Mike Dawes on his Fingerstyle Techniques

July 1, 2014
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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 similar styles.

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 Bronze strings.

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 solo work?

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 Andy McKee?”

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