Steve Hackett is one of the most versatile guitarists in the world, having written and recorded group and solo albums in a career spanning over fifty years.
His latest acoustic album, Under A Mediterranean Sky, accompanied by orchestral arrangements, has just been released, and Steve talked to Andy Hughes about his influences, techniques, and ‘squeaky’ strings.
You have mastered a variety of technical skills as a guitarist in your career, do you always look for new techniques to master, or are you content to stay within the skills you have learned?
Lots of guitarists play outside their technical limits, and then strive to catch up to where they want to be. There is no limit to the speed and complexity you can bring to playing an instrument, and some people stay in that race throughout their entire lives. For me proficiency is an important part of the story, but that’s not the same thing. If you are relentlessly showing people how technically skilled you are, you are going to do that at the expense of melody, and to me, melody is king. Having said that, you need to space those melodies out if you have a long-form instrumental piece. You don’t have the benefit of a vocal chorus, but you have can regular returns to the main melody. It’s a combination of technique and soul really. It can be very wearing for the listener if you are constantly blinding people with technique for the length of an entire record, it ends up just being a succession of circus skills. The model I always look for in writing music is the great composers like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, where they assume that players have the ability to move quickly around the technical aspects, so they contrast the muscle power with great melodies, and that’s the key to their success. Bach was the same, and I’ve recorded a lot of Bach’s music, and I always find that it’s the strength of the melodies that carry the music.
How do you know when a piece is finished, when it’s time to stop refining and move into the studio with it?
Sting said you never finish an album, you just run out of ideas, and when you run out of ideas, that’s the length of the song or the piece of music you are writing. You can write something that’s twenty minutes long, and I have done that plenty of times with Genesis, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong in writing something that is finished and complete in two minutes. Jimmy Webb was an absolute master at that, Paul McCartney still is – he summed up a complete life in slightly over two minutes with Eleanor Rigby. I have no idea how he did that, but it’s there. The later Beatles songs were an inspiration because they were not afraid to put their instruments down and let the orchestra take it forward. On my latest album, I was happy to let the guitar lead or follow and the orchestra do some of the work of carrying the piece, and I could be a fan of that part of it because I didn’t create that myself.
A lot of the album, the first track especially, sounds like it could be film score music, the theme for the next James Bond film.
Thanks for recommending me for the next Bond theme, I’ll see if I can knock it off next Thursday! I do like musical landscape pieces, which was the idea behind the album, musical impressions of places I had seen. I was inspired by my father who was a painter and painted many landscapes of the places he had visited. I wanted to do the same with music, create a mood and an impression, and let the music carry you there. While we are all so restricted, that may have unintentionally come along at the right time.
What guitars did you use to record your new album?
Mainly it was the same acoustic I have been using for a very long time now. It’s a Ramirez copy which I bought in Japan when we were touring The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway with Genesis. It looks like a Ramirez but it’s much louder when you play it, it is still the loudest nylon-string acoustic guitar I have heard. There is also an oud, which is an Arabian instrument similar to a fretless lute, so you can bend notes with it. I also used a Charango which is a South American instrument which is a bit like a mandolin crossed with a bouzouki. I used a Yairi as well, Japanese guitars and they do a nice cutaway design that works well on stage. I am really pleased with the acoustic sound on this album, I think it’s the best acoustic sound we have ever managed to record. I used an AKG414 microphone, I’ve used them for years because I think they have the best pick-up qualities for the acoustic. I recorded a lot of the material in my front room which has a wooden floor, and we used a carpet to take the edge of the sound, make it less spikey in the upper register. We put reverb on sometimes and varied that to give an impression of being ‘closer’ or ‘further away’ with the sound. Sometimes some echo, sometimes even we’d drench the acoustic sound in echo, and other times have it sounding completely dry, whatever the atmosphere of a particular piece needed. I am really pleased with the overall sound of the acoustic guitar on the album.
How do you avoid ‘squeaky’ strings when you play?
