As well as writing novels, I am also lead guitarist in The 109s.
I play a wine-red Gibson SG and am a self-taught guitarist, in that I didn’t bother with guitar lessons, know little about harmonic theory, and cannot read sheet music.
What I can do, though, is listen to music and reproduce it by ear. People often describe this as a “talent”, but I dislike the word. “Talent” implies I somehow got the ability for free, when in actual fact I developed it over many thousands of hours spent unpicking the solos of guitarists I admired, playing the same piece of music over and over until I could replicate all the notes and phrasing perfectly (and driving parents and girlfriends CRAZY!! in the process).
By doing so, I began to develop my own musical vocabulary which eventually enabled me to improvise guitar solos, and I have no doubt that the obsessive focus and concentration that pushes my novels forward was forged in my teens, when I used to put in all-day stints on the guitar, rewinding tapes, listening, rewinding, listening, rewinding . . .
So, whose music was on those tapes?
Back in my late teens (so early ’90s) I decided most contemporary guitarists were shit, so I completely ignored their music. Instead, I went back to the wellspring of quality lead guitar – the rock boom of the late ’60s and early ’70s – and learned my chops studying the lead guitar lines of musicians such as Mick Taylor, Paul Kossoff, Peter Green, George Harrison, Tony Iommi, Angus Young, Carlos Santana . . .
. . . and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. I spent (and still spend) many happy hours at the metaphorical feet of the master, unpicking the startling complexities of his hybrid rhythm/lead guitar style, and I still form barre chords the way I saw Hendrix doing on videos back when I started playing at 17 (Hendrix played them with his thumb wrapped over the neck, holding down the sixth string).
By my early twenties, my musical tastes had become more eclectic, and I began to branch out. From Jimmy Page and Keith Richards I learned the mysteries of open tunings and often use them now to add colour to songs in the recording studio. AC/DC, The Who, MC5 and Black Sabbath taught me about killer riffs and, more importantly, killer dynamics. But I was equally happy learning guitar lines from Jimmy Nolen (James Brown’s guitarist) or Steve Cropper. I was also forced – grudgingly – to admit that some contemporary guitarists (such as Billy Corgan and J.Mascis) were pretty damned good, and all these combined influences went into the melting pot out of which my style emerged.
I have now been playing more than 25 years, and the guitar has been a constant companion to me through the ups and downs of my life. While not a songwriter as such (I come up with the riffs to which the rest of The 109s add their respective magic) I am a good song planner: I have an ear for which bits belong where, and try to employ the subtle art of getting more from less through maximising a song’s dynamics and drama.
The 109s represent the music I always heard in my head, even before I had the musical vocabulary to express the complexity of the ideas. I am lucky indeed to have a group of musicians around me who help to realise that vision and who also improve it with their own ideas and musical flair.