Lasse Wellander is a Swedish guitarist, songwriter, and producer whose most prominent work includes playing with Sweden’s most widely famous musical export, ABBA.
Wellander joined Abba in 1974, just before the quartet become a worldwide pop music phenomenon. As a versatile guitarist with previous experience of backing rising solo stars, ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus recruited Wellander knowing his guitar playing would provide a perfect sonic foundation while keeping it within the confines of the group’s demands. Wellander toured the world with ABBA, and played on every record until ABBA’s breakup, including 1981’s “The Visitors”.
Forty years later, Lasse Wellander would also be ABBA’s go-to choice for the role of guitar player when the iconic quartet decided to record their reunion album “Voyage”, which was released to great acclaim last November 5. Wellander’s unique experience of playing with one of the biggest pop bands in history could prove to be interesting to any guitarist out there, especially since playing with a pop band like ABBA presents a different set of challenges than playing in any guitar-driven band does. Wellander recently sat down with Guitar World where he talked about his tenure with ABBA, and here are some of the things he said.
Was it immediately obvious there was a chemistry that would lead to something very big?
“Yes, I thought it would be big, quite early on. Strong songs all the way. Even the simple pop numbers were very high quality. One of the first tracks I recorded with them was ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’. I think that’s still one of the better songs throughout the years.”
Were you considered a band member? Or was it like Steely Dan where they’d call in different people?
“We were a core of musicians. It wasn’t a full-time job to work with ABBA – and sometimes I couldn’t play, so Janne Schaffer was called in, and the reverse. And if Rutger was on tour doing something else, Mike Watson would play bass. So it wasn’t a full-time job. If you were in the North of Sweden you maybe didn’t go down to Stockholm to do one just track. But I belonged to that core of musicians from ’74 on.”
How common was it for you to have lots of parts on some of the songs?
“Sometimes I doubled the electric guitars, especially rhythm guitars. With acoustic guitar, sometimes maybe two or three of us were playing, often Rutger, me and Björn – he is very good on acoustic guitar.”
Lots of capo use, too…
“Yes, absolutely. I seldom use barre chords. I wanted it to be as open-sounding as possible, so the more open strings the better.”
What was the usual setup that you took to the studio?
“Early on, it was a Les Paul ’57 Goldtop and a small Marshall combo. Not very many effects – it was quite a straight sound. They’d put on whatever delay afterwards. But I had a flanger, an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress. I loved that.”
Did you bring a lot of different guitars to the sessions?
“It was mainly just one electric guitar, if there weren’t any special requests. Later on, I used a Fender ’62 Strat on most of the songs in the studio and on the tours. But the pickups were very weak and there was more hum than sound sometimes. So I changed all the pickups and switches and everything but, of course, kept the originals.
“Then I changed the bridge pickup to a stacked humbucker because the single coil was weak and there was always trouble with the distorted sound. I also played a Gibson ES-175 on some of the songs. For many years I used a Music Man amp, the small one, the 112HD.
“The Strat is now in the ABBA museum in Stockholm. I wasn’t using it any more. I’ve actually been using a Line 6 James Tyler Variax for some years. The first generation wasn’t a success, really; the idea was very good but the build of the guitar was so-so. Also, the first ones didn’t have the magnetic pickups, it was only the Variax system. This one has both. It’s a great guitar, very stable.”
On stage, were you allowed to improvise, or were you strictly limited to the parts on the records?
“If you listen to the Live At Wembley Arena album, for example, it was much looser than on the records. Of course, we played the things that belonged to the song, but there were parts where it was much looser. It sounded rockier live than on the record, and there were some solos.”
A lot of the songs are in guitar-friendly keys – there’s not too much Bb and Eb, is there?
“When they wrote the song they were sitting with one acoustic guitar and a piano. It suited the girls’ voices, too, which was very important. On songs like Take A Chance, there is so much going on, which was why you needed more than one guitarist on the live gigs.
“On the intro to ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’ [where it’s shifting through the arpeggiated chords] it’s actually not doubled: there’s only one [guitar], but it had some effect added to it – maybe a small amount of Electric Mistress, or [producer] Michael B Tretow adding some Eventide Harmonizer. It’s hard to remember what was done 45 to 50 years ago!
“With the ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ track, there’s a melody guitar and a harmony guitar, not doubled, plus two electric powerchord guitars playing the same thing, plus some acoustic guitars. It’s very thought through.”