By: Matt Williams
Man, does Luke Doucet know his gear. More than a couple times during our conversation, the co-bandleader of Whitehorse—the modern rock ‘n’ roll group he fronts alongside his wife, Melissa McClelland—goes on at length about the inner workings behind his sound, always at a pace I’m far too uneducated to follow. But it all seems to be a long way of getting to a simple point: Doucet’s masterful crunch and meticulously crafted sound is owed mostly to his Gretsch White Falcon.
He’s been attached to it for a long time—around 15 years or so, by his estimate—and if it’s difficult to separate the idea of Doucet the guitarist from his actual machine, it’s because that’s just how things have been for that long. He’s put out albums with a backing band named the White Falcon. It’s shiny gold Bigsby vibrato is the first thing you see at the beginning of the video for Whitehorse’s single “Boys Like You.” When I ask him if his relationship to the guitar has changed since Gretsch sent him one on tour with Sarah McLachlan, after a guitar tech complained his axes wouldn’t stay in tune, his answer is not-so-surprisingly simple.
« Instantly it sounds like guitar to me,” Doucet says over the phone from his home in Toronto. “It’s no longer a colour in the palette, or one of many colours to be found in the palette. It’s just the sound of guitar. When I stray from it, that’s when I’m looking for something other than ‘guitar.’”
At this point, deep into a long and accomplished career as not just a songwriter but also a guitar-slinger for hire, he rarely strays from it. His Falcon has never been modified. It’s Japanese-manufactured, modeled after Gretsch’s late ‘50s transition-era Falcons, with Filter’Tron pickups and a full scale 25.5” neck.
Before it was all his, Doucet was shredding pawn shop guitars built by Harmony. When he was a kid, he was all about Fenders. Now he’s got a sibling Black Falcon, too, one from the original order that he tracked down just recently from McLachlan’s tour manager, Dan Cleland.
If he does pick up another guitar, it’s usually for studio work on projects like McLachlan’s records, which necessitate a wide and complex range of sounds for their production. But he’s built his own sound on the back of that Falcon and little Gibson amps, trading pedalboards for the simplicity of a clean boost. He runs his amps hot enough that he can hit the guitar hard to get something vicious out of it, leave it nice and clean when he’s playing gently. He’s been at this a long time, and Doucet is a performer, too. He moves around on stage. The Falcon and his Gibson amps allow him to ditch the pedal board for movement.
“I’d rather be thinking about people,” Doucet says. “I want to think about Melissa on stage, I want to think about her. I want to think about my hands. I want to think about the audience, I want to think about the microphone I’m singing into. That’s where I’d like to be focused. I don’t think I should be thinking about my feet.”
Essentially, he says, he’s attracted to guitar players who sound like they’re using the shortest possible cables. Metaphorically, of course—“Like their mind is plugged right into your ears,” he explains. He recalls watching the masters of the Winnipeg blues circuit—Big Dave McLean, Brent Parkin, Jay Nowicki—as a kid, shocked by their lack of bells and whistles. “Sometimes they’d be plugged into an amplifier with no reverb! Heaven forbid.” Decluttering that process has largely been something that seemed like a natural reaction to witnessing his heroes and listening to their habits.
“I realized at some point that all of my heroes basically have one sound,” Doucet says. “When you think about Brian Setzer, you don’t think about five different guitar sounds. You really just think about one. You hear three notes of Neil Young and you think, « Well fuck, that’s obviously Neil. » I kinda let myself off the hook of trying to cover too many bases. And really, playing the Gretsch was a massive part of that. This guitar, through that amplifier.”
(Doucet says Whitehorse’s “Manitoba Death Star” is an excellent example of the Gretsch. “The guitar solo happens, and to me, it’s unmistakably Falcon. Particularly the singularity of the voice of that instrument I think is really intact.”)
That approach to sculpting his sound was deftly calculated—Doucet knew early on that he didn’t want to set out to sound like anyone else, not completely. He wanted to work on a sound he could call his own, something that people would hear and immediately connect to him. It was a slow process toward ending up at the Gretsch, but once he plugged it in and strummed one big G chord, he knew everything he’d imagined was gonna happen with the instrument was true.
“I knew that if I played the way I was playing, and if I had a sound—like, if I didn’t mess it up by trying to beat everybody all the time—I would actually have an opportunity to have a sound that would potentially be identified with me, as opposed to, « Hey, you do a pretty good version of The Edge, » or, « You do a pretty good version of George Harrison, » or, « You do a pretty good Mike Campbell. » It’s more like, no, I think if I just keep doing what I’m doing, and don’t fuck with it too much, I might actually sound like me. What an unbelievable opportunity, a privilege it is to find yourself musically at that point in your life when people start to describe a sound by using your name. It’s really an absolute honour. So I’m very, very careful not to fuck with it too much.”
Doucet knows that’s a luxury, too. Session players rarely get to sound just like themselves. They’re hired guns who are often expected to be able to create whatever riff or overdrive texture or spacey thing that they’ve been paid to deliver. But the Falcon helped him build just what he was looking for. It’s creeping toward two decades old, and the nitrocellulose finish that used to be a sparkling ivory white looks tobacco-stained and yellow, embattled and faded gorgeous. “I would be heartbroken if that guitar were to go away.”
« That I get to spend most of my life sounding how I want to sound is amazing. Sometimes I giggle myself to sleep at night. And I’m pretty happy with the very simple thing,” Doucet says. “This very big guitar, with a Bigsby and Filter’Trons into a little 1959 Gibson amplifier.”