Bill Bailey talks guitars

Total Guitar interviews the comedian

©Andy Hollingworth

The guitar-wielding comedian talks Ritchie Blackmore, punk cover bands and why he needs a little razzle dazzle from Hendrix.

What was your very first guitar and what inspired you to play guitar in the very beginning?

"I would have been talking to my cousin. He was a bit older than me and would always go on about Ritchie Blackmore. We'd sit around and listen to the way he'd manage to play a note then reach all the way down to the volume knob with his pinky and he'd move the volume knob up and down while he was playing a note. We thought that was some octopus-like skill. Now you'd have a volume pedal so it's a bit stupid really! He was one we really listened to. My first guitar was a Watkins Flyer, which cost £14 from Woolworths. It was a big shiny red and white guitar and it was rubbish. The strings were so far away from the neck you could get a house brick between them! It wasn't really a guitar, it was more like a scythe. You could grate cheese with it or cut the grass with it, but you couldn't play guitar with it."

Did you have a dream guitar you wanted when you were growing up, and did you ever get it?

"I remember seeing a star-shaped guitar; it was the glam era. I saw one in a secondhand shop, so bought it. It wasn't a proper star guitar at all. Some bloke had just knocked up some bits of four-by-two and glued them together into a rough guitar shape and put some strings on it and a neck, thinking, 'Then it will be a guitar'. It wasn't. It was useless. It weighed a ton as well."

When do you feel that you made your biggest breakthrough as a guitarist and how did you achieve it?

"A few years ago I was playing in Edinburgh with a punk tribute band called Beergut 100 with a bunch of other comics. We play punk covers and punk versions of theme tunes. It was a revelation playing punk songs because they're really fast, with fast chord changes and I didn't think I'd be up to it. But when you get presented with something that's a real challenge, you think maybe you've got some technical ability. We were playing the Dead Kennedys song Too Drunk To F**k. It's a really tricky riff, is really fast and then it changes key and I had to concentrate doing it, but I managed it."

What one guitar, pedal and amp would you take to a desert island?

"I'd have a Gibson SG Custom, a Cry Baby Wah and a Marshall JCM900 stack on my desert island. I'd be happy with that. I'd noodle away like that until the end of time."

Who would you most like to get a guitar lesson from?

"As a showman I love Hendrix and thought he showed how a guitar can come alive. So [I'd jam with] Hendrix for his showmanship. When you see some of his performances they are just fantastic. It's proper showmanship. So much of guitar playing is focused on the twiddly widdly and how widdly can you get the solos, and that's fine for your real serious musos, but I'm the old, cheap-arsed comedian. I'm trying to get laughs as well so I need a little razzle dazzle, and that's what he had. He had the chops and could play anything, but he could also spin round on his head, play with his teeth, upside down. He was the master."

What do you think your biggest weakness and greatest strength is as a guitar player?

"I'm not much of a shredder when it comes to the widdly solos; I tend to avoid that. I'm quite good at keeping a chugging rhythm going. I'm quite good at playing punk songs, choppy rhythms with stabs."

What's the worst or strangest gig you've ever played?

"I played a gig once on a passenger ferry in Indonesia to the captain and the crew in the captain's special lounge. That was a blast. There was a band playing lounge numbers and Indonesian traditional songs. I persuaded them that I should get up and play and so I got up and taught this band some Clash and Ramones songs and by the end of it they'd got the hang of it. I hope I sowed the seed of a punk revival in that little part of eastern Asia."

What is the most essential item on your tour rider?

"A kettle. You can't function without a kettle on the tour rider. If you ain't got a brew on then there's nothing happening."

Bill Bailey is currently on his Qualmpeddler tour of the UK. For more info visit www.BillBailey.co.uk


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