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This article was originally published in issue #4
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When it comes to gear, Bruce is no hoarder or collector, although what little he has is gear that has truly made pop history.
Before the Beatles they were the biggest band in Britain - and in many other countries around the world. The Shadows didn't just do for electric guitar in the UK what the Ventures did in the USA, they made theme tunes for an entire generation that went on to include melodically inspired guitarists like Brian May, Jeff Beck, Wishbone Ash's Andy Powell, Mark Knopfler, Tommy Emmanuel, Neil Young, Frank Zappa and even Carlos Santana! Driving the band's sound was the wonderful rhythm playing of Bruce Welch OBE. Guitar teacher and GI contributor Lee Hodgson recently met the great man for our in-depth interview. He also got to gaze in awe at the first ever Fender Strat in Britain!
And when did it all begin? Cue spooky music - in 1959
I don’t know about you but I can’t imagine a melody, or any kind of lead guitar playing come to that, sounding good for an extended period without some form of complimentary accompaniment, either in the form of interesting underlying harmony or a propulsive rhythm, or both. Even a lead guitarist as revered as Hank Marvin needs a helping hand or two!
Bruce Welch OBE, founding member of Britain’s most successful and hugely influential instrumental group, The Shadows, calls himself a “driving” guitar player, and the importance of his role as their rhythm guitarist cannot be underestimated. While America had – and Japan still has – The Ventures, for countless aspiring British players, The Shadows are the epitome of guitar-driven greatness.
Born in Bognor, Sussex, but living his early life in County Durham in the north-east of England, Bruce formed a skiffle band, The Railroaders, aged just 14, but soon hooked up with a school friend who would become his future career partner – and a legend in his own right – Hank Marvin. Together these ‘Geordie Boys’ (as they were briefly known professionally) would move from their Tyneside base down to London, virtually penniless, and… well, Bruce elaborates in the video interview.
Bruce unashamedly spoke about how playing in [jazzy] keys like Bb was never on the agenda.
At one point during the interview, while discussing chords used higher up the neck, such as 9ths and such like, I made the assumption that Bruce had maybe first heard a “6/9” chord from Elvis Presley’s first guitarist, Scotty Moore, but Bruce quickly put me right on where he’d heard it first. He also surprised me with his choice of pick (check out the video interview for the reveals!).
Post-interview, Bruce was elaborating on and demonstrating how he simply enjoys moving his hand along the neck while literally keeping a grip on a familiar chord shape but allowing an open string or two to ring out all the while, just waiting for a beautiful sound to reveal itself. He was totally unaware of, and unconcerned about, the names of the resultant chords. As a teacher, I was of course keen to name things but what was I ‘teaching’ Bruce that he could gainfully use I wondered? I quickly realised, not that I was ever being disrespectful, that it was rather pointless me continuing to name all those sounds that Bruce was making before my very eyes and it was none clearer than when he played a vague yet musically satisfying chord structure.
When it comes to gear, Bruce is no hoarder or collector, although what little he has is gear that has truly made pop history. At one stage he produced a 1959 Martin acoustic guitar – now with knobs on (!) – that Paul McCartney had almost certainly first publicly performed ‘Yesterday’ on! Yet more than once he would wistfully bemoan the lack of knowledge of the whereabouts of one of his first guitars, an old Grimshaw. (I’m sure if anyone could shed light on the object then Bruce would be most grateful.)
During the interview Bruce would occasionally reference “the Buddy Holly [S-type electric guitar]”, which was the top quality electric guitar that his guitar tech had made him. Bruce also has a lovely acoustic (as used on the 2009 Cliff Richard & The Shadows Reunion Concerts) made by the same guy. Again, Bruce reveals all in the video.
Indeed, Bruce was almost tripping over guitars – including that fiesta red Strat (the first one seen in Britain, as originally purchased for Hank Marvin by Cliff Richard) as he leant over his studio mixing desk in order to reach for yet another memorable picture from a golden era. Moments later, he’d dodge round the Burns electric guitar leaning up against a lizard skin ’61 Vox AC30 in order to grab the little gold disc for ‘Apache’ (The Shadows’ first number 1 single from 1960 and, reputedly, the source of Carlos Santana's first nickname). The multitude of larger gold discs adorning the stairway leading down to Bruce’s ‘den of iniquity’ as he likes to call it, are mostly awards relating to Bruce’s other career highlight: producing multi-million selling albums in the mid- to late-70s for the Shadows’ former frontman, Cliff Richard (now Sir Cliff of course).
GI would like to thank Bruce for the generous amount of time he gave us - not to mention the reassurance of seeing someone who has devoted his entire life to music and the guitar and yet who still retains the unbridled enthusiasm that you only really expect to see in a teenage wannabe guitar player who has just heard or seen the most wonderful thing possible - a shiny new electric guitar! It's great to know it lasts!
And just a final, personal, note. Just before our interview Bruce told me that unfortunately he couldn’t do any playing that day due to a seriously troubling hand problem, which he had been seeking medical attention for. Having said which, he enthusiastically led me and GI's indefatigable cameraman, Mike Thorpe, down to his basement studio, where he just couldn’t resist picking up the odd guitar or three and strumming away, with a massive grin on his face. I’m no doctor but I’d say that was music therapy at work! Thanks all the more then to Bruce for the unexpected bonus of some up-close driving rhythm guitar from a true master of the art.