Chris Rea: "Half the quest is to get something you can hear in your head and be satisfied with it"

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We caught up with gravel-voiced slide maestro Chris Rea last summer to pose the big guitar questions - here's how he got on…

What was your first guitar and when did you get it?

“It was a Hofner Sunburst V3. I got it in a pawn shop in Middlesborough and that would have been 1971. The story behind it was a seaman put it in over the weekend because he’d run out of money or something, and I thought, ‘I wonder if it was bought in Hamburg?’ Romantically, it was like, wow! - because of The Beatles connection.”

If the building were burning down, what one guitar from your collection would you save?

If the building were burning, I would save the blue Italia Maranello. Funnily enough, it’s the cheapest guitar I’ve ever bought

“I would save the blue Italia Maranello. Funnily enough, it’s the cheapest guitar I’ve ever bought. When I plugged it in and played slide on it, it was just beautiful. It’s got great sustain and obviously the strings are quite high off the frets but that doesn’t matter, but it sounds like you wouldn’t believe. 

"I’ve since found out that it’s semi-microphonic; the inside is light and it’s almost like an acoustic - and I fell in love with it. I pick it up every day.”

What’s the oldest guitar you own?

“I was doing a project about four years ago that needed an acoustic and I got an old black Gibson. I don’t know the model but the Gibson logo is hand done; people tell me it’s very old. I didn’t make enquiries as to how old it was; all I knew was it sounded absolutely beautiful.”

When did you last practise and what did you play?

“The last time I practised was this morning, because I had a stroke and it really affected me a lot. I’m having trouble with the wedding ring finger and the little finger, getting them to go where I want them to go. So I’m actually doing proper practice, just to play what I used to play.”

If you could change one thing about a recording you’ve been on, what would it be and why?

“I’m never happy with anything I’ve done! If you sat me down and played everything I’ve ever recorded, I’d just sit there going, ‘No… that could be better’. That’s something you live with; and I also think if you started thinking you were good, it’s all over. I think half the quest is to get something you can hear in your head and be satisfied with it. That hasn’t happened to me yet.”

What are you doing five minutes before you go on stage and five minutes afterwards?

Last November, I did my first ever vocal in my entire life without a cigarette. It wasn’t easy…

“Before the stroke, it used to be have a fag, which was getting extremely difficult on the last tour with all the smoking laws. Me and the piano player, Neil Drinkwater, who is a bit of a scientist, would invent ways in which you could have a last fag without the alarm going off. At the end of the gig, the first thing you do is light a fag. But it’s exactly a year this week that I stopped smoking and, November 2016, I did my first ever vocal in my entire life without a cigarette. It wasn’t easy…”

What’s the closest you’ve come to quitting music?

“It would have been 1983 and they were about to drop me from the label. I had started looking for a place to turn into an Italian restaurant. The family always did it and that’s what I was going to do.”

What aspect of playing guitar would you like to be better at?

“Eric Clapton’s scales. When he comes off a high note and it’s time for a refrain or a little bit of a rest, he peals off scales going downwards that are so good it’s unbelievable. Still, when I watch Clapton, he’s awesome. A lot of his image and stuff has become massive and sometimes we forget what made him what he was.”

What advice would you give your younger self about the guitar if you had the chance?

“Start earlier. I didn’t start until I was 21 and most people I know were 13 when they had their first guitar - I missed that time where you sit in your bedroom all day for years and accidentally you’re doing classical training, although you’re not thinking of it that way. It’s not as easy, as you get older, to do all that kind of practice.”

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