Dec/Jan Answers, Part IV
3/2/2009 (updated 7/4/2012)

Richard, please excuse this guitar geek question. You've explained before about the design of your blue Ferrington guitar and I'm interested in how you use the various tones and pick-up combinations available to you, especially during live performances? I've seen you play live on many occasions and it sounds/looks to me like you're most often using the bridge pick-up alone. Could you give some examples of the pick-up settings you use for specific songs? Also, how much do you vary those settings night after night? Many thanks. Paul Solman, Surrey, England

My default setting is middle and bridge p/us. I use just the bridge for a couple of things, and middle and neck, and just neck here and there. The Ferrington is wired with a volume pot on each p/u, so backing off one pot when you're mixing 2 p/us gives an infinite variety of tonal possibilities. Night after night, the settings on the guitar don't change much, but the amp settings do more or less bass or treble, more or less volume.

After reading your reply to a question about how to play interesting solos and seeing some you suggested, I'm left wondering: How do you make all of those bizarre scales fit so well? They seem like they should make a dissonant mess but somehow they don't. I suppose my question is "How do you know how to apply them?". Yours sincerely, Liam (an aspiring young insomniac musician)

Notes that are not contained in the underlying scale of the piece you are playing will sound like wrong or 'out there' notes unless there is a pattern to their use, and a logical conclusion. Of course, there are forms of music - some jazz, modern classical that throw out all the rules of harmony, but I don't think that's what you're asking about. One brief example: You are playing a piece in the key of D. You reach an A chord, which is going to resolve to a D. Instead of playing the notes of the A 7th scale, you could use notes from the C# diminished scale. This is a 4 note scale C#, E, G, Bb. Observe that 3 of these notes are also common to the A7th scale C#, E, G, so they will sound 'right'. The note that rubs is the Bb, but it works in context, because the ear accepts the diminished pattern over the underlying chord. Resolution is important: say your run starts on the C#, and ascends E G Bb C# E G Bb (2 octaves), you could then resolve by dropping a semitone to A as you hit the D chord. This is a very basic version of using a 'substitute' chord. Any good jazz primer will deal with this in detail.

I'm in my twenties and only discovered your music a couple of years ago when you played at the Lewes Guitar Festival and completely blew me (and the rest of the audience) away. I can tell you that your performance that night was the talk of the town for days afterwards.

Ever since then I have been trying to get to grips with your guitar style on both electric and acoustic guitar. Your hybrid picking technique creates for me such a unique sound which I am nowhere near mastering. I can manage songs like Beeswing and Cold Kisses at about 80% speed, but songs such as 1952 Vincent with that fast alternating bass line (although I know you use a thumb pick for this) are still a long way off.

I wondered how long it took you to develop such a technique? I read somewhere that you said using a flatpick and fingers just came about naturally and out of laziness practising whilst watching the TV. Was there anything in particular you worked on, or was it simply an organic process? Also, I wondered how long you keep your nails on your right hand? It doesn't sound (or look, as far as I can see) that you have long nails, but I am experimenting (I'm also a classical guitarist, you see), and I have found that nails get easily worn down by the steel strings so I have to keep them very short. Any comments and top tips on the above would be greatly appreciated! Kind regards, Luke Anthony - Guildford, UK

I've enjoyed reading Malcolm Gladwell's new book, The Outliers. In it, he looks at reasons people are successful in their fields, and his findings are frequently at odds with commonly held beliefs. He quotes from a study of high-achieving classical music students, which found that without exception the most successful musicians, who went on to have high profile careers, were the ones that did the most practice. It was nothing to do with being 'gifted', although that may ultimately distinguish the brilliant from the excellent. Studying various fields, Gladwell found the magic number of 10,000 hours if you did something for that long, you would master it. Now that's about 20 hours a week for 10 years. So I don't think there are short cuts, just play what you want to end up playing, practise your scales, and if you want to play something fast, slow it right down first, and look at the mechanics of what you're doing.

I keep my nails short because I prefer the tone, but it is true that steel strings beat the heck out of your nails. It's tough playing steel and nylon, because nylon really does require longer nails for tone and technique, so I don't know what your solution will be!

The recordings on "More Guitar" include several expressions of the remarkably distinctive (at least within the genre of rock 'n roll) approach to solos that involve the paradoxical use of harmonic dissonance. I just never ever tire of listening to these wonderful refreshing performances. I've read where fellow band mates of yours have admired your openness to taking risks while playing. How many (or how much) of the solos on 'More Guitar', say for example on, "Don't Tempt Me", "Jerusalem on the Jukebox", "Can't Win", "Gypsy Love Songs" etc., evolved in the moment? How did you come to understand these harmonic/dissonnant relationships?

See answer above, and as John Cage said, if it sounds dissonant, keep playing it until it sounds normal. I enjoy the music of John Coltrane, which goes from melodic to dissonant, and I love composers like Berg, Webern and Hindemith in which the music is frequently or totally dissonant. So although I play basically melodic music, I like a bit of weird round the edges. One prepares for playing by practicing the musical components, then as you are playing live, the components come together, and new things are forged.