Paul Gale is a luthier, electronics wizard, virtuoso guitarist and one of the most respected guitar techs in Australia today.
He’s the owner of Soundworks in Ringwood, and also run clinics on theory and playing and now also working at Cole Clark Guitars developing custom acoustic guitars.
When did you migrate to Australia and what got you into all this mess, Paul Gale?
I came out when I was about 11 or 12. So very early in the piece. But I was already interested in electronics at that stage. I was pretty lucky, in a way, when I came out here, I’d left the grammar school in England and I was pretty lucky. When I came out here, because my grandparents on my mother’s side, lived in Richmond, my first school out here was Richmond Tech.
That was an education, I can tell you, in more ways than one.
I can only imagine.
But what they did do was, and I quite liked it, they taught me all the trade subjects. So after that, we moved out to Mooroolbark of all places, and I went to Mooroolbark Tech. So I was already sort of an academic type, if you like. I’d already got interested in science and physics and mathematics and whatever, and here I was now with some handy skills.
I call myself sort of like an academic handyman type. When I heard the electric guitar of course, I wanted one. I was just playing some Shadow’s things, like everyone else, probably. I probably would have given it up by the time I was 17, because I was bored. Probably my own lack of technique and not realising what was going on.
Then I stood in front of a fellow, his name was Reno and a little trio called Kompulsion. And you can look him up because he was a colossal guitar player. And anyway, I’m standing about feet away from this fellow that’s making a guitar do things I could have only dreamt about. In fact, I didn’t even know that the sounds I was hearing on the radio were those of this fellow.
And then as soon as I heard ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Purple Haze’, and all that stuff, I thought, “I’m doing this the wrong way round. I need to get the sound right first, and learn to wrestle with it” So I bought a Marshall and an SG and got the sound, and started again virtually. And then I realised that if my sound wasn’t right…
I suppose in a way, that all locked up with an interest in electronics. And the thing that got me started there was, just briefly, I bought an electric guitar because I had an acoustic guitar that was almost unplayable and I thought that if I picked up a – it was a Strat-style with a tremolo system – I thought that if I slid all the saddles down on this ramp of this tremolo plate, I would lower the action.
So not realising about such a thing as intonation and whatever. So anyway, to cut a long story short, we did our first gig at about 15 or 16, and my guitar, naturally, sounded pretty horrific – especially in the upper ranges, where it was sharp to blazes. I realised then that there was something else going on.
I learned about it, harmonics. And then about 5 years later when I was teaching guitar, I used to take a rock class in Croydon, I used to take the rhythm guitarist and the lead guitarist and the bass player. I was the go-to guy to get the harmonics in the right spot, especially if you had a floating bridge. From there, of course, there was always pressure on me, “Oh, can you fix this, and can you fix that?”
And of course, I was always anxious to pull things apart, and whatever. I didn’t always used to get them back successfully when I was about 11 or 12, but…
Then I realised I wanted to do everything associated with the guitar. I wanna play the guitar, I wanna fix the effect pedals, I wanna fix amplifiers, I wanna know the whole thing. I suppose in a way, that’s what’s driven me all this time.
You still have that same kind of enthusiasm you did back then?
I don’t think it ever goes. For playing, for … we’ve just finished … Education’s a great thing. I had some really good guys mentoring me when I was growing up. I was just really, really lucky there was an old fella who been a radio and TV serviceman in Boronia, I thought this guy was a genius. He was more than happy to … I used to hang around him all the time and he used to tell me stuff about valves and transistors and all sorts of stuff.
I always thought to myself, there’ll come a time probably when I’m in that position to pass on that stuff, and that’s what we do. So we’ve been running classes at Soundworks now for, probably, 14 years. I think 2004 – late 2003, early 2004. They jokingly called it the Baby Boomers Club because there was a lot of guys that I’d grown up with. I didn’t target them, they were the same age as me.
