r o b i n   s o m e s   .   b i o

Who's the best guitarist? Who's your favourite guitarist? Two questions to strike fear into the heart. I admire the work of many guitarists, famous and obscure; specifically, I admire people who do things I can't, in ways no-one else ever thought of. John Renbourn, Isaac Guillory, Jackie Leven, Bert Jansch, Tony McManus, Pierre Bensusan, Stephen Stills, Nick Harper, Michael Hedges, Antonio Forcione and Martin Carthy fit in to that niche, as do Duck Baker, Leo Kottke, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, Roy Buchanan and Keith Richards. The Australian Jeff Lang deserves a mention too, for the breadth of his different styles, and the strength of his live performances - as does Josh Cunningham of The Waifs. But then again, the likes of Robin Williamson, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Big Bill Broonzy and John Fahey (some of the time), while not technically the most gifted, can still transport me.

Perhaps it's easier to ask whom I appreciate the least? Hair metal. Guitarists who need to fit in 50 notes a second on an augmented Phrygian scale, getting from the bottom to the top of the fretboard in as short a time as possible. Mmmm. Awesome precision, but if it's lacking taste or emotion, it really doesn't do it for Robin. On the acoustic guitar, Michael Hedges clones. Again, awesome, but it's nothing new, nothing original; Mr Hedges got there first. In other words, awesome, on its own, is not quite good enough.

What Roy Buchanan's video demonstrates, to me at least, is that technique is everything. A load of hair, grimacing a lot, dressing in leather and makeup, jumping around, or playing through an entire rack of effects. These are all sideshows. Most of my very favourite guitarists, whether acoustic or electric, if you simply looked at their faces and expressions, you wouldn't know they were playing at all. Technique. It's all that matters. Well, that and taste.

So, who is the best? Well, in terms of sheer technique, I think it has to be Tony McManus, with Pierre Bensusan an extremely close second. Their accuracy, their tone, the clean-ness of their sound, are jaw-dropping. But overall, my very favourite is John Renbourn. There is something about the delicacy of his playing, the way he can bend a note and introduce vibrato at the same time, that is transcendent. Listen to the passage from about 2:54 to 2:58 in "The South Wind", from his 1998 CD Travellers' Prayer, and hopefully you'll see what I mean. That, and the fact that after nearly 50 years, he's still out there doing it, mean as far as I'm concerned, John's The Man.

The story so far...
It all started a long time ago. Jethro Tull. Black Sabbath. The Stranglers. Motorhead. Saxon. The Scorpions. Krokus. Sammy Hagar. A little later, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Grateful Dead, CSNY, Jefferson Airplane, Hawkwind, Gong, Daevid Allen, and all kinds of hippy stuff. After the early flirtations with heavy metal, I fell in to a variety of short-lived and utterly unsuccessful bands - Sold To The Highest Buddha, to name just one - doing rock and blues covers, in the late 80s, as well as sitting in with bands on the blues harmonica. One of the acts I played for a couple of times on the harmonica was Carl 'Sonny' Leyland, one of the most awesome musicians I know, and who continues to go from strength; long may he do so!

Later, I sidled into and out of Destiny, a 1960's cover band, shortly before they became famous, relatively speaking. I had wanted to call the band "Devil in Disguise", after the J.J. Cale song, but since their practice venue was in Hythe Church Hall, it was deemed unsuitable. Before we parted ways, we played one gig; it happened in the office of the Halifax Building Society in Hythe, in December 1987; we played 'Apache' 8 times, and only got an audience at all (of 3 or 4 at a time - as many as could fit into the office) because it was raining outside. No-one was killed, at least - which is more than can be said for a later solo gig entertaining (another relative term) old folks in the local sheltered accommodation.

Around then, I started to develop more my interest in the acoustic guitar, folk/blues and instrumental music, and absorbing the likes of John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Michael Hedges, Martin Carthy and Pierre Bensusan, with the Americana of the Grateful Dead's quieter work, as a contrast to the cacophony of their louder stuff.

As well as solo performances round the folk clubs and pubs of the area, another variety of short-lived and utterly unsuccessful folk bands followed; Butt What? and Shanachie, playing Irish and American folk to, and with, IRA sympathisers, transvestites and winos in the arse end of Southampton; Ernie Ball's Regular Slinkies, in a few pubs in New Milton and Christchurch; On The Fiddle and Estimated Prophet, back in the dives in Southampton.

Aside from the acoustic stuff, around then I also played rhythm guitar in a rock band called Anthem, with Al Woodcock, Rob Avery and Adam Bowden, and (briefly) another called Nocturnal - doing 60s and 70s rock covers.

Photo: Geri SomesThis was all followed in the mid-90s by The Rizla Moths, and eventually a second, rather more stable, incarnation of Estimated Prophet, with Mark Atkins and Adam Bowden. We kept it up for pretty much a year, mostly at the Twynham folk club in Christchurch, and recorded an album in 1996, called "Butterfly". The same year, I recorded an album of guitar instrumentals, "The Wind Horse".

Those were good days, and the variety of performers was incredible - happily most of them are still around. Since then, life's been quieter in some ways, much busier in others. A bit of travelling, a lot of working, and now I'm getting back to the guitar, undergoing a love-hate relationship with my own voice, and recording more. Slow progress, but progress nonetheless...

Tending to dine,
in moving vehicles,
in the early hours,
in moderate bad repair...
Robin Williamson, Love letter to my wife Bina