For fans of intelligent, acerbic, folk-tinged rock, few performers out there can touch Richard Thompson. The Fairport Convention veteran (who started with the group as a teen) has a distinctive, rich baritone singing voice and writes smart songs that reflect his storytelling craft as a lyricist.
Yet for many a Thompson fan, his guitar playing represents the main attraction. With an impeccably clean tone and precise articulation, Thompson dazzles listeners without leaning on gobs of distortion or electronic wizardry. No wonder Rolling Stone has ranked Thompson one of the Top 20 Best Guitarists of All Time.
Having just finished the main leg of a successful American tour in support of his recent album “Electric,” Thompson took time out to talk to Reverb about his playing, his prospects for the future and some of the equipment he’s grown to love over the years.
Reverb: You’ll be off soon to do Frets and Refrains, your camp for songwriters and guitarists that commences on June 23. It’s a great opportunity for musicians of all skill levels, and you’ll be teaching master classes in guitar. Tell us more.
Richard Thompson: This will be the third year we’ve done it and it’s been super successful; it sold out the previous two years. It’s a beautiful place to be, in the Catskill Mountains just outside of Woodstock, N.Y. And it’s a great place to learn guitar and songwriting. When you have people like Shawn Colvin teaching songwriting, and Martin Simpson teaching guitar, that’s pretty amazing. I’m not sure I have an official title, but I suppose it’s my camp.
Reverb: Was Frets and Refrains your idea?
RT: I was approached to do it—it was not something I would’ve thought to do myself. The Full Moon Resorts is an old Catskills camp, and they had been running various music camps for a few years. There’s a King Crimson Camp and a Dweezil Zappa camp, a Todd Rundgren camp; there may be 10 camps in all. And now there’s me, and I absolutely love it.
Reverb: Tell us about your favorite acoustic guitar that you play.
RT: Acoustically, I have a signature model of guitar made for me by Lowden, and it’s the best acoustic guitar I’ve ever owned. They’re made in Northern Ireland; it has a cedar top and sides made of ziricote, which is a dense, exotic hardwood—but it sure sounds good. It’s loud and punchy.
Reverb: How about on the electric side? Fender Stratocasters sound like an integral part of your plugged-in sound.
RT: I’ve got a 1959 Fender Strat that’s the original sunburst finish with a maple neck. It has a beautiful tone and I don’t know why you can’t get that tone again. It has a mellowness to it and I can’t figure out why. It’s probably not my favorite guitar to play because it’s so worn. But I’ve had it since 1971, and I bought it just after I left Fairport. I paid $300 for it. It was insured recently for $50,000, which is insane.
Reverb: Anything else worth mentioning?
RT: The Strat I play on stage lis a beaten-up red one, assembled from different bits. It started out red and it’s faded very nicely to this coral color. It looks lived in, which it is. And I have a 1965 Strat as well. Nowadays you can’t take guitars like that out on the road though because they’re getting too valuable and people like to steal them.
Reverb: What do you use on the amplifier side?
RT: For the studio, I use these little boutique amps called Headstrong that are made in Santa Cruz. It’s basically Princeton circuitry with a 12-inch speaker. For live play I use various things depending on how loud I want to be. I have a Divided by 13 with two 12-inch speakers, and I also have an old Fender Vibro, and a Fender Deluxe from 1956 that’s a great sounding amp. [Laughs.] Too many amps and not enough space at home.
Reverb: Your album “Electric” received warm reviews and you’ve mentioned that you enjoyed the causal vibe of recording at Buddy Miller’s home studio. Any clues as to what the next album will sound like?
RT: I have a few ideas for that. In the meantime, I just finished a four- or five-song EP that will probably come out in October. It was recorded in L.A. with my three-piece band.
The concept was to take other people’s existing songs and do variations on them. So one of the songs is called “Variations on a Theme by the Troggs.” So I would take the basic chords and arrangement of a Troggs song, but use it to create my own lyric and melody—it was just our own inspirations, really If I hadn’t mentioned the source, a lot of these wouldn’t be recognizable. We also did variations on songs by the Move, Marvin Rainwater, and the baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann. It was lifted from one of his orchestral suites that we dumbed down for rock and roll.
Reverb: What musical frontiers have you yet to try that call out to you?
RT: There are various project’s I’d love to do, and they involve longer forms—putting songs into a cycle. I’m writing something for the British Arts Council right now which should be formed in 2016 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in World War I. This could run for 14 minutes to an hour—I’m not quite sure yet—and it involves four singers, eight instrumentalists and some bells and whistles perhaps.
Reverb: You’re one of the world’s best rock guitarists—but are you still working on expanding your technique?
RT: You have to keep thinking that you’re exploring all the time. To the outside observer you may be the same dull, boring musician you ever were. But at least to yourself you have to think you’re moving forward—and I absolutely think that I am. The more experience you get, the more you start to understand different aspects of harmony and play more interestingly.