English guitar virtuoso and composer Clive Carroll has a vast musical palette and a sweeping creative vision. Adept
at banjo, flattop, and nylon-string guitar, and equally at home
playing fingerstyle or wielding a flatpick, Carroll creates music
that defies categorization. In the same concert, he’ll perform
lute tunes from the 1500s and generate soundscapes with his
Ralph Bown OM and Boss RC-20 Loop Station.
Carroll got his first break as a solo
guitarist when John Renbourn, the legendary
British fingerpicker and cofounder
of Pentangle, took him on tour for two
years and introduced him to fans of
acoustic and traditional music across
Europe and the US. Soon after, Tommy
Emmanuel brought Carroll Down Under
for a joint tour. (YouTube videos of
Emmanuel and Carroll playing onstage
together are must-see items.)
Carroll’s latest album, Life in Colour
[P3 Music], points the way for a new
generation of acoustic guitarists—sonic
nomads who follow their muse wherever
it leads, regardless of genre or era. It’s
not easy to artfully mix altered tunings,
renaissance and classical harmony, Delta
blues, odd-meter riffage, body percussion,
and even jazz manouche, but Carroll
makes it sound natural and effortless.
Life in Colour has a wider scope than typical
solo guitar albums. What’s your background?
I’ve played music all my life, but I
didn’t set out to be a solo acoustic guitarist.
In fact, I composed my first solo
guitar pieces simply as welcome breaks
from the orchestral music I was writing
as a university student. My performing
career started almost by accident. One
day I saw John Renbourn was coming to
my local club, and I asked if I could open
for him. When I played the gig, I assumed
John was backstage filing his nails or
changing his strings, but it turns out he
listened to my whole set. Afterward, he
encouraged me and offered to help in any
way he could. So when a Celtic label
approached me to record my debut album
[2000’s Sixth Sense], John very kindly
wrote the sleeve notes and then took me
on the road throughout Europe and
America. Then Tommy Emmanuel invited
me to tour Australia with him.
What did you learn sharing the stage with
Renbourn and Emmanuel?
From John, I learned the subtleties of
working as a soloist and the importance
of changing the music every night to keep
it fresh. Tommy is an amazing performer,
and when you’re learning how to deliver
a solo show, there’s no better teacher.
How did you compose the music for Life in
Very slowly, I’m afraid! It took three
years to gather enough solo material
because I can’t write to order—it has to
come naturally. Each original piece on
Life in Colour is about a person or place.
That’s where I find inspiration.
I begin with the tune and harmonies in
my head, and then compose the piece by
writing it down on paper. At that stage, I
make sure all the sections are proportionate
and the music has a strong direction.
When I’m satisfied, then I arrange that
piece of music for solo guitar.
So you’re not actually writing solo guitar
That’s right, I never write anything
for the guitar. I play it everyday, so I have
it in mind, of course, but the music first
exists separately from the guitar.
How does composing on paper differ from
writing with a guitar in hand?
Take “Eliza’s Eyes,” for example. The
bass line needs to move to a particular
chord—it can’t just move to some random position that feels comfortable under
the fingers. I want the bass line to move
one way, and the melody line to move
another way. The middle voice is completely
independent too. I’m following
the same process composers and
arrangers developed hundreds of years
ago, only I’m using a modern musical
The advantage of this process is each
piece has a strong voice, but it can be
tricky to learn it on guitar afterward.
That’s why I sometimes need to change
the tuning—the piece may be unplayable
in standard tuning, or it just hasn’t got
the right feel. For “Eliza’s Eyes,” I wound
up tuning to [low to high] C, G, C, G, C,
Once you’ve arranged a piece for solo guitar,
how do you tackle recording it?
I try to stick rigidly to the golden
rule: If a piece starts collapsing after I’ve
hit the record button, then it’s not ready
to be recorded. I like to achieve one complete
take, so I know the feeling is there.
Then I immediately go patch up any mistakes
because I’ve got to live with it,
There are a lot of one-take performances
on Life in Colour, including “All
This Time” and “Mississippi Blues.” But
I had to record “The Gentle Man” in sections,
partly because of the strange C,
G, D, G, A, C tuning, and partly because
I’d just written the thing. It wasn’t ready,
but I felt compelled to get it down. Before
recording a song, it’s great to play it for
six months and get it to open up, but
there are times when you’re desperate
to hear what a piece sounds like.
Do you engineer your own recordings?
Sometimes. I recorded the John Dowland
lute tunes in the church across the
field from my house, using a laptop and
two mics—an SE Electronics large
diaphragm valve mic and a Neumann
KM 184 pencil condenser. The Neumann
was in front pointing toward the neck
joint, and the valve mic was about three
feet away picking up the overall sound.
