Message In A Guitar

By Mario Benito

He always seemed hidden, eclipsed, by his two bandmates. One of the most powerful and successful bands from the late 70s, and early 80s of the glorious past century, musically speaking. Nobody referred to him then, no-one mentioned Andy Summers, the now mythical guitarist of The Police, because the praise was always for the gifted bassist with colossal vigor and an absolutely personal signature voice on all the songs with the pseudonym Sting, and the drummer Stewart Copeland, one of the greatest that pop/rock has enjoyed. That sound box was something else, and every time it came in it electrified the whole song, and whoever was listening, the impossible rhythm changes...there were hardly any guitar solos with the usual virtuoso show-offs on the band’s songs. He wasn’t especially tall or as handsome as Sting, nor did he have the charisma and magnetism. We didn’t notice him because back then we didn’t know how important those arpeggio chords that he squeezed out of his Telecaster were.    

Reggatta de Blanc
was The Police’s second album. It was released in 1979 and was a huge success,so much so that it dragged their first LP, Outlandos D'Amour (1978)and made  it also a success shortly after it was edited. Highlighting a record of The Police among the 5 others recorded in studio is both complex and simple at the same time. Complex because they are all good. It’s suffice to say that they ended their career in 1983 at the height of their masterful Synchronicity - which, by the way, was their bestseller with more than 8 million copies in the U.S. alone -, and simple to highlight because Reggatta de Blanc (reggae for whites?, the titles of their albums were always a mystery) kicks off with none other than Message in a Bottle.  It went to #1 in the U.K., and half the world, just as was this other stroke of genius to back it, the surrounding rhythm and atmospheric score which is Walking on the Moon. How the bass led, and Sting’s voice, and the power behind the drums… and the guitar?

Andy Summers (Lancashire, 1942) started playing guitar when he was 13 years old, and at 16 was playing in clubs, and then at 19 went to London to form his first soul and R&B Brit band : Zoot  Money’s Big Roll. This was London during effervescent music scene of the mid- 1960s. He changed groups various times, including Eric Burdon’s The Animals, with whom he recorded the record Love Is. He would then move to L.A. for five years, and make California State University his centre of activities. He returns to London and plays with a number of musicians and recordings. In 1975 he teams up with Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells on the orchestral edition and in ´77 is invited to join the group Strontium 90 of which Sting and Copeland were a part. Within a year, and after troubles with another guitarist, they finally put together a trio: The Police. The rest is well-known history.  

His guitar collection is impressive []. We’ve seen him play on occasion with a Gibson ES 355 with a sound box, possibly inherited from his training and jazzman appeal - it shows, of course - or also with a Strat, or an acoustic Martin. But his guitar is a Telecaster. That Telecaster. Andy Summer’s Telecaster , which  even Fender made and launched a commemorative, exclusive limited edition of. Summers himself says he bought it second hand in 1972 from a student he was giving classes to at the University of L.A..    

They were hard times so he got it for very little money and it was already modified. Summers says he only changed the tuning keys; the pickups weren’t the originals, but a Humbucker, that Gibson also uses, while also keeping the bridge pickup from that series. They had replaced the metal scratchplate of the Telecaster for a brass one; ‘for sound reasons’, not aesthetic. Besides that, they had also fitted parts of the bridge, and each fret with brass, which surely improved the tuning. The electronics were completely redone with a pre-amp extra feed on a 9 volt battery with 2 pickup selectors instead of 1, to change pickups and to turn one on or off over the previous one to give an overdrive effect and more sustain: yes, the sound of The Police.         

Andy Summers confesses that once he returned to London triumphal with this guitar that was part of one of the most fascinating bands in the history of pop/rock, he sought out the student who had sold it to him for a few quid, to offer him more. He figured he was in debt to him, that the guitar was something special, ‘magical’ like a hidden message that had given him that special sound, but he wouldn’t take it. “The guitar is yours.” was the response of his old charge, “I sold you it, and you owe me nothing.” It’s now priceless, and now we know that those chops of Andy Summers, that will break your hand trying to play, are as fundamental as the bass and voice of Sting, or Copeland’s drums, to the music of The Police.    

(Images: ©CordonPress)