the pickups fairly low output, because it gives me the option of letting the amp do the heavy lifting, crunch it up there, or scoop it up there, or if I want to run it clean, I have a good, nice solid sound to work with. It’s like a white t-shirt.
The funny part is, Seymour Duncan is the longest standing endorsement I have. I think I started endorsing them when I was 17 or something like that, and I rememeber signing the paper thinking, I won’t ever need to look elsewhere. It wasn’t something I thought “Oh I’ll use this for a minute and then we’ll see.” I checked it off my bucket list and didn’t look back. I don’t think there is anything that I could come up with that they don’t have covered already on some level, or couldn’t make for me custom. So between what they have and the ability for them to make me whatever I want out of the Custom Shop, why would you go elsewhere.
I have to ask, because I’ve seen you photographed playing some awesome looking guitars, and I’m a guitar nerd myself, so are you a guitar collector at all? Do you just use them as tools, do you have any favorites that you own, or are there any dream guitars you still want to add to your collection?
Guitar guy, not so much. I’m not a collector to collect. They all get used. I’ve owned so many guitars. When I was growing up we didn’t have funds so we had to make due with whatever and I was always stuck with these old, crappy, pre-CBS Strats, when all I really wanted was a pink Kramer with the pointy headstock. (Laughs) They’re all doing the whinney and I’m there stuck with this tremolo that doesn’t stay in tune. I hated that. “Aw man, why do I have these old beautiful Strats”, you know? (Laughs) But that’s what we could afford, sadly. We had everything like the old Les Pauls, the bursts, but we never could afford to keep them so we would have one, and then trade that for another one, and for another. Back when I was doing that you could get Strats for $500 and Les Paul’s for a $1000. But that was a lot. You bought that and you weren’t eating for the next couple of months. It’s funny, I had a ‘59 Les Paul that my dad had and I remember playing with Les Paul, and I brought it with me, and he signed it. So if you see a Les Paul signed right on the body of the guitar under the pickguard, that was the one I had. It didn’t sound that great to be honest. (Laughs) I kind of did everything is reverse. Everything that everyone is lusting after now I’ve already played. That being said, I still have a lot of vintage stuff, because my opinion is that the vintage stuff does one thing very very well. If you need that old particular core sound, there’s nothing that does it. But when you try to morph it into anything else, then it doesn’t do that well. I can totally understand why Eddie Van Halen threw a humbucker in that thing, because he was no different than I was, saying “man, these things sound thin as shit!”, you know? (Laughs) We used to build amps. I’d use two Marshalls and I’d run one as a preamp, and it’s funny because we did it before we knew what it was. Everyone was paralleling in those days because they had no master volume back then.
The guitar I use the most is the Ernie Ball gold sparkle guitar, I think it was the first one they ever made me, and for whatever reason, it just always works, so that’s been my go to. I have a lot of guitars, but a lot of them do just one good thing, but in a perfect world, with money being no object I think a good collection for me would be to have a good version of everything. A good rosewood Strat, a good maple Strat. A rosewood Tele, a Maple Tele, a good 50’s Les Paul, I would just grab one great one of each.
And here’s the funny thing. In the beginning I didn’t have the money to keep the stuff. Now, I have the money to buy them but it comes down to finding the right one. I’ve gone over to my friend’s house and they’ve got these colossal collections, and I’m like “wow”, but here’s the thing. Guitars are kinda like people, you’re gonna meet a whole bunch in your lifetime, but you’re not gonna fall in love with too many. So when I see these guys with these huge collections, a lot of people are envious, but I’m not. I’m happy as hell for them, that’s great, but that’s not for me.