My First Guitar, Inspiration, Influences

There was a guitar about the place from an early age but I had no interest in playing it. My interests were really sports and being as disruptive as possible. When I was around 16, I started to pick up my Brother's guitar and tune it to sounds I liked. I had no idea what I was doing. I started to copy sounds I heard and before long I was improvising simple solos by ear. My Brother in law bought me an electric guitar, an Avon Gibson Les Paul Copy and a little amp and I started playing obsessively. I jammed a lot with my Brother. It was all by ear at this time, but it really helped me navigate the guitar in a very natural way. I started to copy solos that were more intricate. I didn't really have a filter for genre.

I listened to everything and anything that made me feel something. Between my Brother, Sister and Brother in law, I pretty much had most of the Jazz, Rock, Funk and Folk sections of HMV running through my sinews. After 3 or 4 years I started to get into harmony and theory. I used to teach at this point and If I got a question from a student, I'd put it on hold for the following week, then research it as much as I could before the next lesson. If you want to learn, teach.

I've been interested in harmony ever since. I was also interested in unlocking the fretboard so I could navigate it from all angles. I didn't want to be presented with a chord sequence that had me jumping all over the place so I learned to navigate things horizontally and vertically. So, playing Bma7#5 / Db13b9 / D13sus / F#ma7#9#11 wouldn't fox me melodically because I knew the sound for each chord and how to connect them smoothly either along the neck or in position. I've been teaching this for years, especially the connection to one's own expressive voice. Understanding rhythm, harmony, theory etc means nothing, if it isn't a means to express one's own song.

What Do I Like About The Guitar?

The guitar is a very expressive instrument. The vibrato, fast and slow - the nuance in the bending of a note, the slides, the ways of colouring a note naturally or artificially are myriad. I feel like I sing through my instrument. It's a cliché, but it's an extension of who I am and how I'm feeling in the moment.

Why Do I Like Playing The Guitar?

Playing guitar is quite a visceral experience for me. It's tactile. I've played a Gibson 335 most of my playing life. It's a big bodied guitar and I feel like I can hug it into my body. I like playing with my fingers on both hands as the connection is extremely organic.

How Did My Guitar Playing Develop?

I'm totally self taught. I listened like crazy to records, some of which I still have but are no longer playable as I scratched the bejesus out of them. I also sneaked into Jazz clubs when I was under age and saw many great gigs, as well as seeing some fantastic concerts at big venues. I saw Weather Report with Jaco twice, early Pat Metheny Band, an amazingly raw Earth Wind and Fire gig, and many many more.

Transcribing sax, trumpet and piano solos was great for my ears. I couldn't write anything down at that time and I'm still slow to. But this meant my ear and my memory got stronger over time. I stopped transcribing after about 5 years. I really wanted to get into the components of music and study them individually - Rhythm, harmony, theory, chromaticism, etc.

With that in mind, I used to write my own bop solos with twists and turns that would contemporise them and help me create my own personal pathways.

Through all of this, I'd assimilated a lot of the vibe, through transcription, of the American studio scene. Players like Larry Carlton, Steve Lukather, Jay Graydon and Dean Parks were constantly on in the house. Plus, one of my favourite albums at that time, was a John Scofield album called 'Rough House'. I was parked dead centre of that album for about 6 months. So it's a very eclectic mix and I'm beholden to my Brothers and Sister for proactively drip-feeding me their favourite music.

My First Gigs

I started gigging around 18. These were local pub gigs. My first main gig was with a band called 'River People' at the 'Band on the Wall' in Manchester, which was the main Jazz venue. I was 19. We gigged locally for a couple of years. Around 20 years old I got a residency with a great jazz vibes player called Alan Butler. I did that gig every Thursday for about 8 years. I also played a lot with Guitarist/Bassist Sylvan Richardson who was with 'Simply Red' at the time. I've known Sylvan probably since I was 17 and we did many lovely projects in those early years.

