Gordon Giltrap is the proverbial guitarists’ guitarist, a player with a warm and instantly recognisable style. His TV theme tunes, such as BBC’s Holiday programme, are part of the popular psyche, bringing to mind sun-kissed vineyards and beaches. During his 40-year career, he has won countless fans including Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Brian May, Mark Knopfler and Yes’ Steve Howe.
Born in April 1948 and raised in a terrace in Deptford, south-east London, his interest in all things stringed and musical was fired in 1957 when a friend showed up at the house with a Spanish guitar. Gordon’s parents bought him a plastic Elvis Presley ukulele to try to satiate his hunger for plucking and, on going to secondary school, he was presented by his mother with a sunburst Martin Coletti arch-top jazz guitar. Experimenting for up to 16 hours a day, the 12-year-old taught himself how to play tunes by The Shadows, Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers and devised a unique technique using a plectrum and his little finger that created a trademark chiming sound.
By 1962 he was playing with The Young Ones (named after his hero, Cliff Richard) in the area’s clubs, before forming an acoustic duo and then going solo, earning his keep on building sites, and honing his guitar-playing in his spare time. He soon mixed with the great and the good of the London blues and folk underground circuit, winning a regular slot at Les Cousins on Greek Street. By November 1966 he’d been spotted by Transatlantic, the cutting-edge folk label, who released his eponymous debut in 1968. Aftyer a second LP, Portrait (1969), he submerged himself in the folkprog environment, spearheaded by the likes of Jethro Tull, on Accolade (1970), then signed a new solo deal with MCA, for A Testament Of Time (1971), followed in 1973 by Giltrap. But it wasn’t until he hit up on the idea of a concept album based on the poems and paintings of 18th century prophet William Blake that Gordon really broke through.
1976’s Visionary showcased his keen symphonicrock sensibilities and led to his establishment of The Gordon Giltrap Band, whose number over the years would include such stellar players as Simon Phillips (Jeff Beck), Ian Mosely (Marillion), John Perry (Caravan), Richard Harvey (Gryphon), John Acock (Steve Hackett), John Gustafson (Quatermass), Morris Pert (Brand X), Ric Sanders (Fairport Convention) and Clive Bunker (Jethro Tull), their musical pedigrees indicative of the type of music that the Band traded in.
The album won critical acclaim and 1977’s equally impressive Top 30 release Perilous Journey was rated as one of the best albums of that punkinfested year. The cascading, Ivor Novellonominated Heartsong 7” made No 21, before being picked up by the Beeb for their Holiday series. In 1978, the mesmerising Fear Of The Dark spawned an eponymous No 58 single. Fifteen thousand copies were issued as the UK’s first 12” picture disc – albeit sporting a picture of a garishly made-up band that did them no favours.
In 1979, he recorded The Waltons Theme for TV and was commissioned by London’s Capital Radio to write a classical piece to commemorate the Operation Drake trans-global expedition that marked the 400th anniversary of Admiral Drake’s circumnavigation. It led in the following year to the premiere of Gordon’s The Eyes Of The Wind Rhapsody with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, revisited in 2005 for a DVD.
A 1981 live set (recorded in 1979) and a duet, Chi Mai, with flamenco virtuoso Juan Martin, were followed by the florid The Peacock Party, while 1982’s Airwaves presaged a readjustment to solo acoustic guitar territory. A series of library albums and commissions in the 80s included themes for ITV’s Wish You Were Here (the resplendent The Carnival), The Open University, World Bowls and TV movies such as Hold The Back Page. Continuing his solo guitar sojourn, 1987’s Elegy resounded with some of Gordon’s finest classical work, and A Midnight Clear Christmas album was succeeded by a collaboration with Ric Sanders, One To One (1989), and The Eye Of The Wind (1991), with the Birmingham Schools Concert Orchestra.
That year, Gordon collaborated with jazz virtuoso Martin Taylor on the stunning A Matter Of Time, before 1992’s The Solo Album. In 1993, he celebrated 25 years in the biz with a reissue of Heartsong, rerecorded with Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman, ex- Black Sabbath man Neil Murray, plus Midge Ure and Brian May. Gordon was voted No 2 guitarist (to Eric Clapton) in Guitar magazine’s 10th anniversary readers’ poll (he was also a regular contributor to the magazine) and, in 1995, there appeared a limited-run cassette of another commission, The Brotherhood, inspired by the work of the 19th century pre- Raphaelite art school, and performed with the Nottinghamshire Education String Orchestra.
In 1996, he appeared in old mate Cliff Richard’s Heathcliff musical as The Troubadour, leading to a well-received 1998 album of that name, featuring sleevenotes by Sir Tim Rice. Gordon guested on Cliff’s All That Matters for the Princess Diana memorial album, paid tribute to Bert Jansch on 2000’s Janschology, and covered more mellow acoustic ground on Under This Blue Sky (2002) and the live/studio Drifter (2004), as well as collaborating with classical player Raymond Burley on Double Vision. His first DVD, Live At Huntingdon Hall, surfaced just prior to that, in 2003, and a second stemmed from his 2005 concert at Birmingham Symphony Hall playing alongside Rick Wakeman and an orchestra.
Promoting his latest set, Captured From A Point In Time, on tour, the ever-amiable Gordon took time to tell RC about it from his home in Sutton Coldfield.
