MusicPlayers.com feature stories tend to focus on musicians of interest to other serious musicians, so it should come as little surprise that our latest sit-down was with California-based guitar talent, Prashant Aswani. He’s definitely one shredder you should be listening to, as his playing and songwriting are on par with any of today’s greats. (If we must throw names around, his post-Berklee years mentor was none other than Greg Howe.)
This year, Prashant Aswani released his fourth studio album, the self-produced Visions, to critical acclaim from the guitar community. Aswani’s name is often compared to the likes of Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, and Andy Timmons, and for good reason: they are all renowned instrumental guitar players who know how to balance shredworthiness with writing great songs and strong melodies. If you’re a fan of the other guitar greats but haven’t yet gotten to know Aswani, Visions is a great place to begin your journey and then work your way backwards through the catalog.
Prashant’s music is melodic, full of melodies and catchy guitar riffs, supported by jazz fusion inspired rhythms and solid rhythm sections. But don’t be misled into thinking he’s a jazz player: first and foremost, Prashant Aswani rocks. But what makes his songs more interesting than many other instrumentalists is the fact that his rhythms and chord choices often include voicings not present in the common shredder’s vocabulary. Of course, here is a player who also throws baritone tunings and fretless guitar into the mix. Clearly Aswani is not your run-of-the-mill shredder. But then, we wouldn’t waste your time talking with those guys, right?
“There’s a lot of guitars on every one of these tracks on Visions.
I mean, it’s like seventy or eighty guitar tracks.”
MPc: Tell us about your new album, Visions.
PA: Visions is my latest solo record. It came out a couple of weeks ago. It features myself, Jose Pasillas, drummer for Incubus, and Gabe Rosales on bass. It’s my fourth solo album, not counting the soundtrack album I did for Lakeshore Records, called Frequency. And you know, I produced it, I wrote all the tracks and engineered and mixed it. I did a lot of stuff on this one. It kind of worked out that way. And I’m pretty happy with the result.
MPc: Had you done all the engineering and producing of your previous solo records?
PA: The first two records I did, Revelation and Duality, were produced by Greg Howe. And he also engineered them and I was basically—I just wrote the songs and performed. And I re-released Revelation when I got my licensing back and I co-produced three bonus tracks on it. It’s called Revelation Fully Loaded.
And then, Sonically Speaking is when I started producing full records on my own. So, Sonically Speaking and Visions, I produced both and engineered both records. But Visions is the first solo album that I’ve mixed. Typically, I’ve worked with other guys to do that. But it worked out, I just had a certain sound in my head that I was going for. I mixed the record, Visions, a couple different times. I did it with Lee Bench, who mixed Sonically Speaking, initially. And we did it in a big studio with a Neve console and it was all analog. And it came out really good, but I wanted something else happening and so what I did was, I just mixed it in the box [in my studio] using the new Avid converters and used Protools HD 10.
MPc: Well, it sounds great, I think it’s actually the best-engineered and mixed album of your repertoire so far.
PA: Oh, thank you so much for saying that. It means a lot. I really put pretty much everything I had into it, so that really means a lot, thank you.
MPc: You’re welcome. Now, just before Visions you did a different instrumental record called Frequency that a lot of people don’t know about. Tell me a little bit about that.
PA: Sure. A little while ago, about a year ago I signed a deal with Lakeshore Entertainment and they do a lot of movies. Brian, the VP of the label, he wanted me to do some instrumental guitar kind of shredding stuff. And so I basically put together the album—it was really quick. I had a deadline and so I just put together a bunch of material and used a few different drummers. Jose played on it. Also, Bogie Bowles, he’s Joe Bonamassa’s drummer. He’s an awesome, awesome rock drummer. And also Joey Heredia, who I’ve played on a few records with, who’s brilliant.
So I was able to just get them to track drums for me on 12 tunes and I played all the guitars and bass and just did the whole thing. I was buried in the studio for three weeks until I finished it. I didn’t leave. [laughs] It was crazy.
