I totally agree listening to your music you wouldn't have a clue what you have had to go through to get to where you are today. Watching you play though is quite inspiration because people with full mobility would have great trouble trying to emulate the standard of music you play. I think people who see you play the instrument are in awe, not just listening but when I see you play I'm like wow how does it do that. So while we were on the subject I'd like to talk about your playing style and how you developed it and particularly about your choice of slide and the fact that use glass predominantly.
Yeah there's two things going on there with slide playing. First of all the weight of the slide, it has to be put onto the string with the right amount of weight whether pushing it down with your finger or whether it just rests on the string, but the weight is really crucial in relation to tone and pitch. All that stuff is very important and I just found the right thing for me. I also as you say liked the sound of glass and although there are probably a room is full of people arguing on the Internet right now as to what sounds better stainless steel, brass or glass, the answer is probably anything if you play it right. I actually think glass gives me the sound I was looking for. But I also found glass on its own to get the tone I wanted would have to be massive in size. So it was a simple idea but very difficult to create, the invention of using a piece of glass glued to a piece stainless steel tube. This gives me the weight I want and the sound I want. And for those people who think one sounds better than the other of course you can just turn it round and play with the steel side. There is a difference of course without a shadow of a doubt between glass and steel. And there are times when I use the metal side on the National because there are certain sounds I might prefer but generally I'm probably playing with the glass side about 90% of the time.
One of the factors about your playing style and using glass in the way that you do is that you don't dampen behind the slide on the strings. And that specifically then creates in some peoples ears unwanted micro tones and harmonics from behind the slide (effectively your hearing two notes, one behind and in front of the slide). But somehow you seem to work with this effect to your advantage and that gives your music a very unique edge. Personally when I listen to your playing all these micro tones are wonderful and it's something you don't hear in other peoples playing and it makes your music very unique.
That's all true. I think if I had the choice I would do some dampening because some of those micro tones are a little annoying to me but I can't do anything about them so their just there. The ones that annoyed me are very minimal, I've also found that not only do I work with them, but if I'm doing a long slide up the neck if I change the amount of pressure on the slide at different places during that slide and then the micro tones will either stay or change so I can make it go away.
Hi Tom, that’s a very strong accent you have there, what part of the UK do you come from?
I live in the Northwest, I live in the middle of the countryside in Cheshire midway between Lancashire and Liverpool
So what is the accent exactly Mancunian or Liverpudlian?
I think is more country bumpkin, Mancunians have more rounded vowels so I'm about in the middle somewhere between the two (hehe)
So let's start at the very beginning if we may. What made you pick a guitar when you were very young?
I had a very early baptism into the guitar I think I was probably only about six years old when I first got one. We lived in a very small village and my father was the village blacksmith and my mum (as was common in those days) was a housewife. There weren't any charity shops around then so charities use to hold things called ‘jumble sales’ which is what American's call ‘yard sales’ with the aim of raising money for charity. So at this jumble sale my mother bought me a guitar for the sum of about less than £1, it was very cheap and the reason she bought me guitar is because it was ‘ubiquitous’ they were just all over the place, luckily I had a brother who was nine years older than me, he would've been about 15 at the time and was in the middle of the 60s pop, folk and blues revival musically. He saw my guitar and decided he was going to get one too shortly after that.
Okay then so you’ve got a guitar, who were you listening to at the time and who were you trying to emulate?
I was very lucky musically in so far as my dad ‘the village blacksmith’ played a harmonica and he had a real passion for music, he was an absolute real fan of music and of most genres and I was born at that time when the Beatles were just coming to the fore and 60's music was being seen as a great sociological movement into new music and new sounds. Having a brother who was older than me he quite soon got into the early Americana and into the 60s folk and blues revival. As a young boy my father's music catalogue vast, he had a sideboard full of LPs mostly collections will box sets from the Reader's Digest. So I was born into this household where my brother was starting to listen to the Beatles, The Rolling Stones and pop music of the day. Then he was very heavily influenced by folk music and the guitar players particularly, players like Big Bill Brunsey, Lead Belly Elizabeth Cotton, Pete Seger, Woody Guthrie. The English guitarists of the day were far more… one could say ‘restrained’ and very English in their style they were about using classical influences and coming up with different approaches to modern songs. Burt Yanz, Davey Graham, Nick Jones so these were my guitar playing influences and then my father was listening to music as far wide reaching as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and American song book style artists like Gershwin, Cole Porte and Irving Berlin. His taste in music was so wide and I was so lucky he had collections of musicals such as South Pacific, Fiddler On The Roof, Paint Your Wagon all of those really big musicals of the day which were full of big orchestral arrangements and melodies. He did go a little bit into country music which is the bit I hated the most, you can't like everything your parents like i suppose, the amount of times i use to run out the house when he put Jim Reeves on (hehe). But within that of course there was some real beauties and isn't it strange but here I am now a slide guitarist and probably the very first slide guitar I heard would've been like most people probably on Hawaiian music on early films, but then the first recorded music I would've heard would've been someone playing pedal steel or electric lap steel behind a Jim Reeves song or Hank Williams.
