Performed by the original Wishbone Ash.
(Originally published in Modern Guitars Magazine in 2005)
Andy Powell Interview: Wishbone Ash Twin Lead Pioneer
Andy Powell, the articulate lead guitarist and vocalist for British classic rockers Wishbone Ash, was born in Stepney, England, in 1950. After picking up the guitar in 1961 he went on to play in numerous bands before joining the newly formed Wishbone Ash in 1969. Along with fellow guitarist Ted Turner, the band’s trademark twin lead guitar sound was formulated. Though others were doing it as well, or had done it already, like Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac and The Allman Brothers Band, it was British folk ambience and a progressive rock element, mixed with eclectic melodies and harmonies, that set Ash apart from the rest in originality and innovation.
Since Andy has been the sole member to carry on, Wishbone Ash has been through numerous personnel changes over the years, enough to compel the website to portray it in the form of a family tree. Just off an extensive UK tour, Wishbone Ash is now touring the US throughout November and December 2005. Following that they’ll head off to Europe.
I recently caught a Wishbone Ash show at The Bull Run in Shirley, Massachusetts. A fairly good-sized club, the acoustics and sound projection were excellent that night. Andy and the band had much to do with that, I'm sure, as Wishbone Ash has always been known for sound quality and instrument tone. This particular show marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of Wishbone Ash as a professional band.
Andy played his signature Kevin Chilcott Flying V (purple) most of the night, only opting for his Music Man when a lighter tone was needed. The tone he was able to achieve through his Fender DeVille and Mesa/Boogie Mach I left no one in the full house disappointed. (He later informed me that they'd be using new custom built Matamp rigs by the second leg of the tour.) His lead playing is as brilliant today as it was thirty-five years ago. Second guitarist, Muddy Manninen, played a Les Paul Jr., a burst, and an SG through two Fender Bassmans. I noticed immediately, although this was just another of the many versions of Wishbone Ash, that the band’s dual lead guitar faction was still fully intact, leaving nothing to the imagination. The audience was showered with magnificent riffs and lead harmonies all evening. Bob Skeat’s flair on his Warwick Streamer bass, not to mention his consistent smile and personable stage presence, was full and precise throughout the show’s two sets. His amp of choice was a Gallian-Kruger. Ray Weston’s drumming set the pace perfectly.
During the course of the evening we were treated to a few new tunes, as well as a barrage of vintage Ash, including 'Warrior', 'Leaf & Stream', 'Sometime World', 'The King Will Come', 'Standing In The Rain’, ‘Persephone’, ‘Living Proof’, and ‘Phoenix’. They closed with a ripping ‘Blowin’ Free’.
Fans should check out the Wishbone Ash website for tour dates: Wishbone Ash.
I had the opportunity to speak with Andy shortly before the band hit the road.
Brian) In your own words, Andy, describe Wishbone Ash, especially for those who, for one reason or another, have been unaware all these years.
Andy) In musical terms, we formed in the late 60s, in the progressive rock era or classic rock. You could use either of those two tags. Our music is pretty eclectic. We were never known as a big singles band. Specifically, the sound is melodic, and it’s derived from the twin lead guitar thing. From an American standpoint, since our first show we were linked with the Allman Brothers, mainly because of the twin lead guitars. But other than that, we’re very different. Where their stuff is rooted in the blues, and although ours has blues elements, we’re rooted more in English folk really. English folk and sort of an eclectic, progressive mix of some jazz and that sort of thing, with blues elements in it. But twin lead guitar is where we’re at. The logo we use is ‘twin guitar, classic rock’.
BH) The song ‘Blind Eye’, especially, from the self titled debut album, is not only a good example of the twin lead guitar sound, but it’s also a clear example of why Wishbone Ash was labeled as the British Allman Brothers.
