March 3rd, 1997
Musicians are rarely exactly what they seem to be. Who would have guessed from his work with Megadeth that Marty Friedman was a Kitaro fan? How many people bet the farm that among Dave Navarro’s favorite pieces is Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”? So it should come as no surprise to fans of Helmet, that guitarist, vocalist/band leader Page Hamilton is a huge AC/DC fan. I mean that does make sense. The jack hammer rhythms of Aftertaste, their 4th album, pay homage to AC/DC, The Ramones and early Metallica. But there is also a subtle sense of swing, a bounce to the music does come from elsewhere. In fact Page Hamilton does have a surprise waiting for his fans. He is a music school graduate who studied jazz with Howard Roberts and is as comfortable discussing Wes Montgomery as he is Killing Joke. And as I soon would learn, Bob Dylan. In order to make sure we were recording I asked Page to do a Bob Dylan impersonation. He sang a few lines from “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” adding that, “Blood On The Tracks has got to be one of the best records ever made. There are many up there with him. Have you ever heard Desire with “Mozambique”? It’s a great one.”
What do you find interesting about guitarists that interest you?
I have to say it had very little to do with the technical side of the instrument. They weren’t intellectual decisions like can that boy blow. It wasn’t that at all. It was always the groove and say in Jim Hall’s case, his great approach to rhythm. He was kind of like Bill Evans (jazz piano) on the guitar and harmonically he was so dense and beautiful. On a technical level you could look at it and go wow that is exciting and interesting. He is playing an F7altered chord by playing an F triad with an F# in the bass. It’s real simple voicings and also some ridiculous close voicings. There may be some ridiculous finger stretches where you ask how did he get that voicings? You may discover how he got that sound and its so beautiful.. You might know the changes of the song but it doesn’t sound like anybody else. Now that I have analyzed and contradicted myself. It’s about the feel and the sound and the musicality.
Is that something that people are born with?
I think so, you are born with some kind of musical gift and you can expand on what your are born with to get the most out of it. That means practice.
When you talk about feel or tone it could be Jim Hall or John Lee Hooker.
Absolutely. On a technical level I can’t even come close to explaining how John Lee Hooker gets that beautiful of a sound. He could pick up a plank of wood with
a couple of wires on it and make it sound great. A friend of mine told me he had Clyde Stubblefield come into his studio and sit down at this crappy drum kit they all hated. They could never get a sound out of it they wanted so they ended up triggering a bunch of samples off of it. Clyde sat down and did very little to the kit, and when he started playing all of a sudden it was Clyde Stubblefield and they were going oh my god, wow. Ever since that drum kit has been golden. It’s definitely something people are born with. To me it’s always that intangible element of why great music is so exciting and its changed all our lives and it’s something we could become so obsessed with. I went through a period as a guitarist that I was fascinated with the fretboard. Seeing somebody who was a master mathematician or a virtuoso I would go wow he can play fast. I’m much less interested in those guitarists now, unless they happen to have phenomenal technique and the music was just blaring out of their instruments. Wes Montgomery is one of those people. Technically he said he used to get headaches from playing all those octaves like that. He did them so quickly. He would develop a solo doing all this with his thumb, because that’s what got the sound. Technically it was more difficult. He said it was easier to play with a pick, but the thumb got the sound he needed. He didn’t let the technique take over the music. It was about getting that fat rich warm sound and swinging his butt off.
Still he had to battle it.
Absolutely he is wrestling that alligator. Among the favorite things I heard Howard Roberts say was, “You can go to alligator wrestling school, but if you wanted to learn to wrestle the alligator you’ve got to get in there and do it.” That’s Howard in a nut shell. He has technique coming out of all his orifices. But man he just got in there and wrestled the alligator and beat the shit out of that guitar.
Do you know why you picked up the guitar as opposed to any other instrument?
It was the instrument of our era. Maybe now the sampler is. When I was a kid guitar music was what I dug. Once I got past my pop band radio days and I heard Led Zeppelin I started focusing on the guitar. That was what really turned me on. I don’t know why it did. I got a cheap acoustic guitar and started trying to plink around on it.
