The Cinderella story of Jon Gomm’s rise to international acclaim is already a legend among players seeking their fortune on the highways and byways of the internet. Once a busy musician playing clubs and pubs across the UK, the YouTube video of his tune ‘Passionflower’ and a single syllable appraisal – “Wow!” – posted on Twitter from no less than Stephen Fry helped propel him into the six string stratosphere. Now busier than ever, this fiercely independent musician took time out from a hectic schedule to talk to us in advance of his appearance at this year’s London Acoustic Show…
First of all, can you outline your faithful Lowden – Wilma’s – history for us?
I’d been to see singer-songwriter Nick Harper and I decided I needed that sound. Big. The acoustic version of a wall of Marshalls. He was using a Lowden, so I looked them up and I couldn’t afford one. So I started searching through the classified ads in the back of a guitar magazine for a second-hand one. There weren’t any. I didn’t realise that these are handmade instruments and therefore kinda rare. I checked the previous month’s issue’s classifieds. Still none. Two hours later and I’d been through my whole stack of magazines until eventually I found one in a two-year-old issue. I called the number and unbelievably the guy still had it! I asked him where he lived and he was in Winchester, which is quite a long way from Leeds and I didn’t have a car. Later that day my dad phoned me. I asked him what he was up to and he mentioned that he was going to Winchester the next day on business. So there you have it. Fate.
What makes her special for you as a player?
Lowdens have magical powers. George Lowden basically reinvented the way acoustic guitars are built. The bracing pattern in particular is completely different. He opened up the guitar, let it breathe and so revealed all this warm mid-range tone that had previously only been heard from classical guitars. I don’t think people realise that this humble Northern Irishman is probably the most revered luthier of the last half-century. American luthier Ervin Somogyi – who wrote the textbook on modern guitar building and whose guitars are sold for six figure sums – when he met George for the first time, Somogyi got down on his knees before him. He literally knelt on the ground. Wilma is particularly special for me because I’ve been experimenting with percussive stuff on her for 14 years, so the top is worn all over in different ways. So I have all these textures to play with. Also, she’s beautiful.
What inspired you to install banjo tuners?
I first saw Billy Connolly do these retuning tricks on banjo when I was a kid. Then I remember seeing Adrian Legg for the first time, using the same trick on guitar. Adrian being Adrian, he wrote all about these tuning pegs and how they worked and where to get them. So I got some! They’re called Keith Pegs and are handmade in Woodstock, NY by Bill Keith. I have my own way of using them; for me it’s my way of getting the pitch-bend sounds guys like Jeff Beck and Steve Vai get on electric guitar. You can’t get acoustic guitars with whammy bars. Actually, Richie Sambora did get Martin Guitar to build him one; I saw it, it’s hanging on the wall of the Hard Rock Cafe in Lisbon, Portugal. The fact that it’s hanging on a wall tells you everything you need to know about how well it worked, I think!
Looking at your pedal board, it’s more what we’d expect from a rock player – could you give us a guided tour?
Actually, electric guitarists look at my board with complete bafflement too! There are only four effects on there: Boss’s OC3 Super Octave (which I totally started and now everyone’s using it – I should have painted it so nobody could see what it was!) overdrive, delay and reverb. The rest of the pedals are to tweak and blend the sound of my three pickups. So there are three parametric EQ pedals and a Line Selector which is Boss’s Swiss army knife A/B/Y blend/split pedal. Parametric EQ on each pickup is amazing for me. Some guitarists actually send their two or three pickups separately to the sound engineer and then expect the engineer to mix them, which is nuts to me. How is a sound engineer supposed to know how your pickups sound and how to EQ and blend them?
How did your multi-pickup system evolve?
Slowly! The one pick-up that’s been constant is the Fishman Rare Earth humbucker, which is warm and fat and responds really well to effects, too. Also, because it’s magnetic it only hears the strings and is completely deaf to the percussion. This is great for mixing your overall sound. For about 10 years I’ve been using the Rare Earth Blend which has a microphone attached, which again is just fabulous, the best internal guitar mic I’ve tried – and I’ve tried a lot. I also have one more pickup, a sensor – a stick-on transducer. There are millions of these available; I use one made by Carlos Juan called The Sly. It’s super-sensitive and gorgeous.
Do you still use an acoustic amp or is it strictly PA these days?
I use a Trace Acoustic TA200, which is basically like a tiny PA, as my backline amp and onstage monitor. It’s completely clean and really adjustable too. It’s completely redesigned from their classic amps from 20 years ago by a British amp builder called Paul Stevens. He knows everything that anyone has ever known about amps and he’s come up with inspired new ideas on top of that.
Have you ever experimented with MIDI?
How dare you!
Moving on to technique now – have you always played acoustic or did you start with electric?
