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Month September 2014

The Acoustic Guitar

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Tony James Shevlin continues his story of the recording of Songs From the Last Chance Saloon.

The acoustic guitar is a wonderful instrument.  Like the piano,  it is all-encompassing;  in the right hands it provides bass,  rhythm and melody.  However,  the acoustic guitar is much more easily transported than the piano,  and can be taken and used anywhere  (check out Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield playing one on the International Space Station – can you imagine NASA’s response if he’d asked to take a Steinway Grand?).

For me,  the acoustic guitar has always been a tool to present songs,  a backing for my voice,  really,  so while I admire and am in awe of the likes of Eric Roach and Tommy Emmanuel,  I am drawn to singer-songwriters who use the instrument to great effect to showcase their songs,  in particular,  the likes of Paul Simon and James Taylor,  and of course,  early Bob Dylan.  John Lennon playing his Gibson J-160E acoustic also had a profound effect on me.  I remember going to the cinema as a small boy and seeing the movie of A Hard Day’s Night and wished I could own one. Unfortunately,  that was way out of my price range.

I have to come clean and say that my reasons for taking up the guitar were not entirely musical.  On the bus on my way home from school,  aged 14,  I was trying to look both cool and nonchalant to some girls who were fellow passengers.  The bus stopped at a zebra crossing to let a quite nerdy-looking kid cross the road.  He was carrying a guitar.  “Look,”  one of them said,  “he’s got a guitar.”  The girls all looked at him,  admiringly.  “Cool!” said one.  That was enough for me,  and I nagged my parents until they agreed to buy me my first guitar as a combined 14th birthday and Christmas present.

My first guitar was a Barnes and Mullins Clasico Spanish guitar from a music shop in Ipswich called Harpers (next to the Wimpy Bar and opposite Woolworth’s – all three shops are gone);  it cost £7.  That was a lot of money back then!

However,  it wasn’t long before the likes of Marc Bolan and Mick Ronson lured me over to the electric guitar;  even my accruing fascination with David Bowie and his 12-string acoustic couldn’t stop me purchasing a Japanese copy of a Gibson SG.

And it stayed that way for over 15 years.  Electric Fenders and Gibson came and went.  It wasn’t until 1990 that I had occasion to take up the acoustic again as my primary instrument.  My recording deal with CBS in the US had gone sour,  the band I was in had split,  and I was now a solo artist doing support slots in many of London’s venues.  One was at the famous Marquee Club supporting Australian platinum award-winning artist Jenny Morris.  Added to which,  it was Anzac Day – when Aussies and Kiwis commemorate their involvement in WWII.  The venue manager told me:  “this place is going to be crammed with Antipodeans.”  I looked at the battered Kimbara acoustic I had been using;  clearly it wasn’t going to cut it.  I wandered down to Denmark St, home to the myriad of musical instrument shops.  In one I played a Takemine electric-acoustic – and fell in love.  I knew that they cost about a £1,000.  I asked the guy behind the counter how much it was.  “£550”  he said,  clearly making a mistake.  Keeping my best poker-face on,  I asked if he could write that down for me on a piece of headed notepaper.  This he did.  I ran out of the shop and went across the street to another shop with a big sign in the window, saying – we’ll beat any price in Denmark St.  I threw the headed notepaper down and said  “beat that!”  After a few moments of disbelief,  they agreed that they would;  they would knock £25 off and throw in a gig bag.  “Could you write that down for me, please – on headed note paper?”  They did.  Eventually,  after several crossings of Denmark St,  I walked back to the Marquee with a brand new Takemine electric-acoustic in a hard case for £525.  Its first outing was a fantastic gig in front of what seemed like every Aussie and Kiwi in London – and they know how to enjoy themselves.  Jenny Morris was very encouraging and her management allowed me to take two encores.  I still have the Tak’ and it’s been all over the world with me (including to Australia).  It has given birth to many of my songs,  and has been my main instrument in providing for my family.  And it still sounds great.  Technology may have moved on but venue sound engineers still remark on the quality of the guitar’s sound through a PA.

I have a second acoustic guitar;  a Yamaha Folk guitar bought second-hand for £50 as a cheap – throw it in the back of the car,  take it to the beach,  don’t worry if it gets damaged,  little run-around.  Only now,  I’ve had that so long,  too,  that I’d be mortified if anything happened to it.

When it came to recording Songs From the Last Chance Saloon,  these two were my mainstays.   The Tak’ is very evenly balanced in frequency,  whereas the Yamaha has a deeper woody resonance.  The two really complement each other.

Both were recorded acoustically with two microphones – one over the sound-hole and one at the base of the neck.  The acoustic guitar is central to the whole recording so we took a while getting the sound,  trying out different mics and positions but it was worth the effort.

For Faith in Myself,  Heart and the High Moral Ground and Nobody I used both guitars playing in the same neck position.

Paradise South Ealing has both guitars on it;  the Yamaha playing open chords in  ‘A’;  the Takemine with a capo at the second fret playing in the key of  ‘G’.

Crying for 15 Years has the Takemine using open chords and the Yamaha with a capo on the 7th fret playing in ‘G’ (except for the last chorus in F# where the Takemine is capo’d at the 2nd fret playing in ‘E’ and the Yamaha capo’d at the 4th fret playing in ‘D’).

Crazy didn’t require any tracking;  the earthy tones of the Yamaha was all that was needed,  although I did add some Takemine,  playing little riffs up the neck on the choruses.

Run Until we Drop was a mixture of the Takemine and Ian the engineer’s Levin 12-string acoustic.  The Levin was in a dropped tuning and didn’t like being capo’d so I had to learn the song in a new key.  It was worth spending time on,  and the result has a very full West Coast sound in the vein of  The Eagles or Tom Petty.

I Wish you Well is a solo take of the Takemine.  I particularly wanted that song to be just one voice and one guitar.

Champagne Taste on a Lemonade Pay is also a single take of the Takemine but I knew I would be doubling up the part on an electric guitar.

Although I planned to have Cut Me as a solo voice and piano I recorded an acoustic guitar as a back-up just in case the piano version didn’t work out.

When it came to mixing the album,  any solo acoustic is right in the centre,  along with the lead vocal.  Where there is double-tracking,  they are panned left and right but only slightly – I wanted to retain that feeling of this being very much a singer-songwriter’s album.  If you strip away all the other instruments underneath you will find one man and his guitar.

While I love the energy and drive of the electric guitar,  it is the honesty and the integrity of the acoustic guitar that most calls to me,  and when coupled with a song that tells a truth of humanity,  it has the power to change a human heart.

I am forever grateful that the bus stopped to let that nerdy kid cross the street.