Nic Jones - His Guitar Style

Mon, 05/31/1999 - 12:09
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Nic Jones - His Guitar Style

In the late 1970s, at the height of the revival, Nic Jones was probably the most sought after solo performer on the British folk scene. He had an armoury of guitar techniques, a lyrical style of singing, and a varied choice of mostly traditional material that he made modern and relevant to today by his arrangements.

Nic was born at Orpington, in Kent, on the 9th of January, 1947. His father owned newsagents shop. When Nic was two years of age the family moved to Brentwood, Essex and ran newsagents shops first at Gidea Park and then at Chelmsford. Later, Nic attended Sir Anthony Brown's School for Boys at Brentwood. This was a public school. A year below Nic was Noel Edmonds, the disc jockey and TV presenter. Another old boy was Jack Straw, who had yet to develop his taste for denying old age pensioners the right to keep pets in council houses. (Do you remember that London borough scandal, when hundreds of cats and dogs were put down?)

Anyway, Nic did not like public schools in general, and his in particular. At the age of about 17 he left and did a variety of jobs - petrol pump attendant, insurance office clerk and lifeguard at the local swimming pool. He had taught himself to play the guitar and learned to read music.

Nigel Patterson, a school friend of Nic's, was in a group called The Halliard. This consisted of Nigel, Dave Moran and guitarist Geoff Harris. Nigel and Dave wanted to go professional but Geoff did not, so he left and Nic replaced him. The Halliard were a popular band and played all over the country. I was in the Black Country Three at the time and we used to swop clubs with The Halliard. Nic ran a club in Brentford, Dave Moran had one in Chelmsford, and they had another at Braintree.

The Halliard lasted for about three years. It broke up in 1968 when the members started to develop different interests - Dave Moran wanted to do social work, for example. They had made two recordings for Saga: "The Irish in Me", which they hated but which got high in the Spanish charts; and one of their broadside songs, which was never released, ostensibly because they would not sign away their publishing rights. Some of their club songs were recorded by my father in the lounge of our house in Wolverhampton. These "field recordings" were put on to an LP, The Halliard : Jon Raven, which they sold on their farewell tour.

With the demise of The Halliard, Nic went solo and carved for himself a glittering career. He met and married Julia and lived in Chelmsford. They lived there until 1974 when they moved to Doddington, near March, in Cambridgeshire. Nic cut a striking figure. He was tall, athletically lean and handsome with bushy eyebrows and for a time he sported a Mexican style moustache. I once did a concert with Nic in Stafford and we had a drink in the pub beforehand. I also had a Mexican moustache and I remember thinking then that we looked a right pair of renegades out on the town and looking for trouble.

Nic did short tours, with a few days at home in between, and tried to avoid one-off bookings. He was a young man, in good health and "it was a good life". He made four solo LPs for Bill and Helen Leader's Trailer label, "Ballads and Songs", "Nic Jones", "Noah's Ark Trap", and "From a Devil to a Stranger"; and one for Topic, namely "Penguin Eggs". Nic was also in the very short-lived Bandoggs ("wild dogs"), which consisted of Nic, Tony Rose, and Pete and Chris Coe. In 1978 they made one LP for Trailer, did a two week tour and disbanded.

Nic was a quick worker, both in making arrangements and in recording. If a song hadn't worked after three takes he abandoned it. His recordings were always "honest". That is, he sang and played as live. He did not multi-track - putting the guitar part down and then singing after, on another track - which many of his contemporaries were doing. The only time he did this was to add a fiddle part, and that it is quite permissible.

Nic did some radio work, including the John Peel show, and was also in demand as a session musician. My brother, Jon, used him on several LPs - "Songs of a Changing World", on which he also sang solo, albeit when he was in his over-ornamented Delaney's Donkey braying phase; "English Sporting Ballads", accompanying Martin Wyndham Read, and "Andy's Gone", on which he again accompanied Martin. He also provided guitar accompaniments for Jon on an LP called English Country Songs, but the master tape was accidentally erased at the studio before the record was made. Others he worked with included Maddy Prior and June Tabor (on the Silly Sisters LP), and Barbara Dickson; and he has fond memories of doing a TV soup advert with Peter Bellamy in Norwich.