MPc: Something that I noticed on Visions is that you cut loose a little more than on your earlier albums… perhaps more improvisationally in some of your soloing on Visions, where it sounded a little more spontaneous.
PA: Oh, you know, the crazy thing about the way I recorded is that as I’m recording, I’m writing at the same time. So, most of the stuff that you hear on any of the records that I do is not rehearsed and it’s written as I’m hearing it. And so I just track it and it’s one or two takes and I just keep the takes.
So I basically try to really—and I’ve done this a lot more on Visions, feed off the drummer a lot. And so I might have had, like, Jose might have played one riff and created this incredible rhythmic thing happening and, as I’m recording, I might just dump the whole riff that I initially wrote and just come up with something totally different. And then I’ll just take it from there and I’ll layer parts and layer sections on the new stuff that I wrote.
So I’m hoping it sounds spontaneous, that’s the idea, because it really actually is like a spontaneous kind of occurrence. It’s a real spiritual process for me, because I [have] to lay it down and I can’t leave until I do so.
MPc: Writing instrumental guitar songs, there’s some guys who try and just do everything on one guitar and that’s it, the power trio thing. But you definitely go for the bigger guitar model, creating lots of layers and textures with my guitar. How you develop your songs? And how do you rehearse them with the band when you’re both the rhythm and the lead guy? Do they never hear your solos until the song is done?
PA: Okay, I’ll just lay it out. Basically, when I write a song, I write a rough skeleton of either a melody and/or I’ll add a rhythm part. And I’ll lay it down to a click. I’ll arrange it. And it’ll be something that is written—not fully produced. It’s a very [rough] skeleton of a song.
Then Jose will come in and he will play whatever drum parts he’s feeling to this kind of open skeleton of a song. And once the drums are laid down, I then start the real writing and producing process. It’s not—and, like I said, half the time I keep what I wrote and the other half the time I’m inspired by the drummer’s beat or rhythm pattern that he does. And then I’ll come up with something else entirely.
And once I lay down whatever riff or chord progression that comes up, I start layering parts and, for me, what that is—there’s a lot of guitars on every one of these tracks on Visions. I mean, it’s like seventy or eighty guitar tracks. And what I do is I just get different sounds, I use different guitars, different channels or amps, from my Bogners. What I do is I basically start hearing things, like filling in the gaps. And I just plug in the sound that I’m hearing and I just start designing parts. It’s almost like sound design, really.
And then this bed is created. After that, I typically write the bass lines and either I’ll play the bass or in this case Gabe came and we spent a lot of hours working the bass out. I had a bunch of ideas and he came up with some great ideas, too. And we just worked together to create the final part of the bed for the melody and the lead.
And so at that point nobody really knows what’s happening except for me, because I have this tune that’s in my head. Once the rhythms and drums and bass are all laid down, I take a break from everything. I do listen to the music for about a week or two. And I just get my chops built up. And then I start writing melodies and recording them at the same time.
So, technically, with my chops and things, I’m very comfortable recording at that point. So I can write a melody and have it come out spontaneously and it’ll be accurate enough to keep it as a take. And so what I’ll do when there’s a repeat of a chord, you’ll notice on Visions, I never repeat the melody identically to the first of second time that I play it. It’s always just a little bit varied and that’s because I never learn the melody exactly the same. I just go with the main target notes and then I fill in the blanks.
The solos are basically totally improvisational. I’m not writing anything, I just go for it and I get a take that I really like and then I’ll punch in a few things here and there, but for the most part it’s one solid take that I really like. And that can take some time. I don’t necessarily hit a solo the way I want it right away. It can take some hours. And sometimes I gotta’ just walk away for half a day until I feel inspired, because a lot of times, I’m so busy getting the tone that I want, what happens is is that I get kind of detached from the song a little bit, when I get into the technical stuff.
So I have to wear a lot of hats and sometimes that can be distracting, in terms of producing and seeing the big picture of where the song is going to go and then being the artist and performer and trying to be in the song on that page. And then also being the engineer.
