To mark the release of the new Bill Nelson Astroluxe Cadet, which has been fully funded and is arriving this Summer, we had a chat with Bill Nelson, a guitar hero like no other.
Bill Nelson is a true guitar hero, but not as most other guitar legends around. Despite finding early success with Be Bop Deluxe in the Seventies, Bill was never one to rest on his laurels, and has put out so much music out there that, today, Be Bop Deluxe feels almost like a (very respectable) note on his history. Though he can play old songs on his rare live appearances, Bill Nelson is an artist always looking ahead - something laudable in this age where so many legends are happy just reviving past glories.
One of the things that makes Bill stand out as a true "hero" is that he actually did something about what he saw was wrong in the music business, and carved a successful niche for himself totally outside the mainstream - something very few artists have actually managed to achieve, or even try.
A few years ago, Bill Nelson shared his thoughts on the music industry, still sounding very much true today:
"I guess one of the problems with the music industry is that it remains pathologically infantile and presumes its entire audience is likewise fixated with some shallow ideal of perpetual 'youthfulness.' Thankfully music is capable of so much more than that, as any musician worthy of the title 'artist' already knows. Music has a real value, both spiritually and materially. Artists deserve respect and should be able to earn their living without their work being stolen by morons who inhabit a 'something for nothing' culture."
Eastwood is proud to collaborate with such an unique artist, and our forthcoming Bill Nelson Astroluxe Cadet is already set to be one of the best and most collectible new guitars we'll put out in 2017.
In a recent chat with Bill Nelson, we had the chance to talk about this new model, his current gear, plans for the future and much more:
CAN YOU TELL OUR READERS HOW YOU FIRST GOT INVOLVED WITH EASTWOOD?
Bill: To be honest, it seems such a long time ago now, I can’t remember exactly how it happened…and neither can Mike! (I asked him and he’s not sure either!)
WE'RE WORKING ON YOUR NEW CUSTOM MODEL, THE ASTROLUXE CADET. HOW DID THIS NEW DESIGN COME ABOUT? WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT IT?
Bill: Well the first signature guitar that Eastwood made for me was the ‘Astroluxe Custom’, a limited edition of only 25 guitars. The design began using a basic template based on the ‘Wandre Tri-Lam’ tribute that Eastwood made a few years ago. I’d got hold of one of these guitars and liked the way it felt. The ‘Astroluxe Custom’ was built on that simple template but with several major design changes and developments from myself.
One of the big changes was to lose the cutaway and make it a more ’traditional’ guitar shape, whilst retaining the ‘grille’ sound-hole from the Wandre. Another important change was to go from a single pickup instrument to a three pickup guitar and use some great sounding ‘Charlie Christian’ style pickups, based on early Gibson arch top pickups (as used by the great jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, who played with Benny Goodman in the 1930s and ‘40s.)
I also wanted a vibrato bar and a full complement of controls so that there would be a very wide tonal palette. Each pickup had its own tone and volume, plus there was a master volume control so that the overall levels could be adjusted without disturbing the balance and mix of the three pickup settings. A five way pickup selector switch was specified too. The headstock was given a D’Angelico style crown, the fretboard featured a pearl ‘Atom’ symbol at the 12th fret and my signature was placed on the headstock along with another Atom symbol. I specified a cream coloured top and smoke grey back and sides, all hardware to be gold-plated. The end result of all this was an incredibly luxurious looking and rich sounding guitar with a unique vibe. The limited edition guitar sold out within 24 hours.
The ‘Astroluxe Cadet’ was planned around the same time as the ‘Custom’ but my idea was to make a slightly more rock n’ roll flavoured variant. This one retains the Wandre style sound-hole grille but has a twin cutaway body shape. It still has three pickups but these ones are more like the old ‘gold-foil’ DeArmond pickups from the ‘50s. It’s also going to feature a different vibrato system from the ‘Custom’ model, (which was a Bigsby,) and will have instead a Duesenberg vibrato. I have a Duisenberg vibrato on two of my other instruments and they are excellent.
The controls will be slightly simpler, but still give flexibility to that third, middle pickup. The colour will be a warm cream for the top but with a really nice, almost ‘Fiesta Red’ finish to the back and sides. The look has a kind of ‘50s diner vibe about it, but classy at the same time.