How did the new set come about? It’s a series of live tracks I cherry-picked for an album I was going to do about three years ago for an arthritis research charity. However, the fund-raising leg folded and the guy in charge decided, quite brutally and disrespectfully, to drop the album. I thought he might be replaced at some point and we’d resurrect it, but he’s still there. Meantime, friends had asked me to put it out as they said it’s got some of my finest recordings. So I got Hypertension interested and decided to add a bonus track as a carrot. I’d been doing The Dodo’s Dream from The Peacock’s Party live for about a year and thought I’d do a more polished studio version using a Loop Station that allows you to overdub in real time.
Starting out, who did you admire? Pete Townshend, and you can hear that influence in my work all the way through. I also listened to Donovan, who had a great influence, and Peter Paul & Mary. I’d go to my local library and pick up things like The Corrie Folk Trio and sing traditional Scottish folk songs – the real thing. Burl Ives, Heady West and Paul Simon – all the singer-songwriters. I became part of that melting pot and, foolishly, I couldn’t take any other form of guitar-playing seriously. I looked at electric blues people like Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, and I thought that was a small step from The Shadows, whereas acoustic was real musicianship – serious and pure. But as the years passed, I realised that electric was a totally different instrument and art form, requiring a different approach in technique and hand muscles. Now I’m not so frightened, and you’ll find a film of The Dodo’s Dream on YouTube. But I don’t even think about competing with the main guys.
Will Accolade and Giltrap be reissued at some point? I’m not desperate to get them out. It was pretty dreadful, to be honest; though at the time, I thought I could sing. But the guitar playing was always there. It was about a third to two-thirds vocal because my heroes were doing that – John Renbourn and, especially, Bert Jansch. I’d spend weeks agonising over a lyric and, in that time, I’d knock off two or three instrumentals. So that’s the way it developed.
Do you listen to music much? No. I spend so much time thinking about it, creating it and playing it, that I don’t really set aside time to listen to other people. I don’t even have an iPod. But it’s worked in terms of the creative process. You have to go alone because there’s a danger you’ll be influenced by the great players. In fact, that’d be my top tip for guitarists – stop listening to other guitarists! It’s got to come from within to find your own voice..
What was the first record you bought? With The Beatles, followed by Bert Jansch’s debut. The last was Mark Cohn’s Walking In Memphis.
What album would you keep forever? Bert Jansch’s first – it was life-changing. It made me realise what could be done, and the power of great songs. He and Hendrix were like a force of nature, and Bert’s still doing good stuff, though it doesn’t resonate with me any more. You can’t keep up that initial intensity. Whereas, when you hear my stuff over the years, you can hear there was room for improvement! I got to the crossroads with The Visionary, when I realised where I should be going and what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
What instrument would you like to have learned? Cello. It’s very noble. I had a dalliance with the lute in the early 70s. I may go back to it, but I’ve got so much to do on the guitar, and the lute requires 100% devotion.
Have you thought of an autobiography? Yeah, there will be one. My wife religiously keeps a diary and she’s told me to put down all the memories. Looking back at the 70s, I wish I’d been more focused on my public persona and realised how good I was. I was wracked with self-doubt and insecurity and it took me till my 50s to realise what I do have to offer and how unique I am. Most of the guitarists I’ve met are the same, though; always admiring others. But the music I’ve done since the 70s stands the test of time, and my music has changed people’s lives positively. I know people who’ve been through bereavement and nervous breakdowns and The Troubadour has helped them through. I’ve always wanted to write timeless music that affects people, and that makes you more than a guitarist. I can now look back, at 58, and see that I’ve got where I wanted to go. A couple of years ago, I got asked to do Deco Echo in the style of Django Reinhardt. Gordon Giltrap in a past life wouldn’t have done it. But I thought ‘give it a go’, and it was used on Behind The Scenes With Poirot on TV. So I can adapt my style.
What things about you would surprise fans? I love junk shops and car-boot sales, mountainbiking, painting, and I find vacuuming very relaxing – as I know Billy Connolly does!
Is there anyone you’d like to work with? Rick Wakeman and I were gonna do an acoustic album earlier in 2006, but he’s so busy paying the mortgage and his marriages, he’s covering his overheads first. I was also going to do one with Pete Townshend, who was very excited about it. We got very close, and then, Pete being Pete, he changed his mind and did something else. When I was friends with John Entwistle, in fact, he put my name forward to join The Who on rhythm guitar, which would’ve been something. I’ve always wanted to be invited by Bert Jansch to do something, but he never has, and it’s probably because my style doesn’t fit into what he’s doing these days. He has Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler instead, so there you go! I’m not bitter! And one day, I’d love John Williams to consider one of my solo pieces to be worthy of covering.
What’s next? A year ago, I started to collaborate on a musical, which is on the back burner. It was inspired by a book written by my friend James Herbert, The Magic Cottage. It’s his favourite and it’s about a session guitarist who moves to the country. He’s a guitarist and I knew when I read it he must be, as there were things only a guitarist would know about. I’ve also got a new trio, Three Parts Guitar, with Ray Burley and John Etheridge, and we plan an album and tour later in the year. Ray is also recording an album of my tunes for Hypertension, 18 Gordon Giltrap Pieces For Classical Guitar, which I hope will get me new listeners. And I’d love to get The Eye Of The Wind re-recorded, but it’s a major orchestral piece and that costs money. There’s a vague plan too for me to reform the band for 2008, when I’m 60, and play Birmingham Symphony Hall. I’ve had the go-ahead from all the old members, and we’ll re-create The Visionary, Perilous Journey and Fear Of The Dark, nothing more, purely for the fans.