Andy Powell: Wishbone Ash's 'Guitar Warrior'

One of the innovators of the dual-lead style with co-guitarist Ted Turner in the early 1970s, Wishbone Ash guitarist Andy Powell has kept the band active throughout the decades, and not without enduring his share of turmoil.
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One of the innovators of the dual-lead style with co-guitarist Ted Turner in the early 1970s, Wishbone Ash guitarist Andy Powell has kept the band active throughout the decades, and not without enduring his share of turmoil.

“I’m the first to admit that Wishbone Ash has had fabulous highs and horrendous lows,” says Powell. “Bands are a real test of character. We’ve had managers screw us, we’ve had agents screw us, we’ve had record companies dump us, and we’ve had players bail when the going got tough—any trial and tribulation you can think of in the music business. Spinal Tap has got nothing on Wishbone Ash.”

And yet Powell stands strong, continuing to evolve those thrilling weaving lead lines with Laurie Wisefield after Turner exited the band, other players since Wisefield left, and, currently, with Finnish guitarist Jyrki “Muddy” Manninen. The celebrated Flying V player—a ’67 Gibson back in the day—Powell recently penned an exhaustive biography and band history entitled Eyes Wide Open: True Tales of a Wishbone Ash Warrior.

When I first heard Wishbone Ash’s twin-lead attack, it seemed a lot more mysterious to me and than what American bands such as the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd were doing with the style.

We were vaguely aware of the Allman Brothers. They used these very sweet organic tones—which was totally where we were coming from—but their music was more tonic based. We were using this modal thing that comes from English and Scottish folk music, and church music, as well. I have had it described to me by different people in ways like, “It sounds like folk or gypsy music, yet it rocks.” And it wasn’t just the guitar players creating these sounds, it was our bass player at the time, Martin Turner. He had grown up singing in church choirs, and he was really more of a guitar player than he was a bass player. So what gave our guitar pieces so much intrigue was the fact that you had these very clever bass lines, which would work contrapuntally against the two guitars. For example, he might pedal the bass on the root note while the chords were shifting—which is an old Bach trick—or rise up through a scale while the guitars were coming down. I don’t think a lot of the American bands were taking that leap at the time, and it gave our music its individual stamp.

You managed to keep the Wishbone Ash sound evolving from the ’70s right up to the present, and a few different guitar players have joined you in that process over the years. What do you look for when you’re auditioning a guitarist for the band?

There are certain prerequisites. You need to have a really clean rhythm technique, because the parts are pretty intricate. Also, the tonal requirements when playing in a twin-lead section are different. You may have to rein in your sound a bit. For example, if you had two guitar players using a massive amount of overdrive, it would be a mess for the listener. We have these passages in the music that are really like horn sections. The guitars need to blend—just like when you’re singing vocals together. We talk about tone a lot, and we talk about balance. We’re trying to do the most with the least. We’re a four-piece band with two guitars, but we use the guitars in so many different ways. We will solo independently, we will solo together, we will trade licks against each other, and we will vamp behind each other. There are clean leads and dirty leads, and a whole plethora of guitar techniques and styles that give Wishbone Ash’s music its distinctive sound. I’m not looking for a one-dimensional guitar player. I’m looking for somebody who has breadth in their style.

Also, in the case of Muddy or Laurie Wisefield, these guys, like myself, have grown up with the history of rock and roll. I was born in 1950. I’ve followed all the trends and all the changes. It’s in my DNA now, so I can train guitar players from Chuck Berry forward. I have this encyclopedic knowledge of guitar players and guitar sounds. I remember when I heard the Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton playing a Les Paul. I remember the changes to guitar sounds and styles in the 1980s. I was there when digital technology came in. My first albums were done with no effects pedals whatsoever—it was just an old Fender amp, a Gibson guitar, cranking up, and experimenting with mic placement for different sounds. I’m looking for guitar players who understand all of that—which is a tall order. It’s not an age thing, either. There are young guitarists who are tuned in to all that stuff. It’s whether you’ve got the ear and are prepared to do the research to understand how guitar music works.

How did Muddy make the cut when he joined the band in 2004?

When Muddy came along, we played together to see if it would work. He’s a Les Paul player, and that’s not a bad combination, as the Les Paul has a little warmer, thicker tone than my Flying V. I’m always looking for my partner to have a different guitar sound than mine. It’s like a palette of paints, really. It helped that he played in a twin-lead band called Gringos Locos, so he already had an idea of what to do. More importantly, perhaps, Muddy is a great songwriter who is right in the pocket of what we’re doing and where we should be. He’s a very soulful, bluesy player, as well, so there’s a direct line from Muddy back to Ted Turner, who also had that blues feel. Muddy puts a lot of feel into the music, which I think has always been an integral part of the Wishbone Ash sound.

Your own solo style is diverse, but it’s typically very melodic rather than lick based. How do you usually approach creating your guitar lines?

To me, playing guitar solos is a bit like whistling as you walk down the street. When I was a kid in the ’50s, everyone in my neighborhood whistled. These guys—and, sometimes, women—would try to outdo each other with their techniques and their trills. But it was always a melodic thing, and it was most always an expression of cheerfulness. So I think subconsciously I may have equated playing guitar with this sort of rooty-toot ability to whistle a tune and to express joy. You don’t hear a lot of naïve, guileless glee in music these days—especially with guitar players. It’s all about attitude, and the attitude is usually like, “I’ve got my shades on. I’ve got my eyes squinting. I’ve got my head down. I’m an aggressive, cool son of a bitch, man!” But some of the great blues players like B.B. King displayed a lot of happiness in their playing. They’d dance around on the notes.

You’ve been able to keep Wishbone Ash going since the beginning, and I noticed some of the recent U.K. tour dates are sold out, so there’s still quite a demand for what you do. What do you think is the main reason you’ve been able to keep people interested through the decades?

The bands in the early ’70s were clearly pushing the envelope. They were taking chances. And every band was looking for a signature sound. We were no different. So I think the roots of the sound we stumbled upon were laid down deep, and they’ve given flower to endless albums over the years. But your question goes beyond music. It gets into knowing what you’re about, playing to your strengths, and having the confidence to stick to the plot. I’ll admit that we went off on tangents here and there, but the great thing about being in a guitar band is the craft. People respect that, and I think they’ll follow you if they see you’re truly working to create good music that represents a high-level of guitar playing.

What do you feel a guitarist needs to have—or to jettison—in order to build a long-term career as a player?

I’d say that you don’t need all this expensive gadgetry—just get in touch with your soul. I think that’s the key for a musician. You really want to give people a glimpse into your heart. That’s the privilege of making music. But it’s also a commercial world, and you’re selling your soul. As with any performer, that’s the part the audience is interested in. You’re disclosing a part of yourself that most people keep hidden, and that’s a risky business. You better know what you’re getting into. It’s a bit of like the old Robert Johnson thing. You’re making a pact with the devil. You can get hurt, and you can choose to cover up the pain with distractions such as drugs, drink, and guitar effects [laughs]. So you’ve got a fine line to walk. It’s a precious thing you’re peddling out there. Be very aware, and think about what you’re doing. Be true to yourself. Don’t sell out.