Taken from the November 2001 edition of Guitar One magazine
In a recently rediscovered, unpublished interview with former Beach Boy Carl Wilson, '60's teen idol Billy Hinsche explores in detail the secrets, styles, and influences behind the legend's sun 'n' surf guitar sound.
I remember the first time I met Carl Wilson. It was at the Hollywood Bowl on the afternoon of July 3rd 1965, during a soundcheck for the “Summer Spectacular.” Carl's band, the Beach Boys was at that time perhaps the biggest pop group in the world, and they were the scheduled headliners. My group, Dino, Desi & Billy, was one of the opening acts on a tour that also included the Byrds, the Kinks, Sonny & Cher, and the Righteous Brothers. DD&B (as we came to be known) was absolutely on fire, especially in our home town of Los Angeles. Our release, “I'm a Fool,” was screaming up the local and national charts, and the Beach Boys liked us so much both professionally and personally, that they invited us to go on tour with then to Bakersfield, Fresno, and Hawaii. I was just 14 years old and all my dreams were already coming true!
After our show in Bakersfield, I went to visit Carl in his hotel room. His door was wide open, and the room was full of friends and well-wishers. He was sitting on the edge of his bed holding a brand new guitar, inspecting it carefully, and strumming it casually. I'd never seen a guitar like this before. It looked like a a goofy-footed Stratocaster to me. Turns out it was a Mosrite guitar, and the local dealer was trying to get Carl to accept one, at no charge, in return for an endorsement. After the somewhat high pressure sales pitch had concluded, Carl thanked the guitar rep for the offer and politely told him he wasn't interested, returning the guitar to its case to emphasise the finality of his decision. I just couldn't believe it. Turn down a chance to get a free guitar? It was the first of many lessons I learned from Carl, all of which speak of the Beach Boys guitarist's lifetime of integrity.
On the way to Hawaii, I sat next to Carl in the first class section of the plane. During the flight, I told him how much I liked the opening guitar riff of a recent Beach Boys' song. Accompanying myself with an imaginary guitar, I sang it for him. Recognising the melody, he said “Oh you mean Dance, Dance, Dance. It starts in the key of G and is really simple. I'd be happy to show you when we get to Hawaii.” The dream continued. Carl Wilson was going to give me my first guitar lesson. In fact, from then on, Carl would consistently be there for me.
The next day, I took him up on his offer when I visited him in his penthouse suite at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel. We both owned identical Fireglow Rickenbacker 360/12's, and his was out of its case, lying on the couch, silently waiting to be played. Carl showed me the riff in question, and then, as per my request, showed me how the play the introduction to “Jihnny B Goode,” the last song of the Beach Boys set during which DD&B joined them on stage for the rousing finale. That night, he even allowed me to play the intro all by myself in concert, which, by the way I totally screwed up. But I recall Carl just smiling at me in a supportive way as we kept going; he was never one to ridicule or compound someone else's embarrassment.
Since that time, for the better part of 30 years, Carl was never more than a few feet away from me on stage. Not only during my tenure with the Beach Boys but also during his solo tours. He was also my brother-in-law, and we remained extremely close until he died in 1998.
The following interview was done in the living room of his home in Brentwood, California, in the summer of 1981. It was captured on a small tape recorder and later transcribed to paper using my old college typewriter. Twenty years later on the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Beach Boys, I somehow rediscovered it among my “very important papers” file. What I love about the interview is that I can actually hear Carl's voice while reading the words he spoke. I sincerely hope you can hear him too.
When did you first become interested in learning how to play the guitar?
I remember growing up always loving the guitar. I used to love watching people play on the country & western shows on TV. My folks told me that when I was just a toddler, I used to pretend I was playing a guitar on a toothpick. Than, a family friend came over when I was about 12 years old and left his guitar for me to play. I got really interested in it and learned how to play a few chords. My folks then got a single-cutaway Kay for me. It was an acoustic, but it had a pickup, and that's the guitar I learned to play on.
Were you self taught?
I took guitar lessons at an accordion studio. There was a guitar teacher there, and I took lessons from him for a couple of months, but it was too boring 'cause I was just reading notes – stuff like “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” I took lessons from John Maus, too. He was one of the Walker Brothers [“Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore”]. The funny thing was that his house was almost directly across the street from the accordion studio. He had a Stratocaster that I thought was really fantastic, and we used to sit in his room and jam; it was really just casual.
I had been playing for about a year and a half when the Beach Boys formed. When our folks went to Mexico on business, we would take the food money they had left us and rent instruments from Hogan's House of Music on Hawthorne Boulevard. I was playing a six-string Rickenbacker for a few weeks. When the group really got going, we bought a Fender Stratocaster, a Precision bass, some drums, and some other guitars. I played that Stratocaster for a couple of years.
Who influenced your early style?
Chuck Berry. John Maus was important too, because he was most directly involved with my playing.
What combination of guitar and amp did you use in the early-to-mid '60s?
It was a Stratocaster and a [Fender] Dual Showman.
What kind of strings were you using?
Heavy. I think they were Fender. Then I switched to Ernie Ball medium guage in the mid '60s As the years passed, I started playing regular Slinkys. That's what I use now, but I'd like to switch to a lighter string for more flexibility and ease of playing.
What guitar players did you admire?
