What the Pros Play: The Cult’s Billy Duffy
This is the first installment of a new column that will outline the instruments and gear of choice for notable musicians, across a wide spectrum of genres. The goal of ‘What the Pros Play’ is to offer retailers both greater insight into equipment they may (or may not) currently stock, as well as another tool that might convince that potential customer who’s “on the fence” about a specific purchase to open his or her wallet…
One of the primary architects of post-punk hard rock in the 1980s, The Cult draws upon diverse influences to create a distinct and instantly recognizable sound. Through the band’s various stylistic phases – the psychedelic goth-stomp of Love, the AC/DC-ish bombast of Electric, Sonic Temple’s anthemic arena-rock, forays into industrial and metal realms on later albums – they’ve somehow always maintained that “Cult sound.”
A big part of that sound is provided courtesy of the band’s co-founding guitarist Billy Duffy, whose knack for single-note riffs that hook the listener and stick in the head for days have made him an icon and influence to a generation of players. If you’re a guitarist of a certain age, it’s a safe bet you know how to play (at least the main riffs of) “Love Removal Machine,” “Fire Woman,” or “She Sells Sanctuary” (which recently was given new life via a mash-up with Flo Rida’s hit, “Good Feelin” that appeared in a Budweiser Super Bowl spot).
The Cult’s new disc, Choice of Weapon (Cooking Vinyl), finds the group at the top of their game with Duffy’s soaring lines setting the tone, throughout. Tracks such as “The Wolf,” “Honey from a Knife,” and lead single, “For the Animals” showcase the chiming, drone-y fretwork that first established him as one of hard rock’s most charismatic axemen. Billy recently sat down with MMR to discuss some of his go-to gear…
MMR: First off, I’ve got to fess up: I’m a big, big fan of The Cult and of your playing. You were a big influence when I started learning guitar, way back when.
Billy Duffy: Thanks, man. That’s great to hear. Much better than the alternative – “I’ve always thought you guys sucked!” [laughs]
MMR: Choice of Weapon is just a really strong effort from you guys. I’ve been enjoying it – and based on critical and fan feedback, I’m not alone.
BD: Thank you. It’s been great. It seems like this is the album people have been wanting from us for a while.
MMR: Since we’re going to be focusing on gear with this Q&A, let’s start by talking guitars. Even though it’s hardly the only instrument you use – or even the guitar you use the most – you’re so identified with the Gretsch White Falcon. Why do you think that is?
Billy Duffy: The Gretsch is kind of a “big white buffalo” [laughs] – it’s a mythical beast. When I was a kid, the White Falcon was this almost-otherworldly guitar to me. It’s flashy and showy in appearance, but by the same token I beat mine to death. I think part of the association is also just that it’s a less “common” guitar, so it sticks out for people.
MMR: You’ve modded your Falcons a bit, though – most notably switching out the pickups, correct?
BD: I changed the pickups initially in the ‘80s because the output was so feeble, so Seymour Duncan helped me – I’ve been working with him since 1986. I wanted to keep all of the high end “chime” of a Gretsch, but with the lower end chunk of a Les Paul. Seymour Duncan installed new pickups in my two ‘70s White Falcons and in a Country Club. That Country Club was a backup guitar, which I stripped and repainted, and I sort made my own “Black Falcon” before Gretsch thought of the idea. It doesn’t play as well as the White Falcon, but it looks wicked. That’s the guitar in the “Lil Devil” and “Love Removal Machine” videos.
MMR: I’ve seen you guys perform a few times over the years and I’ve always been impressed with how you seem to have zero feedback issues with the Gretschs.
BD: Well, with every semi-acoustic you have some feedback potential. I put some stuff – t-shirts and things – in the guitar, but not too much; you don’t want to affect the tone. You just have to watch it, because you’re right – there are those low-end notes that will send feedback through the roof if you’re not careful. My techs know how to work around it at this point, plus one key for me is I don’t run my backline super hot.
Going back to the pickups issue, which Seymour Duncan helped me around – wanting to have that Gretsch chime with some low-end power – nowadays, the TV Jones pickups you get through Gretsch do the same thing just fine.
MMR: Speaking of which: Is it true that there’s a Billy Duffy Signature Model Gretsch on the way?
BD: We’re working on it. My original 1975 White Falcon that was on “She Sells Sanctuary” and Dreamtime has been gone over forensically [laughs] and there’s a prototype on its way. The construction of ‘70s Falcons was a little different than those currently being sold, so they’re trying to make it similar. It’s not going to be an exact replica, but it’s going to essentially be my guitar. It’ll be out in 2013.
MMR: Am I completely off base, or was there talk of a Billy Duffy Signature Les Paul back in… 2008?
BD: You’re right. There was supposed to be a signature Gibson Les Paul and we got as far as a prototype, but we could just never agree on the finish.
MMR: What was the snag?
