When keyboardist Jimmy Waldo and bassist Gary Shea formed Alcatrazz with ex-Rainbow singer Graham Bonnet in 1983, they had just spent five years recording and touring with New England. Bonnet had just left the Michael Schenker Group (MSG). Together, their goal was to combine the guitar-driven rock Bonnet had done with MSG on the Assault Attackalbum [1982, Chrysalis], with New England’s prog, overdriven Hammond B3 organ, and Mellotron sounds. “We wanted a European/classical heavy rock sound,” remembers Shea. They auditioned guitarists Laurence Juber from Wings and a 19-year-old Swedish guitar phenom named Yngwie Malmsteen, who Shea says was ultimately a better fit for the sound they were after, as evidenced on their debut album, No Parole From Rock ’n’ Roll [1983, Rocshire]. “We were successful in achieving the combination we were looking for,” he concludes. “We wanted to have a blend of styles with a sense of adventure.”
Adventurous indeed. In addition to Malmsteen’s guitar virtuosityand Bonnet’s clever, cerebral lyrics and left-of-center melodies, Alcatrazz had extremely well-crafted, nuanced songs — more of a thinking man’s hard rock and heavy metal band. Check out the gorgeous, unconventional chord changes in “Hiroshima Mon Amour” off the debut, or the rhythmic pacing of “God Bless Video” from the second album, Disturbing the Peace [1985, Capitol], for material that transcends typical ’80s rock fare. “We were not into free-for-alls, musically, with the bass vs. the guitars,” explains Shea. “There wouldn’t have been any cool guitar solos if the bass and drums weren’t spot on, driving the train. We were very song-oriented.” Alcatrazz replaced Malmsteen with Steve Vai (ex-Frank Zappa at the time) for Disturbing the Peace. “I thought it was going to dazzle people, but it never got promoted properly,” he recalls, citing legal shenanigans with an ex-manager. “Disturbing the Peace was an attempt to go beyond our past and make good music, rather than [creating] the same sounds over and over.” Alcatrazz released a third record, Dangerous Games [1986, Capitol], with Danny Johnson (ex-Derringer) on guitar, but with little label support, the band soon dissolved.
Fortunately, for headbangers worldwide, we live in an age of nostalgia when it comes to ’80s rock and heavy metal — and so, Shea recently got back together with Waldo and Bonnet for a series of shows in Japan under the Alcatrazz moniker. The result is the live Alcatrazz CD/DVD combo Parole Denied – Tokyo 2017, which also includes Graham Bonnet Band members Conrado Pesinato (who has since left) on guitar and drummer Mark Benquechea. [Ed. note: Graham Bonnet Band recently adopted the Alcatrazz name, with Shea’s blessing.] The performances are superb, and the record demonstrates that the songs have clearly eclipsed the era in which they were written. Shea’s muscular bass is front and center in the mix, doing what he does best: “Driving the train,” as he aptly put it. There are also bonus tracks, outtakes, and demos from earlier recordings. “The song ’Emotion’ would have been on our third album if Steve had stayed; I love that track, even in its demo form,” admits Shea, with a hint of bittersweet tone, perhaps reflecting on what could have or maybe even should have been.
Shea is about to unveil a new band, the Rock Island Orchestra (RIO), that includes Waldo on keys, D. Kendall Jones on guitar, and Tommy Fields on lead vocals. Their forthcoming debut CD is called Revolution [Cherry Red]. We talked with the 68-year-old at his home on Florida’s Amelia Island, just outside of Jacksonville, where he was happy to discuss his contributions to the Alcatrazz legacy, as well as his thoughts on 8- and 10-string basses, product development, the RIO, and more.
You might be the only bassist on the planet to both audition and hire guitar giants Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai. How were the songs crafted to incorporate their playing styles?
Playing with Yngwie was a wonderful experience in that I had no classical training. It gave me the chance to play Bach licks within a rock framework. We played and practiced non-stop, and the music came together easily. There was a great blend in the writing between Graham, Jimmy, and Yngwie.
What about with Vai?
When Steve came along, with his Frank Zappa background and musical twists and turns, things went up another notch. When he auditioned for us, I felt a wonderful sense of rhythm that was different from before. With Eddie Kramer producing [Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Jimi Hendrix], we were free to explore some great grooves. We really felt we had hit our stride in our musical quest. We experimented with different emotional moods, such as “Will You Be Home Tonight” — I played a steady pattern throughout, emulating a heartbeat. In “Breaking the Heart of the City,” I used my Hamer Cruise 8-string and laid down a foundation that allowed us to really play with the dynamics [of the song].
