Horizon Blog

80. Staying with Keith

Carolan has been on a sabbatical, staying with guitarist Keith Hinchliffe in Sheffield. Keith is renowned as both an exceptional acoustic guitarist, but also as an arranger with a diverse repertoire. His first album, Carolan’s Dream, a collection of settings of Turlough O’Carolan’s music, was widely acclaimed, while his second, Islands, was lauded by BBC Roots presenter Andy Kershaw as “an excellent album by a wonderful guitar player.” He has since released three further albums of Elizabethan lute works, blues, Latin American pieces, original compositions and of course, more Celtic music, along with several music books. And he was a member of the Albion Band to boot!

To be honest we were a bit worried that Carolan might not want to come back from Sheffield, which nearly proved to be the case. We dropped Carolan off with Keith back in February with the idea of staying for a few weeks, but then came the COVID lockdown and weeks quickly became months. Far from being a disaster, this turned out to be a golden opportunity, giving Keith the chance to really get to know Carolan beyond first impressions, and also to significantly extend its collection of recordings. In Keith’s own words: 

“I ended up with the Carolan guitar for quite a while because of the sudden lockdown, and enjoyed playing it from the start. It’s a very easily playable all-round guitar and my first thought was to use it for some of the jazz material I’d been meaning to record. (Despite its name and appearance the guitar has a lot of jazz in its ancestry.) As is often the way with these things, I didn’t get round to the recording until the deadline of the guitar’s return to home was looming, but I now have quite a lot of unedited material to work through at my leisure. Hope there’s something usable there ! Apart from that I tried it out on most of the things I know. I also thought a guitar called Carolan should be recorded playing Carolan so I did video versions of a few of my earlier arrangements and one more recent one.”

Keith also tells us about his own personal journey through playing the guitar: 

“I didn’t start playing until just before I went to university, having played a little piano before that. Fortunately, I met people in the know at a time when a lot of the major acoustic guitar innovators were at their peak – Jansch, Renbourn, John Martyn, Michael Chapman, Davey Graham etc. It was easy to see these people close up and quite often. My first guitar heroes were Jansch and Chapman. I almost wore out my copy of the Bert Jansch sampler in my first college year and could play “Angie” after what now seems a remarkably short time, but at the expense of my exam results. Because of that background, I found out a lot about alternative tunings and have been experimenting with them ever since. Martin Carthy and Richard Thompson are obviously important here. Of course, all these guitarists lead you back to the real innovators, the early American blues and ragtime guitarists, particularly (in my case) Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Willie MacTell, Lonnie Johnson etc. I think Carthy once said that he learned more about guitar playing from Broonzy than anyone else, and I can quite understand that, despite the difference of genres.”

Keith has recorded four new pieces for us. First, is O’Carolan’s Cremonea.

We’re impressed by the sound that he conjures forth from Carolan. Of course, much of this lies in his approach to arranging the tunes in the first place.

“My first album (apart from an early cassette-only collection) was Carolan’s Dream in 1993. I’d been interested in Celtic harp music for some time and working towards an all-Carolan record that would have some unity of atmosphere because of the musical personality of the composer, and also bring some of the character or ‘sound-world’ of the Celtic harp across to the guitar. I’d already learned a lot about the effects of different guitar tunings, and interpreting the harp tunes pushed me further in that direction. I was interested in what the old Celtic harpers called the ‘ringing of the harp-space’ and the ‘harmony of freely resonating strings.’ where the modal character of the music creates unusual harmonic overtones, especially on the older metal-strung harps.”

Keith’s next piece for us is Carolan’s Receipt for Drinking.

Of course, the guitar itself also contributes to the sound and Keith has some reflections here too:

“The guitar is very well balanced and it seems easier than with many guitars I’ve known to get a good recorded sound that needs very little cleaning up or adding of effects. My only little quibble is that the action, though it makes the instrument so easy to play, is as low as is viable even for standard tuning, especially on the first and to some extent the second string, so that any tuning down leads to buzzing on the open strings unless a capo is used. (Fortunately, I would have used a capo anyway on my altered-tuning arrangements, and maybe I’m heavier handed than other guitarists.”

