Our Guitar Hero

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There’s a terrific new series at the Grammy Museum downtown called Great Guitars, and it kicked off Wednesday night. Unfortunately, it could be all down hill from here (kidding, Grammy Museum folks) because the first performer in the program was British folk guitar hero Richard Thompson—who Rolling Stone calls one of the top 20 guitarists of all time. They’re right. The show started out with Thompson discussing his influences (mostly piano players like Jerry Lee Lewis, not guitar players), demonstrating his distinctive playing styles and taking a few questions from the audience, and it ended with a few songs (he played one verse from “God Loves a Drunk” and, blessedly, the whole “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”).

Throughout the evening, Thompson—wearing a work shirt and his jaunty black cap—sat with a guitar in his lap, sometimes acoustic, sometimes electric. Often he’d play while answering host Scott Goldman’s questions, noodling on the instrument to illustrate a point. Thompson is charming, self-deprecating, and funny. At one point, when asked what he thought of shred guitar players like Steve Vai, he said that while Vai was technically excellent he found his work boring. (Grimacing, he added, “and that’s about all we have time for,” then mimicked a hook yanking him offstage.) Asked how he decides what to perform, he said he starts with what he thinks the audience wants to hear, then adds in what he feels like playing, hoping that the two will overlap. When asked whether he sees himself as a songwriter, a singer or a guitarist, Thompson said he’s most interested in serving the best interests of a particular song in whatever way he can. If forced to choose, he feels he’s a songwriter first.

His discussion of his creative process was fascinating—when he’s really working on solving a particular songwriting problem, he said, he can toil up to12 hours a day. And he finds the songs enter his dreams. He said he loves the “cinematic” qualities of 21st century songwriting, which allow you to drop into the middle of a narrative, show it unfolding, and then drop back out, without necessarily resolving anything. It’s easier, he said, than writing a novel. Sometimes, he said, he has whole songs done in his head before he even sits down with a guitar. His advice for any young guitarist: play one note well, from the depths of your soul. Make sure that note has great tone. “Crappy tone, crappy soul,” he said, laughing. If only it were that easy.

By Julia St. Pierre