Reverb Interview: Matt Beckley on What It's Like to be an L.A. Guitarist and Pop-Star Producer

Matt Beckley is one of the busiest guys in LA. From stage to studio, his credits include playing guitar for Katy Perry, vocal production for Kesha, vocal production and mixing for Selena Gomez, and working alongside Britney Spears and multi-Grammy winner Dr. Luke.

Based in Los Angeles, Beckley continues to stay busy in the studio. His most recent single is Madison Beer’s “All for Love ft. Jack & Jack” on which he co-wrote and co-produced. Matt recently sat down with Reverb and answered some questions about his role in the music industry and growing up as the son of Gerry Beckley, a founding member of America.

What got you into music to begin with?

My dad is a musician; it was just kind of the family business and when you're a little kid, you're like: "Aww, man. I can make a living doing this.” It's not just a pipe dream. You see that there's an actual job and economy behind it. If you do it the right way, if you're lucky, you can make a living doing it. It was either that or be a lawyer and playing music seemed like more fun.

Matt Beckley

I know that you're a big fan of Eric Johnson. Was there another player that made you say: I want to do this for real?

When I was twelve, my dad gave me a white on white B.C. Rich Strat copy for Christmas. I had to beg him for six months before he would get me my first guitar. I had to buy the case and strap and tuner at 11 years old. So I was super invested in it. It's all the money I had. So I was kind of stuck with it. When I was 12, he got me a wah-wah pedal for Christmas, Ah Via Musicom by Eric Johnson, and Blow by Blow by Jeff Beck.

I was super into Van Halen, just because when you're a kid, and you play guitar, you're like, who's the best guitar player? And everybody says Van Halen. I was also a really big fan of Andy Summers from The Police. I figured if I could just play like Andy Summers, that would be as far as I'd need to take my guitar playing. But then I got Eric Johnson for Christmas and realized there was a totally different way of playing the guitar. It was really melodic, so it wasn't just like shredville. When I got Ah Via Musicom it was like, here's a guy who's making real melodies in music. That was what would turn me on about music. It wasn't necessarily the shear ability, it was just the fact that I thought it was really pretty.

Did you go to school for music?

I didn't. Woodsy [Michael Woods, America’s former lead guitarist] kind of locked me in the back of the bus on tours and would show me pentatonic scales and shit. Occasionally I would ask my dad how to play a Dire Straits song or something. For the most part, it was all picking up Guitar Player magazine, or stuff that would be on Reverb now, and just getting tabs for stuff that I liked. I'd go down to the music store and get a tab book. Like I said, I really liked 1984 so I got a book on how to play 1984. When I got Ah Via Musicom, the first thing I did was go to the store and pick up the tab book, and I spent the next three years of my life trying to nail “Cliffs of Dover.”

There are grown men who are still working on that.

The cool thing about that record that I'm really grateful for is if I ever have to play a country lick, I play the beginning of “Steve's Boogie.” If I ever have an acoustic — and I can't play finger style to save my life — but I kind of fake my way through “Song for George.” Basically, all of my Guitar Center licks came out of that book. So if I have an acoustic, I can play “Song for George” and go to double-drop D. If I have a Tele, I can play “Steve's Boogie.” If I have a 335, I can play a very poor rendition of “Cliffs of Dover;” enough for someone to say, "Oh, maybe you play guitar!"

You were playing with Katy Perry for a while. How did you get that gig?

I was working at the time with Dr. Luke, who’s a producer who I still get to work with a bunch. I worked behind the board. I'd become friends with Katy Perry. She was a kid who was just kind of kicking around the L.A. scene. We'd become friends, and she would need someone to play guitar with her and I'd do acoustic gigs at Hotel Cafe and these little things with her. Then she was doing a record with Luke, so we were tied in that way.

Matt Beckley with Katy Perry

When things started happening for her, she was like, “Hey, can you help me put a band together?" just because I was one of the few guys who she knew who played guitar. There was no audition process or anything like that. It was just that we were homies. The smartest thing I did was hire this guy named Adam Marcello, who played drums. He’s now her music director. Adam is this genius Berklee guy who was “captain tour musician.” We'd done some sessions together, and he knew everybody in town. So he was able to say, "This keyboard player is great. This guitar player is great." He knew the right guys to put a band together, who didn't just look the part, but were a really good band. Adam still plays with her and Josh Moreau, the bass player, still plays with her. And now Adam is her musical director. The very first guy who I got to hire ends up still running the whole show! It's funny because he's a drummer, but he's a better musician than all of us. I think everybody underestimates the drummer, but he's crazy musically talented.

Was Katy your first major gig?

There's definitely been nothing bigger. I had done tours with artists, and I had gotten to play with a couple of people in fits and starts, but it was my first time as a touring guitar player playing stadiums in our own thing.

I seem to remember a picture of you crowd surfing with your guitar in hand.

It's funny; her first real tour was the Warped Tour. It was right when “I Kissed a Girl” blew up. It was really neat to see it go from a couple hundred kids at our shows to a couple thousand kids over the course of four days. It went from zero to 100 really fast. We weren't even on the main stage. We were on the side stage. We were a band that wasn't even supposed to be on there. Everybody was looking at us side-eyed because they were like, "Why is this pop girl with all of these rock fans?" To her credit, she was really great.

Did your time with Katy put your own artistic endeavors on hold at that point?

I was playing with Katy when I was around 28, and I had long since gotten “the artist thing” out of my system. I loved writing songs for people. I loved playing music. But I realized that I don't really like being The Guy. For me, personally, it's a lot more satisfying getting to help somebody achieve their goals, as weird as that sounds. That's the fun thing for me: helping get the best out of other people.

