Tone Tips

Gift of Gabrels: A Chat with the Almighty Reeves Gabrels

  • By Phillip Dodge @tonereport
  • June 17, 2016

Reeves Gabrels is the kind of guitarist who’s had a career that most can only dream of. He studied with John Scofield, co-founded Tin Machine, and is currently touring with the Cure. Oh yeah, he also played and recorded with David Bowie for over 13 years. 

I caught up with Reeves via phone, in late-Winter, when The Cure was just starting preparations for their summer tour and talked about his time with Bowie, his solo work, and his current gig with the Cure. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.  

Phillip: When did you start playing and how did you get started?

Reeves: I started playing around the age of 13. My father talked me into taking guitar lessons from a friend of his, because I was too serious about my school work. It’s usually the opposite for most people. In truth, I wasn’t really that serious about school. I’d just finish my school work quickly and then stay at my desk drawing my own comic books (I wanted to be a comic book artist). 

Phillip: So when did you decide you wanted to make a career of music?

Reeves: During my early senior year of high school, my father had passed away and I had gotten a New York State Regents scholarship. I was accepted into Parson’s School of Design. I decided to go to art school because I didn’t think music would be practical and I thought that art would be. That’s the wisdom of a 17 year-old (laughter).

Two things happened around that time. First, I took an English elective in songwriting (with a professor who was a Brill Building songwriter) and I started taking lessons from John Scofield. For my songwriting class, we’d have to bring in song ideas. I was too shy to bring in songs and sing them in class, so I’d bring in ideas I would record on a friend’s four-track. One day he said “Is that you playing guitar on that?” I said “yes.” And he said, “Well, do you want to cut your classes this afternoon and do a session?” So I got my first taste of studio work that day and then on eventual gigs. And Scofield talked me into going to Berklee College of Music. So I moved to Boston, went to Berklee for a few years, didn’t graduate, but did start working as a professional musician.

Fast forward and I eventually met, through my then wife, David Bowie. She had ended up doing press for him and he didn’t know I was a musician and I didn’t tell him. At the end of her tenure with him (1987) she gave him a tape of my band. He had sort of struck up a friendship with me but he only knew me as a fine arts painter. I never told him I was a musician because in my mind, nothing would ever come of it and it was too cool to just hang out and talk about art. Why ruin it by bringing up music? [laughter]

About six months after he got the tape, he called up and wanted to know why I never told him. So he had me go over to Switzerland and work on some music with him and it eventually turned into Tin Machine. So we did that for about four years and then I continued on with him as his musical director for following ten years up until about 2000. And then I met a lot of people through David. I was the musical director for his birthday show which is how I met Robert Smith. And I knew Frank Black from my days in Boston. And of course having worked with David, I had the seal of approval. People that might not have asked me to play on things prior were interested in having me play on things after that. And of course, I met Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails in 1995 or 1996 and somewhere in there I did a tour with Paul Rodgers which is still one of my favorite things because it’s not what anyone would expect from me. 

Phillip: So was that just straight classic rock?

Reeves: It was blues rock I guess. We did Free, Bad Company, and a bunch of blues covers. And then anytime I’d go back to Boston I’d get back with whatever group I was working with and go back in the trenches. And then I’d get whisked away for the next Bowie thing and back and forth. And then around 1999 I moved to LA and started to work on soundtracks and I even did some work with Ozzy and David Coverdale. I even played on some stuff for Public Enemy. I’m kind of happiest when I’m doing something I’m not expected to be doing I guess.

Phillip: So how did you end up in Nashville and then in the Cure?

Reeves: I got divorced and I also got Lyme disease pretty bad and it wasn’t really diagnosed or known in LA in 2002. And so that’s when I moved to Nashville because one of my oldest and closest friend lives there and owns a club. That was in 2006. And then in Nashville I was sort of back in the trenches, playing on lower Broadway, and Reeves is a more common name in the south, so I grew out my hair, grew a beard, and no one knew I was the guy that played with Bowie. 

In around 2012, out of the blue, I heard from Robert Smith. He asked me if I would (on very short notice) learn 30 or so songs for the summer of 2012 tour which then turned into me having ten days to learn 52 songs and then the first show was in front of 72,000 people. So since 2012, I’ve been balancing my time between the Cure and my trio, Reeves Gabrels & his Imaginary Fr13nds.

Phillip: Switching over to gear, what’s in the rig you’re using with the Cure? Does it differ from what you use with the Imaginary Fr13nds?

Reeves: With the Cure, we’re looking at 30 years of music and maybe 100 active songs. Any night, we could be pulling songs from throughout the band’s history so my pedalboard has to give me a big enough palette so I can do that. And the Reverend guitars are a big part of that. The secret weapon with the Reverends is that they have this bass contour control which is a passive bass roll-off, which lets me go anywhere from a Gibson 335 type sound to a Jazzmaster tone.

