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Davy Knowles

Singer-Songwriter Q&A

Photo credit: Michael Coakes

How old were you when you started playing guitar?

I was 11 years old when I first started playing.

What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?

My first guitar was a 3/4 size Spanish guitar made by Encore. Sadly I don’t have it anymore! It was a cheap and cheerful thing.

Davy with his first guitar.

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 dad played guitar. He was a folkie and loved Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Pentangle. That whole wonderful scene. He had a great and wide-ranging record collection, and it’s really down to him that I am doing this. I had the opportunity to play with him on lots of occasions, and those are treasured memories indeed.

Davy jamming with his dad. Photo credit: Lenny Conroy

What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?

My favourite instrument is my National Triolian resonator. It’s an old one, from 1932. Those guitars have a reputation for being delta blues instruments, and of course they sound perfect for that, but I think they are very versatile instruments. I love it purely for what it gives me, when I’m struggling writing with another guitar I pick that one up and it always seems to give something new to me.

What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?

I’ve always used D’Addario 13's on my acoustics. 11’s on my electric.

Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?

No pick on acoustic, and a Herco style heavy pick if I’m on electric guitar.

Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?

Never been much good at those things! With the electric I will normally have an overdrive, but even then I like to get most of it from the amp. I’m a bit of a luddite really.

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 work on my own as much as I can, and have built two guitars from scratch with a friend of mine - an OM28 Martin style and a Torres style classical.

Martin OM-28 style guitar built by Davy and his friend Stan.

Torres style classical guitar built by Davy and his friend Stan.

Tech-wise I would whole heartedly recommend Tim Huenke at Superior Guitar Works in PA. He basically rebuilt my old National. Gave it a whole new lease on life.

Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?

I try not to look in case I get in trouble with my accountant! Rock N Roll Vintage in Chicago always has a lovely curated selection of things, and at reasonable prices. I’ve bought some lovely things from there. I think what makes a guitar shop good are the folks who work there, like any shop I guess. Nothing is worse than being met by disinterested glazed expressions. Find a little bit of joy in anything you do - even if it’s not your ideal situation.

At what age did you start writing songs?

I think pretty much straight away, so around 11. I wanted to be Mark Knopfler right out of the gate, and was frustrated that I wasn’t (will never be), so ended up making up stuff that sounded good to me.

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?

I think the best answer I have is ‘any way I can’! What usually happens is I collect musical ideas in my phone, and rotate playing them over and over, thinking about what the music reminds me of. Sometimes a phrase or an idea for a subject will come out of that repetition and then I have something to get my teeth into and chase down. I like to write lyrics down, pen to paper. There is a commitment involved in that action that I think helps me, like “are you sure this is what you really want to say?”

Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?

So many.... In my electric world for me it’s hard to beat Rory Gallagher, his passion and fire. His Celtic inflections mixed with pure rock n’ roll was something that I had never heard before, but being a celt, was something I immediately identified with.

Davy playing Rory’s ’64 Epiphone Casino.

Bert Jansch’s music was ringing in my ears from birth. Such a revolutionary guitar player, but a really overlooked songwriter. Running’ From Home, Needle Of Death…so many incredible songs.

I was really late to the party, but as soon as I discovered Nick Drake I found a whole world of gorgeous melodies, inventive playing. Just perfect music.

If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?

Richard Thompson maybe? He can turn his hand to anything! I’d love to try and see up close how he’s making those amazing noises.

Davy covering Richard Thompson's '1952 Vincent Black Lightning'.

What are your top three “desert island” albums?

Semper Femina - Laura Marling

Five Leaves Left - Nick Drake

Bert Jansch - Bert Jansch

What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?

Ladysmith Black Mombazo in the grounds of Peel Castle on the Isle of Man was my first. Spellbinding.

Charlie Parr at Schubas in Chicago was my last. Equally spellbinding.

The Beatles or the Stones?

I feel ever so fortunate to live in a world where both exist in total harmony. Love them both.

Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?

Can’t remember exactly. Would have been a pub on the Isle of Man. Going rate for a band was around 120 pounds. Not bad for a bunch of kids. We thought we had it made!

What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?

Perhaps just the good fortune to still be doing it for a job after nearly two decades. I’ve been very fortunate to meet some lovely folks, some wonderful musicians, and I have done my little best to learn from them.

What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).

I once smashed a guitar into my nose putting it behind my head (being a silly showoff after a few jars) and it bled. Crowd loved it. I was mortified. Never did that again!

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)?

People make the place. Always. World Cafe Live in Philly, Higher Ground in Burlington VT. Loads to mention!

Davy playing at World Cafe Live.

Davy playing at Higher Ground.

How do you work out your setlist?

It’s nice to keep things fluid, react to the audience. I like to think of the beginning and end, but maybe leave the middle open to interpretation.

Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?

Oh gosh…I prefer to offer encouragement over advice. If I had anything to say, I would say follow your gut and what makes you happy. Resist being herded into something you aren’t entirely comfortable with. You know your art best.

Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?

Learn other folks songs, try different tunings and capo positions. Write lots of bad songs, plough through.

If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?

Absolutely no idea! Librarian? Fisherman? Farmer? Working in an Arts Council? I feel fairly unemployable!

Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.

Everything is on I’m rubbish at self-promotion!

Photo credit: Jim Drake

1 Comment

I have nothing but love, admiration and respect for Davy Knowles. I met him sixteen years ago when I was 57 years old, and have flown his Standard since. This young man is the 'whole nine yards'. He is both a Mark Knopfler and Marcus Aurelius with the heart of a saint.

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