Reverb Interview: Peter Buck of R.E.M.

"Put songs before showmanship,” Johnny Marr said in his “10 Ways To Avoid Becoming a Guitar Hero,” originally published in a 1990 interview with Guitar Player. “Be subtle in your innovations."

Peter Buck personifies those ideas. His career with R.E.M. has influenced guitar anti-heroes from the ‘80s to the present day. Buck sat down with Reverb recently to discuss his history, present day projects and his guitar collection.

We first connected on Reverb when you bought a '50s Les Paul Goldtop. What do you think makes '50s Gibsons so special?

Tone first of all. I don't use them the same way most people use them: as a solo instrument. I tend to be more chord oriented. But those pickups have a nice, warm, chordal feeling. You can get all the harmonics and stuff out without being too overdriven. And I just like thinking about whoever owned this thing in 1954 or 1955. I've got a couple of really old Rickenbackers. I just think: Who played this in 1960? What kind of band were they in?

Right, and in the R.E.M. days, you were closely associated with those Ricks. Do you remember your first Rick?

Yeah. I was playing a Telecaster in 1980; it got stolen out of my house. And there was a little music store in town called Chick Piano; they had a blond Rickenbacker 360 with flat-wound strings. That was my main guitar until 1981, when it got stolen.

I went to a shop in Hartford, Conn. and asked if they had Rickenbackers. They pulled this black 360 out; I played it, and it was in tune. That's the one that's been on every R.E.M. record except the first single, and I bring it to pretty much every session I do.

It's still the guitar I go to every day. It has real clarity of tone. It's sitting in a stand at the foot of my bed. I like playing guitar in my pajamas. I've got three other guitars in my bedroom: a '43 Gibson; a 1960 Rickenbacker that I got from Reverb; a Goldtop. They kind of rotate to the bedroom, and if I'm really working, I'll go down in the basement to avoid everyone.

You were influenced by The Byrds, and Roger McGuinn played a Rick and still does. Was that a factor?

Yeah. It was an absolutely classic instrument. John Lennon, Roger McGuinn and Pete Townsend played Ricks. I'm more of a rhythm player than a soloist, as were all of those guys, generally. Though they're all very good soloists.

It's the perfect rhythm guitar. It sounds like it's an electric guitar and has real clarity of tone. I didn't use any pedals until probably '85. I just got the tone through the amp and then kept it.

Your new album Warzone Earth is different sonic territory for you, kind of garage-y and psychedelic. Do you have a pedal board now?

Kurt Bloch has a pedal board. I use a fuzz box. I'll try and get the tone without using anything but a cord and the guitar. So I might be playing really, really loud, or I might be using a small amp, turned up, distorted.

Right, sometimes small amps sound better than overdrive pedals. What’s your go-to small amp?

I've got everything from handmade amps to little Gibsons and Silvertones. I prefer not to use any effects, but when you're touring you tend to need to change tone, sometimes radically. There's a place here in Portland that Paul Barker from Ministry runs: Malekko Heavy Industry. The pedals are tiny and they're really great. We don't have a road crew. We have one guy, so I would just as soon my pedal board not weigh 50 pounds.

Do you have your own studio? Do you have a recording rig and all that stuff?

No. At one point I had a 16-track reel-to-reel analog in my basement, but it's become so crowded. I decided I'd rather book a studio and record only analog and master analog and put it out on vinyl. Adam Selzer's Type Foundry is great, I use Tucker Martine's Flora occasionally. They both have total analog capabilities.

Are you using any new gear?

I generally just go for old stuff. I've got, you know, a couple Fenders from, like, 1964 that are pretty cool; I'll hot rod them so that they're made for big stages. Those can get really wide open without getting distorted. They're probably about 120 decibels within their distortion level. At that point you can't even hear the drums.

What about Mandolins? I assume you have a pretty large collection.

1936 Rickenbacker Electro Mandolin
1936 Rickenbacker Electro Mandolin

I've got a Flat Iron I've been using since '89; somebody gave me an Ovation; it's a really nice sounding mandolin; a 1936 Electro Mandolin Rickenbacker with a whammy bar. I'm not sure why you're supposed to have a whammy bar on a mandolin!

Is there any music that you listen to that’s off the wall?

My taste is really wide. I love Albert Ayler; Mike Mills and I really loved ABBA in a non-ironic way back in the early '80s. We thought those records were great and played them all the time. I listen to all kinds of stuff. If I have the iPod in the car, some things will pop up and I'll kind of wince. Some of that early surf music is just twee beyond belief.

Are you a Deadhead?

Yeah. I like the Grateful Dead very much. I lost track of them around 1975. I found a mono copy of the very first Grateful Dead record. It's a smoking little record. It's not really that psychedelic. It's kind of like, you know, a crystal meth blues band.

Do you think it's more important to have really great gear or is it more important to know the gear that you have?

Knowing the gear you have. You know the key strength of the Fleshtones? Keith Streng found that Jaguar in pieces in a garbage can, put it back together and used that on every record for 20 years until it got lost. But it was his instrument, and he really did what he could with it.

Could R.E.M. have become as successful as they did in today's music scene?

Absolutely not. We had five records before we had a hit. That just doesn't happen anymore. On the other hand, with the Internet, you can make records for years, without ever being on the radio, and build an audience. But the day that some band is on their fifth album and sells 15 million records, you know, those days are gone. I'm not sure the rock band format is something 21-year-olds are into.

Was R.E.M. ready for the success that they encountered when they crossed over? What adjustments did you have to make?

We had five records before we had a hit. That just doesn't happen anymore."

We'd been doing it for so long; it was just like: It's about fucking time! We were drawing 10,000 people a night in America and selling 300,000 or 400,000 records, which seems like a lot. But we had played for three times as many people that own our records. Wonder how that happened, you know? I mean, essentially it's happening with Sleater-Kinney right now. In four nights they'll play for as many people as bought the new record. And then they'll do a month-long tour. Does Phish even have a record label anymore? It seems like you can sell a lot of tickets and not even worry about selling records.

Do you prefer playing in an arena vs. a club? Does it matter to you?

You get used to a bigger place. If R.E.M. booked a club date, it was just a massive pain in the ass. Everyone's going to get in free. We can't get our equipment in. We play too loud. You know, whatever. That said, now I’m a club musician. If I can get 200 people to come see whatever I'm doing on a Friday, then that's perfect.

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Photo by Andrew Hurley


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