Andy) Well, it’s funny, because when we first came over in the early seventies and started touring in the US, we were often on the road down south. A lot of our early fans were from the south. Many of the bands, like Skynyrd and stuff, I think they actually thought we were American. In later years we actually moved to the states. I still live in the states. You had an amazing pollination of stuff going on back in that period, and nobody really knew where anyone was from. It was a bit mystical. There wasn’t a specialization thing like these days. Now you’ve got to fit into these different genres. Back in the early seventies, as long as you had your own definitive sound, you created your own musical style, your own genre. Wishbone Ash definitely fell into that, and I think it’s why we stayed vital for so many years. On one hand, we were under the radar, yet we didn’t crash and burn as a singles act. We kept our integrity as a live performing act. We just developed our own sound.
BH) Are the dual lead guitars and vocal harmonies still prominent?
Andy) Yes, very much so, with a little bit of slide guitar in there. We’ve got a clean guitar sound, and we sort of pride ourselves on being a tight, melodic band really. We try to use the guitars a little like a horn section actually. I think we’ve pretty much explored different ways to use two guitars. It’s been done to death, you know, a couple of guys jamming together. We try to get a little more constructive with the guitar parts. Like you said, ‘Blind Eye’ was a great example, or any of the songs where the guitars step out front and become almost like a horn section.
BH) I understand it was your idea to use the dual leads, because the band couldn’t choose between you and Ted Turner.
Andy) The rhythm section was auditioning for the front line, and they found two of us, Ted Turner and myself. I had already been playing in a little twin guitar band. The rhythm section couldn’t decide which one of us to go with at the audition. They were thinking of putting a keyboard player and guitarist together, because Hammond organ was pretty popular at that time. It was really a bit of good fortune that in the end we got the two guitars together, Ted and myself. When we started playing as a foursome we immediately started to hit on the sound and ideas. One thing we did that perhaps other twin lead bands, or triple lead bands, didn’t do, was bring the bass specifically into the picture with the guitar harmonies. You’d hear the bass playing along with the lead, which often gave the music an incredibly fat sound. You’ve really got some different lines going on there.
BH) Talk about that particular sound check, in which you walked onstage, plugged in, and started jamming with Ritchie Blackmore.
Andy) Oh yeah, well, we just started getting a few dates opening up for other bands. We opened for Purple in the UK when they were just starting to come on strong. In those days it was like a new guitar slinger comes into town, you know. (Laughing) There has always been that thing with guitar players, where you’ve got to prove yourself and all. It was actually an exciting time for guitar players. I was kind of cheeky in those days. I was waiting for our turn at sound check and my gear was already set up. I was hanging out around the back in the dark corners of the stage when Ritchie was sound checking. He was checking out his AC30 and his Strat, just playing by himself. I just started to quietly join in with him. He’d play a lick and then I’d play a lick. Pretty soon we were bobbing back and forth. I think he quite enjoyed it, because at the end he came over and told me that he thought I sounded pretty good. He later introduced us to the guy who became our producer, Derek Ross. He, in turn, got us hooked up with MCA, the American side of the company. Another factor in our longevity is that we signed with the US label as opposed to the UK one, because at that point it was just a small outpost in London. Though MCA in LA was kind of late getting into the rock thing, they had just signed The Who and Elton John, and a bit later on, Skynyrd. We got good priority treatment on a worldwide level really, and that actually put us in good standing until this day. Actually, I owe Ritchie Blackmore quite a bit for that one. (Laughs)
BH) You’re now the manager of Wishbone Ash?
Andy) Yeah. Basically, I took the thing over some sixteen to eighteen years ago. We went through a few lineup changes and different managers. At the end of a day you just realize you’ve got more experience than anyone you could bring in. I just looked at my strengths and decided to take over the management. A lot of people are doing it these days; Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull comes to mind. A lot of people are in the same boat.
BH) Wishbone Ash is touring extensively in 2005.