YOU SEEM TO HAVE A CERTAIN PREDILECTION FOR SEMI-ACOUSTIC GUITARS. WHAT ATTRACTS YOU TO THIS TYPE OF INSTRUMENT?
Bill: I’m a big fan of too many guitars to be honest! My wife rolls her eyes in disbelief whenever I bring a new instrument into the house! I have solid bodies, semi-solids and big, jazz archtops, and I find a suitable place for them ALL in my music. I fell in love with guitars when I was 10 or 11 years old, and, despite a few fashionable detours into electronica, I’m just as enthused about them now as ever.
The wonderful thing about guitars is that they lend themselves to so many design alternatives. Poor old saxophone players have a much more limited choice in the way their chosen instrument looks, but we guitarists have access to some of the quirkiest designs and variations. And it’s the less conservative guitar designs that tend to capture my imagination, and inspire my music.
WHICH AMPS & FX DO YOU USE THE MOST RIGHT NOW?
Bill: Whilst I have around 10 different amplifiers, (including two custom built ones, made especially for me,) I rarely use amps at all, either in the studio or in live performance. I adopted the digital processor route many years ago and still follow that course today. I have one of the early Line 6 Pod 2’s which I still use for many of my tones. (Programmed with my own sounds.)
I also have a Digitech Valve-FX unit, A Pod HD-500, a Zoom 9050S unit, and a Fractal Audio ‘Axe-FX 2.’ I use a combination of these processors in the studio as well as live, and they work just fine for me. I’ve had so many people ask me what amps I’ve used on my recordings because they really like the sounds. When I tell them that no amps were used at all, they look at me in disbelief. But it’s true.
YOU COME FROM A GENERATION THAT WAS HIGHLY CREATIVE & INNOVATIVE... DO YOU SEE A SIMILAR ATTITUDE IN YOUNGER MUSICIANS, OR ARE NEWER GUITARISTS A BIT MORE CONSERVATIVE TODAY?
Bill: Well, that’s a tough question. There’s certainly a lot of players going down the old familiar route of a Les Paul through a Marshall stack. And a lot of the music is mired in old-school rock. I do think that guitarists are somewhat conservative in the main, despite the visual trappings of long hair and tight trousers! I’m a big fan of those players who go out on a limb, or plough their own personal furrow, rather than trying to emulate the people they idolised.
Of course, it’s important to start somewhere, to have influences and inspirations, but it’s equally important to let those influences settle at the bottom of the tank and to swim in the fresh water at the top. We’re all influenced by somebody, but those different influences should eventually mix and create an expression which is uniquely your own.
I like to hear players who can push the instrument in different directions than my own, people such as Bill Frisell and Fred Frith, to name but two. Yet at the same time I love the playing of guitarists such as Wes Montgomery, Django, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Joe Pass, Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, Duane Eddy, Hank Marvin, Merle Travis, and so on. And on and on. Guitar playing is such a broad church and there really should be no lines of demarkation between different eras and styles. It’s all up for grabs. One big melting pot.
(pic: Bill Nelson and his J Joye Bel Air, now returning as another Eastwood Custom Shop project)
TALKING ABOUT THIS - WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES A “GREAT" GUITARIST?
That’s hard to say. What one person thinks of as a ‘great’ guitarist will possibly leave another person unmoved. It all comes down to individual sensibilities and how far you’ve broadened your horizons and opened up your ears to the bigger picture. For me, I’m always looking for something special, something unique. A kind of soulfulness. I’m not impressed by ’stunt’ guitar playing, fantastic technique and execution. I want to hear the fire and warmth in a musician’s soul, not how long he’s spent practicing runs and licks in his bedroom. Ideas beyond music, but that can find a place in the music, really interest me. Powerfully expressed, warm feelings too. There’s something benevolent and positive in the best playing, whether it’s guitar or any other instrument.
WHICH PLANS DO YOU HAVE IN THE PIPELINE FOR 2017 & BEYOND?
Bill: Gosh, I have so many albums finished and awaiting release. I record on a daily basis, it’s like a diary. Around 14 finished at this point in time. Maybe that seems excessive to some people, but to me it’s the breath of life…it’s simply what I do, who I am. I think of it as like painting pictures. Every day I go into my studio with a blank canvas and begin by making a single mark on it. It grows, slowly, into a finished piece of music and the sense of satisfaction and wonder it brings sustains me. It’s sustained me since I first took up the guitar all those long years ago.
- by Ivan S.