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British Bluesman Todd Sharpville

May 1, 2011
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gp0511_art_sharpville2_nrThe 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 Hubert Sumlin.

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 the equipment.

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Porchlight - Todd Sharpville
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 with him?

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 Axiom AXA.

gp0511_art_sharpville1_nrWhat 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 more intelligible.

Next to the four effects pedals on your gear list are the words, “rarely used.” What is your philosophy regarding effects?

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!

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