Nic was always very professional in his work. He never drank alcohol whilst performing and had given up smoking at about the age of 20, when he married Julia. He has always had strong opinions and did not suffer fools gladly. Once, up north somewhere, he had a noisy audience, so he turned his back to them and played to the wall until the chattering subsided.

Of his contemporaries Nic particularly liked the guitar playing of Bert Jansch and the singing of Shirley Collins. He thought Shirley was the bee's knees, "because she really felt what she was singing about". However he has always been receptive to all kinds of music, from Ry Cooder (a particular favourite to this day) and Lou Reed to African traditional. "And Ray Charles", he adds; "I learned a lot from Ray Charles". He liked Archie Fisher and greatly admired Alex Campbell. "He was superb. He always did a good night for us at the club". Nic has written some nine songs but has only recorded three of them. The others he threw away.

By 1982 Nic was in his prime. Then, in February of that year he was driving home having played at Glossop Folk Club. He was tired and, on a bend in the road between Peterborough and March, he ran into a fully loaded lorry which had pulled out of the Wittlesea Brickworks. He was taken to hospital and stayed there for eight months, being released in September of that year.

He was in a very bad way indeed. Both legs, both arms and both jaws were broken, his brain was badly damaged and his right side co-ordination was gone. For weeks on end he had his head in a cage, a tube down his throat, and was covered in plaster. He could not move anything and was unable to speak. Julia kept all but a few very close friends away, and these were subjected to watching him trying to wrench off the cage which had been screwed into his skull. One poor chap almost went into hysterics when Nic suddenly pulled out his own tracheotomy tube.

He did not recognise people, even his own mother, and went though a period when he thought every visitor was "out to get him". The only memories he has today are of the time they came to remove the plaster from his right leg - he thought they were going to cut his leg off - and of the nurses. Not the blonde ones, just the dark-haired nurses. He often mentions these today, as much to tease Julia as anything. But when pushed he admits that his memory of them is mostly really from what others have told about his infatuation. "Anyway", I said, "it didn't affect your libido then? "Oh no!" he laughs, "I was a dirty young man then and I'm a dirty old man now".

Today, fifteen years on, Nic is very philosophical about the whole thing. "If I hadn't hit that lorry I might have gone a mile down the road and had an even worse accident; I could have been killed". He just feels lucky to be alive. There is no bitterness, and except for a list to starboard you would not think anything was physically amiss. He won't be running any marathons, but mentally he is a better adjusted man than most of us, and if we were all as easy-going and grinned as much as he does the world would be a better place. The only real cloud in his sunny sky is his frustration at not being able to play the guitar as well as he used to. This is primarily because of a co-ordination problem in the right hand. He practises a lot and still gets much pleasure out of playing, but will probably never perform in public again.

Nic is aware that with modern studio techniques he could multi-track and "fake it", but he is not interested in such malarkey. I told him of the lengths some groups and solo artistes go to these days - sending tapes by post to other musicians for them to make their contribution at leisure, often slowing the tape down and other tricks. He was horrified. At being told that it was common for people like David Bowie and UB40 to mime at live concerts he was aghast. Julia jumps in: "There you are Nic, that's what we'll do. Put you on at Cambridge. I'll be round the back pulling the strings. Nobody would ever know!"

Now Nic only wants to play better for himself, not so that he can go out playing live again. He enjoys his present, easy life. The fiddle has been dropped altogether. He had a nice, light touch, but he no longer has the flexibility in his wrists to be able to play satisfactorily.

