Rafiq Bhatia’s music is full of unexpected, often unsettling turns. Inspired by Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Madlib and mentored by Vijay Iyer and Billy Hart, Bhatia seamlessly integrates dozens of different ideas in his expressive playing — whether piloting his eponymous compositions or playing in the genre-busting band Son Lux. His guitar isn't so much a fixed object as it is a vehicle plugged into different realms of sound, incorporating the electronic and acoustic and exaggerating the human qualities of the noises he conjures.
On Breaking English, Bhatia’s latest solo record, the guitarist sets out to challenge the existing musical vocabulary with a language of its own. Pedal Fuzz correspondent Patrick Wall chatted with Bhatia about the tools he uses to create that sonic vernacular. Be sure to catch Bhatia at Big Ears Festival where he’ll be playing the album, and playing during the 12-hour All Night Flight: Dreams of the Whirlwind.
Pedal Fuzz: You and I have something in common, by the way.
Rafiq Bhatia: Oh yeah?
PF: We both play Swarts.
RB: Oh, yeah! Well, those are the best.
PF: They really are. I have an STR, which I think Michael Swart’s now discontinued. The clean tones are so great, so complex and rich.
RB: Yeah, it is. It’s really soulful. One of the things that Michael recommended for me when I got mine [Bhatia plays two Swart Atomic Space Tone amps] was installing these small-bottle 6L6 tubes. So they’re sort of halfway between a 6V6 and a 6L6; the tone is more characteristically like a 6V6, but it has a higher headroom. So I’m able to get the cleaner tone louder, and it’s perfect for stage volume.
PF: What kind of tubes are they?
RB: I don’t remember the model number off the top of my head. But it’s a TAD something. There’s some number at the end of it. [laughs] But those tubes are what I have in my Atomic Space Tone. And I just got the Junior, which is like the Mini-Me version. And that one is incredible, too.
PF: If I had the scratch to get it or the need for the wattage, I’d get one of the Super Space Tone heads.
RB: Which one is that?
PF: The head and the cab version. The 30-watt version.
RB: Oh, yeah! I borrowed one of those for a record. It was great.
PF: He’s got that really neat one now where it’s two five-watt amps running into a stereo cab, too. That sounds neat.
RB: I haven’t had a chance to try that one either.
PF: Michael makes some really cool stuff, man.
RB: Yeah, and Kelly over there I’ve known for many years, and they took an interest in me before anyone should have. [laughs] They’ve just been super helpful and positive all the way through. Even this week, I was dealing with them; they sent me a speaker to try out. It’s really amazing to have people who are working so hard at developing that circuit and constantly tweaking it and who want to interact with and support the artists.
PF: Yeah, it’s a classic circuit, but there are so many things you can do with it.
RB: Yeah. I’ve gotten to try a good deal of what’s been coming out — well, not that much of it, I guess. A good deal for me. [laughs] It’s nice dealing with their stuff also because there’s not much in the way of EQ. I always resent where [amp makers] place the frequencies for EQ controls on amps. Just having that tone slider [the Atomic Space Tone has one master tone knob] is really nice for me. It’s like a tilt control — do you want it brighter or darker?
PF: Sometimes I like a three-band EQ, but sometimes I don’t. I find as I get older — and I’ve got, like, Strymon pedals now — I like a one-knob fuzz or something where it’s just, like, this is what this knob does, just turn it. Maybe it’s also just because I’m stupid.
RB: [laughs] No, I definitely like things to be simple, too.
PF: Obviously, the compositional and playing approaches between Son Lux and what you do under your own name are different. But do you approach things differently from a gear perspective as well?
