Interview with AL KRYSZAK

Al Kryszak

Following the recent release of the ‘Soft Clowns of the Sea‘ album, composer and guitarist from Buffalo, NY, Al Kryszak, sat down with Guitar Sphere for an interview where he, besides the album, talks about his exposure to music at the early age, his beginnings as a guitarist, influences, technique and more.

How would you describe your initial exposure to music?

Soft Clowns of the Sea is a 40 year late visit to a kid hearing his brother’s record player: The Beatles “Revolution”, Neil Young, Steppenwolf & King Crimson; my sister’s Carole King. Roger McGuin’s acoustic lead on It’s Alright Ma from Easy Rider. These all haunted me, so I taught myself guitar & piano, with great support from Dad & Mom, (who had my band practice in basement so she knew where we all were).

I became a film composer for Turner Classic Movies & others because of striking, early musical images like Bernard Herman’s skeleton warriors in Jason & The Argonauts. I really get Rob Zombie’s love for classic horror film; it allowed composers to go wild with darkness, light & every sound in between, so I began writing orchestral music soon after guitar.

Were you in the music programs in school while you were growing up?

Nope! Catholic Schools were safe, but not big on music programs, other than the sweet, 4-foot tall nun who was obsessed with John Phillip Sousa marches? In high school though, I skipped Religion Class to sneak into the Aud to play the grand piano in the dark. I brought applesauce from the cafeteria to not waste piano time eating dessert at lunch. (I guess that’s a music program?)

How did you get into playing guitar?

At the very start, when I was 14, my brother, J. Law Rodgers (Tropical Hitchhiker) started me on chords after he gave up keeping me out of his room to play his impossibly warped Harmony Guitar.

My first solo guitar piece is a 72 minute electric & acoustic silent film score for Murnau’s “Nosferatu”. That came after years of trying to figure out where in the musical world my guitar playing belongs.

Al Kryszak (Photo by John Guinane)

Did you start to listen to music differently once you discovered guitar?

Definitely. Growing into music in the 1970’s, I still gravitate to classic, strong personality guitar tone & attack: my first Fender Tele, maple Strat, Les Paul, & since 2000, my Danelectro Baritone. Guitar tone & FX change how & what you play so much more than other instruments. My favorite ‘half-wah pedal” settings with overdrive on a Stratocaster makes one play completely differently than a clean, low, neck pickup tone.

Who were some of your early guitar influences?

As I was learning The Who’s Quadrophenia, my brother challenged “Why don’t you start making up your own songs instead of learning everyone else’s?”. Fripp (King Crimson), Hackett of early Genesis & Gilmore (Pink Floyd) were my guitar heroes along with my main ‘teacher’: Jimmy Page. (I wore out the ‘white book’: Zeppelin I-IV). My songwriting, on the other hand, absorbed much more personal lyricists like Neil Young & John Lennon. I loved how certain players’ identities were inseparable from their instrument: Gilmore’s Strat continued classic blues over the ambient harmonies of Rick Wright; Steve Howe’s was as angular & country-picked as Hackett’s Les Paul was sustained & orchestral. My later orchestration in concert & film music was directly influenced by these composer-guitarists, so it seemed like a small leap to write for orchestra, transferring a sustained guitar solo into string orchestra (Song 1) the way Medieval composers drifted from instrument to voice with the notation serving either versions.

Tell me about your guitar technique.

I begin & end with the acoustic guitar. It’s the most honest way I can hear my lines or when I’m getting sloppy. I’ve always been split personality on guitar influences: the percussive attack of palm muting vs. soaring oboe-like lines with no point of attack.

When you can hear the physical act of swimming through the strings & fretboard, that’s what gets me going (Second Chance Air Rescue). I like all the things that MIDI emulators & cyborg plugins mimic in futility: string noise! That Hendrix fusion of rhythm & lead (The Wind Cries Mary), or the ‘punch-to-the-chest’ attack of Al Di Meola live, (Race With Devil on a Spanish Highway) or Neil Young’s Re-invention of electric rhythm guitar from his power-folk acoustic, born of necessity, loud bars & chatty clubs. (Alabama)

Track 18: Soft Clowns of the Sea Conclusion brings back my earliest lead playing, trading barbs with the drums, contrasting distorted, muted baritone electric with ‘big room’ drums ala Eddie Kramer.

What guitars are in your collection? What is your a guitar that you trust the most?

If I was kidnapped, and they said “give us all your valuable vintage guitars!”,
I’d be in a bit of trouble. I was broke for 20 years, and now I’m just cheap as long as the tone of an instrument is right. I had an early ‘70’s Fender Maple Tele and a Maple Strat, but no more. Besides an Ibanez nylon string & Fender banjo, I focus on a newer Fender Strat & Danelectro Baritone through a Fender Deluxe amp. My solo albums & work with REV include a Gretsch G5715 Lap for slide & on the new album, I play some melodic fretless bass on a Dean upright electric. My acoustics are Taylor, I know some folks miss that mellow Gibson tone on a resonant G chord, but I play a lot of low & mid range acoustic lead (Time Without Guilt) so the brighter low end of a Taylor 214 works for me.

