The (Open-Minded) Genius of Richard Thompson

The (Open-Minded) Genius of Richard Thompson

November 01, 2018 3 min read

The (Open-Minded) Genius of Richard Thompson

When you think about British guitar heroes of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a few names are likely to crop up:

Jimmy Page; Eric Clapton; Jeff Beck; Keith Richards; George Harrison; Peter Green.

We’ll call these guys the usual suspects.

Richard Thompson, however, is not a usual suspect.

Perhaps it’s because Fairport Convention – the act with which he’s most famously associated – doesn’t have the household recognition of the Led Zeppelins, Creams and Rolling Stones of the world.

Perhaps it’s because his sparkling, clean electric guitar sounds and distinctive playing are a step away from the more mainstream world of gain-driven rock. Yes, his “pick and fingers” hybrid picking style, thumb pick usage and application of CGDGBE, DADGBE and DAGDAD alternate tunings have resulted in some stunning music. But, they go against the grain, and are therefore less mimicked than some of the more conventional stylings of his peers.

To Joe Public, then, Richard Thompson is something of a non-entity. To those in the know, however, Thompson is a bona fide legend, whose revolutionary guitar playing is as awe-inspiring as any of his “name” contemporaries’.

And he’s got the accolades to prove it: 1997’s Orville H. Gibson acoustic guitar player of the year award, a 2006 Ivor Novello for his songwriting, a lifetime achievement from BBC Radio in the UK, and an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II.

Thompson is a true original, and a true guitar luminary. But how did he get to be such as unique player and writer? In no small part, it’s due to his musical open-mindedness. 

Medieval Rotas and Pop Princesses

A few years ago, in an interview with Playboy Magazine, Thompson was asked to choose the best pop songs of the millennium. As Premier Guitar notes, he took the question more literally than the interviewer was perhaps expecting. The songs Thompson selected ranged from the 13th-century English rota (or “round” to you and me) “Sumer Is Icumen In” to Britney Spears’ “Oops!...I Did It Again.”

Hugh Hefner ultimately didn’t print the list – perhaps bewildered by the range of Thompson’s choices (the guitarist eventually turned his selections into a live show and album called “1000 Years of Popular Music”). But, the range is indicative of Thompson’s openness to all kinds of music, and part of what makes him such an inventive player and songwriter.

Growing up in West London, Thompson, like many of his contemporaries, learned to appreciate rock ‘n’ roll from an early age. But it wasn’t just Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis that sparked his interest. Thompson also loved jazz, as well as the traditional Scottish music that inspired his father. Fiddle and pipe music and country soon found their way into Thompson’s repertoire, and he synthesised those sounds into his own guitar playing to create something truly unique. By the time he joined Fairport Convention, at the age of 18, he was blazing his own trail. As Fairport producer Joe Boyd remembered:

“…There was this group of very nice Muswell Hill grammar school boys and a girl playing American music. Leonard Cohen songs, and Richard Fariña songs, and Bob Dylan songs, all being done in a kind of West-Coasty rock style. And then came the guitar solo, and Richard just played the most amazing solo. He played a solo which quotes from Django, from Charlie Christian, you know, an incredibly sophisticated little solo. And that really amazed me, the breadth of his sophistication... and so, you know, at the end of the gig I was in the dressing room saying 'would you guys like to make a record?’”

What set Fairport Convention apart from the leagues of West-Coast-aping folk-rock wannabes in late 1960s London was the breadth of Thompson’s sophisticated guitar playing. In effect, the band wouldn’t have got to make a record if it hadn’t been for his open-mindedness. And, by the time that Fairport’s second album – “What We Did On Our Holidays” came out – it was that open-mindedness that established Thompson as a songwriter of distinction.

What’s the moral of the story? Getting outside of your box is what makes you a truly original guitar player. So keep your mind – and ears – open to new possibilities!

Do you listen to Richard Thompson? And what new, unexpected music have you discovered recently? Share your stories in the comments.

 



Also in Fingerboard Stories

The Story Behind Willie Nelson’s “Trigger” Guitar
The Story Behind Willie Nelson’s “Trigger” Guitar

October 15, 2021 3 min read

In the early days of his career, Willie Nelson went through a variety of guitars. Nelson was signed to RCA records, and that meant that plenty of guitar manufacturers were lining up to gift him instruments to test. Willie started out on Fenders, experimenting with Telecasters, Jaguars and Jazzmasters, before switching to Gibsons. Then, in 1969, the Baldwin Company offered Nelson one of their 800C Classical Acoustic-Electrics, complete with a Prismatone pickup and amp.
What is the Best Pink Floyd Album?
What is the Best Pink Floyd Album?

October 07, 2021 2 min read

And all of those eras have standout albums. Barrett’s first, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, remains much cherished to this day. Atom Heart Mother and Meddle, with their bold, side-filling progressive suites, are rightly regarded as prog rock landmarks. And I don’t need to extol the virtues of Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and the Wall to you. The countless column inches already devoted to those landmark albums in the annuls of rock journalism tells you everything you need to know. 
Three Electrifying (and Electrified) Slide Performances You Need to Hear
Three Electrifying (and Electrified) Slide Performances You Need to Hear

September 28, 2021 3 min read

As the story goes, the Allmans’ version of the track came about after Gregg Allman gifted the self-titled Taj Mahal album to Duane for his birthday, along with a bottle of Coricidin pills (Duane had a cold that day). Inspired by the rendition of Statesboro Blues on the album, Duane, who had never played slide guitar before, washed the label from the Coricidin bottle, fashioned a makeshift slide from it, and taught himself how to play the track.