They’d gone and had some children, and their kids had got to 13 or 14 or whatever, and these guys were having significant birthday parties and going, “Hey, let’s get the band back together.” These guys were digging their guitars out, and I found myself showing them how to play the guitar.
It’s funny that. But what really started was when we … I was writing software and I was actually going to do the software thing in 2003 and a friend of mind who’s a bass player came over, and we changed the shop into what it is now, with a big room and the … but it was originally intended for software. And he had this idea that we were going to build this stage and this mezzanine for all the gear.
Then 6 o’clock was beer o’clock and I started getting my guitar out, and because I hadn’t played my guitar for a long time I was really irritated – he’s a Rolling Stones fan – so I was really irritated that I couldn’t play or sing. I found it difficult. I thought, “Bugger that.”
So I go the guitar back out again and because we had the room and we put on a show, I think, to open that venue. In the end I completely changed what I was going to do. I thought, “No, the software can go, this I what I’m really keen on.”
So by that time, we did our first gig and a fella called Mike Lewis from Arizona, who’s special projects manager of Fender, I was talking to Margaret O’Lochlan from Fender, and I said, “It’s a shame these guys come out here and it’s only us dealers that see them because they’re all good players and they have a wealth of knowledge.”
She said, “Why don’t I send them down to open up your new event?” So, we put on a little band to help him and then we thought it went so well that we thought we’ll had a Brit Rock night, which is one of my passions. So all these guys put their hands up and they all said, “Well you should be playing too.” And I thought, oh, out with the guitar and start getting my chops back. It was even better than the first.
It’s funny you should say about mentoring because that’s a bit about this podcast I’m doing and people of our generation now, helping people coming through, and mentoring, imparting some of this information through to your 40 years in formation. I think it’s a duty to do that now.
Of course it’s a duty. I mean, we were so fortunate when we were 16 or 17 to listen to people that had gone on before. So with playing guitar, and this that and the other, if we want to enjoy it into our old age, and I’m a lot closer to that than you are, we need the young people to pick up the tab. I don’t want to be doing fret dresses for the rest of my life.
I don’t mind doing a few, but the young blokes can start to take that over!
Absolutely. Getting on that subject, I’ve been bringing my guitars and my amps out to you, I think, since, 1987 and you’ve never once done a shit job. And you’ve always entertained my sometimes ridiculous requests. To me you’re like the Rupert Neve of guitars. Who’s going to fill your shoes, Paul?
I remember Rupert Neve. That was a great video, down city, with Dave Grohl looking at him going … he’s explaining something technological and he’s looking at him going, “I don’t think you’d realised I’d barely passed high school.” But it sounds good.
We’ve always been really lucky. Soundworks is not me, Soundworks has been a great team. With guys like Chris Finch and Graham Granache and other guys that have gone on before. We’ve always been a good team and I think what it is, is the people that come in are our sort of people. When you come in, you’re another muso so you must be a good bloke, you know?
I think, fortunately, because I’d played in bands and things, that’s the best thing. Some technicians don’t understand what it’s like to be standing in front of a bunch of people and your amplifier doesn’t work or crackle, or things go on.
I think I understood all of that, and that helped a lot, I think, in communicating. I still think now, there isn’t. I’m really proud of the fact our crew was thought of around the traps.
We did all the big bands in the early days. We were the go-to guys and we wanted to be the go-to guys, because we’re really keen and enthusiastic and we wanted to make stuff. That’s what happened with the Cole Clark thing, if you want to touch on that? The guys had retired at my place – the last three of us was Graham, Susan and myself – and we said, “Well when one of us goes, it’s going to be too hard to continue here.”
So we took Susan out of retirement for a long, long time, you know?
In the end, I thought, fair enough, and my mother, at that time, my father died and I put my mother up from [inaudible] … She was getting more and more needing of help. Well, I thought the good thing is, if I sort of go into semi-retirement, which strangely enough means working more than I’ve worked in my bloody life.
