Graham Coxon, former guitarist for Blur, solo artist, multi-instrumentalist, and soundtrack composer, has done it all: headlined Glastonbury, won Brit Awards – he was even described by Noel Gallagher as “one of the most talented guitarists of his generation”. But in the early 2000s, fresh out of rehab and out of Blur, the band he’d helped steer to international success throughout the previous decade, he found himself attracted to something new and challenging: folk guitar playing.
In his autobiography, Verse, Chorus, Monster!, he describes how he first bumped into “one of the most venerable figures of British folk – Bert Jansch” at a show at London's Royal Festival Hall, curated by Pavement's Stephen Malkmus. But as he followed Jansch onstage it all went wrong: “As I started the first song, I felt my knees turn to rubber, and my already weak voice took on an involuntary and very embarrassing vibrato. I was shaking and sweating, and as if that wasn't bad enough, I was struggling with my old, clapped-out Harmony Sovereign guitar. It was absolutely horrific.”
He had always “associated the acoustic guitar with pain and difficulty,” he says, just grabbing any old acoustic when Blur required an acoustic part, and like every guitar player you know, he decided that maybe that was the problem: he needed to buy a really great guitar instead: “I was interested in smaller-bodied guitars that had more space between the strings, and came away with a Martin OM28V (OM refers to the body shape, 28 means rosewood, and V means, vintage neck profile). It was a couple of grand – a lot of money. I’d never spent so much on a guitar before, but the difference was amazing. I chucked my plectrums away, attempted to grow my nails and knuckled down to try and learn it.”
It was 2005. On the same day that he bought the guitar, folk legends Davey Graham and Bert Jansch were playing at Oxford's Holywell Music Room. Invited to the show, Coxon hung out with the two legends backstage and showed them his new purchase.
“Bert took a look at the spanking new guitar I was carrying and said, ‘I used to have one of these – let’s have a look!’ He ran through a few licks and then exclaimed, ‘Cor, these strings are like tree trunks, aren’t they?’ I found it rather devastating that Bert Jansch thought my strings were too thick. Then he kindly explained that using thinner strings made it much easier to perform the kind of bends that you need for his style of playing. So it ended up being an educational evening.”
Invited to do a couple of songs in the break, Coxon started to tune up in front of his heroes. “Tuning a guitar in front of guitarists you admire is thoroughly humiliating at the best of times,” he says, “and I couldn't get the B string – always a difficult one on the acoustic – in tune at all.
“I asked Bert, ‘How do you tune a B string?’” He replied, ‘You can't.’ I looked up at him, expecting to see a sympathetic smile, but he was poker-faced. Was it true or was he ribbing me? I didn't have a clue and cackled nervously, my cool well and truly lost. It calmed my nerves a little, though, to think that maybe even Bert Jansch might struggle to tune-up sometimes.”
Despite all that, Coxon says he is still learning from Jansch, who died in 2011, to this day. “I sit and play a song or two of his every day as part of my practice and for the sheer enjoyment of playing them. I like how the songs make my fingers move and am always surprised at the sound coming from my guitar. I will never stop learning from Bert.”
In his book, Coxon also recounts a meeting with another folk legend, Martin Carthy, around that same time. “I loved his tunings,” Coxon says of Carthy [Carthy’s trademark tuning is C modal: CGCDGA]. “He spent a lot of time on them and thinking about how he should voice the chords and how they should back up these old folk melody lines. I love him. He was quite paternal and taught me all sorts of small but necessary tricks, such as how to grow your nails (‘Rub a bit of Vaseline on them every day, then just leave them alone and don't bite them’).
“I asked him about his Fishman Blend pickup system, which allowed him to blend the microphone with the under-saddle pickup. He always kept up a really good, thumping bottom end, where he'd be damping and clonking the fat string. I was experimenting with thumb picks and noticed that he had this quite sharp, pointy zither pick, made of brass or copper.
“He gave one to me, which is now in my spares tin, and I absolutely treasure it. But when you've got a really good pickup system on your acoustic guitar, with the tunings dropped down so your bottom E is as low as a C, and thump that through a PA, the pick makes a hell of a difference.”