In our ongoing series, Gibson.com this time jumps into a guitar-shaped spaceship to salute inventor, scientist, AOR auteur and reluctant guitar god, Tom Scholz of Boston. With the never-fading ubiquity of “More Than a Feeling” and numerous other hits, it might be hard to believe... but Tom Scholz is now an incredibly youthful-looking 70 years old. Happy Birthday, Tom!
Who is he?
Scholz is Boston, really. His life could have gone numerous ways, though. Fans will know this, but he studied classical piano as a young child, and was also an outstanding student and member of the varsity basketball team (he’s 6 ft 5-ish), at Ottawa Hills High School, Toledo. After high school, Scholz gained both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering from M.I.T. before working for Polaroid as a senior product designer. Woo, rock’n’roll.
Well, yes actually, as his early rock demos snared the interest of Epic Records who signed Scholz and singer Brad Delp to an album deal. Most of 1976’s Boston debut was just Tom’s demos re-recorded – and re-recorded again in Scholz’s basement “on a 12-track Scully tape machine” despite Epic’s wishes for “proper recordings”. Scholz simply lied to Epic at the time, never saying he’d essentially repeated his demo recordings. It was a partial truth, as “Let Me Take You Home Tonight”, Brad Delp’s sole songwriting contribution to the album, was recorded in an L.A. studio with the fledgling band and with Scholz only adding overdubs. He didn’t produce it. Guess what? It sounds different.
But overall Scholz played most of the guitar, bass and keyboards and Boston “the band” was only properly formed when touring became inevitable. It was a WIN! for Tom’s “Hideaway Studio” basement, though – Boston soon became the biggest-selling debut album of all-time and R.I.A.A. figures list it as now selling 17,000,000 copies in the U.S. alone. That’s more than the Eagles’ Hotel California of the same year. For a “home recording” to sound like that, never mind sell like that, is pretty phenomenal.
“Everybody thought that it was impossible, because disco ruled the airwaves at the time,” Scholz later remembered. “But we stumbled onto a sound that worked, and soon everybody was imitating it.” “Stumbled”, though? Scholz doesn’t seemingly “stumble” into anything. Heck, he was 20 before he even picked up a guitar.
The 34-minute Don’t Look Back followed in 1978, but was delivered under duress as Scholz insisted it wasn’t really finished. “It’s ridiculously short,” Scholz later remembered, “It’s absurd for a CD, but it was even ridiculously short for a vinyl album.” No worries, it hit #1 and sold 4 million in its first month. It set the tone for all Boston matters since – Scholz doing things resolutely his way, disliking the record industry, and being the antithesis of the swaggering guitar god. Scholz has delivered six Boston albums in 41 years. Over his life, Scholz has registered 36 patents for inventions. Scholz, it’s fair to say, is not much like Keith Richards. That said, Scholz is still going strong - he heads out with Boston on a major U.S. tour starting April 2017.
You know the sound. Scholz’s guitar(s) signature is/was heavily layered, simultaneously syrupy yet piercing, muscular yet emotive and seemingly painstakingly planned and crafted. In a word, Scholz’s sound is unique – and few players, of any era, have that. “All I can say is the tone, the sound, and the way it’s all put together is the way I like it,” Scholz says. “And I’m just lucky there are other people who like the same things I do.”
Writer Tim Sommer wrote a superbly enthusiastic salute to the Scholz sound at Observer.com, but there’s one description I particularly smiled at.... “That. Freaking. Guitar sound. Room-filling, like the joyous squeeze of a transistor radio heard in 5/1 surround sound, and it’s so distinctive yet delicious, like an ice cream shell over a Pete Townshend chord announced in a stage whisper.” Write on!
Yet despite the impression of meticulous preparation, Scholz says, “I don’t work out a lead section and practice it for a day, and then lay it down. I don’t do that. The first time I do something I think is expressive or really cool, that’s what’s actually on the recording. And I go to great lengths to make sure that original source stays in the music.”
But, as Scholz also notes, there’s no short-cut to that source. “Musical accidents are a gold mine. The thing about accidental discoveries is they won’t be made unless you put yourself in a position to make that discovery. To do that means hundreds of hours, days and weeks where you do things and don’t discover anything. You have to put in the grunt work, the time and effort, and all the failures, to stumble into the accidental gold mines.”
Tom Scholz and Gibson Guitars
Throughout his career, Scholz has remained faithful to the smooth yet throaty roar of Gibson Les Pauls. “They sound great. Period. The first time I saw somebody play one was Jimmy Page and then I heard Jeff Beck use one on Truth. Then, I heard someone play a Goldtop in a bar and I thought it was the sweetest sounding thing.”
But Scholz is predictably specific. His two main LPs for recording are second-hand-bought ‘68s, stripped reissues of a ‘57-style Gold Top, and with particularly fat necks. (Scholz says the composite parts were actually made in 1959, but had been in storage at Gibson since then – plausible, as 1960s Les Pauls were different again, with a famously shallower neck.) He’s tried many other LPs over the years, but not liked them so much. “It turns out both of the used guitars I bought were built within six months of each other in 1968 and both had the fat neck, and I couldn’t find another like it.”
Given that Scholz is a natural inventor, he’s tinkered with his guitars... a lot. The ‘68s he bought originally had P-90s – the bridge one came out, replaced by a DiMarzio Super Distortion humbucker. He also developed a “purely mechanical system... With a quick one-knob adjustment I can bring the guitar up or down a half step.” But he never commercially developed it, as “in general my Les Pauls stay in tune so well I never bothered. I have another device that lifts the string so there’s very little friction up at the nut, and a custom built roller bridge so there’s no friction at the bridge. I even have a fake fret behind the second fret on the high E string, so when I play an open D chord the F-sharp will be a little bit flat, which puts it into mathematically perfect pitch for a D chord.” For strings, Scholz favors .08, .11, .15, .24, .34, .44, “which makes for pretty slinky high notes and pretty resilient low notes.”
The major features of Scholz’s own favorite ‘68 – the guitar most-used on that Boston debut - has been recreated by Gibson and Scholz as Gibson Collector’s Choice #10. Click on the link for full specs.
“[Gibson Custom] went back and forth, and there were about three iterations, and by the time they were done, the prototype felt exactly like my Les Paul,” says Scholz. “It also sounded just like it. It was quite amazing to see the care they took – I wasn’t sure how careful they were going to be – but they took a lot of care into physically getting the guitar right. It was beautiful.”
Nice. Be warned, though – grabbing one of these doesn’t mean you’re simply strapping on that complete Boston sound. With most of his backline being his own custom-designed programmable Rockman kit, even Scholz says, “I could plug into a regular guitar amplifier and play you the lead part to ‘Peace of Mind’ or the rhythm to ‘More Than a Feeling,’ but to play the whole song would be impossible. You’d have to make a half-dozen changes in EQ, gain, output level, and effects, and there’s no way to do that with standard amps.” Playing just like Scholz will bring its own challenges, too – befitting his height, he has notably long fingers.
This is a must-watch, if you haven’t seen it before. The 2014 Tom Scholz special in The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers by PBS is online. The videos are split into themes, and recorded in Scholz’s studio.
Scholz is a funny guy, and doesn’t give too much away. How do you play a perfect guitar solo like him? “Well, it helps if you have a nice guitar, like a Les Paul. And a good amp. Oh yeah... then you’ve got to learn the solo.” That’s it. Thanks Tom. That’s easy.