Hugh Burns interview. January 2002.
An affair of the craft.

For Guitarist magazine.
 



Hugh Burns first came to prominence following Eric Clapton as guitarist with the Jack Bruce band. His recording career reads rather like a who's who of the music industry, bearing testimony to a prolific work rate in the studios of the world, as well as the remarkable diversity of styles which characterise his recorded work - his now legendary solo on Gerry Raffertys 'Baker Street' bearing little stylistic resemblance to the mellifluous nylon guitar lines on George Michael's 'Careless Whisper'.


After spending an afternoon with this most affable of players, more striking than his remarkable list of recorded success, was the enthusiasm with which he refers to his journey across terrain littered with the bones of those who have set out to achieve that most coveted of job descriptions. Session guitarist.
It seems neither the years on the road, nor the many distractions success brings, have had any deleterious effect on the reverence with which he regards the tool of his trade.


A professional guitarist in every sense, here is Hugh's Guitarist interview - recorded live, first take, with hardly any overdubs.

Near the beginning.


I started playing professionally when I was fourteen, vocal groups, dance bands that sort of thing. I didn't have any real game plan for making a career out of playing, just a little natural ability a pretty good ear, and great enthusiasm. I started off playing by ear, learning from records. Meeting a great teacher, Ron Moore was an early turning point. He gave me all the basics that I needed to become a 'working' guitar player. He was very strict in some ways - Insisted that I learn to read - To have a strong respect for the tradition. He introduced me, musically speaking, to the great players of the past - like George Van Epps, Tal Farlowe, Barney Kessell. That definitely took my playing in another direction. I still stay in touch with Ron, who is in his seventies now. The way he remains so enthusiastic about the instrument, I find quite inspirational.
I moved from Glasgow to London with a group who were signed to Phonogram records. We recorded an album, and several singles, one of which, called 'The Beast day', received lots of commercial radio play, and good reviews. It had a profound effect on me hearing it on the radio. Really inspired me to try and work a bit harder. Instead of it all being "hey what fun," I suddenly thought "there's more to it." It also led to phone calls from producers asking me to play on other peoples records. One example from that time was a session for an American artist (Teresa Brewer) which included a studio line up of Albert Lee, Chas and Dave, Danny McCollough, Peter Frampton, and a very nervous young Scottish guitarist. A great learning experience.
Meeting and working with Jack Bruce was another big turning point. At that time I was working very successfully as a session player, and felt very confident. Through Jack I realised there was another level that I hadn't perceived, so through the opportunity of working with people like Jack, Simon Philips, and Tony Hymas, (House Tricks album) I was able to sort of start afresh, back to studying if you like. I found another marvellous teacher, Oliver Hunt. I studied composition with him, which opened up another side which I am tremendously interested in.


Craftsman ship.


I've worked with a number of artists who care a great deal about what they do, and because they care deeply about it they inspire people around them to take the same care. All the great musicians I've met work hard to develop what they do. I've tried to learn something from this attitude. Styles in popular music are constantly changing. For this reason I focus more on the three fundamentals. Rhythm, harmony and melody. Every Style can be broken down to those basic elements.
Jazz style harmony may involve a more complex vocabulary than say country style music, although I recognise that its not a question of one being better than another - just different.
I try to respect those differences which helps me keep my ears and mind open to the duality in different musical styles.


On the song.


