In Search Of Tone: Nick DiSalvo Of Elder

I was ecstatic when I learned Elder was going to play live only twenty minutes from where I live. I immediately bought tickets and my wife and I were all set to go. Well, I don’t have to explain what happened next. Elder did reschedule for November 2020 and hope was restored, only for it to be taken away yet again.

Nick DiSalvo of Elder - Photo by Lee Edwards
Nick DiSalvo of Elder – Photo by Lee Edwards

Although, I didn’t get to see Elder live, a new amazing opportunity happened when Nick DiSalvo agreed to talk to ME about songwriting and guitars. I once again was ecstatic and Nick talked to me for almost an hour about the gear he uses and how he creates some amazing music. He shares some incredible insights about Elder and makes me what to see them live even more than before!

Thanks for taking the time to discuss your perspective of songwriting and gear with me today!

I’m always happy to nerd out and talk about equipment that’s a refreshment from most of the interviews.

Well then let’s get right into equipment then. What kind of amps are you using and do you prefer tube or solid state amps?

I used to be kind of puritanical about that as I think a lot of people are, as far as, only tube amps are good and that solid state amps are just shit. I think that over the years my approach over every piece of gear has become a little bit milder and I appreciate both sides. Every piece of equipment has its purpose and has its day in the sun. For guitar, I definitely use tube amps, solid state amps are good but, I think it really depends on the sound you’re going for.

In a band like Elder where you know the guitar tone is heavily based on a classic British tone, having like an older British tube amplifier is key. Of course, for something like bass guitar, I often find solid state amps are sometimes even better for the job of cutting through a mix, over a tube amp. For everything I do as a guitarist I definitely use tube amps.

When dialing in a tone on your amp do you use a straight clean tone or use some of the amps distortion before the pedals?

It depends on the amp in my opinion. In the States I have a Sound City 120 that some dude had modified before I bought it so that its master volume gets really awesomely dirty. If you’re familiar with the record Dead Roots Stirring for example, there’s a fuzz tone and then there’s the amp tone. Nothing else, just one pedal or the amp at its dirtiest. So that’s an amp that I love to have maxed out and then use a volume pedal to attenuate the level of gain.

Over here, I’ve got some Hiwatt amps that are there super clean and they sound great, but they’re more pedal platforms. You’ll not be able to coax that much gain out of the app itself. For those, I use a booster to push the signal up to the point where the amp is getting a little saturated. I’m not a guy who’s got the level set in stone or the piece of tape to say exactly where everything has to be. Depending on where we’re playing, these settings are adjusted. For example, our practice room has really faulty electricity, I feel like every day we’re there I have to change the settings to get the sounds I want.

Nick DiSalvo of Elder - Guitar Pedal Board
Nick DiSalvo of Elder – Guitar FX Pedal Board

I’ve learned that speaker and cabinet choice can make important subtle differences to your sound. What cabinets are you using and do you tend to modify them?

It’s this maddening black hole that you can slip into. Every single piece of equipment, from the tubes that are in your amp and how they’re biased or the transistor down to the wood in the speaker cabinet, whether it’s open back or not all plays a part in the in the quest for tone. I guess, I’m not super picky when it comes to speakers.

When in doubt, I always gravitate towards this kind of classic British rock sound. I like Celestion speakers – Greenback, Vintage 30 – basically the standard speakers you find in most high output 4×12 cabinets and I guess part of that came from the fact that I didn’t always have much money to spend on equipment.

I would buy a used Marshall or Orange cabinet and get used to the sounds, which can also shape your sound. I’m a working musician and I’ve only got as much money as I’ve got and I try to invest as much in the sound as possible. I definitely do not go down the rabbit hole of swapping out speakers and doing that shit too often. If it’s a British style speaker that’s fine

To touch on that a little more, do you find that using what gear you have vs spending a lot on gear will actually help define your sound?

Yeah definitely, I mean I think that’s kind of the old troupe, you should concentrate more on your playing than on the equipment and there’s truth to that. I mean there’s truth on both sides that obviously a shitty piece of equipment, you can learn to play and cook up some great sounds out of it, if you’re a great player, but you’re going to run up against its limitations at a certain point.

On the other hand, people with too much money and too much time on their hands probably get caught up in the search for the tone and forget about actually just the enjoyment of playing. I remember years ago, we were playing with this band Danava, in Hamburg Germany. This was the first time we met them they were really cool dudes. The guitarist is just like a wild shredder and he was talking about how he only brings one guitar on tour. It was like an Epiphone SG or something. You know like a piece of shit guitar and you would have never known because the guy was such a great guitarist with great stage energy. He knew how to do what he needed to do with what he had.