Forming Bands And Collaborations With Other Artists

I then formed a band called 'Some Other Country' with Keyboard player Roy Powell, Bassist Gary Culshaw and Drummer Steve Gilbert, which was very popular in the North of England. I think a friend and fixer, Nick Purnell, who was pivotal at that time in getting interesting combinations together, played a tape of that band to Mike Gibbs, who asked me to play a few gigs that should have been John Scofield, but John was either ill or had got a tour of his own in the States.

Kenny Wheeler was on trumpet and after the gig he asked me to play some big band gigs in the UK and Europe featuring his 'Music For Large and Small Ensembles' masterpiece. This in turn introduced me to Julian Arguelles, with whom I had a long collaboration, playing many gigs and recording many albums over a 14 year period.

Solo Albums And Playing On Other People’s Albums

I was quite late to start pushing my own writing, having really been a sideman for so many musicians over the years. I've had a long and fruitful relationship with Pianist/Composer/arranger/educator Nikki Iles, played for a few years with Sax Player Tommy Smith, was guitarist with legendary American Composer George Russell, Singer Mica Paris, and had long associations with Mike Gibbs and Kenny Wheeler. So my own writing was late to the party.

Mike Walker and Nikki Illes

But once I started, with an album in 2008 called 'Madhouse and The Whole Thing There' I got a taste for it and have been writing ever since, mainly for a band I formed in 2010 called 'The Impossible Gentlemen' with the wonderful piano playing of Gwilym Simcock, the elegant gnarl of Bassist Steve Swallow and the deep feel of Drummer Adam Nussbaum. I had the idea of getting these musicians together after playing with them separately in different situations. Swallow I'd played with on a few occasions on other people's albums, Adam I'd asked to do a concert of my commission piece 'Ropes' with orchestra, and Gwil, I met on a Tim Garland gig a few years before. Steve Rodby featured later with another long time collaborator of mine, Sax player, Iain Dixon who's just a fantastic musician.

Mike Walker and Gwilym Simcock

Gwil and I had a very long phone call in which we were determined to get a name for the band. At one point, about 16 hours into it, and discarding names like 'Leg Meat' and 'The Bulbous Sharks' I said 'what about, 'The Marvelous Gentlemen'...?' and Gwil said... 'What about 'The Impossible Gentlemen'...?' .. and so it came to pass.

We recorded 3 albums and toured extensively in Europe and the UK. I used that latter Rhythm section on my last album (2019) 'Ropes', which also featured a 22 piece string Orchestra as well as my old friends, Drummers Steve Gilbert and Myke Wilson, Bass Players Steve Watts and Rob Mullarkey, and a beautiful, though woefully under-recorded pianist, Les Chisnall.

Future Projects

I've just got back from India, where I improvised for a Storyteller, my friend Derek Hook. We played many of the schools, some in the rural villages, which was very rewarding. I'd love to do some more of that kind of vocational work. It never really felt like work, to be honest, it was such a joy playing for the children, some of whom had never seen a guitar in real life. I let them strum it at one point - there must have been 15 hands at once reaching out to run their fingers over it. I let them go for it - they were keen but respectful.

I'll be recording a new album of my own music probably in 2021. I'm just figuring out the line up. I've written all the music for it and have the title 'The Things That Make The Darklings Sing'. I have many projects on the go. I'm playing Duo with Gwil and we're adding a lovely Harmonica player from Holland, Hermine Deurloo who we played with at the Ambleside Festival in 2019. I help curate that festival with Derek and I also played with an interesting line up of Piano: Les Chisnall, Harmonica: Hermine, Violin: Alice Zawadzki and Asaf Sirkus on Percussion.

I'll be touring that in spring 2021. I'm part of Nikki Iles great big band in March, April and May 2020. She's written some fantastic music and it's such a joy to be involved in it. I'm also touring Europe in July 2020 with a lovely band called 'Hourglass' which Johannes Berauer got together to play some of his compositions.

Johannes Berauer's 'Hourglass'

I've also just been playing with my long time friend, Norma Winstone, who's just the best improviser, and wonderful singer of song, and someone I've played with for many years, and a very creative pianist, Kit Downes, who was a joy to play with. We'll be doing more of this in the future. There are things in the works that I'll say more about in these pages when they are firmed up.

© Mike Walker 2022