The latest “15 questions” feature is with acoustic guitarist singer/songwriter Rick Jones, who blends percussive techniques, blues, folk and rock into his performances and has a vocal quality that keeps you captivated from start to finish. Guitar Jar catches up with Rick to quiz him on his musical journey and his current choice of acoustic guitars…
…I loved the attitude in Dimebag’s playing; the way he could take a simple riff and make it groove so hard. I keep that in mind and try to take that influence across into even my softest acoustic songs…
Hi Rick, before we get into the details of your equipment and technique, can you give Guitar Jar readers an insight to why you first picked up the guitar and how long you’ve been playing?
Hi Sam, thanks for having me along! I grew up in a house where everyone played some kind of instrument, there were a few guitars hanging around, pretty much as far back as I can remember, and they didn’t really belong to any one of us. I remember expressing mild surprise in school when I found out that other kids didn’t at least know how a guitar worked, I’d believed everyone did it, like drawing or writing or whatever… although back then I could only play bits of songs, it was enough to impress my schoolmates and that amazed me!I have had a few breaks since, possibly years without playing at a time, but I started back seriously playing some six years ago, when I rediscovered the acoustic guitar and since then I have regretted not keeping it going solidly all those years – I think I’d be pretty good now!
In the first few years in learning the instrument, which guitarist(s) were you influenced by the most and why?
Well, when I hit my first phase of really wanting to play guitar, I was finding myself drawn to metal bands. I can remember feeling real excitement when listening to (the late Pantera guitarist) Dimebag and realising that he was the only guitarist in that band… all that sound was him. I loved the attitude in his playing and the way he could take a simple riff and make it groove so hard. I keep that in mind nowadays and try to take that influence across into even my softest acoustic songs. I need that edge to be there, because I remember how it affected me when I heard him. Zakk Wylde has a similar thing going on, particularly in his early stuff and when I heard his acoustic playing, a light bulb went on for me; both those guys have a bluesy, I guess southern edge to their playing that just spoke to me.I would say that folk players like Richard Thompson in particular and the late John Martyn, were always in the background even if I didn’t realise it, as were country guys such as Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings; as much as I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, I would secretly admire their dexterity and that they sang too.
Can you tell our readers about your current choice of acoustic guitar and why you chose a particular brand and model?
I currently use a Jumbo bodied guitar, handmade in Northern Ireland by Avalon Guitars. I’ve been through a few acoustics guitars over the years and this one has the whole package, tone, volume, dynamic range and a great neck. It’s the L32 model, in rosewood and spruce.
It’s pretty close to a “do it all” guitar, as I switch between flatpick and fingerstyle all the time, even mid song – I needed a guitar that did each convincingly. I prefer a big bodied guitar, being a “big boned” sort of fellow myself and there is usually a trade-off with larger models; they have generally a better bass response and a slower attack transient that’s more forgiving if you play hard, but this same tendency can lead to a guitar that doesn’t fingerpick as well, or have the clarity for more intricate passages. The Avalon isn’t too much of a compromise in either direction, and it has just a wonderful ethereal tone and sustain no matter how you play it, soft or hard.
You’re a versatile player, fusing a mix of genres and techniques into your playing. When you approach writing a song, do you strive to blend these influences or do you just go with the flow and play whatever feels right?
Thank you very much! I can honestly say that I don’t think about which technique I’m using when writing, I tend to goof around until I come up with something I like. Then, as I get it worked into a song, things just happen, not always for the better, but then I can pare it down and see what fits, hopefully!
I really enjoyed listening to your “Eden” EP and the title track in particular displays your talent both as a guitarist and a singer. Are you confident in your vocal technique or is that something you need to work at? (…and how do you play those guitar parts and sing at the same time?!)
Glad you liked it, and thanks again for the kind words! Singing is a tricky one for me, I feel like I have a way to go yet until I can really say I’m a singer. It’s been pretty much a necessity for me to gig on my own and I decided to work on my voice so I could sing my own songs. It’s coming on, but I know there’s more “in there” and that’s going to be my focus before my next recording. Singing and playing can be difficult if you don’t internalise the guitar part. I have to get that flowing well before I add the vocal – it’s pretty much down to fingers on the strings and practice until the whole thing is one entity.I would advise beginners who struggle with this against co-ordinating the right hand with the voice, as some people advocate, as this was a hard habit to break for me once my right hand got more proficient. Instead, learn to play in time with a metronome and then try to speak over it, beginning sentences at various points in relation to the beat. This is how you get that “float” effect and also I feel it helps draw an audience in if you can talk over an introduction. It’s hard to begin with, but it pays off in the end!
I read that you use 13-56 gauge strings and regularly break your G and D strings. That’s some heavy picking!
That’s true, unfortunately! I do find straight pull headstocks alleviate it somewhat and I think it’s a lot to do with the way I “chicken pick” or “pop” the strings up and quick release to get that attack on certain notes. It affects the G and D more as these have a break angle out to the tuning pegs, past the nut, which stresses the core a bit more. When I played a Japanese Takamine for a few years I wasn’t quite as bad on strings but now I’m back to a traditional shaped headstock, my friends joke that I keep D’addario in business.I do flatpick hard and am fond of big major third bends. All in all, my strings have a hard time, but it’s part of my sound and I have become pretty adept at fast, mid set string changes. I highly recommend the Planet Waves string tool – I work that bad boy out!
