When Richard Thompson first appeared on the British folk scene in the late 1960s he was immediately recognised by his peers as a fully fledged guitar prodigy. But whereas other emergent players of the time like Clapton, Beck, and Page had headed for the bright lights of rock n’ roll, Richard chose a far more cloistered existence with Fairport Convention – and in doing so played a very prominent role in the invention of what we now know as folk rock.
To many, it was 1969’s Liege And Leaf album that both established the Fairports as prime movers in the newly founded electric folk genre and highlighted Richard’s talents as a songwriter at the same time – and by then he was only 20 years old!
Richard had started playing just 10 years earlier, claiming that his guiding light had been the renowned Play In A Day guitar tutor by Bert Weedon. ‘I started asking for a guitar from the age of five, but was not taken seriously, so I had to pose in front of the mirror with a tennis racket,’ he tells me. ‘When I was 10, an old army buddy of my dad’s, who ran Lew Davies’ shop in Charing Cross Road, gave him a damaged Spanish guitar, which he repaired. So that was sitting in the house. My sister was supposed to be the one playing it, but I got there first!’
Post Play In A Day influences were something of a mixed bag, too… ‘The influences came from my dad’s collection, and my big sister’s. Dad had Django, Les Paul and good jazz like early Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington in among the Rogers and Hammerstein and Scottish dance music. My sister had Buddy Holly, Elvis and Jerry Lee and some folk and blues.’
Initially, there were school bands like Emil And The Detectives which also featured school friend Hugh Cornwell who would go on to form The Stranglers when punk broke loose in the mid 1970s. But it wasn’t long before Richard’s talents as a lead player found him joining Fairport. I asked him if the “boy wonder” tag had been a bit of a burden.
‘I grew up with prodigies. In my year at school, there was Carlos Bonell, now a professional classical guitarist, and a kid called Paul Lomax, a pupil of Len Williams, who was reckoned to be the next John Williams. That’s two classical guitar prodigies out of 90 kids. So I was the third best classical player in my year! After a while, I decided to switch to other styles, where the competition wasn’t so fierce. So, although it was the age of the British blues guitarist, I didn’t mind the Jeff Becks, Erics, and Peter Greens, because I felt I was playing a different style.’
After only a relatively short stint with Fairport Convention, Richard left the band to pursue a solo career – one which has seen some genre-defying twists and turns along the way. That particular journey began in 1972 with the cult classic Henry The Human Fly and since has included I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Shoot Out The Lights. What’s it like being almost unclassifiable as a songwriter?
‘I have a style which I think of as mine and I think I am a fair way down that particular road. Being comfortable with that, I then think it is okay to grab things from other styles and drag them into my area, to broaden my own vocabulary. If you go too far into the other style, so that it dominates your own musical personality, then you can sound like a musical colonialist.’
Richard’s songs are known for their somewhat sombre lyrical content. In fact, he once described his output as thus: “I do two kinds of songs: down-tempo depressed songs and up-tempo depressed songs…” Nevertheless, his compositions have been covered by many different artists – take, for instance, Bonnie Raitt’s version of Richard’s ‘Dimming Of The Day’ – just about as heart-rending as it’s possible to get, scoring very high indeed on the not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house scheme of things when played live. But there have also been covers by bands as diverse as The Blind Boys Of Alabama, REM and Los Lobos. How does Richard feel about these and other covers of his songs?
‘It’s nice when people notice your songs and then like them enough to record them. There are exceptions, but mostly I’m thrilled to hear covers, especially when they approach the song in a different way.’
The other side of this particular coin, of course, is Richard’s collaborations with other artists. Always the bold music adventurer, this has turned up some unlikely couplings – like Thompson and Talking Heads’ eccentric genius, David Byrne. Are there any other musicians on Richard’s list with whom he’d like to work?
‘I tend to play with most of the people I want to. Sometimes things get thrown at me – for instance, I recently did some shows with Peter Frampton – and I really enjoyed playing in a situation I wouldn’t have thought of as being compatible.’
Latter years have seen the often-reclusive Richard relocate to California from whence he tours regularly. At home with both an acoustic guitar or a battered Stratocaster in his hands, 2013 saw him take drummer Michael Jerome and bass player Taras Prodaniuk into Buddy Miller’s home studio in Nashville to record an album called simply Electric. Is Richard currently forsaking the acoustic guitar in favour of its more boisterous cousin?
‘It isn’t all electric, in spite of the title, but it has more of a band ingredient. These things go in cycles and it was time for this. I’m really enjoying the trio, but I’m debating what comes next – more trio, or some other project – I have a few things in mind.’
Judging from the past, the “few things in mind” won’t include a “more of same” approach, but what it exactly entails, we’ll have to wait and see. Further details certainly weren’t forthcoming during our conversation and so I decided on a change of tack. Known, then, as an award-winning songwriter, Richard takes part in annual acoustic guitar songwriting camps. I asked him what sort of thing people come to the camp to learn.
‘The camp is Frets and Refrains at the Half Moon Resort near Woodstock, NY. People come with all different intentions and varied skill levels. We have wonderful teachers like Martin Simpson and Shawn Colvin, so we can further pretty much anyone’s playing and writing. I think we are also able to disseminate some musical philosophy along the way. It is also a perfect environment, surrounded as you are by 120 guitarists. What you don’t learn from the classes, you’ll get from fellow students.’
It’s a known fact that being able to “do” doesn’t always translate into being comfortable as a teacher. Often a process has become so engrained in an individual that putting it into words or offering it up as a codified procedure is nigh on impossible. So does Richard find teaching comes easily?
