Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #127Subscribe to our print edition here!

Australian Guitar catches up with Rackett guitarist Kat Ayala to chat about the good kind of feedback, being a pedal nerd and the experience of having a custom guitar built from scratch. Words by Ed Lamington. Live photo by Hannon Paul.

Sydney four-piece Rackett have fast become one of the country’s most exciting and dynamic bands, with a live show that’s been praised for its high energy and extreme tightness blended with a “DIY hyper-femme aesthetic”.

On the surface, it’s punk-pop with big guitars, but this is a band of professionally trained musicians channelling their shared knowledge for maximum effect, delivering expert hooks and an extremely addictive quirkiness to their songwriting.

Guitarist Kat Ayala – who is also part of the Sydney based Forces And Fury production duo with partner and Rackett drummer Astrid Holz – plays a huge role in delivering their signature live sound, pairing with singer and guitarist Bec Callander for half the set, then going it alone for the remainder.

We caught up with Ayala in a rare break from touring in early April to talk about her custom signature guitar, dedicated pedal research, and how she joined the band just as they embarked on a huge tour with The Darkness.

How did you come to find the guitar?
My dad played a lot of guitar, and so did my uncle. I’m Filipino, so I grew up in the Philippines – it was a big family and there was always music around. There were instruments everywhere – pianos, guitars, and always lots of singing. So I started from there, and my dad taught me. The first song I learned was “My Girl”, I would just listen and strum along. But I never really got into studying the instrument as a lead guitar, rather than just chords or whatever, until around the time I turned 19.

And who were the players you looked up to in your formative years?
I’ve always loved Tom Morello, and I listened to a lot of The Used way back in the day, so I played a lot of pop-punk-y styles. It was actually The Jezabels that got me into using delay!

How long have you been with Rackett now?
Since April of last year, when we opened for The Darkness. We just managed to hop on that tour, which was insane. It was totally a baptism by fire. I was able to do that because Bec and I had played in a band together before. She had a project called Bec And Ben – I was their guitarist for just a few months, and then I went off to the Philippines for eight months and that was that. Once she found out I was back in the country, she asked me if I could hop on for that series of shows. Bec’s obviously the visionary and band leader, and she writes the entire show. It’s kind of awesome, because I’ve always been one of the band leaders, if not the band leader.

Sometimes it’s nice to be one of the kids!
I turn up, I know my part and I play it. And she gives us room to be creative and expressive as well. It’s a really good gig!

Rackett are a band with an amazingly dynamic and consistent live sound. What do you have in play to achieve that?
Well, I’m glad you think that. We’ve been wanting to invest in a sound engineer, but it’s not within our budget. So the sound at the moment is clear enough because we’ve gotten the hang of our tone. We recently just put together an in-ear monitoring system because our drummer Astrid – who’s also my girlfriend, business partner, creative partner and other things – is also a sound engineer. So she built this in-ear monitoring system that we take around. We just take a patch. We split the signal, patch our system in, and we control our in-ears ourselves. We don’t need a monitor engineer or the front of house guy to do our monitors anymore. We just took control over that. I like to think that that’s improved our pitch.

That’s pretty great. What’s your live gear setup like? What kind of pedals, amps and guitars are you working with at the moment?
I’ll take you through my signal train. I always play the HoneyTea, which is my custom Waterfall model. Hands down, that’s the mother of all guitars for me. I play that into a Boss tuner, and then I run through my whammy, into a Sick As Overdrive by Bondi effects – I freaking love that pedal – and I use a Boss NS2 noise suppressor. Then I go into an Earthquaker Hoof, which is an amazing fuzz pedal. I’ve got so much control over how I want my fuzz to sound.

After the fuzz, I go into a Keeley Bubble Tron, which is like a Dyna Phase. It’s got a phaser and then a dynamic phaser as well, so it’s two phasers happening at the same time, and I’ve used a flanger setting as well. That’s pretty fun. And there’s a filter setting on it, which makes it sound like bubbles are coming out of my guitar. And then from there, I go into my delay – I’ve just got a Tonal Recall by Chase Bliss audio. They call it digital brain with an analogue heart – it’s an analogue delay
and a digital control. And then after that, I’ve got a Neunaber Immerse Reverberator, which is a digital reverb pedal.