But the thing is, what I thought I’d do is, I’d pass out my mobile to people instead of answering the phone. And I at least know who’s coming and if something happened to my mother, I can ring them or send them a text and say, “Look guys, don’t come today, come next week instead” Well a good friend of mine, John Brownrig was chairman of the board, well him and another fella, John McQueen, they’re both really good guys.
I’ve known John all my life and he’s very interested in education as well, he’s over at NCAT, the Northern College of Arts and Technology. He teaches business over there as well as gets involved. He’s just as keen, he’s built a couple of his own guitars over there as well. And he said to me, “Look we’re having a little bit of a problem over at Cole Clark with the digital amp.
Could you come over and help us profile it?” Mixing in that [inaudible] seemed to be changing bracing patterns on guitars and all sorts of things, so I really enjoyed over there.
This is how I liken it to people, I say, “When you’re in covers band, and you get the chance to play some original … even though you know you’re not going to make any money at it, necessarily, you’ll jump at the chance.” And Cole Clark do pay me rather well. So I’m really lucky it’s like somebody came up to me and said, “We want you to do some originals.”
One of my pet things is amplifying acoustic instruments because it’s a weird sign that nobody totally understands and it’s not perfect yet. And I thought to myself at the end of, when everybody else had retired, because I can make electronics and with the way guitars sound and the mechanics and everything else of it.
I thought, I won’t get any money for it but it’ll be interesting to do. And then of course along came Cole Clark and said, we’re willing to pay you to do acoustic electronics and stuff. And I thought, woah, this is good. Yeah, yeah, well I really enjoyed myself over there because they give me free reign and Miles Jackson, he’s a great CEO and he’s very focused and believes in the product and I hope that during my tenure, I’ll make the product better.
My father always said to me, one thing I always remembered and I try to instil that in some of the other people I mentor is, “You’ve got to try and make a difference. There’s no point being a [?]” When you go on holidays, you want to know when they come back they all go, “Oh thank goodness you’re back.” So I always tried to make a difference and not be lazy.
You’ve excelled there, no doubt. Getting on the topic of original music. How important do you think theory is to the original musician?
Okay. That’s a more complicated thing. This is probably the late 1990s, where guys were coming back on the stream. I realised that if you’re a 15-year-old kid, like when you’re at school, you have to throw everything at it. You know when the kid’s going to be a flamenco guitarist, a classical guitarist, or whatever else, so you have to throw everything at them.
Most of the guys that I’ve dealt with, they’re going to play rock or blues. So that cuts it down to a very small necessity for theory, if you like.
So what I started doing was a very mechanical explanation of how harmony works. Just thirds. And it was like, “Take C, miss D, grab E, miss F, grab G. That’s the way it works. So you’ve got CEG, that makes up your triad.” And so I found guys that had put a wall up on the theory word, but we called this mechanics. Because you could see it happening, you know? You could stack things on top, like little bricks. And we probably had 500 odd people through the school.
The only minimum requirement was, play a few bar chords, play a few basic chords and you can strum in time, we’ll show you the rest. I just kept that harmony class we’ve taught since 2004. There hasn’t been anybody I think, that doesn’t get it.
Then when they look around the theory walls, gone down. People think that the flat five is something that was invented by some professor of music just obfuscate the whole thing.
It frightens people.
It does. When they find out that you can discover it, they go, “Ahh, maybe I can bite off a little bit of the tongue of this music stuff” I didn’t think we were going to be able to take it any further than 101 mechanics, if you like, of music, but I’m just about to teach in the middle of November, 102 mechanics. We’re taking it to another thing to open up the fretboard.
It’s really exciting stuff because to watch the penny drop in some of these people.
It’s an amazing thing because you learn so much by teaching as well. Another thing that I would do and analyse for class, because we could have 40 people in a class, I wouldn’t have done for myself. But when I do these analyses, and have a look at them, I go, “Ahh, this is great.