Part of it is having a flexible board, but the other part is having a flexible instrument that melds all of that. When I was working with Joe [Naylor] on the R & D of the Reverend Spacehawk, my second signature guitar for Reverend, one of the things I did was spend a few months getting springs from everywhere to modify the Bigsby. I did a record with Bill Nelson and played the Gibson ES-345 that he used with Bebop Deluxe. While the guitar was old and had some tuning issues, the spring had broken-in to the extent that you could do dive bombs. A friend referred to it as the hillbilly Floyd Rose. You could even do extreme pull-ups without the spring falling out. I got springs from everywhere from motorcycle repair shops to home improvement stores and finally found one that wasn’t the right diameter but worked great. I sent it to Joe and asked if he could duplicate it and he did. So that’s what Reverend is calling the soft-touch spring. And now there’s nothing you can do with a Strat or Jazzmaster style tremolo that you can’t do with that Bigsby.

Phillip: The Cure records always had a lot of chorus and flange sounds. What are you using for modulation?

Reeves: I’m using everything from an old purple Boss Dimension C or D, to an Alexander Effects Flanger. Those guys were nice enough to come up to me at NAMM and say “We’re huge Cure fans and one of the reasons we make a flanger is because of them. Can I give you this?” He didn’t give me a card or anything so I had to find him through his website to thank him and it really is the most amazing flanger I’ve used. And then I’m also using a TC Electronic Chorus, a modded Line 6 DL4, and a TC Electronics Flashback x4 and sometimes the TC Electronic Alter Ego.  

For amps, I’m primarily using Hiwatts or in the trio a Hiwatt-based amp built by a company called Reeves, coincidentally enough. For my main amp wth The Cure, I’m using two Audio Kitchen custom heads. I’ve always wanted a Class-A amp that could get loud but stay clean and so he built an all-Class-A amp based around three KT88 tubes that are rated (modestly) at 50 watts. And I’m playing those through Hiwatt cabs with two Celestion Golds and two Creambacks in each four by twelve. For the Bass VI, I was using a Hiwatt through an Orange cab. Just before we started the current tour in May, I changed to three Mesa Boogie 2x12 cabs.

Phillip: Hopping back to pedals for a minute, are you by any chance using the TC Alter Ego for the Copicat model? I’ve found that it really nails the sound of the early Cure records.

Reeves: Yeah, that is what I’m using it for. The Copicat and a little of the TC and then I’ve written a few TonePrints for them.

Phillip: So tell me what it’s like to find your place within these Cure songs. Are you playing straight to the albums or are you expanding and making your own mark?

Reeves: I think Robert just trusts me to do the right thing. There are some songs where it’s pretty obvious where you need to play what’s there and there’s others where you can diverge. The nice thing about Robert as a bandleader is that he wants everyone’s personality in the music. I think my instinct so far is that I know what needs to be there and what can change from night to night. You know, I don’t think of myself as a parts player, I think of myself as an improviser. But when there’s 30,000 singing along to the guitar part, you better play the guitar part.

Phillip: I can imagine that’s especially the case with things like the lead line from Just Like Heaven or the solo on Lovesong.

Reeves: Yeah, those are really obvious. And I don’t think people realize how much of the guitar on the records is played by Robert. There would be a lot of things where you’ve got the guy that played the part right there, so why should I try to sound like him. I think we have a pretty good tandem. There’s songs like “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea” where that’s Robert on the record playing the solo but that’s an open space for me every night to do what I want. 

Phillip: Do you have any favorites for live shows?

Reeves: “A Forest” is always really fun to play. “A Night Like This”, I’m really enjoying. On the record it was a sax solo and I think in the past Robert had played a guitar solo there, and for a while that became my solo. Another thing: I enjoy playing the Fender Bass VI. So a song like “Push”, is something I love. And the point where I intersected with the band as a fan was Head on the Door, so just about any song from that album I enjoy playing.

Phillip: That was my entry point for the Cure as well and I’ve often thought about how a song like “Six Different Ways” would have had different instrumentation had it been recorded later on Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me or Disintegration.

Reeves: What’s interesting about the band now is that it’s a collection of musicians that can go just about anywhere and there’s a higher level of listening going on every night. It’s a more reactive band and you’re seeing songs recast. There’s a song called “Give Me It” which is a rather obscure Cure song but we’ve been doing that and it’s become this whole other thing. It’s not my first rodeo and I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in a band now. And to have the Cure as home base and then being able to go out and tour with my own band around it and have that encouraged is pretty great.

Reeves and the Cure are out on the road this summer and likely playing an outdoor venue in your neck of the woods. If they are, don’t miss them. Some evenings, the sets are upwards of four hours and the band is pulling hits and deep cuts from throughout their career. If you aren’t familiar with Reeves’ work, start exploring. He’s a fantastically original player and you’re sure to learn a few new tricks from even just a cursory listen.

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  1. Mark Goetz

    Such wonderful, tasteful soundscapes at the 6/20 MSG show.  My kind of player.  Thanks Reeves, and all of The Cure!

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