Tom Petersson on the Eternal Search for Perfect Tone and His New Gretsch Signature Models
July 7, 2016
Cheap Trick has built a tremendous legacy over the last 40 years, constantly releasing new albums and certainly never slowing their torrid touring schedule. With whacky guitars, memorable power ballads, mega rock hits and boundless energy, they’ve built a steadfast and devoted following.
And while Cheap Trick’s pioneering bassist Tom Petersson is no stranger to being recognized or asked for an autograph, the recognition and level of stardom that came with the band’s recent induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been a bit surprising.
“I’ve got people who are walking their dogs and go by and say, ‘Hey congratulations.’ I have no idea who they are, and they are going to the park and recognize me now,” said Petersson. “So it really means a lot to other people, and I think it’s nice for us because it validated for our fans who really were always like, ‘We’ve got to get you in there!’ They were writing letters and doing all this stuff. That really made us feel good, ya know?”
While beyond grateful for and humbled by the recognition, the chance to reflect on the ride might be the most meaningful part of the experience for Petersson.
During his induction speech into the Hall, Petersson recalled a life-altering two-week trip to London in 1968 with bandmate Rick Nielsen.
“We went to all of the places we had been reading about—the Marquee Club and the Roundhouse in London. We saw Jethro Tull, who had just had his first album come out. We saw a group called Gun. We saw a bunch of different things,” he said. “At that time, the Beatles’ White Album had just come out, and then The Stones’ Beggars Banquet came out when we were over there. We were like,‘Oh my god.’ We had to get the White Album and Beggars Banquet. So we bought them there and we had to buy a turntable to listen to it in our crummy little room. But it was the greatest thing I had ever heard. It was just fantastic. It was just really a dream come true. The whole British Invasion and all the English groups by far were our biggest influences. We were just dumbstruck honestly.”
Petersson also used his time at the Rock Hall podium to thank his parents and share the story about his dad buying him his first-ever guitar. After being rocked to his core by watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, Petersson was dying to get a guitar. Although he never knew that his dad had much of a musical background, his father quickly obliged.
“I found out later from my mom that when he was young he wanted to play the violin, and people thought that was ridiculous and nothing ever came of it,” shared Petersson. “But he never forgot that, and I think that’s really why he just … I couldn’t believe it, but they just got me a guitar. They didn’t have money. I even have the original receipt from those days. And I remember how much money he made a week, and it was on a payment plan and all this stuff. It was a $125 guitar. It was a lot of money at the time and it was a lot of money for them. I can’t believe they did that, but it was great. They were supportive even though they didn’t approve of or understand that kind of music I was interested in.”
Turns out, it was the wisest of investments.
Petersson not only mastered the guitar, but would also go on to pioneer the 12-string bass.
“I got my first one in ’77,” said Petersson. “We were on tour with Kiss, and Hamer built it for me. It showed up at one of the shows, and I started using it that night. That was it. That really became my signature live sound. We were a small group, and I really wanted something that just sounded huge. It seemed like it would work, and it did.”
During the Summer NAMM Show in Nashville, Tenn., Gretsch was thrilled to officially unveil the Tom Petersson signature 12-string bass and its companion 4-string bass.
In the extensive Q&A with Petersson below, we covered the making of these instruments, key specs and his everlasting pursuit for the perfect bass tone …
Gretsch Guitars: How did the new signature 12-string bass with Gretsch come about?
Petersson: I’ve never dealt with a major manufacturer before. It’s always been small, boutique builders because nobody quite got it. As I said, my first one was made by Hamer, and they had just started the guitar company. They were just a music store in Chicago and were starting to make guitars, so I threw that idea out to them and they made my first 12-string for me. I had never really dealt with a Fender, Gibson or a Gretsch. I had never been approached by anyone like this. I had been talking to Andy Babiuk, who is great friends with Jeff Cary from Gretsch, and Andy was like, ‘I’m going to talk to them about a 12-string.’ And wow, I couldn’t think of a better company to work with than Gretsch. It goes back to the Ed Sullivan show, with George Harrison playing a Gretsch Country Gentleman, and I thought, ‘My god, it’s the coolest thing ever.’
The Gretsh 12-string, at this point it’s a Custom Shop model. Chris Fleming made my first one and then the next two I’ve had made were built by Stephen Stern at the Gretsch Custom Shop. They are also putting out the companion 4-string bass that Terada (Japan) is building, and it has the whole look of the 12-string.
GG: In talking with you at NAMM a few years ago, you mentioned how fans used to think you guys weren’t actually playing live and instead using tapes.
TP: Yeah, it sounds like somebody is playing like a 12-string guitar or like a few people are all playing the same thing. So people think, ‘Wow, where’s that coming from?’ They only really realize it is coming from my 12-string bass if everybody stops and I start playing the thing by myself. Then they are like, ‘Oh ,that’s where that’s coming from – that’s what that is.’ Otherwise, you hear a guitar playing but the guitar player is doing something else so people are like, ‘Wait a minute, where’s that coming from? They’ve got to have tape.’ So yeah, people, at first thought we were playing along with tapes. We couldn’t have afforded tapes anyhow.”
GG: You’ve also talked about how you love the controlled feedback you can get you’re your Gretsch 12-string?
TP: Controlled is the key. It’s not out of control. I mean that’s no good if you turn around and the bass is feeding back. It’s really a controlled thing where if you want it to feedback, you can go and get it to do that. But it doesn’t do it on its own. I’ve always liked that sound.
Really, I’ve got a bass and it’s a guitar sound at the same time. So I’m always looking. It’s almost like you’ve got to make it sound like it’s Pete Townshend or a combination of all sorts of different things. I’m just looking for a great, wild sounding guitar sound. Like really early Who, but it’s a bass.
