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Ward Hayden

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

Singer-Songwriter Q&A

Photo credit: Dean Thornhill

How old were you when you started playing guitar?

I learned a few chords in music class back in high school, but I started playing when I was given a guitar as a gift when I was 24. What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?

My first guitar was an Epiphone "Strat" copy, it was pretty well built and had a silver sparkle finish. It was given to me by my parents as a gift when they learned I had been wanting to play the guitar. I traded it in at Guitar Center some years later because I wasn't really playing it anymore, but I really wish I had kept that 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 family didn't play a lot of music, but we listened to a lot of music together. Once I turned around twenty years old my parents' music really became my music as well. I started borrowing my mom's old cassette tapes of classic country music and it changed the course of my life. The content and feeling of the songs just started to click with what I was going through in my own life.

Ward with his mom outside of Johnny Cash's boyhood home.

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

My two main guitars are a 2003 Gibson J45 and a 1978 Guild D25M.

Photo credit: Steve Klamkin

The Gibson J45 is my favorite guitar and the one I've used the most in my career. I used to tour with it a lot, but a few years back it fell out of the back of a van we were touring in in the Netherlands. The neck snapped when it fell out of the van and although I was able to get the neck repaired and it still plays really well, I stopped touring with it after that and have almost exclusively toured with Westerly, RI made Guild guitars ever since. The Guild acoustics are just built stronger and they still sound really great, they give me less worry when touring and they're really reliable.

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

I almost never change my strings, my style of playing is very percussive, so I don't like the strings to be too bright. I've played GHS Phosphor Bronze strings for the last 12 years. I like them because once I play them for a day or two they sound exactly how I like my strings to sound, they settle in quickly and nicely. They're not too bright and once they start to deaden they still sound really good and hold up for a long time.

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

I use Dunlop Tortex .60mm picks. For me they have the perfect amount of flexibility and rigidity. They also sound good when strumming acoustic guitar and they naturally have some grip to them in your hand. I've tried a lot of other picks over the years, but I always come back to the Dunlop Tortex .60mm picks.

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

I don't use any effect pedals, but in the last couple years I've really become a big fan of the Fishman Loudbox Artist amp. It has some built in effects like phase and reverb, and the reverb on that amp is what I use most. For a very long time I just used a standard DI for my acoustic, but the Fishman Loudbox has allowed me to have much more control over my sound and to carve out my tone in a live setting. People had been recommending it for a long time and I was dragging my feet with getting one, but now that I've used one for a while whenever I don't have it on stage I miss the sound I'm able to get from it.

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?

Jon Mouradian at Mouradian Guitars has been my go-to guy for working on my guitars. And he's always helpful with any questions. He repaired the neck on my J45 when it broke and it's stronger than ever before.

And recently Nate Lord at Lord Guitars in Amesbury, MA has done some really cool customizations for all the guys in my band and builds some really incredible pickups. On our upcoming album there's a rubber bridge parlor guitar that Nate rebuilt that's one of the coolest sounding instruments on the album. Nate does some really unique builds.

“CocoCaster” pickups, built by Nate Lord for Ward's lead guitarist, Cody Nilsen.

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

Frets in Westerly, RI is one of my favorite shops. The owner worked at the Westerly Guild factory and knows more about Westerly built acoustic guitars than probably anyone on earth. He can look at the guitar and tell you what the weather was like the month the guitar was made decades ago, it's incredible. They always have some really cool guitars for sale and to check out and always have some really nice Guilds in the store. I love stopping by there to see what they've got and on numerous occasions I've left there with a new guitar.

At what age did you start writing songs?

I started writing songs when I was 24, fairly soon after I got my first acoustic guitar. 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 often write music and lyrics at the same time. If I get an idea I try to write it down and then as soon as I get the chance I pick up the guitar and see if I can expand upon the idea and turn it into a full song. A lot of times playing the guitar brings out more creativity and helps the words to get written. I like to write when the guitar is in my hands and I always physically write the words on paper. Looking at the words and being able to move things around on the page helps me get the song to where I want it to be and helps with the structure. I like to see the words and to be able to cross things out and add things when needed with a pen on the page.

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

Johnny Cash was my biggest influence for wanting to play and write music. His first three albums with the American Recordings label just blew me away. I couldn't believe that acoustic based music could be so powerful and impactful, it really changed the way I looked at sounds and music and Johnny Cash's delivery is just so unique and profound. He was one in a million and I'm glad he's been recognized for it.

I remember the day he passed away, I was in college and the actor John Ritter died that same day. I went to a big school and I remember going out to parties that night and I was devastated by Johnny Cash passing away and no one else at that point in time that was around my age really knew who Johnny Cash was yet. A lot of people were surprised by John Ritter's death because they knew him from his show 8 Simple Rules. But it wasn't until the Walk The Line movie came out that younger people started to get clued into Johnny Cash in a much bigger way.

