Transformers: Liam "Skin" Tyson and Justin Adams on the Acoustic Side of Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters

Never one to gather moss, Robert Plant’s contemporary music is a spellbinding melding of influences, thanks in part to his band.
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Left to right: Liam “Skin” Tyson, Robert Plant,
 Billy Fuller, Seth Lakeman, and Justin Adams at
 Oakland’s Fox Theater on February 28, 2018.

Left to right: Liam “Skin” Tyson, Robert Plant,  Billy Fuller, Seth Lakeman, and Justin Adams at  Oakland’s Fox Theater on February 28, 2018.

“We create the songs on our albums instrumentally at first, so you’re playing to the unknown,” says multifaceted guitarist and acoustic ace Liam “Skin” Tyson, who has been writing and recording with Robert Plant on and off since 2005’s Mighty Rearranger.

“I didn’t get the gig with Plant because of my guitar skills, which are rooted in English punk rock,” adds Justin Adams. “I got it for my overall outlook on music. Electric guitar is the main way I get my ideas across, but I might play a bit of anything from djembe to mandolin in the studio.”

Playing with Plant is a dream gig for many reasons, including the beautiful balance of electric and acoustic instruments. Never one to gather moss, Plant’s contemporary music—such as that on his latest album, Carry Fire [Nonesuch]—is a spellbinding meld of ancient roots influences that span the globe, modern influences that embrace trip hop and rave music, and pretty much anything else that catches the interest of his band, the Sensational Space Shifters.

Can you detail your acoustic roles in the Sensational Space Shifters?

Adams: In the current show I’m playing the n’goni—which is an African lute—mandolin, a Godin Glissentar, a Gibson J-200 for flatpicking, and a Collings for fingerpicking. I may not be Bukka White or Mississippi John Hurt, but I can play things influenced by the syncopation associated with the Mississippi style. I’m into pumping rhythmic styles, and the links between Mississippi, New Orleans, West Africa, and the Middle East. Skin is a very serious acoustic guitar player. He comes more from the Bert Jansch style with that sense of Celtic lyricism and use of open tunings.

Tyson: I’ve got quite a lot of acoustic guitars in various tunings on the current tour, including a late ’80s Gibson J-45 called “Snappy,” because the neck has been snapped off a few times. I have a Gibson Southern Jumbo called “Son of Pacho,” tuned G, G, D, G, B, D [low to high] for “That’s the Way,” and a Gibson Songwriter Deluxe Studio tuned to DADGAD for “Rainbow.” I’ve got two 12-string Martins—a new one and an old one—that I use for “Bluebirds Over the Mountains,” “Dancing in Heaven,” and sometimes for “That’s the Way.” The only acoustic I have tuned standard is a Gibson J-35 for “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.”

Your fingerpicking on “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” appears rather vertically-oriented, like a classical player.

Tyson: Well, it depends on the song. If it were a country song, I’d be playing more of that claw style. But to play those rolling trills on the main figure of “Babe” with four or five fingers, you have to have them pointed more downwards. At least I do.

Justin Adams

Justin Adams

Still, your fingerstyle chops are advanced. Do you have any classical training?

Tyson: No. In the early ’90s, I knew a guy that used to spend each summer learning all the chops with Paco de Lucía’s son in Spain. They’d go from 9 o’clock in the morning to 9 o’clock at night every day, playing along with the dancers. He showed me how to do some of the trills and tricks, but I’ve never been classically trained.

You’ve got some serious fingernails. Are they acrylics?

Tyson: No. They’re real. When they split, I just put Super Glue on them. I tried getting acrylics done, but I couldn’t play. It was like having alien fingers.

On the B section of “Babe” when you move the A minor triad up from the first position to the eighth and then sixth positions, how do you execute those flick-style strums?

Tyson: That’s a standard flamenco approach. You can start flicking forward with your first finger and follow sequentially with the other fingers. Or, you can start by pulling your pinky back towards your palm, and then follow that with your fingers in reverse order. There’s a way to keep the whole flourish rolling continuously by following the first technique with the second, but I haven’t gotten it down yet. You can dig in a bit more on nylon strings, but I have to be careful, because I play phosphor-bronze strings, and I could break a nail.

How exactly did you go about learning to play the song, and how did you develop your extended live version?

Tyson: I’ve always figured songs out by ear. In our live version, we leave the root key of A minor, and go into the key of E minor for a while. It’s nothing too spectacular, but once it’s amplified with effects, it changes things, and that’s how you affect people. One night, I left the effects on by accident, and I started playing these sixteenth-note triplets arpeggiating Em, and it has has now become a bit we go to in the middle of the song. Otherwise, our arrangement is similar to the Zeppelin version, but we’ve condensed it down so that there aren’t so many verses.

How does your version of “Going to California” compare?

Tyson: My version doesn’t include as much alternating thumb in the bass line, and I do it in DADGAD. I never learned the song in Jimmy Page’s style, or even studied it much. Robert is not hung up on playing it a particular way. One day he asked if I knew it. I started playing it the way I do, and we were off and running.