RB: It’s actually remarkably consistent. What I’m doing now under my own name is also pretty different from some of those recordings that are out there. So the sound has shifted pretty dramatically, but I’ve kind of, out of necessity and lately out of concern for my own physical well-being, stripped everything down. I used to have a really large pedalboard, and I would take all this gear with me everywhere, and I was killing my body. I’m in physical therapy, and I have all these problems now. Living on a fourth-floor walkup in Brooklyn and playing gig in-town and out of town and having to go through all these different transportation systems and airports and all this other stuff, you get to a point where, you know — and I just kind of learned what makes a difference in a live setting versus a recording studio. And I’ll definitely make a sacrifice to make sure I can get kind of tone live if you actually can hear the difference. But if you can’t, then it’s sort of pointless.
PF: I’m the same way. I found that my pedalboard kept growing and growing, and I just play second guitar in rock ‘n’ roll bands, but I do a lot of textural stuff, so I was adding reverbs and delays on delays. And I finally just broke down and bought a Strymon TimeLine because I figured no one could really tell the difference between, like, an actual Memory Man and something I’ve programmed to sound like it.
RB: Yeah. I’m running a pedalboard router and MIDI switcher. I started doing that with Son Lux, and just to be able to get a drastically different sound without pushing six buttons on, like, a fraction of a beat from section to section is really important in that band and also in my music. I realized that having more control over the parameters of everything can get you a lot more tonal flexibility than going through a million things that you don’t even use because you don’t have the bandwidth to think about all of that. I have two Eventide H9s, which are MIDI-controllable, and that’s been really, really helpful for me to keep it super compact. So the whole pedalboard now can do stuff that I used to be able to do with a giant pedalboard, but it fits in a Pelican 1510 case, which is carry-on size. And it weighs very little and I can cart it all over the place and not feel like I’m wronging myself.
PF: There’s something really freeing about that, too, that narrowing down.
RB: I think one difference between now and when I built that giant pedalboard is that a lot of the components are newer things, and people have found ways to make things a lot smaller. Like, Disaster Area Designs is a local company that I’ve been working with; I’ve been using their pedalboard switcher.
PF: I use their cables!
RB: Yeah! I had an RJM Mastermind pedalboard controller, and that thing was huge. And it works really well, and it was really awesome because it sounds really great because the buffers are super transparent, and it was really nice to have that big screen to look at, and it’s really flexible. But it meant I had to carry around a giant thing to be able to use it, and I don’t have roadies all the time. I don’t have crew working on my solo gigs, so I’m carrying all of that stuff.
And there’s a company called Tapestry Audio that’s making those Bloomery volume pedals, and that allowed me to use the smaller case, too, because it’s barely taking up any space.
PF: Are they worth the money? I’ve been considering it.
RB: I’m still road-testing it. I’m still kind of getting to know it. But the sweep is great, it’s rugged in terms of the build, and, for me, it’s definitely worth it to have something that small because it makes a difference in terms of the size of the case and the whole situation. So for me, it’s a no-brainer. And there’s another aspect to the design that I think I’m going to be happy with, which is that in the fully down position, it’s actually tilted a little bit forward. And what that means is it’s more ergonomic; you’re swiveling across an axis rather than, you know, when my foot is in the heel position, it’s — for a while I was getting pains in my foot, because I was doing it every night and I’m really active on the volume pedal.
PF: And if you use something like a Pedaltrain, which already has that angle to it —
RB: Oh yeah, that’s even worse. The first thing I did was get the flat board, and then this is an improvement.
PF: See, I’m just sick of replacing Ernie Balls every year or so.
RB: Yeah, I have a stack of them. And it’s too bad, because they sound great.
PF: And I love that they’re passive.
RB: Yeah, the Bloomery that I’m using is passive. I’m happy with it so far.
PF: So how did you settle on the H9s? And are they compositional tools for you as well?
