How lucky can you get!
Today I`m going to spend ten minutes with highly accomplished south pacific blues master Darren Watson. You may not have heard of Darren but in a career spanning three decades Darren has worked on the bill with such blues luminaries as Robert Cray, Koko Taylor, George Thorogood, Billy Boy Arnold, Doug MacLeod, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Dr. John and Keb Mo . . certainly no bunch of blues slackers by any stretch of the imagination and testament to Darren’s sure skills as a musician.
To those who remember New Zealand music in the ’80s, or who have a passing interest in blues, the name Darren Watson will bring a knowing smile. As founder and leader of Wellington powerhouse Chicago Smoke Shop, Watson enjoyed a six year stint in the public eye with chart singles like Mind On My Sleeve and I Can’t Live Without Your Love.
He has been nominated a colossal six times for New Zealand Music Awards for a body of recorded work that includes two Top 40 albums and singles and three critically acclaimed solo albums including 2002’s Tui Award nominated ‘King Size’, and 2005’s stunning and genrebreaking ‘South Pacific Soul’.
Darren is the real deal when it comes to blues guitar. I’ve been listening to guitar myself for 30 years and Darren has style, taste, timing, technique and tone…and what the hell else is there ?
Hi Darren, kia ora, How`s it going man, and how`s the weather up there, blue enough for you ?
Heh heh… not today, bro`! It’s nine degrees and raining! Wellington in springtime.. heh heh
Darren, our readers are more often than not beginner guitarists so I`d like to start by asking how, when and where you first became seriously involved in the guitar – was there anyone in particular that helped steer you in the right direction?
I grew up in the era just after The Beatles broke up so their shadow loomed large in my life. That, and my cousin was guitarist in a pretty popular band in NZ in the 60s – the Librettos – so I got to hear a fair bit about how cool rock n’ roll was. I played some drums, piano and trumpet before I actually thought I had settled on bass. My first couple of years playing was on bass . . a regular rightie Macca heh heh…. in my DREAMS!
But, yeah then I stopped playing in covers bands at about 17 and started taking guitar seriously instead. About the same time I discovered blues for myself.
And, did you start out with a high-end guitar like a gibson 335, or like most of us, begin playing on a rotten old plank from Walmart? (myself – I had an old plank but I had to take a ferry from the fretboard to the strings the action was so damn high!)
LOL…. No way man. My first six-string was a nasty Carlos Les Paul copy. The neck warped within a couple of weeks. Grin* A total P.O.S..
I didn’t have my first real Strat` until we had a record in the charts when I was twenty-two!
Okay. So, do you have any advice for those who are struggling to get to grips with the instrument? Can you remember your early days, and which artists really inspired you back then?
I am really lucky in that music has always come really easy to me. I feel like I have always understood how it works, even before I had NAMES for things. Getting to grips with the guitar was all about mechanics for me – and I think it is for a lot of people – you know, finding a technique that works for them. I don’t buy this idea that there is only one ‘right’ way to play.
As for inspiration on guitar, I was hugely inspired by the ‘lefty-upside-down’ players like Albert King, and Otis Rush. Also really got into guys using different techniques and tunings – like Albert Collins and Skip James. You can’t go past early BB King either. I mean his 1950s stuff is almost without peer vocally and for the guitar stuff. I also like Robert Cray and early Jimmy Vaughan with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. I reckon Cray is the most important guy in blues today – he’s actually got his own voice. Too many Stevie Ray Vaughan clones out their, may he rest in peace one day…..
Well Darren I`ve got to say I agree with you there. And why is the blues a great place to start when approaching the guitar? is it because there are a range of styles and forms from the simple to the highly complex that allow players such a depth of expression ?
I think it’s because to make it sound good you really have to get to grips with rhythm and your sound. There’s nowhere to hide melodically or harmonically. If you just wail away playing scales you are guaranteed to sound shit in my opinion. It forces you to be inventive with time.
That`s a smart smart answer people! Right Darren; you`ve got a killer guitar tone – what`s the deal with your guitars and amps, have you got any particular amps and guitar combinations that you prefer for electric blues playing?
