MICHAEL MONARCH: Of “Corporate Rock” and Diverse Guitar Tones
Michael Monarch is firmly ensconced in a lifestyle that many other veteran guitarists would love to emulate. The original guitarist for Steppenwolf, heard on classic such as "Born to be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride", is still gigging on a regular basis with the World Classic Rockers, an all-star aggregation that is big in the corporate market and he's still crafting solo instrumental albums.
Regarding the present incarnation of WCR, Monarch recently told VG "Our current lineup includes Aynsley Dunbar, who's played with Journey, Frank Zappa, Starship, and John Mayall's Bluebreakers, just to name a few. He's a fantastic drummer and great to work with. We have added Alex Ligertwood, Santana's lead vocalist for 17 years. He's one of the best vocalists I've ever heard! We have also added Randall Hall, who was hand-picked by Allen Collins to replace him in Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Fergie Fredericksen, Toto's lead singer from the Isolation era. Randy Meisner of the Eagles still plays with us on many shows."
As for the "upscale" audiences at many of their gigs, the guitarist recounted "The private shows are usually a lot of fun, and we are treated well. We stay at the best hotels at many of the finest resort destinations (in locations such as) Cancun, the Bahamas, Hawaii, Las Vegas. etc. We have traveled all over the U.S., Europe, South Africa, and even the Middle East—Dubai—doing private and public shows. Some audiences at corporate or private shows are a little stiff, but for the most part, they get just as wild as the fans at a public show.”
His rig at such performances is fairly simple and dependable.
"For the live shows, I use a Marshall 100-watt amp and a 4 X 12 bottom," Monarch said. "I keep the effects to a minimum--delay, EQ/boost, and a tuner. The guitar is a Fender Strat with a humbucker bridge pickup. That's pretty much the setup I've been using for many years."
When Vintage Guitar interviewed Monarch in our December 2001 issue, he'd released his first instrumental album, Guitar Bazaar, which was chock full of guitar pyrotechnics. In this follow-up conversation, we observed that most listeners would probably have pronounced his second instrumental effort, The Other Side of the Tracks, to have been a continuation of the musical style of his debut album.
"That's a fair statement," the guitarist responded, "and was pretty much what I had in mind. I wanted to improve the sound of the recordings, which I think I did. The drums sounds in particular are better."
However, Monarch's most recent release, MM3, is definitely more melodic, and has a number of different guitar tones when compared to the first two albums.
"The new CD started with the last song, 'One Last Time'," he explained. "It was the first tune I had for the project, and I needed to come up with songs that would fit with it. I have pretty varied tastes in guitar music; I like blues, country, some jazz, hard rock, R & B. Anything too 'modern' or 'aggressive' didn't seem to fit with that song. I chose a more 'rootsy', Americana approach for this CD, and I definitely got some inspiration from the late, great Danny Gatton; I have all of his records, and I think he, along with Ry Cooder, were influences on this CD."
MM3 's first track, "Pickin' A Boogie", kicks off with a piano, not a guitar, and while to some listeners it might be a "safe" twelve-bar tune, it still has a rollicking style, and the guitarist emphasized that it's more complex than one might think, describing it as “…a fun song, with good energy. This song is kind of a musical journey through a couple of styles. It starts with boogie-woogie piano blues—something I learned when I was nine or ten years old—with country guitar-type picking. Then the slide against the New Orleans funk beat takes over. Next, some rockin' distorted guitar and a left turn into some jazz scales, stolen from a Joe Pass tune. Maybe that's why it's first—a mini-tour-de-force of guitar styles."
"For most of the electric guitar on the album, I used my Candy Apple Red Strat, which is also seen on the cover," Monarch continued. "It has Seymour Duncan Alnico pickups with a custom bridge humbucker. I used the bridge/middle pickup combination for some of the songs, like 'Pickin' On A Boogie', 'Hot Night in Dixie', and 'Knee Slapper'. That's my Gibson Les Paul Goldtop on 'Everytime I Think of You'.
Some of the "slide" riffs heard on the album are so high-pitched it sounds like Monarch's playing a lap steel, but such isn't the case.
"That would be the red Strat," he clarified. "I have a little trick I sometimes do with a screwdriver; I slide it under the strings at, say, the second fret. It raises the strings sort of like a dobro. You can't really fret notes, but it is cool for some slide stuff."
This time around, Monarch opted for milder, nylon string sounds on melodic and/or Latin-tinged songs such as "Softly She Came", "Cubano", and "Amor Or Less".
"I used a Yamaha SLG 100N nylon/electric and a Gibson Chet Atkins nylon/electric," he detailed. "The Yamaha is a strange guitar with with no body--just an outline of the guitar shape made of some kind of a composite material. I guess it was designed for travel. The nylon string guitars just lend themselves to Latin styles. Also, since I have been working with Alex, playing Santana songs, maybe that had something to do with it.
"Knee-Slapper" is a token yee-haw ****-kicker that is not only impressive, it's also a lot of fun.
"I love country pickers!" Monarch enthused. "Albert Lee, Vince Gill, and lately, Brad Paisley, just to name a few. Brent Mason blows me away. It's actually one of my favorite tracks on the CD."
Overall, the veteran guitarist is satisfied with the way MM3 turned out, compared to his first two instrumental efforts, and he noted "I tried recording some things that I have never tried before—like the country stuff—and the simplicity of the instrumentation made it easier to mix and listen to". When asked about any future projects Michael responded, "Truthfully, right now I'm more concerned with customizing motorcycles than thinking about another CD. I am sure that will change, but right now, that's what I'm doing."