In the early part of the '60s, I was influenced by the Ventures. The Beach Boys learned how to play all of their songs just by listening to the records.
Can you describe how you achieved the studio sound you got on early Beach Boys albums?
We had an amp in the studio just so I could listen to it. This was before people started using the cue system, which allowed everything to come back through the earphones. Anyway, I would use an amp and a direct box. Almost all the guitar sounds were done through the direct box to the mixing console except for “Litlle Honda” and any tunes where Brian [Wilson] wanted a buzzy, distorted guitar sound. Then we'd use an amp and just crank it. That was before they had preamp and master volume.
Do you prefer to use an amp or go direct?
I like a combination.
How did your guitar sound change in the '70s? What guitars were you using then?
Around 1970, a friend came over and brought a blonde Gibson 335. He sold it to me for $300, and it was the best buy I ever made. It was a Custom, and it was several years old at the time I bought it. I'm still using it.
What guitar players did you admire in the '70s?
Clapton. But even before that, I thought Jimi Hendrix was just phenomenal.
Who do you currently admire as a guitarist?
I don't know their names; I just hear them on the radio. They're all over the place. Ten years ago, you could just name a few good players, and now there are so many, it would be difficult to say who the greatest players are.
I know you use at least three or four guitars on stage.
I use an Epiphone 12-string for “California Girls” and “Sloop John B,” and for songs where there is an ostinato. Or I sometimes use it just for that sound. I used the 335 for the early Beach Boys songs like “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Surfin' U.S.A.”
What guitars did you previously use on stage?
I have the first Stratocaster made after the prototype. I used to use it on “Help Me Rhonda.” Around 1967 or 1968, I got into the Telecaster with a Bigsby unit. It was sort of a hot item for Fender at the time. I used an Epiphone Sheraton for a while too, [1973's The Beach Boys in Concert].
What guitars do you currently have in your collection?
A sunburst Gibson Epiphone 12-string, a tobacco sunburst Epiphone 12-string, a red Epiphone 12-string, a yellow Fender Stratocaster [nicknamed “Old Yeller”], a white Fender Stratocaster, a blonde Fender Stratocaster, a yellow Fender Telecaster, a natural Gibson 335 with a Bigsby tailpiece, a red Gibson 335, a black Les Paul, a sunburst Les Paul, a Les Paul Junior, a red Baldwin 12-string, a Martin Bicentennial D-76, a Martin D-41 and a Gibson J-200.
What is your most prized guitar or guitars?
The Strat, “Old Yeller,” is probably my most prized guitar. The 335 is great for rhythm guitar, and is a little bit easier to play than the Strat when it comes to doing leads, but the sound isn't quite as good.
What kind of amp are you currently using?
I'm using a Mitchell. Another great amp is the Fender Twin Reverb.
What settings do you use on your amp?
Usually the volume is set at about “5,” and depending on the guitar, the tone is between “6” and “7.” I like the middle right up close to “10.” I also like the bass up pretty high, and the preamp is usually between “3” and “4.” Then,
if I want to get a real loud sound, you know, a real buzzy sound, I'll set the preamp at about “7” or “8,” but the master usually stays the same.
Is this for stage or studio?
It applies to both. For recording, you sometimes don't want to be as radical. You have to back up a little bit because the microphone will pick up the distortion much faster than, say, in a live situation.
What guitars do you use for your personal playing at home?
I usually use my custom David Russell Young acoustic.
Do you ever play modal?
All the time – I love it. It just gives you different combinations. I love to play in the key of D, or A, or ib C. For that I usually use the Strat or David Russell Young.
Do you use a capo?
It's fun to use a capo because the strings get a real bell-like sound. I got into it when I was writing songs. I would use the capo to try different keys and different combinations.
Let's talk about the new album. How would you describe the sound achieved on your upcoming solo album, Carl Wilson?
It's a real direct sound. Most of the tracks were cut with three pieces: bass, drums, and guitar. Then, producer James William Guercio and I would overdub a few things. But there aren't a lot of instruments on the record, so it's pretty clear, direct sound – not a lot of echo and stuff.
Did you use any effects?
Yeah, we harmonised some things. The main effect was BOSS Chorus on the slow speed. It was just the chorus sound without vibrato for most of it.
I know this is a hard question, but can you characterise your own style?
It's just a real simple style. It's not a very elaborate or fancy way of playing – not a lot of notes. I like to get a little more mileage out of each note.
Where do you see guitar headed in the '80s?
It's real diverse. It's spreading all over the place, I think Music just keeps going. Lots of styles are emerging, but I really don't know what direction it will go.
Would you like to give a word of advice to guitar players?
Sure. Practice, practice, practice!
NB. Billy Hinsche formed the musical group Dino Desi & Billy with classmates Dino Martin and Desi Arnaz Jr, in 1964 and recorded for Reprise Records until 1969. In 1974, he joined the Beach Boys as a touring and recording member and later joined Carl Wilson on his solo tours. Currently, Billy resides in Oceanside, California, where he owns a video business, licensing rare archival Beach Boys film, video and photos. He also sits on the board of directors of the Carl Wilson Foundation (www.carlwilsonfoundation.org), and keeps abusy touring schedule. Recent gigs include Al Jardine's Family & Friends Beach Band, Jan & Dean, Beach Party!, and Ricci, Desi & Billy.