Toby Hay is one of the most distinctive players on the acoustic scene today. His widescreen compositions evoke the landscapes of his native Welsh countryside and his innovative use of twelve string guitar in alternative tunings gives his music a unique voice.
His new album ‘New Music for The 12 String Guitar’ was released on The state51 Conspiracy and entirely performed on a custom Fylde guitar specially commissioned for him by the record label.
Acoustic Review Editor Ben Morgan-Brown met with Toby in Totnes before an intimate performance at Drift Records, part of a short tour to launch the album that took in several independent record stores throughout the UK.
The conversation covered a wide range of topics but, inevitably, we started with the story of how the commission for Toby’s custom ‘Red Kite’ 12 String came to be:
“The idea to build the guitar came from the label ‘The state51 Conspiracy’ – they wanted to commission Roger Bucknall at Fylde guitars to build a guitar for someone to write and record on and they would then put out a release.
They got in touch with Roger and asked him to put some feelers out and get people to send in music – I wasn’t really aware of this happening, but my good friend Nick Jonah Davies plays a Fylde guitar so he saw the newsletter and he got in touch with me and said “you should go for this and see what happens”.
So I sent them an email and kind of forgot about it – it was a few months till they got back in touch to say the label had chosen me, and it went on from there.”
AR: What was it like working with Roger Bucknall and how involved with the design of the guitar were you?
“I met Roger and the guys from the label and we all got on really well – he had several guitars in his workshop but he only had one twelve there that had been in for repair and he’d held it back for a few days so I could see it.
It was an old beat up body with a brand new neck, it was really cool! I was playing around with tunings and I loved the sound of it, it was great! So I was just playing whilst we were talking and, after a while, Roger says to me: ‘do you know who’s guitar that is? … it’s John Martyn’s!’.”
“Roger’s one of those guys who’s been doing it for a long time, he’s got all these great stories!
That was our first meeting and from then I had many conversations with Roger about what I’d like in a guitar – I was using a Taylor as my number one instrument at the time so I took that up to show him, and we spoke about what I liked and if I was to make any changes what would they be.
One of the best things about this guitar is the way it handles my tunings and how the intonation is perfect all the way up the neck – I got my Taylor setup so it could handle them but it’s still not quite perfect whereas the Fylde is – it’s designed for and belongs in those tunings.”
AR: Ah, yes the tunings! You’ve listed all the tunings on the record and some of them are quite complex, with pairs of strings tuned to different notes rather than in unison – how did that come about?
“I released a few things on 6 string on my label Cambrian Records, but I couldn’t quite find my own voice – I felt a little bit restrained, and so I had an idea that I wanted to play 12 string.
So I went to Frailers in Runcorn, and played about 20 different 12 strings – in my head I wanted an old Guild, but I didn’t get on with them at all and I picked up this Taylor and just fell in love with it.
From then on I felt like I really got going with my own music – when I stumbled on the really crazy alternative tunings they opened up everything – the sounds I was hearing in my head I could now get from the guitar.”
AR: You say ‘stumbled’ – so you didn’t sit down and methodically work out the tunings?
“I don’t think I spent too long thinking about it, but I was always playing the melody on the 3rd string pair so I found the top pairs a bit redundant or I wasn’t choosing to play the melody on them at least.
So I was using those top four strings like a drone, and I thought, ‘what notes do I want to be in that drone? I don’t have to leave them as they are’ and that’s where I stumbled into tuning them in 4ths and 5ths and so on.
As soon as I did that I was happy with how it was sounding – they became true drones and filling out the sound and I could tune them to whatever I wanted the drone to to be and could arrange the music around that.”
AR: So are you using custom strings for these tunings?
“I actually spoke to Roger a bit about that and he came up some possibilities but I’ve just been using D’Addario EJ37 12-56
That’s what I was using on the Taylor and I saw no reason to change them. They seem to be able to deal with my tunings and playing style really well and, with the guitar being built and setup with these strings in mind, and knowing what they have to do, there’s been no problems with it – touch wood I’ve only ever broken a string once and that was right at the start!”