BD: They wanted a black one like on the cover of Sonic Temple, but I usually use wood finish Les Pauls, like Mick Ronson’s and… after a while the project kind of slipped through the cracks. I still have a great relationship with Gibson and, as you alluded to, I really use Les Pauls as much as Gretschs.
MMR: A lot of the songs people assume feature you playing the Falcons are actually Les Paul tracks, if I understand correctly.
BD: Absolutely. On the Electric album, for example, while I used Gretschs in the videos because that was already visually established as “my guitar,” I used Les Pauls for essentially the whole recording. That was when I used a rented Les Paul that was black with the finish taken off the front, like Ronson had done, which is why I did that later, myself.
MMR: Very cool. Moving on to amplifiers: you use Marshall amps, which is pretty standard fare for hard rock guitarists, of course, but a big part of the “Billy Duffy sound” is the Roland amp – which you’re still using to this day.
BD: The Roland JC-120 2×12 combo has always been a big part of my sound. If you check pictures from our earliest gigs, you’ll always see me playing the Gretsch with a JC-120 somewhere onstage, all the way through the mid-‘80s. I’d never just use the JC-120, though – I always used a splitter box and a valve amp, with the Roland left on the chorus setting.
MMR: And you also favor another Roland brand – BOSS – when it comes to effects, right?
BD: I use all BOSS delays and I use their flanger and the Super Overdrive, still, on occasion. It’s funny – a lot of the gear I still use was initially “inherited” when our original bass player, Jamie Stewart, joined the band. He had been a guitarist and when he moved on to the bass he sort of handed over his gear and said, “I guess I won’t be using these anymore…” That’s when I got the MXR Phase 100, which still gets use. I mix it up, in terms of effects, so that’s always evolving, but I do use BOSS quite a bit.
MMR: Any other effects you’ve recently taken a liking to? Anything different or new used on the sessions for Choice of Weapon?
BD: I’ll tell you – my new love is the Kalamazoo overdrive by Lovepedal. They’re great, great pedals and a great company. It’s essentially an [Ibanez] Tube Screamer, but you don’t lose the bottom end. I don’t particularly like fuzz or distortion; I only like overdrives. Bob Rock let me use a Centaur by Klon when we were recording Choice of Weapon and it was great, but they go for, like, $1,500 bucks on eBay. These things are stomp-boxes, right? I want to be able to take them on the road and have ‘em take a beating. I wear motorcycle boots onstage and I’m not prancing around delicately. I heard about this Lovepedal that goes for around $150 bucks and is supposedly fantastic, I tried it out, loved it, contacted Lovepedal’s founder, Sean Michael, who turned out to be a big fan of The Cult and… here we are.
MMR: Anything else unusual employed on the new album?
BD: Let’s see… It’s always pretty much the same basic food group of gear for me. Chris Goss was involved in the recording – he actually did about half or 2/3 of it before Bob Rock came on board – and he has a few of those small Supro amps. I used those on a couple tracks, but mainly I used a Marshall, a Badcat, and the JC-120.
MMR: Ok, last question: Is it true that you use Dunlop Herco Flex 50 picks because that’s what Johnny Thunders played?
BD: I’ve got a good story about that. Thunders gave me one of those picks, himself, back in ’77 or ’78 when he was playing Manchester University. He was at a payphone and he pulled one out of his pocket while he was on the call and handed it to me. I’ve never played anything else since. Another thing: I play with the pick “sideways,” compared to the traditional grip, and always have done. Not a lot of people know that.
MMR: I’m going to go home and try that.
BD: Don’t go stealing my tricks! [laughs]
MMR: I don’t think you have much to worry about. Billy, thanks very much for taking the time to talk gear with MMR.
BD: My pleasure. See you on tour!
Guitars: Gretsch White Falcon (two 1970s, two contemporary); Gretsch Country Club; Gibson Les Paul (one black Custom, one white Custom, one black with paint stripped off the top – “Woody”); Gibson custom-made single cutaway Les Paul Jr.; Bill Nash custom-made black Esquire.
Amplifiers: Matchless DC30 Combo (two); Roland JC120 Combo; Marshall 100-watt Master Lead.
Effects: Dunlop Crybaby; Bradshaw Amp Switcher; Lovepedal Kalamazoo; MXR Phase 100; MXR Micro Amp; BOSS DD-3 Delay; BOSS BF-3 Flanger; BOSS DM-2 Vintage Delay; BOSS SD-1 Super Overdrive; BOSS TU-2 Tuner; Ernie Ball Volume Pedal.
Strings: Ernie Ball (studio: Regular Slinky .010-.046. live: Power Slinky .011-.048 tuned down a half-step).
Accessories: Custom-made Whirlwind cables; Doug Dunham guitar straps; Dunlop Herco Flex 50 (custom-made “Mansfield City” powder blue).