James Young-The Guitar Player Interview
by Jim Schwartz
What's a mechanical and aerospace engineer with formal training on piano and clarinet doing playing lead guitar for a rock band? In James Young's case, plenty. Preferring to be called JY, he has seen Styx rise from relative obscurity to superstardom, and his electrifying Stratocaster riffs have played a critical role in the band's popularity. JY, Chicago born and bred, makes no bones about the fact he's a lead guitarist. Weaned on Hendrix, Clapton, and the soulful vibratoed blues of Albert King, he attacks his fretboard resolutely - exploring low-end sonorities one minute, then reaching for upper-register colors the next. While JY's not the fastest 6-string gun around, he can cut a mean swath through a tune if it's called for. His melodic strength, however, resides in his sustain and taste, whether he's coaxing feedback to complement Dennis DeYoung's synthesizer or harmonizing single-string passages with Tommy Shaw.
Guitar Player: What differences do you perceive between John Curulewski's and Tommy Shaw's guitar work, and did you have to modify your approach any once Tommy replaced John?
James Young: Tommy is a more well-rounded guitarist than John, but John certainly was good, and he had a lot of really creative ideas. Tommy, however, brings other strengths to the band. With John, most of the lead work kind of fell to me because I think he felt I was the stronger lead player. But Tommy is, in a sense, a different lead guitarist stylistically than I am. You see, I like to play electric; I've never been into, say, steel-string fingerpicking at all - although I've tried it from time to time. John was a better acoustic player than I, and Tommy is certainly more proficient. So, I basically stay out of that area.
GP: You also like working with keyboards, too, isn't that right?
JY: Yes, I play keyboards a lot; I started studying piano at age five. There have been some albums where from time to time I've thrown ideas at Dennis that he uses, like in "Fooling Yourself" on The Grand Illusion - the beginning hook was my idea. Not that I want to be interviewed by Contemporary Keyboard magazine, but keyboards and electric guitar are both strengths of mine.
GP: Since you started out playing piano, what first got you interested in guitar?
JY: I think it was probably its sound. I did like the Hammond organ, but there was something about lead guitar that I really got off on. As an early teenager, I loved the way Jimmy Smith played organ, and I drove my parents nuts just practicing his runs over and over. Those I can do, but that's about the extent of my keyboard strength at this point. I've always been into flashy, technical instrumentalists. You know, I love John McLaughlin and people of that ilk. I was so amazed the first time I heard him play I said, "Hah!" I thought all those things were impossible, and here comes a guy who's just phenomenal. Darn him.
GP: Who were some of your early guitar influences?
JY: My high school experiences - I went to Calumet High in Chicago - contributed a lot to what I like about music. I'm into earthy things, earthy topics, and I still really like the blues. Hendrix was a giant influence, as was Clapton, Johnny Winter, and Albert King. I don't know how Albert gets that wild vibrato he does, but he's really got a thing happening. When I first heard him I thought he was using a bar. But then I saw him do it, saw that his hand was doing it, and I said, "Stand back." I mean, that's pretty hot stuff. I got to be a decent lead player by taking solos off of records and slowing them down. Clapton on "Crossroads" was one. Hendrix I liked more, but Clapton was easier. I reduced it to half-speed and learned to sing the notes first, after which I reproduced them on the guitar. That's how I got into playing lead, and I think my talent made quantum leaps by doing that.
GP: Do you ever see your keyboard role with Styx expanding in the future?
JY: Well, Dennis is awfully good at keyboards, so I don't see my role expanding for now. If I felt our live sound mixer could handle another big keyboard setup, however, I might consider it. But there are so many inputs out there at the board for him to deal with as it is; I don't want to overcomplicate our live sound. In addition, I think the show is a big part of what we do, and to tie another person down to a keyboard rig probably isn't a good idea.
GP: How important is the concept of theater rock to Styx?
JY: Very. There was this big thing for a long time in the music business about, "You can't program yourself; you can't program your playing. Everything has to be ad lib for people to say, 'Wow! Look what they've done.'" I really disagree with that. I think that rock music has evolved toward a more structured plan because, in some respects, it's like a stage play - it's like show business. If you can get certain effects, like coordinating the lighting with movements and moods, then the impact of the entire show is greater, and the people are more entertained. That's really why we're here.
GP: Do you actually choreograph your onstage movements?
