Photo credit: Randy Bradbury
How old were you when you started playing guitar?
I started on bass guitar at age 16, moved to guitar the following year.
What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?
The bass was given to me at Christmas. I bought my first guitar with money I'd earned on a summer job. I lost both the guitar and the bass or gave them away, only a few years later. By that time I'd progressed as a player and needed better instruments.
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 mum played cello but not very well. We never played together. My dad was not musical though he liked to listen to music.
What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?
I have three guitars which I take on the road. All are Lowdens, made by George Lowden and Co, a company based in Belfast. They are not all the same wood, and they are slightly different in weight and size, but they are all excellent. Hand made, totally reliable, smooth light action, each with a beautiful tone. At home I also have a graphite guitar for backup and practice but I would never take it on the road or play it at a show.
Photo credit: Sandy Wilt
What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?
I use Elixir, light gauge (0.11). I change strings every six months or so, or whenever I have a particularly important gig, or a recording session, coming up.
Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?
I use Dunlop thumbpicks, medium, and very rarely a (medium) flatpick.
Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?
I don't use pedals but I enjoy the work of those who do.
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?
When I'm home in New York City I go to Jeremy at Rudy's Guitars in SoHo. When on the road, in an emergency I'll go to whoever and wherever is available.
Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?
At what age did you start writing songs?
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?
For me a song should be above all a good piece of music. This sounds obvious but I don't hear many songs today that I would consider to be good music. For this reason I like to begin with a strong musical idea, usually a melody, which may suggest some words which will fit. But words are themselves sounds and have a music of their own, so in a way the distinction between words and music is a false one. I do read and write music but these days it's more usual for me to make recordings of my ideas, initially on my phone. As for the words, I'll make notes in an exercise book. I don't like to compose lyrics on a computer screen. It doesn't have the same sensual feel as writing with a pen or pencil.
Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?
Ray Davies, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell. Among many others.
If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
What are your top three “desert island” albums?
I'm afraid it would probably be three of my own!
What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?
I can't remember the very first concert but one of the earliest was Ry Cooder at Apollo Victoria in London, around 1980. The most memorable and inspirational I've ever attended was Joni Mitchell on the Shadows And Light tour, at an open air theater in Maryland, also (I think) in 1980. The most recent concert I attended was my friend Ben Bedford at a small venue in Brooklyn, New York, in 2019.
The Beatles or the Stones?
The Beatles for songwriting, the Stones (circa 1972) for live shows.
Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?
Paris, France, 2004 (where I was living at the time). A small basement club. I think I made about 200 Euros.
What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?
In June of this year, a man I'd never met before invited me to his home for a concert. There he told me that some weeks earlier, he'd been in hospital for a serious operation and very nearly died. While recovering, hovering between life and death, he heard my music on the radio for the first time and it made up his mind to live. If there's a higher compliment for a songwriter than that, I can't imagine what it would be.
What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).
An Irish pub in London about thirty years ago. I was chased from the stage and down the street by the patrons. I think they would have preferred Country and Western.
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)?
I like small theaters, maybe 75 to 100 seats, with good sound that requires little amplification, friendly and respectful staff, and sound technicians who love their work. In terms of location, I prefer small towns where people are hungry for entertainment.
How do you work out your setlist?
I begin with a song that is nice and relaxed, to help both myself and the audience to settle into the mood. Going on through the set I try to achieve a contrast, as much as possible, from song to song, e.g. following a slow song with a fast one, a sad one with a happy one, etc. I try to end each set on a high note (more or less literally!).
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?
Sound like yourself and no-one else.
Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?
Leave your musical comfort zone. During lockdown I decided to learn some classical pieces. It was years since I'd had to read written music or play unfamiliar material, and the challenge was very good for me. I now have a full repertoire of classical guitar and give monthly online recitals. It has absolutely improved my technique and my musicianship generally.
If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?
I might be a journalist working in trouble zones (I have done some assignments for newspapers), but I would also be very unhappy.
Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.
Please go to www.rupertwatesmusic.com/calendar