Richard Thompson: The Incomparable Alchemist
The iconoclastic virtuoso revisits his roots on a new album produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
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.
Thompson is a longtime Lowden user. This cedar-topped Richard Thompson Signature Series is his main flattop onstage and in the studio. He amplifies it via a Sunrise magnetic soundhole pickup.
Did he record differently than Buddy did?
It was similar. Buddy has a studio in his house. The drums occupy a lot of the main room. The guitar amps were in a cupboard, the vocalist was in the kitchen, and the bass player was in the main room with the drums. We had good sightlines, but were a bit separated. It's a funky way of recording, but very effective. Jeff's loft is a space about 100-feet long, stuffed with instruments: hundreds of guitars, maybe 50 basses, dozens of drum kits, keyboards, and endless amps. The studio is in a corner of this space. The drums are slightly baffled, but within that open space. You're singing on the basic tracks. It's a different kind of relaxed environment. Again, it's not a real “studio" studio where everything is more separate, but a creative space—a nice relaxed atmosphere in which to record.
How much of this record was laid down live?
Pretty much everything. Select vocals and guitars were redone or patched, and some guitars were layered. Even on “Guitar Heroes," which goes through five separate quotes from other guitarists while changing tempo and feel frequently, we decided the best way to record it was to do it live in one go. If we wanted to change the guitar texture, I could overdub different guitars. If I wanted to sound like Hank Marvin, I could play on a Strat, and for James Burton I could go with a mid-'50s, Telecaster—all of which are hanging on the wall at the Wilco loft. For the Les Paul section, there was a row of Les Pauls to select from, which was fun. There were lots of amps to play through as well. I played through so many amps I can't remember what they all were. I did use a Morgan, a Vox-like amp that sounds really good. I used a couple of old Fender Princetons and an old Deluxe. There were lots of toys to play with.
Did Elkington or Tweedy play on tracks with you?
Yeah. On the road, we're a trio, but sometimes in the studio you need more harmonic information. Your trusty trios like Cream or Hendrix would overdub rhythm guitars to make a fuller sound in the studio. It was really nice to have a second guitar player to play something live that I'd often overdub afterwards anyway. Jim could pick up on my style very quickly—being English probably helped. Jeff played live guitar and keyboards on some things.
On “Josephine," there are two beautiful intertwining acoustic parts. Are they both you?
That is all me. There's a strange genesis to that track: I originally put down a clawhammer rhythm guitar part and live vocals at the same time. I overdubbed two more guitars as counterpoint to the original guitar and for the solo. At some point Jeff said, “Look what happens if I turn the original guitar track off." Miraculously, there was no spill between the voice and the guitar. Without the original guitar, it took on this other strange interpretation. We liked it more than with the original guitar, so we just left it like that.
Did you use different acoustic guitars for the different tracks?
I think all those tracks are my Lowden signature guitar.
Do you mic it or go direct?
It's miked. I can't remember exactly what we used, but it was a Neumann 84-style mic.
Which electrics did you use?
Predominantly the red Stratocaster I use onstage, which is the most comfortable instrument for me. I pulled other guitars off the wall for various sounds. To sound like Chuck Berry, I pulled down a big-bodied '50s Gibson.
What year is the red Strat?
It looks about 100 years old, but it's probably two years old. It's different bodies and necks that have been assembled by my guitar tech. The pickups are all different—I can't remember what they are. It's an amalgamation of bits, but they're all Fender bits.
Was the body pre-distressed, or did it get that way through use?
Using it on tour has not helped its condition, but I think it was left out in the sun for a couple of years to get the color right. It started out as Fiesta Red and is now something like coral. It's had a hard life so far.
Are you using amp tremolo or a pedal?
I use amp tremolo if I can. It just sounds a little warmer. But I also use pedals that can pretty much do the same thing. On the record I probably used both. There are hundreds of pedals at the Wilco loft space.
What pedals are you using on tour?
I use a Fulltone tremolo and OCD overdrive. I use a Carl Martin Vintage Series Red Repeat delay—it's digital, but it sounds very warm.
This record seems to sound drier than some of your others. Was that something Tweedy encouraged?
If a studio doesn't have a really good echo plate or live chamber, I'm reluctant to use too much digital reverb instead. I can hear the difference, and I don't like it to sound too shiny. It's nicer to have it in your face and stripped-down—a more realistic sound. That was our shared aesthetic for this record.
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."
Whatever you write about tends to be about you somehow, even when you're writing about other people.Some artists only write about their own lives. That's fine if you have the talent and skill to make it interesting to other people. Other people write in a confessional way and don't have the art to make it interesting. Sometimes fiction, or fictionalized reality, is a wonderful thing, because it becomes more absorbable for the listener. It's nice to be able to approach songwriting from different angles, and, as you suggest, sometimes the imagination keeps you fresh and stops you from becoming too self-absorbed, self-obsessed, and all those other things we're not supposed to be.