JY: With much of it we don't actually sit down and formally plan things. Over a period of time certain dramatic - and whimsical - gestures keep recurring: We'll find a move that works and that everyone likes. Then, our lighting guy will say, "I can focus light over here, and you can get this impact happening there." So, nice background music. Pleasant for the early afternoon. Keep it nice and soft [laughs]. In the final analysis, we know where we're going. In that sense, the show is choreographed, but it's not like we hired somebody to come in and do it. It just naturally evolved from what we like to do over a period of time.
GP: During certain songs you and Tommy will bump into each other quite hard. Choreography, friendly competition, or what?
JY: It's really a great mutual admiration society between he and I. His personality and mine go well together. Tommy is from Alabama originally, and while he's just a little more laid back than I am, and maybe a little less cocky offstage, he's usually more animated during the show. But we both like the guitar, and relate to as well as appreciate many of the same things. We give each other a lot of space. For example, on records we usually try to divide the leads up as evenly as possible; onstage, kind of the same thing happens. On Pieces Of Eight Tommy said, "Why don't you play lead on 'Renegade,'" which he wrote. As it turned out, that was a great space for me because the song got a lot of exposure. And so on "Half-Penny Two-Penny" from Paradise Theater, which is my song, he said, "JY, I'd really like to play lead on a song like that, where I can just go out there and go wild," because he usually plays lead in the more structured tunes. When there's a real hard song Tommy says, "Well, this is JY's thing; let him do it." But we let Tommy loose on "Half-Penny." There's a lot of give and take between us, and the competitiveness you see onstage is more for the show's sake. We harbor no animosity for each other.
GP: You've been using a Stratocaster as your principal guitar since '67. Have you ever experimented with other models?
JY: Not really. I can't just go out and shop for a new guitar, because for me it has got to be set up to my touch. And there's always a break-in period when something could change with it. I'm the type of person who likes to optimize variables - I guess it's my engineering background - and once they've reached an optimized state I can't stand the thought of destroying that and starting out new. I finally found a backup Strat, another pre-CBS model, that I feel somewhat comfortable with. But without my Yoshinarator I'd really be lost.
GP: What's a Yoshinarator?
JY: It's a preamp/distortion unit that was built for me by Dave Yoshinari, a friend I went to the Illinois Institute of Technology with. It was designed around the guitar I play, and for some reason other instruments just don't activate it in the same way. So those two are inseparable - that Stratocaster and the Yoshinarator. My style has adjusted to that; I lean on the thing, and it really makes me sound good. If I lose it, I'm going to be in big trouble. I've got to thank Dave publicly here, because my sound is based on his talent in the electronics field.
GP: You don't have a pedalboard onstage. Why?
JY: Well, all those gizmos tend to rob the high-end in the signal chain. I know people who have these giant effects setups, but they would clutter the stage if we had them. Besides, the potential for failure is, in a sense, exponential with each gizmo that's in the signal chain, and that bothers the shit out of me. I want to be up there not worrying about a thing. I want my playing, singing, and stage movements to be all right. So, while I do use some effects, our mixing guy controls everything.
GP: Don't you feel the least bit intimidated artistically because you're not in complete control of your sound?
JY: Not really. I want to be able to focus on being the stage personality up there, because that's what the people want to see. Plus, I have a great deal of faith on our mixer's tastes and how he makes the sounds happen. He can control them; he can pan them; he can do a lot of things. While I might not know what he's doing out there at the board all the time, as long as I feel good about what I'm doing - and the crowd's reacting - then I know something good's happening and God bless him.
GP: When you're in the studio, do you usually like to mike your amp, go direct, or employ a combination of the two?
JY: I hate the way direct sounds. I've done it very rarely. I got it down to where I close miked a Neumann U-87, but lately I haven't liked the way that sounds. So, for Paradise Theater I took a ruler and said, "Put this microphone eight to ten inches from the amplifier and keep it there." And our tour sound man, Rob Kingsland - who was our assistant engineer in the studio - went in there and stuck his ear in front of each of my four speakers and said, "I like the way this one sounds, and this is where the high-end is coming off the speaker." He'd try to find the spot where it would sound best. One thing I think we've missed in the studio, when I listen in retrospect, is that other people get more of a roomier sound where we don't.
GP: Wouldn't too much ambient miking present a problem in achieving tonal clarity when recording?
JY: Yes, that's basically why we go with close miking. There are some things where, if it's an overdub situation and we're not worried about leakage, we might open up the room. On "Renegade," the rhythm sound I got came from having a very directional mike across the room pointed at a pane of glass. But for the most part, especially on the new album, there are very few times when we used a room mike and actually mixed it in. There are usually phase cancellation things that happen, and it just never seems to sound full and thick, and yet clear.
