Tag Archives: Denmark Street

A Life in Guitars, part 2 – Electrics

My longest-serving electric is a Fender Highway One Stratocaster. I bought it new in 2007, but I think it had been kicking around in the shop for a year or two as it has a 1960s-style small headstock, and at some point around 2006 the Highway One range was revamped, with the Strats getting bigger, ’70s-style headstocks (and hotter pickups). Because it was an older model, it had been discounted, bringing it down to a price where I could, at a stretch, afford it. Highway Ones were conceived as workhorse “player’s” guitars – officially American made, but with at least some of the manufacturing process taking place in Fender’s Mexican factory, and hence sold at a lower price than American Standard and Professional models (or whatever they were called at that point). They had thin nitrocellulose finishes, supposedly designed to scuff up and look played-in quickly, but again, that was probably at least partly a cost-reduction thing.

Strat, when blue. Live with Carterhaugh at the Camden Eye, 2008. My good friend Chris Martin on drums

Mine began life a cool translucent blue, but about four years ago I followed my heart and asked the great Andy Gibson (guitar tech based in Denmark Street) to remove the paint, so I’d have the natural-finish Strat I’d hankered after for years. It’s put in a lot of hard yards for me, but still looks, sounds and plays great. To aid tuning stability (which I have to say is rock solid), the tremolo is blocked off.

That same Strat, stripped bare and refinished by Andy Gibson. Photo by Andy, taken in his workshop.

My other main electric is my most recent purchase. In 1997, while still at school, I did a few weeks’ work for my dad during the summer holidays and used the money earned to buy an Epiphone SG. I hung on to it for years but decided in 2019 I’d earned an upgrade to a Gibson model. Thing is, when I tried out various SG Standards, Specials and ’61 Reissues in a shop in Camden, I didn’t like any of them as much as a Les Paul Tribute model that I’d tried out on a whim because it was on display near the till. Although I’d have willingly paid whatever the asking was for an SG Standard if I’d have fallen in love with it, the Les Paul was about £300 cheaper, too (like my Highway One Strat, it had been discounted as it was the previous year’s model).

Live with the Les Paul. James McKean and the Blueberry Moon, Spit & Sawdust 2019

Les Paul Tributes are the cheapest Gibson LP range, selling for a couple of hundred quid less than Studios. They have the same pickups as Studios, but an even more stripped-down finish. That’s actually a plus point for me – as you can probably tell, given I love the Takamine EN series soundhole rosette and I stripped the finish off my Stratocaster, I’m very much of the less-is-more school aesthetically.

Les Paul, close up

Anyway, this Les Paul was more to my taste in terms of feel than any of the SGs I tried, even the one I liked the most, which was the Standard. The SG Standard had a thin neck, wide but low frets and high-output pickups – it just felt aggressive in a way that even a set-up (lowering the pickup height, raising the strings a little) wouldn’t have compensated for. The Les Paul could do aggressive, but it sounded sweeter played clean, and seemed more versatile. I’d never really seen myself as a Les Paul guy, but there was no denying it. I liked the LP a lot more. I’ve never regretted the purchase. That said, I’m pretty sceptical of some of Gibson’s cost-cutting measures like mounting all of the wiring on a PCB, so I asked Andy Gibson (yes, him again) to pull all that out and rewire it by hand. Now I can clean the pots if I need to, and it’ll be easier to change pots and pickups down the line if I get the urge.

My third electric is an in-betweener, although I bought it before the Les Paul, in 2014. It’s an Epiphone Casino, in natural finish. You know the drill: P90s, no centre block, trapeze tailpiece. It’s pretty much stock, other than the bridge – the original unit buzzed annoyingly so I replaced it with a Tone Pros (once again, courtesy of Andy Gibson). Casinos are incredibly adaptable. They can chime like crazy if that’s what you need them to do. They can get jazzy. They can give you a gritty, bluesy lead tone, as Gary Clark could no doubt tell you. They even sound great with heavy distortion, though – being hollow – they’ll feed back at the drop of the hat if you’re playing above bedroom volume levels. But, whether playing clean or overdriven, I’ve seldom had a problem finding a spot in relation to the amp where I could control the feedback, and I frequently use my Casino to double-track distorted rhythm parts, as it gives a distinctly different sound to my Les Paul. Distorted P90s have a sparkle to them that’s undeniably single coil, but a more balanced sound than Fender-style singles, with greater low end and added volume. That’s what works so well about the Casino for me: occupying something of a tonal halfway house between Strat and Les Paul, it’s fantastic as “glue” within a mix, bridging two sounds that otherwise might be a little disparate. It’s in the mix on virtually every song I record that has electric guitars, often in such a way that you wouldn’t know it’s there.

Casino, in rehearsal at One Cat studio, 2015-ish

That’s mostly it. But there’s a bass to account for, and some miscellanea, in case anyone is still interested (Still? They didn’t care in the first place, says the voice in my head. Probably correctly.)

