John Etheridge has been at the forefront of the British jazz scene since his involvement with The Soft Machine in the 70s. The catalogue of musicians who he has worked with is endless. His playing skills have encompassed many areas ranging from pub blues beginnings to fusion pioneering, from Django-esque styling with Stephane Grappelli through to quasi-classical realms with Nigel Kennedy. Onstage meetings include such diverse players as Andy Summers, Bireli Lagrene and Barney Kessel, the list goes on. Those of you reading this, who live up north, might like to check out his gigs with Jim Mullen later in the year.
My own perception of John comes from having known him since the late 80s and hassling him about this and that as you do. I met him whilst attending a jazz course he was running. It was awkward for me because I'd just started playing professionally in a flamenco jazz guitar duo and found myself gigging at some of the same venues as him. It was the 'I am not worthy' syndrome. Also, I did absolutely no work for the course, because I was concentrating on the duo's arrangements. I think I just bullshit the work he set every week!
He is a wonderful musician, who has a spirited perception of the musical environment he's in at the time. Anyone who has spent more than a few moments in his company will know what a raconteur he is. Someone once told me they should give him his own TV show. I've been in the fortunate position to have a gigged with him in group and, more satisfyingly, duo formats. I think I've learnt more on those meetings than the endless hours of home practice we guitarists do.
The bottom line is, he's a cool geezer, very funny, and a superb guitarist. Definitely someone to have a few beers with and a natter. Oh yes, he has really big curly hair!
JE:- The first thing that got me into the guitar was Hank Marvin with the Shadows which (much laughter) is going back some. That was the early 60s and I still think he sounds very good actually, wonderful player. People say about James Burton in the 50s but I was a bit too young for that. For me Hank Marvin was the first bloke that had the kind of sound that I went "oooh, what a lovely sound" at.
JH:- What about Scotty Moore (Elvis' guitarist)?
JE:- No, I mean Scotty Moore to me, I appreciate him, but he was like a dance band jazz guitarist playing proto-rock licks. James Burton was the first rock guitarist who got a sound. But to me, Hank Marvin was very melodic, tuneful, an affecting sound.
JH:- And there's the dance steps of course.
JE:- Yeah, yeah, the dance steps which I used to do.
JH:- What age did you start playing?
JH:- Did you have any guitar lessons at all?
JE:- No, I never had a lesson at all I'm afraid. There wasn't anybody then, not in our day (northern voice). There wasn't anybody to teach you anything, you could do classical guitar, but there wasn't much of that. My Father was a pianist and he showed me a few chords and things.
JH:- So when did you start playing professionally?
JE:- Professionally? That was much, much, much later. I went to university and did the whole thing and I started playing professionally in the early 70s. Actually, let's recap on influences, have you got plenty of tape?
JH:- Yeah, you just rabbit.
JE:- Hank was the first guy that really turned me on, which is a real expression at that age. People either leave you cold or they turn you on. You don't have that dispassionate appreciation. There are players that I got into later on like Tal Farlow, who meant nothing to me in my formative years. After Hank I got into Django in a big way. He did mean a lot to me, and I was into blues players.
JH:- Robert Johnson?
JE:- Later, to me particularly, Buddy Guy, BB King, I mean I wasn't a fanatic, I was a Django fanatic. I was very taken with Eric Clapton. In the mid-60s he was exceptional for a short period then, Peter Green and Hendrix of course. I had a lot of friends that abandoned the jazz boat when they heard Hendrix. But possibly because I was a guitarist, I still had an interest in Django and Wes Montgomery.
JH:- You play 'Little Wing' in your set?
JE:- Yeah, yeah, I do. But I always maintained my jazz interest. Then, when John Mclaughlin's Extrapolation came out in 1969, that was a very important record for me because it was a jazz record that had a real kind of heat. It had conviction and was very forward-looking.
JH:- People got off on that one didn't they?
JE:- Yeah, it's a great record. I don't think from a technical standpoint the guitar playing is perfect, I was already very aware of technical erm.....