‘I don’t think easy is the right word… if I prepare properly, I’m comfortable in the relationship and I feel a great reward imparting what I hope is knowledge.’
In the past Richard has described himself as being very disciplined when working on new material. So when writing a song is there some sort of formulaic process where, for instance, the lyrics come first – or is it far more random than that?
‘I’m disciplined on the daily routine and organising notes, but I never know what the starting point of a song is going to be and it would be foolish and restrictive of me to second-guess the muse! I’ll take songs any old way they come.’
Not giving too much away, then! I asked Richard about the tunings he uses the most when writing and his reply covered just three… ‘My main tunings are: drop D, DADGAD and CGDGBE…’
For now, let’s get off the subject of songwriting and turn instead to the hardware – in particular the signature Lowden that we’re taking a look at in this issue of Acoustic. The story goes that Richard discovered Lowden years ago, almost by accident.
‘Steve from The Guitar Center in Washington DC brought one backstage, and said, “This is the guitar you should be playing…” He was right!’
This would have been the L27FC, now known as the L32C. Time travel forwards by a good number of years and we find Richard taking possession of his very own guitar. What was his input to Lowden with regard to the design of the signature model?
‘I was happy with the existing cutaway design and body shape and size, so it was a matter of choosing the woods. I’d tried a smaller guitar that George had built from cedar and ziricote and really liked the punch and evenness of tone. It is absolutely the guitar for me, and seems to be catching on with a few others.’
At this point I thought it would be a good idea to hear the other side of the story and so I spoke to George Lowden on the phone. I asked him what sort of challenge it was to place the right instrument in any musician’s hands.
‘With different players I try to build up an understanding of their playing style, dynamics and what they’re trying to draw out of an instrument as best I can,’ George says. ‘For example, what Pierre Bensusan wants to draw out of a guitar will be quite different to what a bluegrass player would want to do or Richard Thompson, for that matter.’
But, of course, Richard’s playing encompasses a variety of styles… ‘Yes, Richard has a wide variety of influences in his playing – there’s that English folk influence which is in there and a bit of American influence, too – and some of them are quite complicated. So, from a builder’s perspective, he needs an instrument that projects well so that he doesn’t always have to dig in if he doesn’t want to. So if he eases back, the guitar still speaks and still responds very easily. Also, of course, I was helped by the fact that his first Lowden, which I think he still plays quite a bit, was my mid-size design – the F model that I designed back in 1982 or 1983.’
Presumably that’s the one Richard met backstage, courtesy of The Guitar Centre…
‘As I recall he got that guitar way back then and so I realised that the F model would be the right size to start with. But then there was the whole question of the soundboard: I chose cedar in the end because I felt that in order to get that fast response that he needs for certain styles, cedar would be the best option.’
Cedar might be seen as a surprising choice for a player whose style sometimes ventures into overdrive? ‘The funny thing about cedar is that when you put it on a mid-size soundbox you get a slightly more compact sound, possibly because of the restricted size, and so surprisingly you can play the slightly more aggressive bluegrass styles on a cedar top if you want to. Whereas if you had a cedar top on one of our larger models like the O model it wouldn’t be so ideal for that because it would be too responsive. So, for me as a guitar maker, I’m trying to match the design to his playing style and so that was the main focus.’
What about the choice of Ziricote for the back and sides? ‘As the years have gone by I’ve begun to use a lot of woods that I would never have known existed in the early years – and Ziricote is one of those. It’s a beautiful looking wood – it often looks more like a blackish Brazilian rosewood; it has the figuring and it’s even more dense than Brazilian rosewood and it also has the slightly silky, oily texture to the surface of the wood. So I was pretty confident that when I put the cedar with the Ziricote on the F model that it was going to produce a guitar that projected on the one hand, but that was really sensitive on the other if you wanted it to be so.’
Are there any “under the bonnet” design features that might not be immediately apparent from the outside?
‘No, because Richard had already been playing my guitars for a long number of years I knew that I didn’t have to change anything significantly. I just had to do the usual thing which is to choose the voicing details according to the wood choice and the size of the soundbox. So if I had been making his guitar on a smaller soundbox than what he’s using I would have changed the voicing details to suit that. But because he was sticking with the F size I was able to keep the voicing details pretty much the same as the original one that he used.’
Was it Richard’s idea not to have position markers on the fingerboard? ‘I’m pretty sure that I had a conversation with him where I asked him if the position markers on the face of the fingerboard important to him. Because I find that a lot of people think they are important but then when you ask them to check they usually find that they’re only using the ones on the side.’
Lastly, I’m sure that a lot of people would be interested in knowing what kind of criteria are behind Lowden’s signature model series in general?
‘Any time that you make a signature model for anybody there are two things involved: one is that they must have been playing my guitars for a long time anyway – we don’t go and attempt to buy players. If there’s already a long-standing relationship then it seems fitting to celebrate and mark it in some way. The other thing is that they have to be exceptional players, which of course Richard is in every sense of the word! What helps often is if the player is a really nice guy and good to work with – and in Richard’s case he’s an absolute gentleman.’
Back to Richard and to round off the interview, the fine detail about the outboard gear he uses live to get his Lowden into the PA.
‘I use a Sunrise pick-up in the soundhole and a Countryman Isomax condenser mic inside the guitar. The two pickup systems route into a two-channel preamp called a Gas Cooker, made by Ridge Farm Studios. This adds a lot of warmth to the signals. We’ve added some mods to make it more roadworthy…’
And with that he was gone. As enigmatic as ever, a brilliant voice in whatever style he chooses to venture into and, as George Lowden puts it – a perfect gentleman!