I heard that you studied classical Indian guitar with the great Debashish Bhattacharya?
I can't really say it was proper studying. Through getting to know Bob Brozman he talked to me about an Indian guy he had recently met in India. He exaggerated a few about his living conditions mind. He had met Debashish Bhattacharyaand and said if you ever get a chance go and see him he's brilliant. Debashish and his brother did a small tour of Britain some years ago and I got to meet him in Manchester. He was such a warm and engaging person and I was completely blown away by him and by his music. I had heard some Indian classical music before, again my father was posted out India just after the war with the army and he had some classical Indian music in his record collection and so bugger me without me even realising it I’d heard that music as a kid. What a coincidence? Debashish had a Weissenborn made by the Canadian luthier Michael Dunn and let me have ago on that. So he watched me play, and I can't play anything Indian so he said to me ‘would you like to study Indian guitar in in one of my guitar schools in Calcutta’? We're talking around 2004 here so I've just made my debut album and I'm reasonably well with that and started gigging and started work on my second album ‘Running Free’. I was more confident in myself and I thought I love what you're doing Debashish so why not? I had a little bit of money behind me now so I bit the bullet and went.
So I got 10 days in his house with what he loosely called ‘the apartment round the corner’ which is what we call here a shack or a hovel with no running water and no toilet facilities. Anyway it’s quite a challenge living as a disabled person in Calcutta on your own for a couple weeks. The people though were just the tremendous the people make it work is not about the quality of the facilities it's about the quality of the people. So I spent four hours a day in this guys house just him and me talking and playing music and understanding ragas and Indian classical music and the Indian scales and Indian ways of timing. It was so far removed from Western music and so fast and so technical that I could never really say I studied it. I can play a bit of it and I can get myself round a few ragas. It does now influence my music a lot. You must understand to be a musician in India (because of the cast system) you more or less need to be born into it. And before you are even allowed to own an instrument you have to be able to sing all of the ragas you're going to play for maybe three or four years. And then they'll let you look at a guitar and eventually if you're good enough you can have an instrument. Is not treated just as career it's treated as a lifestyle is almost like a religion in itself. So that's how people become very very very good at it they study it on a very profound level that we in the west would probably find torturous.
So how did you get involved in the British Paraorchestra?
By fluke really I was watching the closing ceremony of the London Olympics 2012 which was when the Paraorchestra was originally launched. And so I saw Coldplay playing music with all these visually impaired musicians. So I thought that looks good. So couple of months later I received a magazine which says that this organisation formed by Charles Hazelwood a really well-known British classical conductor is looking for new members for his Paraorchestra. So I applied and I got an audition in London and met this group of people who are musicians playing all types of instruments, some really off the wall and some really regular orchestral instruments. He set this organisation up because his youngest child was born with cerebral palsy. It made him ask the question ‘hear am i an international conductor travelling the world and why don't I ever see any disabled musicians playing in orchestras’. ‘There must be disabled musicians out there who have gone to music schools and leaned to play instruments’? And the simple answer to that is of course there were, they just don't get any jobs is the honest answer. So he thought I will form an orchestra with the sole aim of being able to show the abilities of this group of musicians in the hope that it will start of the catalyst of changing societies views and people being more inclined to give these disabled musicians a job. It took awhile for him to accept me personally at the auditions because he kept saying do you play any other instruments, I said no ‘I am I lap steel player’. So I went over for a whole weekend and eventually they accepted me into the orchestra. My style of learning is not orthodox in regards to the classical musicians I don't read music but I can play the stuff and now I'm fortunate enough to be included as a member of of the British Paraorchestra which is a wonderful organisation and we had some amazing gigs playing music that I never thought I would be playing.
So the conductor really wasn't sure about your instrument and had to make a bit of an apology afterwards i believe?
Yeah it was wonderful. He clearly wasn't sure about my instrument before he heard it. Six of us were taken out to perform this piece of work in Bahrain and as part of that performance we gave a little talk about ourselves and performed solo piece of our choice. So I didn't really know what I was going to play I just thought I would play what ever felt right on the night, how stupid am i, that put me under a lot of pressure. So I thought we will see if the fingers are working tonight and take it from there. So I thought I would play ‘Eleanor Rigby’ because I was in the mood for it and its a difficult piece to play so I gave go as I felt sharp. After I played that Charles Hazelwood came to me and said ‘I really wasn't sure about the instrument, I didn't know whether it would be the right colour for the orchestra’, I think he described it to the audience afterwards as an ‘iridescent gel that moves in and out of each movement and holds it altogether’. So I felt really proud of him saying that and really humbled to think that a performer and musician of his ability and reputation should think so highly of what I'm doing it was great.
