Tone Talk with Kelly Richey

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Throughout my career, I’ve recorded and released a total of 16 CDs, played over 4,000 shows and driven 1,000,000 miles. I’ve taught guitar lessons one-on-one in person and via Skype to students all over the world. After fronting my Power Trio, The Kelly Richey Band, for over 25 years, I have a new project called The Spear Shakers, an all-female power duo, featuring myself on guitar and vocals and Sherri McGee on drums.

Photo by Jeff Shiflett

Sherri and I first met in the late ’80s, she was playing with Velvet Elvis, an indie-rock, power-pop band on Enigma Records, and I was playing with Stealing Horses, an “acid-bluegrass,” indie-folk-rock band, on Arista Records. Both groups were originally based out of my hometown, Lexington, KY, but Sherri’s journey led her to L.A., and my path landed me in Nashville. Our paths crossed throughout the years, but we never had an opportunity to work officially together until this past year, while working on a side project, with a band called the Binders, for a special NYE show in Lexington.

I’m a huge fan of the White Stripes and the Black Keys, and I always wanted to put together a power-duo but finding the right drummer didn’t materialize until I reconnected with Sherri. Our styles were an instant fit, and our personalities an equal match — we were rock ‘n’ roll soul sisters! I asked Sherri if she would be interested in exploring possibilities and she was as excited by the prospect as I was, so I went to work booking a series of dates that would allow us to find our sound and put together our show.

We went into the studio the last week of November and recorded three songs and shot footage for three new music videos. I’m excited to announce that we just released the first of the three music videos on Christmas day, and I’m thrilled by how this project has come together!

Playing as a Spear Shaker has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for songwriting, live performance, sound creation, and overall creativity. Sherri is a dream to work with; she makes me laugh, and I know that no matter where our extended jams lead during a live performance, she’s right there with me, and she’s got my back. I’m free to explore, stretch out, develop new guitar sounds, and to play as a power duo, is opening the door for me to play outside the box in new and exciting ways I’ve never had the opportunity to explore before!  I’m inspired, I’m having fun, and it shows!

What is your definition of tone and how has it changed over the years?

I am a major gear head and like most guitar players, I’ve been in search for the perfect guitar tone my entire career.  The single most important lesson I’ve ever learned when it comes to tone is that “tone” starts in my hands. When I’m teaching, I encourage my students to practice their guitar unplugged at least 50% of the time, to pay attention to how it “feels,” and to see what it takes to make a note sustain without amplification or overdrive.  Once you develop a sense of how your guitar resonates in your hands, you’re ready to plug into your amp and dial in your tone, reverb, and overdrive.

I like to go through this process periodically to keep myself honest because it’s easy to lose
perspective and place too much focus on gear and not enough attention on what I’m pouring into my gear.

Another thing that helps keep me in touch with “tone” is to practice on an acoustic guitar!  I keep an acoustic sitting out 24/7 and use that as my primary source of daily practice.  The acoustic guitar keeps my hands strong, my callouses tough, and my vibrato dialed in. The secret to great tone is in the tips of our fingers!

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?

I have many guitars, but my main guitar is a ’65 Fender Stratocaster with Seymour Duncan
Classic Stack pickups.

I run my guitar rig in stereo, and I always play through tube amps. For live shows, I use a pair of Fender Deluxe Reverb Amps or a pair of Fender Princeton Reverb amps, depending on volume requirements.


– JHS Prestige Buffer / Booster Pedal
– Fulltone Deluxe Wah
– Strymon OB.1 – Compressor & Clean Boost
– Strymon Sunset – Dual Overdrive
– Boss FV-30L Foot Volume Pedal
– Eventide H9 – My stereo signal starts here and I have this H9 set up for one Octave Below.
– T.C. Electronics Triple Flashback Delay – You can use all three delays at once and you can run them in series or parallel.
– Eventide H9 – I toggle between Shimmer, Black Hole and Flanger.
– Pigtronix Infinity Looper
– (2) Fender Deluxe Reverb Amps – 65 Reissue
– (2) Princeton Reverb Amps – 65 Reissue and an original 1967 amp
– CNB PDC-410G MSBK Black Locking Aluminum Pedal Case

