The Honorable Roland Augusto Jestyn Estanislao Philipps,
younger son of the Third Viscount St. Davids, has been hailed
as the world’s only “blue-blooded bluesman.” Fortunately,
red-blooded bluesman Joe Lewis Walker inadvertently nicknamed
the talented British guitarist “Todd” in his teens and
the name stuck. The “Sharpville” part came from an early
band of his called Sharpville and the Massacre.
Beginning with his award-winning 1994 debut, Touch of
Your Love, Sharpville’s albums have received rave reviews from
the blues cognoscenti, and his 2001 release, The Meaning of
Life, featured former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, who
also toured the album with Sharpville’s band. The guitarist’s
latest release, Porchlight [MIG], is a double-
CD set produced by Duke Robillard
that boasts guest performances by Robillard,
Walker, and Fabulous Thunderbirds
harpist Kim Wilson. Replete with Sharpville’s
deeply authoritative and super tasteful
playing, the music spans a broad range
of blues styles from slinky old-school shuffles to soulful ballads to blazing boogies.
During the mid ’60s, there was a second British
Invasion involving blues-based rock guitarists
such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jimmy Page,
and Mick Taylor. As an Englishman, to what extent
do you relate to those players?
It’s funny, because as a kid I didn’t really
hear much of that stuff. I didn’t hear Clapton’s
album with the Bluesbreakers until I
was about 19. As far as other guitarists from
that period go, Peter Green is the one that
touched me the most, because he came from
the American school of thought in terms
of his phrasing, and in the sense that he
never tried to impress anybody. He played
just because he really needed to express
what was inside. Mick Taylor was another
player who came more from that traditional
American school of thought, which
included guys like Freddie King, Lightnin’
Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Magic Sam, and
So, you discovered American bluesmen before
the ’60s English blues-rock players?
Yes. I heard my first real blues record
when I was 12. From the time that I was
eight, I had been into ’50s rock and roll,
and I discovered that guys like Big Bill
Broonzy and Arthur Crudup had originally
influenced Elvis, so I wanted to
explore that music. On my 12th birthday,
my dad said I could buy a blues record,
so I picked out one with a big sweaty guy
playing a Gibson ES-335 on the cover, who
turned out to be Freddie King. By the time
I got halfway through track three I had an
epiphany and I knew that I wanted to play
guitar, I knew that was the music I wanted
to play, and I knew that’s how I’d like to
play it. Before that I had wanted to be a
doctor, but everything changed in that
one moment. I went running upstairs and
said, “Mom and Dad, I want to play blues
guitar!” They weren’t thrilled.
Early in your career, you actually led backup
bands for Hubert Sumlin, Ike Turner, Chuck Berry,
and other American artists touring Europe and
the U.K. What did you take away from that?
In some cases I learned how to deal
with slightly difficult personalities [laughs].
Hubert Sumlin, though, is one of the sweetest
guys alive, and one of the most striking
things about him was that he didn’t specify
any particular amp in his backline rider.
He just used whatever was available, yet
somehow he still always managed to get his
tone. And it was the same with Ike Turner.
His tone was always there. At that age I’d
feel lost unless I had the specific gear I was
used to, and seeing that made me realize
that to a large extent you are always going
to sound like yourself no matter what guitar
or amp you use. It’s like an unwritten mystery
for blues guitar players: You realize that
when you pass from learning how to play the
blues to actually playing the blues, the tone
comes with the playing, more so than with
Are you thinking of the cliché that tone is in
the fingers rather than in the gear, or are you suggesting
that playing the blues with authority has
to do with a particular state of mind?
Both. When you reach the point in time
where you are no longer really thinking
about how you squeeze the notes out of the
guitar, your instincts kind of take over and
the sound just comes out the right way. Your
state of mind also affects your tone, but it
has a bigger impact on your phrasing—on
your musical grammar. As a kid, you think
about what other people want to hear. But
when you get older you cease to care about
that, and just start doing what you need to
do to survive—and that results in a different
style of phrasing.