Were you good pretty quickly?
No, I sucked, I was horrible. After about a year of painful calluses and bleeding fingers I got to a point where I was fortunate to be able to practice anywhere from 6 to 10 hours a day. Then it started going more quickly. But I still don’t consider myself a great guitarist.
Did the guitar give you an identity, did it take over your life?
It was my best friend. I sort of sabotaged every relationship I ever had early on because of guitar. I said this is it for me and this is what I want to do. This is what I am going to do. If anybody gets in the way of it, their stock goes down and I would spend less time with them. I had many girl friends and other people get resentful and not understand it. Or they can step back and let you do your thing and be excited that I am so excited about it. I was 19 when I felt that way. I got my first guitar at 17. By the time I was 19 I said hey it might be a pipe dream but this is what I’m going to do with my life.
By that time ..
I was crap, I couldn’t play shit.
What was your show off song?
I remember my mom asking me to play something for her and I sat down with my classical guitar because I had started studying at that point. She said, “Why don’t you play something for me.” I sat down and played this Napoleon Kaft “Rondo” and later had a German teacher tell me that was a complete crap piece of music. But it was relatively simple and I kind of got the notes if I played that little thing. I’d start in playing it, struggling along flim flaming through the song and my mom stood there for about 30 seconds and then plugged in the vacuum cleaner. I was background music
Within two years you went from Jimmy Page to classical music?
Yes and jazz. It was all because of a guy named Garry Hagberg, he was the ultimate mentor for me. As far as I know he is still a teacher at Bard College. He is the single most important person in my musical life. He said, “You absolutely can.” I said, “Gary, you know what I can and can not do. I know two guitar chords, two jazz chords, Am7b5, and D7#9 and I can barely play those. I want to be a musician, can I do this?” He said, “Absolutely.”
How did you meet him?He was a teacher at the University of Oregon. I had basically been put on academic probation after a year of being a pre-med student and struggling with this problem. My heart was not into being a Doctor. I want to be a musician. I want to be a guitar player. I started taking lessons from him at the end of my freshman year. I said I really want to be a musician Gary and I know nothing. I’ve been playing the guitar for about a year. You see what I can’t do. Can I do this? He said absolutely. I couldn’t afford to go to the University the next year because I had bombed out and my parents said good luck. Knock yourself out. He said go to the community college here, you’ll still be studying with me. I’m going to hook you up with this classical guitar teacher named John Jarvey. We’re going to have
parallel courses of study on the classical guitar and the jazz guitar. It’s going to require every bit of your time and energy.
Why was he so sure you could do it? You had a lot of heart but maybe not yet a lot of talent in your own mind.
Right, the talent was probably there I just didn’t have the instrument. I hadn’t learned to type yet. Until I learned to type I couldn’t get anything out. It was just a slow growth process or working and practicing. He taught me from day one about here’s the chords, here’s how you build this chord and there’s notes all over the guitar. The scale contains the 12 chromatic notes. You find your own voicings. Here are some stock voicings, we’ll work on just comping along rhythm changes and playing melodies of songs. He started dissecting things for me so that I got inside the music right off the bat rather then teaching me from records saying okay cop Wes Montgomery’s vibe. Cop Jim Hall’s vibe. These guys were masters. He knew that if I started to develop my own style very early on that I would forever be satisfied and wanting to explore the instrument. It forced me to find my own way around the instrument.
How did you get beyond Jimmy Page to Jim Hall at 19?
Every kid at that age has a certain loathing of the mainstream. My friends were listening to Donna Summer, Boston and Journey and I didn’t think that stuff was good. It wasn’t raw, it didn’t seem to be sincere, but that was all over the radio. Once I discovered jazz music it was my own little punk rock world that none of my friends were familiar with. None of my family. Nobody I knew was, except for the people I was meeting that were just like me and trying to find their own paths, their own way. It was a language that existed that we could try to learn the syntax, learn the vocabulary. Learn how to communicate with this language.