Modern-day troubadour and acoustic-guitar pioneer since the 1960s, Gordon Giltrap, MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) is one of the finest guitarists of his generation. The English musician and composer has released more than 30 albums that blend folk, classical, progressive rock and other genres. He has collaborated with and earned the admiration of musicians like Sir Cliff Richard, Brian May, Richie Blackmore, Rick Wakeman, Pete Townshend and many others.
In our interview, Giltrap talks about his approach to music and composition, recording the acoustic guitar while maintaining the all-important emotion and transparency of the instrument, and much more.
Russ Welton: Could you tell us about your favorite composers and how you are inspired by them?
Gordon Giltrap: My favorite composers are without doubt Ralph Vaughan Williams and Samuel Barber. I’m inspired by the great melodic content of both these composers. I must have read Vaughan Williams’ biography at least six times and am equally impressed by the man as well as his music. Although I am a self-taught, untrained musician, I very much relate to the fact that his skills didn’t come easy and were the fruits of years of sheer hard graft and determination. He comes across as such a grounded person and completely unpretentious about his gifts. Although a professed atheist, there is so much spirituality in his music, especially the Tallis Fantasia and of course The Lark Ascending. The music is so English which of course I can relate to 100 percent.
With Regard to Samuel Barber, his Violin Concerto just raises the hairs on the back of my neck. A good sign!
RW: What are the great challenges in recording your different guitar playing styles within a single piece of music?
GG: The main challenges are not so much technical but emotional. [It’s in] trying to capture a piece that is as near technically perfect [as possible] as well as trying to infuse the piece with as much deep emotion as one can muster in that moment of recording. Of course, the other main problem is lapse of memory. When I have completed a new tune and need to get it recorded, I have to get it down piecemeal and hope that when done, the piece has a natural flow and feels like a complete performance.
RW: When writing a new piece of music, which comes to you first, rhythm or melodies? I understand you like to sing along when composing melodic lines.
GG: I always draw my inspiration straight from the guitar; that’s where it all begins. Then I build it slowly bar by bar until eventually, it hopefully becomes a cohesive whole. Once I get a melodic idea, I try to sing in my head, but usually out loud, where I think the next part of the tune will go. Anyone listening I’m sure would find it amusing, hearing these vocal outbursts that sound like a strangled cat! The process isn’t rocket science, but for me the real mystery is where the ideas come from in the first place.
I firmly believe the good stuff comes when the ego drops away and the tune virtually writes itself. It certainly comes from a higher consciousness, that’s for sure. I have a friend who is a world famous and legendary rock musician who disagrees entirely with that statement. He says that it’s my fingers, my muscle memory; I have been doing it for a long time and I’m good at my job! On the one hand that is quite a compliment, but on the other hand I know in my heart that is not always the case.
RW: Which piece of your music do you get asked how to play the most?
GG: Heartsong has got to be the tune that most guitar players are interested in. I guess that’s because it was a minor hit back in the day and achieved the highest profile.
RW: What advice would you give to acoustic guitarists in seeking sonic transparency in their recordings?
GG: When recording, keep it simple. I’m still old school and work on an old 24-track hard disk recorder. I know its basic functions well and therefore it doesn’t get in the way of the recording process. I use a single small-capsule, top-quality Schoeps microphone connected to an ExplorAudio-H-Clamp that allows the mic to be anchored to the body of the guitar for a nice close-miked sound. Once I have found the sweet spot, it remains rigid and doesn’t move. I use a Gold Mike valve (tube) pre-amp into the hard disk recorder. I then transfer the track on to a small Zoom 8-track machine with a memory card so I can transfer the data across to my musical partner Paul Ward for him to do pretty much as he wishes with it. We have a great working relationship. He’s a fine sound engineer, musician, composer and arranger. He understands my music so well. I am very fortunate in that area.
RW: Do you recall what was your first hi-fi equipment, and where it came from?
GG: Sadly, I have no memory of my first hi-fi equipment. All I can tell you is it wasn’t expensive!
RW: What equipment do you enjoy using today for music listening, and how do you like to set it up?