I always think of music in terms of language,
and the blues is just one of the many.
The grammar and the punctuation are very
definitive and very different than those of
other kinds of music. Lots of rock and jazz
players think they can play the blues, but
few of them really can. It’s like people who
speak a little Japanese. To be fluent in Japanese
requires a different perspective, and I
guess that involves a different state of mind.
You mentioned Mick Taylor as one of your big
influences, and he actually played in your band
for a while. What did you learn from interacting
There were elements of Mick’s playing
that were obvious in my playing earlier on,
but when we began working together, I consciously
tried to take the opposite approach.
The band had a traditional ’50s-style orientation,
with a horn section, and having Mick
throw his thing in there was great, as it provided
a sort of a counterpoint to what we
were doing. At the same time, everything
that Mick was doing was invading my subconscious,
and came out even more so in my
playing during the following years. Another
thing was that I had idolized Mick as a kid,
and getting to know him as an adult in some
ways gave me more confidence. He would
have good nights and bad nights just like
everyone else. And when I would be overthinking
things and sharing my anxieties
and neuroses with him he would always
be so relaxed about everything. Once, after
one of those talks he said, “Todd, it’s just
music.” I try to bear that in mind whenever
I start to get neurotic now.
Moving on to Porchlight, did you have a standard
recording rig or were you experimenting with
different combinations of guitars and amps?
I was very happy to not bring anything
other than my guitars for the sessions. I knew
Duke would provide lots of choices ampwise
and that we would mess around and
figure out what I liked for different tunes.
The two I used the most were a Sovtek Mig
50 head through a custom 2x10 cab, and a
Louis Electric “The Duke” model, which
has a 12" Eminence Tonker and a 10" Fane
What is your main guitar?
It’s a ’57 Fender Stratocaster that I call
“The Slut,” simply because she’s been in the
hands of so many men [laughs]. Between all of
the festivals I’ve played, and all of the Blues
Cruises I’ve been on, just about every bluesman
on the planet has played her at some
point. After that, I’d say my ’72 Fender Telecaster
Thinline is my second guitar. I keep
it tuned down a whole step because there
are some songs that I want to sing lower
and still be able to use open chords to get a
bigger bottom end.
What makes the Slut your favorite?
I have a lot of Strats—including some
other ’50s-era models—but that all-original
’57 has a very distinct personality that
really suits my temperament. Duke said it’s
the nicest Strat that he’s played and Duke’s
had some great guitars over the years. My
second favorite “Strat” was actually a cheap
copy made by Mustang that I paid about 30
pounds for. I gave that one to Peter Green. I
get hassled by diehard guitar collectors for
using and abusing vintage instruments, but
as far as I’m concerned those guitars are
meant to be played.
What do you string them with?
I use custom sets of GHS Burnished Nickel
strings, starting with a .011 gauge on the
Strat and a .012 gauge on the Tele.
How about picks?
I use Clayton Todd Sharpville customs,
which are large and triangular-shaped. They’re
pretty damn heavy, which forces me to always
be backing off slightly unless I’m going crazy
or being particularly aggressive.
That’s interesting. You’ve got heavier gauged
strings than a lot of guys use and also a heavier
pick, but you’re playing more lightly.
Yeah, though I’ve got a bad habit of pushing
much more heavily with my left hand than
I need to, possibly because I have heavier
strings and pretty high action, and I’m afraid
my fingers might flip off. That tends to slow
me down, which in a sense is a good thing,
because it allows me to play phrases that are
Next to the four effects pedals on your gear
list are the words, “rarely used.” What is your philosophy
As a teenager I was really into effects,
and I spent a lot of time messing around
with them. But fairly early on in my career I
decided to go back to the drawing board and
play more naturally rather than getting distracted
with other things. I got to the point
where I wanted to be able to say everything
I needed to say in the simplest way possible.
There’s still so much to be said with just
an honest guitar plugged into an honest old
amp that’s turned up really loud!