Maestro Alex Gregory
Ever heard Bach on Steroids or metal mandolin? Presenting the maestro …
Gregory with his seven-string Stratocaster.
Maestro is an Italian word meaning master. It is a title of extreme respect bestowed on master musicians, usually in the classical and opera worlds. It is a title that the British government formally conferred on U.K. composer/inventor/virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Alexander Gregory in 1983.
Originally hailing from Windsor on the western outskirts of London, Gregory grew up in a family of musicians and artists. His formative years took an unusual turn, though—as his demanding studies progressed through his graduation as a classical composer from Italy’s prestigious University of Milan, the young maestro in the making harbored a love not only for Bach, Mozart and Paganini, et al., but also for the complex and often neo-classical work of electric guitarists such as Ritchie Blackmore, Jan Akkerman and Allan Holdsworth.
“I grew up on classical music, but I had uncles in rock bands with red Stratocaster® guitars,” Gregory said. “One of them even played an electric mandolin. I was corrupted from day one. I freaked out when I heard Ritchie Blackmore, and hanging around with Allan Holdsworth as a teenager was the final straw.”
Undaunted by the challenges of mastering such a technically difficult rock subgenre, Gregory blazed his own distinctive trail by not only playing the music, but also by developing new instruments to play it on. He is often credited as the mid-1980s inventor of the solid body seven-string electric guitar, a then-unusual instrument type for which he was granted two patents.
Seven-string acoustic and jazz-box guitars had been around for decades, but were regarded as little more than novelty instruments; Gregory was among the first, if not the first, to successfully adapt the concept to the solid body electric guitar, long before the design became widely popular among the de-tuned thrash and speed metal shredders of the 1990s and 2000s.
“By the time I was at college studying orchestration, I had already devised the concept of a 24-fret seven-string guitar with a top A string,” Gregory said. “In my mind, that was the instrument I needed to play my favorite Romantic violin parts with a rock sound. It’s lucky that I didn’t live in the Middle Ages—back then I would have been burned alive for thinking such impure thoughts!”
Gregory’s pioneering work in this arena put him in partnership with the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation in the mid-1980s, when Gregory became the third signature artist signed by the company (after Eric Clapton and Yngwie Malmsteen). A pair of early prototype seven-string Stratocaster® guitars bearing Gregory’s signature was built and displayed at the January 1988 NAMM show in Anaheim, Calif., and the guitar was listed in the January 1988 Fender price list. The design was finalized in spring 1988. The guitar never went into full-scale production, however, except for a seven-string Squier® Stratocaster run in the late 1990s and a small number of Custom Shop instruments built over the years.
Gregory’s seven-string Stratocaster.
Parallel to all this, Gregory had staked out an even more distinctive claim as the world’s foremost (if not only) heavy metal mandolinist. Gregory himself is not without a sense of humor on the subject—as evidenced by the title of August 2009 album 13 Jokes for Heavy Metal Mandolin—yet it should be noted that his dexterous handling of the instrument produces an unusual sound that is actually quite breathtaking.
“Heavy metal mandolin was the next step from my Fender seven-string guitar design,” Gregory said. “An alternative really, more than a development; as the two instruments are complementary.”
A four-string electric mandolin (acoustic mandolins have eight strings arranged in four pairs) has the exact same scale length and tuning as a violin; two elements that Gregory said facilitate the playing of huge intervals characteristic of Romantic violin music.
“Nevertheless, the lack of a bow, which needs to be replaced by an enormous amount of gain, and the consequent massive muting challenges make the heavy metal mandolin considerably harder to play than a violin,” he said. “The tuning in fifths of the heavy metal mandolin is an improvement over the tuning in fourths and a major third of the guitar, but I still prefer to use my Fender seven-string guitar for neoclassical-style soloing. Blues-type soloing works better for me on the heavy metal mandolin, as it allows me to give a new twist and freshness to licks you’ve heard a million times. Heavy metal mandolin is overall truly awesome, but it doesn’t cut it when it comes to low, organ or pianoforte pieces. For ‘Toccata and Fugue in Dm’ and similar pieces, I use my seven-string Strat® guitars that were built by the Custom Shop in 2005, tuned from low to high to the notes of A1/D2/G2/C3/E3/A3/D4.”
