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Jerry Donahue - Master of the 'caster

Issue #15

Sometime Hellecaster, sometime Fairport Convention guitarist Jerry Donahue is one of the world's greatest masters of the Telecaster. So why isn't he playing one now?
Lee Hodgson

Sometime Hellecaster, sometime Fairport Convention guitarist Jerry Donahue is one of the world's greatest masters of the Telecaster. So why isn't he playing one now? Lee Hodgson brings us a definitive interview.

I recall how, back in the early '90s at a sound check for a Guitar Institute masterclass with the Hellecasters, Jerry Donahue needed one of the loudspeakers in his Matchless combo disconnecting and I, being off duty and handy with a soldering iron, became his technician for, ooh, about five minutes! I’d heard about Jerry’s no compromise approach to tone so perhaps it should have come as no surprise that he preferred the sound of just one speaker from the pair (if my memory serves me correctly it was a specially modified Celestion Greenback that Jerry particularly liked to the exclusion of the other, different model contained within the combo – Matchless didn’t use identical speakers). Mr Donahue’s obsession with achieving a gutsy, balanced tone is now legendary. Indeed, as Jerry set up for the GI interview, sitting early on in the signal chain of Jerry’s modest pedal board I saw the result of one of his early collaborations with a manufacturer, the (Award) Session JD10 pre-amp, sadly no longer in production, which gives a wide range of classy tones, from silky to grinding, with wonderful sustain (it’s not a compressor as such, although it does give that typical “nnng” sound if set up a certain way and you plug a Tele into it). Ah, speaking of Teles, Jerry is considered one of the elite: a true “Master of the Telecaster”.

Jerry’s 1986 release, Telecasting (which was given an update in terms of more extensive live instrumentation and a remix with 1999’s Telecasting Recast) is one of those albums that every guitarist, especially Tele addicts, should own. It showcases his mind-boggling string-bending manoeuvres in a variety of musical settings, mostly with a Country bias, but not in a mainstream Nashville kind of way; rather, it’s Jerry’s idiosyncratic style, with folky tendencies.

The Folk connection goes back to Jerry’s relocation from America (he’s a native New Yorker) to Britain, which, back in the late '60s, had a burgeoning Folk-Rock scene and which had seen certain artists ‘go electric’ (“boo/yay” – delete as applicable). One of the first bands Jerry worked with was Poet And The One Man Band, closely followed by a relatively short stint with Fotheringay, which featured the sublime vocal talents of the late Sandy Denny. Then in 1972 he joined that great British folk-rock band, Fairport Convention, staying with them for three years.

Folk bands invariably feature a fiddle player, and I during our interview I asked Jerry if listening to, and ultimately learning, fiddle tunes was part of his agenda? He didn’t expand too much on the subject, but I understand that for former FC guitarist Richard Thompson, learning fiddle tunes was perhaps not so much a rite of passage as a means to appreciate and absorb the flavour, mood and vibrancy of the genre. Moreover, it was a means to develop a library of licks and, more often than not, extended lines to suit the Folk repertoire; and above all, it’s a great technique builder: playing speedy single note lines (mostly Mixolydian, Dorian and occasionally Aeolian) with articulation and a passionate, dynamic approach is a challenge that not enough guitarists have had the courage and determination to pursue. As an aside, perhaps you ought to check out the likes of Tony Rice, Dan Crary and the late Doc Watson, with their flat-picking flights of fancy.

Speaking of the flat-pick, Jerry began, like so many of his heroes or influences (which include Duane Eddy, Albert Lee and Clarence White), by using a regular or “flat” pick; but of course Jerry was also greatly influenced by the fingerpicking greats like Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, both of whom used a thumbpick. In his formative years and well into his career, Jerry would do what so many of us, myself included, have done, that is, to adopt a hybrid picking approach, which simply means pick and fingers; but that could mean either a flat-pick and fingers (as featured in the flamboyant, often virtuosic styles of the likes of Albert Lee, Arlen Roth, Ray Flacke and fellow Hellecaster, John Jorgenson), or thumbpick and fingers, as used by Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed. Like so many, myself included, Jerry found a typical thumbpick too “pointy”: it just stuck out too much… Yet in 1994 Jerry made the change to using thumbpick, but a rather different one: it’s a Herco, which, from the front resembles a regular shaped pick, but it’s worn on the thumb. I’ll let Jerry show you it and discuss it a little more in the video interview.

One of the things I was most intrigued about was, unsurprisingly, how he performs those behind-the-nut bends. I get the idea and the concept and the little bit of theory that might help understand what to go for, but which finger(s) would Jerry use to execute this bend as opposed to another? I was expecting a very specific and carefully thought through set of fingering choices, but I was surprised by what Jerry had to say, or rather, show on that subject. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Jerry was blasé, he just does, well, you’ll have to watch the interview to find out. I must say it was magnanimous of him to share his secrets so freely with us, so thanks, Jerry! (Perhaps he’s safe in the knowledge that mere mortals will never be able to do what he does without suffering mental or physical anguish!)

Some of Jerry’s greatest guitar work can be heard on albums by the late, great Gerry Rafferty, and in our interview Jerry talks at length and in detail about his time under the microscope… One of the most amazing guitar performances I’ve ever witnessed, however, is Jerry’s seemingly casual performance of ‘The Beak-The Claw’ as seen in a 1987 Equinox TV programme called 'Twang Bang Kerang – History of the Electric Guitar’. Each and every version of that tune (as you may know, ‘The Claw’ is a Jerry Reed classic that Jerry D has respectfully taken on), whether live or recorded, contains something a little different and the one I mention is just awesome! My Institute colleague Andy Saphir talks of how he really did wear out a VHS tape – remember those? – trying to learn that performance note-for-note… …on a Strat! Andy, like myself and so many other guitar players, can only sit in awe of Mr Donahue. And that’s just as regards his left hand actions; when we see what his right hand is doing as well, banjo rolls, open string runs and all the rest, it just becomes too much for the mind to take in, so perhaps we ought to just open our ears and shut our eyes and enjoy the sublime music that Jerry creates so effortlessly.

OK, our interview is ultimately and unashamedly about Jerry proudly promoting his latest guitar love, the Fret-King Black Label JD. In the interview he explains how various companies became involved with trying to meet his exacting needs but it’s only Trev Wilkinson (the designer behind the Fret King brand) that has taken the time and trouble to really listen to not just Jerry’s thoughts but the sounds that came out when they tried different components (all passive - no active by the way). As GI readers may recall, I liked the Fret-King JD so much that I bought one with my own money in December 2011 and, as you may also know, I reviewed that actual, road-tested, guitar, along with a stock model, back in issue 10.

Oh, I should say that, because he forgot to mention it in the interview, Jerry told me afterwards that he was keen for all Tele fans to check out his blog, where he very helpfully offers advice on how to adjust the bridge saddles for optimum (sweetest) intonation.


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Issue #75

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