Richard Thompson always ranks highly in critical polls of the greatest
guitarists, but remains far from
the household name status of Hendrix, Beck, or Clapton,
possibly because his style—melding multi-string bends
with sounds from jazz, Celtic folk, country, blues, and 20th
Century classical music—is near impossible to emulate.
Or, perhaps, because his playing is overshadowed by his
brilliant songs, which have been covered by Robert Plant,
R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, et al.
Electric [New West], produced by Americana guitar
hero Buddy Miller, may help spread the word. It contains
the soulful singing and intelligent songwriting that has
attracted a sizable audience of non-guitarists, and plenty
of jaw-dropping solos for fans of fabulous picking.
After self-producing the last couple of
records, what made you go with Buddy
Miller for this one?
I started becoming predictable to myself,
and I thought it was time to look for some
outside possibilities. I have known Buddy
for a few years, and we have done some live
things together. Listening to the records he
has done recently in his house, I thought it
was the right kind of approach and the right
sound. Because we did the record as a trio,
we were thinking we might need me to overdub
some guitar here and there, but it was
nice to have him there to do it live. He is a
sympathetic musician and a great accompanist.
If you need him to play guitar, he
will, and if not, he will lay out. He doesn’t
bring his ego to the project.
“Stoney Ground” has a distorted
tone that you don’t use often. How did you
get that sound?
I played the riff on the neck pickup of
a Strat through a Fulltone OCD distortion
pedal, and it seemed to work for the song
so I kept it. I have the OCD on a couple of
Do you keep separate gear on both sides
of the Atlantic?
I am working towards that. I finally
achieved the thing of having two electric
guitars, an acoustic guitar, a pedalboard,
and an amp in Europe, where I work a lot.
It is more practical, as it is getting harder
and harder to fly with instruments. You get
penalized for being a musician. [For a complete
gear rundown see More Online]
“Sally B” also sounds like a front
As someone known for the two-pickupscombined
Strat sound, was there a reason
you were using the neck pickup alone more
on this record?
I haven’t used it that much before, but
because this was a trio I thought I needed a
fatter sound on some things—I needed to fill
more aural space.
Was the tremolo on “My Enemy” an amp
or a pedal?
It was tremolo from the Headstrong Lil’
King Reverb amp I was using. The amp is like
a Fender Princeton circuit, but with a more
efficient 12" speaker.
What was the delay used on “Straight and
Narrow” for the slap sound? Is it the same
one you use live for things like “Shoot Out
I think it was a TC Electronic delay, I can’t
remember which one. I use a Carl Martin Red
Repeat live. If you have to use a pedal for slap,
I think it is important to use one that has a
tone control, so you can roll off the top to get
more of a tape delay sound.
Which acoustic guitar did you use for “Salford
It is actually an electric guitar. In Buddy’s
house there are a lot of guitars hanging
on the wall, like Silvertones and weird Japanese
stuff you have never heard of—he loves
those cranky Ekos. That was a Guild Bluesbird,
a hollowbody with a Les Paul shape and
no f-holes. It was perfect.
That guitar notwithstanding, why have
you largely gravitated toward Fender-style
single-coil electric sounds?
My early guitars were Gibsons—an ES-175
and a goldtop Les Paul with soap bars—but the
guitar players I liked in the ’60s were Fender
players, and I have played Fender-type guitars
ever since. They have a have a bit more bite.
In recent live videos, your Strats have
rosewood fretboards. Have you retired your
famous ’50s maple Strat?
I don’t really care about whether it is rosewood
or maple. The ’59 is in great need of
renovation—the neck is so worn that it’s hard
to play. It is a ’59 body with a ’55 neck, and
probably too valuable to take out on the road.
“Good Things Happen to Bad People”
sounds like two guitars at once. When you
are working on independent parts, does it
come more quickly now or does it still take
a lot of practice?
It usually comes fairly naturally these
days. It is a slow process in the beginning.
You practice and at some point it becomes
second nature, like a pianist who can play
independent things with each hand and sing
at the same time. It is a useful thing if you
are playing in a trio. Without a keyboard or
rhythm guitar, there is less harmonic information
filling in behind you, so if you can play a
couple of parts on the guitar it helps fill it out.
Is that a chorus, a 12-string, or both on
It is a double-tracked electric guitar and
an Autoharp plucked as if it was a psaltery.
The chords on the bridge of “Another Small
Thing in Her Favour” go in unexpected directions.
Do they just come to you like that or do
you deliberately look for a twist?
Sometimes you think a song should be
simple, with three chords—I’m thinking “I
want this to be a song other people can easily
play.” Other times you want the bridge to
go somewhere you haven’t been before. For
example, you write the song in G, but you
start the bridge on Fm. The bridge becomes
a kind of problem you have to solve—how do
I resolve out of that key change? It’s the kind
of thing Mozart and Haydn used to do, setting
up key changes and figuring out ways to
get back to the original key. That song developed
that way—I was setting up a problem.
That one was a success story, whereas others
you have never heard might have been disasters
You are not afraid of dissonance. Where
did that appreciation come from?
Being alive in the 20th century you can’t
avoid it. Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” is
100 years old this year and still sounds modern
because it uses a lot of what we would call dissonance.
I have enjoyed listening to that stuff
for years, starting with Debussy and Ravel—
where they began using the upper partials of
chords—then into Stravinsky, Schoenberg, etc.
There is something about the 20th and 21st
centuries that demands you express yourself
in that way. Because I am an entertainer I am
not being dissonant all the time, but I think
it is a valuable component of your expressive
arsenal as a guitar player.
How, if at all, do you modify acoustic versions
for electric or vice versa?
Good question. For the majority of songs I
can figure out how to do it both ways—sometimes
the way I play it is drastically different,
and sometimes it is similar. On a song like
“Good Things Happen to Bad People” I am
playing it basically the same on both instruments.
On other songs, because I don’t have
to hold down the rhythm or the harmony, I
am free to do little stabs or solo things. Even
though they all start out on the acoustic guitar,
some are only going to ever be electric, or
acoustic, while some are adaptable to either.
When you did “Woodstock” at a Joni
Mitchell tribute concert you made it your
own. What was that process?
I did it on a half-hour’s notice because the
person scheduled to do it dropped out. The
only way I could hear to do it that quickly
was a DADGAD tuning, turning it into a British
traditional modal thing.
You wrote this record with the trio in mind.
Was any part of that decision related to the
current economics of touring?
Economics played some part. For the fivepiece
I have to get members here from England
and Canada, which involves work visas
and a bus, and for a one-off festival it is prohibitive.
However, the basic rhythm section
lives in Los Angeles and so do I, so for us
to do a one-off or a weekend is practical. I
wanted to have the trio as an optional commando
raid kind of band that can zoom out
and do festivals. I wrote material for the trio
that ended up being the record and, having
been the record, it became this tour. The trio
is still, in my mind, a temporary thing, but
it has been received very well, so we will do
this tour and see how it goes from there.