Justin Hawkins goes below the belt for one of his solos. “Most of the time, I just play a solo and then give my guitar back to my tech. On the record as well, I hardly play any rhythm,” he says. Photo by Jordi Vidal
Justin, describe your picking technique. You use a lot of extended and hybrid techniques in addition to alternate picking.
Justin: I started fingerpicking about a month after I stopped lessons. I bumped into my guitar teacher and he noticed it at a show. He was really offended by it. He said, “What happened to your plectrum technique?” I said, “It’s still there.” It is important to have a varied approach. Nine gigs out of 10, I drop the plectrum at an inopportune moment and I have to do fingerpicking. Plus, certain solos are impossible to pull off with my plectrum technique. The hammering stuff, I don’t think I ever really mastered that, but I know a number of ways to do something. My tech is a very brilliant guitar player named Ian Norfolk—he’s like a local legend—and he told me something that really resonated with me. He said, “All that picking stuff—the hammering stuff—is a trick.” It’s like magic. It’s a distraction. And once you know a couple of tricks, that’s all you need, really. I don’t use it all the time because I don’t enjoy listening to it that much, really, but it is quite handy to have if you’ve run out of ideas. You do a trick.
You’re a very melodic player. Your solos stick with the melody and are very singable.
Justin: That comes from being a Brian May enthusiast. For me, they were one of those bands that had two voices: Freddie, and Brian’s fingers. I want to try and do both.
Who plays the acoustic parts on the new album?
Justin: That’s Dan. He’s Mr. Acoustics. I love listening to Dan play. A lot of times he does stuff and I don’t have a clue how he came up with it—what was in his mind or where his fingers went. He reminds me of Jimmy Page. I don’t usually try to learn Jimmy Page things because I prefer having the mystery of not knowing how he achieved those things. I feel the magic would disappear if I tried and realized it was easy [laughs]. I like the illusion.
Dan: I love playing acoustic. As I was saying before, that’s how I learned to play the guitar. I am still working out how the electric thing goes, but I love playing rhythm guitar. I can’t tell you how much I love playing rhythm guitar. Hitting it hard, strumming—it’s just my thing. Maybe I miss being a drummer.
What acoustics do you have?
Dan: I have a Gibson J-200. I got it in 2003. It might be a 2000 model. It was actually a gift from my publisher when we signed to Universal. Just before we signed, he brought down these guitars. I got a J-200 and Justin and Frankie [Poullain, bass] got Gibson Songwriters. For years, I kind of preferred that to my J-200. I can’t really explain it, but now it is almost 18 years old and it seems to have dried out, become lighter, and just sounds better. That is quite good news for people who have bought Gibsons maybe 15 years ago. I can tell you now, they do sound better the older they get. Still. It’s not just the old ones that sound good. Because of what they’re made of, the fairly modern ones sound better the older they get, too. But that’s just my experience. I might be talking out my ass.
Do you take the acoustics on the road?
Dan: We used to. Increasingly, we seem to be streamlining what we do and getting it completely undiluted. I think people want to come and see us because we fucking rock. We’re doing this old school, glam rock, exciting party thing. I don’t think people want to see us experimenting, fucking about, and playing ballads. We are gradually sort of ditching everything. We’ve had keys in the past, and acoustics and mandolins, but they all just get thrown in the sea at the end of the tour and we get back to doing the hard rock stuff.
Do you use pedals?
Justin: No. I just have two amps. One of them is loud and one of them is even louder. I have a Marshall Jubilee in the rig at the moment. I am not sure what that is doing exactly. My rhythm sound is a Friedman, which I use a lot for solos in the studio as well. It just works for the way I play for some reason. My lead head is a Wizard 100. I just have a Mike Hill channel switcher, a Sennheiser wireless system, and I give the guitar to my tech, Ian, and he tunes it for me. The rest of it is fingers.
What’s that effect on “Lay Down with Me, Barbara,” on the new album?
Dan: There is a phaser. I think that’s an MXR Phase 90. That was my idea, but just because that is what the song needed—really ’70s. I wanted to keep that vibe going. He won’t use one live. He hates all that shit. About the only thing from his setup that’s fairly complicated is the wireless system.
Do you use a wireless as well?
Dan: No. No, no, no. Fuck that. I have no interest in being wireless. I tried one once and I spent the whole time trying to recreate the sound of a cable. I thought, “You know what? If this means that I can’t run around stage so much, so be it.” I need to present a nice big fat guitar sound, not fucking run around like a twat. I’ll leave that to the people who have to run around. I am a big fan of the lead [cable]. I think it makes things more interesting as well, when you go wandering and you don’t know where you are going to get stuck. I’ve got stuck so many times wrapped around the pedalboard and one of the monitors. You go to the front of the stage and you can’t actually get back. It gets very Spinal Tap sometimes. I think it is worth it.
In the studio, are the rhythm tracks done together as a band and then you overdub vocals and solos?
Justin: The band is in there together when that’s happening. Sometimes I go in there with them and help with arrangement cues and things like that. But I am not recording anything when the band is doing that. It’s rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and I am prancing around trying to help.
When you record your parts, do you sit in the room with your amps or in the control room?
Justin: I have had occasion to do both. On the last one, I was in the control room, but there are lots of times when I am in with the amps. When I am on a roll, I just stick where I am and with whatever is working.
Dan, I read that you like your Les Pauls heavy. Why is that?
Dan: I’ve got an interesting story about that, actually. Gibson sent me one of these new Standards, which sounds really good, but I did have it modified. I had the pickups I use—498s, I think—put into this. It was still great, but it just didn’t feel right. And I didn’t like the way it looked either, so I had it refinished by Guyton Guitars, the guy who does Brian May’s stuff. He’s looking after our guitars these days. I said, “Can you fill these chambers?” They chamber their guitars now and I fucking hate it. It feels like it is going to fall apart. I sent it out and said, “Make it heavy again.” What he did was he put a load of fishing weights in there. We named the guitar the “Cod Father” in respect to that. True story. That guitar is now as heavy as my normal ones and it’s got a load of lead in it.
So it really is a heavy metal guitar.
Dan: Quite literally, yeah [laughs].
Watch the Darkness perform "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" live in 2017. Lots of Les Paul action in this clip, including a bluesy extended intro by Justin Hawkins, who also navigates a smooth guitar swap after breaking a string on his Custom.
Dig even deeper into the Hawkins' brothers gear and bassist Frankie Poullain's setup, too.