This is going to improve my own playing.” So we’re about to launch on that one. I’ve pretty well done most of the work for it in 2016. But this is the first opportunity we’ve had to set up courses and things.
Have you seen a decline in musicality in the new generation of players, or are they kicking goals? How do you see them?
Quite the opposite. If you look at Channel 31, the masterpiece … what is it? ‘Guitars, Gods and Masterpieces’, or something, the quality there of the young players, like Glen Bradford and some of those other ones … I cant remember the names of them.
But they never cease to amaze me with the technicality they’ve got at such a young age too.
Do you think the internet has got something to do with that?
Absolutely. If you’re being taught, or you’re teaching someone else, you get embarrassed if you ask them to show you something more than 2 or 3 times. The internet is such a patient teacher and there’s always someone that’s going to show you the latest lick. When you’re learning, every brick is important. Or every rung in the ladder.
With YouTube, these guys can nail it. I remember Tommy Emanuel had a young fella, Bryan Browne, who was one of his proteges – and he lived in Mooroolbark, back blocks of Mooroolbark – and someone showed me a YouTube clip with him playing.
While the young fella was astounding, his mate, that was sitting on the couch, that was probably his schoolmate, was equally as gifted, if you like. And the two of them were going hard at, I think it was Rondo Alla Turca or something. And I just couldn’t believe that both of them were just going hard. They just have the time and the inclination.
I always think that if you give the young people something to be good at, you won’t have the drug problems and whatever else and I keep saying to people that a 4 or 500 dollar guitar kit with an amplifier and everything else, is a lot cheaper than the drug rehabilitation thing. I was a small kid so I was never going to do well on the footie field.
Then I found that by learning to play the guitar, I was sort of cool. You know?
So when the Fender rep walks into your shop, the latest and greatest say Fender combo. Which guitar do you reach for to test it out?
If you’d ever walked into my place you’ll realise it’s one of the Soundworks guitars. Usually the purple one. Chris built those and him and I used to talk about the design and the structure and everything else, but we never made guitars to sell. And I don’t we actually sold all of them, I think we gave a lot of them away. But we made them to show people that we could do anything to their guitar.
We thought if we made guitars, they would see that we could do this and we can do that. We ended up with a really ergonomic Strat-style guitar probably. But if there’s a fire in my place, there’s a lot of very expensive guitars there sometimes. But I would reach for the purple … I would have to save that.
So do guitars get better with age?
Yeah. I’m a scientific sort of person and I didn’t wanna believe that was the case. But then, the things that you read about … for instance, Stradivarius violins, they found out a long time ago that a lot of that was a bit of molecular change in the wood. Because in the Cremona in Italy where Stradivarius would source his wood, they had a pest problem. So they would put, I think it was an arsenic-based insect killer virtually into the wood, or paint it with it.
They found out reasonably recently, in the last few years, that it actually changes the wood molecularly and that could have been a lot of the secret. The point is though that what you mentioned before is, as the wood gets older, the resins and things inside dry up, and of course, that tubular structure is what turns a piece of wood into a diaphragm.
Naturally if you can dry out all those little cells and things, and free the cells of the resins and stuff like that where they’ll turn into dust ultimately, then the guitar is going to sound more vibrant.
Now whether that’s a good sound or not depends on the piece of wood. Because every piece of wood’s got its own personality, I think. Testament to that, if you came down to Cold Clark and grabbed half a dozen guitars that are all wood with Bunya or redwood faces, amongst themselves, they’ll all sound different. Some will be louder, some will be softer, some will be more mid-rangey.
That’s the way it goes.
I just read recently, an academic in the USA did his thesis on electric guitars and he came up with conclusion that it’s all in the wiring of the pick-ups and the variation depending on who hand-wired them. So is it the timber or the wiring that makes these guitars so special?
That’s absolute rubbish.
I knew you’d have an opinion on this.
Let’s just take a set of Strat pick-ups and put them in a Les Paul. What do you reckon the Les Paul’s going to sound like? Is it going to sound like a Stratocaster? I’ve made pick-ups. I’ve made pick-ups since the mid-70s, and the amount of wire sure, changes the tone.