So it’s a very lonely process, but at the end of the day, the result is what Visions is.
“Pat Methany still for me is a go-to listen.”
MPc: Cool. Now, you’re certainly a rock guy, but there tends to be a lot of jazz fusion in your playing, especially in the chord choices that make up your rhythms. Tell me a bit about your background as a musician in general.
PA: Basically, I started out as self-taught. Actually, I started out playing tablas, an Indian percussion instrument, and I grew up listening to Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain, who in my opinion is one of the greatest musicians ever who lived (is living still). And I basically would go to his concerts all the time, a bunch of Indian concerts. And I would be focused—laser-focused, on what they were doing.
I studied tabla for about five years. But it wasn’t really cool to sit down cross-legged on the floor playing tabla. [laughs] So at some point I had to switch to something that was a little bit more aggressive and current as to what was for me growing up. So I switched to guitar and I basically was self-taught through high school. And my senior year in high school I was in jazz band in Lexington High School in Massachusetts. And my teacher graduated from Berklee and his name was Jeff Leonard. The guy was brilliant. And I didn’t know anything about theory or music, but I had a good enough ear where I could improvise over changes and sort of make it happen, and he recognized that and he would sit with me after school and show me chords and teach me a little bit about theory. And as a result, he told me about Berklee College of Music, where I learned a lot of theory and I studied performance and jazz composition there. And that really opened up my eyes to arrangement and just a whole different facet of music that had nothing to do with playing guitar, per se, but more like the language of music, where it could be communicated.
And so that’s when I think my jazz influence came in and, if I could narrow it down to one or two guitar players that really influenced me heavily—Pat Methany, Lyle Mays, while he’s not a guitar player, but Pat Methany and Lyle Mays, their composition and chord voice leading and playing is, for me, perfect.
And so I would always try to achieve that smooth voice leading. Because I didn’t really have any kind of structure in my playing, I went about it using a lot of upper structure triads and then changing bass notes that wouldn’t necessarily work, but they kind of did. And so I guess I kind of got a little bit of a style with the writing that’s a little of my own with that.
I don’t really think about theory nowadays at all. I just hear sounds and it’s usually melody first, so if you take away the [leads] on any given song that I write, you’re going to hear melody in the progression and in each of the layers. So there’s layers of melody going on very deep, like from just removing the main melody to what’s in there in the bed.
For me, that’s the most inspirational thing. If I can hear melody from what’s happening in the background, then I can create another melody that feeds off of what’s happening. And that’s kind of how I do it. I just feed off of each guitar that’s there.
MPc: Who are some of the instrumental guitar players that you admire today?
PA: Pat Methany still for me is a go-to listen. Always… I love Andy Timmons. I love him as a person and his style and his passion and fire that he plays with. It’s like… it’s contagious. And I watch that guy play and I’m, like, fuck! He’s just got a genuineness about him when he plays. And it resonates with me, I relate to that.
Of course, Steve Lukather. I mean, man, I’ve been so lucky to be able to hang with him while he’s been recording his last couple of records. And that guy is just out of control. He’s so good and he’s such a badass musician, dude. There’s nothing he can’t do in any style. And just to be able to witness that head-on. So Steve Lukather for sure is a huge influence for me at the moment in terms of just his songwriting and his melodies and just the way he plays, man. And his tone is amazing right now. It’s unbelievable.
I’m sure there’s others, but those two guys are guys that definitely stand out for me at the moment.
MPc: You have a bunch of great videos online where you demonstrate how you build up the layers of your songs. Let’s talk about one of them, “Escape,” from the Visions soundtrack album.
PA: That song, for example, I had the riff in—I believe the video is the chorus… I doubled the low chorus part, which is actually—it’s actually a six-string guitar that’s tuned to baritone tuning, so it’s basically a 7-string minus the top high E. I played everything with that and doubled it, and then I did the same riff an octave higher and doubled it. I don’t often do that. If there’s a riff of any kind in whatever given song, I’ll double it for sure. I just like to be able to hard pan left and right the riff. And what I do typically is I’ll use a different guitar and alter the sound a hair so that if something happens for me, frequency-wise, like when you get a double and it’s tight.. I’ll do that pretty much all the time, no matter what.
