Mike Dawes: Two-Hand Band

GP sits down with the acoustic master to discuss his new album, 'ERA.'
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England’s Mike Dawes exploded in 2012— thanks to a YouTube video of his acoustic arrangement of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” that charted more than 4.2 million views. The 28-yearold virtuoso’s fingerstyle chops have been blowing up YouTube ever since—his recent take on the Metallica epic “One” generated more than 700,000 views just two months after its upload—and, in addition to performing with Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, Dawes recently put out his sophomore solo release, ERA [Qten]. The new album channels his world travels into thoughtful compositions, and it showcases Dawes’ melodically sensitive and sonically adventurous techniques, as well as how he is able to bring all of his considerable skills together in the service of a great song.

Were you once dedicated to becoming an electric shredder?

I used to play electric guitar, and Metallica was a big influence. The funny thing is that my arrangement of “One” actually began as a guitar and concert harp duet with my ex-girlfriend about seven years ago, after I switched to acoustic. I’d always found playing with fingers more natural than using a pick. I suppose that’s why my alternate-picked shredding was always pretty loose growing up!

So what turned you into an acoustic cat?

I’d always been interested in the music of Pierre Bensusan and Antonio Forcione, but the real turning point for me was discovering a Eric Roche around the time YouTube exploded. Eric is sadly no longer with us, but his influence on the acoustic scene was huge where I grew up in Guildford, England. I started with a few solo tapping pieces on my Les Paul, and then I hit the open-mic scene hard, selling homemade demos to fund the purchase of my first acoustic. It was actually a very natural and organic transition.

How did you develop your arrangement for “One”?

I started the tune while I was at university. DADGAD was my default tuning for years, as Pierre and Eric were both regular DADGAD abusers. “One” works well in that tuning, because it’s in B minor, so there are some straightforward chord shapes and achievable melodic passages. The main issue was figuring out how to make the “chugs” at the end sound convincing. I decided to dive back into it years later, and finish the end using a looper. It’s funny how some people think using a bit of looping to enhance an arrangement is somehow cheating, because the hardest part about playing “One” live is managing the live looping. Tap dancing is hard, man!

What’s your favorite part of the tune to play?

All three solos are great, but the bit just before the chugs towards the end is so satisfying. It’s just straightforward riffing with a tiny bit of dirt—all fun and no pressure.

What was the greatest challenge to master on guitar?

The hardest part technically is the final run of the intro solo, where I’m attempting to play James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, and Lars Ulrich. Kirk’s run is particularly challenging to fret while keeping the beat going. Also, there are lots of artificial harmonics in quick succession over the soundhole, and it’s very hard to be accurate, as there are no frets to guide you.

Did any particular tools and techniques factor into composing the original songs on ERA?

Well, the ToneWoodAmp is an ingenious device that sits on the back of the acoustic, and it sends effects through the soundhole via vibrations on the back of the guitar. Because I would always compose with the reverb on, ERA has a lot of space between notes that creates an ambient, hypnotic vibe in places. “The Old Room” is a good example, as is “Reverie.” On a technical level, most of my sound comes from various subtle contortions of my right hand, allowing for different tonal combinations. I explore lots of polyrhythmic ideas on songs such as “Fortress” and “Belle Insomnie.” I love the idea of one hand performing in multiple time signatures simultaneously. I find the hypnotic sound of polymetrics very evocative, and such passages can express dark and mysterious feelings. It also helps with creating the illusion of multiple performers—very Steve Reich.

Is your Andreas Cuntz CWG23 signature model your main instrument?

It has been my workhorse for the past few years. It has a 38-year-old Sitka spruce top that’s good for the percussive element, and its bright tone works well with the rosewood back and sides. Indian rosewood had the darkness and warmth I was after while also being snappy enough to produce a great percussive tone. I played my Nick Benjamin jumbo—which was primary on my debut album—for one track on ERA, and that was the cover of Periphery’s “Scarlet.”

Speaking of heavy metal, your Cuntz guitar appears like an acoustic version of a shred axe, due to the sleek headstock shape, sharp Florentine cutaway, and DiMarzio magnetic soundhole pickup.