But what you’re talking about here is, you’re talking about a magnetic field that gets interrupted in the coil.
That’s to do with the string vibrations. So when you first pluck a string, it does depend on the plectrum, the fingers, the way it’s struck and everything else. But there’s an initial attack wave as the string gets excited, if you like, and then there’s the follow-up where, if the guitar didn’t resonate at all, there would be no sustain on the string.
So therefore, the wood in the guitar very much colours how it sounds, that are reinforced, and the ones that die. Within models you can find Strats that don’t sustain as well, and they don’t sound as good.
So if you just took the standard Stratocaster with an ordered body and a maple neck, with a rosewood fingerboard on it. You’d go through half a dozen of those at my place, you’ll realise they’ve all got very similar-made pick-ups out of a custom job.
You’ll find out that every one of them has got a slight different resonance. And you can actually hear, if you listen to the guitar without plugging it in, you can hear that sound come through the pick-ups. So it’s got to be the timber to start with.
Now, the pick-ups will change things. If you over-wind a pick-up and you put too many turns on it, it’s going to sound middy muddy so it’s going to reinforce those sounds. So it is going to alter the tone. But the tone source itself is generated at the guitar.
So if the guitar doesn’t produce any high-end, it doesn’t matter how you wind the pick-up, you’re not going to pick it up, because it’s not there.
It’s very much the whole page. You can guide the tone a little bit with pick-ups, but it’s got to be there in the guitar first. Like I said, if you put a Strat pick up into a Les Paul, it’s not going to sound like a Strat.
So it’s definitely about the timber for you, more than anything?
If you came into my place to sell me a Stratocaster, I’ll go and sit in my office for 5 minutes with it, I wont even plug it in. I’ll know whether it’s going to be a good guitar, because it will ring. You know half the time when you sit there playing a guitar and noodling away, you’re playing a guitar that’s not plugged in.
Unless you’re different to me, but… I’m sitting there watching TV sometimes, and listening.
When you bond with the guitar, often, you bond with it without plugging it in. You know there’s something coming off of it. There’s something vibrating through your body. Often, if you’re sitting in a chair, you’ve got it pinned into your chest.
Now I think there’s a certain resonance that comes off the guitar, and when it works, it works really well. So I’m not going to bond with a guitar that doesn’t resonate.
So you’re 17 years old, you mum gives you a $1000 to get set up for playing in a rock band, playing rock music. What does Paul Gale buy?
Are you talking about the whole outfit?
Well I’d look for one of the Chinese … 17, you know, you want to get an amplifier here somewhere. So I’d be probably spending more money on the amplifier because the amplifiers [inaudible] but it wouldn’t have to be big. Stewie Fraser from the Farnham band and Brett Garsed band and all that came into my place one day.
He’s a great guy and his gear was in the truck and John Farnham was doing a benefit for somebody or other at the Rod Laver.
He said to me, “I’ve got to come over and borrow an amp because mine’s locked up in the truck.” And I said, “Sure, come over.” So he comes into my place and I’m thinking, “Ahh, I’ve got a couple of 100 watt heads there and some [inaudible] boxes” He looked around and found a 10 watt Pro Junior and went, “Hey, that’ll do” and I’m thinking, “Oh fair enough, he’s going to Rod Laver.
If the fella’s just got a Voice or a harp or something, they’re going to find a way to amplify him” and when I went to see a Hendrix tribute at Crown, I reckon one of the guys had got the best sound was Jeff Wells. And he was just using a little 25 watt JAMP – I think it was a JAMP – as Jeff Beck does, perched on top of a Marshall Quaddy where there was a whole bunch of full Marshall heads.
And of course they’re going to put them all through the PA, but he had the best tone.