These are some high boutique pedals you’re using! Do you do a lot of research?
I’m part of a couple of Facebook groups. I’m sure you’ve heard of them too – all the pedal trading ones. I see what people are selling and what people are buying, just to get an idea of what people like and what’s out there. And I just do my own research. When I was buying the delay pedal, I just searched, “Analogue delay with tap tempo,” and I went through so many. I was researching for weeks before I settled on this one. I buy a lot of pedals from Deluxe Guitars in Melbourne – they’re a good little store and they’ll let you try a piece of gear out for a while. But I haven’t returned anything, really. I’ve been happy with my purchases. My research is pretty good!

What about amp-wise?
So after all of those pedals, I split my signal. I go into a Marshall 1958X, which is a hand-wired reissue combo. It’s like the little cousin of your Bluesbreaker. It’s got two ten-inch speakers, and it’s the best combo I’ve ever played through. I play with that, and then I split the signal into whatever Bec is playing, because she drops her guitar halfway through the set.

And for the strings?
I use Curt Mangan strings. They’re a great boutique string company based in the US. They do custom gauges, and I use 9-48s.

So tell us a bit about your connection with HoneyTea and Maplewood, and the creation of your custom model guitar.
I discovered his work [Stephen Burnett, luthier] via Facebook. I was in the Philippines for eight months between 2015 and 2016, and I was playing so much that I got carpal tunnel syndrome. It was just awful, I woke up in the middle of the night and I was screaming. I went and saw a couple of doctors and took a few weeks off from playing, and I finally went to an acupuncturist and he sorted me out for a while – enough to heal, anyway. And I just had to rework my playing technique.

I wear my guitar a lot higher now. I took a lot of notice to the way I was playing with my current guitars. I had a Telecaster for a while, and I had to wear a wrist guard so that I wouldn’t injure myself. It was just so that I could help myself heal, really. So I wore that for months, and I found that I really had to bend my body in ways that wasn’t good for my posture.

I kind of had to curl around the guitar to be able to do some of the things or play a certain way, and I realised that my shoulder started aching with that posture. I had all these physical problems, so I just started searching for someone to build me a custom guitar.

It was an ergonomic decision just as much as it was a sound decision?

Yeah, totally. And the closest I’ve gotten to my tone was probably with the Telecaster. I just wanted something that sounded a bit more like a humbucker. So I told all this to Stephen and he just said, “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t we do this?” He loves Gretsch styles and he suggested for me to try a PRS as well, just to see if I liked the necks for that. I ended up sampling a couple of PRS guitars, which I really, really enjoyed. And so we did a lot of back and forth research. It took two years in the end.

It was 2015 when I first connected with Stephen about my issues and what I was after, and since then, he’s come to see me play. He studied my style, tones and sound. And the thing was him is that he’s a real artist and a really good listener, so he’d ask me some questions and then kind of just figure me out. And I just trusted him. We got to know each other. I kind of let him go to town on the design, and I just trusted that it would fit. And it does. Perfectly.

And how did the colour scheme come about?
I told him that I’ve always been partial to reds, but I kind of wanted something a bit more blue [laughs]. So… Purple. There you go! He’d show me a couple of sketches of what his plan was, and one day, he was like, “What do you think of this?” And he showed me a sketch that had the gold trim on it. I was like, “Oh my God. We have to do it.” Who else has got that!? I actually feel quite self-conscious because I have the guitar now. I’m like, “Oh man, I’ve got to be able to play it well!”

It’s like a hollowbody with no F holes, and it sounds great. I love the feedback – I never had that. When the Telecaster used to feed back, it was kind of just noisy. But this one’s really bassy. It’s got more of a round tone, and you kind of feel it before it even leaves the amp.

And you changed your pedalboard around the guitar, didn’t you?
Totally. I got rid of a lot of pedals, because I don’t need to beef it up anymore. I used to have a POG since I liked the sound – I just put an octave below and a little bit of sub, so that I had a bit more bottom-end – but I just don’t use it anymore. The guitar just sounds so beautiful and big on its own!