Jon Gomm is noted in acoustic guitar circles for his skill, imagination and dexterity in extending the sounds he can create with an acoustic guitar. As well as playing the strings in the conventional manner, Jon’s sound palette extends to mimic a variety of additional instruments, most popularly a selection of percussion sounds used by tapping and striking the guitar body and neck in a variety of ways.
Jon is emerging from a hectic and difficult time in his personal life – he and his wife have given birth to a daughter who is now four, he has lost his stepfather and two close friends, one in traumatic circumstances, and moved house twice in one year. Such physical and emotional upheaval has directed the composition of his latest album, and he discusses creative process with Andy Hughes.
It’s already established beyond doubt that you can play an acoustic guitar, you certainly don’t need to release another album in order to prove that to anyone, but your career shows a desire to break through the standard parameters of acoustic guitar technique, so was your intention with this new collection of songs to explore the outer limits of the instrument?
I love inventing new techniques, and finding things that no-one has done before. I’m not saying I have invented an entirely new way of playing, or that I will in the future, it can be something really small, like borrowing an existing technique and simply using it in a different musical context. There’s no doubt that the techniques used to produce this album are more technically complex than anything I have used up to now. The song Until The Sun Destroys The Earthstarts off with some acoustic chords strumming, and then a guitar solo comes in. The few people I have played it to are convinced that it’s two guitars, one over-dubbed, and the video may surprise people who have listened to it first and then seen me play it on one guitar. I’m not the first person who has done that, but it was fun to stumble on it when I was working out the song arrangement.
It must be really exciting to come across these new ideas for making sounds to increase the impact of your songs.
I remember an idea for Afterglow, when I just rubbed the guitar body with my hand and it got a sound like a jazz drummer using brushes on a snare drum. I may not be the first person ever to do that, but that’s not important, it’s that moment when I discover it for a song I am writing that is exciting. I clearly remember inventing the pentatonic scale! I know I did; I was figuring out a blues song, and I hit upon this new scale and I wrote out the first pentatonic scale. Of course, I found out later that it’s one of the first things you learn when you go for lessons in how to play a guitar, but I was actually convinced that I had discovered it first. What I then realised then was that what I thought was a moment of invention, was actually just a moment of discovery. Something like that is really exciting because it was new to me, and that applies to any musician finding out something that is brand new to their personal experience. It’s like finding the solution to a maths problem that’s been bugging you, and suddenly you see the answer. That’s so exciting and so satisfying. I tried with this new album to explore some more new sounds, some percussive guitar sounds, and some synthesiser and audio processing. Again, I’m not aware if it has been done before, I was looking for the sort of sound you might get if Bjork or Imogen Heap made an acoustic album.
That brings us to talking about Andy Sorenson, your collaborator and producer on this new record – how did you come to work with him?
I’ve known Andy for a long time. He contacted me after a friend of his sent him my Passionflower video at the end of 2011, before it went viral, and he thought he had found a musical soulmate. Andy was living in the middle of a rainforest in Australia at the time, and his wife had been out walking and she came home when he was watching the Passionflower video and told him she had found a gorgeous flower out in the forest and he went with her to find it, and it turned out to be a passionflower, so they thought this was a ‘sign’ and he got in touch, and we organised an Australian tour. I’m not sure why I haven’t worked with him before on making a record, maybe the time just wasn’t right, but it was an amazing experience. He is a good friend and a fantastic musician and when the album was finished, it felt like, why haven’t I always been making music like this?
Let’s go back, what was your first experience playing an acoustic instrument?
I had a ukulele as a child and my first guitar was a small-scale Yamaha classical guitar which I traded in for my first proper classical instrument. My uncle bought me a flamenco guitar from Spain which cost about a fiver, and it was absolutely gorgeous, it had flowers inlaid into the headstock, it was wonderful, and it came with two books of Beatles’ lyrics in Spanish, I’ve still got those. After that I got a steel string acoustic and an electric Marlin Slammer which was awful, it was a red Stratocaster copy. I am quite good at lettering, so I sanded down the neck and painted a Fender logo onto it. I was really into electric guitar then, and I loved shredding, so I wanted an Ibanez Gem because Steve Vai played one, but I couldn’t afford it, so I got a Washburn and a separate Ibanez neck and I grafted the Ibanez neck on to the Washburn body, and that was my guitar for years. I wish I still had it, but I had to sell it because I needed the money.
What about the guitars you used for the new album?