In recording situations I approach playing entirely from the viewpoint of the song. I try to look at the larger picture of the production - the sounds of the other instruments, the intent of the song, which guitar sound will work best. Sometimes I approach it from the mood of the song. For example 'Baker Street' has a certain atmosphere that suggests an imaginative approach. On the other hand, playing a dance/funk type tune, the approach might have more to do with the rhythm - listening out for the hi-hat and Bass drum, and locking into that. Every scale or chord has a 'mood', so being sensitive to those qualities is important.
I'm interested in how a particular guitar part fits into a particular song, and becomes an integral part of that song. Like if you lift a George Harrison guitar part out of a song, its still a George Harrison guitar part. Sometimes it works very nicely to transplant those things, but the plain fact is that the influence is clear. Like a Chuck Berry intro. Its integral to the song - not just tagged on. Sometimes finding that sort of part takes a little bit of time, although often I have been lucky and its just come more or less straight away. I used to worry that I would run out of ideas, and that sparked me to study more. I reached a stage that I was playing on so many records that I felt I was beginning to repeat myself so I spent some time studying with the thought that I would be able to analyse what I did more, but in fact I don't think you can. The studying helped in terms of expanding the vocabulary of what I had available, but at the end of the day, when somebody plays me a song its a question of trying to feel what the right thing would be in an intuitive way. You might know harmonically or technically what the right notes would be, but how you actually express that is more a feeling than a thought.
Baker Street and Careless Whisper are two songs with three things in common. Both have become popular standards, both have a 'classic' saxophone part, and both feature Hugh's guitar. Separated by many years and by different writers, was there any feeling of similarity in the experience.
I first met Gerry through working with the band Stealers Wheel (Right or wrong album)
At the time I did "City to City" I was touring with Jack Bruce, so I was playing in that slightly harder Rock blues style, which worked well with the songs. Gerry looked at the songs in a number of different ways before deciding on the final arrangement. It was a great lesson for me to see the amount of care taken to get the result he wanted. I have a feeling 'Baker Street' was one of the first songs I played on that album. The sound of the solo is a Les Paul through a Music man and a Fender Amp. Later I did 'Right down the line', 'Waiting for the day' and 'Stealin time', which are all really great songs. Working with Hugh Murphy (Gerry's producer) was inspiring for me because he created an atmosphere where you felt comfortable and could give your best. Its been my good fortune to work on a number of other albums with Gerry, including "Night Owl" with the classic song 'Get it right next time.' His recent album "A wing and a prayer" shows yet again what a wonderful songwriter he is - one of my favourite songwriters, bar none, and a great guitar player too.
'Careless Whisper' came from the Wham album "Make it big". The guitar parts are electric rhythm (A strat through a Fender amp) and Spanish style lead lines (A nylon strung Kohno.)
I think what similarity exists between the two songs can be summed up by saying both are classic songs, written from the heart and as a result they touched other people, including the musicians involved in the recording.
On the track "Faith", from George's album, I used two guitars - a nameless metal bodied acoustic for the rhythm part and a Geffen custom strat for the solo.


Lifestyle


I once added it up, I've visited over thirty different countries, working. I think that over the years I've found what for me works well so that I can function in a positive way.
In my early days of touring, particularly in America, things were very much the 'rock and roll tour' . Late nights and partying after the gig and so on. I quickly realised that if I was going to last any time at this I had to pace myself. We can use the situation we find ourselves in in either a positive or a negative way. When people pay to come to a concert they deserve to see a good show. If we keep that in mind rather than taking things for granted, it really helps. My current thing for the past few years is to always get up early in the morning with a little routine of exercise and practise. That's my preference and it gets that particular part of the day done early.
I find it helpful while on tour to try and keep inspired in some way. On a night off, go and see a band, visit an art Gallery, that type of thing. When you tour you can get enclosed in the touring bubble and it doesn't take long to lose touch with what's actually happening outside. I think its important to maintain a 'real life' contact.
I got to the stage where if I was touring somewhere, lets say our tour finished in Europe, I would very often stay on wherever the tour finished and have a few days there to rest. So now I either go early to a place to get used to it, or stay on after and get to know more about the place as well. Taking an interest in where I was other than just staying in Hotels, tended to keep me on a much more even keel.


When not working, similar ideas apply. Instead of complaining about the state of the music business, use that energy in a positive way. Practising - working on songs - Staying in shape, so that when an opportunity comes up you are ready. Overcoming negativity and fear of the unknown is where the real battle begins.
Obviously the approach to touring is an individual matter. Some people think the trucks better at certain times, but it seems to me having been through the stage of recording all through the night with people, sometimes finishing at 6 in the morning, those results are sometimes not as good as we think we are. Generally speaking it works better for me recording in reasonable times. The hours of daylight basically.
It relates a little to practising. When I first started I used to really practise a lot. Until I dropped basically. Now I think that's a very non productive way to practise. I think the thing is to set time limits and work within those limits. Give yourself regular breaks and you come back refreshed, able to really remember much more. Knowing how to switch off is equally important. When you come out of the studio the song tends to stay in your head. Through a little discipline and application of, for instance meditative techniques, I have learnt to shut out the days work once the working day is over.