Gregory’s recording career started with 1992 debut album Paganini’s Last Stand, which established him as an underground metal sensation in the Blackmore-Malmsteen mold. His initial work in 1994 on an electric-mandolin album was put on hold as Gregory spent the remainder of the 1990s touring with reformed Dutch hard rock outfit Focus (of “Hocus Pocus” fame), during which he got to work with Akkerman, and concentrating on several musical inventions.
Resuming his recording career, Gregory released Another Millennium? in 2001 and The Holy Grail of 7 Strings in 2002. Picking up where he left off in the mid-1990s, material from Gregory’s unfinished 1994 electric mandolin album resurfaced in late 2009 on the aforementioned 13 Jokes for Heavy Metal Mandolin, and most recent album Bach on Steroids! was released in September 2009.
“We were told from all quarters that recording Bach On Steroids! was an impossible undertaking,” Gregory said. “It took six months to orchestrate and mock-record so that every musician would have a scratch part to copy. It took six months, at a rate of 50 hours a week, to learn all the parts. It took six months to record. The 3-D element created by using electric instruments to play acoustic polyphonic music did not allow for any minimal imperfection in timing or pitch—a nightmare. The mixing was even harder because polyphonic music cannot be moved in time by delays, and we had to learn as we were going.”
Gregory’s band for the album included several truly fine player’s players—drummer Virgil Donati, bassist Dave LaRue, keyboardist Steve Weingart, horn player Albert Wing and guest guitarist Albert Lee.
“We were all unsure of the outcome until we finished, and we burst into tears for happiness,” Gregory said. “We had delivered a true masterpiece.”
Gregory then recounts an amazing post-production experience that confirmed the effect of his new album even more. “I was in a park in Beverly Hills, playing the final mix in my car to a friend. I had the doors open and the music was pretty loud, when I saw a guy walking toward my parked car, presumably to tell me to turn it down.”
Gregory with the “heavy metal mandolin.”
“It was weird, as he stopped a few times as if he was listening, only to resume walking. When he got to my car, my friend and I nearly fainted—it was Sir Paul McCartney himself! He told me how much he was taken by the record—Bach is apparently his favorite classical composer—and asked me for the copy I had, which I gave him. I’ve played with some of the best players in the world for many years and am therefore not easily impressed, but this encounter was so unexpected, incredible, impossible and even mystical that I couldn’t sleep for days. It was Thursday, November 17 at about 4 p.m., and I shall never forget it! In my mind this is a sign from the universe that this record is a guaranteed mega-hit.”
In the meantime, Gregory had once again attracted the admiring attention of the international guitar community, receiving an L.A. Music Award in November 2006 for his “career achievement in guitar innovation” and being named one of the world’s 50 fastest guitarists in the July 2008 issue of Guitar World magazine.
Gregory continues to delight audiences worldwide with his phenomenal musical prowess on both electric guitar and electric mandolin, and he remains as busy and as dedicated to his craft as ever.
“Every day that goes by, I get more and more excited about the endless possibilities of guitar playing,” he said. “I shall never stop learning and growing.”
“In fact, as we speak, I’m working on a totally new and revolutionary system based on a one-string guitar with three bridges. You may think that one string is limiting, but the secret is putting 359 frets on the fingerboard! That way one can have, with just one string, far more range that the ordinary six-string guitar, which, if you count the number of frets per string and then multiply it by six (the number of strings), only has 126 frets. I am not sure yet where to fit the three bridges, but it will come to me. This is it! This is clearly the natural progression and the future of guitars. Jokes apart, I thank God every day for having lavished me with the most wonderful gift of all—music, and I’m honored to be able to share it with the world.”
Photos courtesy Alex Gregory