I know that a lot of people don’t like the squeaky sound that is created by the skin or the fingernail of the guitarist sliding down one or more strings, so I did try very hard to avoid it on the new album. I used positions that meant I slide only down the top string and not the lower strings, and that reduces the instances of squeaking. In some instances, you can get round it by dropping in the note you arrive it into the recording at the production stage, and that cuts out squeaks as well. Some people do think it’s a true part of the performance, each to their own, I think. If you play harder with your right hand you can cut down some of the squeaks, but you have to really lay into the strings and that’s not always easy to do with some complicated pieces. On stage you can use some talcum powder which absorbs some of the dampness on the hands and that helps. Light gauge strings also squeak less, it’s funny because I always thought that flamenco guitarists must used heavy gauge strings because they hit so hard and the strings take such a lot of punishment, but most of them use light gauge to allow for the dexterity, and they squeak less when you slide on them.
What’s your view on formal lessons as judged against self-teaching?
I was a huge fan of Segovia growing up and I was amazed when I found that he was self-taught as a musician. When I started, I taught myself because it was an alternative to formal music lessons at school and being graded by my teachers. My attitude was that I had freedom, no-one was telling me what to do and tell me I must do this and I can’t do that, and generally ruin my enjoyment of this fabulous experience called music. I don’t think there is anything wrong at all with having lessons for an instrument, if it suits you as an individual. My brother plays virtuoso flute and he had lessons and learned to play correctly and formally growing up. I think as I say, it depends on the person involved. For me, every guitarist I heard or saw play was a teacher to me because I would always learn something from that experience. I would always ask someone if I didn’t understand something, and that was my way of learning I found my own way and that worked for me.
I interviewed you years ago on your first solo tour, and I remember clearly that you told me that playing acoustic well was the equivalent of an artist who not only paints, but can draw properly as well. Do you still think that’s true?
I do, yes. I think it’s hard to play stunningly well on an acoustic guitar. With an electric, you have the thunder god of electricity behind you, and quite often you are playing on a single line. With an acoustic, you are playing harmony and bass lines at the same time as playing a melody, it is a lot more complicated. The secret to good acoustic playing is to be relaxed, fluent playing comes if you are properly relaxed as you play. When you play electric guitar during a concert and then you stop and pick up an acoustic, suddenly the weight of expectation is all on you, in a different way than it was when you were playing the electric. Duff notes are far more noticeable on an acoustic there is no hiding place with the instrument, and you have to make sure you have your nerves under control otherwise a wrong note will throw you completely and you can end up losing it and freezing, which is dreadful. The way to get around that is to play for yourself, the way you did when you were learning and rehearsing on your own, in your room at home. There, you play for yourself and that’s the mind-set to get into if you play for an audience, don’t think about them, think about yourself and what you are doing, and the nerves will settle, especially with more experience. Find that elusive sweet spot and relax into it, and you will start to enjoy yourself and your playing, and the nerves will be under your control.
Do you have any specific practice routines?
I always try to play something I haven’t played before, which kills two birds with one stone because you can be writing and trying out ideas and seeing what develops, as well as trying new technical aspects to your playing which always adds to your skill set. I have never, ever sat down and gone through scales as part of a practice routine. I know there are people reading this who will shout ‘Heresy!’ at their screens, but as I have said about lessons, I’m a great believer in what works for the individual. If you are doing something you really don’t enjoy, then it’s going to detract from the pleasure of playing, and you are unlikely to actually take away anything useful from it. If I have a scale as part of a piece, I will practice that until I have it smoothly, but that applies to any aspect of any piece. I believe I have jumped through my own hoops in learning to play the acoustic guitar, you can try learning to play Bach, that will always separate the players from the chancers believe me.
Are you planning to release any more acoustic-based albums?
Well, I don’t have anything planned out or scheduled, just a rough plan that I will release an acoustic album every few years when I feel it feels right and I have some material ready. I am not in the business of competing with the pop charts, I can pretty much do what I want which is wonderful. It’s not rock and roll, but I like it!