Photo credit: Kris Kesiak
How old were you when you started playing guitar?
I was 10 years old when I took to guitar seriously, but I’ve been bashing away at a ukulele since I was about 5 years old.
What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?
My first guitar was a Flamenco-styled gut-string with a double pick guard. I think it was called a Greco. My mother, bless her, bought it for me. Sadly, I don’t have it anymore. I donated it to a church folk group in my teens in favour of a steel-string acoustic and a thin-body arch top electric.
Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?
My mother loved classical music. She played piano, church organ, the viola da gamba and all sorts of recorders. But mostly she was a classical singer, alto if I recall correctly. No one else was very musical in the play-around-the-house kind of way, so except for backing my mother up while she sang a song at a Christmas concert or things like that, we didn’t play together. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to be part of a family that sang songs around the house and ‘joining in’ was encouraged.
Brooks with his mom, Margaret "Peggy" Williams (2013).
What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?
I have three guitars at the moment and each does something a little different from the other. I have a small-bodied Atkin J-19 built especially for me. It looks like an old Gibson and is great for fingerpicking. I also have a bog-standard Yamaha LL-16 dreadnought that is great for the bluegrass-old time-Americana music I play. This is my ‘go-to’ guitar that I use most of the time. My 3rd guitar is a basic wood-bodied National Estralita resonator. It’s a guitar with nine lives, and it’s on about life eight now!
Brooks playing his Atkin guitar.
A closeup of Brooks playing his Yamaha guitar.
Brooks playing slide on his National guitar.
What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?
I use D’Addario XS light gauge strings (12s) on the acoustic guitars and a slightly heavier gauge on the resonator (13s). I change strings as little as possible. My current set of strings on my main acoustic has been on there nearly 3-months…and that’s 3-months of touring, gigging, recording, teaching. I’d never change them if I could get away with it!
Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?
I use a pick and I also fingerpick with my fingers. The picks I prefer are Prime Tone 1.5s.
Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?
I like the most natural acoustic sound I can possibly achieve and although I have pedals, I am rarely satisfied with how they sound in the gigs so they have ended up on a shelf in the cupboard. That being said, although it’s not really a pedal per se, I plug my guitar
Do you work on your own guitars or do you bring them to a guitar tech? Are there any guitar techs that you would like to recommend?
I can do little emergency repairs on my guitars if I need to do so, but I prefer to bring them to a guitar tech. My two favourites, though I have been blessed to know many of these un-sung heroes, are Harry Becker in Northampton, Massachusetts USA and Stuart
Palmer in Doncaster UK.
Brooks with luthier Harry Becker.
Luthier Stuart Palmer.
Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?
I like Fellowship of Acoustics in The Netherlands, The Music Emporium in Boston USA and Folkway Music in Ontario Canada. Good shops tend to have a mix of new and used guitars plus a great staff that loves guitars as much if not more than the customer.
At what age did you start writing songs?
I ‘wrote’ from the very beginning because I always just made stuff up - even chords and riffs. Being self-taught, though a slow process, does allow for the spirit of discovery to dominate the proceedings. By the time I got into my late teens I discovered that lots of the musicians I was seeing in the folk clubs, coffeehouses and bars were mixing in original songs with songs by other writers. I liked that and began to write songs seriously from then on.
A young Brooks with a guitar built by Terry Moore.
What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to you first? Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?
When I’m writing on my own, as opposed to co-writing, I write lyrics first. I think my method is a bit unusual in that I create what I call a ‘cuckoo melody,’ a melody I use just to help me write the lyrics but is not intended to be the final melody. My reason for this is I find it easier to work on lyrics if I have a rhythm or melody line in my head. The first drafts are always scribbles on a page in a notebook I carry with me. Once the scribbles get too difficult to decipher, they get transferred to the laptop for further writing and editing. I spend twice as much time editing a song as I do writing it. Editing is a big, big part of my songwriting process. Once I feel a song is lyrically as complete as possible, I jettison the ‘cuckoo melody’ and begin to write one that I feel suits the lyrics best.
Brooks mid-songwriting. Photo credit: Jo Williams
Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?
Joni Mitchell, John Hiatt, Bonnie Raitt.
If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
What are your top three desert island albums?
Church Street Blues - Tony Rice
Other Voices Other Rooms - Nanci Griffith
Songs Our Daddy Taught Us - The Everly Brothers
What was the first concert you attended?
Grand Funk Railroad headliner/Yes opening act.
What was the last concert you attended?
The Beatles or the Stones?
The world is big enough, and the days are long enough for both. Beatles in the morning. Stones at night.
Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?
A restaurant/bar in New Hampshire. I was underage and got paid $25.00.
What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?
Brooks with Rab Noakes
What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).
Supporting a well-known alt-country singer in Western North Carolina. His audience took against me from the start and tried to drag me off-stage and grab one of my other guitars. I barely got through three songs before having to leave the stage. The threats and insults that followed me off the stage were chilling.
What are some of the venues you enjoy performing at the most? What things make the venue enjoyable for the performer (location, equipment, setup, organizers)?
How do you work out your setlist?
I try and mix it up: originals, blues, slide, fingerpicking, flat picking, old songs, new songs, vocals, instrumentals, songs anyone in the audience might know, songs that are probably new to everyone in the audience. I believe there is a perfect balance to be found…one
just has to be tuned in enough to find that balance.
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?
Put a tenner from every single gig you do into a savings account…from Day One! Join the Musician’s Union from Day One too.
Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?
Step outside your comfort zone and learn something that really challenges you or do something in your songwriting you’ve never done before, like throw it all away except for one line…and start again.
If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?
Photo credit: Ecki
Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.
Photo credit: Kris Kesiak