Richard Thompson has favored Fender guitars—especially Strats—since the late 1960s. His current go-to
was assembled from various Fender parts.
When rattling off the pantheon of game-changing rock guitarists, the same names often come up: Clapton, Page, Hendrix, Beck, Van Halen. But the equally revolutionary Richard Thompson is rarely included. His style may be less mimicked, and he veers more toward clean tones than rock-approved distortion, but Thompson’s unique blend of British fiddle and pipe music with country-style string bending has given us decades of guitar work as jaw-dropping as that of the legends above.
Thompson first came to prominence in the late 1960s as a member of Fairport Convention, a group noted for mixing of American roots rock and traditional Celtic styles. After leaving Fairport, Thompson duetted with wife, Linda Thompson, on some of the most intense recordings of the ’70s and early ’80s. Their albums offer exquisite and literate songwriting, heartfelt vocals, and consistently breathtaking guitar work. Since splitting from Linda, Thompson has released dozens of solo records, generating a catalog of tunes envied by countless songwriters.
Thompson also has an uncanny ability to find greatness in cover tunes, while making them entirely his own. When asked by Playboy magazine to choose the best pop songs of the millennium, he took the question literally, offering a list of tunes ranging from the 13th-century “Sumer Is Icumen In” through Britney Spears’ “Oops!...I Did It Again.” While Hef never printed the list, Thompson developed it into a show and a recording.
On his latest record, Still, Thompson miraculously manages to maintain his high-level songwriting, deliver his signature finger-twisting solos, and mimic guitar styles associated with five of his personal guitar heroes. Speaking from his California home, the transplanted Brit tells Premier Guitar why he likes Britney and why he avoids blues licks.
Early on you played a Les Paul but quickly switched to a Stratocaster. Why?
In the mid-’60s everybody in the UK was playing a Gibson: Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Eric Clapton, etc. I was offered a Les Paul goldtop with soap bar pickups, which had just come over from the States. It was an opportunity to trade up from the Hofner I had at the time. But after a year or so, I thought, “All the guitar players I like–James Burton, Magic Sam, and Hank Marvin—are Fender players. Perhaps I should be playing a Fender, because I’m trying to do Fender-y things, like country string bends.” I switched over to Fenders in about 1968. I prefer them because they have a lot more bite. When you’re looking for a tone, you’re trying to create a sort of voice. I thought something with a little more treble would be more satisfying.
You mentioned country bends. Is that why you started using light-gauged strings?
Yeah. I use .009s. I’d started off on medium-gauge strings, but figured out that Chuck Berry, James Burton, and other people I listened to were using lighter-gauge strings. At some point, it became common knowledge in the U.K. that if you move all the strings over one and use a banjo string on the high E, it gave you a lighter gauge. Eventually, somebody started manufacturing actual light-gauge strings.
Did you develop hybrid picking on your own, or had you sees James Burton or someone else do it?
I never saw anybody else do it. I was never conscious of playing that way until somebody pointed it out. When I was about 12, I did a year or two of classical guitar. At the same time, I learned to play with a plectrum. Sometimes I would be too lazy to put the plectrum down when I switched to fingerstyle. I’d just start playing with a pick and the available fingers. Eventually, it became the way I played electric and acoustic. I noticed later that Albert Lee and Glen Campbell did the same thing. But at the time I was unaware of other people doing it. I was unaware of me doing it!
Had you ever played with a thumbpick and fingers?
Absolutely. I used thumbpicks and fingerpicks when I was playing in folk clubs in my early 20s. I tried everything, but at some point you settle on a technique and try to develop it.
Buddy Miller produced your last record, but for this one you switched to Jeff Tweedy. Why the change?
I’ve made a lot of albums, and sometimes you need to change some elements because your thinking becomes predictable. It’s nice to bring in another set of ears, someone who can make suggestions in the studio that help toward a better end product. That happened with Buddy—I made a really good record with him. It happened with Jeff Tweedy as well.
What did Jeff bring to this record?
In terms of sound, Jeff makes fairly transparent records. The Mavis Staples record is all about Mavis Staples, not about him. The same thing happened with my record. His influence is subtle to the listener, but he had an effect on arrangements, song structure, instrumentation, overdubs, and particularly on who plays on the tracks. He brought in Jim Elkington from his band Tweedy as a second guitar player. That was an inspired idea, because Jim is a great guitarist and a tremendous, empathetic listener. He also brought in singers from Tweedy, Liam and Sima Cunningham, who did a fantastic job.
How are his arrangement choices different from, say, Buddy’s or yours?
He sometimes suggested a different rhythmic approach. We rehearsed the songs with my trio before going to the studio, and he would say, “You’re trying too hard to be funky and tough on this particular song. If you straighten it out, it will sound better, funkier, and tougher.” Another time he suggested stripping out some of the chords to help the song’s tension and release, which it did.