Not long ago, I went to see Cajun band BeauSoleil performing at McCabe’s—the storied guitar shop and concert venue in Santa Monica. As a surprise treat, BeauSoleil invited Richard Thompson up to play on the last two songs of their set. Most of the band’s crowd seemed to know who Thompson is—a fantastic acoustic and electric guitarist, and a wonderful songwriter as well. The few that didn’t know of Thompson were in for a pleasant shock. As Thompson approached the stage, a McCabe’s staffer offered him a Stratocaster and a Danelectro reissue to choose from. As Thompson regularly plays Fender and Fender-style guitars, he naturally chose the Strat—though it was a nothing-special Squier, plucked off the wall, with the tags still on.
From Thompson’s first note, it was clear that this guitar was putty in his hands. Using a hybrid plectrum-and-fingers technique—as he most often does—he drew sweet and salty sounds from the Squier, bending strings with reckless precision. While few players are whole-hearted monogamists when it comes to gear, most sound best on their old faithfuls. It’s a rare gift for any guitarist to be able to play with such ease on an unfamiliar instrument, yet the strangeness didn’t seem to slow Thompson down a bit.
I met up with Thompson more recently at a recording studio in Los Angeles to learn about the making of his album Still, which was produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Of course, I was also curious to know how he managed to sound so great on a $250 guitar he’d never touched before, so I launched our discussion by asking him that.
“I’m always intimidated by people who can pick up any guitar and sound great,” Thompson says. “Django Reinhardt could do that. Norman Blake can do that. Blake says that a bad guitar can only do one thing, but he will search for that thing on that guitar until it sounds good. The thing about sitting in with people is, if you’re really going to do it properly, you have to haul your gear down early for soundcheck. Somewhere like McCabe’s, that has lots of guitars, you can just pull something off the wall and hope it has a gauge of string that you can work with. It’s a bit random. It’s a lot more fun, actually.”
Before meeting with Thompson, I checked out several YouTube videos to watch him in a variety of performance settings. In one particularly compelling clip, Thompson sings the traditional song “The Coo Coo Bird,” recording onto a 78-rpm acetate in a single live take for The 78 Project documentary. That led me to check iTunes to see whether he’d recorded the song elsewhere and formally released it. He has, with Eliza Carthy, on an album paying tribute to folklorist Harry Smith. Interestingly, this arrangement of the song was quite different from Thompson’s solo version—with a different feel, different tempo and in a different key. One thing that both “Coo Coo” arrangements have in common is Thompson’s use of DADGAD tuning, which he has employed extensively over the years. Thompson tells me he had heard guitarist Davey Graham use the tuning on some recordings when he was younger but wasn’t aware of Graham’s tunings at the time. Later, in the mid 1960s, Thompson became fascinated by a recording of banjoist Clarence Ashley and began to wonder about Ashley’s tuning. Trying to tune his guitar the way the banjo, Thompson stumbled onto DADGAD tuning.
“That was my impersonation of Clarence Ashley,” he says. “I thought eureka! But then I discovered that all these other creeps had already been there before me. I’m one of the 2,800 people who think they invented DADGAD.”
Thompson says that one of the main things he likes about the tuning is its lack of resolution. “The chords in DADGAD are always suspended. There’s an ambiguity about what key it’s in as well, which is a quality that a lot of traditional music has. Traditional song in the U.K. was often unaccompanied. The songs have these great melodies but when you actually sit and listen, you think, What key is the damn thing in? Sometimes it could be in any one of three keys. Open tunings on the guitar help to give it that feeling of not being pinned down to a particular key. And there can be more strings ringing at the same time, which helps you to be more orchestral as a guitar player—to flow.”
From there, our conversation turned to Still. (On which, by the by, there’s ample use of DADGAD.) Nearly every song on the album features two guitar parts, panned left and right in the mix. Thompson played the primary guitar on every song and is joined by Jim Elkington throughout. Thompson overdubbed his own secondary parts on a few tunes and producer Jeff Tweedy played some guitar on the record too. Elkington is from Tweedy’s circle of compadres. “Jeff thought Jim would be a good second guitar player,” Thompson says. “That left him free to listen more as a producer. I thought Jim did great. He’s not really a folkie but he’s got great ears.”
Still was recorded at the Loft in Chicago. The studio has been ground zero for many of Wilco’s sessions since the early 2000s. [You can read more about the Loft in Fretboard Journal issue #15.] Thompson shipped some of his favorite guitars to Chicago for the Still sessions—including two of his custom Strats (one red, one green) assembled by his guitar tech Bobby Eichorn, his three-pickup Telecaster (also an Eichorn creation), his early-1920s Gibson mandolin and his signature model Lowden acoustic. He also played several instruments from Tweedy’s vast collection of vintage gear.