I can see all of those influences you've just described just listening from album to album of yours what I hear is pretty much what you've just explained to me and now I know where it's all come from
You know it's both ironic and sometimes a bit sad too, it's like you're looking into your mirror when you're older and your old man is looking back at you. He still haunts me so I'm definitely influenced by what I heard when I was a young child. I imagine it is the same for everybody none of us can escape it. It is when were are very active and most easily influenced.
I don't like using pigeonholes but but how would you describe your music to someone who hasn't heard you play before or listened to one of your 4 albums?
It would be easy to say inventive and passionate and unique but that doesn't really describe anything to does it. My musical style has been a direct reflection of where I am and where I've been born and how I interpret sound and emotion and passions and feelings. It's really hard to write that all up into a style. The beautiful thing about playing lap steel is its limitations becomes its strengths. It really is one of those instruments which provides a conduit to getting the music out, but what a great way of doing that. I think my style is one of which I like to like the sense of melody, I like poly rhythms and I like a good old singsong.
If I was to add anything to do that I would say there was a very strong affiliation towards folk and blues especially, those two seem to be the stronger influences that come through your music would that be fair comment?
I think so I think that's fair comment.
Woody Mann. Would it be fair to say that this man put you on the road to where you are today?
Yes I think that's fair to say. He didn't know it at the time but often we meet people in our lives that are catalysts don't we? We meet them at certain times and throughout my lifetime I found that opportunities always present themselves and we also need to keep looking for them. We need to say to ourselves sometimes ‘is this an opportunity I should take?’ and if so the answer should always be it ‘yes’. Solo guitar can be quite a solitary experience and there are loads of people who never play with anyone else musically speaking. They’re sitting in their bedrooms doing what they do enjoying themselves but that can be very restrictive and solitary. There are a lot of people in the bedrooms right now going through their practice sequences like ‘Billy no mates’.
That probably describes me quite accurately Tom (hehe)
Well we've all been there haven't we? I'm not that kind of person. I think people make the world go round and I'm a socialist and sharing experiences with other people is what life is all about and what's important. But as a solo guitarist I did have to spend a lot of time in the back room practising on my own working it all out for myself. Isn't it terrible how we fall into the mainstream but I saw the Dire Straits album cover and saw that shiny National guitar and thought that's what it's all about, it's an awful thing to admit (hehe) that the ‘Brothers In Arms’ album cover was the reason I picked up a slide guitar that's all my street cred gone now (hehe). I was aware of National guitars before that but I said to myself I need one of those shiny guitars. So I had a friend who knew someone who knew someone and got me a Gibson made Square neck dobro because the guitar I was using that had been crudely converted wasn't really up to the job. So I had this metal dobro it wasn't great and didn't have much sustain it was the sort of sound that a banjo has when filled with old socks to stop the skin rattling (hehe). And that's what my old dobro sounded like… ‘a banjo full of socks’.
Before the accident I was a good finger style guitarist I could finger pick around chords and do that thing with the thumb picking out the bass lines while the other fingers picked out the melody lines. So I started to find ways around playing the lap slide using this knowledge in a similar way and it was a bigger sound than just playing the single notes. I didn't really know what a lap slide player sounded like. There was a guitar festival near me at that time the ‘Wirral International Guitar Festival’ and it is held every year in Birkenhead. In fact I think I played at every year since then, they have me back every single year since I first played there around about 2002. I went along to the guitar workshop that was held at the festival with this guy called Woody Mann, I’d never heard of him, hell I've never been to a guitar workshop before that either, I’d never had a lesson and couldn't really use my fingers I just found a way of noodling around and didn't really know what I was doing. I was really nervous but I went and I realised I would be the ‘one’ that really wants to be at the back of the class and not to be noticed by the teacher and not to get the spotlight shone on them because I don't like being in the spotlight. What I mean is I'm in a wheelchair and I can not ‘not’ to be noticed already, sometimes i use it to my advantage when I want to meet new people and other times I just want to creep in the back and disappear and this was one of those occasions.
So I turned out with my dobro and my old piece of plumbing pipe. So everybody started to introduce themselves and I was at the stage where I couldn't escape, so I stayed there. So the guy said we were going to play a bit of finger style blues and in my head I was saying ‘I couldn't do that, I can't do any of this’. It was an awful moment, really difficult for me to deal with but I stayed there and Woody Mann ended up being one of the best teachers I've ever had the pleasure to know and one of the warmest human beings I've ever met too. He watched me play and didn't say anything he just listened to me play and after the break we played a basic blues around a minor key and I'm very lucky in that respect because I have got a good musical ear so I had worked out what was going on and worked out away of how to get around it. So he listened to me play and took me to one side and said don't worry about it ‘play what you can, just play the melody’. And little did I know then that the Rev Gary Davies said the same thing to a young Woody Mann when he was 14 years old.