Andy) Yes. We’re working harder than ever. We kicked off the year in Istanbul. We did three gigs out there, and we’ve just come off a run of festivals. And it always gets busy in the fall. So we’ll be going to the UK, and then we’ll do a bit of touring in America. Yes, we are doing a lot of touring at the moment.
BH) Are you still performing a lot from the big three: Wishbone Ash, Pilgrimage, and Argus?
Andy) Well, those first three albums are what established us. So we do feature them, because we know people want to hear the music that got them fired up in the first place, in their teens or early twenties. Of course, we don’t ignore that material, we’re happy to play it; but we also feature new material that we’ve been working on.
BH) I’m a huge fan of ‘Argus’.
Andy) Argus is a classic album; there’s no getting around it.
BH) Still doing ‘Blowin’ Free’?
Andy) We do.
BH) Talk about the band’s present lineup.
Andy) Ray Weston, the drummer, has been with us since about 1990 actually. So he’s been in the band a long time. He’s from Scotland. Both he and Bob Skeat, the bass player, have been fairly well known on the London session scene. In fact, Bob Skeat’s currently playing in the Brian May musical, ‘We Will Rock You’, in London. And ironically, he’s currently working with Laurie Wisefield, who was once a member of Wishbone Ash, and has played with Joe Cocker and Tina Turner. Bob still keeps a hand in the session scene whenever time permits. Anyway, those two guys have been with me the longest. The most recent member is Muddy Manninen, the other guitar player. He’s actually part of a connection we’ve developed in Finland. Our previous guitar player was from Finland. For some reason, there’ve been some great players to come out of that region, possibly because they got into the music a lot later than we did, in America and London. Muddy has been a joy to work with. He’s got a very classic style, and in addition to that he’s a phenomenal slide player. So we’ve pulled slide guitar back into the picture. We’ve got that going, which sort of adds to the textures in guitar sounds. So that’s the current lineup. We’re finishing up a new album, and hopefully it will be out in the spring.
BH) Talk about Blue Law.
Andy) That was something I got going with some guys from New York. It was in the nineties, and we did quite a bit of work in and around New York. We also did a couple of blues festivals in Europe. It was a great band, and a big band, about seven or eight people. It was great for me because I could actually get back to my roots, because in my case I used to play in soul and R&B bands in England. Stylistically, I’d try and emulate Steve Cropper and people like that. Blue Law was back to the horns and all, and it was great fun for me. It was really getting back out on the road, doing three sets a night, really upfront and personal with the crowd. I loved being part of that ensemble. But the band was so big, and it was unwieldy in terms of trying to keep everybody on the same page, touring schedules and all. All of these guys were into so many different things, so to keep it going became a problematic and growing concern. It wasn’t that we didn’t enjoy playing together, because we did. It’s tough with a band that big. So that actually passed on. But we did manage to produce a CD.
BH) What guitar players have influenced you most over the years?
Andy) Well, I was born in 1950, and I started playing when I was eleven. My life went along parallel with the development of rock and roll really. We used little transistor radios that we’d tune into what was known as pirate radio, radio Luxembourg. The first thing that really caught my ear back in those days was that song ‘Sleep Walk’. Later it was bands like The Shadows, which were like the British version of The Ventures, really. Hank Marvin was somebody who really had the tone thing down. He influenced a lot of people. The blues came in big in England. Like a lot of others, specifically, Albert King influenced me. I loved his Flying V style and tone. I listened to the other Kings and a lot of the American blues that was coming out.
Then everything in the UK sort of opened right up. We got into the progressive era. Then I was heavily influenced by a lot of the folkies that were around, people like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. There was a band in England called Pentangle, and also Fairport Convention. That’s when I got really interested in folk rock. I wouldn’t say we were as folkie as those people, but those influences came through. It hit people like Jimmy Page, too. In Zeppelin, he was definitely influenced by Bert Jansch. I then got into people like Richard Thompson. And broadening my musical ideas, Joni Mitchell became a huge influence on me, Mike Bloomfield, all kinds of people. Touring the States opened up our eyes to a lot more of the American scene. From that point on we were really influencing ourselves, I think. We just got so immersed in our own music that not much else filtered through.