GG: When listening to music in my studio at home, everything goes [through] an ancient Mackie SR24.4 [analog mixing console] that belonged to my late son Jamie who was a highly respected Drum and Bass artist (known professionally as DJ Tango). It is of great sentimental value. I have a pair of Alesis M1 powered monitors. I was recently gifted a [vintage] Ariston turntable which [connected to] a simple Behringer MicroAMP and once again is put through one of the channels of the mixing desk. I also have a Bose Wave [music system] in the kitchen along with a lovely ancient but beautifully-made Sony ZS-2000 CD/radio.
RW: Has your choice of equipment for music listening been influenced by your requirements as a musician and performance artist, and how so?
GG: I can’t confess to being a hi-fi fanatic, and truth be told I spend a lot of my time creating music more than spending time listening, which really, I should do, because it would be good for me to switch off at times and chill out, listening deeply to the music I love.
RW: Please tell us about your current projects and how you have kept inspired during the lockdown.
GG: Lockdown for me has been a blessing because I have devoted more of my time composing, instead of preparing for concerts. Paul Ward and I have a serious project ready to be launched later this year, but I can’t really say too much about it as yet. It will probably be my most satisfying project to date. I would love to chat about it towards the end of the year, by which time it should be fully formed!
One special project that has come to fruition this year is the limited-edition vinyl release of my 1997 CD Troubadour. I wanted this to be a fitting tribute to my dear late friend Del Newman, who produced and arranged the album. Del had worked pretty much with all the greats in the rock world including Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), Paul Simon, Elton John, George Harrison and so many more. He was like a father figure to me and I felt privileged to know him and call him friend.
Other projects have included putting together a CD with 12-string virtuoso and guitar designer Paul Brett to promote one of his wonderful instruments called The Raven, a distinctive guitar based on one of Paul’s pre-War guitars. It looks fabulous, has a unique sound and represents incredible value for money. I have recorded six tracks and Paul the same. The instrument is marketed under the Vintage brand, as are my own signature range, and created by the company John Hornby Skewes. Each guitar sold will come with the CD. The collection of pieces shows off perfectly the guitar’s sonic features, and it does record remarkably well.
I have been involved with the company for many years and although I am the proud owner of several high-end handmade Fylde guitars, I have always loved the idea of putting into the hands of players with a limited budget, instruments that sound great and are affordable. To prove that fact I use these Chinese-made instruments on stage and in the studio! Players cannot believe how good these guitars are, and to a degree they are still little-known within the industry.
Players still want the hallowed names of Gibson or Martin to adorn the headstocks of their guitars, which is fine because nothing sounds quite like a guitar from either of those companies. I myself own a Gibson J-200 gifted to me by Pete Townshend and it is a beautiful instrument, but as I said earlier, if your budget can’t stretch that far, Paul’s range and mine are amazing alternatives. It really is a no-brainer, and this isn’t a sales pitch, I promise you.
RW: What have been some of your personal favorite live performances to date?
GG: There is one venue here in the UK which is a personal favorite. It’s the Stables Theatre in Wavendon, Bucks. A beautiful theatre run pretty much by volunteers. They look after you so well and the audience always turn out for me and make me feel welcome.
RW: Who would you put together for your ultimate supergroup to play with?
GG: I have had the privilege to work with some of the finest musicians in the world. My wish list would be Rod Edwards and Paul Ward on keyboards. Ian Mosley of Marillion on drums. Pino Palladino on Bass. Robin Ashe-Roy on flute. Davy Spillane on Uilleann pipes. John Etheridge on electric guitar. Anne-Sophie Mutter on violin.
RW: What musical plans do you have for 2021 and onwards?
GG: At 73 I try to avoid making plans. The only plan I have right now is to stay COVID- free and for my family and friends the same. Some rescheduled dates are in the diary for next year, but in all honesty I’m quite nervous about treading the boards again after such a long layoff, but we shall see when the time comes.
A Selected Gordon Giltrap Discography
Early iconicand progressive albums:
Perilous Journey (1977)
Fear of the Dark (1978)
Further recommended listening:
On a Summer’s Night (1992)
Janschology (2014, tribute to Bert Jansch)
The Last of England (2017)
One to One (2021)