I recently had the pleasure of attending three masterclasses organised by The Guitar Magazine featuring a trifecta of the finest guitarists on the planet, and in this blog post I wanted to share some thoughts inspired by what I saw and heard while the memories are still fresh. The venue for all three nights was Dingwalls in Camden (London) which meant that each event was necessarily prefaced by a night-time walk along Camden high street, the heady scents of patchouli oil, vegan street food and the nocturnal denizens of the borough openly crossing the herbaceous border, hinted at exotic experiences to come.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this run of events was the variety of styles on offer, each player being an internationally acknowledged master in their field with a wildly differing style and "technology" to offer. While I have known both Jon Gomm and Guthrie Govan for many years, the first of these evenings would also be my first experience of Rockabilly overlord Darrel Higham.
Let me level with you from the off. Rockabilly music scares the hell out of me. On the rare occasions I have been called upon to serve up something of the genre on stage or in the studio I've found it challenging to get beyond simple pastiche. The whole thing conjures up the need to fully absorb a whole lifestyle of hot-rods, some sort of proto boom-chick weirdness, baffling stolen country licks where you actually have to play the changes, and swirling images of beautiful women with Bettie Page haircuts and leopard skin beetle crushers.
Or maybe that's just Camden...
Either way this was an opportunity to see a legend of his genre in action and, as a lover of things Gretsch (Higham has long been an endorsing artist and eloquent ambassador for the brand), I was not to be disappointed. It turns out that one of the main parts of Rockabilly as it should be played is a really loud Gretsch guitar. So loud in fact that Higham's barstool mounted CD player for his backing tracks gave up the ghost and toppled, stunned, onto the floor leaving him to finish the number on his own. This didn't detract from the excellence of the performance in the slightest, if anything it was a happy accident demonstrating just what a powerhouse Higham is without the need for tinned accompaniment.
These evenings all featured a question and answer session, and after a couple more songs which provided a chronological progression through Darrel's influences (and this time with the CD player firmly planted on the floor) the Q+A began. It's always inspiring to hear players talking about their first steps, difficulties they have faced, instruments they have loved and lost, good times and bad. Darrel Higham was very open about his life as a musician and his obvious love for what he does was infectious, as was his exhaustive knowledge and passion for Rockabilly guitar.
It does us all good to experience something outside of our comfort zone and while this genre of music is certainly well outside my own frame of reference we can all learn a great deal from Darrel Higham's quiet virtuosity.
I should probably preface this by saying that Jon Gomm is one of my favourite human beings and I was looking forward to this evening as much for the chance of catching up with a dear friend as for the inevitable sublime musicality. I arrived just in time to hear the end of Jon's soundcheck and we retreated to the green room for a proper chat. Although understandably a little tired following an extremely successful tour of Germany, Jon was on good form and talked in detail about future plans and also the thought process behind his signature Lowden guitar with its "hybrid" soundboard. Interesting stuff and I look forward to hearing more.
As always when you're having fun, time flew, and all too soon it was time for Jon to take the stage.
Watching Jon play brought back many wonderful memories of gigging with him over the years. The first time we played together was in around 2001 in a tiny bar in Leeds. It was obvious then that Jon was a stunningly talented musician. At the risk of sounding unutterably wanky (I think the start of this last sentence may have sealed the deal anyway) I have taken a huge amount of happiness and pride in watching Jon's career and profile soar over the years. He's my mate and I love him dearly but he's also one of the finest guitarists that has ever lived and often leaves me (and most of the guitar-playing world) slack-jawed with his astonishing skill and musicality.
Tonight there was even more going on. Maybe it was because he was fresh from tour, maybe it was just a particularly good night but Jon Gomm was on fire. His playing was absolutely superb. Rich, nuanced and fluid. When it comes to Q+A there are few more entertaining speakers than Jon. His frank and insightful comments on all aspects of the musician's life were particularly inspiring. Frankly, this evening left me overjoyed. I was still grinning by the time I got home.
Here's Jon in action with Passionflower. It's good. Very good.
I have loved Guthrie Govan's playing for years, in fact I wore my copy of Erotic Cakes down to nothing when it first came out. That's not an easy thing to do to a CD.
Although he is personally responsible for the now obscene secondhand value commanded by one of my favourite pedals, the Guyatone Wah-Rocker (mine is currently out on tour in Greece apparently with Onirama - Alex, I'm going to need that back someday!) Guthrie more than makes up for it with his frankly beautiful attitude to life, the universe and everything.
This night had an auspicious beginning when a random Camdenite pimp-rolled past me blasting Adam F's seminal liquid Drum and bass classic Circles from his backpack instantly bringing back a flood of memories from my last serious forays into Camden a couple of decades ago.
Still grinning I arrived at Dingwalls just in time for a proper chat with The Guitar Magazine's gentleman editor Chris Vinnecombe, covering all bases from our shared love of Fender Esquires (especially those with Les Paul Jr style wiring), to the new PRS John Mayer Silver Sky (possibly the most joyfully iconoclastic move in the guitar world for, well, decades!) and the exceptional work of the Frank Brothers in Toronto finding the hands of James Bay. Strong work by all.
While this was going on our attention was regularly caught by the sound of Guthrie Govan warming up on stage. Guthrie is one of a handful of musicians I have met who is more a pure conduit for musical communication than just a guitarist. His fluency with the instrument is frankly ridiculous, at one point later in the evening he played an excited fan's whistle back at him pitch and phrase perfect.
Listening to him warm up was an object lesson in the capabilities of the electric guitar in the hands of a master to surprise and delight at every note. One of the reasons I love well-played manouche music is the soaring "out of nowhere" bends and note choices that invariably make me smile. Guthrie Govan's playing has exactly the same effect. It is as joyful and life-affirming as it is virtuosic.
Here he is with his band The Aristocrats.
Despite his extraordinary talent there is a humility to Guthrie Govan evidenced by his reaction to Hans Zimmer asking him to join his touring orchestra "I called him up and asked are you sure?". This humility and desire to serve the song above all further supports his repeated view that we as guitarists are here to communicate through the language of music.
Guthrie then proceeded to lay down some truly face-melting communication to the assembled congregation. This made a lot of people very happy.
If you are unfamiliar with any any of these artists then I hope this blog post will serve as an introduction to a wealth of music that you will enjoy for years to come. Treat yourself to some downloads, make a note of local concerts and spread the word!
Finally, I'd like to end this post by thanking everyone at The Guitar Magazine for organising these exceptional evenings. This was a rare opportunity to experience something truly inspiring and I'm looking forward to more in the future!