He describes his style as “upside down and backwards”, but when Eric Gales picks up his signature guitar, the blues world can’t help but listen to his heavyweight playing style
It’s a hot, sunny May day at Arlington Arts Centre in Berkshire and things aren’t going well for Eric Gales. The band’s soundcheck has been going on for a couple of hours owing to a recurring earth loop problem having temporarily defeated the sound crew. The Guitarist team is in a room adjacent to the stage, playing a waiting game. We’ve already been out for ice cream, awarding Waitrose’s Salted Caramel Lollies an honorary Guitarist ‘Choice’ award in the process… but now, all we can do is wait. The tour manager pops his head around the door and apologises for the delay, telling us that they think they’ve found the problem, but it’s a further 40 minutes before a very hot and bothered Mr Gales joins us in the room.
We’re rapidly advancing towards showtime, but it’s down to business straight away. Time may be short, but we’re determined to find out exactly what makes the man – whose guitar playing has been compared with that of Jimi Hendrix – tick. We begin filming for the tuition pages that follow this feature, but in between the examples, we ask Eric about the inner workings of his approach to playing…
“Basically one of the core secrets in my approach when I’m using pentatonics or stuff of that nature is I really never think about it. It just comes out and I guess that might come out of my early years of just woodshedding and accumulating many different styles and genres that I was inspired by. As I grew older they began to become like computer chips, logged in my memory – once they’re there you can go to them at random. I often equate it with the web: when you type in a search or something like that, the information is already there and so it goes right to it.
“So I think it’s the same, when you’re growing into your style or whatever, when you’ve acquired sufficient knowledge to be able to go, at will, to wherever you want to go, you just think it and you go there. You’ve already acquired the tools and you’re familiar with it and so you can tap into it whenever you want.” A bit like autopilot, in a way? “That’s about 50 per cent of the make up of Eric Gales. To be honest, there are only two answers to describe where I come from and what I’m thinking and why I’m doing what I’m doing. Part of it I’ve just explained and the rest of it is 100 per cent from inside: 100 per cent from the heart, 100 per cent from the soul. There’s a lot of passion that I incorporate into my playing and much as I try to say I can help it, I can’t help it because it’s just part of the make-up for me. I play from some pain, some happiness, you know, and it comes out in the playing. A lot of gratitude, some despair – just things in life.
“I’m fortunate enough to be almost 43 years old and have done quite a few things in life and that has aided me in having a story to tell musically and verbally. So it comes out in the playing and that, basically, is the explanation of Eric Gales, when you sum it up.” You don’t approach music from a technical point of view, then? “I’m not one of these tutorial dudes that can give you the exact name of the chord I’m playing, because I can’t. I know what sounds right, you know what I mean? And I’ve acquired some things that I’ve incorporated into my style that I like a whole lot and people seem to think that it’s pretty good. When I was a kid, I would
be like, ‘Wow, man… Play this riff like Eric Johnson, or hit this vibrato like Frank Marino or Robin Trower or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Play this chord progression like Wes Montgomery or do this chicken picking like Jerry Reed or Chet Atkins, or play this jazz stuff like Kenny Burrell. Hit this blues like Albert King or Freddie King…’ And as you see, I’ve named a wide variety of different styles and people that I think have created a big bowl of gumbo.
“Gumbo is a dish served predominantly in New Orleans and has shrimps, sausage, rice, ham – everything in it. And it’s called ‘a big bowl of gumbo’ because when you stick your spoon in that bowl, there’s no telling what you’re going to pull up out of there! I think it’s the same way [with playing style] and that’s how I like to label it: it’s a big pile of gumbo with all of those influences and you just stir it up and put you on top of it.” You’ve said in the past that one of your influences was church music… “I think there’s heavy kinship between early traditional blues and traditional gospel. Music-wise, it’s the same thing; the only difference is that one has Christian words and the other has secular words, but musically, it’s the same thing. There’s a lot of kinship between different styles of music, it just all depends on your interpretation. People who are familiar with that style of music can point it out right off the back there: ‘Yeah, this dude definitely comes from a church background.’ Fortunately, I know a lot of church cats where that’s just predominantly their style, but I’m so grateful for the influence of my big brother, Eugene, who hipped me onto Jeff Healey and Robin Trower. He was 18 years older than me, but he was playing Blue Cheer and Vanilla Fudge and Cream and Mother’s Finest, and all these different artists when I was a kid and so I was listening to that plus the stuff I was listening to as a kid. So that helped make my ingredients even more so. I think I had a proper upbringing with the stuff that I acquired.” So your brother acted as a sort of guide? “My brother was like, ‘Hey Eric, I’m really liking how you’re wanting to be just like the different guys I’m showing you, but…’ and this stuck with me for a long time, ‘why would somebody buy an imitation of something when they can go a few rows down in the music store and buy the original thing?’ So that stuck with me and he said, ‘The object is for you to mix you on top of that and make it your own interpretation.’ Take away me playing upside down and backwards and just talk about the musical style that I have. Those true entrepreneurs of guitar players can hear where my influences come from – a lot of it’s from Eric Johnson, Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa… colleagues of mine. And who you play with can pull stuff out of you sometimes, you know what I mean?” Do you enjoy doing tutorials like this one and passing on your knowledge? “Never would I have thought that I’d be sitting down doing rig rundowns, but I’m glad to – even with such a hectic schedule – have time to do stuff like this, because I know people like to know about this kind of stuff. It’s a massive outreach out there to people, a behind-the-scenes look at what makes the build-up. I wish there were things like this happening when I was coming up, because I could get more tips! They have it made today where you can just put a song in [a computer programme] and it slows it down without changing the pitch. Back then we had to slow it down and transpose, you know? You had your record player and you had to keep going back and forth and just hope you got it.”
Eric describes his playing style as “a big bowl of gumbo”, incorporating all his influences from over the years: “When you stick your spoon in that bowl, there’s no telling what you’re going to pull up out of there!”