RB: Well, I use a lot of VSTs and stuff when I’m working because I use the studio as a compositional tool. And the way that the H9 interface is set up, it looks like VSTs. But most importantly, I can have control over which parameters I’m manipulating with an expression pedal, and in which direction. So I can manipulate as many parameters and set the ranges of the direction that they’re going in; it gives me a lot more control over the sound than any other similar pedals. At least at the time that I got them. And Eventide, the quality of the sound is really — to have studio-grade reverbs and delays and pitch modulation stuff has been a really nice thing for me. I saw that they put out a while ago that they put out an EQ/compressor algorithm, and they’re starting to do things that are not wet effects and modulation effects. I hope that they get a tremolo or an auto-pan or side-chain compression or some of these things that are not necessarily wet effects but that having that response to MIDI would be useful to me. I hope that they start incorporating that stuff, because that’s stuff that I use in the studio that I haven’t found a live solution for.
PF: I guess I’m a little surprised that the H9 doesn’t have something like sidechain compression on it, being as deep a unit as it is.
RB: Yeah, I don’t know whether the software would support that. But it does seem like there are different wiring configurations and setting changes for different kind of options. I don’t know; I’m not an engineer, I don’t know how that kind of stuff works. But if they were able to recognize audio coming in from input two or something like that and treat that as the source of the sidechain, then that would be really cool.
PF: I’m not an engineer, either. The limits of my knowledge are largely limited to “Stomp on that thing to make it sound different.”
RB: Yeah. The Empress compressor does sidechain, and I had it for the longest time. But right now, I’m using the Origin Audio Cali76.
PF: I see that one a lot.
RB: The small one that they just came out with, again, it’s a studio-grade compressor and it’s small enough that it fits on that little board that I have now.
PF: I don’t use a whole lot of compression. I have a Keeley four-knob that I like. Everything I’ve seen about that Cali76 makes it look really nice.
RB: It has a mix knob for your dry signal so you can compress in parallel. And that’s really useful. The behavior of it is really similar to [Universal Audio’s famed] 1176 [compressor]. If you know that unit, then you can quickly find the sound you’re after.
PF: What else is on your board right now?
Well, all that stuff, and just two other things: a ZVex Fat Fuzz Factory, with the sub switches, and that’s been the MVP for me for the last several years.
Yeah, that’s a really gnarly pedal.
RB: Just the range and the kind of chance element associated with it — I’ve just gotten to the point with it where I have an understanding of what the knobs do in their various positions in relation to each other.
PF: Even the regular Fuzz Factory, everything’s really dependent on how each knob is set.
RB: But then having that LFO in there and how that can interact with the gate, for me, is sort of the part of that pedal that I love the most. In certain situations, people are like, “Whoa, what was that tremolo you were using.” And it was [the Fat Fuzz Factory] running the signal into the gate that’s microtonally out of tune so it creates a pulsing wave that’s getting chopped off by the gate. I use that for a lot of different stuff.
And then the other pedal that’s on there right now is made by this company out of Greece called JAM Pedals, and it’s a two-channel, in-series overdrive; one side is a really transparent, sort of lightly compressed overdrive, and the other is sort of more similar to a Rat. And I can use one or both.
PF: I find that kind of stuff really helpful when I’m trying to keep things to a small pedalboard.
RB: Yeah, I had to do that to get down to that size. It’s interesting, because I’ve been doing a lot of recording sessions lately where I just plug the guitar into the amp, and I’m very happy to get to do that kind of thing, too. And I think it gets said a lot — perhaps to an annoying degree to those of us who are into gadgets — that, like, “It’s in your hands, man!” and “No amount of gadgets is going to fix it!” But the reality is that both of things are true, and having a deeper understanding of how to manipulate the tone of your instrument without anything is going to maximize what you can do with those things. But they feed into each other.
PF: Pedals are tools. They take whatever knowledge you have and magnify that.
RB: It’s just an extension of the instrument. It’s like a modular synthesizer or whatever. This is how I look at it: If I introduce this into the signal, then everything that’s running into it is like the CV and what it’s doing sort of coming out of taking that sound source and transforming it, but in such a way that what you’re sending into it can still control it. My favorite thing to do is to find out the quirky, weird things that pedals weren’t designed to do and exploit them. But do it in a way where you actually develop control over it and learn it like you would an instrument.