Americana.


One of the major differences between America and Britain, is the open attitude to studying music. One of the first American guitarists I ever met was Dan Armstrong, who is mostly known as a guitar maker, but is also a great player. He was very open and generous in his approach. I'd be invited to visit his house, and wed play for hours on end. One night he called to say I just had to come around to meet and play with one of his friends. The friend turned out to be Jeff Baxter. These Jam sessions provided an invaluable source of learning.
In England, maybe because its a much smaller market, that kind of musical exchange, certainly in the past, very rarely happens. People are more protective of their own patch. I think one of the big changes of the past ten years is that there is a new freedom of information, influenced by the American approach. I think that part of its very positive. There is a wealth of information available, and therefore we are seeing more musically educated guitarist players. Of course this level of availability of information, in written form, tutorials and so on has been available to other instrument players for many years, so in that sense we are only just coming in line.
That's on the positive side of American culture. On the other side the American approach to teaching is very much technique based, whereas here people do what they do intuitively. They're not so concerned about how they get there.


Technique


One of the great things about the guitar is that it can be played n so many different ways.
Sometimes playing an unorthodox way can be what creates the individual style. A perfect example of this is Wes Montgomery. He played with his thumb, which in conventional guitar technique is not the best way to play. Combined with his block chord and octave playing, he was able to create a whole new sound. So sometimes what appears to be a shortcoming can be the thing that creates the individual style.
Rather than thinking so much of how we play, it is often useful to look at the reasons why we play. If the reason is to express our songs and ideas, then technique becomes simply the means by which the idea is put over in such a way that someone else can hear it. In that sense technique is not an end in itself. If you are not able to put your ideas across, then that may be the time to look for some advice from a teacher.
In America, with the more open attitude, there are strong links between great players of this generation and great teacher/players of an earlier period.
If you look at any other area of human endeavour, for example sport - a great tennis player will have another great player as a coach even though they're already a great player. So the idea that people are able to improve the quality of what they do by taking advice from an external source is to me somewhat obvious. For the majority of players there is a tremendous advantage in finding someone who can take an objective view on what they do, and offer good counselling. Its worth trying to find someone you relate to in that way.
In my case I've learnt, and continue to learn from a number of sources. When I first started sessions I often worked with other guitar players, which provided a great source of learning simply by observing what they'd do. I've been very lucky in that respect. I think the notion that there is some higher standard of players somewhere other than England is not necessarily correct. There may be more players who can play well in America, but that's more to do with the size of the Country. Fundamentally at the different levels, in the different styles, I think the standard is the same. A good example is Albert Lee, who as a Country player coming from England, and you cant say that he was any less talented than any of the American players. You can use John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth in the Jazz field, and any other number of excellent players here working in different area that people don't necessarily hear about. In Jazz, players like Jim Mullen, John Etheridge, John Patticelli, Phil Lee - they're all first rate players who don't receive widespread recognition.


Listening to other players.


I was once given this advice - Listen to as many players as you can, and learn as much as you can, but then once you've done that try to filter it through your own system of what you do and don't like. So I think there is a period where its immensely valuable to listen to as many layers as possible in styles that your interested in, because I think that's where you learn the vocabulary, that's how jazz players learn. Like Miles Davis hanging in the clubs listening to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Listening and learning through the aural experience. That's how Indian music is taught. The master plays, and the pupils listen and learn. So I think listening in that sense is absolutely crucial.
You can begin by listening to nobody, although its likely that you'll get to the stage where your ears become egotistical. You only hear what you want to hear. Not in an open way. So maybe its the balance. After having listened as a learning process, there is a certain point that can be reached where if you want to find your own voice it becomes necessary to search inside your own experience for that ability to play what you naturally have inside, and at that stage there may well be value in not listening to other influences.


Both are considerations at different stages. In my case as a session player, I had to be conscious of who the popular guitarist were, because there is often a time where you are booked to play in the style of somebody else, and I certainly went through a period of being able to emulate most of the popular guitarists of the day. So I think there is value, provided you like it, in being able to analyse somebodys style and recreate something similar.