Overdrive, Tone, Sustain:
Is it possible to have a great tone at a reasonable volume…?  Yes! I’ve always played through tube amps, and tube amps sound best when you turn them up loud enough for them to sing! That’s fine in theory, but it doesn’t translate well when you’re the only thing anyone can hear, and you’re playing in a band! In order to win my battle with volume and not lose my tone, I discovered that I had to push the front end hard enough to get the sustain I needed without being too loud; there’s a delicate balance, and after a very long and twisted journey, my guitar tech, Duane Adams and I got a setup that has served me well for almost two decades. The solution I discovered was to run two Ibanez Tube Screamers in series and have them both on at the same time.

Settings:  I had both TS’s set at unity volume, and the tones were set to 10 o’clock. I had the gain on TS 1 set at 12 o’clock, and the gain of TS 2 set at 3 o’clock.

Note: To cut down on noise, I used a BOSS NS-2 Noise Suppressor with an effects loop for the two Tube Screamers. This worked brilliantly, but it took up a lot of space on my pedal board.

Fast forward 20 years… After almost 20 years with my beloved Tube Screamers, I heard the
Strymon Sunset, and wow, I fell in love! The tone and versatility of this unit is massive, and the fidelity has allowed me to get rid of the BOSS NS-2, there’s still some hiss, but sonically it’s solid.

The Sunset has some very cool features; there are two separate overdrives built into the unit, and each overdrive has three different circuits you can select from. You can route overdrive A into overdrive B, or you can route overdrive B into overdrive A. Once you have your sound dialed in, with the addition of the single footswitch, you can save your sound and turn it on and off via the footswitch, which ultimately gives you two of these pedals rolled into one!  It’s a fantastic sounding pedal, and the flexibility is unreal!

Check out my Kelly Richey Stereo Live Guitar Rig Complete 2014:

I only recently started using compression in my electric setup, and I started doing so after I began creating ambient soundscapes. The compressor adds a layer of control that makes a big difference, especially when you’re dealing with extreme dynamic range.

Wah-Wah & Volume:
The Fulltone Deluxe Wah-Wah is simply the sweetest way I’ve ever used. It’s smooth, the settings give you a wide variety of tone to select from, and it has a built-in buffer, which I use.

I’ve always included a volume pedal as part of my setup. This setup gives me a master volume, which allows me to play at any level, loud or whisper quiet, without losing tone or sustain. Also, running a volume pedal before any delay or reverb in my effects chain, allows me to use delays and lush reverbs to create ambient soundscapes. I can make a simple guitar swell sound like a violin, cello, full string orchestra, or even a synthesizer.

Pitch and Octave:
I love the Eventide H9 series and the octave built into the synth is the only one on the market that meets my needs. The tracking is spot-on, and I have tried everything made. The POD comes in at second place, but there’s something about the H9 that I find to be a bit sweeter. I love using an octave, but with the Spear Shakers, playing in a power-duo requires the addition of low end to keep things glued together when needed; this is also where I start the stereo chain.

The Triple Flashback is my favorite delay pedal! It’s warm, it’s clean, and it’s easy to use! This pedal is not like the Strymon, I’ve had both, I like the ease and flexibility of this unit over the Strymon, and I think it matches my vintage sound a bit better. It comes down to personal preference, and this is by far my pick after spending an ample amount of time with both units.

I use a 440 ms delay as my main delay (#1), I have a longer delay with a chorus that I use when I need that extra vintage sound (#2), and I use a stereo ping-pong delay a lot — this has become a big part of my ambient sound, and it helps to keep a drone to play over in the power-duo! I love it! It’s fun, and it’s totally psychedelic!

Modulation and Reverb:
The second H9 is used for the Shimmer effect. Big reverb with a cross between synth and strings blended in, the Eventide signature Black Hole reverb, in my opinion, is the best reverb on the market, if you want something extreme that doesn’t fall apart. I also have a nice flanger dialed in for special occasions. I haven’t always used a flanger, but recently I started using one, and with an octave and stereo signal, it sounds massive; perfect for the occasional extra depth needed to stretch out just a bit farther than the norm.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?