And then I’ll change sounds and start altering stuff with sounds so that they fit sonically.
MPc: Do you frequently play in alternate tunings and/or dropped tunings?
PA: Half of my tunes in my catalog are Drop D tuning. I very much enjoy playing the low frequency. Bass is one of my favorite instruments and when I drop the tuning of the guitar I play differently. More riffs naturally develop. On Visions I started using a low B to B tuning. I got the idea from Jeff Kollman. After hearing him play in this tuning I had to try it. “Brain Burn” and “Boiling Point” are both down in this Baritone tuning. Rather than switching to a 7-string guitar and having to adjust my playing, I simply setup a few of my guitars specifically to that tuning. I use a heavier string gage to keep the tension nice and tight. Dean Markley Strings are my choice and favorite!
One thing I do want to say, while I’m tracking all these parts, I’m very cognizant of what frequencies are going to be able to cut. So I design the sound or the tone, if you will, to be so that it’ll be ready to go in the mix. So while I’m mixing I don’t have to do too much other than cut some frequencies here and there and everything really just is able to come through and you can hear everything. Otherwise, if I don’t think about that, everything will get buried once mixing time comes.
“Man, I’ve got a lot of pedals.”
MPc: Lets talk about some of your guitars and amps, and let’s talk gear. Tell me about your ESP guitars to start.
PA: Absolutely. I have my custom models and they’re made in the ESP custom shop in Japan. And, basically, they’re extreme guitars. They’re incredible. But currently I’m playing the new ESP LTD Elite model. And it’s the model they call ST-1. And I got to tell you, I’m going to be talking more about this in future videos, but now that I’m getting the opportunity, this guitar actually is so close to one of my custom shop ESPs. It’s an alder body with a maple quilt top, which is something I’ve been using for—I’ve been using ESP for, I think, 17 years I’ve been with that company. So that’s been my go-to model.
And this has that, stock, with a maple fret board, a maple neck and a vintage ESP headstock. And an original Floyd Rose. So the neck design is fantastic. It’s very close to what my custom necks are like. It’s got a satin finish, and a glossy finish on the fret board. And that’s different than what I’m used to, normally. Normally my necks are totally raw. I don’t have any finish on them at all whatsoever and I just kind of season them with the dirt and oil from my hands. [laughs] And that works for me.
But this is finished, and it’s so nice. I mean, the guitar is definitely—it’s the closest thing to one of my customs that ESP’s ever made. And it plays like a dream, it really does. And the pickup combinations—it comes with Duncans and I’m using it on the demos and in the clinics with Duncans as [it is] stock. I don’t want to do any changes to the guitar because I want people to really get the idea of what the guitar sounds like right off the shelf.
But I don’t [personally] use Duncans, I use DiMarzio.
MPc: What are your preferred pickups in the DiMarzio line?
PA: I have a few. The PAF Pro, it’ll be like my dummy go-to default pickup all the time. It’s really well balanced. There’s no spikes in the mid-range or treble, everything’s really well-balanced. And it’s got a good medium output. It’s not too low and it’s not sizzly hot. It’s just right in the middle. And that would be my default if I had no other choice.
But lately I’ve been using the PAF Classic, which I’m not sure if they make that anymore. It’s a slightly lower output PAF and it’s got a lot of character. My own guitar, my black guitar has a PAF Classic in it. I also use a PAF 36th Anniversary. That’s a little bit of a different voicing, too. It’s a warmer, it’s a really warm midrange type of pickup.
So my tone is, I usually set my tones typically pretty dark. And the Bogners work perfectly for that. And so I love the interaction between the pickup sound and a wood sound with the amp. So I make sure and get a lower to medium-low output on the pickups. Because if the pickups are really hot, then I start losing the tone of the amp and I start losing the tone of the wood and it’s really all about the pickup. So I keep my choice of pickups [to] the low output DiMarzios. Those are the main ones I use in my guitars right now.
