JAN AKKERMAN, lead guitarist of Focus, represents the new breed of European guitarists so long invisible under the veil of the English players. Where the islander tends to base his playing more on the American blues scene and his own contemporaries (legends such as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page), the continental devotee has influences as far afield as J. S. Bach and Django Reinhardt. Because the European musician tends to be a bit more eclectic in his approach to the instrument, it has taken this country longer to accept him within the ranks of the straight Brit-ish and American rock guitarists. Jan Akkerman’s technique and tone quality combine the subtlety and demand of the classical guitar (on which he is highly accomplished) with the roar and tenacity of the electric instrument (he places well each year in English instrumental polls and was fourth in GP’s 1974 poll). Born 27 years ago in the Netherlands, he is devoted constantly to the guitar, and even as this interlude took place Jan cradled a newly-purchased Martin acoustic.
One gets the impression that you started guitar at a very early age.
I did. I got a little piano when I was 2, but you couldn’t play anything on it because the black keys were out, so it was all tonal. It was just a few years later that I saw this little guitar in a shop window by my home, and on Christmas day I had it. It cost ten bucks, and since that time I’ve played day-in day-out, year-in year-out. My father said I should know more about the guitar, so he arranged it so that I got a scholarship from the state, and I had to do an exam for this guy. I did that for five years, and then I was getting questioned on the theoretical side so they said, “Out!” But I can read very well now. I also read tablature, the 15th and 16th Century notation of the music for the lute.
Do you remember when you received your first electric guitar?
When I was about 5 or 6. It was an Egmond, and it was a strange ax. It was made out of triplex and looked just like a piece of firewood. I’d just like to say here that I can’t play guitar, but I make people crazy with my maneuvers (laughs). My first amp was a radio, of course – an old messed up radio with high blood pressure which had the title “amp” and managers behind stage, keeping the wires in with these old wooden matches.
What was your first real work with a band?
I guess it was the Friendship Sextet. These guys were 21, 23, and I was 10. But this was just on the weekends because these guys kept asking my parents, “Hey, hey, hey, he should play with us.” But my parents said, “No, this boy isn’t going to go anywhere.” So I started playing in nightclubs and in the first rock shows in Holland about sixteen years ago. We were already playing rhythm and blues, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, stuff like that. I started listening to the radio about this time for as much as I could, because I didn’t have a record player. I just never got interested in the piano, it wasn’t in my character. I’m kind of an ego-tripper, I guess.
Is guitar an ego thing for you?
No, it’s my only secur-ity. I mean the only secur-ity is in myself of course, but the guitar is the medium for it – this piece of wood with six ropes on it.
When did the band Brainbox happen?
That was about ‘68 and was a good deal after the sextet. I had a bad name n Holland (Amsterdam) because I’d run from group to group, went to nightclubs without my parents knowing it and sat in with the bands. Kind of a “guitarophile.” Brainbox was kind of hard rock, something like Bad Company, though the sound Bad Company gets is much better than what we got. I was using a Gretch White Falcon and a Cordovox Leslie and a self-made amp. I didn’t know how to make one, I just did it. It had two speakers, and I had the Leslie miked up through two Elco speakers; they were Italian speakers something like JBL has, with the big ducts for the high tones. I miked that up stereo. You have that wheel turning around in the Cordovox, one on the bottom, one in the middle, and one on top so actually it is triophonic. I was really into that, having the whole stage with cabinets like that and the sound turning all around like a rainbow.
Would you like to pursue that sound more now?
Yes, I’m still developing. Leslies are my thing. I forgot about the Leslie sound when I left the Brainbox because I thought it wasn’t original, and when I left they got two other guys who used them so I just said forget it. I’ve just started using them again, and they’re so lovely, so beautiful; that sound, that rotating sound, you can’t get it with no phaser, with nothing. It’s so alive, it just spreads it around.
What was the guitar scene like in Amsterdam?
Oh, jazz, jazz. We never listened to English guitar players except maybe the Shadows and Clapton. I was into jazz and rock and roll. When I heard somebody like Beck or Clapton playing they just dated what I was already doing. I was doing it before them, as simple as that. The sound of Clapton was always beautiful, brilliant, but I was listening to Django Reinhardt, Tal Farlow, Bola Sete, Julian Bream, mostly jazz guitar players though; Larry Coryell I really liked.
Do you think your playing is more jazz-influenced now?
No, I’ve stayed a rock player, but with another choice of notes – European maybe, whatever European means. I do play different from all guitar players I’ve heard; of course, one person always plays different from another. I’m different rhythmically, technically, and harmonically, also mentally. I might say so, yeah, I’m a technical player from what I hear around me, but just technique is not my trip. It’s musical technique. Like playing beautiful things, but also technically perfect. I’m not talking about speed because I have that also very much, but I’m talking about tone, about getting the tone out with the right amount of brilliance, the right attack of the pick, the right vibrato.
You’ve developed certain picking techniques then?
Yes, sometimes I attack that guitar, and sometimes I play with my thumb and half the pick.
What type of guitar are you using now?
