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 Colour?
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 music.
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 language.
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, and D.
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, you know?
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 Dowland pieces?
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 lute tunes.
Tell us about the guitars you played on Life in Colour.
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.