Through his ground-breaking, hit-making work in the Police, Andy Summers influenced a generation of guitarists with a highly creative and seemingly endless sonic palette of everything from straight, searing rock 'n' roll to jazzy, even avant-garde atmospheric textures. And when a guitarist can incorporate such musically diverse elements into so many songs that become enduring hits, believe us, that's no accident—Andy Summers knew exactly what he was doing.
And he knew what guitar to do it on. The battered and unusual '61 Fender Telecaster guitar that Summers worked his magic on with the Police had been by his side long before the famously blonde trio startled the pop world in 1978 with its reggae-tinged, infectiously minimalist first hit, an ode to a Parisian working girl named "Roxanne."
Summers, born Andrew James Summers in Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire, England, on Dec. 31, 1942, was smitten by the guitar as a young boy in Bournemouth, England. He was immediately attracted to jazz music, but as a young man found himself draw more and more into London's fertile blues, rock and pop scene. A nimble and inventive guitarist, Summers eschewed the prevailing pentatonic blueswailing (although he could do that, too) in favor of a more eclectic approach that drew on jazz, classical and eastern influences.
His '60s recording career started with Zoot Money's Big Roll Band, which soon morphed into the summer-of-love psychedelia of Dantalion's Chariot (which scored a psychedelic classic with "Madman Running Through the Fields"). The late '60s brought stints with jazz-fusion outfit Soft Machine and Eric Burdon and the New Animals, and Summers' first trip to the United States. In the early and mid-1970s, Summers did extensive touring, session and concert work with Kevin Coyne, Kevin Ayers, Tim Rose, Neil Sedaka and others, and, while living in California, earned a bachelor's degree in music from California State University, Northridge.
Having returned to England, Summers was invited in May 1977 by musician Mike Howlett to form Strontium 90 along with another of Howlett's friends, a singer/bassist nicknamed "Sting," who in turn brought along an American drummer named Stewart Copeland. Sting and Copeland, with guitarist Henry Padovani, had released a single, "Fall Out" in February 1977 as the Police. After a couple lineup changes, a trio of Sting, Copeland and Summers was performing as the Police by fall of that year.
The rest is history. The Police would raid the charts for better part of the next decade, charting hit after hit with an innovative, rhythmically ferocious and melodically atmospheric sound heavily reliant on Summers' slashing, swelling, singing Telecaster prowess—"Roxanne," "Message In a Bottle," "Don't Stand So Close to Me," "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," and the musical juggernaut that was 1983's Synchronicity, with hits "Every Breath You Take," "Wrapped Around Your Finger," "Synchronicity II" and "King of Pain." They became the biggest band in the world, ruling the charts, the airwaves and the newly popular MTV.
Then, with little or no fanfare, the Police called it quits while still at the top—the very top—of their game. No farewell album or tour; they simply stopped. They had lived in each other's pockets for seven years, from CBGB to Shea Stadium, alternately affectionate and combative brothers who delivered hit after hit and concert after concert with an exhausting, non-stop work ethic that simply could not last indefinitely.
Summers went on to many diverse musical projects, including film scoring (1986's Down and Out in Beverly Hills; 1989's Weekend at Bernie's), late-night television (musical director, 1992's The Dennis Miller Show) and a string of acclaimed solo recordings, collaborations and guest appearances with artists including Robert Fripp, John Etheridge, Victor Biglione and Benjamin Verdery. Summers has also participated in various solo projects by Sting and Copeland, and the Police reunited briefly in March 2003, performing three songs at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A talented and avid photographer, Summers released his first book of photographs, Throb, in 1983; Light Strings: Impressions of the Guitar, with Ralph Gibson, was released in 2004. His 2006 memoir One Train Later tells his life story from boyhood through the mid-'80s demise of the Police. In spring 2007, Taschen books released I'll Be Watching You, a photographic journal of his years with the Police.
Also in 2006, Summers worked with Fender Musical Instruments Corporation on the development of the Fender Custom Shop Andy Summers Tribute Telecaster, a limited-edition (250 instruments) note-perfect replica of his battered and beloved 1961 Telecaster, to be released in 2007. Summers delighted a crowd at the Fender booth at the January 2007 NAMM show in Anaheim, Calif., performing tunes by one of his idols, Wes Montgomery, and a rousing rendition of "Message In a Bottle" on a prototype of the replica that was all but indistinguishable from the original.
Mere days after Summers’ performance for Fender at the NAMM show, the Police reunited to open the 49th annual Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles on Feb. 11. Even better, the group then electrified the music world once again by announcing their 2007 worldwide 30th anniversary reunion tour, a momentous musical event that Summers has long made no secret of his desire for.
Andy Summers has more than earned a lofty spot in the pantheon of guitar greats, and his fans and guitar aficionados worldwide know that they should always stay tuned for whatever he does next. Indeed, as Andy himself would no doubt observe with his customary dry wit, he always stays tuned ...