We’re pretty stoked that the first guitar player we’re “officially” profiling for [WM] is Michael Pope. He’s a great guitar player, super nice guy, and a living testimony of what happens when you raise someone up through the ranks. Here we go!
[WM] Michael, let’s start from the beginning, how old where you when you got your first guitar?
[Michael Pope] I was three and it was one of those toy guitars that you bought out of a magazine that isn’t totally a toy, it was a small classical guitar. I played that until I was probably nine or ten and then my parents got me a red Epiphone Les Paul Junior. That was my first electric.
[WM] Did you grow up playing at church?
[Michael] I started playing in churches when I was twelve years old. We had just moved to a small town, so we were church shopping. My parents were always very supportive, so my mom was always like, “He plays guitar!” And then people were like, “Come play and check it out!” When you’re twelve years old, you’re going to do it just because it’s an outlet to go and play music. So that’s kind of how I got my start. I played in local churches just because I got the invite, and then that led to bands when I was fifteen and sixteen years old. But mostly just small, backwoods playing until I came out here to Redding, California.
[WM] So how did you end up at Bethel?
[Michael] I came out because of the worship school. It’s called WorshipU now, and it was a three or four-week school instead of the two-week session it is now. I came out for that, and just fell in love with Redding and with Bethel Church. It was the first church I actually felt connected to and really wanted to be at. Playing in church was never really the thing that I wanted to do, so it was a cool thing to find a church that felt like that. The original plan was to do a year of ministry school and then after that move to Nashville, L.A., New York or someplace like that and try to do session work or tour with a country band. But I just got involved here. At the time Jeffrey from Jesus Culture was overseeing everything and asked me to play at church on the weekends to help out.
Later I decided to stay a little bit longer and do another year of ministry school. That summer, Joel Taylor, the CEO from the label, called me and asked me to play on For the Sake of the World. That whole process and year of school was a big learning and growing process for me. It really felt like this is what the Lord had called me to do with my life for now, so I’ve been here and have been doing it the best that I can for the past six or seven years.
[WM] What is your advice for players who are inspired by what you’re doing and want to follow that path for their lives?
[Michael] My advice would be to find what inspires you. Find what you feel the Lord’s pleasure is on for your life. If it’s in music, then music, but find what that is and go after it with your whole heart. Do what it takes. Work at a job that you don’t like to be able to afford what you need to do what you love, and then eventually dive head-first into it and give yourself to it. I mean, there’s the obvious, if you want to be a guitar player for somebody, then practice and be good (laughs). You’re not going to get a gig if you’re a terrible player. But, find what inspires you and find what you feel called to do and what you feel the Lord’s pleasure is on in your life, and then give it everything you have. There are never any guarantees with it, but everyone that I’ve seen do that has always had it pay off in some way, shape, or form.
[WM] We saw that one of the guys you follow on Instagram is J.D. Simo. We love J.D. and he was just on the cover of our sister magazine, Collectible Guitar. You also mentioned Trevor Rabin and Butch Walker in the rig rundown that Aaron Lehman at Worship Guitar magazine (WorshipGTR.com) was kind enough to let us use for this article. Who are the guys that have had the biggest impact on you and why?
[Michael] Historically it’s probably just like everyone else. Jimmy Page is just THE MAN, and forever will be, just for his writing, his tone, his riffs, and his feel. Billy Gibbons as well, maybe because I’m from Texas and my dad always had ZZ Top records laying around. Angus Young too. . . honestly I kinda just love everybody. As far as new guys like J.D., that guy is just a killer guitar player! Blake Mills, if you don’t know who Blake Mills is, then go find out. He’s probably the best guitar player alive right now, in terms of playing and writing. I love John Mayer and the way he incorporates feel into melody. It’s genius and it really connects with me like few others do. I grew up listening to church music too, so Stu G is in there, James Duke is there, guys like that, Daniel Carson too. I’m just all over the map!
[WM] Is there a piece of gear you sold that wish you still had?
[Michael] I mostly hang on to everything, but I did give away a yellow Les Paul Junior. I bought it at Guitar Center, and then when I first met Casey Marvin from Veritas he helped me relic it and he did a bunch of fret work. He basically took this really basic, not so awesome Gibson Les Paul, and turned it into this super awesome-looking relic that was an amazing playing guitar. I gave that away to a guy that plays with Jesus Culture a lot. And then I think he sold it too, so someone else owns it now. But I do miss that thing. I was just thinking about it the other day!
[WM] What are using in terms of strings and picks?
[Michael] I recently started using D’Addario NYXL strings. If I’m honest it’s because I saw the packaging and it was black and I thought it looked super cool. Everyone was kind of freaking out about them and I thought I would give them a try. I ended up really liking them! They have a little bit more tension behind them. They’re not quite as slinky as normal nickel D’Addario’s. I use the 11-49 gauge. I use the green D’Addario Duralin Standard – Medium (0.85mm) picks. I can get them in large quantities from D’Addario along with the strings.