PF: It’s about finding those nooks and crannies, which, when I listen to your stuff, there’s that sense of searching for that.
RB: I mean, it started out this way when I was learning the instrument. I was inspired by a lot of instrumentalists who aren’t guitarists — saxophonists and piano players and drummers — and I was trying to find a way to emulate those instruments. And as I’ve grown more interested in sound itself as a basis for composing and improvising, I’ve taken to this approach of trying to reach for sounds that are entirely alien to the core characteristics of the instrument. And a lot of times I don’t get there, but what I find along the way is an interesting possibility.
PF: Another thing we have in common is that, guitar-wise, you seem to favor Telecasters.
RB: Yeah, it’s kind of a love-hate relationship. [laughs]
PF: It’s a Telecaster. Of course it is.
RB: Yeah, I imagine that part of my being in physical therapy is because I’m playing one of the heavy, flat-back ones, and it’s been killing my body. But I just love the way it sounds, and I haven’t been able to part with it. I’ve been dealing with it, but before I start touring next year, it’s going to be a different instrument, for sure.
There was this guy in New York who’s really just a fascinating sort of mysterious guru of the instrument who also has the best name: It’s Flip Scipio.
PF: OK, yeah, that is a cool name.
RB: For years, I’ve been hearing about Flip, and he’s very hard to get in touch with. Basically I had to wait until a friend of mine who works with him introduced me. And he’s the guy that — and he’d never tell you this, but he’s the guy that when Paul McCartney decided he wanted to play the Beatles bass again after not playing it for a long time, he bought two seats on the Concorde, which is that high-speed London-to-New York plane, one of himself and one for the club bass, and flew to New York to get Flip to restore it. So he knows what he’s doing. [laughs]
I’m so picky, and I do all of my setups and stuff myself. But every time I played a guitar that Flip had worked on, I was, like, always asking people who set it up, and it was consistently, “Oh yeah, that’s Flip Scipio.” So it was like, I need to meet this guy. Anyway, it finally happened, and he’s building me a new guitar. I don’t know when exactly it’s going to be ready for me, but I’m so excited about it. But it’s also going to address the ergonomic issues of the Telecaster.
PF: The ergonomics aside, what is it about the Telecaster that appeals to you?
RB: Honestly, one of the things is just its straight-up reliability. If something breaks on it, I can fix it with anything. I can use a dime or a pocketknife to deal with it. My particular Telecaster has a very even, full-bodied sound; it’s bold but not overly twangy. People always use the word “twang” to refer to the tone of a Telecaster, and this one solidly is not in that zone at all. And so I found one that had this stronger sound, more fundamental but still complex, super touch-responsive, the strings-through-the-body sustain aspect of it — it’s just this particular guitar. I don’t know that it’s Telecasters in general; most of them I don’t identify with. But that one in particular is an exception.
One of the things that Flip was talking about, and when he said this, I was like, “This is why I like you so much” — and there are many reasons why I like him a lot — but he said that the electric guitar, first and foremost, is an acoustic instrument in what it sounds like unplugged and how it responds and what it plays like. When you factor out the pickups, which are more uniform — like on a Stratocaster, for example, and I’ve played guitars that hardly sound like the same model that were both Stratocasters — I think it sort of depends on how you capture that sound and reproduce it. I think that’s very important, but it’s clearly the second step.
PF: I just figure that if a Telecaster’s good enough for Bill Frisell, it’s good enough for me.
RB: [laughs] That is a very good thing to figure, because he is actually just the best.
Patrick Wall is the former music editor of the Columbia, South Carolina, altweekly Free Times, and his writing has appeared in Blurt, Dusted, Creative Loafing, IndyWeek and more. He is carbon-based.