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Review Joan Armatrading's Favourite Guitarists 2009

Joan Armatrading's Favourite Guitarists,
By: Chris Campling
Date: 1/8/2009
Joan Armatrading's Favourite Guitarists, Chris Campling

There is a large element of the child with his nose pressed against the
toyshop window whenever the ordinary listener hears superlative performers
discussing their art. So near and, but for God-given talent and the
requisite 10,000 hours of practice, so far. Tantalus had nothing on the
torture the terrible guitar player experiences when he hears something such
as Joan Armatrading's Favourite Guitarists (Radio 4, all last week).
Armatrading, herself a fabulous guitarist as well as a singer to make strong
men weep - doubly gifted, how dare she? - had invited five of the greats,
favourite axes in tow, into the studio to demonstrate their various

The first was Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, who established the
hopelessness of the duffer's aspirations right at the beginning. He played
for us, and we just stood back and marvelled. How to explain genius, when
the genius is there for us to hear? Instead, he fell back on discussing his
songwriting, the artistry having to be taken for granted - the idea for
Money for Nothing, for example, came from an overheard conversation in a
white goods store.

All week, Armatrading ended each of the programmes with a snatch of her
playing in the style of her guest on the day. With Knopfler, she was reduced
to admitting that, when she plays a song that they recorded together
onstage, she plays the Knopfler parts note for note - even she could only
copy the master, unable to better him.

She should have had better luck with her second guest, the blues guitarist
Bonnie Raitt. The blues - three chords. How complicated and unreachable can
that be? But then you discovered that Raitt had learnt all the guitar parts
from an album by Mississippi John Hurt when she was 14 - and untaught - and
once again the gap between the honest trier and those touched by God grew.

John Williams, like all of them, was entirely unimpressed by his own
brilliance. Yes, he had started playing guitar as a child, taught by his
guitar-playing father. But he hadn't really enjoyed it. Indeed, he had
deliberately slowed down during his half-hour daily practice so he wouldn't
have to play another round of the hopelessly complicated piece that he was
working through. He was, like, 11. By time he was 12 he was being taught by
Segovia - it happens - and being a bit cheesed off when the great man
revealed his feet of clay. Apparently the way to Segovia's heart was to play
a piece exactly as he did - anything else was wrong. The youthful Williams
chafed under the autocratic yoke. In time he would give full rein to his
desire to improvise in a pop and jazz style, only to discover that he had no
gift for improvisation, as anyone who has heard his work in both areas can
confirm. So sucks to you, Williams, the listener responded, clutching
pathetically at the straw of his Achilles' heel, to mix a metaphor in a way
that the man himself just can't, musically speaking.

Armatrading bowled a bit of a googly to older listeners when, in her fourth
programme, she spoke to Russell Lissack of the band Bloc Party. He, too,
conformed with much of the rest of them by being largely self-taught - and
differed from them by having learnt on an electric guitar, without an amp.
His parents didn't want him to make a noise. These days he can play as loud
as he likes, as well as establishing himself as a master of that scurrilous
son of the guitar, the effects box. ³I have distortion, reverb, about four
phasers, wah-wah, harmoniser ...² By now, though, we were talking
electronics, not music - a fascinating topic, but inappropriate given the

I mean, you wouldn't get Bert Jansch, Armatrading's last guest, hiding his
technique behind a blizzard of trickery. That would be as likely as Jansch
selling a billion records and living in a rock star crib. The purist's
purist, Jansch has spent his life influencing any musician with a leaning
towards folk music - Jimmy Page for one - and stoically reaping the
non-rewards for it.

But it was in the Jansch item that the whole series finally came back
towards the incompetent guitarist, for it was he who the Times writer Will
Hodgkinson approached when he set himself the task of going from novice to
guitarist able to play in public - in six months (he got a book out of it).
And Jansch the consummate teacher helped the duffer to pick his way through
Davy Graham's folk standard Anji without being bottled off or feeling he had
failed. Of all five, it was Jansch who made this failed guitarist for one
determined to get out the old acoustic and practise until my fingers bled.
Once I've bought a new top E string, of course.

There was a hint that this will not be the last series of Armatrading's
faves, in which case bring it on. One thing, though - next time can the
programmes be 30 minutes long, and not 15? Surely half an hour is the basic
minimum for a proper lesson.


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