I had the Cuntz made as an electric player’s acoustic guitar. I love the aesthetic, but it’s completely functional. The headstock is structured so the strings don’t bend—they go straight through the nut to the pegs. That helps maintain a little extra tension for lower tunings. The top is slightly reinforced for heavy kick-drum-like sounds. The string spacing is only 44mm at the nut, rather than the traditional 46mm for fingerstyle, and the action is very low with a slim neck profile. The guitar is loaded with DiMarzio goodness. My electric friends love it. In fact, I believe Periphery’s Misha Mansoor is in the process of ordering one.

Can you explain the “scratchpad” on the Cuntz guitar?

Nick Benjamin actually created that as a sort of wooden Band-Aid for Eric Roche to stop him from “Willie Nelson-ing” his guitar, so I had it added to my Cuntz. We essentially taped an extra piece of untreated spruce to the top. As it gets scratched and scraped, the soft parts wear away to reveal the grain, and you can get a sort of güiro effect with it. You can hear the scratchpad sound on the bridge sections of “Beirut” and “Overload.”

Are you still using Ernie Ball Aluminum Bronze strings?

Yes. It’s a DADGAD set, so the gauges are .013, .017, .024, .032, .042, .056. I dig them for live performance, because they’re accurate, and they hold tunings very well. In the studio, I’ll use an appropriate string gauge for a particular note in a given tuning to maintain tension and intonation, but, onstage, the DADGAD set is a happy medium.

You’ve got four different pickups in your Cuntz guitar. How do you use them?

The DiMarzio Black Angel Piezo is my main acoustic sound, and I have an internal mic that picks up the percussion on the edge of the guitar. The magnetic Black Angel sounds warm and it works well with certain “electric guitar” effects, such as overdrive and octave. Finally, I use the DiMarzio transducer on the body to pick up my kick drum effects. Each pickup runs into a specific mixer channel, and they are dialed in before running out to my effects.

Do any particular effects come into play more than others?

The Strymon TimeLine Delay is great, because you can play it like an instrument. You can swell the feedback of the delay by holding a button down, so you can actually improvise with the delay to an extent. I use it on about half of Justin Hayward’s set, as well as on my own. Check out Pete Thorn’s demo of the Ice preset on YouTube. I’ve been using that patch for years. On ERA, there is a lot of smear and ducked delay on “Overload,” and I used a Joyo JF-14 American Sound amp-simulation pedal for high-gain stuff all over the record. To emphasize certain hits and strikes, I use the plate reverb from the TC Electronic Hall of Fame Mini Reverb. I used the BOSS OC-3 Super Octave pedal in polyphonic mode on every song in some capacity. It blows my mind that BOSS is still the only company to make a pedal with such a function. I apply the pedal effects after the dry take is recorded. We run the recorded signal back into the pedals, or else the recordings would be littered with pedal clicks and the sound of me moving around. The same goes for looping.

What’s your main looper?

I use the BOSS RC-300, because it has everything I need for “One.” It also comes in handy on “Your Wildest Dreams,” when I play with Justin.

Can you detail your typical signal path for the studio and live performance?

I used all four pickups, with the magnetic pickup split at the Boss OC-3 for a total of five lines. In the studio, we used two stereo pairs of large-diaphragm condenser mics—two on the bridge, and two positioned at the 14th fret—and another large-diaphragm condenser pointed at the nut. For live performances, my pedal rig is sent straight to the front-of-house mixer.

Do you change up your acoustic style when you play with Justin Hayward?

Well, part of the reason I got that gig was to arrange the Moody Blues songs in my style, so it’s actually the songs that are more adjusted. The cool thing about our show is how all the tunes are arranged for acoustic guitars. It’s Justin’s way of showing a more naked version of the songs, and he’ll often perform them using the guitar on which they were written.

What are your favorite Moody Blues tunes to play?

“Question” is a banger, as I take the drums and bass on that one. I also like playing “Never Comes The Day,” and, of course, “Nights in White Satin.” I get to play the flute solo on guitar, and it’s always a show highlight for me.

What challenges as a player are you still hoping to conquer?

My improvisation game needs work. I’ll be grinding on that now that ERA is out.