So he watched me play and told me about these guitar seminars in New York that had just been done for the first year with a man called Bob Brozman, never heard of him I said (hehe). I said I never heard of you either but I turned up (hehe) and thought I'd give you a chance. He said you must come I think you should be there. I said I can't how can I? At that time I had just gone through some life changing times with a divorce and having to give up work completely. So I considered it over a period a time but didn't have money either. So he said look if you can get the airfare together there will be a full scholarship for you waiting because you're good enough to attend. ‘We will find a way’ he said. So I did simple as that, the first time in my life something musical had presented itself and I took it and went along.
The first one was in 2000 and went to four in total I think. Each year there was about 60-100 people gathered together for these seminars it was massive. It never made any money sadly but they weren’t doing it for the money. So off I went to New York and realised other people play guitars on their laps too (hehe).
Do you own any other weissenborns in your collection?
I have yes but the Bear Creek always gets played first. I have a couple of original ones, I've got the original style one and I've got a Kona which doesn't sound brilliant to be honest I was a bit disappointed with that. I have a modern Eric Solomon Weissenborn. He makes jazz guitars normally and this was a one off for me, yeah he made two and I own one and it is the biggest balliest sounding thing I've heard. There's a track on one of my albums called ‘Come Back Baby’ that's played with the Eric Solomon and when I hit the bass string on that you hear it, it's a really big sound!
I don't want to dwell on this next subject for too long but I'd like to talk about your life changing accident. For those that don't know the story I think it's an important piece of your jigsaw puzzle, so people can understand where you’ve come from and the real struggle you’ve had to get to where you are today. So you had an automobile accident back in the 70s and you lost all of the movement from your lower body and much of the movement in your arms and hands too.
No it's okay to talk about. Let's start by saying its okay to ask and were not going to dwell on it but the important thing is that everybody who does any thing that they're passionate about in life, their ability to do what is directly related to who they are as a person and how they had been made up and what experiences they have had… I believe so anyway. My injury… I was 17 at the time and crashed a motorbike I managed to break my neck. I don't need to wrap it up any more flowery than that, it was a permanent injury. It was my fault and the consequences were that I am technically paralysed from the chest downwards so i use a wheelchair to get around. Apart from my lower limbs being affected my whole body is affected in some way also. So my hands have hardly any movement and my arms are also affected in some ways too. I have a little bit of a claw movement in my right hand and absolutely nothing in my left hand. So my fingers are totally flaccid but they're quite supple because I make it my business to prevent them from becoming stiff.
As a budding guitarist not being able to play the guitar anymore must have been devastating to the moral. You still had a lot of music still inside you that you wanted to get out. So can you talk this through the transition from being able to play conventional guitar to having to learn a new instrument in order to musically express yourself.
At that time it was a devastating thing to happen to anyone, it was bloody awful but it's what one does with your life afterwards that really matters because of the process of rehabilitation. It's not overstating it but it's probably like being reborn because you have to get used to getting through life in a completely different way. And I found I was quite keen to get out of bed and in a wheelchair, it's enabled me to get around. But I really felt I had lost my individuality and my creativity. You know the use of our hands is something that sets us apart, I discovered that I haven't lost it all, that wasn't the case at all but at the time that's how I felt. As a guitar player and I hate saying this but I was quite good and i’m not any kind of salesman so I don't like talking about my skills but I was a quite good finger style guitarist. I had been playing for 10 years previous to the accident I was self-taught so I was already a creative player and I played every single day. There probably wasn't a day in my life when I didn't pick up a guitar. Shortly after I got out of hospital I picked up a guitar, i threw the tennis rackets away (hehe) but i could never part with my guitars. This thing happened where the sheer frustration and annoyance of not being able to play was enough to make me to try and think of a different way of playing again. And at that time I knew nothing about slide guitar.
So three months after you intended that first seminar you recorded your debut album?
The first time I went to the guitar festival at the IGS at Columbia University in New York I was in this massive hall with Woody Man and Bob Brozman and lots of other students it was just wonderful. There were about 60 students in total all of them were of great ability already, so I had been sitting in my room like ‘Billy no mates’ and then I was exposed to this wonderful musical environment, what a wonderful opportunity. We had sessions on African music we had Bob Brozman of course giving lessons too he was vastly experienced the all different types of world music, we had lots of European styles taught too. There would be lots of musicians passing through New York that would come in who were friends of Bob or Woody and just hang about.
