Comments to Your Queries - Part I
3/31/2006 (updated 4/1/2006)

Having seen you last night at the Barbican retuning the guitar many times I am asking what strings you use? They seem to stay at the required pitch no matter how often you change the pitch. I play Fylde Goodfellows and use their recommended strings but other than drop D tuning, any other retuning seems to take a while to settle. Do you use pre-tensioned strings and if so where from?

I use Elixir Light Gauge Acoustic Strings. Most strings should stay in tune, and if they don’t there are usually reasons:

1) Crap strings.

2) Not installed and stretched properly. The string should be wound around the tuning peg at least three times before being slotted through the hole. It should then be brought up to correct tension and stretched fairly vigorously, brought to pitch again, stretched again, over and over until it stays at pitch. I pull the string up away from the fretboard, and avoid releasing it suddenly so that it slaps down onto the frets – this can ‘bruise’ the frets.

3) Temperature/humidity variation. Climate change can alter the tuning – moving from cold dressing room to warm stage or vice versa – having to helicopter in to Shea Stadium, that sort of thing – can change tuning. Sometimes the unwound strings will move, and the others stay put. Not much to do about this, unless you can hover for five minutes at the side of the stage, acclimatizing.

4) Bridge pins, etc. – string ends can fail to seat properly at the bridge. Bridge pins wear out, as does their seating, and this can lead to inconsistencies. I prefer guitars with ‘through’ bridges, much less fiddly, and sometimes better tone.

I find when I do a lot of retuning, the unwound strings will sometimes work themselves sharp, and will need tweaking, occasionally during a song. With a lot of retuning in a show, there are always small pitch problems that you just have to live with, and adjust as you go. Guitars are never in tune with themselves anyway! John Williams tunes his top 2 strings slightly flat, and I tend to be of that school. Buzzy Feiton has a whole different tuning system, which might be worth investigating if you have incurable problems.

On the recent Mojo magazine CD of Who covers, you do an excellent cover of "Legal Matter"... This has prompted a fierce debate amongst my muso friends and I... My question is this: Is there someone else playing guitar with you on that live version of "Legal Matter"?

Debra Dobkin plays percussion, but I am the only guitar player.

My wife & I enjoyed the tracks you laid for "Grizzly Man". We watched the special feature on the making of the music then rushed to find your website. We are curious - are you planning a 2006 show schedule? If so, are you coming back to Hawaii? We would thoroughly enjoy seeing you perform!

Bizarrely, I’m writing this from Hawai'i, but alas am only in transit from Australia to the US – I wasn’t able to squeeze a show in this time. The next window may be around Thanksgiving - Mahalo.

I tend to think that in the UK you are still seen as essentially a ‘folkie’ (albeit one of the best there is, alongside Martin Carthy, Michael Chapman – although he is probably not really a folkie as such) while in the US you fall into the ‘rock guitarist’ category, competing with the likes of Slash or the bloke from Aerosmith, for heavens sake. Do you think there is anything in this, and does it influence anything that you do (ie. are your US shows any different to the UK ones ?)

The main difference I notice is age – my oldest audience is in the UK, in some cases people have been there since Fairport – they deserve medals! In the US, I never really toured as Me until the early 80s, and got treated a lot as a ‘new’ artist, and played on college radio, hence an audience that’s a bit younger. Japan is even younger, so is Australia. I do think you’re right about the UK being a bit more ‘folk’ and the US being a bit more ‘rock’. Band shows in the US sell more tickets, in the UK they sell the same as acoustic shows.

You mention that you used two Neumann KM184 Condenser mics on your guitar as a stereo pair. On Front Parlour Ballads.

Whereabouts were they positioned and about what distance? Heel, bridge, or were they spaced? Heel and neck heel and bridge etc... Just I'm recording acoustic guitar soon and it sounds great on your album.

On Front Parlour Ballads, the mics were set up as a crossed pair – the mic capsules are placed as close together as possible, and at 90 degrees to each other. This gives a true stereo image, without any phase cancellation, i.e. the loss of some frequencies when more than one mic is used. You can use this technique on a whole symphony orchestra! The mics were about 9 inches from the guitar, and about 4 inches below the soundhole, but pointing up at it. When recording, there is a ‘boom’ that comes from close proximity to the soundhole, which can be overwhelming, and give you too much low end. Being slightly off the soundhole avoids the boom, but is close enough to the main sound source to get a good tone. Trial and error will give you the best technique for your instrument.

On songwriting:

Have you ever given talks/workshops on your songwriting in Universities or colleges, and/or would this be something you would be interested in at any point in the future?

I’m too busy writing to want to teach it. Maybe when I’m older.

I absolutely love the electric guitar tone on "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight," especially on the track, "When I Get to the Border." I was wondering what the guitar/amplifier combination was on that particular tune. To my ears, it sounds like a single-coil guitar (a Stratocaster?) through an EL84 amp of some sort (Vox AC30/AC15? Watkins Dominator?).

Can you enlighten me as to how this tone was achieved?

This was a Fender Strat ’59 through a 1960 Fender Deluxe Reverb. Probably at about half volume on the amp. This was processed through a Fairchild compressor by the wonderful John Wood. These terrific devices have a great warm tone (see Geoff Emerick’s new book on engineering the Beatles for more on the Fairchild). They are getting expensive and hard to find – I think they must have stopped making them in the 60s. One can get the digital plug-in version now, but Mr. Emerick would hardly approve.