TP: I think it’s [about] always looking for the combination, where it sounds kind of like a cello mixed with a grand piano, and a Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck, and a sitar – you put that combination of sounds together, and then you get the right amp. I don’t use any effects, no pedals. I never did. It’s just a matter of getting the right head, pushing it just enough where it sounds loud and it sounds exciting. It’s hard to do. It’s always the eternal search for the perfect tone. It drives you crazy. You can never quite get there and then once in awhile you are in the perfect sweet spot on some stage somewhere, some room. It’s like, ‘Oh my god, this is it! Stand right here.’ Then you are in some other place, and it sounds bad; it sounds terrible. It drives you crazy but you are always looking for it.
GG: You’ve been playing your Gretsch sig 12-string for a while now. What’s the reaction been like from other artists?
TP: Everywhere I go now with this Gretsch and both these Falcons, people are in shock. That’s really why Gretsch stood out so much because they are like the Cadillac or Rolls Royce of guitars. They are the flashiest, coolest looking. It’s classic designs, it’s not pointy metal guitars. I never liked that kind of stuff. I like the really classy designs. Plus, it’s got comfort padding, gold sparkle binding, Falcon inlays, penguin armrest … we just went for it on the looks! You show up with that and people are like, ‘Oh My GOD! I don’t even care how that thing sounds, that’s the coolest looking instrument I’ve ever seen.’ Then you plug it in and it’s like, ‘Oh my, whoa, what is going on here?’ So, it’s the best of every world. I couldn’t think of a company I’d rather work with than Gretsch. It’s just the coolest thing and they just let you do what you want to do.
GG: One thing that was important to you in your signature basses was to skip the bridge pickup. Can you explain your preference?
TP: Yes, for the pickup configuration I have a neck pickup and a middle. I never liked a bridge pickup on any basses. On guitars, yes, but for basses I find them useless. To me, bridge pickups on basses, they don’t add high end, they just take away low end from the other pickup. I always liked that middle pickup on a Thunderbird or a Precision Bass and then a neck pickup, like Hofner or EVO’s is great, but that bridge pickup, I just thought it was useless. I never used bridge pickups. So on these basses, it is a middle and neck pickup and it just sounds great.
GG: And you’ve also chosen some unique pickups …?
TP: Seymour Duncan did the pickups. MJ (Maricela “MJ” Juarez) winds those special pickups for me so that’s what is in my basses, and there is a new Seymour Duncan Super-Tron pickup in the middle of the 4-string and then the neck pickup is one of those, like a big Humbuckers, which they never had for Gretsch basses so it’s just killer. We are calling it the Rumble’Tron. You can get this big, thick sound if you just want that neck pickup sound, but if you want more clarity, you’ve got that one in the middle – it’s in the perfect position and then the combination of the two is just great. That’s different than most. I don’t know why bass companies don’t do that neck middle thing more than they do because those bridge pickups, I just never understood it. It’s no good.
And with amps these days especially, you don’t need active electronics. Amps are definitely loud enough. They are bright enough. You can get anything out of amps these days. It’s not like the early ‘50s or ‘60s where you really had nothing to work with. That pickup configuration, I love it and that’s different than any other manufacturer I see around except for Hofner.
GG: In addition to your signature models, we hear you’ve been adding some other Gretsch guitars to your collection as well …?
TP: My newest Gretsch is a Smoke Green Falcon bass, like the Brian Jones guitar. It just looks so damn cool. I don’t think they’ve ever done that color on anything except the Anniversary. I don’t know why. I love that Green and it’s the Green Falcon now. So I’ve got a White falcon and a Smoke Green Falcon. You see those things and they are just so damn cool. It’s a work of art really and it’s usable. It’s not just something, ‘Oh that’s nice and hang it on the wall. It looks great, but it’s not that good.’ No, these things — it’s all I use, and I couldn’t be happier with them.
I also have a ‘62 Country Gent. It’s actually black. It looks like George Harrison’s except it actually is black. So that’s really cool. Stephen Stern made me a Double Cut White Penguin because I love Malcom Young. I love his tone with AC/DC and he had a Gretsch Double Cut, like a Duo Jet. So I have a Penguin like that. And then the 12-strings now, I’ve got three of those and I’ve got the prototype 4-string so I’m getting there. It adds up quick here. It sounds like a lot except we have to have two sets of gig – there’s an A rig and a B rig. It can’t be a good rig and a crappy rig. We’ve got to have two good sets of things so if we are playing Syracuse one night and the next night we are at San Diego, we have another set of gear go to the other gig. So basically you have to have two sets of gear and backups of everything. You can’t just have one instrument. Well, you could, but you’ve got to have two heads, a back up head and I’m using a guitar head and a bass head and so two each of those, at least two instruments – a backup and one you are using, and then you double all of that. So, it adds up fast. And you can rationalize it because you are doing it for a living.
GG: Don’t you also have a Double Anniversary, too?
TP: Actually, I do, just like Brian Jones’ guitar – a ’64 Double Anniversary. Andy had just done the Rolling Stones Gear book and they didn’t have a photo of one of Brian’s. His didn’t have a Bisgby, which most of them did, and mine doesn’t either and so they used that guitar of mine for a photo to use in the book. It’s a big full page.
My newest Gretsch Falcon bass is a direct result of that color. I can’t believe they don’t use that color more. It’s so cool looking. I get so many comments. It’s a subtle difference with the darker sides.
But the Stones, how could I forget about the Double Anniversary?
If I could go through the Gretsch catalog, I’d take that and that and that. And you see all the guitars they have in their Artist Showroom and it kills me! The Gretsch stuff is so beautiful – all of these great classic designs, I can’t get enough of it!