[WM] With your stereo rig, are you hard right and left front of house (FOH)?
[Michael] Yeah, so the way we do things is both guitar players will be in stereo, so that’s like an amp hard-panned left and right for each player. And then Chris Greely, our front of house guy, will mix one guitar player just a little bit left heavy and the other right heavy, and then for certain parts or solos where one guitar player needs to stand out more he’ll just bring whatever side is quieter up so it’s more center. It’s pretty standard mix theology there, nothing too crazy.
[WM] How did you discover the Shure 545?
[Michael] That was Chris as well. Normally we just put Shure SM57’s in front of the amps. 57’s are great – they’re a classic for a reason. But one day Chris was like, “Check these out. These are 545’s.” And I asked him, “What’s different about them, other than they’re silver?” And he said, “The top end response is a little more pleasant.” It’s one of those things where I’ve probably just gotten really used to them, but now a 57 just sounds too harsh to me. Or, if it’s another mic, it just doesn’t sound like what I’m used to. The 545 is really similar to a 57, just with a nicer, more pleasing top end. I’m pretty sure you can get new ones for about $10 cheaper than a 57, so it’s definitely worth a shot.
[WM] You like the early 90’s, Korg-built AC30’s, right?
[Michael] Yeah! Back in the early 90’s, or maybe the late 80’s, Korg acquired Vox from Rose Morris. That early Korg era has my favorite sounding AC30’s. They’re all a little bit different, but if it’s a Vox made in the UK from 1990 to about 2001, they’re the ballpark. But yeah, I really love those early 90’s AC30’s. They’re about as close as you can get to a 60’s top boost without spending $5000 and taking out (on the road) a piece of history.
[WM] That’s awesome. Are you a tube geek, or are you just more like, “As long as it works?” How tweaky do you get on your tubes?
[Michael] As long as it sounds good. I have NOS stuff for my amps in the studio, because it does sound better and is more reliable, but for touring we just use all JJ’s. They sound great and we rarely have problems with them. We get everything re-tubed about every six months or so. I probably have a lot of JJ’s in my studio amps as well.
[WM] Is there anything that you would like our readers to be praying for you about?
[Michael] I’m getting married later this year. If there was anything that I would ask for prayer for, it would be for more grace and the capacity to handle everything in front of me. I feel super blessed and super stoked with life. I feel like I’m in a great season and have been for a while. But with touring all the time, recording all the time, and getting married, it’s not the easiest to juggle all of that. So please pray for more capacity and more grace and more wisdom to do it all the best that I can. It’s that hard trade off of quality vs. quantity for me. I want to do it all, but nothing is worth doing if you can’t do it really, really well.
THE VERITAS CONNECTION
One of the coolest things about boutique brands is the unique relationship players develop with the builders – and vice versa. To add some additional depth of field to this interview we reached out to Casey Marvin, founder of Veritas Custom Guitars…
[WM] Hey Casey, tell us a bit about how you first got hooked up with Michael and the Bethel guys?
[Casey] Bobby Strand, Chris Greely and I all worked at a church here in Portland called Solid Rock, and I worked on all their guitars. When Chris moved down there, Bobby moved shortly after, and they took some of my guitars with them. They invited me to come down to tech for the You Make Me Brave live DVD, so I took seven guitars down there. That kind of set the tone I think.
[WM] That first guitar you did for Michael was that Gold Top which is not a traditional Veritas instrument.
[Casey] Michael wanted a Les Paul, and although I wasn’t doing knock-offs, I’d done a few Les Paul style guitars before. At that point I just wanted to build more guitars and was like, “I’ll do it, but I don’t want to do a traditional build.” So, I implemented a few things I thought made it a better instrument. The heel contour is molded into the body so you can access those upper frets easier and I did some things to make it more structurally sound. It’s all hand carved – everything was done by hand.
[WM] Michael and the guys at Bethel did a lot to put Veritas on the map. How has that translated in terms of the customers you deal with?
[Casey] As soon as the Bethel gang jumped on the Portlander, and it was pretty much our standard Portlander with a Bigsby and two humbuckers, it just seemed to become the go-to guitar for anyone in the worship industry we deal with.
[WM] Michael has a pretty broad range of your instruments in his collection. How much of what you send him varies from the “standard” instruments you produce?
[Casey] He hasn’t asked for anything too over the top. A lot of what he gets is just our standard because he’s kind of made a lot of our guitars a new standard. He starts playing them and people are like, “I wanna do what Michael Pope is doing (laughs).”
[WM] Michael uses 11-49s which is pretty much a “he-man” gauge. Does that present any unique challenges?
[Casey] (laughs) There’s a way to set up a guitar so a set of 11’s feel like 10’s. The way that we make our guitars, with the 11’s they just have this body to them. You just get this extra push behind your tone.
[WM] And speaking of Michael’s guitars, don’t forget to check out some of his unique instruments below.