It’s interesting to be reminded that, while having a low action is often seen as a good thing by many guitarists, especially relative beginners, it can become a problem for advanced players, notably when playing in dropped tunings.

Fanny Power, written for on of Carolan’s patrons Mrs Francis Power, is another well-known Carolan composition, beautifully arranged and played by Keith here.

Keith first arranged this for his most recent album, A Wee Dram.

“This is one of Carolan’s most popular tunes and one of the first I tried to arrange. It’s only taken me about 40 years to get it right (if I have !) and the arrangement is much more “Baroque” (in a loose sense) than earlier attempts. I’ve become more and more interested in weaving counter-melodies in a middle voice beneath slower melodies, and in playing variations rather than straight repeats.”

Finally, Keith records The Earle of Salisbury, by the English baroque composer William Byrd, set in CGCGCD tuning.

At the risk of becoming somewhat jealous, we’re interested to hear about the other guitars in Keith’s life.

“Apart from an old Yamaha that I got in the 70s (but hardly ever play) most of my guitars date from the late 80s or later. I have 3 guitars (2 dreadnoughts and a triple O) by the little-known local luthier Nicholas Scott, who now makes credible copies of Greg Smallman classical guitars at a tiny fraction of the Smallman price. One of my Scotts, a cedar-topped dreadnought, has been my main go-to performing guitar for about 30 years. The other dreadnought , spruce-topped, is a bit harder to play but has done more recording because of its relatively neutral tone (whereas the cedar is warm and full of character but a bit honky at times.) These guitars are good for most styles, but especially the Celtic music where half the strings are tuned down and the bass needs to hold a clear low C.”

It turns out that Keith is a fan of Brook guitars (as is Steve), handmade by a small team of luthiers based in Devon.

“I did a lot of “marathon” playing at weddings etc. for some years, and for this there’s nothing better than a double O type guitar, and my Brook Torridge is an excellent example. It’s not so hot on the slack tunings, but for everything else you can play it all day without fatigue. I’ve had it for about 20 years and it’s still improving. I play it more and more as I get more into the jazz repertoire. I have another Brook, a Tavy Baritone in spruce and English walnut. I don’t play it as often as I thought I would, perhaps because I’ve already taken the dreadnoughts well into baritone territory with low tunings and heavier strings, but it’s a fine guitar and will have its day. My cheapest guitar is a Big Baby Taylor, very simply constructed but a remarkable instrument for the price. I think I struck lucky with the spruce top because I’ve heard other Big Babies with far less sustain. Again, very easy to play (though I like a wider neck) and a great session guitar.”

Like many guitarists, Keith approaches Carolan as a musical instrument rather than as a concept guitar. That said, he has some thoughts here too:

“It’s very interesting to see and hear the very different kinds of playing by other guitarists, confirming my feeling that it’s a very well-balanced all-purpose guitar. It’s nice to have helped to fill in the Celtic part of the story, especially for a guitar with inlays like that !”

Finally, he also reflects on some of the stories that his own guitars might tell:

“There’s a repaired crack where a student knocked a music stand onto the spruce dreadnought in 1991. Although you can’t see it (because Stuart Palmer is a very good repairman) I know that the Torridge very nearly lost its headstock in 2005 because you should never lean guitars against walls. And those parallel grooves on the cedar top recall an idiot around the same time who decided to demonstrate his Pete Townsend strumming technique before I could stop him. Some of my guitars tell their stories through their scars and wrinkles, like me !”

So, it’s with a huge debt of gratitude that we reclaim Carolan from Keith. Thank you for the wonderful playing, personal reflections and contributing these lovely tunes to its story.

Originally posted at https://carolanguitar.com/2020/06/26/80-staying-with-keith/