JE:- Technical erm... I've lost me vocabulary haven't I?
JH:- Technical erm, that'll do!
JE:- Technical erm... (many guffaws) achievements! So the record didn't knock me out from a technical standpoint, but it was such a burning record, and it had such intensity which is what I liked about the Hendrix/Clapton thing. I hadn't found it aside from Django in the jazz I'd been listening to. So I really responded to that.
JH:- So tell me about some of the bands you were involved with.
JE:- I was straight in with the early jazz/rock scene in London, if you like. Which wasn't really a scene then, people were tentatively trying to get the rock-welly with jazz ideas, phrasing and fluidity. That's what I was trying to do, still am really. There were people beginning to workin that area. About that time I first heard Allan Holdsworth, and people like that, who were working towards that thing. That was the scene I was involved in in the early 70s. But I played with a lot of rather forgettable rocky jazz outfits, and then I joined Darrell Way, the violinist. I've been associated with a number of violinists over the years. Darrell Way was the first, he was in a band called Curved Air and formed this sort of progressive rock group, which wasn't the scene I was particularly into. But it was something in the area I was looking for, plus there were all these record companies talking about huge amounts of advances, so I mean, that's hard to resist. So I played with that group for a couple of years and we made three albums, all of which are deleted and probably deservedly so! But there were some good moments on them. In Curved Air they wanted me to be sort of like... Ritchie Blackmore, but I was absolutely unbending in those days. I had a little 10 watt amp which gave me a strange jazzy distortion and that's what I wanted to do, and I did it through all these rock tunes.
I didn't really find a band that I really wanted to be in till I joined the Soft Machine in 1975. When I joined that band I felt this is where I wanted to be and I'm the sort of person that should be doing this gig. I played with them for a number of years and made quite a few records. Soft Machine was a peculiar band, it meant so many different things to so many different people. The music was almost the least memory for people. Everyone thinks of the name, Paris, the left bank. But by the time I joined the Soft Machine it was more or less the number one European ... I hate all these words... fusion/electric jazz band.
JH:- You took Allan Holdsworth's place?
JE:- Yeah, Holdsworth left and I took over. It was a big challenge and I really enjoyed it and felt I wanted to do it very much. About the same time I also started playing with Stephane Grappelli, another thing I really wanted to do, which was great.
JH:- How did that come about?
JE:- Diz Disley phoned me up. I think I was on the telly with Soft Machine and for some reason, there was a vibraphonist called Pete Shade, who I shall eternally buy bottles of champagne for, he saw this programme and bumped into Diz Disley who was looking for a guitarist to replace Ike Isaacs and said "I've seen this bloke on the telly". So I got the call from Disley and he came round, we played half a chorus of Sweet Georgia Brown and he said (northern voice) "Oooh, that'll do, come to Hamburg and play with Steph, if he likes you, you can have the gig."
JH:- How long were you with Stephane?
JE:- About five years. Which was fantastic, after working with Soft Machine which was very ... a kind of heavy, neurotic, young jazzers' band with all the preoccupation with chops, being at the forefront, being hip y'know and Stephane was completely different.
He had a very, very relaxed approach, music was his true 'mE9tier', it was the one area where he felt totally at ease. That was very new to me because I'd never really played with anybody that was totally at ease with themselves when they played. Playing was never talked about, he just got up, played his violin, then put it in its case and go and have his dinner! It was completely natural to him. He never really consciously practised his violin, he just did it; did what he did. That made him very easy to be with and consequently everyone around him was at ease.
He was very happy for me to play all sorts of non-Djangoish things, in fact, he never wanted the Django thing at all. He didn't respond to it. He loved Django but he didn't want any Hot Club recreations. Particularly the rhythm guitar parts, he would say "Don't play like that please, I never liked it and Django never liked it, but we were stuck with it, so please don't do it".
