Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy [right] produced Still, Richard Thompson’s new album. “His influence is subtle to the listener,” observes Thompson, “but he had an effect on arrangements, song structure, instrumentation, overdubs, and particularly on who plays on the tracks.”
Let’s talk about “Guitar Heroes.” Why did you do the Les Paul tribute solo on acoustic guitar?
That is a very good question—I’m glad you asked it. As I said, we cut the basic tracks live. I first played the whole song on acoustic. The plan was to keep the acoustic for the Django section, and then switch to electric for the Les Paul section. I did the double-speed guitar on a Les Paul, but for some reason I thought it would be nice to keep the acoustic for the rest, and then switch to electric for the Chuck Berry and James Burton sections.
Did you do the high parts of the Les Paul section by playing to a slowed-down track?
Yeah. Because we were recording to 24-track tape, it was easy to play at half-speed. We could do it old-style.
Was there a click to help you stay in time at half-speed?
I was getting enough rhythmic information without one. The beat is a little woolier, a little more vague, but it’s still there. You can hear enough to keep in time.
Which guitar influences didn’t you get around to for “Guitar Heroes?”
Apart from Charlie Christian and some other jazz players, I was listening to rock players like Mike Bloomfield and blues guys like Otis Rush. If we put in everybody I listened to in the ’50s and ’60s, it would be a 14-hour song.Back then—and certainly now—I listened to a lot of other instruments, because listening to just guitar players gets a bit incestuous. If you listen to other instruments, you stand a chance of expanding the guitar vocabulary. I listened to pianists when I was younger and tried to do things a pianist would do, or what a sax player or trumpet player would do.
You used to do fiddle and pipe tunes as well.
They were also a huge influence. I like to use drone strings—that’s from the pipes and the fiddle. I like to use fiddle inflections on the guitar—the hammer-ons and pull-offs are very fiddle-derived.
It’s interesting you mentioned Otis Rush, yet you almost never play standard blues licks. Have you deliberately avoided that style?
Fairly early on, I thought, “There are so many guitar players playing the same blues clichés. I’ll avoid some of these things in my vocabulary and play more Celtic things.” I’ve pretty much stuck to that ever since. Culturally, the blues is not important to me. I try not to play B. B. King or Eric Clapton licks, or any of that stuff. At some point, it became a stylistic choice to try to be different.
Wasn’t the whole Fairport aesthetic to develop rock music based on a Celtic background rather than on an American one?
Absolutely. We got to a point where we thought, “We will never play the blues as good as somebody from Chicago.” We’d never been to Chicago—never even to America. We would never play country as good as Hank Williams, or soul as good as Otis Redding. If we played music that was more indigenous, music that reflected where we came from, we stood a chance to excel and to be the best in our field. It gave us originality, a style of music more satisfying and rewarding to us. That turned out to be a good choice, and I’m still on a mission to play solid music that’s more about where I come from than what is popular. Hopefully, there’s an overlap, and it’s at least vaguely popular, but I can satisfy my soul playing the music that echoes the country of my origin.
Do you have any tips about how guitar players can meld influences into a personal style, as you have?
All really great players have their own voice, and it’s usually recognizable fairly quickly. As a younger player you listen to the players you enjoy, admire, and would like to emulate. At some point, you develop the synthesis of everything you have listened to. It becomes your own sound and voice.
In this concert-length TV appearance, Richard Thompson and his band prove you don’t need 100-watt stacks to put the power in power trio. Thompson wrangles and mangles his “parts” Strat through a Deluxe, turning country clichés on their heads, weaving inside and outside licks into a tapestry of guitar virtuosity.
On your record 1000 Years of Popular Music, you do amazing versions of Britney Spears’ ““Oops!...I Did It Again.”” and Bowling for Soup’s “1985,” revealing them as genuinely great songs. Why did you pick those two?
Some people will be surprised to hear an old folkie doing versions of those songs, but I think they’re valid contemporary songs. We had to pick something contemporary to finish the show. If you play the Britney song acoustically, taking away the bombast of the record, it’s easier to see the structure and hear the nice sardonic lyric. The chord structure to “Oops!” is not that different from a European dance tune from the 1600s. Sometimes we play it in the style of a 16th-century dance tune just to bring the whole cycle to closure. So, yeah—we love you, Britney!
After more than 60 records you still come up with great songs. Does it help that you write as many songs from your imagination as from direct experience?
I think it’s nice to have both. Sometimes things happen and you think, “I have to deal with this—I have to express it,” so you write a song about it. Sometimes an unresolved aspect of your past comes back to haunt you—that’s another kind of song. And then, there’s the song where you sit down and write a fictional story, just for fun. You start with a line that leads to another line, and another line, and then suddenly, you’ve written something. You say, “Well, that’s interesting. I have no idea what all this is about. Is this about me? Is it about somebody else?” You might not answer that question and just enjoy the song. Perhaps down the road you think, “Actually, this is about me.”