It’s an old Les Paul, a very special one. I’ve had everything taken off, and I’ve had maple overlaid on the body. I think it’s a ’70 or a ’71 – it’s not that old. It doesn’t have to be necessarily old for a good guitar. I think the new Gibsons are as good as the old ones, only ó just as with the old ones – you have to do your own thing with it. You got to have it shaved, you have to have it this and that. No new guitar is perfect, never, ever. I’ve got thirty guitars you see, old Gibsons, new Gibsons, Gretsches, and I love them all. I put in new frets because the frets were not right; I like them half-medium thick but right up there, edgy, so they’re square against the fretboard, not round. I don’t like the frets when they’re rounded because it’s too difficult to play the way I play. I like to have the frets straight. The neck has been flattened; also the action, because it was too round. With these square frets a bit high up, and the neck flattened it gives a better tone, it’s more in pitch, and if you use good frets with it, it sinks more and plays easier. I’ve put on those German tuning pegs, Schaller, but I like Grovers a lot. Everything which is built nowadays in that area is good, and it’ll get better. I’ve also had the pickups rewired so they get more treble, I use more treble than maybe any other guitar player I know.
Have you ever tried using a Fender if you like that treble sound?
Sometimes I did, but it’s not my guitar. Maybe I’d like a combination between one big humbucker pickup and one Strat to get that brilliance. But I still want to get that belly sound: “Oomph,” that fat sound with the brilliance on top; real screaming sound that really goes through your bones. I’ve not found a guitar yet that can do that, but the one I’ve got now is on the way. I’ve taken all the stuff off that Les Paul, all the pots that were all over, put a maple deck on it, then the humbuckers were put back on, the old tone and volume knobs, and the universal switch. I put a new bridge on without the Tune-O-Matic; I like that better. Strings should be pulled and not drawn down to the body, because it takes away the sustain. I use Ernie Ball, they’re the best: .008, .011, .014, .022, .030, and .038. It’s really thin, but I like it like that because you have to play very clean on it, very secure like on a violin. You have to have the perfect touch. These thick strings do have an attack, but I like to have them smooth and still have that punch.
Don’t the strings tend to give too much?
No, because I never vibrate by pulling up and down on a string but by sliding back and forth within the fret. And with a thinner string it’s much more beautiful; it’s more spacey. I use both, let’s be straight; but once I get to the point of actually playing a tune, I play it the sliding way. Every song uses a different approach. I’ve never really thought about it, it just came up now. I use a Herco pick, the brown ones, medium gauge. I tend to change strings about once a week.
Why did you design your own guitar for Framus?
As a rock guitarist I always liked to play a big hollowbody guitar, but couldn’t, just because of the feedback. But on the Framus, since the neck and bar run through the entire length of the guitar, it doesn’t feed back. The shape I kept between the Les Paul model and hollowbody guitar. The neck is wider at the top so bending strings in lower positions is easier. The head is shaped concisely, so the strings don’t touch each other, and they can ring without interference. They’re Ernie Ball, too: .008,.0ll,etc.
You use a unique setup for amplification.
I’m developing now a new kind of approach in using amps. I’m using the Crowns as slave amps and a pre-amp ó totally studio equipment. I also use six Leslies and two big Fender solid-state amps; the old transistor things. They don’t build them anymore. Now I’m using JBL speakers and Fender cabinets. The Crowns are really powerful. I use two, stereo, so that’s four times 600 watts, and I’ve put very high-powered speakers in the Leslies: JBL’s. They’re just regular Leslies, but I’ve done something to the motor: I’ve switched systems. I’ve taken the amps out and driven them directly into the speakers and drivers ó better sound quality ó and I’m using the JBL’s in the Fender cabinets. I have four ten-inch JBL’s in each cabinet. I like having that much power, always.
Don’t you ever get carried away with all that wattage?
That’s what I want exactly.
Where do you put the tone controls?
It’s hard to explain. I use also a little pre-amp to boost the trebel up, a Colorsound. It’s not such a good thing, but still for me it’s the only thing to use. Right now I’m working on another thing to get that treble out. I’ve got a stereo phaser so that it slightly phases from left to right especially with these Crowns.
Do you use any pedals for other effects?
No, just one for the speeds on the Leslies to get more tremolo and more chorale.
What type of equipment do you use in the studio?
Half of what I use on stage. You know, this time I’m in love with that amp, and the next time I’m in love with another amp
for that album – I’m changing constantly.
Do you feel you’re able to achieve all you want to through Focus?
Yes I do. Focus is for me one of the few groups who know how to catalyze love for music and voice. We get into the theatrics strictly through the music, like with ‘Hocus Pocus’. I wouldn’t take my guitar off.or anything like that, but for the people that do, it’s OK. Everybody has to make his own way up to heaven, I guess. I don’t know what that has to do with guitar playing; I don’t feel for that. Geographically the guitar is a very difficult instrument. A piano is all before you. You see it laid there and there, black and white. On guitar you have these strange scales, and you have this one hand to make bass and melody and accompany, and that’s really difficult. I think the guitar is geographically more difficult than the piano, especially when you read music. Just a few musicians know how to read well and to grab that chord and that chord.
© Steven Rosen, Guitar Player, May 1975