I asked him what kind of music he would perform if all was well and he was on the road again. His answer was that he would only do things that really meant something to him, that he could sing with conviction, that had a relevance to both him and the audience. Folksongs as such are of little interest. It is the individual piece that matters. He is very disparaging about many of the songs he used to sing, "because they are not relevant to today". This is something of a hobby-horse. Julia thinks that this dismissal of traditional material is partly because subconsciously it has a painful association. It belonged to another life and that is done and gone with now.

Nic talks about writing his own songs, he always is, though never actually gets round to doing it. He really is an idle so and so, but then he always was. Nic can be quite loquacious, but ask him to write some sleeve notes for one of his recordings, for example, and you are lucky to get a dozen words. So, I suggested he write poems. I'm into that myself these days, and I tell him that many of the best ones are very short. "Behind the Odeon", he says. There you are Nic your first poem, and it's in print. You are now a published poet!

Today, Nic lives the life of a kept man in a pleasant suburb of York near the university. About Julia he says: "She has really looked after me. Most women would have left me by now. She's amazing. She's a great girl. I find it difficult to say how magnificent she has been. Its crazy, I get all embarrassed at saying how wonderful she has been. She's a solid person".

Julia works for a charity called York Homestart, a group of volunteers who support families going through a rough patch. She and Nic have two children: Joe who plays the guitar, sings and writes songs and who has just left to live in Newcastle; and Helen, who has just started at the University of Leeds. Then there is Harry, an adorable silver-grey bearded collie whom they rescued from a dog's home, and three cats, Theo (Theopoulos P. Wilderbeest), Freda and Barney.

Nic walks Harry a lot, reads a lot, and goes to the Railway Institute to play snooker and chess two evenings a week. He drinks endless cups of tea, has porridge for breakfast every morning and Weetabix for supper every evening. He loves curries, which he cooks himself using recipes from Indian Cooking by Savitri Chowdhary. (His spice mixture is Garam Masala). His memory of events before his accident is as good as it ever was, which was not all that clever anyway - he got his wedding date wrong on Joe's birth certificate! 

NIC JONES' Guitar Style

Nic spent many hours in the sound archives at Cecil Sharp house and was knowledgeable about traditional styles of both singing and fiddle playing. However, he also liked modern popular music, especially that of the American West Coast, such as the Eagles. This accounts for his "singing behind the beat", his characteristic easy listening sound, and also the modern chords and syncopation's that he often used at unexpected moments. This blending of the old and the new was done with taste and restraint; it was delicious.

His early guitar styles are very English, and some were quite lute-like. He used the standard tuning, and adaptations of it. His accompaniments are a varied and imaginative bunch - a tune played in counterpoint to the song melody, the tune followed in fourths below with a tremolo drone, a rock riff, a moving bass line, etc. Seven of these songs and their accompaniments are transcribed note for note by Nic and myself in my English Folk Guitar (1976). These are: "Annan Water", "The Butcher and the Tailor's Wife", "Dance to Your Daddy", "Don't You be Foolish Pray", "Lord Marlborough", and "Sir Patrick Spens". Nic was then influenced by Martin Carthy's Blues derived "monotonic bass, tune in the treble" technique and gravitated to open tunings. He admired Carthy and acknowledges the debt that we all owe to him. Equally, Carthy is quick to show admiration for Nic's work, especially these early pieces.

Imperceptibly Nic developed the style for which he is best known and which is widely imitated to this day. Towards the end of his career he used open tunings in C and G (see below) and a variety of rhythmic patterns that characteristically had a missing, damped beat. This took the place of the off-beat drum, endemic in modern popular music. He played with a plastic thumb pick and the nails of his right hand were bitten to the quick; like lutenists, he plucked the strings with the flesh only. To get volume without nails one has to pluck very hard. This leads to the strings frequently being lifted up and slapped down on the fingerboard. (Carthy, of course, plays with his nails, as do Classical players).

