Having lived and performed in the United States for 15 years, British guitarist Martin Simpson’s playing is a well-steeped blend of American blues, old-time music, and traditional English folk material. Simpson is currently at the very height of his powers, having released a string of pretty-perfect albums, with last year’s Trails and Tribulations following on from the sparer and solo Vagrant Stanzas from 2013. He is also without doubt the most excitable musician I know when it comes to instruments, guitars in particular; there’s always something getting his creative juices flowing and spurring him on to write more songs and make more music. Exactly a year after Tribulations dropped, Simpson is back in the studio, looking to continue his prolific run of exceptional albums—there’s certainly no sign of a block anytime soon.
“It’s funny,” he smiles. “I have these moments when I think, ‘Oh my god! How am I going to do this?’ but then, I went into the studio yesterday with [producer] Andy Bell and at the end of the day we looked and saw we had 29 pieces of music recorded. So it’s good. I’m doing a lot of writing and a lot of experimenting, too. In addition to acoustic guitars and banjos, I’m using a lot of electric instruments. I just got a really sweet 1956 Gretsch Streamliner semi-acoustic, which is basically built on the same body as the 6120, the most collectable Chet Atkins guitar. This is pretty much the same guitar without the name on it—and it costs about seven-grand less. It’s got DeArmond pickups and flatwound strings, and almost sounds like another instrument through a decent amp and a few effects. What I tend to look for is something that just astonishes me, really.”
What about the acoustics you’ve picked up recently?
Well, I do consider myself to be one of the luckiest people on the planet. I have a wonderful relationship with PRS, who called me up more than ten years ago now and asked if I’d like to help develop a line of acoustics. I remember saying, “It sounds great, who else is going to be involved?” and was really delighted when they said Tony McManus and Ricky Skaggs, who are seriously devoted acoustic players. So I have a Signature model and they’ve just brought out a new prototype, which is amazing. They’ve sent me one to try and it’s excellent; they’re great guitars, but I’ve still never stopped looking. I know some people who regard the guitar as their tool and they’re slightly indifferent to the charms of the instrument in some ways. But I’m not like that at all. I absolutely love guitars and am fascinated by what they do, all the different ones. I’ve just had another guitar built by Stefan Sobell, who I’ve worked with since about 1982, and it’s just extraordinary. He’s building the best instruments he’s ever made. In terms of sound, it’s wildly different from the PRS; they really are like chalk and cheese, which is what you want.
You’ve worked with many different builders over the years.
When I was in the States, I would encounter a lot of really amazing vintage guitars, but seldom anything that absolutely blew my head off. I just really got on with the Sobells and various others, mainly because I really liked working with the makers. I found it fascinating to do that, but since I’ve been in England I’ve actually found a couple of vintage American guitars…
Like your 1931 Martin 000-18?
I’ve just been recording with the 000-18 and it’s simply monstrous! It’s a very interesting guitar for me—I spoke to Stefan Grossman about this, actually—because it was actually one of the last 12-fret 000s made for import to England. It was made in 1931 and brought here in 1932 and it’s been here ever since, which means it hasn’t been subjected to the extremes of the North American climate. It honestly looks like it was made in the ’70s; it’s so beautiful.
I also recently got a really odd one. A friend of mine, Gavin Davenport, got in touch and told me someone was selling an old Washburn parlor guitar and wondered if I knew someone who would want it. So this guy brought the guitar to me at a gig in Liverpool, and I opened the case and played it and it just blew my socks off. It’s a funny one because Gavin bought it in pieces and gave it to a builder, who completely took it to bits. He took the ladder braces off and X-braced it, flattened the top out, which took about a year, and put carbon fiber rods in the neck and stuck a new fingerboard and bridge on it. This guitar is tiny, probably size five, but it’s a complete beast and records incredibly well; I’ve just recorded an old Blind Willie McTell slide tune on it and I cannot believe how great it sounds. It’s a totally inspiring thing and I love it when you get that from all of these different places.
Do you have your go-to instruments for the studio?
Well, I came back from there last night and it took me quite a bit of time to unload the gear into the house [laughs]. I took two PRS guitars, a Sobell, the 000-18. I didn’t take the Washburn this time because I used it in the last session, but I did take a Sobell banjola, which is a five-string banjo neck on a mandola body. It has a great pickup in it and I really like running it through a pedalboard into a Fender Princeton—you get this beautiful, really astonishing sound. I also took my Fylde resonator to use on a particular track, but decided it wasn’t the sound I wanted to hear, so I used one of the PRSs, which has a 1950s DeArmond soundhole pickup in it. I really like those things and figured, if it’s good enough for Lightnin’ Hopkins, it’s probably all right.
Do you slim down the gear for when you’re on the road?
I’m mainly using a PRS with medium-gauge strings and a Sobell with light strings, along with my J. Romero “Birthday” banjo [laughs]. Their instruments are just wonderful and they are fabulous people. I remember seeing their banjos, god knows how many years ago in the Music Emporium in Massachusetts, and thinking they were the most amazing looking instruments, and then I played one and went, “Oh, my god, I need to have one!” Everything about this banjo, the way it feels and sits on my knee, is just utterly right and full of love. So, the one I play on stage I bought myself for my 60th birthday, but I just got another one from a guy in Sheffield and it’s also excellent—it has a goat-skin head, so it has a really different sound. For the road instrument I had a plastic head put on it for changes in the weather, but I think I was being slightly over-cautious, to be honest.
Do you approach banjo playing like you do guitar? I know the tunings you use are similar for both.
I have always really just used the banjo as a way of informing my guitar playing. I got a guitar in standard tuning first, but within a couple of years I had started using open G and open D and then the world of banjo tunings just blew me away. I remember first tuning the second string up to C so it’s like DADGAD except in G, and then you’ve got double-C tuning, which is one Nic Jones famously used for “Canadee-I-O,” and that’s a banjo tuning, too. Every time I think I’ve come up with something clever, I’ve always looked back and found out it’s actually a banjo tuning. It’s not just the C tunings either. A lot of D tunings are from the banjo, too; you’ll find the D-G-A-D of DADGAD on the five-string banjo with various different fifth strings, like F# or A. I remember coming up with a Dsus4b7 tuning, DADGAC, which I’ve always referred to as “Klingon Tuning,” because it sounds like a Klingon, and I thought that was really clever and nobody had done it before, but of course they had, on the banjo.
It’s an interesting and complex world to become involved with.
Well, I understand these tunings from a point of view of the intervals each one involves, so it ends up becoming quite simple and most of them relate back to standard tuning in some way. But, the alternate tunings just become part of your modus operandi, and when people tell me that it’s so complicated, I always say that it’s really not, it’s actually a lot simpler than playing in standard tuning most of the time. That’s not talking it down at all, it’s just true that open tunings are very clear.
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.