When it comes to YouTube having
a major impact on a solo guitarist’s career,
pointers typically go to Andy McKee, whose
rapid rise to fame was aided considerably by
being in the right place at the right time while
the video platform was in its infancy. But with
more than 2.5 million views of his jaw-dropping
solo fingerstyle cover of Gotye’s “Somebody
That I Used to Know” (and several other
clips that are approaching or have passed the
million mark), 24-year-old British guitarist
Mike Dawes is clearly a player to watch.
After releasing his first full-length CD,
What Just Happened? [Candyrat], only last year,
Dawes has been touring constantly throughout
the U.K. and Europe, Asia, the U.S. (he
was part of the International Guitar Night tour
last January), and even Lebanon. “I actually
moved out of my flat last September, because
I was only there for a week, and then away
for months,” says the globetrotting guitarist
of his current reality. Dawes’ exquisite tone,
exacting precision, keen sense of melody, and
creative incorporation of percussive elements
are showcased both on the album and onstage.
In addition to his own performances, Dawes
tours as a member of the Moody Blues’ Justin
Hayward’s band, in which he plays both acoustic
and electric guitar, as well as opening the
show as a solo artist.
Why did you begin playing the guitar, and
what inspired you to play fingerstyle?
The guitar was just one of several outlets
of musical expression. I started on an old
keyboard that my mom had, but then I got a
guitar for my 12th birthday, and I never looked
back. I played electric guitar for a long time,
but I was also very inspired by the acoustic
music of Pierre Bensusan. My godfather, Allen
Greenall, designs Pierre’s album artwork, so I got the Intuit album and tab book that he
designed as a birthday present one year. I
was sort of a rock guitarist with my friends,
while I was moonlighting as a fingerstyle student
at home. Combining the two schools
got me to where I am now.
You have a very percussive right-hand
technique, but your hand doesn’t move as
much as it does for most players who use
I’m happy that you mention that, because
not a lot of people notice. That happened when
I arranged “Somebody That I Used to Know,”
because with that particular song, I wanted
to be specific about absolutely everything.
If your hand is flying all around the guitar,
you’re severely limiting what you can play.
And if you’ve got your right hand all the way
at the bottom of the guitar, you can’t pick
any notes. So I came up with little nuanced
ways of moving the right hand—ways that
may not appear particularly comfortable, but
over time they’ve become muscle memory.
I’ve never seen anyone hit the inside edge
of the soundhole with the surface of a fingernail
the way you do.
I really like it, and you can do it upward
as well, with the thumbnail. I use what I
call “The Great System.” I’m not really too
keen on labeling things, but I imagine a grid,
sort of an X/Y axis. On one side, I have the
percussion sounds I want, like a bass drum,
snare drum, hi-hat, or whatever. On the
other axis, I have bass notes and chords.
Then, I figure out ways to play these sounds
together. It’s sort of a library of sound combinations.
The soundhole thing would be,
“How can I get a chord and a snare sound
at the same time?”
Do you have a certain method or approach
when arranging cover tunes?
There are two approaches that I take. I
need to decide whether I want the arrangement
to be as faithful to the original as
possible, or whether the arrangement is
more of an interpretation. On something
like “Somebody That I Used to Know” it
was a challenge to get as close to the original
as possible, and to pick up subtle
nuances. But something like my arrangement
of “Superstition” is totally different.
That one is really more of a musical
exploration around the riff. Once I establish
what approach to arranging I’m going
to use, then I draw from the grid I mentioned,
and that’s what it takes.
Do you use tunings other than DADGAD?
I always start in DADGAD, because of
the Bensusan influence. I use it as a base,
because I’m very comfortable with it, but I
change it if, say, I need a lower bass note.
Again, in “Somebody That I Used to Know,”
I started in DADGAD, but I found myself up
around the 12th fret, and I needed a C, the
equivalent of the third fret A string C, so I
dropped the sixth string down to C and hit
the 12th-fret harmonic to get the same note.
What’s your approach to looping? Do
you write specifically with looping in mind, or is it more improvisational?
It can be either. I love the looping pedal,
but I’m pretty conscious of the fact that when
you see someone looping, a lot of the time it
comes across as a replacement for what perhaps
they could be doing without it. I could
do something like “Somebody That I Used to
Know” with a looper, starting with the bass
drum, then doing the snare drum, then doing
some chords, then the melody, then even
singing on top. But I want the looper to add
to the show, not replace anything. I love the
idea of being able to add layers and to take
layers away, and to improvise a bit. When I do
“Superstition” live, the whole second half is
an improvised loop section. I just have great
fun with it, because when I’m at a solo guitar
concert, I always enjoy it when something a
little bit different happens. Using a loop adds
an extra layer of excitement.