Is this when you started to write the original material for your debut album “The Bell” around this time?
Yes I was already composing, nothing with the lyrics yet. I'd always been collecting sounds that I liked and working on them. So at the end of the IGS seminar there was a students concert. Which was a two-day event and everyone had to get up and play a song. So I turned up with my dobro that sounded like a ‘banjo full of socks’ (hehe) and played an improvised piece of music around open D which then flowed into a song I had learned by Leo Kottke, a song called ‘Greenhouse’ he plays a 12 string bottleneck style on that track and I was completely bowled over the first time I heard it. With a big sound of those 12 strings booming out. So I'd learned this song and I played it at concert. Up to that point i hadn’t sung anything so people didn't know I could sing, and nobody knew what i was going to come out with, so I started singing and ‘flipping heck’ I got standing ovation WOW! I came home from that full of beans and I made it my business to find other musicians. I met a whole rack of people some of who became lifelong friends. So I started to concentrate properly on my music and about a month later I recorded my debut album in a kitchen in a council house in Liverpool (hehe). And that was the start of my career and decided I really wanted to do something with this. Years before that I said to myself ‘am I playing this damn thing or not, is this really music?’ and clearly it was but at the time I didn't believe in it. I still doubt that now sometimes (hehe). My experience in New York, I had been judged by a group of my musical peers purely on my music and that was enough for them to give me confirmation that this was something I should think seriously about doing as a career.
Another confirmation must have been when Paul Jones Played your music on BBC radio two?
I was invited to the Maidevale studios at the BBC and played live on his show. This thing happened with John Pearce (who sadly is no longer with us), he was in English guitar player and was quite influential with the media back in the 60s and 70s. They even gave him a program on the BBC on Saturday night about guitar playing, it was a guitar teaching program (can’t remember the name right now). His company was one of the sponsors of the IGS and because I was one of the students that had attended it I sent him a nice letter when I finish the album along with a copy of it. John Pearce was really impressed with it so much so that he was probably instrumental in telling his mates one of which happened to be Paul Jones. He (Paul Jones) listened to it and basically said we have got to get this guy on the radio show and that was that. So I went on and played live on the show for him a number of times.
So how did you discover the lap steel and see that as a musical solution to your current situation?
The simple answer to how I discovered that playing the lap steel was a viable decision was A; I was a guitarist and B; there was no other way I could play, I couldn't hold a guitar in a regular fashion and I certainly couldn't get my hands round the neck or press the strings down. So there was no real alternative, and I hate the bloody maracas (hehe). It was an unknown topic to me. And there wasn't the same information around like you have today there were no computers or the ability to go out and find it unless you were already in the right field of expertise. I was familiar with some open tunings because I played them previous and I knew what chords were so I retuned my guitar to an open chord. My father gave me a piece of old pipe and he adapted my guitar to have a stand on the end of the head stock so it would remain flat. We didn't realise at the time you could raise the nut but we did the first bit and I could rest it on the table.
So I started messing about with a piece of stainless steel plumbing pipe. Half of the time nothing was happening the rest of the time something was happening and the odd time it was so bad you wanted to chuck it out of the window but every now and again there would be something I thought was slightly musical. So as I practised those ‘every now and again moments’ and they became more frequent. But it took years and years and years. I found I was able to train my fingers, arms and elbows and was to be able to use the guitar, I realised it was not just your hands that made it possible it was all of your arm and your body that helped to be creative. So after this accident it was all born out of necessity to do this so I spent a lot of time getting as fit as I could to get back into mainstream life, I needed to get a job, I needed to learn to drive a car again but first of all I had to learn to get myself dressed and just getting out of bed using a wheelchair and so on and so on. So there was a lot going on and it was a massive process of learning everything people take for granted and at the same time the guitar was going to be an essential part of that rehabilitation Journey for me.
I feel very fortunate but I have found a way of doing that now, I'm a lucky boy. I do hope my music is judged irrespective of any disability when people hear it, music is music and if it sounds good people will go and buy a ticket to listen to it. It doesn't really make a difference to the audience whether I have a disability or not, if they like my music they will stay if they don't they will bugger off. That's what's called and ‘even playing field’ and that's where I want to be.
So would you say you've got control of this effect?
No I wouldn't go that far I've not quite got that kind of control over it or control of anything (hehe). I wouldn't say I can control it but I can change it. For me the slide guitar is the only instrument that has direct and total relationship between the two hands. If you think about it on a regular guitar the players fretting hand isn't directly in touch with the other hand the fret is in the way so if you play regular guitar and put your hand on the second fret the actual finger is almost irrelevant it's just holding the string down, it's the fret that stops the string and the other hand then plucks the string. Now on a slide guitar because the strings are in the air if you pick downwards with your playing hand then you're going to be pulling the strings away from the bar and likewise if you pick upwards you're pushing the string upwards onto the bar in a way that you wouldn't do on a regular guitar. The two things are directly joined together and people don't really think about that when playing slide guitar, that make a lot of difference to the sound that comes out of your guitar. So I used those sorts of techniques to create my style.