GP: Describe how you typically record a song.
JY: We have three - no more than four - people on the basic track, with one guy sitting in the booth, producing. If there are songs we don't know that well, we'll drop down to three people because folks start getting mad at each other. You know, "Hey, you screwed that up!" Nobody wants to be responsible for that. There's an added strain on John and Chuck because they're always on the basic track, and they have the least amount of time to fix their parts. So, since there's a lot of immediate pressure on the drummer and bassist, we try to minimize the number of us playing at one time. This allows John and Chuck the opportunity to do their very best with the minimum of others creating problems for them.
GP: Do you allow yourself much room for improvisation in the studio?
JY: We attempt to work it all out before we go in. This time we had our monitor mixer sitting around, and we made cassette tapes of everything we did at rehearsal. Since we all have cassette players in our cars, we could listen to the songs, say, when we were driving home. Then, the next day we'd come back and say, "I like this," or "I don't like that." In general, though, we try to keep the arranging and creating away from the studio. Since we're producing the albums ourselves, it's such a drain on you to be totally responsible for the sound. It's like a triple burden in there: Not only do you have to play and create, but you have to produce it as well. And it's difficult, so we try to separate as much as we can. Of course, when you get into the studio and lay it down the way you thought it should be, sometimes you realize, "There's something missing here," or "This is too busy," or whatever. While we may change some things, we like to have the bulk of our material worked out long before we record.
GP: What about onstage - any changes from what's on the record?
JY: It really depends. Certain songs, like the real hard rockers, are the ones that are tailor-made for adding finesse endings where you can really crank it out. Like on "Miss America" [The Grand Illusion], we add onto the ending and just ride the riff, finally breaking out at the conclusion with a monstrous stage finish. Or on "Renegade": That song was meant to go on forever, the way it's written. But with certain tunes that are more structured, it's difficult to alter them. We try to give people pretty much a reproduction of the record, unless we think we can embellish it in a better way.
GP: How about an example?
JY: The final criterion is: If the song requires all five of us to stand still and play it, and if the presentation is dull because of that, we may alter the song to make it visually more exciting, oftentimes that means a shift in the music, too. Most of the changes we effect live are to make a song visually more appealing and the music a little more climactic. If we've got a recorded song with a fade-out, usually you don't fade live. So, you're forced to come up with something creative. Fading is the easiest thing to do in the studio: "I don't know how to end this, so let's fade." But as far as rhythm and lead playing on tunes goes, Styx has very structured music by and large, and on most of our songs I stick real close to the format I laid down on the record.
GP: Tell me how you compose songs.
JY: Let me give you some examples of different ways. Sometimes I'll work with lyrical ideas first. I like to come up with the title, and while practicing on my own I'll just rehearse riffs. On "Miss America" I had this riff, then I came up with the title and decided, "Well, these two will fit together very nicely." Basically, I like to find a riff that's very strong and doesn't sound like somebody else's.
GP: That approach is fairly common among players.
JY: But since I have such a good ear and such a good memory for other riffs, it really is a hindrance in terms of everything I come up with. I have a tendency too early in the creative process to say, "Oh, that sounds too much like this," and discard things when potentially they could be utilized. I don't think with anything that Styx has done you could say, "This definitely sounds like a ripoff of somebody else." Obviously, we're not breaking a lot of new ground instrumentally speaking - like Keith Emerson or John McLaughlin did - but I think stylistically the blends of the different styles is where we're breaking new ground.
GP: Do you prefer writing on guitars, keyboards, parchment?
JY: Guitars and keyboards. For instance, on "Snowblind" from Paradise Theater, the keyboard thing in the beginning was my idea. I've got an electric piano that sits right next to my guitar, and I was just fiddling around and came up with it. Actually, I like to know how to play all my songs on both guitar and keyboards. With "Half-Penny Two-Penny," for instance, I doubled on guitar and piano as well as sang all the vocals in my rough demo. Basically, I want a song to be good in my own mind before I present it to the band, and when it comes to my ideas about specific keyboard parts, I'm often quite opinionated. Many times Dennis will hit upon something that's better than I originally conceived, but basically I'm a real son-of-a-bitch [laughs].
GP: Are there any specific keys you find especially appealing?
JY: As far as choosing keys, it's all based on the opportunity to utilize open strings in creative ways. Take C#: It has that magical quality Hendrix showed us and Robin Trower uses. I wrote "Queen Of Spades" [Pieces Of Eight] in C#. You can play the C# on the fifth string, 4th fret, and then the open B gives you a b7, and the open E is a b3.