And I also, for a Humbucker in the neck position, need a Humbucker from Hell. And I also use an Area 61—I’ve been really digging the stacked single coils they make. The Area 61 is my favorite rhythm pickup at the moment.
MPc: Cool. So do you do most of your leads on the neck or in the bridge?
PA: Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of it is all the bridge pickup. It’s all the bridge pickup. There’ll be a transition here and there where I’ll use a neck pickup just to get a completely different sound of a guitar. But I use the bridge pickup. It cuts. I can get harmonics. I mean, it’s just—I love it. And it’s really a stylistic thing. I think using the rhythm pickup’s great, especially an Area 61 or a Humbucker from Hell because they’re very low output and they bite, so it’s not muddy when I go up. I really like to have a bite, and an attack when I play lead, particularly. So it’s mostly bridge pickup.
“I sing the melody prior to touching my guitar.”
MPc: I thought you did some interesting work on the guitar with slides until I watched your “Escape” videos and learned that you actually play fretless guitar. How did you develop an interest in that, and what changes did you need to make to your technique in order to play fretless guitar?
PA: I tried a slide but could never get past the strange constriction to my finger. A fretless guitar just seemed the natural way to go for getting the quarter tonalities I wanted to go for. I am certain that my Indian heritage played a role in going the fretless route. So I asked ESP if they would take one of my existing guitars and rip the frets out. They did and made a dream guitar to play. I had them leave the lines where the frets would be so I could have markers to adjust to the intonation. But it was quite an effortless transition. Partly because of the incredible craftsmanship of the neck. It took a bit of practice to really nail down the vibrato I was going for but that was also a natural transition as I do a slide vibrato on a fretted guitar. I am very pleased with the outcome of the sound I got. I will be using more fretless guitar as I find it to be very expressive.
MPc: I know you’ve been playing Bogner amps for a long time. Which are the main ones today?
PA: I have an Ecstasy and I have a Goldfinger 45 that I used on Visions. I also used a Shiva, the 20th anniversary Bogner Shiva. And, basically, look, between those three amps—I would even narrow it down to two—the Goldfinger 45 and the Ecstasy, those are my two go-to amps. When I’m playing gigs, lately, last year I basically used the Goldfinger 45. It’s just brilliantly set up with the way its foot switche is, the clean tones is to die for. And it’s got a pre-loop and a post-loop. And so I just put in, on the dirty channel, I keep it like a dirty-clean and then, in the pre-loop, I just put in an overdrive pedal of some kind and kick that in when I need to do leads. Basically, those two amps are my go-to amps.
I’m going to be using my Ecstasy for NAMM [Winter 2013], because that’s one of the best lead tones, just straight. I don’t even need a pedal for it, even though I use them. It’s just unnecessary, the tone is just perfect on that amp, it’s really well-balanced.
MPc: And how about effects? Are you a pedal guy? Are you a rack guy?
PA: I’m all about pedals. I don’t think I own a single piece of rack gear that has to do with guitar. I just love, I love pedals because I can tweak ‘em, the knobs with my hands. Rack gear is all these buttons and I don’t really feel like I’m doing anything when I switch a parameter. So for me it’s all about pedals.
Man, I’ve got a lot of pedals. But I think my go-to pedals—it’s just different for every effect. I’ve got overdrives. I use Providence, I use Maxon, T-Rex. This one company, I don’t think they’re around anymore, but it’s called D3 Audio Designs. It’s like a really small boutique company. They had made, I think, a small number of pedals and they gave me some pedals a few years ago. And it just really depends what part I’m going for and where I’m—that’s why I have so many different overdrives. It’s just to color my sound, that’s really all I use it for. It’s not because the amps I use really need the gain, it’s just for a different color.