Recording Studio:
For my own projects, I like to set up like I’m playing live on stage, with two amps behind me, a pedal board, microphone, and vocal monitors in front of me. I like to set up in the same room with the drums and do whatever it takes to keep the bleed from interfering. It’s incredible the separation you can achieve and the results are magic! Once we get keeper foundational tracks, I recut vocals separately.

As much as I prefer this process, sometimes a live guitar sound and a live recording approach do not serve the song or the project. Whenever this is the case, I set my pedal board up in the control room so I can play without headphones and allow the engineer to do whatever he thinks is best! As long as I can “feel” what I’m playing to, I can lay down an inspired track!

Home Studio:
Over the years, I’ve developed an ideal setup for my home studio that allows me to play with all of the energy that I feel of when I’m on stage, but without the excess volume. I have an 800 square foot condo with a 1965 Fender Super Reverb cranked up, and drum loops going at 3 am, and no one complains! I use my main pedal board, and I break out of my effects chain after the overdrive section. From there I go into the Tweed channel mod of my 1965 Fender Super Reverb amp, speaker out into a THD Hotplate set for a dummy load, into an Iconoclast Speaker Simulator, and back into the Volume pedal of my effects chain. Once my signal chain is complete, the stereo outputs feed into my Apogee Quartet digital audio interface. This setup sounds AND feels killer!

Here’s my setup:
– JHS Prestige Buffer / Booster Pedal
– Fulltone Deluxe Wah
– Strymon OB.1 – Compressor & Clean Boost
– Strymon Sunset – Dual Overdrive
– 1965 Fender Super Reverb
– The THDHotplate 2 ohm
– Iconoclast Speaker Simulator
– BOSS FV-30L Foot Volume Pedal
– Eventide H9 – My stereo signal starts here and I have this H9 set up for one Octave Below.
– T.C. Electronics Triple Flashback Delay – You can use all three delays at once and you can run them in series or parallel.
– Eventide H9 – I toggle between Shimmer, Black Hole and Flanger.
– Pigtronix Infinity Looper
– Apogee Quartet Digital Audio Interface

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
I choose either the Deluxe Reverb amps or the Princeton Reverb amps, whichever wattage is best suited for the gig. If you have the right size amp and the core components on your pedal board that gives you the tone and sustain that you need, you can be consistent from room-to-room for your live show.

Note: When I play large events, I set my stereo amps up on the side of the stage and have them blowing across the stage so I can hear them no matter where I’m standing. This setup allows me to keep the guitar out of my monitor mix as much as possible, which feels more natural and makes it more enjoyable to perform.

What does your practice consist of?
I keep an acoustic guitar out at all times so I can grab it, run through a few finger exercises, capture any song idea on my iPhone that strikes, and run through sections of the show throughout the week. I go through phases of structured practice routines but typically play enough to stay connected with my guitar naturally.

My writing practice serves as a practice routine and flows like this… I grab my electric guitar, switch on my amp, open a new project in Ableton Live, pull in a drum loop, hit record, and jam! When I find a new lick that I want to own, I’ll loop the track until it’s in my DNA. Some nights I’m inspired and capture a great track, other nights I get in a great practice session and capture a few good ideas. I learned a long time ago to hit record, and save almost all of what I record and archive it for later use.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
The music business can be tough, so be as prepared as possible, keep your head on straight, listen to your critics with an open mind, and don’t try to please everyone or you’ll lose yourself. Follow your passion, and be friends with your muse— your muse is the best friend you’ll ever have.



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  1. Loved the post. I don’t have enough knowledge about guitar, it parts and set-up. I have just started learning. I was looking for some informative and inspirational article of guitarist. Really glad to find this post. My Peter Green les paul does not require any tone set-up. It has every set-up when I purchased. Love the guitar and also love to practice. This Corsa guitar is also an inspiration for me to practice.


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