Richard Thompson always ranks highly in critical polls of the greatest guitarists, but remains far from the household name status of Hendrix, Beck, or Clapton, possibly because his style—melding multi-string bends with sounds from jazz, Celtic folk, country, blues, and 20th Century classical music—is near impossible to emulate. Or, perhaps, because his playing is overshadowed by his brilliant songs, which have been covered by Robert Plant, R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, et al.
Electric [New West], produced by Americana guitar hero Buddy Miller, may help spread the word. It contains the soulful singing and intelligent songwriting that has attracted a sizable audience of non-guitarists, and plenty of jaw-dropping solos for fans of fabulous picking.
After self-producing the last couple of records, what made you go with Buddy Miller for this one?
I started becoming predictable to myself, and I thought it was time to look for some outside possibilities. I have known Buddy for a few years, and we have done some live things together. Listening to the records he has done recently in his house, I thought it was the right kind of approach and the right sound. Because we did the record as a trio, we were thinking we might need me to overdub some guitar here and there, but it was nice to have him there to do it live. He is a sympathetic musician and a great accompanist. If you need him to play guitar, he will, and if not, he will lay out. He doesn’t bring his ego to the project.
“Stoney Ground” has a distorted guitar tone that you don’t use often. How did you get that sound?
I played the riff on the neck pickup of a Strat through a Fulltone OCD distortion pedal, and it seemed to work for the song so I kept it. I have the OCD on a couple of my pedalboards.
Do you keep separate gear on both sides of the Atlantic?
I am working towards that. I finally achieved the thing of having two electric guitars, an acoustic guitar, a pedalboard, and an amp in Europe, where I work a lot. It is more practical, as it is getting harder and harder to fly with instruments. You get penalized for being a musician.
“Sally B” also sounds like a front pickup. As someone known for the two-pickups combined Strat sound, was there a reason you were using the neck pickup alone more on this record?
I haven’t used it that much before, but because this was a trio I thought I needed a fatter sound on some things—I needed to fill more aural space.
Was the tremolo on “My Enemy” an amp or a pedal?
It was tremolo from the Headstrong Lil’ King Reverb amp I was using. The amp is like a Fender Princeton circuit, but with a more efficient 12" speaker.
What was the delay used on “Straight and Narrow” for the slap sound? Is it the same one you use live for things like “Shoot Out The Lights?”
I think it was a TC Electronic delay, I can’t remember which one. I use a Carl Martin Red Repeat live. If you have to use a pedal for slap, I think it is important to use one that has a tone control, so you can roll off the top to get more of a tape delay sound.
Which acoustic guitar did you use for “Salford Sunday?”
It is actually an electric guitar. In Buddy’s house there are a lot of guitars hanging on the wall, like Silvertones and weird Japanese stuff you have never heard of—he loves those cranky Ekos. That was a Guild Bluesbird, a hollowbody with a Les Paul shape and no f-holes. It was perfect.
That guitar notwithstanding, why have you largely gravitated toward Fender-style single-coil electric sounds?
My early guitars were Gibsons—an ES-175 and a goldtop Les Paul with soap bars—but the guitar players I liked in the ’60s were Fender players, and I have played Fender-type guitars ever since. They have a have a bit more bite.
In recent live videos, your Strats have rosewood fretboards. Have you retired your famous ’50s maple Strat?
I don’t really care about whether it is rosewood or maple. The ’59 is in great need of renovation—the neck is so worn that it’s hard to play. It is a ’59 body with a ’55 neck, and probably too valuable to take out on the road.
“Good Things Happen to Bad People” sounds like two guitars at once. When you are working on independent parts, does it come more quickly now or does it still take a lot of practice?
It usually comes fairly naturally these days. It is a slow process in the beginning. You practice and at some point it becomes second nature, like a pianist who can play independent things with each hand and sing at the same time. It is a useful thing if you are playing in a trio. Without a keyboard or rhythm guitar, there is less harmonic information filling in behind you, so if you can play a couple of parts on the guitar it helps fill it out.
Is that a chorus, a 12-string, or both on that tune?
It is a double-tracked electric guitar and an autoharp plucked as if it was a psaltery.
The chords on the bridge of “Another Small Thing in Her Favour” go in unexpected directions. Do they just come to you like that or do you deliberately look for a twist?
Sometimes you think a song should be simple, with three chords—I’m thinking “I want this to be a song other people can easily play.” Other times you want the bridge to go somewhere you haven’t been before. For example, you write the song in G, but you start the bridge on Fm. The bridge becomes a kind of problem you have to solve—how do I resolve out of that key change? It’s the kind of thing Mozart and Haydn used to do, setting up key changes and figuring out ways to get back to the original key. That song developed that way—I was setting up a problem. That one was a success story, whereas others you have never heard might have been disasters [laughs].
You are not afraid of dissonance. Where did that appreciation come from?
Being alive in the 20th century you can’t avoid it. Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” is 100 years old this year and still sounds modern because it uses a lot of what we would call dissonance. I have enjoyed listening to that stuff for years, starting with Debussy and Ravel— where they began using the upper partials of chords—then into Stravinsky, Schoenberg, etc. There is something about the 20th and 21st centuries that demands you express yourself in that way. Because I am an entertainer I am not being dissonant all the time, but I think it is a valuable component of your expressive arsenal as a guitar player.
How, if at all, do you modify acoustic versions for electric or vice versa?
Good question. For the majority of songs I can figure out how to do it both ways—sometimes the way I play it is drastically different, and sometimes it is similar. On a song like “Good Things Happen to Bad People” I am playing it basically the same on both instruments. On other songs, because I don’t have to hold down the rhythm or the harmony, I am free to do little stabs or solo things. Even though they all start out on the acoustic guitar, some are only going to ever be electric, or acoustic, while some are adaptable to either.
When you did “Woodstock” at a Joni Mitchell tribute concert you made it your own. What was that process?
I did it on a half-hour’s notice because the person scheduled to do it dropped out. The only way I could hear to do it that quickly was a DADGAD tuning, turning it into a British traditional modal thing.
You wrote this record with the trio in mind. Was any part of that decision related to the current economics of touring?
Economics played some part. For the five-piece I have to get members here from England and Canada, which involves work visas and a bus, and for a one-off festival it is prohibitive. However, the basic rhythm section lives in Los Angeles and so do I, so for us to do a one-off or a weekend is practical. I wanted to have the trio as an optional commando raid kind of band that can zoom out and do festivals. I wrote material for the trio that ended up being the record and, having been the record, it became this tour. The trio is still, in my mind, a temporary thing, but it has been received very well, so we will do this tour and see how it goes from there.