I started out with a three quarter size classical guitar when I was four. My teacher was a classical and flamenco guitarist, but I spent a lot of time playing songs, particularly Beatles songs from a songbook my uncle brought me back from holiday in Spain, which had Spanish guitar arrangements of their songs. I got into electric guitar pretty soon after that and through my teens and early 20s that was my main focus. I went to The Guitar Institute for three years, studying every kind of electric guitar playing known to man. But I was starting to lean towards acoustic more and by the time I moved to Leeds to study jazz at Leeds College of Music I was really getting into contemporary acoustic stuff and experimenting with wacky techniques.
Who were your principal influences in the beginning?
I’ve been through so many phases as a guitarist; it’s hard to find a beginning as such! One thing that really influenced me a lot was going to gigs as a kid. You can only learn so much about being a musician from listening to records, even from watching videos. Being in a room with musicians, feeling the air vibrating with the sounds they’re making is so different. I used to go to gigs with my dad a lot, mostly blues gigs. So there’d be this room full of middle-aged blues fans and this one 10-year-old kid! After a while, my dad got to know all these musicians and they’d start staying over at his house after the gig to save paying for a hotel. So we’d have his house in Blackpool full of hairy American bluesmen every weekend. Walter Trout was my favourite, he was so funny, he’d show me how to play his licks, but also how to pull faces and stuff. “Hey Jaaaahn, you know when I make that face like this [screws up face and sticks out lips]? You know what I’m doing? I’m trying to fart so loudly that the audience can hear it over the music!” And Bob Brozman, he really got me into guitar drumming. Man, he was so great, just an extraordinary guitarist. He took his own life last year and the circumstances were pretty horrific; the fact that he used to stay over at my place when I was a kid… well it’s been hard for me to come to terms with.
Have you favourite tunings that you like to explore?
No. That would defeat the whole point of altered tunings for me. When I was a kid, I was in a band with my best friend Michael and I was already pretty good – I could play loads of scales, I could play loads of cool fast licks, pretty damn awesome. Michael could barely play, he’d taken about two lessons and couldn’t play in time; he was a Neanderthal guitarist. But when it came to composing, all my guitar riffs sounded kind of generic and boring, but his sounded really original and cool. I couldn’t figure it out – I had all this skill and knowledge, he didn’t. Damn! Finally I realised – when I looked down at my guitar I could see all the places where my fingers were allowed to go, all the patterns and pathways. But when my friend looked at his guitar, it was just a blank page, the only tool he had, but therefore the only limit he had, was his imagination. By retuning my guitar, all those patterns disappeared and I could experience that creative freedom and compose without my fingers taking over.
The chilly winds of change have been howling through the music industry over the past few years. Some have thrived, others are struggling. How do you think independent artists should adapt to the current music environment?
We independent artists shouldn’t really have to adapt, we’re the ones who’ve built this new world online. It’s the mainstream industry that is adapting. I’ve always been independent. The mainstream music industry is a cutthroat and shallow place. I’ve seen so many musician friends get screwed over, screwed out of money or even worse, screwed out of being able to make their art. Sometimes the musicians start caring too much about the wrong stuff, like how many albums they’ve sold. I have no idea how many albums I’ve sold and I run my own record label! I could look it up; I just don’t care. I know my overall revenue and how that’s going. I can’t be bothered breaking it down every month or whatever. And now the corporate industry is trying to copy the independent model. Using social networks for promotion, using Pay What You Want or other revenue structures. To be honest, they still haven’t figured out any way to deal with piracy. They still want all music lovers who file-share to get prosecuted.
It’s amazing how many independent artists have a mainstream attitude to certain things though, it’s really frustrating to me! I have friends, independent and not, who are aghast when they find out their album has been downloaded 10,000 times on Pirate Bay or whatever. They don’t see it as a way of spreading their music and getting more fans and more income. And I say to them: “But you put your videos on YouTube. That’s free. Nobody pays for that and it has the added value of a video! So what are you complaining about?” And they say, “Yes but I chose to put my videos there” or “Yes but that’s advertising” or “Yes but that has different audio” or “Yes but you can’t download from YouTube…” which of course any kid knows how to do, if that even matters. How is a music fan supposed to know that even though you gave them your music for free on YouTube, they shouldn’t take it for free from another place? Did you ever take the time to explain the difference? Do you have a strategy for it at all?
And so many independent artists just stick their music anywhere, too. I’m not on Spotify, because the revenue is pathetic and it’s part owned by major labels and run really for their benefit, so they can monetize back catalogue and I hate that. If an independent artist has made an informed choice to put their music on Spotify, I totally respect that. But if they’ve just put it there, just because it exists, so it must be OK right? I can’t understand that. It’s frustrating! That’s why I hit my guitar, probably.
Jon Gomm plays the London Acoustic Show in association with JHS and Fishman on Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 September 2015. Jon’s Secret’s Nobody Keeps is out now.