British guitarist Pete Farrugia talks about Peter Green, Deacon Jones, Excello's legends, and Brit pub rock

"When playing Blues I connect to my innermost emotions, and I draw upon many life experiences both happy and sad, in a way that simply doesn’t happen with any other genre or style of music."

Pete Farrugia: Sir Warm Overdrive

Pete Farrugia is a professional, full-time teacher of the guitar, bass guitar and ukulele, based in Carshalton, Surrey, UK. Pete has been playing the guitar since 1972, and teaching since 1978. A member of the Registry of Guitar Tutors, Pete is a qualified, reliable, experienced, friendly professional full-time teacher, offering coaching for graded exams, or (of course) just for fun! Pete is CRB checked, and has many years of experience in teaching all ages and all levels. Current students range in age from 4 to 77. As a musician, Pete is versatile and knowledgeable about many different genres and styles.

He has had a long career as a gigging and recording musician, in styles such as Blues, R'n'B, Soul, Rock'n'Roll, Country, Indie Rock, Psychedelia and Minimalist No-Wave. Pete also offers lessons online to students worldwide, via Skype. Pete has played with Danielle Dax, The Fast Set, The Alleycats, Martin Kitcher Band, Shout Sister Shout, The Third Eye, Earl Gaines, Al Garner, Chick Willis, Deacon Jones, Taka Boom, Paul Lamb, Ruby Turner and many other internationally acclaimed artists.

In 2002, Pete formed Breakout Blues with old friend Chad Strentz on lead vocals and second guitar, together with Paul Atkinson on drums and Fox on bass. From 1997 to 2001, Pete was a founder-member of Mo'Indigo, a successful British Blues band.Pete spent most of the 1990s with Bluer Than Blue, the forerunner to Mo'Indigo. An R&B band which released the album Through The Storm, gigged extensively, and opened the show for the likes of Peter Green's Splinter Group, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Sherman Robertson. Pete's main band today is Chad Strentz & The Chad-illacs. Chad is well known from many years of work with Paul Lamb & the Kingsnakes. Pete also currently plays with John Stapleton's Rhythm n' Blues Party, a good-time Blues, Boogie Woogie and Jump-Jive band. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues and what does the Blues mean to you?

I was introduced to the Blues at the age of 12. I started going to my local youth club every Tuesday evening for guitar lessons, and as all of us in the class were beginners, the teacher taught us very simple folk songs. One particular evening a new teacher took the class over. He asked me “Do you know any Blues?” I was very young and very naive, and I replied “no, what is that?” This new teacher then played and sang a Blues that he had written himself. I was moved by the sudden realization that he was singing about his own experiences and emotions, and that every note and stroke of the pick came from a very deep place. He wrote down a chord chart for me of the 12-bar Blues in the key of E, with a beautiful chord turnaround. From that evening, I knew that this truthful, heartfelt music would be important to me for the rest of my life. To this day, when playing Blues I connect to my innermost emotions, and I draw upon many life experiences both happy and sad, in a way that simply doesn’t happen with any other genre or style of music.

How do you describe Pete Farrugia sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I try to make sure that whatever I play serves the purposes of the song, and I like the sound that extended chords, with somewhat of a Jazz influence, can add to Blues playing. I prefer my guitar sound to be relatively clean, but with an edge, so I use the minimum of distortion. I prefer the natural, warm overdrive that I get when a valve amp is turned up nice and loud, but it needs to be used sparingly, otherwise the subtleties of chord voicings get lost, and soloing loses its dynamic range.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I have fond memories of when my two sons were very young, and my delight at watching them learn new things every day. I regret that I couldn’t see as much of them as I wanted to, because it was the time of yet another economic recession, so I had to work very long hours, often not seeing them at all during daylight hours until the weekend. Naturally, experiences like this informed my music.

The best moment of my career was when I played with a Blues band, and we supported Peter Green’s Splinter Group. I have to emphasize that Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac were a big inspiration to me as a Blues guitarist, and like all of his fans I was so happy to see him back on stage after a long absence. Normally, the main act have little or nothing to do with the openers, but on this occasion I was playing a solo in a slow Blues, and Peter Green came up from his dressing room to stand in the wings and watch. I didn’t know this at a time, but a friend of ours was also in the wings, and heard Peter say “that guy can play”. To receive such an accolade from one of your main inspirations was very special to me.