Do you use an acoustic amp with additional pre-amp/EQ effects when performing live?
Actually, some gigs, larger ones in rowdy places where it’s just me playing, I often use a Fender Twin electric amp just for the magnetic pickup signal from my guitar. I send the soundboard transducers, the “acoustic” sound if you like, straight to the PA and then run a DI out the back of the amp to put a bit more “meat” into the PA signal. I’ve come to find that a purely “acoustic but louder” tone doesn’t allow me to pull out all the little nuances and tricks as well as a slightly electric, more robust plugged in tone. This setup has a huge, fat tone and lets me fill the sound out nicely when playing solo.Mostly though, for small gigs, I run my two pickups, a K&K pure western mini soundboard transducer and a MiSi duo soundhole magnetic, into a K&K dual input pro preamp, which hangs from my guitar strap. This is pre-eq’d to take the bass and mids from the magnetic mostly and the high end and “air” from the K&K. I send this blended signal straight to the PA and use a little reverb – just enough to add a slight tail to bends on the B and high E strings. I’ve used more effects in the past, but I like the challenge of making different sounds with technique more.
What inspires or influences your song lyrics?
The best ones come from experiences, like “Sunsets in the West”. I often get kind words about that song, as I think people can relate; it’s about leaving people behind and knowing that they see the same larger picture of the world as you do, despite any miles between you. Then the song “Monster” is about Fred and Rose West, the serial killers from just over the Severn from where I grew up. That story broke and the police had been digging up fields near my childhood stomping ground and dragging rivers I had swam in and such. It had quite an effect on me, the whole way people knew this guy, but really he was this awful… well… monster, behind closed doors.”Rut” is borne of frustration as I saw friends “sit in a house, watching people sit in a house” as a famous reality TV series gained popularity. They would be afraid to move in case they missed anything… hmmm. So really you can say anything that inspires strong feelings in me will one day end up in a song. I wish I had more of an imaginative nature, lyrically, but I use what I get!
How often do you practice and what do you focus on to improve your technique?
Well in truth I only practice when I find I can’t do something, or express myself fully, then I woodshed on whatever that is obsessively, but the rest of the time I’ll randomly pick up the guitar whenever I have some downtime and just play it, with no real focus; sometimes songs, sometimes exercises, sometimes I’ll just play rhythms on one chord trying to find ways to accent different parts of the beat. I really think you have to do what is fun or therapeutic at the time, because this is how you learn to relax with the instrument, as opposed to wrangling it into submission… which can be fun at times too! “Keep it organic” is my feeling on practice.
Are there any electric guitars you’re particularly fond of? I can sense there’s a bit of a closet shredder in you somewhere…
Oh yeah!! I still have my first electric, a desert neon yellow Ibanez RG550 with a flat, thin neck that plays like lightening – I’ll keep that one forever. I also have a really sweet, super plain early PRS CE24, I have vid of me on YouTube from some four years ago just doing scale runs and stuff on it. I really like the release sometimes of just being able to rip out some giant, arena sounding rock solo just for kicks! The PRS is super versatile and if I ever I get work playing for someone else’s band or anything, I can pretty well know that if I take that, it will do anything I’m capable of, convincingly. I’d love a Telecaster but largely when I pick up an acoustic it asks me for a song, when I pick up an electric it’s all about the fireworks for a while, before I go and get the acoustic again!
Your house is burning down. What’s the one guitar item you would save?
Oh man… really? Only one? I can carry heaps… I’m pretty big! But honestly it would be my Avalon, that’s at any one time my tool, my conduit to expression, my “keep my sanity device” and simply an extension of me these days. Plus I could probably busk with it to buy my next meal; I don’t think my PRS would earn me as much, especially unplugged!
A DeLorean time machine has just burst onto your front lawn. With your hover-board in hand, you’re ready climb in and hit 88mph. Will you go to the past or the future and why?
I think I’d go back and watch Led Zeppelin and Hendrix, and then freak them out with my hover-board… “Watch this man!”… (I burst out laughing very loudly when I read this! Sam ;-))
If you could form a super group using famous musicians past or present, who would you have on drums and why?
John Bonham… rock solid powerhouse, I feel it would be like riding a thunderstorm playing with him behind you. I’ve always liked that steady but slightly behind the beat thing he did, and not many people can get that feel, as simple as it seems at first.
Lager or Cider?
Oh Cider… farmhouse cider, cloudy and full of apple peels, but you have keep me away from the mic afterwards!
What’s the plan for you musically for the next 12 months?
Well I am about to start work on a full length album, a few songs I’ve had kicking around for a while and I’m writing some new stuff at the moment. I’m hoping for a release in February 2011, with a view to getting some festival sets in the summer, universe allowing. I like the idea of catching some other peoples sets when I’m not playing – I tend to miss that as I am gigging all the time and don’t get to hear anyone else live. Then the plan is to get out there and try and keep some momentum, share as much music as I can with as many people who want to and hopefully keep learning and improving as I go.