You played a significant amount of 8- and 10-string bass. Is there anything different, in terms of technique, that you need to consider when playing those instruments?
They require additional left-hand strength. You’re pressing down a bass string anda guitar string simultaneously, so keeping your finger at a 90-degree angle to the fingerboard is the optimum technique.
There are two ways of cutting the nut and bridge saddles, correct?
You can elect to have the bass string be the first string struck, or the reverse, with the guitar string sounded first. On my 10-string, I had the guitar string below the bass string, as I played it with my fingers. My 8-string was set up the opposite, hitting the small string first, because I played it with a pick. It’s a brasher sound than a 4-string, so palm-muting and finger-muting are very important to keep the sound under control.
Tell me about your use of thumb picks.
I play with both my fingers and picks. I prefer my fingers with long nails to keep my tone crisp and to stay out of the mud. Live, I use Dunlop Herco thumb picks so that I can cross over easily between both styles. When I want to really dig in, I use the pick. I like D’Addario Duralin .85mm flat picks, too, which are the loudest picks I’ve found. I’ve been combining the two, gluing the D’Addario pick onto the thumb pick.
That seems innovative. Weren’t you consulted for a lot of product development and R&D back in the ’80s?
Yeah — when New England played Chicago in 1979, I got to meet Paul Hamer and Joel Danzig. Knowing their work with Tom Petersson [Cheap Trick], we began to talk basses and came up with an Explorer-style 10-string bass with a high B string. The idea was to be able to play more chords with the extra string or tune it to C and play in 5ths.
What other projects have you been involved in as a consultant?
I had met Grover Jackson through Vinnie Vincent and helped him tweak his piezo pickups, which were just being introduced at the time. [Ed. note: Shea and Vincent were in the short-lived Warrior, prior to the latter joining Kiss.] And more recently, Paul Kramer of Korg got me into writing bass presets for the Pandora PX3, PX4 and AX3000 guitar multi-processors. It was great fun writing some of the factory preset sounds and naming them. The names are sort of self-explanatory—Canyon, Octowah, Kleen, Tank, Snarl, Kane, Bear and Thumper.
I always felt like you should be mentioned in the Aria conversation, along with Cliff Burton.
Me too! [Laughs.] Yngwie introduced me to the Aria company when Alcatrazz played Japan. I used their Matsumoko-made SB Elite Pro II basses, but unlike Cliff’s single-pickup bass, mine had dual pickups and were customized with EMG pickups and BadAss bridges. I still play them.
Tell me about the Rock Island Orchestra. Who’s in the band besides you and Jimmy?
D. Kendall Jones studied arranging at the Berklee College of Music and orchestration/composition at UCLA. He teamed up with Jimmy for a series of CDs under the name Waterbone, the result of their travels through the Himalayas and Egypt recording traditional folk music and blending it with electronica and western classical music. Tommy Fields is also a film composer and recently received the prestigious 2016 Gold Promax BDA Award for his work with Disney and Target. He’s written the theme songs for the ABC reality shows Save My Lifeand Boston EMS. He also had a brief stint singing and writing with Duff McKagan and Slash [both Guns N’ Roses] in the band that later became Velvet Revolver.
What about the name and the music?
The name is a nod to Alcatrazz, and the music is a 21st-century blend of hard rock and orchestrated music that takes the listener from the surreal to the sublime.
Any advice for our readers?
A very important fact to consider is that no matter how good you are, most gigs come from being in the right place at the right time. Travel around and don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone — you can always go back home. I felt the need, musically, to move to London at age 21 not knowing anyone. I don’t regret it. Be positive — all things are possible.
Parole Denied – Tokyo 2017, Alcatrazz (2017, Frontiers Music Srl)
Bass Dudacus Tiberius
Rig Ampeg SVT-CL & SVT-810E
Strings DR Strings Hi-Beams (.045–.100)
Picks Dunlop Herco HE113 Thumbpicks (heavy), D’Addario Duralin .85mm
Effects DigiTech The Drop Polyphonic Drop Tune Pedal
Accessories MyStarSound (guitar cords)
To keep up with Gary’s activities, visit him at: http://www.garyshea.net/