I can remember two bad moments, both concerned with the deaths of friends and former band colleagues. I was very close to Steve Maidens, a guitarist I met when we were both in our teens. We soon formed the first of several bands together, and shared a lot of fun times both playing in our own bands, and watching some great bands on the London pub circuit. Steve tragically died very young, in a road accident. Also, I have very fond memories of Les Walker, a superb singer who I was privileged to work with. Les also died before his time of a serious illness. It saddens me that I will never be able to play with Steve or Les again, nor to share their company and reminisce about old times.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Blues fans are loyal because the music touches them, either lyrically or rhythmically, or both. Some empathize with the emotions that inspired the songwriters and performers, others respond to the infectious beats. Blues remains mostly unaffected by passing fashions. During a “Blues boom”, it reaches a level of popularity by growing organically from the streets, and it has very little to do with corporations or “the industry”. While it can excite young people, Blues is really adult music, dealing with adult themes, and most people are adults for a much longer time than they are children.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

In 1979 I met a poet, singer and lyricist called Marc Sebastian-Jones in the legendary Marquee Club, where Robert Fripp was playing. Marc introduced me to David Knight, an electronic music genius. The three of us went on to form The Fast Set, the band with which I had my earliest taste of success in the music business. David then introduced me to Danielle Dax, who hired me to play on some of her most successful releases.

I used to see a Rhythm’n’Blues band called Southside as often as I could in my late teens, and their guitar player was Jimmy Roche. I learned a lot by watching him play and also by talking to him. It was Jimmy who told me which records to listen to, such as “Live At The Regal” by B.B. King.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I was lucky enough to be hired as guitarist for a short UK tour by Deacon Jones, a Blues organist from California. Deacon doesn’t sing, so he invited Taka Boom to sing on the tour. We had a rehearsal at a studio in East London, and when Taka sang her powerful, amazing voice affected me so much I got shivers down my spine and my knees felt weak!

My most memorable gig (and there have been many) was with Shout Sister Shout at the Lugano Jazz and Blues Festival in 1990. Our singer Chad Strentz (who I am still working with today) had mislaid his passport, and missed the flight to Switzerland. We were on stage ready to start the show, and the rest of the band had elected me to take over lead vocals, to cover for Chad’s absence. It was a big open-air show with a large crowd. I was very nervous, as I had no idea whether I would remember the lyrics, or whether my voice would be able to sing in Chad’s keys. Five minutes before show-time, Chad suddenly appeared, having caught a later flight. Never have I been more relieved!

"I try to make sure that whatever I play serves the purposes of the song, and I like the sound that extended chords, with somewhat of a Jazz influence, can add to Blues playing." (Photo: Pete with The Chad-illacs)

Are there any memories from Earl Gaines, Chick Willis, and Al Garner which you’d like to share with us?

I did a tour of the UK and Europe with Earl and Al, and I enjoyed their musicianship and friendship very much. Both of them live in Nashville, one of my favourite cities to visit, and I was very happy to be able to spend some time with them at their homes, the year after the tour. We played many successful shows, ending with the 100 Club in London, and they remain some of my happiest memories of my career. However, the first day of the European leg of the tour coincided with the 9/11 tragedy in the USA. I remember our van and car arriving at the house of our promoter in Belgium, and he came out of his house in a state of distress, saying “terrible news from America! Where are the Americans?” He ushered us inside and we watched the horrifying events of that day unfold on his TV. We dedicated our performance later that evening to the victims and their families.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the “London pub rock” scene, where I learned my craft by watching world-class musicians playing their hearts out. I especially miss “Bob’s Goodtime Blues” at the Station Tavern, a West London pub which had free admission, a good band on every night, and two on Sundays! Chad and I played in Shout Sister Shout, and we played there every Friday night, always to a packed, very enthusiastic crowd.

