THE BLACKTOP INTERVIEW
I’d started off playing live in a blues band that was all about being raw, spontaneous and improvising. It was six guys who spent most of our days hanging around a music shop and one day decided to put a band together. Three days later, after something I’m not sure would class as a rehearsal, we did our first gig. It was a mad experience but utterly brilliant and it’s the best grounding for playing live I could’ve asked for.
But for the ten years before Blacktop I had been playing in the same rock covers band, Area 51, gigging regularly, learning the whole time and even throwing in originals here and there.
What drew you to Blacktop?
First of all it was Keith – he’s one of the nicest guys. I was already a fan of the band and had seen them live several times and even guested on stage. But it was the idea of playing original music, writing, recording, touring and playing a great bunch of songs back in the genre I had a huge passion for – blues rock.
How did you find the first BD gig and the experience of being in the band so far?
It was the most mind-blowing experience. I’d been used to playing gigs to good crowds but it felt totally different playing original music in a venue where people went out for the music and not just to see their friends and get drunk. You could tell there were Blacktop fans there and other newcomers to the band who had a passion for live music and appreciated what we did. Watching people watching you with such enthusiasm was incredible.
Everywhere we’ve gone so far this year on tour has welcomed us with open arms that it’s really touching and means so much. It’s helped of course by the fact that Keith knows so many incredible people who make the live blues circuit what it is – and we’re lucky that the new guys in the band have been made to feel like family by so many.
We had a great time putting the new song together and seeing it come together in the studio. I love that environment and seeing the pieces build, watching these talented musicians and engineers create something that we’re proud of. I can’t wait to get started on the album….
Who are your influences?
The first had to be Clapton. My dad would play the odd song in the car – Layla and Wonderful Tonight – when I was younger but I vividly remember ordering my first Clapton album on CD. It was a compilation of his early blues stuff and was just so raw.
Though it was Richie Sambora who convinced me to pick up a guitar. It was all about the melody and the emotion of bending a note while telling a story with the start, middle and end of a solo that grabbed me. That and watching 96,000 screaming fans worshipping him at Wembley.
In terms of my playing, I’m quite sloppy and not a technician, but I’ve been told a few times (including by a neighbour who overheard me at home jamming way too loud!) that there’s some Kossoff in there which is the most wonderful – if mad – compliment. It’s fair to say I’m a HUGE John Mayer fan though. He has it the whole package – songs, technique, style, taste, tone … and he’s not a bad looking fella either.
Favourite album of all time?
I LOVE all Mayer’s stuff but Continuum will have a special place in my heart. So many great songs.
Bon Jovi’s These Days is a masterpiece, too and I’ve played The Bros. Landreth album to death. Wonderful.
Favourite Blacktop song to play live?
I’ve always loved Mustang 429. Such a great riff and it’s become the riff I use to try out guitars I might buy.
Crank It Up is a lot of fun too but there’s something magical that happens every time we do Man Down – between us on stage and with the audience. A great song.
I was about 14. It was a white Fender Squire Strat. I got it with a Peavey Rage amp and had no idea about either, really, but Clapton and Sambora played Strats at the time so that’s what I wanted. I made them sound truly awful, but didn’t learn a proper chord or really do anything with them for about three years. Though I did have some friends round in the garden and we played Smoke On The Water – or that one riff, badly – over and over until the police were called because of the awful noise….
Tell us a bit about your Blacktop gear…
Oh God, do you really want to go there?
I started off in early rehearsals using strats because, well, that’s the blues choice, right? And I’d been playing Sambora strats for years anyway. I built a great Strat from loads of different guitars – a black paisley body with a black paisley scratch plate, maple neck and Bare Knuckle pickups based on Rory Gallagher’s sound. But it just didn’t work – probably because Keith is playing a strat.
So I went guitar shopping to find something that would work – and ended up with the greatest Gibson Les Paul I’ve ever owned. It’s a 2016 Traditional with Custom ’57 pickups and I would take it to bed with me if I was allowed! It’s a great fit for the band, especially when paired with the Friedman Pink Taco amp. Such a great sound.
I’m also using a Gibson 335 which has this awesome honky tone with both pickups on and the tones rolled off.
But the latest guitar I’ve been taking on stage lately is the best Fender Strat I’ve ever played! We’d played a Blues Rock Festival in Kent and the next day had about eight hours to kill before the next show not far away and so obviously we went to a music shop. I tried out a bunch and they brought this one in to the sound-proofed room – and BANG! Magic. She was the one. We all agreed it had the greatest neck pickup. It’s got Custom Shop Fat ’50s single-coils. Something about those 1950s pickups, right?! Ha.
Amp-wise, the Friedman tackles the rock stuff while both Keith and I are lucky to have an Artist Deal with the amazing guys at Hamstead Soundworks. They invited us to go and see them when we played Cambridge Rock Festival and set up our stuff for a few hours and instantly fell in love with the Artist 20+RT. The reverb is heavenly! So that handles all my cleaner tones. Occasionally they’ll come on together for the odd solo, too! They’re stunning, hand-made, UK-built amps.
I’m not sure I should talk about my pedalboard – we’ll be here all day! But at the core of it is the wonderful Gigrig G2 which handles all my switching and amp-routing. Utter genius from Dan Steinhardt and such a brilliant company to work with. It’s all powered by the Gigrig too, and built around a Custom Pedal Boards case.
There’s all sorts of things on there but the heart of the tone is an Analogman King Of Tone, a JRAD Archer for drive and the Strymon Flint for reverb and El Capistan for Delay. There’s nothing too ridiculous – in fact the other stuff is a wah, a POG, a Cali ’76 compressor, MXR Micro Boost for solos, 6-band EQ and a flanger which gets used for about two bars! Oh and a TC tuner. And a wireless unit. Erm….
But we’ve done a few festival shows where I just went raw with guitar and amp! That was liberating but I did miss the colour the board can bring.
Plus, all my guitars are strung with Curt Mangan strings. I use 10s on all my guitars and they’re the best things I’ve put on them. I get fewer string breaks, great tone and they’re reliable – and I’m a proud endorsee of the brand!
If the building was burning down, what one piece of musical equipment would you save?
I think it would have to be the Les Paul. There’s something special about it and we have a connection!
I’m terrible at practice and trying to get better. Most of the time I’ll only have a quick look at some songs the day before a show if we’ve had more than a few days off. But now I’m trying to put time aside to sit down and play – and learn!
Any rituals or routines before you play live, or after you finish?
If I can take a shandy and plenty of water on stage then I’m pretty happy. The last-minute wee is essential though.
What’s your message to Blacktop supporters regarding the future of the band?
Thank you for your faith and belief so far. If we can reward you with songs that live up to the back catalogue and give half as good as the fans have so far, then we should be in for a good time!