MGS ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: NICK CHARLES
Nick Charles is often described as Australia’s virtuoso of acoustic roots and blues. While true, it hardly begins to explain Nick’s musical accomplishments over almost three decades including touring with BB King, Taj Mahal, Ralph McTell, Guy Clarke and more, winning numerous awards both here and overseas, his signing to prestigious American acoustic guitar label, Solid Air, and his involvement in around 20 recordings, many of those his own world class solo albums. Next month he’ll release another, ‘The River Flows’ but before that you can catch Nick Charles and his dexterous fingerpicking at the Melbourne Guitar Show. Ahead of the guitar show, Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips had a chat with Nick about his guitars, recording guitar and the guitar show.
Growing up, when was first time you recall noticing guitar playing as opposed to just liking a song or an album?
Gee, I reckon I noticed guitar when I was really young as a Beatles fanatic. I focussed on the guitars then because I was a big George Harrison fan. I didn’t disassociate anyone from the guitars from the word go. The first time I saw a guitar I wanted was on television. It was an early film of Trini Lopez playing guitar. I was a little kid.
Did you have guitar lessons or were you self taught?
I had some initial lessons, way back for maybe a year or so. Over the years, I have been fairly studious. At various points I have had periods of tuition. Essentially I have accumulated knowledge myself, some jazz lessons classical lessons but nothing substantial.
When you were learning guitar, do you recall a pivotal moment when you thought wow, I can do that now or play that song now?
Yeah I do. I remember jamming with guys at high school and suddenly playing lead and I stunned myself because I didn’t think it was possible. I then proceeded to play for the rest of the day because I couldn’t stop. That was a huge moment. I think with fingerstyle, which is my thing, you don’t really remember the transitions, you are aware that you can play something that at one point you couldn’t. You don’t suddenly click on, it’s an accumulation, gradually sliding into something.
When did you start using a thumb pick?
A long time ago. I was aware that thumb picks were used by the early blues and country players. I played finger style with plectrum and fingers originally. Then I noticed a guy in the folk club using one and I asked him if he made it himself, I didn’t know you could get such things. I have been playing guitar since 1970 and I reckon I got into thumb picks a few years later. I played a bit of lap guitar too, Hawaiian style using thumb picks.
Some guitarists see their instrument as just a tool to project their music, others treat their guitar like their best friend? Where do you sit?
I see it as a tool for music projection really. I don’t have a huge attachment to instruments like I used to. I am not accumulating vintage instruments like some people. I see them as a means to produce music. My whole thing is projecting a good warm tone and if that is happening, I’m happy.
What are your main guitars?
I have a number of Custom Shop Matons which Andy Allen has made for me. He’s currently finishing a mahogany triple 0 instrument for me. That shape, I have been using for a couple of years now. They’re great fingerstyle guitars … small bodied. The new one I am very excited about, we’ve spent a lot of time planning it. It’s mahogany OM with a retro sunburst, ebony fretboard. I have been involved with Maton for a few years now and the custom shop is producing some great instruments.
When did you start using the smaller bodied guitars?
I have had a few phases. During the 90s I used small body American guitars and then I went to dreadnoughts for nearly ten years. I still use dreadnoughts for some things, when I flatpick and play bluegrass I still use them. I found that the smaller bodies were of great assistance in the studio and I ended up using them on stage as well. They record really well.
How do you like to record your guitars?
No line signals. I like large diaphragm condensors. I prefer Neumann mics. I like a bit of room ambience. It’s really all about mic placement and a good live room for acoustic guitars. Don’t like much outboard effect. It’s up to a good engineer with good ears too. I’m an old school sound person. My favourite guitar sounds are Norman Blake and Doc Watson, pure sounds. I don’t like effected sounds but having said that I use a digital reverb on stage to create some ambience.
Touring with BB King, Taj Mahal, Ralph McTell, Guy Clarke, what you learn from being in presence of those guys?
You pick up their stage craft. I remember seeing a three guitar show with Leo Kottke, Joe Pass, Paco Pena and the thing that struck me was their complete focus. Even though they were playing to an audience, they were playing like there was nobody there. The focus and intensity was something I picked up. You pick up things like patter and stage presentation.
What would you consider to be your biggest break?
Getting signed to my American label, Solid Air. That was a big moment in my musical life, it’s the premiere acoustic guitar label in the world. But having said that, my arrangement of Stand By Me for the album, The celebration of the songs of Leiber and Stoller, was transcribed in Acoustic Guitar magazine. That was a huge moment for me because that’s been my guitar bible for decades. So having my music transcribed and printed in that was a big moment. It corresponds with getting contacted by people around the world wanting to know how you’re playing etc. Still looking for the super big break though!
The River Flows is the new album you’re working on. Where are you at with that release?
I’m in the mastering process at the moment. I have been a bit fussy with sound and gone back and forwards a bit. The longer I record, the more difficult I find it strangely enough. I am getting more and more fussy, constantly searching for a better sound. It’s probably about a month away by the time it’s manufactured.
What can you tell me about it?
Compared to some of my recordings, it’s more about songs and fewer instrumentals. There’s only one solo finger picker on there, a tune called Victory Rag. There are some ensemble pieces. There’s one extended piece that’s a little bit reminiscent of the Allman Brothers’ Jessica, which people might find interesting. I haven’t recorded an extended piece for a long time.
Have you played Melbourne Guitar Shows before?
I did some of the early ones at the Town Hall. They’re a great thing. I am so glad that it’s back. The music scene really needs this kind of impetus, it’s great to see.
What can we expect from you at the Melbourne Guitar Show?
I will be playing some of my new material and a cross section of my recordings. I always do a few familiar tunes and a lot of original stuff. There’s a repertoire of tunes people expect of me but also room for some surprises. I’ll be playing a 6 string, 12 string and slide guitar as well. Looking forward to it, should be a lot of fun.
What’s on for the rest of year? Any international tours?
Next year will be a big year for international stuff. I’ll do the US and New Zealand but this year, I’m going around Australia doing festivals, lots of travelling and recording.
Nick Charles plays the Acoustic Stage at the Melbourne Guitar Show on Sunday August 9 at 2.30pm