A Life in Guitars, part 1 – Acoustics

Here we go. The most self-indulgent series of I’ve ever written. Feel free to skip, unless you happen to be a connossieur of non-vintage, non-collectable guitars.

Over the course of more than 20 years of playing music, I’ve acquired a decent amount of gear, but it’s all workhorse-level stuff. Good quality, but modest in price. Nothing high end, nothing vintage.

For years, this was due to a lack of budget. I tried to make a living as a freelancer in my twenties, but with little financial reward. Later, it became more of a philosophical choice – two different less expensive guitars would give me more tonal options than one more expensive guitar, as long as those cheaper guitars sounded good in themselves and played well. None of which is to say I wouldn’t lay down big(gish) money for an instrument if one came along that I fell in love with, but it’s not something I’ve done up to now, and I think it would take something quite special to make it happen. A vintage Martin or Gibson acoustic – something like that.

I’ve written about my main acoustic before. A 1999 Takamine EN10, it’s been a constant companion for more than two decades, and is the instrument I’m referring to if I say “my guitar”. It’s the one I’d rush back into a burning building for, if Mel and our cat CJ were already safe. Cedar top, mahogany back and sides, rosewood fingerboard and that distinctive 1990s Takamine soundhole rosette that always looked smart and no-nonsense to me when I saw them on stage or in adverts, years before I got one. It’s nicely played in (it long ago “let go”, and acquired a woodier, mellower depth than it had when new), and is set up to accomodate heavy, low-tuned strings (I tune CGDEAD). I’ve written 99% of the songs I’ve ever written on it, and the idea of making music without it is close to inconceivable.

Takamine EN10 on stage at the Oasthouse Theatre, Rainham, Kent. October 2019

Its partner in acoustical crime is my 2001 Seagull S12+, bought from Rose Morris in Denmark Street in 2001, with some of the proceeds of a summer spent doing manual labour in the maintenance department at Westminster Cathedral. Unlike my EN10, this model has not not been discontinued and you can still buy something very similar today. It’s £150 more today than I paid twenty years ago, but still, it’s a damn fine guitar at the price. Mine’s got a lot of wear on it – for years it was my main live acoustic guitar in two separate bands – but it still sounds great, and it’s not all that hard to play for an acoustic 12. The string spacing is wide enough to accommodate fingerpicking, but the neck is not so wide that getting your hand around it is an insurmountable challenge. I tune it DGCFAD to avoid breaking too many high Gs.

Seagull 12-string. With James McKean, Dan McKean and Matt Lloyd (hidden) at the much-missed Gladstone Arms

A final flat-top spends most of its time in a cupboard. It’s a Jasmine TS70S from the late 1990s. Jasmines were – and I believe still are – beginners’ guitars made by Takamine. This one’s a dreadnought, laminate top, back and sides but not bad-sounding for all that. I often use it for Nashville-tuned parts, or occasionally for a contrasting tone in a mix that contains several tracks of acoustic. It has a somewhat honky, nasal type of tone that cuts through when paired with more mellow, woodier acoustic tones. It’s not much to look at, but it’s a useful instrument to have around, and it finds its way on to a surprising number of recordings. I also use it live sometimes if I’m playing a gig that, for whatever reason, I don’t want to take my Takamine to.

Jasmine dreadnought, pictured at the foot of the bed. The rug is grey, but looks rather blue here, oddly.

Next time, electrics.

The future of the 12 Bar Club

Writing last month about the closure of the 12 Bar Club in its Denmark Street location in St Giles, I said:

This is a terrible shame for London’s music-playing community. With Enterprise, the 12 Bar (and across the street the Alleycat) and the retailers, Denmark Street has been a real community, where musicians played, rehearsed, bought and maintained their gear, and hung out. That will end now. Nothing they could put in its place there will ever replace that.

Nothing, that is, that the property developers behind all of this, the Consolidated Property Group, put there will ever replace it. If you’re having trouble imagining what that will be, take a walk through the alleyway next to St Giles in the Fields, past the Phoenix Garden, across Shaftesbury Avenue, down Mercer Street and into St Martin’s Lane. Continue until you see a Jamie’s Italian on your left hand side. That’s the western entry to St Martin’s Courtyard. Give it five years or so, and in all likelihood that’s what Denmark Street will look like: a privately owned piece of defensible space, monitored discreetly by private security, comprising a spa, some expensive (though not exclusive) retail and some upper-middle-price-range restaurants.

Feel like we have enough of these places already and don’t need another? Me too.

But this is a digression. As I said, nothing that Consolidated (what a hateful, foreboding name!) put there will be an adequate replacement for what the musician community of London is losing. That’s why we have to replace it ourselves. The glory of the 12 Bar Club was that it was one of the few really great central London venues, in a place that was a destination already. Denmark Street had been a musicians’ hub long before there was a 12 Bar Club; musical folk wanted to spend time there, and all of us living in this sprawling city were at an equal disadvantage getting there. It wasn’t in anyone’s neighbourhood, so it was in everyone’s neighbourhood. And it was readily accessible to those coming in from outside the city, too, who naturally enough gravitate to the West End.