I think back on that every so often as one of the many examples of how you don’t need to spend tons of money to become a great guitar player and get great sounds.

Elder - Amp Rig

Do you have any custom pedals made and what are you currently using on your pedal board?

I’ve had a couple pedals that were made, or rather one pedal that was made for me and I’d go back and forth with another dude about doing something special that hasn’t quite panned out yet. I’m definitely a huge fan of pedals and I am always buying and selling them. Also, I’m always looking around for new pedals when I really shouldn’t be.

My pedal board is always changing, for example, Mike [Risberg – guitar] and I did like a rig rundown last year where we talked in depth about what was on our pedal boards. Since then it’s already changed.  I’ve actually been working on a new project recently to kind of overhaul my board and make the centrepiece of it a MIDI controller. The more complex the band has become, the more I realized the importance of being able to control everything from a central brain on the board and stop the tap dancing.

At the beginning of my chain is of course, a tuner and then a volume pedal. After that I have a wah pedal which goes into a Benson preamp pedal. I use the Benson preamp for kind of a base drive tone, a nice crunch tone. I also have a Blackarts Toneworks Pharaoh as my main fuzz pedal. I have a Stomp Under Foot Rams Head, which is a BigMuff style pedal. A nice builder from Poland called Sitek just sent me an octave fuzz (Pandora Fuzz) which I recently put on my board.

I’m a big fan of delay and somehow that’s always the effect I’m most into. I’ve a bunch of different delay pedals. I have a Meris Polymoon that I’m using frequently on newer albums. I have an Empress Echosystem that’s Empress’s answer to the Strymon timeline pedal. It’s basically a box of a bunch of different algorithms. I also have a Moog Phaser.

Going back to the MIDI controller, I’m using a Morningstar MCB. Morningstar is a company from Singapore that makes these MIDI controllers that can be combined with a loop switcher and they’re super powerful. You can use them to control synthesizers and to control all the parameters on your pedal board. Since we’ve got so much going on, it can be a really dense mix, that’s where the idea came to set a bunch of presets allowing you to jump to the exact sound on all of your pedals at the exact moment you want to without all the tap dancing.

This is totally a quarantine project as well [laughs]. Sometimes I sit back and wish I had two pedals and uncomplicate things, but that’s the fun of always trying new gear. Plus, there are so many cool builders these days, it’s almost like craft breweries. It’s so cool to see what all these great minds are coming up with.

Lastly, we’ve come to guitars. What guitars are in your arsenal and do you have a pickup preference?

On all of the Elder records, I have solely used humbucker pickups. I have a Gibson SG ’61 reissue that I’ve played for the better part of the band’s existence. It has the standard 57 classic pickups which I think are really nice. I’m not a Gibson fanboy [laughs] but, they sound good. I’ve got another semi hollow body Gibson ES 335 that has the same pickups and I really love to play that guitar. I have a Dunable guitar,  a builder out of Los Angeles which come loaded with Lollar Imperial humbuckers, which also sound fabulous.

I have another guitar that is kind of a project. It’s an old Guild, I forget the model number, one of these funny 80s looking metal body guitars. I put in humbucker sized single coil P90s but I think something is fucked up because they don’t really sound quite right. I like the single coil sound but I haven’t had a chance to try it out much.

Our other guitarist Mike, has a Telecaster and I think that that sounds great. I love the chime and the way it cuts through a mix too. I bought my SG because it played nice and it fit the bill. It’s a cool looking rock guitar. I never liked the look of a Stratocaster or Telecaster, so back when I was a more ignorant player, it was more about the image that shaped my decision and I just stuck with the SG I guess.

Elder ‘Omens’

I love the variety each Elder album has. For example, the Self-Titled album is very heavy, The Gold & Silver Sessions is instrumental while Omens focuses a lot of vocals. Do you set out to make a whole new sounding album from the beginning?

Yes, we want every record to sound different, that’s kind of the fun in writing. We are pushing fifteen years now and will be recording our sixth full LP in the spring, not to mention the EPs and all that crap. It’s kind of a long time to follow a band. I guess it gets a little exhausting if every record is produced the exact same with all the exact same sounds, let alone the songwriting and the tone of it. Experimentation is half the fun and also when you go to studios you might bring your equipment with you thinking that you know exactly how you’re going to sound, but then you see an old Vox AC30 sitting in the corner and I want to try it out. I want to try this amplifier, or that guitar, it’s the fun of recording.

When playing live I read you guys don’t often like to play the same songs twice allowing room for. When writing do you intend for this or do you experiment with songs in a live setting?