With the advancement of the technology and amp/effect simulation, do you still use pedals?

Only as something plugged into a Fender tube amp. I grew up on pedals but always struggled with how they emaciated the guitar ‘body’ in passive mode, & added noise with each pedal in chain. My first 2 pedals in 1975, determined everything I love about sustain & ‘evil mid-range resonance’: a Morley Fuzz Box & Crybaby Wah. I currently use a BOSS ME-70 pedal board & like taking all those short, tone-leeching cables out of the equation.

Since my baritone is starting at low B, many solos on the new album are straight tone, alternated with high sustain, leaving wide mid-range ‘air’ in the production for the piano & organ lines I play. An early lesson I learned about FX was from Jimmy Page: I thought I was hearing huge distortion FX on his guitar lines, only to discover that as a producer, Page carved out very narrow frequency ranges for his guitar, which worked great with Jones & Bonham but were thinner than I realized, with more attack than distortion.

In your opinion, what are the three skills that every guitarist must bring to perfection?

1. Practice at night, after letting your dog out. I work on scales, in slow motion.

2. Acoustic will keep you in shape for electric, but not the other way around.

3. To paraphrase Beethoven: “Playing a mistake is human but playing without      feeling is unforgivable”.

How did you work on perfecting your rhythm and solo parts?

The solo playing tries to marry rhythm & solo within the same guitar line. In Lullabies For People Who Don’t Need Sleep & 2018’s Soft Clowns of the Sea, I continue to the idea that it all comes down to solo guitar. In Soft Clowns Things Under The Night Water & Too Bright to Tell, it’s all reduced to a pencil drawing of a larger picture: acoustic guitar to solo baritone electric. The guitar’s bass line outlines harmonic changes, a rhythmic scaffold for wandering lead lines as melodic & rhythmic exist in the same guitar part.

But for REAL rhythm? I think a guitar player has got to get with a great drummer. I played with John Bacon Jr., Michael Nicolosi & on the new album: Buffalo’s Mike Brydalski. Mike’s contribution let the rock tracks support the spacey tunes and lock me into faster tempos.

Soft Clowns of the Sea

Back to music… You have launched your tenth solo studio album with Soft Clowns of the Sea. Lead me through its creative process.

The whole concept launched from a non-musical crisis: A friend pushed against a wall by ICE officers because she was “not quite white” as Time Without Guilt sings. To have to watch Civil Rights sent back to 1963, because a few super-race schmucks camped out at the Oval Office? This brought me out of guitar modes & into the fray. Like my heroes Hendrix & Pink Floyd believed, sometimes you gotta stop playing & speak up before you’re never heard from again.

Musically, The instrumentals on Soft Clowns… are the core of the project, a narrative where certain motifs are born ‘in real time’ during guitar improvisations, to be developed later into self-contained songs. The solo instrumental ending Things Under The Night Water spawned the melody for Pledge of 2017, a simple, 3 verse song about an unrecognizable nation after a single year of Trump-Erosion. (I know…”shut up & play your guitar”)

A huge part of the process was how to get the up-tempo songs in gear. Mike Brydalski set down spacious & solid drum tracks to anchor the few songs to the story. To make sure the album is doable live, I had Maine singer-songwriters Duane Ingalls & Stephen Copel lay down vocal harmonies to slower tracks like Sometimes No Sound. A final part of the process is visual. Soft Clowns.. is image-inducing, about being a foreigner for the rest of your life, and the CD layout features my son’s (NeilKryszak.com) nocturnal Pacific ocean photography.

What evolution do you feel Soft Clowns of the Sea represents for you as a composer and guitarist?

The main evolution I could see from an insider view, is that Soft Clowns… really confesses to my first opposing Rock influences: Singer-Songwriter & Prog Guitarist.

Prog is so fueled by the ‘soul-checking’ effect of Rock Folk Song: the diversity of Prog Rock is so dependent on ballads like Crimson’s Exiles & Talk to the Wind, ELP’s Lucky Man & From The Beginning & YES & Genesis’ vocal debt to acoustic vocal masters like CSNY.

Another evolutionary moment was putting down the Fender Strat, committing to baritone electric & acoustic guitars. As a producer, it made me listen to the now over-populated low end & figure out how I was going to keep the villagers from burning down the subwoofer.

Acoustic lead guitar was originally a temp track in a few songs, but evolved into the guitar identity. That was something I touched on with REV. Even in electric songs like Catch Me Sleeping & Time Without Guilt, the lead breaks down to a solo acoustic, the core. I kept coming back to my first experience with guitar, letting it communicate everything that words cannot, & when words are there, guitar lifts them above the average height of a single human.

And, thank you for supporting new music.

Soft Clowns of the Sea is available from Amazon.

  • When Al & I were kids, & I poured all my energy into girls & the widest variety & quantity of mind-altering drugs I could lay my hands on, he, single-mindedly pursued the study & practice of music.

    When his fingers were raw from playing the many instruments he mastered, he practised drawing in various media.

    To this day, so many years later, his example of devotion to art is still unique in my experience. He has become successful in his field but not nearly as much as he merits (AND the bastard gets more handsome every year :)