Can you give an example of how the songwriting process works in the Sensational Space Shifters?

Adams: Well, “Carry Fire” came about when we were experimenting with a North African version of the Bo Diddley beat. Our keyboardist, John Baggott, made a loop, and I was responding on a Godin Glissentar with a mic on the neck to pick up the finger noise while a direct line got the full body sound. Robert was in the control room with a microphone. We improvised for a while, and then we chopped up the improvisation to create the studio arrangement.

What’s unique about the Glissentar?

Adams: It’s kind of like a cross between a 12-string acoustic guitar and an oud, in that it’s a short-scale acoustic/electric instrument strung with 11 nylon strings tuned standard. Unlike a 12-string guitar with octave string couples, the Glissentar uses unison pairs on all but the lowest string. Like an oud, it’s fretless, which makes it easy to slide up and down the neck, and it facilitates playing the quarter-tones found in Arabic scales.

What scales do you use to create that Eastern vibe?

Adams: The Arabic mode is called “Hijaz,” which is comparable to the Phrygian mode. Sometimes, I modulate to another Arabic mode, which is called “Bayati” and includes a quarter-tone. So if you’re playing in the key of E, as we do on “Carry Fire,” there’s a note between F and F#.

Liam Tyson

Liam Tyson

How do you hone in on quarter-tones using a fretless instrument?

Adams: It’s tricky, and Arabic classical music is very severe, but I play it with a punk rock attitude—in other words, not so precise. I recently bought a guitar with some extra frets, and once I’d seen where those in-between notes lie on a fretted neck, it became easier to play them on a fretless. The other aspect is simply ear training. You learn to hear the quarter-tones.

Did you use any interesting recording techniques to capture the acoustic-guitar tones on Carry Fire?

Tyson: Tim Holmes engineered both of our last two albums. This year, he used an interesting technique with two big Neumann tube mics set up on top of each other, with one pointed up, and the other pointed down. The sound he got was giant.

“The May Queen” is another acoustic highlight from the new album. How did that one come together?

Adams: I’d bought a beautiful small-bodied Collins that really sings—I think it’s an OM1 T—and I took it down to an open C tuning C, G, C, E, G, C [low to high]. We were in the studio trying to write a new piece, and I couldn’t see into the control room. While I was waiting in between takes, I spent about five minutes fingerpicking the new guitar in the style of Mississippi John Hurt. Suddenly, the talk-back mic came through the headphones, and I could hear everybody clapping and cheering. Robert said, “Right—that’s a new song!”

Can you talk a bit about the instruments you play on “Little Maggie” from 2014’s lullaby and... The Ceaseless Roar?

Adams: I played n’goni, which is a three-stringed African instrument that’s basically a broom handle with a box, strings, and a bridge. I put a little pickup on it for amplification. I like to add a touch of delay, and run it through my amp to rock it up a bit. I dial out all the low-end frequencies to get this very percussive sound that I like.

Tyson: I used Justin’s old 6-string banjo on that recording. On stage, I use a Gold Tone Banjitar that I play fingerstyle like an acoustic guitar.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the current acoustic state of the Sensational Space Shifters?

Adams: My new acoustic-guitar element for the live show is using a Gibson J-200 to play rhythm along with the drums. It’s very simple, but I love it. It goes all the way back to the British skiffle craze in the ’50s. When you’ve got a J-200, you can just pump cowboy chords, but Robert loves that, because he’s so comfortable with the music of Elvis and the Everly Brothers. He just loves that driving acoustic-guitar sound.

Guitar Tech Matt Straw on Adams’ Acoustic Tones

“From whichever instrument Justin chooses,” says Straw, “the signal hits a Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner, and then splits into two outputs. The first signal goes through the electric-guitar pedals to the Victoria Golden Melody 2x12 combo, while the other goes through an L.R. Baggs Venue DI to the house. Justin can use the mute on the Baggs when he’s playing electric, and unmute when he plays an acoustic instrument. He doesn’t add effects to the acoustics—other than a bit of TC Electronic Alter Ego X4 Vintage Echo—but he does like to have the amp sound available to bolster his acoustic tone.”

Guitar Tech Ian Shepherd on Tyson’s Signal Path

“We’ve got a DPA microphone taped on the inside of the feedback buster in the soundhole that goes straight to the wireless pack for a completely un-effected acoustic sound,” says Shepherd. “Then, the piezo output of each acoustic feeds into the effects rack, where we add delays and reverbs from a Lexicon MX300 and an Alesis Quadraverb. We might use a bit of compression from a Diamond CPR1, or an EarthQuaker Devices The Warden. Upon exiting the rack, a mono signal goes through a direct box to the front of house mixer. Another pair of dual mono lines feed a pair of Stone Deaf STC50 2x12 tube combo amps that he uses, with different gain structures, for all of his electric and acoustic instruments.”