Diz didn't play that 'umcha, umcha' thing, he was more a Freddie Green four in the bar player, which was fine for the group. So it worked well. I didn't play in a Django style, how I played, he seemed to like. I'd play fourth chords and all sorts of things, and he'd go "I like that, play that funny chord". He was very open to things even though he himself played more or less the same way. He liked to hear a new approach. He was very happy for the people around him to push the limits a bit.
There was a kind of counter force from the promoters to keep it as straight as possible, but it wasn't a Hot Club recreation. We played Standards but not many of the tunes he did with Django. So anyway, I did that till about 1981 with various people; Diz, Martin Taylor, a hundred and one bass players. The early years of that were one of the pinnacles for me. From Grappelli I got an attitude to music-making which I sort of retain today, I try and remember that.
JH:- You have a very relaxed attitude when you're playing in terms of feeling at ease with what you're doing.
JE:-To a certain extent I do, yes.
JH:-But very laid back, it puts everyone else at ease.
JE:-Yes, well that's certainly what he (Grappelli) did, and I don't like to be put under stress by other musicians, so I don't like to do it in return. If you've got together with a group of musicians to play music, the point is to find common areas where you can all respond.
I'm certainly not interested in turning up and forcing my approach on anybody or insisting on a way of doing things or competing with the people I'm playing with. I don't really see the point of that, a lot of Americans take that approach. I'm not saying I'm totally uncompetitive, if that's the nature of the gig, I don't mind a bit of that, but to me, playing with other people on the jazz scene, if you like, with people you may not know very well, the important thing is to produce something musically satisfying for both yourselves and the listener. I won't call it compromising, because I don't think having a signature style is the sign of a great player. I feel quite strongly about this.
The logo mentality is so much a part of modern life, it's possible to achieve a lot of success by having a signature style. But I don't think it's necessarily the mark of a great jazz musician. It's like Picasso, you can't say Picasso had 'a' style. Picasso was a genius who painted in a myriad of ways. There's no one Picasso style. People like to listen to jazz and say 'Oh, that's so-and-so', a recognisable style. To me that's boring. I like working on different things and areas, at different times. You broaden, as with life. Now when I was young I was obsessed with certain aspects of guitar playing and nothing else was important. I didn't listen to the broader musical goals, I was just interested and wanted to play guitar solos (laughs). I think that's just young man stuff. As you get older, start to run your own band and move about the musical scene, you see a broader picture. I don't always get it right but I'm aware that that's as important as my solo. It's experience and age that gives you this.
JH:- What sort of methods do you have for personal practice? You know, the boring shit?
JE:- Well, what I've been doing for the last couple of months is to sit on the bench outside, I have my amp in the room, my metronome out there with me and I play over 'changes' in my head. I've been enjoying that a lot. The initial problem was that one would tend to play root, third or fifth to define the chord, because you're not hearing it. I now find it easy to hear the ninth, eleventh or thirteenth against the chord I'm imagining in my head. I do a lot of that and always have my metronome on.
JH:- Do you have a favourite approach to composition and arranging?
JE:- There's nothing favourite to me about composing and arranging! I do compose from time to time, I'm not compulsive about composing. Arranging, what little I've done, I quite enjoy. I find that probably easier to do. The initial idea to composing is easy, it's the next idea that creates a problem. I work away for hours and hours to get something and ...I don't really enjoy the compositional mode. When I was young I was philosophically against composition. To me, it was solidifying the flow. In other words, one talks, one plays, it's like saying "Gosh! That was really clever, what I just said, I'll remember it, write it down and say it to everyone I meet!" But I've relaxed that view rather, I do like the compositional approach of people like John Scofield, who's really unprecious about his compositions. They have an unpretentious feel about them. I know his approach is; we need some vehicles so we can play. That, to me, is the approach I like. You create an interesting jumping off point and watch what happens. Joe Zawinul has an improvisational approach to composition and that's good. Being attached to a few tunes you've written and forcing everyone to play them, isn't. It comes to that common ground again. I write if I'm recording, if I have an album to do. I like to come up with a few tunes. Saying that, my band play some old tunes which just goes to show I should have gotten off my arse and written a few more! (laughs). I prefer to play standards, because you've got the jumping off point of a commonly understood composition. There's a good balance between the given tune and the interpretation.
