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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
If we look back to
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
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.