Photo credit; Sallie Scharding
How old were you when you started playing guitar?
I was curious about my brother’s Sears and Roebuck steel string when I was seven or so. It had a logo like an atom on the headstock and the strings were about an inch from the fretboard. I tried to teach myself Peter Paul and Mary’s “A ‘Soulin’” on it anyway but as Inigo Montoya might say, “I fail.” I repeated this process almost exactly when I got a similar guitar for Christmas at age ten. My poor parents.
What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?
On my seventeenth birthday my parents wisely offered to buy me an affordable “nice” guitar (my parents of course concentrating on “affordable” and me on “nice”). I went straight to the local music store and picked out the most affordable “nice” guitar there: a budget-line Ovation. I couldn’t put that guitar down. I wore out a couple of frets playing it nonstop for eighteen months, so I took it in for repairs. They told me “this fretboard is molded out of aluminum. It’s done, throw it away.” I did as I was told.
Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?
I’m told my maternal grandfather could play any instrument you laid in front of him. I never met the man but I sure wish I could have.
What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?
I play a Martin HD-28V at my shows but lately I find myself writing on a Tacoma PM-20 because it seems to have more songs in it. I also write on a StringSmith Vagabond travel guitar because it’s quiet so I’m less likely to bother other people while I’m plonking around.
Wes playing his Martin HD-28V. Photo credit: Ira Hantz
Wes with his Tacoma PM-20. Photo credit: Charlotte Mackintosh Edens
What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?
I’ve gotten accustomed to D’Addario EJ17s and all my guitars are strung up with them. I leave them on until they’re hard to tune.
Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?
No particular brand, but I go for medium thickness, and I like it when they are sticky because my hands are very dry and I can’t hang on to them. I don’t flatpick but I mute with my palm when I play rhythm. That’s maybe 30% of my set and the rest is “back of the nail” rhythm/frailing and fingerstyle.
Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?
Just a direct box with eq and a boost/cut. Does that count? If so, L.R. Baggs!
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?
Techs, for sure. I feel like working on my guitar would be like giving myself a haircut. Rob Sharer at SoundPure (in Durham, NC) refretted and installed an L.R. Baggs Anthem in my Martin HD-28V and I’m thrilled with his work.
Luthier, Rob Sharer.
Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?
Harry’s Guitar Shop in Raleigh, NC has a great selection, they keep their instruments play-ready and the staff are super nice.
At what age did you start writing songs?
I tried to write my first song when I was thirteen and I was so mortified with what I got I resolved not to try again. I was forty-three when I finally screwed up the nerve to try again because my wife and I made a pact that we would write – she would write a short story and I would write a song. I was slightly more afraid to let Anita down than I was to write a bad song. So, forty-three.
Wes and his wife, Anita. Photo credit: FJ Ventre
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 get a melody and a phrase that helps me remember the cadence of the melody. It’s yin and yang. The way the syllables fall dictates how the melody goes, but the melody points me toward the words I want. I mostly use paper, and lots of it. I tend to find my songs in the editing process, so sometimes the finished song is virtually unrecognizable to someone who heard the first draft. It usually takes a long time.
Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?
At various times in my life I’ve wanted desperately to play guitar like James Taylor, like Bruce Cockburn, and like Neil Finn. I’m sure there are echoes there in my writing and technique. And Patty Griffin too.
If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
Whoa. Um, jam? Probably Bruce Cockburn but I’d be so agog watching him I’d forget to play.
What are your top three “desert island” albums?
This is impossible, but the three that jump into my brain at the moment are:
Stevie Wonder’s, Innervisions
Joni Mitchell’s, Blue
The Beatles’, Revolver
Crowded House’s, Together Alone
Patty Griffin’s, Flaming Red
Radiohead’s, OK Computer
What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?
First concert: my parents took me to see Mac Davis. The Captain and Tennille opened. I was twelve.
The Beatles or the Stones?
Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?
Probably at age eighteen in a cover band. I’m sure there was no money.
What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?
There have been a couple of times in the past seven or so years where I had the presence of mind to realize that I am not only exactly where I want to be, but that I’m exactly where I’ve kind of always wanted to be. And that was invariably playing in a round with a songwriter or musician I admire.
The Wes Collins Band - Scott Dameron, FJ Ventre, Barry Gray and Wes Collins
What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).
I was asked to sing Chicago’s “Colour My World” for a wedding many (many, many) years ago. I arrived at the chapel and handed the sheet music to the church’s organist. She took one look at it and said “oh yes I’ll have no trouble with this. Go ahead and rehearse your other song. You know the words? Then we’ve got this.” Big mistake. When the time came, the organist started playing at a funereal pace, in the style of a Bach cantata (I’ve read that Terry Kath wrote the song while experimenting with arpeggios after listening to Bach, so fair play to the organist). I didn’t have the presence of mind to process what was going down, so I tried to put the Terry Kath stank on the vocal anyway. I apologize to the organist, to the bride and groom, to all present at the service, to Terry Kath, and to JS Bach. I will never wing it again, even (or especially) if someone tells me to.
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)?
A beautiful stage and venue can be a wonder to behold, but my favorite gig memories are of intangible, fleeting moments. So it’s mostly about the who for me. I tend to remember how much fun the people were who ran sound or put the show together more than the particulars of the stage setup.
Photo credit: Sallie Scharding
I also agree with David Wilcox when he says “the audience brings the show.” You can bring the same energy to two different nights and the audiences will dictate how the show goes. Your job is to be practiced and warmed up, but the audience has their hand on the rudder. So when you hear that a venue has a great audience, you want to play that venue!
How do you work out your setlist?
I love playing song swaps and in-the-rounds because you have to think on your feet and play the song that will work best in the moment, which now that I’m writing this I realize is what you should always do. But the pull of the setlist is strong, especially if you’re working with a band. You can’t (or shouldn’t) surprise three other people with something you haven’t rehearsed. Even when I’m playing a solo show, something about having a guitar in my lap makes me forget what songs I know. So a setlist is my friend most days.
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?
Don’t be afraid to ask other musicians about their technique and inspiration, or of anyone about anything. Most people are kind and are eager to help.
Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?
Play with other people as often as you can. Even, or especially, if you are from different musical backgrounds. Watching and listening to other musicians I admire inspires me at best, and gives me an impromptu lesson at worst. I never regret it.
Photo credit: Jaimee Harris
If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?
I was a librarian up until about a year ago. I took a career aptitude test many years ago and it indicated that I’d be happy as a park ranger. Is there any money in record collecting?
Photo credit: Warren Capps
Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.
Some folks say my music sounds like Neil Finn got way into Patty Griffin and got the Flying Burrito Brothers to back him up. I honestly have a hard time describing my music. See what you think and let me know!
You can reach me via my website: wescollins.com/contact
You can buy my stuff (CDs, flash drives, books, tee shirts, pins, stickers) at my website store: wescollins.com/store.