JH:- When you're soloing do you think in terms of notes or do you reach for sounds intuitively?
JE:- I don't know really ... I
JH:- Just do it man.
JE:- Both I suppose. It's about a sensation.
JH:- Conveying an emotion?
JE:- Well, yes to a certain extent, that also cuts me off from a large part of the jazz world in a way. There are a lot of very fine jazz musicians who see it in terms of abstract creation, and I don't really. I see it in terms of sensuality and emotion. The other view is about cerebral invention, it's about quick-wittedness, mental facility and that's something I've never been particularly interested in. To me, it's sound, texture, emotiveness ... feeling. That's what I like about jazz solos. You can transcribe a solo but not the intent and feel. You can transcribe a Coltrane solo but you'd get nowhere near what he was feeling. The notes are only part of it. How did we get onto that?
JH:- Don't know, bloody hippies! (more guffaws) Are you particularly critical after a gig, of your performance?
JE:- Not particularly anymore, I sort of gave that up. What's the point of that? Doesn't get you anywhere. I go along and do my best. There are a hundred and one factors that are maybe helping you or hindering your performance. A lot of them you can't do anything about. Once you accept a broader than your own ego, you don't have to blame yourself or take all the credit.
JH:- It's difficult for a lot of musicians to get out of that.
JE:- It takes time and experience, and there's no substitute for just doing it all, over and over again. Doing millions of gigs blah, blah, blah and gradually you realise those thousands of factors of which you have no control.
I remember doing early Stephane Grappelli gigs and trying to get everything right. The right amount of practise, sleep, food, side of the stage, strings, the pick worn to exactly the right amount... oh y'know (sighing sounds). You can get so obsessed trying to control the whole environment, and you can't. You get neurotic and can't perform. But this is improvisation, it's there, you do it, and it's gone. It's all in the moment.
As well as being anti-composition, I was always very anti-recording. But you have to live in the world and accept that recording is part of the world. What happened in my lifetime, with the availability of records, cds, all this stuff infixed in the Universe. I think it's counter-productive and dehabilitates peoples' creativity. It makes it more difficult for musicians to be themselves. Everything is there, the horrible infinite variety of choice. You can't escape any guitarist from any period of history, and that's terrible. People have these ghastly reverence for these guys. I was lucky enough to start out and get going when there was very little reverence for anything that wasn't current. Now, everyone has to bow down in front of Django Reinhardt, bow down in front of Jimi Hendrix, I mean it's not healthy. It's the mystification or deification of things that can no longer disappoint you. When someone's gone and dead they can then be mystified. I was around when Hendrix was alive and there was a big, creative, vibrant scene, he was part of it. Undoubtedly he was pre-eminent, but he wasn't the only person there. He didn't come from another planet. When I saw him, I thought yes, he's Pete Townsend, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and a few others rolled into one. That's how it struck me at the time. The mystification process takes place and now people feel there was this overriding genius who suddenly appeared from nowhere, playing guitar in a way nobody ever thought possible. Hendrix's music has held up brilliantly, it really does sound good. It's the deification I don't like. If you said he wasn't that good you'd be in a lot of trouble (laughs). If you said Django Reinhardt wasn't that good, I mean, Segovia said that about him, he didn't think he was that good.
JH:- Segovia didn't like anybody (laughs).
JE:- I think that's probably true. The point is, these people, Django, Jimi, were undoubtedly geniuses of the guitar. Django certainly, but they had back-culture, they didn't exist out of nothing, they don't have to be revered like gods. It's dangerous, and the danger is compounded by the complete availability of everything.
JH:- Who had a top ten hit with 'Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep'?
JE:- (Sings) 'Ooweeoo! Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep'. Who did? I can't remember their name.
JE:- You know?
JH:- Middle of the Road.
JE:- Ah! Middle of the Road, it would be wouldn't it.