And so, when I’m tracking so many guitars, for example, in the studio, it’s important to have different frequencies pop, so it’s just about making sure I got the right frequency I want. And I utilize pedals for that effect rather than changing the amp. I keep my amps pretty much—like, my treble, mid-bass, everything is either right at 12 o’clock or just a hair up or a hair down from 12 o’clock. I don’t like things too drastic. Because I think that it just changes the voices of the amp to a point where it’s not what the amp’s made for.
And delays, I love delays. I love any kind of analog delays. I use the Maxon AD-999 Pro. I use TC Electronics. DigiTech makes a Hardwire line of pedals that’s—it’s actually really superb. And I’ve been using their tremolo or their stereo phaser for some things. I use the Providence phaser and an original Tychobrae Octavia [which you can hear on “Brain Burn” and a few other tracks].
I use a T-Rex Tremolo for a lot of the clean tracks that you hear. And a Maxon Phaser, the PT9, I believe it is. So it’s just a combination of stuff that I use. It’s not a large variety, but just the sounds that I go for and they’re really readily available.
MPc: Do you do the pedal tap-dance or do you have a switching system on your pedal board?
PA: It just depends. I tap-dance. I have a few different boards. I’ve got a really big one with like 12 pedals and that’s got a switching system called TheGigRig that I use. But that’s a huge board, I don’t really use it too much. And then I’ve got a middle board, which has got like eight pedals on it, and I just basically turn them on and off. And then I’ve got a small board with four/five pedals and it’s… it all depends on whatever gig I’m doing. So stuff that I have to get a lot of sounds on and I’m the only guitar player for a vocal gig, a pop thing, it’s nice to use TheGigRig because it’s easier to get full patches that stay analog and everything’s out of the loop when it’s not engaged, so I don’t kill my tone.
But for my solo stuff, I keep it pretty simple. I have, like, five pedals. And I try to keep as much as I can in the [effects] loops because it just keeps my signal more pure and so I don’t lose amp and guitar tone in the process.
MPc: So what’s next? What are you working on for this year?
PA: Well, today I’m doing tracks for Bogner for a brand-new amp that he’s going to be releasing at [2013 Winter] NAMM. And I’m getting ready for NAMM. I’ve got a new record. Jose and I did twenty-five songs, so ten songs are ready to go for me to start producing and working on for a fifth solo album, which is probably going to be happening as soon as I get a break. I’ve been producing some artists and I’m mixing a record for this young guy named Conor Nally. He’s a really good singer and guitar player, and we’re finishing up that project.
I’m also producing and tracking a band called The Longest Fall. They’re signed with Lakeshore Records. So we’re supposed to be doing that probably right after NAMM, we’ll start that record.
I’m happy to be busy. And I hope to be doing a lot more clinics for ESP, and performances. It looks like that schedule’s going to get busier, too. So there’s going to be a lot more live performance and stuff for me this year, absolutely, in the U.S. and abroad, as well.
MPc: It’s interesting that you’re producing some artists with vocals. I’ve noticed in your lead playing in particular, there’s a very vocal approach to the melodies you play in your lead work.
PA: Yeah, man. Look, for me, I sing the melody prior to touching my guitar. I know that might sound a little weird, but I actually—I’ve got to internalize a melody and have it come from within for it to be right. A lot of times I’ll pick up a guitar and I’ll play a melody and it’ll sound okay and then I’ll push Play and it’ll work and it might even be something I dig for a few days, but then, if I’m not internalizing it and singing it when I walk out, then I’m just… I have to change it.
I don’t sing with lyrics on these instrumental records, so it’s really important for me to be able to communicate to the listener a feeling and evoke some kind of emotion through the melody. And so if it’s not something that can be sung by me, then I know that it’s a hit or miss for the listener. But if it is something I can sing and internalize, then I know I have a chance that the listener is really able to connect with what I’m doing. Ultimately, that’s my goal. If I can connect with one person in a tune or in a part of a tune, then you know what? Music as my form of art in communicating to people is successful at that point, you know?
MPc: Yeah. And that’s a key difference between you and a lot of shredders, that they don’t give you something really melodic to latch onto. And that’s really what separates the greats from the wannabes.
PA: Thanks a lot, man.
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