This "spitting" sound combined with damped bass strings (muffled by placing the thumb palm on the strings close to the bridge) was an important part of his very percussive, rhythmical sound. He dropped the idea of playing the tune as an accompaniment, which was, and still is, the essence of Carthy's technique, and reverted to playing chords, albeit with considerable skill and imagination. His classic Canadee-i-o accompaniment, for example, incorporated a scale phrase in tenths and some very tasteful "bends".

Technically, everything he did was quite easy, and Nic freely admits that. He was, after all, primarily a singer, not a solo guitarist. Today he talks about himself as being "a crap guitarist". Baloney! This is a mixture of false modesty and the fact that what he did was natural and easy to him and therefore needed little effort on his part. Unless one has to work hard at something one often undervalues one's achievements. Nic rarely used great barre and the left hand led the life of Riley. Most of his "sound" came from the right hand. Nic executed his chop, his missing beat, by striking down with his middle and ring fingers together. They struck the strings, mostly in the bass area, and then stayed there for a moment to damp the sound. The result was a subdued click. I have heard many people imitate this but almost all do it too viciously. The result is an unmusical clang, especially when amplified through a P.A. What many do not realise is that Nic executed this "damped click" by striking the strings very close to, and often actually on, the bridge.

On a number of occasions I had conversations with Nic about guitar techniques. He admired the skills involved in playing Classical and Flamenco and incorporated some of them into his own style. I remember him asking if it was fitting to use vibrato in folk guitar music. I said that I thought it was, if used with discretion, and subsequently Nic used this to good effect - listen to Canadee-io. The tremolo is another technique he flirted with. I also remember mentioning the use of "light and shade", playing louder and quieter, a basic musical effect used by almost all musicians except folk artistes. Nic also used this on occasion - hark to Canadee-i-o again.

From his fiddle playing came the "dips and raises", the slight accents and spaces that give the lilt so perfected by the top Irish fiddlers, which he incorporated into his singing style. It was these subtleties that lifted Nic above the pack. He absorbed and integrated all these and more so that they never sound contrived or unnatural. (It is noticeable that many world-class musicians play very stiffly at times, especially in the way they labour to make every note of an ornament equal and as strong as the main melody note, and their mundane, somewhat heavy, treatment of rhythm).

Another point of interest is that Nic sometimes uses his index finger to pluck the on-beat bass note, not his thumb which then played with less volume on a lower, off-beat, bass note. I have heard it said that Nic got this from banjo frailing, where the thumb plays an open string drone. But he refutes this, even though, I must admit, there are distinct similarities. I have heard a five string banjo player make a guitar sound more like Nic that Nic himself! Incidentally, Nic still has his old Fylde Oberon guitar. It was damaged in the accident, but was repaired and sounds fine.

Nic Jones' Tunings

Here are the tunings most used by Nic in the time before his accident.

G major D G D G B D

C major C G C G C C

G minor D G D G Bb D

C minor C G C G C Eb

G modal D G C G C D

C modal C G C G C D

He also used D A D G A D, which is very popular with Irish musicians today.

Here are some song titles and their tunings.

Canadee-i-o, Wanton Seed, Gordon, Ten Thousand Miles and Wanton Glove are all in C modal; Crockery Ware and Indian Lass are in G major; Isle de France is in G modal; and Miles Weatherhill is in C minor. He did, of course, sometimes use a capo to alter the pitch.

It should be noted that today Nic only plays in the standard tuning, as do most of the younger folk players I see these days, especially the singer-songwriters. Personally I welcome this trend. The character of a stringed instrument is very much linked to its tuning. What is more, most of the melancholic, harp-like major 2nd, minor 7th and suspended 4th chords that are typically used in open and modal tunings are equally easily made in the standard guitar tuning). I know, EADGBE is a compromise to make playing in many keys possible. But it is an extremely good compromise, and one that has proved its worth over many centuries to millions of players of all kinds of music.

- by Mike Raven