JH:- You played with Bireli Lagrene and Pat Metheny, could you talk about your experiences with them?
JE:- I did a long tour with Bireli and with Vic Juris, which resulted in some duos with Bireli. I found playing with him much easier than I thought it would be. I got on with him, he's moody, but only with himself. He doesn't project insecurities on to you, which makes it relaxing. He's very quick-witted. He's had a lot of problems with that Django business, whether he should be like Django or play something different. On the tour we did, everyone wanted him to play Sweet Georgia Brown, Minor Swing, and when he played them it was absolutely devastating, but he really didn't want to do it. It was very hard for a guy like him to break away from that Django tradition. But if you stay in it, you're constantly in this competitive element where you've got to play Minor Swing even faster than the next person. If you break free from the gypsy tradition it's difficult to get accepted, in that sense I think Bireli's done quite well. But I think he had a few chops hang-ups that weren't very helpful, which are the negative parts of the gypsy tradition really.
JH:- You told me a story once that when you went over to his farm to rehearse before the tour, his guitar was in the barn.
JE:- Yes! That's right, he dragged it out of the barn, obviously hadn't touched it for weeks, covered in... stuff! It looked all rusty and started playing full bore immediately. That's the function I think of having learnt at an early age. Bireli didn't seem to have to do chops practice, that's really lucky. He started when he was four and his chops were there by fourteen, they grew into every cell.
JE:- Well he gives quite a different thing than Bireli, with him there's no problem with his sense of direction. He's absolutely, completely authoritative in himself, in the sense that Bireli's a bit of a seeker. Pat Metheny is Pat Metheny and it's right there. He's so confident with what he's doing. He's a very powerful character though, belied by his affable manner. When I played with him, it was like, I knew perfectly well it would be about him playing the solos, and me backing him up. I was happy with that.
JH:- You played duets? (The Late Show BBC2, 1994. John and Pat did 'Insensatez' live in the studio).
JE:- Yes, he wanted me to play a classical guitar. These were loads of little TV slots, so this worked for what we were doing. He was promoting his album, it would have muddied the waters if I was there taking solos. But I got into him and was nagging him about his chops. Y'know "What are you doing, how much do you pick and hammer?" and so on. He'd go (American voice) "I don't know man" usual thing. When he warmed up he played chromatic scales, absolutely evenly, all four fingers, down picking. Then of course when he started playing he's all over the place, which is part of his voice. I think the most interesting jazz guitarists seem to have the most peculiar technique. If you turned down the sound and watched him play you'd think 'this bloke can't possibly play', it looks so awkward.
JH:- You know the only person I've ever seen play like Metheny was when I saw a video of Pat Martino.
JE:- Does he look awkward?
JH:- He's got exactly the same picking style.
JE:- Has he?
JH:- Yeah, it's bizarre.
JE:- Loads of up-strokes?
JH:- Yeah, odd.
JE:- Odd! I'd like to see that.
JE:- I remember touring with Vic and Bireli. Vic was an alternate picker and Bireli was a Django type picker and it was interesting to compare them. Certainly, I think Bireli's, or that way of picking, gives you more rhythmic drive, more swing. But in terms of chops, if he wanted to, Vic had all that Al di Meola speed and articulation, it's much cleaner and faster. The Django thing is more swinging. It's very good for jazz, but if you play three notes per string, down up down, then down up down on the next string, what happens is you're getting a slight triplet phrasing, which is swinging. Anything that's got the division of quavers into threes, not actually triplets, is swinging. You tend to get that with the down stroke thing.
JH:- So what are you currently involved with?