I don't like this contemporary idea of taking solos out of context. The thing that makes a solo great is not only the playing of it, but the context, so if you lift licks out of a solo and try to reinsert them in something else, very often its not as good. There is great value in doing and learning transcriptions from the viewpoint of analysis, but from the viewpoint of trying to insert them into your own tune, I think is not necessarily the best thing. They have to be filtered through your own experience.


Other areas that contribute to ones playing


There is enormous value in looking at other instruments to enhance your view of the guitar.
In my case I did some keyboard harmony which helped me a great deal in understanding how a keyboard player might approach chords.


Often a keyboard player will think of chords as a triad over a bass note, for example in G, with an A on the bass. A guitarist would think of it simply a G with an A bass, whereas a keyboard player would think of it as an 11th chord. Very often when you see a G 11 written, you would play a different kind of shape, like just adding the 11th note to the chord, whereas the keyboard player would think in terms of the triad over the bass note. Having this insight into how keyboard player operate helps in the communication.
Similarly with drummers. For example with say a funk song, the thing you need to lock in with most of the time is the hi-hat. So if your conscious of what current hi-hat rhythms are in any particular style, that can really help you to find the part.
A good exercise for a guitarists is to break down melodies to purely rhythmic terms. Just to be able to tap out the rhythm can really help to learn something.
Its the principle of breaking something down to its smallest component parts. In learning a solo say, take a few bars and start by forgetting about the notes, tap out the rhythm, or sing the rhythmic content without worrying about the notes.


Session playing


The skills that are required in playing on other peoples material has changed quite a bit since I started. There was a time when the primary skill was sight reading, which is still the case in certain types of sessions - film tracks, jingles, but for most pop sessions the skill is being able to find the element that will create an interesting guitar part within the song. So the primary skill is to hear clearly what is going on, and being able to identify the way the changes move.
Another area is the sound. To be able to listen to a song and be able to pick not only the style of playing that will fit, but also the sound. Parts and sounds are very inter-linked. If I pick up say an acoustic, I will play in a certain way, and with an electric in another. What I'm hearing back from the instrument as I play will enable me to play different things.


The sound affects the style of the music. For example the instruments of the forties an fifties had very heavy strings and very high actions. That was the way they were set up, and that was the way they were played, and that engendered a style of playing. As strings got lighter, actions got lower and more sounds became available, naturally more styles were defined. More bending and more legato techniques came into the playing. You began to get players like Jim Hall introducing Legato techniques into jazz style. Less right hand picking etc. etc. Right up to the modern day where the actions are designed so that you can play whole series of things without using the right hand at all. So the evolution of the instruments is playing a part in redefining the whole variety of available styles.
If we look back to

the time of say Django Rheinhart, he was playing acoustic guitar - he had to hit it hard, yet in some ways, technically there are certain things he did that have never been surpassed. He played harmonics, octaves, great chords, great right hand tremolo etc. Now all of these techniques are available today. I've heard some people talk almost as if they've invented these techniques, without knowing that its like a line - a tradition. We play what we play today because of what's gone before. Nothing comes out of nowhere.
A lot of the contemporary rock players act as if they own Bach, when of course the point is this is a common treasury, where all of us can learn from the great masters of the past. So to act as if you somehow own the rights to that is clearly incorrect.


Just like artists who learn by studying the great masters, similarly there is a lot to be learnt in music by studying the great masters of the past.


Versatility - blessing or curse.


In terms of trying to find your own voice, a curse because your constantly flitting between one thing or another. In terms of getting work its a blessing. If you have strong leaning to a particular style, bottleneck, jazz, whatever, then its great to focus on that, but if you want to work the broader arena of music - accompanying other artists, doing sessions, shows whatever, then its vital.
At a certain point in any ones career you have to make a decision. Do I want to work as a really solid professional player, able to cover a number of styles, and happy to do that, or do I want to take the risk of defining my style. Sometimes the limitations are what define the style. A particular scale that defines a style. For instance BB King. From a certain point of view you could say BB King is limited. But from my point of view I see it as he's got his vocabulary which he uses wonderfully. So its a question of whether or not your happy with the vocabulary. Many people make the mistake of thinking that if they learn more scales and more chords, they're better than somebody else. This is judging technique not in terms of creativity but in terms of notes per minutes.

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