I’ll always love Pete Townshend, which surprises some people because we’re a lead guitar band. But I’m an old rhythm player, and on our first tour of the States we opened for The Who. So watching him closely every night made a huge impact, though an unusual one for me.
BH) Want to talk about the new Wishbone Ash album and what’s happening presently?
Andy) Sure. The album was recorded up in Carlisle, Massachusetts, at a studio called Blue Jay Recording http://www.bluejaystudio.com/. It’s going to be a worldwide release by Eagle Rock, which is a UK company. We’ve been playing a lot of fan club conventions, one or two annually. It has been a very popular thing. We just did one in Pennsylvania, and we’ll be doing a big one in the UK in October. Our fans communicate with each other. In fact, we were one of the first bands to start up the rock and roll cruises, to the Caribbean and stuff. Several other bands like Journey and Little Feet have done similar things since. It’s a nice way, especially for people our age, to get together and shoot the breeze about music, and get up close and personal. So that’s been an interesting thing, and like I said, the band is touring a lot more than it has done in recent years. We’re enjoying it, too, probably because it’s in a lot more civilized manor, than it, perhaps, used to be. I enjoy the road. A lot of musicians seem to like playing live, but don’t like the traveling. Maybe I’m sick but I thrive on it. (Laughing) But you’ve got to have fun. And you can’t abuse yourself; those days are gone, in a way.
BH) Do you think the stories of abuse and partying on the road was kind of exaggerated back in the day?
Andy) Yeah, I do. I’m not saying there wasn’t a lot of partying going on, because when I look back at it now, there was probably way more partying than I realized at the time. I think we tended to keep more of it for when we were offstage, though. Particularly with our music it was pretty intense. Part of the reason I enjoy it now is because when you go out on the road you’ve got to be physically and mentally sharp. It’s like a test.
BH) Will you talk about your gear, Andy? Guitarists love to hear about the specifics behind that Andy Powell tone.
Andy) I made my name with a 1967 Gibson Flying V, which I still use. I retrofitted it with some original 1959 PAF pickups. They’re a little fatter sounding, a warmer tone. I still use that guitar. But I’ve also been featuring a Flying V custom made in the UK by Kevin Chilcott http://www.kevinchilcott-luthier.co.uk/, which also features a piezo pickup system. I use that in conjunction with the magnetic pickups. I recently featured Music Man guitars onstage. Basically, I use a combination of Fender sounding guitars and Gibson sounding guitars, like a lot of guitar players. When I move to the Fender thing, it’s Music Man guitars. Though in the studio, I specifically use an old 1952 Telecaster that used to belong to Roy Buchanan. It’s a real fat sounding Tele, and a lot of my lead stuffing on the album was actually recorded on that guitar. I’ll typically hook that up to an old ’59 Bassman or a Fender Concert. I use a lot of the old tweed amps.
BH) Is that Telecaster equipped with the typical single coils?
Andy) Yes, yet it’s fat sounding. They (’52 Telecasters) don’t sound like the modern Teles. They’ve got plenty of highs, but they don’t sound thin and weedy. It’s just a juicy guitar. You can pretty much play anything on it. I don’t really take it out on the road, but it’s been part of my arsenal of guitars since the mid seventies.
I’ve also got a bunch of Strats. I prefer the 50s style Strats with the fat necks and thicker sounding single coil pickups. Sometimes I’ll mount a Seymour Duncan and a mini JB (Jeff Beck) Humbucker in the treble position. I also do an adaptation on the tremolo system by a UK company called Easy-Mute http://www.easymute.freeserve.co.uk/. The Strat tremolo arms are always falling out, so this is a very nice modification.
