Few bands changed the direction of modern rock on both sides of the pond as Blur. Through a blend of unorthodox guitar riffs, captivating vocal lines, and melodies that are in one moment infused with foment in the next are spilling over with vitality, Blur charted a course forward for music that impacted audiences and inspired a generation.
This week on TPS, Dan & Mick hosted Graham Coxon, who single-handedly comprised the six-string section of the four-piece ensemble. Since Blur’s smash successes, Coxon has continued as a solo artist across mediums, most recently scoring the soundtrack of the Netflix series, “The End of the F***ing World” (their sensors, not mine!).
With a heritage in music second to none, Coxon had a lot to say about his early days in Blur, songwriting over the years, and his own growing relationship with gear. While the episode is rich in discussion on all these points and more, throughout the hour Dan & Mick uncovered some of the history behind Coxon’s most fundamental pedals, amps, and guitars.
A Chance Encounter with a Proco Rat
Many guitarists have what can be described as a signature sound, that magical combination that is instantly recognizable to the ear yet difficult to duplicate. What comes to mind for me when I think of Blur, is verses filled with clanging Tele sounds and choruses that sound like a minefield of fuzz stompboxes.
It is well known that part of this aggressive gain sound comes from Coxon’s use of a Proco Rat. So where did this relationship with the rodent begin? As Coxon remarked, “It was just kind of lying around…in the early days of Blur I asked [our studio manager], ‘Have you got any distortion pedals, you know that thing where you hit it and it gets louder and more horrible?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, here it is.’ And that was it.” While this meeting with the Rat was happenstance, its sound became foundational for Coxon. “That became my thing for ages. I just had the Rat pedal and it was what I turned on in the choruses. And that was it. There’s a lot of early Blur songs where you can hear that happen.”
Amps Don’t Like Beer (a.k.a., Coxon Meets His Marshall)
In the early days of playing, Coxon’s rig ran into a Roost, a combo tube amp built by a UK based company. However, the amp met an unfortunate end. As the amp regularly doubled as a pint holder during gigs, Coxon recalled bumping into it one evening on stage and watching as the beverage spilled into the grating on the top of the amp. While liquid cooling and amp is not necessarily a terrible idea, by this method it was and not surprisingly signaled the end for the Roost. “It was almost like watering the plants in your window box!”
This accident signaled the search for a new amp. The challenge was finding an amp that would respond with aggression, volume, and body the way Blur demanded, not least during the explosive overdriven choruses. Coxon recalled heading up to the Marshall factory under the sage guidance of his guitar tech. The hunt was for that sound. “I didn’t know what it was then, but now I realize that it is the sort of thing that when you play harder the valves just get going. That big, fat, warm, slightly overdriven sound—that’s what I was always after. When I played the Marshall’s, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’” For Coxon, the Marshall was basically “a giant distortion pedal in a nice box.”
The recipe of the Marshall and Rat was what cooked up the unmistakable and aggressive gain sounds of Blur. Now, the only remaining question is: what was driving the front-end of the signal chain?
Coxon En Route to a Telecaster
As Coxon’s career evolved, so did his guitar collection. Early on Coxon commented on a few axe acquisitions that, not unlike his meet up with the Rat, were almost accidental. “I had an Aria Pro Les Paul that I bought off of my sister’s friend and that felt a ton better than the Kay Les Paul I had before that.” Not unlike the Roost which met an unfortunate end, so did the Aria at a gig following a spin, smash, and broken headstock.
While there are many eras and artists that are associated with “classic” Tele tones, as Mick commented, there is an instant connection made between Coxon’s playing and the Tele sounds of his generation. After risking a chiropractic nightmare from gig after gig of scissor-kick jumps with a hefty Les Paul, Coxon began looking for something else for practical and tonal reasons. At the recommendation of a producer on the first Blur album, Coxon experimented with guitars that offered up a less “fat tone.” Once again, the gear on hand was the natural choice, and it just so happened the producer handed over a Fender Telecaster. Coxon recollected the feeling of picking it up: “I was just like, ‘Oooh, this is like a little hot rod! After that I got really into Teles.” By 2011, Fender partnered with Coxon to release a signature model.
As Mick reflected in the episode, many of us listen to our favorite bands asking, “‘How do they get that sound?’ And you spend your whole life concentrating on gear, meanwhile, Graham, you’re out there going ‘All I need to do is bring these songs forth and make sounds that are new, interesting, and innovative.’” In this way, Coxon’s accidental yet fortuitous meetings with gear are about letting songwriting lead the way. As Coxon reflected on the gear that came along for the journey he noted, “The Rat did it’s job, and the Marshall did it’s job…the gear could have been something else, and that would have been just as cool.”
Whether you’re on an endless quest for the gear that will recreate that sound that only exists in your head or are hoping for an unexpected encounter with an item that will spark your creative energy and capture something new, stop over to see us at Riff City for all your guitar, pedal, and amp needs.
TPS Rig Rundown:
Guitars: Fender Custom Shop ’63 Telecaster.
Pedals: Boss TU-3S Tuner, Xotic EP Booster, Origin Effects Cali76 Compact Deluxe, Hudson Broadcast, Suhr Koko Boost, Thorpy Gunshot, BAE Hot Fuzz Pedal, Boss PH-3 Phase Shifter, TC Electronic Alter Ego, Strymon Flint.