So yeah, I’m going to get a good-sounding amp, because without the tone, like I said to you, as soon as I realised about guitar tone, I realised there’s no way I’m going to be able to play unless I get passionate about what I’m going to play. And you only get passionate when the tone’s right.
You can set up a fairly cheap guitar so that it plays really well. Maybe a good bridge pick-up in it, or a couple of good pick-ups in it. Then I’d just go and buy a good amp.
And old kind of Chinese guitar and just get it set up properly?
When I say any old, I’d be looking for… like you can buy the Classic Vibe Squier’s for 6 or 700 dollars. You can buy the Epiphone Les Paul’s that sound good. I’d probably be looking for a little flat top somewhere. A little flat top. Depends what I wanted to play. The thing for me would have to be that it’d have to have a good tone.
I’d plug in one of the guitars in the shop. I’d make sure, of course, that it had a good neck and everything else. That needs a trust relationship between you and the shop, for someone to say the right thing, that they know sets up well, that’s got a good neck on it and whatever.
For me, one good pick-up in that guitar and this is not reinforcing what you said before, it’s just I know that most of the Chinese guitars, that Squier’s are still made out of elder or some sort of hard wood. Most of the Chinese Les Paul’s are made out of mahogany with a maple cap on. So they’re going to sound very similar anyway.
I’ve found some Epiphones come into my place you wouldn’t pick from a Gibson. I’d even look around for a second-hand one. But the amp? The amp would have to be right. It’d have to be a tube amp, and it would have to have the tone and maybe one or two Wally boxes.
Like a little bit of ambient delay and a little overdrive pedal, which you can buy really cheaply now. For a $1000 I’d sound like a king.
That’s good to know because a lot of people think they have to spend 10 grand on getting a vintage Telecaster and a Plexi Marshall. You don’t need to do that, do you? Under a grand you can get pretty much what you’re after.
Yep. Pretty much.
What will Paul Gale be doing in 10 years time?
God knows, mate. More of the same, I think. More of the same. I don’t intend to … if I’d have been working in a factory environment, I’d have been glad to get out of it at 65. But I enjoy my job and I think the fact of teaching as well really motivates you to learn more.
Like I was saying to a couple of people recently, I’ve been shaking hands with Mr Pythagoras again, recently. Because some of the digital electronics are all about Pi and 2Pi and whatever.
And mathematics is quite a fascinating thing. I might even make a synthesiser I think, we’re going to do a Arduino Club next year, which is a very small very cheap computer you can buy. And of course, there’s no power form now. In the early days when I was working on the synthesizers, I was going to spend about 10 years being a digital technology.
When I was doing that, having a computer generate the waveforms was unheard of. And of course they’ve got so much faster now that they can generate everything internally.
You’ve got your own computer and you can go and buy some software from somewhere like [Asturias] or whatever, to actually emulate some of the great synths like the Oberheims and the Prophet-5s and all those things. And they’re really, really good.
So yeah, I don’t know. I think it’ll always be fascinated by it. There’s so many things that I work on from day-to-day that there’s no way I’m ever going to get bored. This is my life, this is my job. If I’d have stopped doing repairs, I’d be sitting in my own workshop somewhere, messing around.
Finally, I’ve got one more question today for you, Paul. If you could speak to the 18 year old Paul Gale, what would be the one piece of advice you’d give him?
God well, that’s impossible really, because no one knew that this technology was going to come. No one knew the synthesizer was coming out. No one knew about Bluetooth or technology. It’s just, stay focused. I’ve always been pretty highly motivated.
So I’d just probably do the same thing again, probably. I don’t know whether I’d do the big business thing.
That sometimes can be a mistake, but hey, if we went back in the same circumstances, we’d probably do the same thing again. So what would I tell the 18-year-old Paul? I don’t know. Just stay focused and learn as much as you can about what you want to do. And that’s what I’ve always done anyway.
I’m one of life’s students, I keep saying.
Paul Gale, thanks for being on the show mate.
Pleasure buddy, any time. No worries at all.
Catch you soon.