I’ve dabbled with PRS guitars. I’ve got one of their early models, one of the first ones made, all mahogany, which sounds pretty good. It’s a very strong guitar. I don’t use it that much. But like I’ve said, Music Man guitars, they’re a fairly close approximation to a Telecaster in many respects. I just recently bought a John Sur guitar http://www.suhrguitars.com/, a Strat style; I think it’s called a Classic. I like those guitars very much. But I’ve pretty much stuck to the tried and tested vintage stuff, you know.
For acoustic I use an early 60s Epiphone Texan. It’s the same guitar John Renbourn used; I bought it for that reason. It’s a phenomenal sounding guitar. Of course, I’ve got a Martin D-35 and a bunch of other custom acoustics. But the Texan is like my Telecaster. If they took all my other guitars away, and just left me with those, and the Flying V, too, of course, those three would probably do it for me.
On stage we’ve used a mixture of Fender amps, mostly combos. I’m a big fan of the now discontinued Prosonic. Back in the seventies, we were originally pioneers of the Orange equipment. We were one of the first bands to take a huge rig of Orange amps out on the road. We had our entire back line stolen in St. Louis back in the seventies. They were pretty much in demand back in those days, and they’ve come back in fashion, too. The company that made and designed those amps was called Matamp http://www.matamp.co.uk/. The original Orange amps were called Orange/Matamps. The two parties split, but now we’re talking again with Matamp. It’s a company that was originally set up by a guy named Walter Mathias, in England. He was a German amp designer. We’re back in communication with them and they’re talking about building us a custom made back line once again. They’re actually building those amplifiers for us now. So, in the studio it’s Fenders, and possibly onstage it’ll be these new Matamps. In the meantime, in between all of that, we’ve used the old Marshall Plexis, Vox AC30s; we’ve tried lots of different things. But it tends to sort of come down to Fenders a lot of times, definitely vintage Fenders in the studio.
I hardly drive the preamp on my amps at all. If I want to treat the sound I’m a big fan of effects by a guy called Analog Man, based in Bethel, Connecticut http://www.analogman.com/. He makes a really nice overdrive pedal called the King of Tone http://www.analogman.com/kingtone.htm. I currently use that onstage. Other than that the effects are pretty minimal. I use a Hughes and Kettner Leslie simulation pedal, chorus pedal as well. I use some Fulltone stuff http://www.fulltone.com/. But I really want the sound of the guitar to come through the amplifier, so I really don’t want to cloud it up with too much processed stuff. I mean, if you’ve got a really good sounding electric guitar acoustically, with good pickups, it really comes down to the fingers and the sound of the amp.
I’ve been an endorser of D’Addario strings for a long time. They just seem to really do it for me. They last well and they’ve got a good tone. You know, in the old days we could never afford strings, so we’d put a new set of strings on a guitar, play them for about a month, take them off, and boil them up in a saucer. We’d then put them back on the guitar and they’d sound all shiny and bright again. (Laughing) Sometimes with the vintage Fenders I tend to not use the D’Addarios, though, because they’re a bit too bright for a Fender. So I’ll use the Fender Bullets. They’ve got more nickel in them, making it a softer tone. But D’Addarios have been it for a long time. Some guitars I set up with .10 thru .48. I use custom gauges, so I don’t buy the presorted packs. I just buy them in my gauges, .10, .13, .16, .28, .36, and .48. Some guitars, like the Tele, I’ll set up with nines, .9, .12, .16, .28, .34, and .46. It’s just a little bit lighter, for a lighter touch. It just depends on the guitar and what I’m using it for. I’ve been using D’Addario for quite a while and I’m used to the way they sound. They hold up well on the road. Basically, I try to get three gigs out of a set of strings. Some guitar players will change them every night, but I’m not a big fan of that. My other guitar player, Muddy, he likes the strings to really get worn in. He doesn’t like them when they’re bright and new.
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