AR: And then you took this guitar into the studio and recorded the new album, as it says in the liner notes, ‘live, with no overdubs or edits’?
“Yes – all live performances, all one space, all one set of mics, all on this one guitar – I decided early on I wanted it to be like that – the whole concept of the record started with the label commissioning the guitar and, I suppose, I thought that’s the entire point of this project – the guitar and the space, those two things, a guitar in a room, so I just wanted it to sound like that – in order to show off an instrument that is the way to do it isn’t it?
We went into the wood room at Real World Studios which is a really nice acoustic space, and in a way it was incredibly simple to make but it was challenging as well, because there’s nowhere to hide – it was just a guitar in a room.”
AR: Was that focus on the instrument and your playing quite intense then?
“Yeah it was – I don’t know about you but I don’t really enjoy listening to myself play and the only time I do listen to myself is when I’m working on an album. On previous albums I’ve had other instruments to distract me but on this I didn’t have that, so I just had to accept that I’d be listening to myself play guitar for two days
The only other person working on this album was my brother, who engineered, so I said to him before we started that I’d just do a few takes of each song and pick the best – it wasn’t a case of ‘these are the definitive versions of these compositions’ – it’s just a case of ‘we’re capturing this moment’ which is a really good way to take the pressure and enjoy the music.”
AR: So now you’re taking the album out on the road, how are you amplifying the guitar?
“My preference is to just use a microphone, straight to the PA – so in places with really good sound systems and good acoustic spaces I use a mic and I much prefer that sound – when you’re in a good space, with a nice mic and a sound person who cares it’s the simplest setup in the world – I can just turn up and have a chair, I don’t need anything else.
Sometimes it’s not possible or practical to do that so I’ve got a Seymour Duncan Woody soundhole pickup that’s really simple to use and I’ll use both, the mic and the Woody, but I always try and get the mic to be the dominant sound if I can.
For these in-store gigs you get some of the natural sound of the guitar but I didn’t want it to be too quiet, so I have a Fishman Loud Box Mini amp and I’m using the pickup into the amp and it’s been ok – it’s not my favourite sound in the world but it works.”
AR: You’ve not been tempted to go down the multi-source pickup route?
“I’ve looked into it but never gone for it – because I know people who have and I’ve heard them play and it still hasn’t solved a lot of the problems I hear with pickups and, also, if you start on that route where does it stop? You’re always going to be getting more gear and going round and round in circles trying to get back to the sound when you have no gear!
I was looking into various little mixers and preamps but the main thing I want is still a mic into a PA so why spend all that money on gear when I’ll probably only be using it 10% of the time?
This probably isn’t what you need for your website, me just dissing gear!”
AR: Ha, well it’s a touchy subject plugged in tone!
“I think for 12 strings it’s even worse, I feel like trying to get pickups to translate what a 12 string does is very difficult – they never seem to get the right ratio between the pairs – something’s always too loud or too quiet.
A 12 string doesn’t really have a focussed sound, it’s more like a piano, but on a six string it’s more focussed, there are pickups which I think can capture the 6 string sound, but no-one’s built anything that’s specifically trying to capture the 12 string sound.
What I do quite like is when people intentionally mess with the sound, like running it through a great valve amp – a lot of those guys like Ryley Walker do it – he’s not playing that game of trying to get a perfect acoustic sound, he’s going for the sound of an acoustic through an amp and I like that – it’s a good sound, but it’s not necessarily the sound I want for my music right now – so ideal scenario for me right now is guitar, mic, done!”
AR: Which, I guess, is in keeping with the concept of the album as well – so where can people buy the album and find out where you’re touring?
“I’ll be playing shows all through next year – I’m touring in February and March and I’ll be playing at festivals next summer – and the record came out on the first of November so it’s already available online and in stores as well, places like Drift, Friendly and Spillers where I’ve played recently – try and support local record stores!”
More information on Toby Hay can be found at www.tobyhay.com. Toby’s Fylde ‘Red Kite’ 12 String is a 12-fret Magician body size, with Macassar Ebony back and sides and and Engelmann Spruce – more information on Fylde Guitars at www.fyldeguitars.com.