My favourite guitar player isn’t a household name.
The thing about music criticism I’ve realised over the years I’ve dabbled in it is, all criticism is fundamentally a very personal thing. You can look at something in the broader cultural context, you can use all the fancy words you want to describe it, and yet in the end you often have to go with your gut. Does this move you?
There’s many guitar players out there who I dig, whose technical mastery is next to none. You can’t ignore Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, B.B. King, Joni Mitchell or Nancy Wilson, Django Reinhardt, George Harrison or Stevie Ray Vaughan, Prince or Frank Zappa, Chuck Berry or Pete Townsend. And I like pretty much all of ‘em.
But when it comes to the guitarist who moves me the most, who evokes pictures in my brain that none of the rest do, it’s Richard Thompson I turn to every time. He is a comfort for me in troubling times.
Thompson is not a rock god celebrity, although among a certain brand of music fan he’s certainly well loved. And for me, he’s among the most soulful of guitar players, his work reaching deep into some kind of elemental place. From his early days with folk-rockers Fairport Convention to his stunning collaborations with his former wife Linda Thompson and on to his venerable solo career, Thompson’s distinctive yearning sound is one I turn to again and again in life to get a break from the world.
I first cottoned on to Thompson with his 1991 album Rumor and Sigh, full of gently askew humour and pathos, with the cutting observations and forensic bits of detail in his songwriting that also make him one of our best lyricists. The “hit” single from that album, “I Feel So Good,” with its chorus, “I feel so good I’m going to break somebody’s heart tonight” – sums up Thompson’s worldview – happy, yet a bit bitter, nostalgic, yet optimistic. When I listened to that cassette I picked up at a shopping mall somewhere in suburban California years ago, I was transported to a new place. I’ve been going back there ever since.
Most of those who we think of when we think of the greatest guitar players are men, and the vast majority of them play with a very masculine, dominating swagger – picture Eddie Van Halen soloing, Pete Townshend windmilling. Swagger is a very big part of the rock guitar sound and hey, I love it, too.
Yet Thompson, unlike a lot of guitar gods, doesn’t play with a lot of ego. There’s little boasting in his sound, but instead a kind of cathartic release, whether he’s finger-picking a gentle ballad or soaring into dazzling long rides. There’s a great quote about the legendary Howlin’ Wolf attributed to producer Sam Phillips that I often think of whenever I listen to Thompson: “This is where the soul of man never dies.”
There’s deep riches in Thompson’s catalogue over his 50-year career I never stop enjoying exploring. The heartbreaking character portraits of “Beeswing” or “Vincent Black Lightning 1952,” or the explosive release of “Wall of Death” or “Calvary Cross,” where you can feel Thompson getting lost in the song’s story, his guitar jams a pivotal cog in the machine of songcraft rather than just being showy.
“I like playing guitar to accompany a voice, or if there is a solo, then extending the narrative of the song,” he once told The Guardian. The slow stair-stepping chord progression of “Calvary Cross,” with its building tension and release, floors me every time I listen to it, and when I dive into the never-ending joys of sprawling live versions of it.
Look, I’m not any kind of technical music critic. I’m a listener, who’s darned clueless when it comes to the ins and outs of how gorgeous sounds are made. Hendrix made amazing, unmistakable sounds with the guitar, but how he made ‘em, I couldn’t tell you.
So with Richard Thompson, for me, it’s all about how the music hits the gut. And he moves me.