Intonation obviously is very important and brings it more into focus when you're not dampening behind the bar. Is that something you have to work very hard at, harder than most other slide guitarists?
Yes, yes pitch and tone are really important to me as are all the other bits but pitch particularly. Single notes on the slide guitar are not restricted and can be divided up into another six or seven other sub notes along the length of the sliding action, because we’re not restricted our pitch is infinite and again what a beautiful thing to have. It's a real pleasure but of course it can be a real nightmare too if you don't get it right. So I've never really used a tuner which has been and embarrassment when I play with the Paraorchestra or I thought it would be. So bugger me I went and bought a strobe tuner for the first time in my life I spent almost £50 pounds on it, it's a great tuner though. And I realise I didn't need a tuner because orchestras just tune themselves to the piano that's how professionals do it. And whenever I play music with other people I just get one note off them. And the reason I don't use a tuner is I've always believed why should we use our eyes to tell you something our ears should already know. Tuners are great for giving you a root note but as far as I'm concerned i can find all the other notes from that because you may choose to tune some strings deliberately slightly sharp or slightly flat. And for me the only way to develop good pitch is to throw away your tuner. You heard it here first guys (hehe).
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There is a lovely Bob Brozman quote I’ve heard you say before that went something like….”There is no right or wrong way to play a slide guitar although the technique is important technique is a personal approach, it's the music that comes out of the instrument that matters the most”.
That's quite close to what he said. The first bit he used to say all the time ‘there is no right way or wrong way to play this instrument’, and the second bit about technique is what I added, they're my words. What Bob would say is 'I'm interested in putting the minimum in to get the maximum out' which is great. So that quote is a combination of what he said and what I added. And he was so right the only thing that really matters is the sound of the music. Apart from Dobro playing in its purest blue grass form I don't think there is a written formula for playing this lap steel instrument. Dobro players have their specific techniques and ways of playing the instrument with their bar twists and their triplets, studying it in a far more formal way. But generally most guitar players who play slide that I know are like ‘I’ve got this pencil and I'm writing in my own unique way, this is my style of writing but its still legible the same as everyone else, and so this is my style of playing it's unique and different from anyone else’s’ but its still music.
Tom Doughty is one of Britain’s best kept slide secrets. I myself was ashamedly ignorant of his wealth of brilliant lapslide album recordings, ALL of them lapslide guitar nuggets. Tom is a self taught guitarist from a very young age but in 1974 he suffered a life changing road traffic accident that left him paralysed and would prevent him ever playing conventional guitar again. Frustrated but not defeated he eventually found musical solace in the lap steel through an unconventional but hugely effective playing technique and a series of life changing musical opportunities. It was an honour to talk to this amazing slide musician and discover his amazing story.
Can you pick out 3 lap steel instrumentals you’re most proud if?
When I first recorded “The Bell” in 2003 I recorded the title track on a tuning I had discovered by snapping a string as I was retuning it back a semi tone I found this semitone difference between the third and fourth. It was the a B-flat and a A. I found a really weird chord from that tuning and I made an instrumental built around that and I called it “The Bell”. Without really knowing it that instrumental has loads of Indian overtones to it. It was bizarre and I recorded that before I met Debashish and before I knew anything about him or Indian music. I rerecorded it on one of my later albums “Have A Taste Of This”, and as time went on it came better and better as my technique grew and now there is a lots more in it, I later called it “Jalesar Ghanta” which is a direct Hindi translation of “The Bell”. So I really like that track because it is unusual.
Another instrumental that I really like is because of the phrasing and the tuning. This is where I found the tuning first and made a tune up out of it and that one is called “Maggie's Pies”. That one has some real depth to it, it has Americana feel to it it's quite jazz orientated as well.
And then on the last album the tuning that i used a lot called Gm7, it's really hard to use, I composed a tune that started out being “St James Infirmary” but that song just goes round and round it’s quite boring really. Once you done the first verse you’ve done them all. That is now and instrumental called “Out Of The Asylum”. There's probably no less than a dozen different chord shapes in that and all are genuine chords and haven't been messed with and I don't retune the guitar in the middle of the track or anything like that, it's just recorded as I play. But to me it sounds like a really technical piece of finger style jazz. So I like it for that reason.
When I heard your cover version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ I heard lots of Indian influences in that arrangement lots of Indian overtones is that fair comment?
