Q&A with Welsh virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist John James, plays through jazz, folk and blues forms with equal ease

"All instruments require a technique, the complexity or mastery of which is decided by the form of music played. The music I played on the acoustic guitar required a very comprehensive technique. Most jazz and classical guitar music can be equally demanding. In performance, though, it should appear effortless."

John James: Dewin Cymru ...Plays The Blues

John James is a Welsh virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist and songwriter. He is best known for his original instrumental compositions for the guitar as well as interpretations of blues, folk, ragtime, jazz and classical tunes. He first made a name for himself in the folk clubs of the UK around 1968, playing arrangements of old blues, jazz and ragtime tunes (by composers such as Scott Joplin, and Reverend Gary Davis); Critics dubbed him the "Welsh Ragtime Wizard". He recorded several albums for Transatlantic in the early 70s including a groundbreaking album of duets with fellow guitarist Pete Berryman called "Sky in My Pie". He also became the first guitarist in the UK to arrange and record the music of Scott Joplin. In the mid 1970s he was signed up by Kicking Mule records and in 1976 released an album of original fingerpicking guitar solos and duets called "Descriptive Guitar Instrumentals". This also featured fellow guitarists John Renbourn and Duck Baker. According to Stefan Grossman, James's compositions were written out in musical form without the aid of the guitar - this enabled him to develop original ideas without being limited by his existing guitar technique.

(John James on stage at Greenwich, U.K., 1982 / Photo by Tony Rees)

John James has recorded over 15 albums and toured extensively, playing with artists as diverse as Jools Holland, Ralph McTell, John Renbourn and Led Zeppelin (he played support at their debut gig at London’s Round House in the 60s!). He has performed at many prestigious venues including the Royal Albert Hall (London), the Paris Olympia, Edinburgh and Cambridge Folk Festivals etc. Apart from his recording and live work he has been influential in guitar education with compositions featuring in several guitar tuition books by Stefan Grossman (see "Bibliography" below). He was a columnist for "Guitar International" magazine and produced best-selling guitar tuition cassettes and videos. He has appeared on many UK radio and TV shows - including presenting a BBC TV series called “Broadsides".

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The music I played was largely performance based therefore I had to travel to find a stage. Musical influences came from the people I met. In the early 1970's on my first tours to Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, I met musicians from Argentina, Brazil, USA, themselves on a journey. The music they gave me shaped my performances.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

All instruments require a technique, the complexity or mastery of which is decided by the form of music played. The music I played on the acoustic guitar required a very comprehensive technique. Most jazz and classical guitar music can be equally demanding. In performance, though, it should appear effortless.

What moment changed your music life the most? Are there any specific memories or highlights of your career that you would like to tell us about?!

Having Album of the month in Melody Maker, Album of the Year in Acoustic News, making the first guitar video, recording Sky in My Pie album with Pete Berryman & Stefan Grossman, playing and touring with Happy Traum, then in 3-Space with Dick Heckstall-Smith.

"During the 1960's in the idioms of jazz, classical music & pop, there were many musicians treading new ground in North America and Europe as well as in Britain. Barriers were being pushed over...all over the place. When Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker changed the role of the drummer and bass player, the way was clear for others to follow." (Photos: John James with Happy Traum and John Renbourn)

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

These days an audience can make more noise than the band. Listening will soon be a forgotten skill.

Skiffle (Donegan), Jazz (Barber), Blues (Korner/C. Davis), … What were the reasons that made the UK in 60s to be the center of music researches and experiments?

During the 1960's in the idioms of jazz, classical music & pop, there were many musicians treading new ground in North America and Europe as well as in Britain.

Barriers were being pushed over...all over the place. When Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker changed the role of the drummer and bass player, the way was clear for others to follow.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

What people listen to today...they may not listen to tomorrow…

What touched you from the acoustic sound? Why do you think that acoustic music scene continues to generate such a devoted following?

I started performing, aged 14, playing at dances, in an amplified, such as it was then, beat group. The acoustic music scene of classical/folk/blues guitar offered an intimacy of performance and musical appreciation I found appealing.

John James - Home

(Photos: John James)

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