Hank Williams and Chuck Berry were probably the two biggest influences when I started writing songs. From the very beginning of wanting to make my own music I wanted it to express the heartache and troubles of life a la Hank Williams, but to have ripping and rocking guitar sounds like Chuck Berry. The combination of those two artists was what I've always based my music off of, I just think they nailed it right out of the gate and I'm not sure music ever got better than what they were able to accomplish.

Ward Hayden and the Outliers perform Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart."

Ward Hayden and the Outliers perform Chuck Berry's "Promised Land."

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

I think John Prine would've been amazing to be around and pick through songs with, his way with words was so distinctive and he was such a great storyteller. To be around him and observe how he works and thinks and maybe have some of it rub off on you would be pretty incredible.

What are your top three “desert island” albums?

Johnny Cash - "Unchained"

Hank Williams - "40 Greatest Hits"

Turnpike Troubadours - "Goodbye Normal Street"

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

The first concert I attended was Woodstock '94. My parents and some of their friends brought us kids along and it was really wild. The fences got broken down day one I think and it was a big free for all with getting in. We actually had tickets, but no one ever checked them or anything. The acts I remember seeing and hearing were Joe Cocker, Cypress Hill, and Blind Melon.

The last concert I attended was Jay Psaros down in Scituate, MA in December 2022. Was a great show and a really unique venue at the Grand Army Hall.

Jay Psaros Band at the Grand Army Hall in Scituate, MA. Photo credit: Todd Batson

The Beatles or the Stones?

I never grew up listening to The Beatles, so the Stones were always my preference. Once I started playing music and seemingly every musician I met had a major Beatles influence I then started listening to The Beatles and I've come to appreciate them much more. But the first 30 years of my life were void of The Beatles, people would always be talking about them and it was like they were speaking a foreign language. I had no idea what they were referencing or talking about.

Photo credit: Shelly Swanger

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

My first paid gig was at The Red Parrot in Hull, MA. We only made around $200 and played so loud that we blew out the PA system. But, it was so much fun that it led to wanting to play more shows and find more gigs. I remember it was so loud that my ears hurt for days afterwards. Thankfully since then we've learned to play at much more comfortable volumes.

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

Touring in Europe has been a highlight for me. I never traveled as a kid and we didn't go on many vacations. I never thought I'd enjoy Europe so much, but last year we did our thirteenth tour of Europe and we've met so many nice people, learned a lot about the different countries and cultures and it was the first time since the pandemic that we'd been able to go back and do a full tour over there. It made me really appreciate the experience all the more and I'd really missed going over there in the couple years when we couldn't fly over and make any European touring work out.

Ward Hayden and the Outliers in Toulon, France (French Riviera).

Ward covering Bruce Springsteen in Madrid, Spain.

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

The worst gig was this gig in a strip mall in Pennsylvania about ten years ago. It was bad from start to finish. No one was pleasant, the staff didn't want music there and the patrons didn't want any either. There were issues every step of the way, even with the meals we were able to order and at the end of the show we were handed a bill for the food and drinks. It was a bit of a "Blues Brothers" moment. I wouldn't want to repeat the experience, that's for sure, but the bad gigs definitely help you to appreciate the good ones even more.

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)?

Our first show back after the pandemic was at The Sinclair in Cambridge, MA. It's a venue we've played a number of times over the years, but not being there for a couple years and then getting to stand on the stage and having good sound in a room full of people, it was the first time I started to feel hopeful that touring and shows like that were going to come back in a real way.

How do you work out your setlist?

For writing setlists I tend to separate myself from the group so that I can think and craft the set based on the room and how we want the energy of the set to ebb and flow. Then I'll usually bring the set to the band so they can weigh in and then we make adjustments as needed. That strategy has been pretty good with getting the set squared away for any given show.

Photo credit: Todd Batson

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

That's a great question. I would tell them that there will inevitably be ups and downs in the course of their career and that a lot of times you can't prepare for what's to come. But, if they're committed to pursuing music, that if they stick with it the good times will come around again and that the times that weren't as good often contain a lot of lessons and mistakes that can be learned from.

Photo credit: Nate Dow

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

My advice would be to listen to Bob Dylan. Anytime I'm stuck in a rut I put on Bob Dylan. His music is endlessly inspiring and he's so good with chords and with expressing lyrical ideas. I find him to be fearless. His music gets you thinking. And listening to the first 3 volumes of his Bootlegs are super inspiring. He's unafraid to try things and adjust his approach to a song and sometimes that's all you need when you're stuck in a rut. You just need to approach it from a different angle.

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

I was about 5 minutes away from going to Law School and joining my dad at his practice. I have no doubt that if I hadn't found music in my mid-twenties that I'd be working as a lawyer, as it was the path of least resistance and it was a path that was pretty much laid out for me. A large number of my friends from high school and college went on to work in their family business or to follow in the footsteps of their father and I think I would've done the same if music hadn't come along.

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

Ward Hayden and the Outliers website:

Purchase Ward's music and merchandise.

Ward Hayden and the Outliers are on their Scandinavian Tour - March 28 thru April 24.

The band's full tour dates.

"(Breaking Up with) My Hometown" from the new Ward Hayden and the Outliers album "South Shore", available May 5th.


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