I’m running Apple Logic now, but at the
time I was using Steinberg Cubase. After
tracking the two pieces in the church, I
brought them to Highbarn Studios—a
beautiful facility near me where I
recorded the rest of the album—and
we used their multi-thousand-pound compressors to process the audio files.
Did you use a special tuning for the two
Yes. To recreate a lute tuning on guitar,
I lowered the third string a half-step to F#
and put a capo at the third fret. And I used
a steel-string, which to me sounds a little
more convincing than playing a classical in
that tuning. A lot of John Dowland scores
are for a 7-string lute, but that’s too much
for me. Sometimes I’ll have to transpose a
few bass notes an octave higher, but otherwise
a 6-string guitar works well for playing
Tell us about the guitars you played on Life in
My main guitar was made by an English
luthier named Ralph Bown. It’s an OM-style
guitar in the Martin tradition, yet its 24.9"
scale length is slightly shorter, so there’s
less string tension. I love the sound of a real
man’s guitar with a standard [25.4"] scale
length, but they’re just ridiculous to play
sometimes—cheese wire and railway tracks.
It’s so hard to press down the strings, and
you can’t consider a barre chord. The last
thing I want to worry about when I play a
show is technique. I just want to communicate
with the audience as musically as
possible. By reducing the tension I can use
heavier strings and get the thick tone they
offer, but I can still bend them, thanks to
the short scale length. The one drawback of
a shorter scale is that you have to be very
careful with tuning.
On my Bown, I use Elixir Nanoweb 80/20
bronze strings, gauged .012-.056, which are
slightly heavier on the bass than a light set.
I’ve got the kind of fingers that wreck strings
after about three numbers, so it was an
absolute revelation to discover these. Now
I can get through a whole gig and the strings
still sound bright.
For Life in Colour, I also played a Nick Benjamin
OM, a Philip Woodfield classical, a
Gibson RB3 Mastertone banjo, a Fender Telecaster,
and a Bown Maccaferri-style guitar.
And your stage gear?
My Bown is equipped with a Highlander
system that combines an undersaddle pickup
and internal microphone. I run these signals
into a Raven Labs PMB-II preamp, which
gives me separate channels for the mic and
pickup, each with volume, treble, mid, and
bass controls. I use the pickup to supply the
bottom end and the microphone for the top
end. From there, I go into a Lexicon MPX 500 for reverb and then send left and right
signals straight from it to the house. I also
take a mono output from the Lexicon into
an AER Compact 60 amp, which serves as
my monitor. I’ll use the venue’s monitors at
a very low volume, but I’ll have the AER
right by my side, which guarantees me a consistent
sound night after night. It took me
years to realize that if the P.A. monitors were
too loud, I’d start underplaying and conversely,
if they were toned down, I’d overplay.
When you can control what you hear
onstage, you play so much better.
I recently discovered the Boss Loop Station,
which I now use onstage for a couple
of songs. I’ve seen people loop a four- or
eight-bar chord sequence, but that’s not my
style. Instead, I’ll record a second part in real
time and work it in and out of the music to
create a duet.
Do you use acrylic nails?
Ping-pong balls, actually. I cut out a semicircle
piece with cuticle scissors and attach
it under the tip of my fingernail with Super
Glue. I trim the material with nail clippers
and then use a series of nail files to work it
into a smooth contour. I do this for my index,
middle, and ring fingers, and the whole
process takes less than ten minutes. I’m lucky
with my thumbnail—it’s strong and doesn’t
require any treatment.
So, unlike acrylic overlays, you’re attaching
the material underneath your real nail.
Well, it makes sense to me because you’re
playing with the glue—not against it—so the
treatments are less likely to fall off.
You get a fascinating sound in “Delhi Fratelli.”
I doubled the fast lines in unison using
banjo and steel-string, which gave me a chorusy
sound. My inspiration was “Kriti,” by
John McLaughlin and Shakti [from A Handful
of Beauty], which has a series of repeated
fast sections. Paul Clarvis—an amazing percussionist
who has recorded hundreds of
film scores—played on “Delhi Fratelli.” I met
him when I wrote the score with John Renbourn
for the film Driving Lessons. Hearing
Paul play on the soundtrack gave me the idea
to involve him with my record. The percussion
part in “Delhi Fratelli” is extremely
hard, and it was fun to get Paul in and test
his sight-reading ability.
Though you’re known as an acoustic guitarist,
you include some electric in “Doodup.”
Yeah, and I don’t think I played it well.
We put it down at the last minute and
because we were renting the studio by the
hour, I only had time for one take. In hindsight,
I probably would have stayed clear of
the electric. You live and learn.
Yet despite your disappointment with that
part, you were able to move forward with the
album—that’s where a lot of guitarists get stuck.
Indeed. When guitarists ask me for advice,
I always say, “Don’t worry about note-perfect
performances. Print your album and get
it out there.” It’s the best way to grow as a
musician. You’ll never advance as far as you
want if you keep your music at home.