Let’s Talk Guitars with Don McLean: An Exclusive Interview with Don McLean
©2003. Don McLean.
Part 2 (click here for Part 1)
In the early part of your career you were a traditionalist in that you always used small-bodied Martin Guitars with 12-fret wide necks and slotted peg-heads and miked them acoustically, in fact, in an interview in Guitar Player Magazine (USA) in 1972 you stated: –
“I like a really high, sharp treble, and a deep mellow bass, and the smaller Martins have that”.
However, in a 1980 interview in Guitar Magazine (UK) you stated: –
“ I swear by my Martin D35S. I can play Bluegrass on it, I can play all my softer things, and I can use a flatpick on it and really lay down the rhythm. It’s got a very crisp bass and a beautiful high tone. It’s only in the last 5 years that I have started using the D35S and I would never change that now”
However, when the Martin D40-DM signature model was released in 1998 it was a based on a standard Dreadnought Guitar with 14-frets to the body! Why did your ideal Guitar design shift from small-body 12-fret wide-neck design (00-21) to large body 12-fret (D35S) to large body 14-fret narrow-neck design (D-28, D40-DM)?
You seem to have always favored medium gauge strings over the standard light-gauge ones most fingerpickers prefer. Why is that, and does it mean that the fingerboard “action” (height of strings above the fingerboard at the 12th fret) is set very low? (Side question – what would you say the height actually was set to? – guitars player’s are always interested in this. You Guitar seems to be set high – like a Bluegrass pickers would be!? You also appear to use a thumb plus THREE fingers technique on the right-hand (most fingerpickers use one or two fingers), like a “classical” Guitarist, but you rest your pinky (little finger) on the table of the Guitar (pickgaurd). What’s your reasons for this unusual approach, is it to sound pianistic on the Guitar? Do you use your LEFT hand thumb for fretting bass notes (a la Chet Atkins and Merle Travis) a lot. Are you always conscious of the “top and bottom” end of the Guitar (Bass line and top note)? Do you ever use “power chords”, i.e. where open strings are employed as “drones”. In chain lighting for example I recall you moving up the two-fingered E minor Chord up to the fifth and seventh positions whilst “droning” the treble string open. Do you use any unusual “inversions” like this regularly (Examples?)?
Can you give us some indication of how things work during studio sessions?
Soundchecking. Can you give us some idea of how you carry used to carry out your personal soundchecks in the days when you played into a mike and compare it with what you do these days now that you go “direct” via the pickup in your Guitar, i.e. what sort of things are you looking and listening out for at each venue when you soundcheck? Have you ever considered using “In-Ear” (Ear buds) wireless monitors instead of stage wedges?
Band vs Solo Arrangements. Does playing a the band mean you have had to rearrange some of your Guitar-work and your general approach to be “less busy” than when you were a solo act and having to support your voice only with your Guitar-work, or do you pretty much play the same arrangements and way as ever you did, or can you stretch-out a bit more? Do you work out your separate parts in the band beforehand or do you all “wing-it” from a lead-sheet (I noticed the guys carry some sort of “Fake Book” each and that you “navigate” different chords on occasions (I recall some hot debate between you all about how you would negotiate the “Changes” for Love Letters at the aforementioned London soundcheck!)
More on previous question and Don McLean Guitar Style Book. Would you ever consider putting out a “Don McLean Guitar Style” Book/Video using your own songs as illustrations for all us aspiring Guitar Players to learn your fantastic guitar arrangements from or do you think that the real fun and the greatest benefit is to be derived from figuring out your stuff using our ears and a lot of sweat and effort. Another way of asking this question is “do you think kids have got it too easy these days what with all the reaching aids like homespun tapes, Stefan Grossman’s Guitar workshop etc.
At the soundcheck in London a couple of years ago before you ran through Ray Noble’s The Very Thought Of You with the boys you mentioned “I REALLY love the chord changes in this one!” What particularly appealed to you about the chord progression and the way your Guitar works in that song?
Advice to guitarists and guitar horror stories. What is the ONE piece of advice you would give any Guitar-player that wanted to aspire to being able to play in a totally self-contained (pianistic) way the way you do in troubadour days and your solo spots at current concerts, i.e. just Guitar and voice? Travelling the world with valuable Guitars, how do you ensure they don’t get trashed or lost? Have you any “Horror Stories” about instruments that were lost or destroyed. Do you book a seat on the plane for your Guitar (There was a story that in the &0’s when you played solo you always bought seats on the plane for your guitar and banjo!
Our own Ralph McTell recently published a great book just for Guitar Players (Songs for Six Strings). Here are some “philosophical” tips from him. Can Don give us a similar paragraph in the same vein for fans.
“First let me say that I do not nurse my guitars. An instrument unscathed is an instrument un-played. All guitars carry the scars of triumphs, frustrations, ecstasies and accidents. That is how they develop their souls. If I am looking at a guitar with a view to buying it I usually strum just the bass strings whilst it might still be on the wall of the shop. If I am then moved by the quality of the sound to take it down I will only play two or three chords before trying another instrument. If you sit long enough with any guitar you can adapt to its idiosyncrasies and your judgement can be flawed. Playability can usually be improved by a change of strings and minor adjustments of the neck. Tonality cannot. Sure, a sound might mature but it will still SOUND the same as when you bought it. In other words a Martin will not sound like a Gibson or vice versa no matter how old. If you are to play in my style i.e. first position play it is vital that your hand feels comfortable in that position. On cheaper guitars you can get the neck customised to fit your hand by a skilled luthier but if you are buying a classic you should not tamper with any part of the construction if you think at some time you might wish to part with it. Try to keep it original. Having said that, if you know it will never leave your care you can do what you like with it. In the case of my beloved ‘Miss Gibson’ (my old late fifties Gibson J45) I have had the guitar stripped twice (once by me with a broken piece of glass), new fretboard fitted (ebony), new bridge (twice), drilled holes for pick ups (now refilled), re-finished at least three times, re-fretted three times and two sets of tuners. It still sounds like the best Gibson in the history of the known world and no-one could buy it from me for any amount of money, yet I doubt it be worth half what a totally original one would fetch.“