“We did a lot of casting,” says Thompson, “using different guitars for different songs. But I wouldn’t say we spent a lot of time on anything. We just kind of ripped through stuff. It’s Jeff Tweedy’s guitar collection hanging on the walls and he knows better than anybody else which guitar works in which musical environment. He might say, ‘It doesn’t look like much but this old Martin with this oddball pickup in it actually sounds really good.’ And he’d be right.”
“I think there are two kinds of recording guitars,” Thompson continues. “There’s a guitar like my Lowden, which has strong bass, strong middle and strong treble. It’s loud and sounds hi-fi but there’s a lot of applications where you need a lo-fi—or less full-spectrum—guitar. Doing a strumming rhythm part, for example, you sometimes want something where the strings are more dead or the sound is naturally compressed already, without sticking a compressor on it. I’ve got a Gibson J-200 that fits that niche. There are other times when there’s a hole in the music—a narrow hole in the audio spectrum. You don’t want a lush sounding guitar for that. You want something more trebly.”
The Still sessions were the first time Thompson and Tweedy had worked together in the studio, though the two have crossed paths several times over the past 20 years, sharing co-bills on various tours and festivals. Most recently, both were on the AmericanaramA tour (Tweedy with Wilco, Thompson with his Electric Trio), which also featured Bob Dylan and My Morning Jacket. “I got to know Wilco a lot better then,” says Thompson. “I got to sit in with them some nights. It was great fun. That’s probably where the idea started. We thought that if we asked very nicely, Jeff might consider being involved in a record.”
What did Tweedy bring to Still that was different than what other producers had contributed on past records? Thompson says, “I hate to use phrases like ‘pop sensibility,’ because that doesn’t do him justice at all, but he does have a strong idea of what makes a song work, what makes a recording work, and—often—what makes a performance work. If you get those three things, you’ve got absolutely everything. You don’t really have all three most of the time but that’s what you aim for. He’d listen to my home demos and occasionally there’d be a question about structure. Maybe we don’t need that extra verse, for example.”
“A couple of times,” Thompson says, “Jeff really brought the tracks to life,” citing the song “All Buttoned Up” as an example. On Thompson’s original demo, the bass and drum grooves included lots of syncopated notes. Tweedy suggested that those parts be stripped down, lending them more toughness and leaving more room for the funk in Thompson’s guitar part. On other occasions, Tweedy had suggestions for overdubs. “Very subtle things,” says Thompson, “like the swelling guitar on ‘Broken Doll.’ There’s also an instrument called a Marxophone on there that sounds like a hammer-dulcimer, and an organ that sounded really hideous on its own until we mixed it into the track and it sounded great.”
How much was Tweedy aware of Thompson’s rich artistic past before they began working together? “I think Jeff’s aware that I have a history,” he says. “He seems a pretty good student of music.” How much was Thompson aware of Tweedy’s work? “I love the band Wilco,” he says. “I hear Pink Floyd and other stuff in Wilco. I’m sure there’s more layers to their influences—things that I don’t know. I love the fact that they are a roots-based band. They acknowledge those roots and reflect those roots.”
In his songwriting for Still, Thompson tended to explore the shadier corners of human experience, as he has often done in the past. The song “Guitar Heroes,” however, stands out as pure fun. In it, Thompson giddily name checks—and imitates—some of the players who’ve inspired his unique playing style: Chuck Berry, James Burton, Hank Marvin (of the English instrumental-rock band the Shadows), Les Paul and gypsy-swing godfather Django Reinhardt.
“We wanted to do the whole song in one take,” Thompson says, “rather than doing it in segments and gluing it together, so we cut the whole thing in one go, with me playing acoustic. I thought that was a good place to start, then I’d overdub various guitars. The first section is Django, so acoustic was fine.” Thompson played the double-speed Les Paul bits on a Gibson Les Paul from the Loft’s collection. “We were recording on analog tape, so it was a piece of cake to do the double speed.” For the James Burton section, Thompson looked around the studio and spotted ’50s Fender Tele on the wall. “Perfect!” He played his red Strat for the Shadows section. To mimic Chuck Berry, he grabbed a Gibson hollowbody.
Though Reinhardt has been gone since well before Thompson took up the guitar, some of Thompson’s heroes are very much alive and kicking, including Burton. “I’ve played with James a few times,” he says. “He’s a sweet man and an important guitar player. He invented chicken picking and a kind of cross-picking style. He’s one of the first country string benders, as far as I know. I met Hank Marvin once at a Fender dinner. He was very charming. I don’t think anybody before him got such a tone out of a Stratocaster. Those Shadows records still sound amazing.”
