John Williams & John Etheridge

Although best known as a virtuoso classical guitarist, John Williams’ musical reach has routinely extended far beyond the classical repertoire. During the ’80s, Williams played steel-string and electric guitars in the highly successful classical-fusion band Sky, and, more recently, he has explored the music of Africa and Madagascar (The Magic Box), and Venezuela (El Diablo Suelto: Guitar Music of Venezuela) on his beloved nylon-string.

John Etheridge first gained widespread notoriety in the mid ’70s when he replaced Allan Holdsworth in the pioneering British jazz-fusion group Soft Machine, and, in the past few years, has toured and released three albums with Soft Machine Legacy. Etheridge has also worked with Andy Summers, legendary Gypsy-jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, and other notables. He founded the Frank Zappa tribute band, the Zappatistas, in 1999.

Etheridge contributed to Williams’ African recordings, and, last year, they teamed up to record Places BetweenJohn Williams & John Etheridge Live in Dublin [Sony Classical]—an album that spans both of their personalities and tastes.

“John is able to be creative in so many different guitar styles,” enthuses Williams. “Whether he’s playing acoustic steel-string or electric—with or without his gadgets—everything blends beautifully with the classical guitar.”

You play some of the African pieces from The Magic Box live. What are some of the challenges in playing that style of music?
We both started without much knowledge of African music, and I didn’t find it easy to get inside the feel. I do this Frank Zappa thing, which everybody says is so difficult, but I find it comparatively easy, as Zappa is so European. With the African music, I found the repetition really quite hard at first—playing little melodic figures over and over again without changing them.

How did “Extra Time” get its title?
Well, we repeat the harmony of the Bach Prelude four times instead of twice, and, funnily enough, I think it’s better like that. Maybe this is the African influence—the idea of getting into a groove and repeating it.

What instruments do you play when you perform together, and how are they amplified?
I play classical guitars made in Australia by Greg Smallman. They have a less percussive sound than traditional classical instruments—mostly due to a very thin cedar soundboard, and a special lattice bracing system made from balsa wood and carbon fibers. Luthier Gary Southwell put pickup systems in both my Smallmans that combine an under-saddle B-Band with a modified AKG C414 microphone on a gooseneck inside the guitar. The two are blended via a little mixer preamp, and the combined signals are sent directly to the P.A.

Etheridge: I have a radical steel-string acoustic called an Ergo made by Charles Fox, who was very excited that it was being played alongside the Smallman, which is a radical classical guitar. Among other things, the soundboard of the Ergo is actually braceless in the lower bout. For solo pieces, I use my semi-hollowbody signature model Rosendean Black Ruby, which has three custom Kent Armstrong pickups. I also use a Yamaha SA2000 semi-hollowbody or a Martyn Booth solidbody on some songs. My amplifier is a two-channel AER Compact 60, which has built-in reverb and chorus.

You also use some other effects.
I use a Fulltone Full Drive overdrive pedal in a few spots, and the looping capabilities of a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler on “Extra Time III.”

Do you use altered tunings on the Smallman?
I tune the sixth string to D, and the fifth string to G when I play music that was originally written for the African kora—which makes it easy to give a feeling of the kora with lots of harp-like, friendly dissonances. On “Extra Time,” I use a C major tuning, with the sixth string down to C, and the fifth to G. The tuning for “Peace, Love and Guitars” is D, A, D in the bass, with the third string tuned down to C#.

What strings do you use?
I use Elixir strings. I only had to change them once or twice on a 13-gig tour, whereas I used to change them every night. I use .011-.052 on the Ergo, .011-.049 on the Rosendean, and .010-.046 on the Yamaha and the Martyn Booth.

Williams: I use D’Addario EJ46s, and I can do five or six concerts per set. They actually sound nicer—and sing better—when the initial brilliance is gone.

Do you foresee the duo as an ongoing collaboration?

Etheridge: There is no limit to what we can do together. Places Between was just a start.