Mostly I recorded using a prototype of a new model which I am designing with Ibanez. It is designed specifically with modern fingerstyle techniques in mind. There was a revolution in the early nineteen-nineties in electric guitar design, specific designs were created to produce specific sounds and to accommodate modern techniques, and that didn’t really happen on the acoustic side, with the exception of the boutique designs by individual luthiers. It’s been the boutique luthiers that have developed modern designs, changing scale length and bracing patterns and materials. All my peers play boutique instruments, and I wanted to create a guitar that can be made available through standard dealerships and high street outlets that includes a lot of the advances made by the boutique luthiers, and hopefully that is what we have achieved.
Was it easy to convey what you wanted in the design?
It didn’t really work like that, because I am not a luthier, so I wouldn’t think of trying to talk their language. I would tell them what I want the guitar to do, and what I want to be able to do with the guitar, and the sounds I want it to make. I would offer suggestions about things I have seen – this scale is good, these frets are great, this body shape is good for my percussion techniques. When you first look at the guitar, it looks like a standard design, but when you look closer, you can start to see the differences in it. I did use my old Loudon on a couple of songs on the new album, because the arrangement involved scratching on the body and I wasn’t about to start scratching the body of a brand-new prototype! I can hear the difference, but in the final album production, Andy has made my acoustic sound like an electric here and there, so it’s not hard to get two acoustics to sound similar.
Did you use any effects on the album?
Almost none, the occasional Boss oc3 pedal for a sub-octave sound. Andy created all his own effects; he would spend an entire day creating a particular reverb sound he wanted, and use it for one chord in one song. I would record something using my pedal, and Andy would come up with something similar, but he always wanted to create his own sounds, he never wanted to use my pedal.
Are you studio savvy – mixing and so on?
I produced the Don’t Panic album on my own, but for me, I get the syndrome a painter gets when he looks at his own painting and can’t tell when it’s actually finished. I could keep adding this or that, and never leave it alone. It’s much easier with someone else’s music than your own. I found with Andy, he was worried about going too far and ‘breaking’ my music, but I told him to be as creative as he liked with the sounds, the only rule was, no additional sound that made it sound like anything other than a solo album. What I got was my guitar and my voice, but it was like playing in a virtual crystal chamber with ethereal sounds that would never have happened without his production. He didn’t add to the music, but he did enhance it, and we always had the image of me playing in a room, and the reminder that I am going to want to be able to reproduce the songs on stage.
All the albums you have made have been a progression – is there always going to be a way to move forward with each successive record you make?
It’s interesting – lots of artists regress back to their beginnings, like The Stones did with their blues album, lots of people do that. At the core of things, I don’t think I have changed or progressed that much, not in terms of the music anyway, but certainly in terms of the reasons that I make the music in the first place. I can play pretty much any style of guitar-based music that there is, albeit not necessarily authentically. I don’t really come from any specific musical background, I was obsessed with blues, but I went through many phases and I pick up bits and pieces and add them in to what I do. I don’t really have a strong sense of a personal musical identity, which has advantages and disadvantages. It gives me a range to work on when I come to arrange a song, but in the end, it is always going to be me and a guitar, that is always going to stay the same.
What about any tips on your tapping techniques?
Well, you can always look at the instructional videos on my website! The most important piece of advice about tapping is, it’s not difficult, it looks really hard, but in fact it’s not as hard as it looks. There are some songs where it is just one finger and one thumb from each hand – if you use an open tuning, then pounding the strings will sound ok. Sometimes it is intricate, and sometimes not, but the rule is, don’t be put off, give it a try and see what works for you. I had an interesting example of that advice – two guys came to me together for a lesson, they couldn’t afford a lesson each, so they split it and came together for a lesson. One guy was quite experienced, and the other guy was quite new, and the new guy picked up tapping far quicker than the experienced player. I think it was because he had no preconceived ideas of how to hold a guitar, or exactly how it should or should not be played. Give a small child a guitar, and the first thing they will do is pound it with their hands to find a sound that they like – its instinctive, so go with your instincts, and see what happens.
Are you looking forward to your planed tour dates?
I love playing in the UK, I always have. It’s just normal life to me, packing my gear up and going off somewhere and playing some gigs. I know the tickets are on sale, I don’t know if people are buying them, I haven’t had the courage to look yet! If we have to do social distancing, that’s fine, we’ll do that, and if we have to move to bigger venues because one or more sell out, then that’s fine we will do that. I will do anything because I am just desperate to get out and play. I don’t feel like I exist if I am not doing that.
Interview by Acoustic Review – Andy Hughes