GP: What about time signatures other than straight 4/4?
JY: The band throws in different signatures from time to time when they're called for. Like in "Fooling Yourself" [The Grand Illusion], the middle passage is in 7/4. Our songwriting tends to be straight ahead 2/4, 4/4, or 6/4 for the most part. But lead breaks are the places where there's room for us to experiment. We like our songs to be easy for people to deal with, although we've used signatures such as 5/2 in some things. Take "The Great White Hope" from Pieces Of Eight: It's in 5. But time signatures are something you can't get too carried away with if you want to stay accessible to a majority of people. If the group were to yield a little more to my opinions, we probably would become less accessible to the general public. We've got a real balance of thought processes in Styx between wanting to get ridiculous in one direction, and wanting to get ridiculous in another. I think the group's strength is that while everyone's pulling for different things, there's a check-and-balance thing going on, too. True democracy at work.
GP: When you're structuring solos, are you thinking horizontally or vertically in terms of the fretboard?
JY: That's a tough one. I don't believe I've ever been asked that question before. Typically, what I like to do is to exploit a horizontal area on the low end of the scale first. But in "Snowblind," for instance, I started with a big stab up on the top end, and then dropped down and worked my way vertically up the neck. Finally, by the third time through the chord progression, I'm up on top screaming. How one gets there is the real thing, but I like to wind up on the top of the fingerboard.
GP: Since there aren't any monitors onstage in front of you, where are they?
JY: My main source is underneath the drum riser. It scares me a little bit, because if I blow a speaker - or the speakers get funny in any way - once they've set the stage, I'm through. Thank God so far it hasn't hurt me. My main speaker source is under there because we wanted to minimize the guitar that was being picked up by the vocal mikes, and also that was leaking into the drum kit. Those, I feel, are your main problems in live sound reproduction.
GP: On Styx' Cornerstone LP, you played guitar synthesizer on "Why Me," "Lights," and "Eddie." Do you see yourself doing more with guitar synthesis in the future?
JY: I did dabble with guitar synthesizers for a time - a 360 Systems and an ARP Avatar - but I just had real difficulty with the tuning on them. This year, I've gotten away from them because they were just one more thing that seemed to aggravate me. But I still like their sounds and applications. The unfortunate thing in this group is with Dennis and his Oberheim 8-Voice keyboard synthesizer, he can do anything I can do, in spades. However, there are certain nuances of technique such as vibrato that are nearly impossible to get on synthesizer - though when I listen to Jan Hammer, I even wonder about that. But to use guitar synthesis live I found very difficult, because I was stuck with a cord. I'm so used to the freedom of my Nady wireless, I just decided synthesizers were too much bother. The 360 was nice on the record, but live it was just one of those many problems I wanted to rid myself of.
GP: Has your engineering background proved useful to your development as a professional musician?
JY: I used to have this tremendous fear of not knowing each intricate part of my setup, and I used to make sure I knew every part of Dennis' and everybody else's. In the days when we couldn't afford to hire good people, if there was a breakdown, a lot of times I would be the bottom line in figuring out what was wrong. It's all very simple with an engineering background to say, "The signal goes here, and it stops there, and we know this board is bad." But now, fortunately, I've gotten away from that. I trust my guitar man Tom Reedy and also the Weasel, who we just hired this tour and who was Robin Trower's main guitar roadie. Those two are really good, and I have ultimate faith in both of them. But it's only been in the last year-and-a-half that I've gotten away from making sure that every last part of my setup was right. In fact, at this point in time I couldn't set up my own setup. But it doesn't scare me.
GP: What does the future hold for JY and Styx?
JY: I don't really know. As far as the future goes, it's difficult to say because Styx is a big part, and I really think we can go on for a long time. The group is probably going to branch out and try some different things. We may come up with a movie based on Paradise Theater using real actors, or we could do a soundtrack to another movie. I know I can produce records if I want; I have the technical and the musical expertise to do it, and I know how to motivate people. Motivation is a big part of production that often gets overlooked. But I don't like being in the studio that much, locked away in a dark place for 12 hours a day. What I'd like to do is to keep my horizons as wide open as possible so that whatever opportunities present themselves that appeal to me emotionally, I'll be able to flow with them. Lately, I've been getting heavily involved in promoting solar energy conservation, which I like because I'm meeting interesting people there. I don't know what the hell I'm going to do, to tell you the truth [laughs].
Guitar Player magazine, July 1981
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