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.
“I'm sick to death of people saying we've made 11 albums that sound exactly the same, In fact, we've made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”
“I honestly believe that you have to be able to play the guitar hard if you want to be able to get the whole spectrum of tones out of it. Since I normally play so hard, when I start picking a bit softer my tone changes completely, and that's really useful sometimes for creating a more laid-back feel.”
As a young guitarist, I completely rejected any notion that music theory would help me in my journey. At the time, I justified this as a “punk rock/music is freedom” attitude to playing. If I learned my theory, I told myself, I’m just putting myself in a box. “[Insert guitar hero of the week] didn’t need theory, and they were a genius. Why do I?”