JE:- Since Bireli and Vic, I was with (bassist) Danny Thompson's band and I've always had my own group. The group consists of musicians I really like. I did an album with my band called 'Ash'. I did an album with Danny. I did an album with Andy Summers a couple of years ago. Two years duoing with him around the world. That may or may not revive itself, it's quite an easy one to do. He's a good musician Andy, he works very hard, he likes to get things right. Very different from me, he's not an off-the-wall type, less of a jazz musician, more of a rock guy. Yeah, did that and I've been doing a lot with Nigel Kennedy for the past year or so. He's got an album out and we've been doing a lot of promotional stuff. TV, Radio.. a lot of it's just him and me, which is nice. A lot of the parts are prescibed, which is sort of good for me in a way. I like to do that as long as I've got the other outlet. There's lots more of that, in fact I'll probably been taken up with that mostly. I like working with Nigel, he's an extremely gifted musician, and I'm not using those words lightly.
JH:- You said he's into having a jam and all that.
JE:- Yeah, but he really is... monumentally well-endowed (fits of laughter) He is! He's got perfect technique, perfect natural ability. In the classical world he's probably pre- eminent. He's a really good improviser, and takes it extremely seriously and to me he's got the right criteria. He's not into licks, being flash. He's interested in solo development. In many ways he redefines the purity of soloing, because I think he's an outsider, he's not glib about the whole business. He feels strongly that solos should be logical, start and build and build. He's gone on about players like that to me and I've thought yes! I'd forgotten how important that that's what it's all about. Nigel's into that, he's got a perfect ear and memory, he knows all the standard, all the changes. He's always up for a jam, so we do a lot of playing. When you do his music, you more or less do it exactly. The inversions he requires. You have to accept that, which I do. He's got such a precise ear, the slightest change to an inversion, he's onto it! It's very challenging for me to take an almost.. classical role.
JH:- What's your favourite book?
JE:- Probably Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
JH:- I just wondered that.
JE:- Oh, you do actually mean a book, I thought you meant a tutor book.
JH:- No, no, no, no, no...
JE:- A real book. Ah! I think nineteenth century writers have got an incredible intensity. I'm not sure they actually know anything more about the world, but I prefer that to Martin Amis anyway. Yeah, Anna Karenina. Powerful.
JH:- What advice do you have for all the guitarists out there who'll read this?
JE:- All the guitarists? (laughs)
JH:- Yeah, yeah I feel really dumb asking all these questions.
JE:- First of all, like technique and stuff, the natural way to play is the best. You don't have to bother with correct fingering, no such thing as correct picking, how much to hammer or pull off etc.. What you will do will contribute to your own individual voice. So look for your own way, don't get hung up on other peoples methods. Find a way of doing things yourself, that's very important.
JE:- The other thing I think guitarists ignore is ear training. The physical problems on the guitar are quite great and people get hung up on them, to the detriment of the musical ones. Really train your ear so you can hear things. I think a lot of guitarists who have done very well have been basically physical on the instrument and little else. The widdle era of the 80s, more to do with the instrument rather music, sound and ears. The chops thing interests nobody other than guitar players, nobody else gives a shit; the other musicians, definitely nobody in the audience. Other musicians usually want a strong rhythmical voice from a guitarist. That's the sort of player that will be in demand. Be broad. As much as possible, practice with other musicians. You can be lazy on your own, but with others you really have to concentrate all of the time.
JH:- I also know that, from gigging with you, the communication aspect is especially strong, that's a big musical turn on.
JE:- Yes, I think audiences respond to that very much, for me, I've played with uncommunicative musicians who are good, but I find it more comfortable if there is communication. When you do those gigs like we did, I mean you really do need to communicate, because otherwise there's nothing there. If there are no arrangements, then everything's up for grabs, you've got to communicate. There is no life without it. The most unsatisfactory gigs I do nowadays are those pick-up jazz gigs, the people involved, they don't know each other that well, but also no one seems to do or be willing to get into any engagement with each other. Then you get the worst of all worlds. You have to establish rapport, by giving some of yourself up. Not by standing in the corner saying 'this is what I do and that's bloody well what I do mate'.
JH:- Giving to receive!
JE:- Yeah, giving and receiving. That's where it's at.
JH:- Okay, finally, is there anything you want to say other than what you've already said?
JE:- Yes! If anyone wants to send me money, please do.