Overall, the possibility of choosing music or entertainment as a viable career option has been declining for the past 20 years. This has been caused by too much cheap entertainment – digital TV, home video, computer games. The pub and club live music scene has declined, and the audience for live music has declined with it, and has also become lazy, often demanding tribute acts rather than original material. When I started playing semi-professionally, I was playing 4 nights a week, making very good money. Earnings from gigs have not kept up with inflation, so in real terms, local musicians earn far less now than they did in the 1970s and 1980s. Now that everybody can hear music free of charge using the Internet, it is impossible to make much of a profit from selling albums, and they have been reduced from works of art to a promotional tool for getting live work. This has led to a huge rise in ticket prices, so seeing world-famous bands and singers is now something most music fans can only afford to do a few times a year. Technology now makes it possible for anyone to produce music on a laptop, but that doesn’t mean that everyone that does so has talent, or any artistic vision.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would like the education and work of musicians to receive more respect, appreciation and support from governments at both local and national level. This is not a new situation, it existed even when I was at school, when music was seen as secondary to activities such as sport, religious studies and even Latin! Governments should support the activities of musicians as well as other artists much more than they currently do. For example, travelling musicians should be exempt from parking charges, and be able to park in disabled bays. It is now extremely difficult to transport heavy equipment to many of London’s most popular music venues. Some London streets are pedestrianized, and musicians have to park nearly a mile away and drag their amps to the venue on trolleys. We have always had to suffer to play the Blues, but this is too much!

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with through Deep Country Soul to Rockabilly music?

I could write a book about this! I’ll try to condense it, and I’ll also try not to get too technical. This can all be boiled down to one very important type of chord – the dominant seventh. The lines go back way further in history than the Blues. Historically, the legitimate use of the dominant seventh was as the fifth degree of the current key, with a strong affinity towards the first degree: an example is the G7 chord, which “wants” to be followed by a C chord. This makes the dominant seventh useful as the trigger chord for a key-change or modulation. Johann Sebastian Bach was a master of this compositional technique, taking advantage of the new keyboard technology of his time which made playing all 12 keys in tune on the same instrument possible for the first time. Bach wrote many hymn tunes for the church, using dominant seventh chords to initiate modulations. Many years later, these hymn tunes influenced the music of the Afro-American slaves, which when blended with African melodies and rhythms became the roots of Gospel, Blues and Jazz. Blues gives musicians permission to use the dominant seventh chord in places where previous forms of music did not.

As Muddy Waters once sang “the Blues has a baby, and they named it Rock’n’Roll”. Country music often uses similar harmonies and structures to Blues, the main difference being different instrumentation, such as pedal steel guitar instead of a horn section. As Blues developed from its 12-bar structures, it adopted more sophisticated harmonic ideas from Jazz, leading to Soul, Funk, and beyond.

"Blues fans are loyal because the music touches them, either lyrically or rhythmically, or both. Some empathize with the emotions that inspired the songwriters and performers, others respond to the infectious beats."

Make an account of the Blues in UK. What has made you laugh and what touched you from the local circuits?

Blues in the UK is currently in as healthy a state as it has been for several years. There are many bands, and some venues which had been closed have re-opened. Festivals are popular, as they are any easy way for fans to see several new bands on the same day. There are many websites, Facebook pages, and even printed magazines to keep Blues fans informed.

There have be several acts on the UK gig circuit that added a touch of humour to their shows. I remember laughing uproariously at Jackie Lynton’s off-colour lyrics, which I couldn’t possibly repeat here! I was also proud to be an occasional sideman for the legendary Rock’n’Roller, TV personality, and politician Screaming Lord Sutch. He headed a political organization called the Monster Raving Loony Party. The annual party conference was a pub gig, where we played Chuck Berry and Little Richard tunes to an enthusiastic, beery crowd!

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I am a big fan of recording studios, and I am disappointed by the current trend for recording at home on laptops. So many of the great recording studios have closed. I would like to go back in time to Chess studio in Chicago and sit in on a 1950s recording session, perhaps by Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Little Walter, Buddy Guy or Chuck Berry.

Pete Farrugia - official website

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