Thanks man. I have really concentrated on this for most of my life. I used to think it was about gear but the older I get the more I realize it’s mostly in the hands. You can line up 30 people playing through the same gear and they’re all gonna sound completely different. Having said that, great gear helps plenty. At the moment I’m mostly playing a Fender ’59 ThinSkin Strat through a Headstrong Lil King-S. It’s like a souped-up blackface Princeton, LOL, but not as souped up as a MK1 Boogie! I run a HBE compressor and a MXR CAE clean boost into the amp and that’s it as far as effects go. The comp for slide and the boost for… um, well boosting. Grin*
Awesome Darren, just awesome. I just love the MK1 Boogies; but they`re definitely supercharged amp’s. The MXR CAE clean boost sounds great – and unusual; I’ve never heard of one before. Cool man.
For those out there just beginning to become familiar with the language of the blues are there any fundamental scales that you tend to use ?
I’m a big believer in playing the changes and not getting too hung up on scales. Most of my favorite blues players aren’t big on the minor pentatonics like a lot of blues/rock players tend to be. I get modal from time to time but I really don’t think about it too much. I teach people how to use their ears and play the changes first. Too many people I hear playing in music shops and (God forbid!?!) sometimes on stage sound like they’re running exercises as solos. Rambling and phrase-less. I actually think we can all learn from singers and wind instruments. BREATHE in between those phrases, baby! Heh heh Make the notes count. Soloing is basically composition on the fly – so let’s have some hooks. I would rather play a fat groove than solo anyway.
(smiles) Yeah Darren; I`m with you on that one it’s saxophonists for me!
So, when it comes to playing acoustic fingerstyle blues what do you look for in your guitar sound – I see you`re using a `58 Gibson LG-2 – could you also tell me what’s so special about this instrument and how it informs your playing?
Oh man, that guitar is a total babe! I’m so lucky I found her. It’s the first small box I have found that lets me really dig in and doesn’t choke. You can also play whisper quiet and the tops are just so silky sounding….. I’m in love with that guitar, man. It cuts without ever sounding nasty and there’s not a hint of nasty boxiness. But it’s also not a boomy strum box like the D28 etc. They’re o.k. for some stuff but for what I do a small box is perfect and this is about the best example I’ve played.
I May have to translate that for our readers a little Darren!
What Darren is saying is that this guitar allows him to really rhythmically groove, like a steam train, without losing any tone or characteristic timbre and clarity at high or low volumes. Here is what it sounds like:
It would be great Darren if you could pick five inspirational records and maybe give us a short explanation as to why they resonate with you:
1. BB King – Live At The Regal
The ultimate blues performance? Probably. BB King at the peak of his powers. 40ish and taking no prisoners. The band swings like a whorehouse and even the audience is amazing.
2. The Fabulous Thunderbirds – Girls Go Wild
This album totally changed my life. Recorded in 1978 but it sounds like it could’ve been made in the 50s. I discovered Jimmie Vaughan and (harmonica great) Kim Wilson through this album. He was channeling all the great old blues players here – and his tone is to DIE for. Unlike Stevie Vaughan who was all about flash and brute strength, Jimmie had sweet touch and a rare economy of phrasing that puts Stevie in his place I reckon. If you haven’t heard this album I suggest you try your darndest to pick up a copy.
Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombnes
I was at high school when I saw a clip of Tom on TV. In a world of vapid synth-pop and dumb ass post-punk pop this record really spoke to me that blues, jazz and weirdness could still be grown and merged successfully. I’m a huge fan to this day. Not particularly about guitar this album but then neither am I really – I always reckon music counts above petty things like what it’s played on.
Top Of The Stax – Various Artists
Steve Cropper is a big hero of mine as a writer and a session master. He plays on most of the tracks on this Stax records compilation. He never played two notes when one would do – and how about the total genius of reversing the chords for the intro of Midnight Hour to make the riff for Knock On Wood. And getting away with it! Brilliant.
Muddy Waters – His Best 1947-55
This guy did more to teach me about TIME and tone than anyone else ever did. This is the best Muddy compilation and avoids a lot of the later crap that Chess Records led him into in search of a hit.
Thanks Darren – these are great great discs and I think your comments about timing will really, really help some of our readers.Finally I noticed in some of your early performances with the big band sound you`re rocking a rather large quiff that gives you the suave yet dangerous appearance of a riverboat gambler – does this help at all – and can it be performed without blues supervision?
LOL – yeah well at least I never sported a mullet, bro! 😉
Well there you have it everybody , THE WORD from none other than south pacific bluesmaster Darren Watson. Thank you Darren for talking to us and for giving us such an invaluable insight into your approach to guitar and for sharing your time.
Darren is available for one on one lessons if you are in New Zealand’s north island in the beautiful harbour city capital of Wellington. Click here for details…
Thanks again man.