I'm a decent harmony singer, but I'm not a great lead singer. I knew fairly early on that it wasn't my bag. It was part of the reason I loved producing so much. I had shelved “the artist thing” for a good three or four years by the time the Katy came around. I was totally happy to be the studio guy and producing records for people and working behind the boards. You knew, even back then, that she was something incredibly special. There was no doubt that she was going to be some massively influential artist.

Matt Beckley with Katy Perry

Would you attribute that to just being a great vocalist or was she just great at the show, or maybe a combination?

It took her a while. She's incredibly charismatic, but it took her a while to get the whole live thing down. She's an incredible vocalist, she's an incredible songwriter and she's incredibly charismatic; and when you put those three things together?! I remember her sitting down and playing songs for my dad and a guy named Stephen Bishop, who's an award-winning songwriter. They didn't want to play their songs in front of her because you could just tell that she was just unbelievably fucking great.

There is just a feeling that happens when you're working with someone who goes beyond good and who’s going to become a thing. It's weirdly obvious. This person is going to go huge. There's just a different temperature in the room.

I remember when we were doing “Girlfriend” for Avril Lavigne. The first time it came through the speakers it was obvious that the song was going to go to No. 1. It's totally different than, "Oh, I really like this song." It's, "Oh, shit, this song is going to matter." That was the best part about working with Dr. Luke. I got that experience a lot because we've had so many great songs.

Were you working with Dr. Luke when Britney Spears was touring with NSYNC?

No, when I was with Luke, he had just worked with Kelly Clarkson, so he was riding on “Since U Been Gone.” When I was working with him, we got to do Circus by Britney Spears, which is a great album. Believe it or not, working on a Paris Hilton album is how I met him. Avril Lavigne, Lil Mama, there was a bunch of stuff that we got to work on. You know, you play in bands and bars, and you can be playing with really great players, but then you get to play with the guys from Chicago or something. There's a difference between someone who's doing it for a living vs. a hobby.

When you were touring with Katy, were you guys using backline or your own equipment? How did that work?

Dr. Z MAZ 38

When we were doing the Warped Tour, because it was a bus tour, we got to carry our own backline. When we did television and stuff at home, and we could use our own stuff, I was playing a Dr. Z MAZ 38 through a Mesa/Boogie 4x12 cabinet because I thought the Mesas just had a tighter bottom end. It was a more pop-rock kind of thing. I was playing these Telecasters that Bill Crook [of Crook Custom Guitars] made for me, which I still play to this day and really love.

Most of the time, when you're flying out everywhere, it's all backline. You get to take a guitar or two and you get to take a pedalboard. So my theory has always been: what kind of backline will be the best pedal vehicle and what will sound best. To me it wasn't even necessarily getting the best tone, it was about what was going to be the most consistent night in and night out. I would play either Deluxes or Twins through 4x12 cabinets. That was my vibe.

The Boogie cabs are very consistent, as opposed to Marshall cabs, where there are any number of different speakers you can get.

To me the Boogie cabs were always stiffer. There's nothing better than a real '70s Marshall cab that's been broken in; there's just a magic to it. But you can get Marshall cabs that were 10s and you can get Marshall cabs that were twos. I felt like, with a Boogie cab, you were always getting an eight or nine. They're a lot stiffer and more consistent. Mesa is a really good company to deal with. They're really accommodating and try to help you out.

Many very, very big touring guys I know are using either Kemper or Axe-Fx now just because they can put it on a thumb drive. They don't even have to take the thing with them. They plug in their thumb drive and it all pops up. I haven't played one yet. I'm afraid to because I'm kind of a purist and like one of these real amps.

Was there any preparation that you did for some of your longer tours? Let's say you're doing thirty shows in thirty days, how do you prepare for that mentally and physically?

It's really tough. About a year after Katy, I did a little while where I was filling in for a band called Family Force 5, which had a really kinetic live show. They were on the same bill as 3OH!3. Like anything else, it's like a job. I feel like you have to eat right — and not go to the after party — and sleep and not get too much caffeine. It's like the old Bill Crook joke when security was asking him how to tell who belongs backstage or not. He said, "Just look for anybody who looks excited to be there, and those guys don't belong."

Matt Beckley

That sounds like something Bill Crook would say, too.

Like there are memes of what people think it is vs. what it is, you know? Thirty days, it's hard on your body; it's really hard on your band. I think the thing that aspiring tour musicians don't want to acknowledge is that it's only about 30% or 40% dependant on your skill level. The other thing is your aesthetic, both sonically and visually for fitting in with the band with which you're playing. You contribute. But also, do people want to be on the bus with you for 30 days in a row, with 30 shows in 30 cities, on three hours of sleep a night?

I can guarantee you that virtually every music director that I know would take the guy who can calm down a bus over the guy who can play a little bit faster? It's about keeping your mind in shape and not having five guys who hate each other at the end of the month. Because that shit shows up on stage.

This is the stuff for any aspiring musicians here to listen to.

That's the thing. People don't realize that there is a wide breadth of people who play professionally and tour. And they're all, definitely, pretty good. But, weirdly, the guys who get all of the gigs don't necessarily have to be the guys who know the most chords. I'm a perfect example of that. I can play like five chords tops.

There are a million kids at MI who are hungry for the job — to play with Katy, to play with Demi or all of these people — and more than half the gig is about whether you are decent to be around.

What advice would you give to someone starting out right now?

Do it because you love it, because right now, even the guys who are doing great at it aren't making a ton of money. You have to be getting something out of it. It has to be something you enjoy. If you're not enjoying doing it, it's not worth the hassle. Work hard to get good at it. There is a lot of competition, so you have to be really good at it. The last thing is: go out and see a lot of shows or listen to a lot of records and be proactive about realizing what you really like.

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