What looper do you use?
I had the Boss RC-20, but I just replaced
it with the DigiTech JamMan XT Express,
which is incredibly compact and super-affordable.
It’s stereo, it’s true bypass, it has
a very small footprint, and it’s all I need—on and off.
What does your signal chain look like?
It’s quite a complicated setup, starting
with the pickup system. I have three pickups
coming out of two outputs: There is a magnetic
Mi-Si Acoustic Duo pickup coming out
of one output, and an under-saddle pickup
and mic from an L.R. Baggs Dual Source
system coming out of another output, though
I might replace that with a newer system.
The pickup and mic from the Dual Source
go into a Headway EDB-1 DI box, and that
XLR output goes straight into one channel
of the house mixing board. I also have the
EDB-1 signal going into a separate minimixer,
where it meets the Mi-Si after it has
already gone through a few effects, including
a Boss OC-3 Super Octave pedal and
an Electro-Harmonix Freeze. From there,
a blended mono signal goes out to a Z.Vex
Wah Probe, a Strymon TimeLine delay, the
looper, and a TC Electronic Hall of Fame
reverb. My tuner is a TC Electronic PolyTune
Mini. These two outputs get hard panned,
and make up channels two and three of my
overall output. In short, I have a dry mono
signal blended with a wet stereo signal. The
dry signal is the Baggs, and the wet signal
is the Baggs blended with the Mi-Si. One of
the reasons the initial stage is so complex is that certain effects are only applied to particular
pickups. For example, the octave effect
is only applied to the Mi-Si.
What guitar are you playing?
It’s a Nick Benjamin guitar, and I have
two. The one you see on all my videos is
made with cocobolo and Alpine spruce,
whereas the one I’m touring with I had
built for travel. It has a thinner body, made
with mahogany and Sitka spruce, and it’s
smaller and lighter, and great for percussion.
I’m using the new Ernie Ball Aluminum
What’s the story with your Percussive
Acoustic Guitar with Mike Dawes lesson app?
Shortly after I left my job teaching guitar I was approached by an outfit called Leaf-cutter
Studios. [Dawes still teaches occasionally
via Skype.] What we developed is
basically a from-the-ground-up tuition app. I
start with talking about things like my setup,
the DADGAD tuning, and a few basic chords.
Then, I talk about areas of the guitar that can
be used as the “drum kit,” share my ideas
about the soundhole, and discuss some of
my right-hand techniques. Next, I introduce
some tapping exercises, and then we get into
some quite complicated, over-the-top exercises
and percussion techniques. It works
out to be more than an hour of content, and
the thing about it is it’s totally interactive.
You can not only look at the tab of what I’m
playing, but also hear what I’m playing, and
you can slow it down or speed it up.
How did playing in Justin Hayward’s band
come about, and how does it relate to your
One day I got an email from Justin that
said, “Hi I’m Justin Hayward.” I didn’t think
it was real, but he emailed back saying, “No,
really, it’s me.” He invited me to his place,
we had a little jam, and he offered me the
gig then and there. It was fantastic. We did
two weeks on the East Coast in August, and
starting May 10th we’ll be doing five weeks
all over the country. I’d done little things
with college bands before, but this is definitely
my first real tour with a bus and all
that stuff. One day when we had rehearsals
in Genoa, Italy, I was noodling around on
my guitar, playing one of my tunes while we
were having a tea break, and Justin offered
me the support slot, so now I’m opening
the shows in addition to playing acoustic
and electric guitars in the band.
What was it like playing solo in Beirut?
That was amazing, and probably the highlight
of my musical career. It was just so fulfilling.
When I got invited over to Lebanon,
it was actually the first international gig offer
I’d ever received—and as soon as I got off
the plane, it was one of the warmest welcomes
I’ve ever had. You can go anywhere in
Beirut and whoever you are, whatever country
you’re from, they’ll greet you with open
arms and be so kind and generous.
I got to play music with the Mediterranean
Sea in the background, and surrounded
by these people who I now consider close
friends. Then, I was playing at this big street
party at a place called Gemmayze Street, and
an armed guard walked up to me while I was
playing. I was thinking, “Am I in trouble?”
But the first thing he said was, “Do you know