I live in Lewisham, south-east London, 10 miles from Holloway. If the 12 Bar had reopened in Brixton, it would be 9.5 miles away from a musician living in Leyton. That’s the scale that London is built on. Those of us who live south of the river, or out in the west, must resist the temptation to start thinking of the 12 Bar as a “north London venue” and forget about playing there, hanging out there. If we do, it will likely fail. And we will all have lost something special. The continuance of a London music community is entirely dependent on the effort we put in to maintaining it.

12 Bar Club

A recent recording

 

The 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street to close in January 2015

When I first started playing solo acoustic gigs as an 18-year-old, one of my ambitions was to play at the 12 Bar Club.

The 12 Bar is a small (150 capacity) but rambling live music venue at the far end of Denmark Street, close to what I’ve come to think of as Google Plaza but which is, I guess, still properly St Giles Circus. It consists of four rooms, in an L shape, with the tiny live room at the back. If you were starting a music venue from scratch, you wouldn’t plan anything like the 12 Bar. The site of an old forge, it has a tiny stage (made smaller by the remnants of the furnace), a small area for punters standing (or sometimes sitting) in front of the stage, an overhanging balcony that came up level almost with the front of the stage but only sat about 15 people, and no sound insulation from the bar, which despite being in a different room is only about eight feet from the stage. Yet despite all these seeming limitations, I love it.

If you want to know how important a venue the 12 Bar is, think on this: in its 25-year history, veterans like Bert Jansch, the Albion Band, Gordon Giltrap and Peter Rowan played it. Roddy Frame, Boo Hewerdine and Robyn Hitchcock played it. Martha Wainwright, Joanna Newsom, KT Tunstall, Damien Rice, Regina Spektor, the Libertines, Keane, Jamie T, even Jeff Buckley played there. Whether I or you or anyone else likes those artists is not relevant in this case. What is relevant is that for a couple of generations of musicians, the 12 Bar Club has been an important rung on the ladder, one which you could play knowing whose footsteps you were walking in, and as a result its warmly regarded by practically everyone who’s ever played there, folkie, anti-folkies, punk rockers and roots songwriters alike.

I’ve played it more times than I have any other venue: a bunch of solo gigs (six or seven probably – conceivably more), a few with Yo Zushi, one memorable show with Great Days of Sail (the band I was in with Yo 10 years ago), an early gig with my old band the Fourth Wall, the last-ever Fourth Wall-related show.

So I have a lot of happy memories of that place. The show where I supported Berlin-based American songwriter David Judson Clemons, which I think was the first time I played solo there. The aforementioned GDoS gig, which we packed out, the one and only time I’ve been been part of a spontaenous, unplanned encore: James McKean joined us to sing You Ain’t Going Nowhere and the on-stage crowededness crossed the line from “impractical” to “farcical”. The time when I looked up during my set and realised that TV newsreader Martyn Lewis was watching me (his daughter Sylvie was top of the bill that night), looking very serious and newsreaderly. That time when a group of very dressed-up soul music fans who’d come to watch an after-show set by Roachford caught the back end of a Yo Zushi Band set (a particularly ill-prepared one at that) and looked rather flummoxed by what they saw.

In 33 days it will be closed, a casualty of the Crossrail development. The large Enterprise rehearsal complex, across the alleyway (Denmark Place) behind the club, will close also. I don’t know whether the buildings will be demolished. The 12 Bar is part of a terrace, so if it is to be knocked down, I assume that Hank’s guitar shop next door would have to go, too. Enterprise could be knocked down without it affecting the fabric of the buildings that face on to Denmark Street though. Conceivably the property developers (Consolidated) just want a nice shiny retail outlet there and would rather the place wasn’t filled with scruffy rock’n’rollers. We’ll have to see. I’m not optimistic about the future of Denmark Street though. I suspect that rents will continue to rise and the instrument shops will bow to the inevitable. With no form of rent control in place, central London real estate is too expensive for independent retailers, even niche ones like instrument shops. Unless Denmark Street is made a conservation area like Hatton Garden (and Consolidated are obviously not keen on this), an era looks to be ending.

Andy Lowe did a heroic job programming the live music there. In the course of more than a dozen gigs I played there, the bills were always high quality and thoughtfully put together. I was never on the bill with an inappropriate act, I never saw anyone on there who wasn’t up to the job. I could say that about no other venue. He did all this while being tremendously likeable and friendly, and without wanting to take up too much of his time, I stopped for a chat with him whenever I could.

There have been rumours about this for a long while, and the 12 Bar Club’s owner, Carlo Mattiucci, has obviously been prepared and look set to move the club to a new venue. But still, this is a terrible shame for London’s music-playing community. With Enterprise, the 12 Bar (and across the street the Alleycat) and the retailers, Denmark Street has been a real community, where musicians played, rehearsed, bought gear and hung out. That will end now. Nothing they could put in its place there will ever replace that.

ross 12 bar
On stage at the 12 Bar Club, c. 2004-5

ross 12 bar 14
On stage at the 12 Bar Club, c. 2014