The Evolution of Trey’s Tone – Part I
In late 2008, shortly after Phish announced their reunion, fans began petitioning for a change in Trey’s guitar tone. Conversations along these lines had surfaced in ’03 when Trey re-emerged with an entirely new sound. Never before in the history of any band had the fans taken such an active roll in trying to shape the sound of the band they love so much. This unique aspect of Phish is one of the most compelling parts about being a fan. The experience that one gets is more than just listening to music. It’s about being part of a community, laughing when the band makes a mistake, and feeling like the band and the crowd are in it together.
So, when fans suggested Trey bring back his Ross compressor pedal, he listened. And he has been using it since the reuniting shows in March. Even though Rolling Stone wrote an article about it, many fans do not fully understand the mechanics behind Trey’s sound. I often stumble across message board threads where fans are trying to find words to explain what they are hearing. “Whale siren” or “guitar light-saber battle”, are just a couple of the ones I’ve seen. Today, I hope to try and shed some light on Trey’s unique tone and how it has evolved over the years. Starting from the beginning, I will discuss each of the major phases and how they helped shape the sound of the band. Be sure to check back Monday for part II!
Phase 1 (1982-1985)
Trey’s early guitar tone is characterized by a thin, distorted, mid-rangy sound. Equipped with his mesa boogie amp (the same one he brought back this year in Hampton) and Ibanez guitar, Trey had yet to develop what would later become his signature tone. Influenced by Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Zappa, Duane Allman and Jerry Garcia (along with others), Trey attempted to combine aspects from each of their sounds into his own. His tone is noticeably similar to Duane Allman, as his close friend Marc Daubert mentioned in an interview with Hidden Track earlier this year (click HERE to read the interview):
“At the time, Trey had his amp positioned in his father’s basement to give a sort of natural reverb to the sound. This combined with a Mesa-Boogie amp created a Duane Allman-sounding effect.”
This phase in Trey’s tone does not cut through the mix well, and makes for a fairly cluttered sound, highly uncharacteristic of later Phish. His sound is much more rockish than later years, and does not suit the softer Dead covers, which were very common in early shows. The range of effects Trey uses during this period is narrow, as he had yet to acquire a proper switching system. Below, I have included the Mike’s Song from 1985-05-03 from the UVM Wilks/Davis Wing Dorm BBQ (Page’s first show, although he does not sit in until later), which provides an early glimpse at Trey’s guitar playing. Notice the very different sound in his tone, in particular its similarity to Duane Allman.
Phase 2 (1986-1989)
The next phase in Trey’s tone saw a significant change in sound. After meeting guitar luthier Paul Languedoc (who was working at Time guitars), Trey explored a new sound that would lay the ground for later developments. Trey used a Time guitar for a shord period of time before asking Paul to make him a custom guitar. On Paul’s website, Mike says the following:
“Our relationship with Paul began in the mid 80′s when Anastasio visited Time Guitars, the electric guitar company in Vermont where Paul was working. First Trey wanted some work on his factory-made instrument, but soon he bought a Time guitar, and had ideas for custom features and other guitars. I remember going to Time Guitars with Trey once or twice – it was in an old barn, and there were a bunch of employees. One of the first projects Paul completed for Trey was a “mini-guitar,” which was only half the size of a normal electric guitar, and was made out of Bubinga. It was Paul who eventually conceived of the hollow-body models that Trey has been using for many years, based on Trey’s desire for an organic tone.”
Once Trey acquired his first Languedoc, known as “Old Reliable”, sustained notes and less distortion created a jazzier, more unique tone. As Trey continued to improve his playing and stray further from his influences, a new sound began to emerge. His tone in this period is still thinner than later years, however, it is clearly more jazz influenced. Similar to jazz guitarists, Trey cranks his midrange setting which gives him a deep funky sound, as is heard in songs such as Alumni Blues. Listen to this YEM from Goddard college on October 29, 1988 to see an example of Trey’s phase 2 tone.
Phase 3 (1990-1993)
The third phase in the evolution of Trey’s tone is perhaps the most important, and would go on to truly define Trey’s sound. Equipped with his second Langeudoc, the padauk blonde, Trey leaned away from any particular style and began melding them into one. His jazz influence continued to play a roll, as is seen in early songs such as Flat Fee, however he delved equally into rock. “Lawn Boy”, which was released, in 1990 is a perfect example of Trey’s tone at this point in time. This period is marked by significantly less distortion, resulting in a far cleaner tone. His tone is noticeably bassier, which is likely caused by his jazz influence. With regard to his gear, a guitar player interview from ’93 says he uses “Mesa Mark III pumps a 2×12 cab, while a volume pedal, a Ross compressor, and a pair of Ibanez Tube Screamers fill out his effects roster.” So at this point, the Ross was already a part of his rig. It’s main feature is to balance the peaks and valleys in volume. So the loudest notes and the quietest notes are balanced out through the pedal. It also allows for greater sustain, as can be heard in the solo for The Squirming Coil. The following example is of Foam from The Stowe Performing Arts Center in Vermont from July 25, 1992. Listen to Trey’s solo at 4:12, pay particular attention to the contrast in tone to the previous phases. Check back Monday as we will move right up to his current tone and analyze the entire progression!
Have a great weekend! Enjoy this video below of Phish performing Lushington>Possum from 5/20/87. Notice Trey’s time guitar and his phase 2 tone.