Yes definitely that's fair comment. I even know the notes that you're referring to. There's a couple of things that Debashish taught me about using the slide in different ways than how we use it in the west. We tend to use a slide for either gliding or striking, you glide to a note and play that note, hammer on, or pull off, whatever it is, you glide up to it in various ways and use vibrato. But in India they do lots of other things as well. There's a couple of things that I do with the slide like using it on its side as well as the top, and moving the slide in different ways. And similarly Bob Brozman used to say the slide is very rarely still when you play, it needs to always been moving about.
So let's talk about ‘Eleanor Rigby’ how did that come to pass?
So as i was talking about earlier I don't dwell on the things I can't do, for example I can't twist (slant) the bar. It's a good job in a way because unless you're the best in the world at it it doesn't sound right. When you do a twist there is always one note that has to be sharp and one has to be flat, it's almost impossible to get a slant accurate in my opinion. But I can't do it anyway, so one of the things I can do is being inventive with the tunings and I have used so many different tunings on a regular basis. I use a tuning in two ways. First of all i use a tuning as a way of exploring where I can take the music so I will purposely find a tuning and change something and then play and work out what different sounds it gives me doing that. The other way I use the tuning is if there is a particular song I want to play I try and find a way of playing it within chord structures, not the individual notes, Notes are easy but chord structures for that song are not so easy. I don't just want the baseline or the melody line I want both. So ‘Eleanor Rigby’ came because I was influenced as a kid by the Beatles and it's a beautiful song and I found a tuning that gave me the ability to play the chord shapes around it and still enabled me to play the melody line on the top three strings.
So what was the final tuning on that track?
If it was tuned up a whole tone to regular tuning it's one note off standard tuning. It's amazing isn't it. But it's in the key of D. So from the base string up it’s DGDFAD. So the FAD gives you a D minor triad on the top three strings, and D and the D are giving you a D Major but the G on the fifth string which in your ordinary D minor tuning would normally be an A, so having that G enables you to play G chord shapes and that's quite pivotal to making this work. If it was all raised a whole tone you would have EAEGBE and that tuning if you take out the fourth E and replace it with a D is standard tuning. I use that tuning quite a lot actually. I don't play my version like the original version as you can tell I've added chords and its heavily improvised.
So can you still make living out of playing lap steel guitars these days?
I've been pretty bad at promotion over the years, I do get the gigs. For a number of reasons really. I've never been able to attract the powers of an agency or manager and it seems to me that it is getting increasingly difficult if you don't have one to get work. The Catch-22 is if you don't have an agent you don't get enough work but in order to get an agent you need to have a portfolio of gigs and work behind you or work booked in front of you to attract someone. I'm no longer a new face on the block or an ‘up-and-coming’ artist any more, I'm happy with what I do so I don't do a lot of marketing. In fact I do hardly any gigs. I am currently getting gigs for the past two or three years that have been repeat business or indeed new business where people have found ‘me’ and asked me to play. So on one hand I'm very fortunate and on the other it wouldn't make me a living any more it wouldn't be enough, I don't do enough gigs to live off. But my teaching work and recordings all adds to the pot. The new album has been so well received I feel really lucky that I've recorded something that that i can stick two fingers up to the music industry. I've recorded something that is not genre specific it's just what I want to play. The thing that ties is together is the lap slide and acoustic guitar and that's all that ties its together. There's possibly more stuff rooted in blues than anything else but it's just what I felt like doing at the time. And how lucky am I to be able to something for my own musical gratification and that has been so well received. If anyone wants me to play please get in touch (hehe).
Tell us about the wonderful Bear Creek Guitars Weissenborn you play and the lovely story about how you came to own it.
Bob Brozman was a very complicated character and kind person but by far the best lap steel player I’ve ever heard, he had obviously heard this old dobro I had been playing in New York (the one with the socks) and he had been really helpful to me. Just one example of this was i was trying to pick this note out with my right hand (a hand which is not normal for reasons we’ve spoken about) and I was trying to get my fingers do things that they just wouldn't do. I was trying to do this intricate sound and I was doing was something that sounded close but it had no real power, it lacked impact. So Bob said why are you sitting there like that and not moving about, you have an arm attached to that hand and so use it so push your arm across the strings and extend your elbow. He’s no physio therapist he's just a guitar player (hehe) but all of a sudden instead of me doing something with the thumb and the thumb joint, I just left the thumb where it was and kept it still and pushed my elbow out. And surprise surprise a big sound popped out so I pulled my arm back and another big sound popped up too. But the thumb pick fell off so I tapped it to my thumb and that was the start of one of my signature sound which is being able to use the thumb pick backwards and forwards across any or all of the strings. It was simple as that it was great and i thank Bob for that advice.
