Instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. This month: modern acoustic sensation, Mike Dawes.
GT: What is it about instrumentals that appeals to you?
MD: I’ve never been hugely into lyrics. And given that I am a lousy vocalist myself, I always gravitated towards playing instrumentals. But I don’t value instrumentals more highly than vocals; it’s still just lead over harmony.
GT: What can an instrumental provide that a vocal song can’t?
MD: The most obvious thing would be subjectivity. Instrumentals expand the capacity for self discovery on an emotional level. Essentially vocals tell you what to feel, melodies amplify your feelings.
GT: Anything you embrace or avoid?
MD: I try to avoid losing the melody in a flurry of technique or simply misplacing it in the surrounding frequencies. It’s super important to emphasise your melody, both dynamically and tonally. I always aim to have a whistleable tune; sometimes if I come up with an idea I deliberately won’t record it or write it down for a day, then if I come back to the instrument and can remember the tune, it’s pretty solid. Another feature of my playing is the stacking of rhythms. This can contribute much to an instrumental piece, and to my own dexterity.
GT: Is a typical song structure always relevant for an instrumental?
MD: I would recommend this to someone getting into composing, as structuring pieces can be very daunting. But a rough structure I have been using a lot is a sort of sandwich, beginning with a theme and taking the listener on a journey before returning to the theme, or a variation thereof. You can hear this in tunes like The Impossible, Somewhere Home and The Old Room. I would certainly encourage experimentation; just remember to have something to say.
GT: What are the pros and cons of making solo guitar instrumentals versus those that involve a band?
MD: I got into this for two reasons. Firstly I’m a massive control freak. I’m a perfectionist and I’m sure it annoys those around me. Secondly, I grew up in a small town without a huge number of musicians, and solo writing enables you to do what you want, when you want.
GT: How do you name a piece?
MD: Usually the tune reminds me of something and that’s where the name and theme comes from.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach?
MD: I feel a vocalist’s approach isn’t really that much different from that of an expressive and soulful player. There are obvious things like vibrato and other articulation, but one big benefit of approaching music as a vocalist is being unconfined melodically. If I’m writing a top line for a piece, I’ll often sing it. This way I’m not constricted by my fingers running up the same scales in the same shapes. Highly recommended!
GT: Is there a typical approach or inspiration when composing?
MD: One big inspiration is playing in a new tuning. There are a couple of tunes on the new album Era, in an open Bm9 tuning that I hadn’t used before. They came out almost instantly, it was so inspiring. I also try to write at home, in comfort and with tea. There will always be days where the tunes won’t come out, and when that happens I’ll put the guitar down and do something else for hours; watch movies, see friends etc. That usually inspires me. Another thing would be listening to your favourite musicians, although that can also lead to the ‘I’ll never be good enough’ depression.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage?
MD: Music first, but in doing this as a full live show there needs to be variation. Every song needs a ‘thing’. I remember talking about this with my super talented buddy Petteri Sariola and I really believe that in a show it’s important. This leads to certain creative decisions that avoid too much repetition.
GT: Any favourite keys or tempos?
MD: Not consciously, although I do tend to gravitate towards midtempo tunes in D or Dm. I put that down to the influence DADGAD tuning had on my upbringing.
GT: Minor or major keys?
MD: That depends on the tuning. A tuning like DADGAD is just as easy to work with in D or Dm because it’s ambiguous, just root, 4th and 5th. My tune Somewhere Home actually drifts from E to Em for this reason.
GT: Any favourite modes?
MD: I grew up on rock and metal so Phrygian was always there. Most of my early tunes were based around Aeolian. I love a bit of cheese.
GT: Modulations into new keys?
MD: Pierre Bensusan does this well. My tune, Maybe Someday Soon modulates from C to D easily as the tuning didn’t hinder it. But another, Forest Party goes from D to E and I literally drop a capo mid song. There was no other way! Please, jazz police, don’t arrest me!
GT: And harmonising melodies?
MD: It’s another tool I use to add interest and variation to an instrumental, be it through interesting chord voicings or just a doubled line, Thin Lizzy style.
GT: What three guitar instrumentals have inspired you?
So Long Michael by Pierre Bensusan is probably the reason I play fingerstyle. It’s HUGE in my family. My Dad is always whistling the first line before it goes mental. The Release by Petteri Sariola. Do check his new album, Resolution. Surfing With The Alien by Joe Satriani was the first instrumental guitar tune I ever heard. I actually learned it for my GCSE performance. That definitely changed the way I looked at the guitar, as I’d never heard it take the place of the vocal before. Joe is such a melody guy. Awesome tune.
For more info, tour dates, albums and more, go to mikedawes.co.uk
listening to your Favourite musicians can lead to the ‘i’ll never be good enough’ depression
Mike Dawes uses new tunings for inspiration