Listening to Thompson talk about his influences with such reverence, I was reminded of a quote from producer Joe Boyd’s book, White Bicycles. (Boyd and Thompson have worked together on many recordings over the years, including Fairport Convention’s 1968 debut album and Shoot Out the Lights with Thompson’s then wife, Linda.) In his book, Boyd says of Thompson, “He can imitate almost any style, and often does, but is instantly identifiable. In his playing you can hear his evocation of the Scottish piper’s drone and the melody of the chanter as well as echoes of Barney Kessel’s and James Burton’s guitars and Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano.” I ask Thompson whether he thinks Boyd’s assessment is accurate. Without hesitation, he replies, “That’s what you’re supposed to be! You study your influences and at some point you emerge from behind them with your own synthesis of style—which becomes your style. That’s what Aaron Copeland did, it’s what Charlie Parker did. Les Paul sounds like Les Paul but in a lot of ways he is playing Django. He’s just doing it Les Paul style. You don’t even think of it as Django. It’s Les doing his thing.”
Thompson is a master songwriter as much as he’s a great guitarist, so I can’t help but ask him who he’d have mentioned if he’d written a song about his writerly heroes instead. “There’s probably lot,” he says. “Baroness Nairne is one of my favorite songwriters. She was from the Scottish aristocracy in the early 1800s. A lot of her songs later became folk music. Robert Burns wrote folk songs. W.B. Yeats wrote some good songs. But probably my favorite songwriter is “Trad Arranged.” Traditional music is the greatest. And then Hank Williams, Lal Waterson, stuff like that. I was aware of Fats Waller when I was quite young—my dad had some of his records, and Hoagy Carmichael records as well. I was aware of those sort of pianist/singer-songwriters. I am probably closer to them than I am to anything else as a songwriter and as an accompanist. Mose Allison and people like that—they’re more my model than, say, Paul Simon.”
Thompson doesn’t play much piano himself but his love of the instrument is apparent in his guitar style. “I am a frustrated keyboard player in a sense,” he says. “I try to do things like a keyboard on guitar. I try to syncopate like a pianist. Jerry Lee Lewis is someone else I really loved when I was a kid—and still do. I try to do some of his stuff on the guitar.”
Thompson picks up his guitar to demonstrate is pianistic six-string style, remarkably imitating Lewis at first, then segueing into some excerpts from early jazz-era tunes. “I love the ’20s,” he says. “I love the ’30s. We’re very privileged to live in the recording age. Right back to the ’teens, all that stuff is there. Someone just gave me The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 1, which has like 800 recordings from that era. Blues, gospel, jazz. Some of it is a little funky and not very good but some of it is amazing.”
“I think it’s good to be a student of music,” Thompson continues, “to know your history so you know what’s been done. Perhaps there’s something that you can use in some future thing. There’s such important music in recording history, I think people should be forced to listen to it. Pop music today only goes back about 10 years, so you get stuff from the year 2000 that they’ve recycled already, but people aren’t aware of what influenced that. That was influenced by something from the ’60s, which was influenced by something from the ’50s.
“It’s good to know the steps and to find new heroes. You go back to things like Bix Beiderbecke and find he’s a giant. Such great exploration. How did I ever live without Bix Beiderbecke?”
Thompson’s mention Beiderbecke leads me to bring up his 78 Project session once more, as 78-rpm recordings were the standard in Beiderbecke’s day. I ask whether it was stressful to record a song in a single take, with no fixes or overdubs—options that simply don’t exist in the acetate-disc format. One would think so, but Thompson shrugs it off. “It’s just like going to a radio station and playing live on the air,” he says. “It is a scary thing to do, if you really think about it, so you don’t think about it in those terms. You just think I’m sitting here, playing to nobody, not Here I am on the BBC playing to two million people. I call myself a musician. I should be able to play properly, without mistakes, into this machine, with passion and the whole kit and caboodle.”
Considering the musical breadth of his career as a songwriter and recording artist, longtime fans are bound to look at any new Thompson release and wonder how it fits into his oeuvre. Thompson is self-aware enough to appreciate his past successes, but is not particularly nostalgic or overly self-reflective. “I look back 5% of the time and forward 95% of the time,” he says. “I try to stay in the present. I try to stay focused on now.”
“Sometimes,” he goes on, “the record company says, ‘It’s time for a new record’ and I think I’d better write one. Sometimes, these are the best records. Other records you think ‘I’ve got a great master plan for this. It’s gonna be a reflection of the whole story of the Native Americans and their trials, and it’s going to be this epic album…’ And it ends up a pile of shit! It’s good to sit down now and again and think, ‘Well, what am I doing? What’s my philosophy? What’s my attitude?’ That doesn’t have to be every day. Could be once a year or once every five years. Once in a lifetime…
“I think it’s good to ask oneself: What are you trying to achieve? To be the voice of your generation or are you trying to just express yourself, or trying to just have a good time? When you get on stage, do you feel you’re part of the community of the room or do you feel you’re a few steps above and they should come and worship at your feet because you’re so great? It’s good to ask these questions. I don’t know what the answers are but it’s good to ask the questions!”
Photos by Reuben Cox.