So how did you acquire the Bear Creek, was the question (hehe)
Oh yeah sorry we got side tracked there (hehe). So Bob had heard the dobro and unbeknown to me he had said to everybody back in NY that I was good and that I could really play, but the guitar wasn't doing me any favours. So at the time I was contemplating buying a new dobro, a wooden bodied one. At the same time Bob owned and played a Bear Creek Weissenborn and he came to the UK and toured with it and I went along to see him play and although he stood over me like a hawk he said i could have a go on his Wiessenborn. So he lent me his Bear Creek rocket, it was a smaller version of a Weissenborn that Bear Creek made and it was tuned up to and open C. So it was very short scale. Ohhh it sounded beautiful, so he watched me play it for a minute and eventually when he went back home to the States. While back there he spoke to a number of his musician friends and set up a fund (without my knowledge) for me to buy me a Bear Creek Weissenborn. He spoke to his friend Bill Hardin at Bear Creek Guitars who makes them and said would you start making Tom a regular sized Weissenborn. I didn't know anything about this initially, I kind of got to know about this about a year later. It took three years to fund and make it. I lived on my own at the time and the postman arrives at the door with his big box which just happened to have a guitar inside, a neighbour help me unpack it and so I've got the case on my knees opened the case up and there is MY guitar. Wow I was in tears, I was in buckets of tears. And of course it sounds bloody brilliant. It is the guitar I play more than any other guitar. So yeah that's the story of how I own Bear Creek Weissenborn and how Bob Brozman made it all happen.
Any new projects in the pipeline we can look forward to?
Recording wise the two tracks that were on the new album featuring Matt Wadsworth “Almost Naomi” and “Awakening” are going to be made into a full blown album. Matt is also a member of the Paraorchestra, he plays an instrument called the ‘Theobo’ which is a giant renaissance lute style instrument, I think it has 18 strings absolutely beautiful instrument. We're going to go and record an album together so we're in the process of writing that right now.
Well that’s definitley going to be something to look forward to as they were two of my favourite tracks on the new album “Can’t Teach An Old Dog”. Thanks for the wonderful conversation and all the best Tom, see you round sometime.
Thank you Aron and for all that you are doing for this wonderful instrument, it really is a great site, it’s been my pleasure.
You’re old school and are a self taught musician, learning pieces of music through repeat listening and trial and error. Tell us whether you think in todays instant visual media (YouTube etc) whether the art of transcribing 100% by ear is still a valuable skill to have?
Sure it’s not my normal way of learning something but it's a wonderful thing in my opinion. Is so good nowadays that at click of a mouse you can more or less access anything from anywhere in the world. Much broader than your own imagination even, you can always start doing searches and start wondering off on tangents and discovering new music along the way. I think the travesty is that music is losing its value. In every sense of the word because people perhaps have got so many other influences and distractions that they spend less time doing what I would do as a teenager, opening up an album cover and reading the sleevenotes while listening to the music on the turntable, listening to it completely to the exclusion of everything else in that moment. There's so many things about nowadays I wonder if that actually happens now, people just listening to the music with no other distractions. I guess it doesn’t. I think that this will affect attention spans but nevertheless that’s me being a bit picky. The general point is the arrival of the Internet and accessibility of music is tremendous for people to be able to learn. That's the real upside of the Internet it's great you can find anything you want. And the things like, the ability to transcribe music at the same pitch but to be able to slow it down with software is great that's a really clever piece of kit. The sadness is of course that a lot of the material that is available out there now is for free and that does tend to devalue the profession. You wouldn't get much interest from a plumber if you said would you like to further your career by coming to put in my toilet for exposure only not renumeration. It's sad that people are quite happy to play for no renumeration (or not much at all) and it makes it very difficult for those who rely on it for a living to get work. And similarly recorded material is in same position and will probably be the next follow.
You’re a teacher yourself now i believe?
Yes I do, I teach it's great, I love it. First of all I’ve been able to have a friend like a Woody Mann who was a brilliant teacher and so I would communicate his craftsmanship with other people, it's always been an interest of mine. The other approach to the way I play is different to other people. It became clear to me over the years that I am the sort of person who isn't guarded and is happy to pass on what he knows to anyone else who wants it. That's a pleasure for me and something that is good about being a musician, anyone can have my licks I have no secrets, I will tell anyone anything. So I turned that idea in starting to teach people. I mostly teach one on one to people because I'm basically the world's worst marketing person so i don’t put myself around as someone who can who can run workshops etc. Although I did do some years ago, an instructional and performance tour of every one of the U.K.'s spinal units in order to look at music being a rehab tool. I teach at home and some on Internet using Skype. My style of teaching starts by wanting to know what the students want to play and in what environment, i.e. On their own, in a band, in their front room etc. What sort of music floods their boat what they like, and lastly what they want to play.
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