It’s been so long since we’ve played live at this point that I kind of forgot [laughs]. There are certain songs we play live where every solo, it becomes more of a lead because this is just the one that felt right and I play it the same as we recorded the song. But, then there are other songs, like Gemini, where the latter half is this barn burner run and it’s just a stupid ‘show off as much as you can’ kinda thing and that’s always an improvised part.

Also, depending on the mood on stage, depending on how many beers I’ve had, or not had, can change how we approach the songs for the set. It’s always more fun to mess around, I think if you’re feeling good and you’re feel like going for it, something better is going to happen compared to what I wrote on the record. I’m not the best guitarist in the world so sometimes that doesn’t always pan out either.


Did you, or do you, study music theory or do you play by ear and feel?

I don’t know anything about music theory and I’ve never studied it. I assume there are some rudimentary concepts that you can just work out for yourself overtime, but I’m not a trained musician in that sense of the word.

With only a finite amount of notes, how do you create original music without repeating yourself or other?

I think part of our answer for that has been to look to our other instruments. We’re not moving away from being a guitar based band because that’s what we are. However, at a certain point I felt my own creative limitations on a guitar and started reaching for the keyboard.

I wouldn’t even call myself a keyboard player, I’m terrible at it. That’s the fun of it because you can work your way around an instrument that you don’t know so well. By doing so, you stumble across progressions and chords that you wouldn’t necessarily think of on a guitar because that becomes muscle memory at a certain point. You pick it up and you play some chord shapes, or you play a riff you already know, so that’s been one way that I can still find some new ideas.

There are days when I think the wellspring is dried up and then the next day I wake up and I’ve got a ton of new ideas. I don’t really know how it happens but it’s definitely not by looking at music theory. It’s more just sitting around and noodling, or even turning on a pedal and letting that inspire you somehow. I like taking a walk in the woods to just clear your mind and something will come from that.

When I was 16 or 17, I was working one of my first jobs at a pharmacy. It was basically a CVS type of store and I used to vacuum at the end of the night. I remember I would always somehow think of my best riffs when I was fucking vacuuming the floor this pharmacy. I don’t know why that still seems relevant, but there’s something about hearing the hum of this vacuum motor going in the background. It was creating some ideas in my brain. I still feel like that happens sometimes. If I go for a walk around and listen to just the noises of the city, or whatever is going on, I hear something musical in that you know. I swear I’m not drunk [laughs].

Nick DiSalvo of Elder - Photo by Lee Edwards
Nick DiSalvo of Elder – Photo by Lee Edwards

When writing songs do you write the music or lyrics first?

Usually, the music comes first and when the song is nearing completion, the vocal melodies are thought of. The lyrics aren’t usually written until later, or sometimes parallel to the song. That is something we’ve been working on the most by building in more thought for the vocals, giving them space and a home. It’s really easy to just write an entire song and then forget about it somehow, you can definitely hear that on some of our records. Omens is the most vocal heavy record we’ve done so far. It’s our first attempt to give them more of a place. That’s the first record where we wrote musical parts specifically for vocals.

I have a lot of off days as a guitar player and get discouraged enough to put the guitar down for days, even weeks. What do you do on off days to get inspired to play again?

That’s a good question. If we’re rehearsing, or at a show and it just doesn’t go well, or you’re just not feeling it or your fingers are stiff, or just something’s not working. The best thing is to maybe walk away and take a break. I guess if you’re on tour you can’t really walk away. Maybe the best thing to do is try and pinpoint the reason for what’s tripping you up and work through it somehow.

There are good days and bad days, I sometimes feel I’ll wake up one day and I’ll play great or my brain will be firing on all cylinders. I’ll speak perfect German and my thoughts are lucid. On the other hand, I’ll wake up the next day and I’m a complete idiot. Just sleep more, drink more water I guess. I don’t fight it. If there’s a bad day just throw in the towel and start again tomorrow.

Do you have any practice routines or warm-ups that you do in a daily basis?

Right now, I don’t play guitar every day. Some days I will play for hours on end. When we are on tour, I’ll play every day and run through some basic warm-ups, especially before shows. Right now, when we’re in a songwriting stage I’m just working with the computer, or rearranging previous ideas. I might also be working solely on the keyboard for a few days. My strengths as a musician are really in the songwriting category, not so much in any one instrument. I don’t really spend hours a day polishing my chops on guitar, even though I could benefit from that. For now, I just focus on songwriting.

Label: Stickman Records | Armageddon Shop
Band Links: Official | Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram

Interviewed by: Josh Schneider