Andy Summers Rig Review
by Daniel Brooks
It may be ironic that one of the most underrated guitarists of the past fifty years is also one of the most respected, well-known and successful. From 1977 to 1984 guitarist Andy Summers, singer and bassist Sting (Gordon Sumner) and drummer Stewart Copeland worked together to fuse Reggae, Jazz, Prog-Rock, Pop and Punk into a seamless whole that made The Police one of the most popular bands ever, selling more than eighty million records and selling out venues around the world. In an era where guitar-oriented rock often featured extensive, sprawling solos that were as much the point of the music as the song itself, Andy Summers took a textured, elemental approach to the guitar to evoke a compelling sonic atmosphere that served to highlight the strengths of his bandmates. To a casual listener, it may seem understated and simple, but any serious study of Summers’ contribution to The Police reveals a depth of insight, inspiration and musicianship equal to the more easily recognized brilliance of Sting’s vocals or Stewart Copeland’s polyrhythmic mastery.
When he joined The Police in July 1977, Andy Summers had already been an accomplished guitarist for more than a decade. Born in Poulton-Fylde, Lancashire, England on December 31, 1942, Andrew James Somers picked up the guitar at age 14. Within two years he was playing Jazz in local clubs, earning the attention of bandleader Zoot Money. In 1962, Andy was invited to replace the guitarist in Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, where he would back up the flamboyant front man playing R & B, soul and jazz. By the summer of 1967 the band evolved into Psychedelia, Andy had changed his surname to Summers, and the band briefly renamed themselves Dantalian’s Chariot before disbanding in early 1968. After an all-too-brief American tour with The Soft Machine, Summers rejoined Zoot Money in Eric Burden’s new incarnation of The Animals, where he recorded one album, “Love Is” featuring an extended guitar solo on their cover of Traffic’s “Coloured Rain.”
The Animals disbanded in 1969, and Andy Summers moved to Los Angeles to study classical guitar and composition at Cal State Northridge. He returned to England in 1973 to become a journeyman guitarist, recording and touring with Kevin Coyne, Jon Lord, Neil Sedaka, Kevin Ayers and Michael Bloomfield. In May 1977, former Gong bassist Mike Howlett invited Andy to take part in Strontium 90, a one-show project band he was forming for an upcoming Gong reunion. The bassist, Sting, brought his bandmate Stewart Copeland on board when Howlett’s first choice for a drummer proved unavailable. They recorded the set and a few studio tracks, all of which was released 20 years later as Strontium 90: Police Academy. Not long after the show, Andy Summers learned that Sting and Copeland were growing dissatisfied with their guitarist and offered to be his replacement. For a very brief period, The Police were a quartet.
With their line up in place, but no record contract, The Police began recording their first album, titled Outlandos d’Amour. Stewart Copeland’s brother, Miles, agreed to finance the recording, despite his misgivings about Andy Summers’ age and lack of punk credibility. Upon hearing the song “Roxanne,” Miles managed to get them a record deal with A&M Records. The record sold only modestly at first, but by 1979, “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “So Lonely” began to earn them growing commercial and critical success in the U.K. and Europe, and sent them on an exhausting U.S. tour that had them driving themselves and all of their equipment thousands of miles between shows in a single van.
In October 1979, Regatta de Blanc, the follow up album, topped the charts with the singles “Message In A Bottle” and “Walking On The Moon” and earned a Grammy Award for the title track. Their star continued to rise with 1980s Zenyatta Mondatta and 1981’s Ghost in the Machine. After a year off for solo projects and Sting’s budding film career, The Police returned to the studio to record Synchronicity. Synchronicity sold 12 Million copies and firmly established The Police as fixtures in the rock and roll pantheon, but it exacerbated the increasing tensions within the band. Following a tour which set attendance records that would stand for a decade, The Police announced they were taking a sabbatical, which continues to this day.
Fortunately, for us and for them, each of the three ex members of The Police have had successful solo careers. Sting is as big a star as ever, Stewart Copeland produces television and movie soundtracks and has recorded and toured with his bands Animal Logic and Oysterhead, and Andy Summers has gone on to release a dozen highly-acclaimed solo albums and has worked with Robert Fripp, John Etheridge, and Benjamin Verdery. But for all of their solo success, The Police stands for many as the defining moment for Copeland, Sting and Summers. There was some singular convergence of sound, intention and influence that has proven to be irreplaceable. No one plays with the expressive finesse of Stewart Copeland, no one sings with the sensibility and timbre of Sting and no one weaves it all together with the feel for a perfectly arpeggiated, shimmering “jazz” chord as Andy Summers.
For all he has accomplished as a guitarist, some special attention has to be given to the gear with which he gets that signature sound. For most of his time with The Police, Andy Summers relied primarily on his 1961 Custom Telecaster. He has been known to play other guitars, however, most notably his 1961 Fender Stratocaster in fiesta red as well as his 1958 Gibson ES-335. A quick visit to his website at andysummers.com allows you to look at his collection of more than 100 guitars. As far as effects, Summers began his rise with The Police using a minimum amount of gear, his Tele, a Fender Twin and an MXR Phase 90. As the band became more successful, he added a few more pedals, and then a lot more pedals, the list is extensive and staggering. He has a custom Pete Cornish pedalboard and has kept up with each new development in effects technology. Of course, one of his signature sounds came from his use of the classic Maestro Echoplex tape delay. That spacious bliss that comes so naturally with the Echoplex lent itself perfectly to his deceptively understated style. And while it is always tempting to entertain the belief that the gear is the secret to any guitarist’s tone, to get Andy Summers’ sound you’ll need an extensive knowledge of chord theory, mastery of several musical forms and the fearlessly playful drive to take it all apart and put it back together.