Q&A August 2012, Part I
9/15/2012 (updated 9/15/2012)

Thanks so much for the Bath Forum gig at the end of July - it was a birthday treat for me, and my companion, whose only understanding of who you were was based on the notion of "oh he was in Fairport, got one of their albums somewhere, I'll probably like this", was blown away by the power of your performance. As was I. By a bit of not-entirely-inexplicable synchronicity, another friend gave me the Live At The BBC set as a birthday present (he's a generous man), which I'm very much enjoying. One question though: how come the leap from 80's recordings to 21st century - what happened to the 90's, or did the BBC ignore you for a decade? Thanks again for so much inspirational musicality, Duncan Batey - Glastonbury
P.S. Seeing you again at The Brook in Southampton in a couple of weeks - I'll be the one shouting for 'Feel So Good'. Like I usually do.

I was not a party to the track selection on this album, so I don't know why the Stalinist-style purge of all things 90s - I'm sure I was there at the Beeb doing things. Colour me baffled.

Although your main instrument is guitar, it's clear from your recordings that your mandolin playing is none too shabby. Do you have any advice for a guitarist trying to make the transition to mandolin? Obviously, basic techniques such as fretting and picking are common to both instruments, but after 30-plus years of playing the guitar in standard tuning, my brain can't seem to get used to the mandolin tuning and the fingering patterns. Any advice would be much appreciated, and also any recommendations for tunes to play (I've been looking at a couple of reels and jigs notated for fiddle). Are we ever likely to see you play mandolin on stage? Perhaps in the new trio as you will be without the amazing Mr Zorn? Many thanks, Paul - Surrey, England

Violinists, particularly those with some classical training in the higher positions, can adapt the left hand very easily to the mandolin - same tuning and fingering. Guitarists have the necessary technique on the right hand - if you've played a 12-string, you're there already. I would say, as a guitarist going over to the mandolin, it's best to start by learning a few open-position chords - C, G, D, A, E, F - and then learn short arpeggios around those chords. Then develop scales, major and minor, in the same keys. Mandolin tuning is more logical than guitar, which is tuned in fourths except when it isn't.

I have been trying to learn some of your guitar techniques (a task much easier said than done!). One thing that I haven't been able to figure out is whether you ever play with your fingers while simultaneously performing an upstroke with the pick. For example, on a song like Drinkin' Wine Spo-dee-o-dee, where the rhythm on the bass strings is played using a down-up-down-up-down-up-down-up pattern (as far as I can tell) using the pick, many of the embellishments seem to happen on the down strokes (e.g. plucking the second and third strings simultaneously), but some also seem to happen on the up-beat. To me it feels much more difficult to do an upstroke with the pick while playing treble notes with the fingers compared to doing the same thing on a down stroke. I can work around this a little by using all downstrokes, but this makes the rhythm less interesting. Is there some trick to learn here or is it just a case of doing lots of practice playing with the fingers while up-picking with the pick? Cheers, Dan Dreaming

We went over this technique at the Frets and Refrains Guitar Camp this summer. As you say, when the melody on the high strings occurs on the downstroke, your hand is just squeezing, and it's not unnatural. When it occurs on the upstroke, it's rather counter-intuitive, because everything is going north! When played slowly, it's weird - up to speed seems more natural, so please persist and it will start to feel like a comfy old pair of shoes.

This is a bit of a follow-up to a fan question from last month concerning your & Dave Swarbrick's song writing methods. I've always been intrigued by a couple of Fairport's "epic" songs - namely, A Sailor's Life & Sloth. Both are characterized by extended instrumental interplay between yourself & Mr. S. Were those tracks laid down separately or were you both playing together in the studio? To my amateur ears they both come across as controlled jams - even after all these years they remain pure and timeless for me.

A Sailor's Life is completely live, no overdubs, and also first take. This may have been the first time Swarb and I ever played together, and I don't remember any rehearsal. You can hear us feeling each other out, and figuring out the rules as we went along - major and minor both OK, and to some extent interchangeable. We had played it live without Swarb certainly once at Southampton University, so we had a shape in mind, but it changed a lot as we recorded it. The recording of Sloth may have redone vocals, but all the track is live.