Interview: Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley

Adrian in his Bristol studio
Adrian in his Bristol studio (Image credit: Adam Gasson/Future PLC)

Next time you feel stuck in a rut on guitar, you might want to have a rummage through the tool cupboard.

Sound odd? Not for Portishead's stellar guitarist Adrian Utley, who uses paintbrushes and other implements to explore the full sonic potential of the instrument, as we learned during a recent interview for Guitarist magazine.

He illustrates one of his favourite sound-producing techniques by using the bristles of a home decorating brush to set the strings of his Fender Jazzmaster in motion - a technique that he uses with his 'orchestra for massed guitars', which has seen up to 60 guitarists take the stage together to produce shimmering soundscapes.

"It's a different voice thing," he says of the brush technique. "So I've had groups of people playing harmony like that, where everyone's got a different note."

"I can avoid playing guitar like a guitar, which I'm more interested in."

Adrian's one of those rare, cliché-free guitarists who's more focused on the future of guitar than the past. Despite having jazz chops, he's not interested in solos. Instead, he prefers working with unusual tone-generators such as Electro-Harmonix's Freeze Sound Retainer pedal - which captures a slice of sound played on guitar and infinitely extends it.

"I really love it, I think it's going to define something I'm going to do next," he says of the compact but powerful pedal. It's not a loop, it's something else - and you can catch it right on the note or just after," he says. "Sometimes it can sound a bit granular. Imagine you had another one so you could have another [sustained] note on top of that?"

Although Adrian is no longer interested in playing standards, he does dip his toe into the more experimental side of jazz, as he will this weekend (1-3 March) at the Bristol International Jazz & Blues Festival, which will also feature guitar luminaries such as John Scofield and Brit bluesman Matt Schofield. Adrian, will be performing with avant-garde outfit Get The Blessing.

"I play on all their records: Clive Deamer, Jim Barr and Pete Judge, they're old friends," Adrian says. "Clive and I played jazz from way back - but Get The Blessing have got a much more extreme thing. I can use a lot more stuff and avoid playing guitar like a guitar, which I'm more interested in. I can't wait to see John Scofield play - I think he's using my AC30, so I'm very pleased!"

In the meantime, Adrian's work stands as a reminder to the rest of us that if you think you've heard all the guitar can do, you ain't heard nothing yet. For the full interview with Adrian, in which he shares his studio gear secrets and tells us about future plans for Portishead recordings and more, look out for issue 366 of Guitarist magazine.

Buy Guitarist on Apple Newsstand.
Get The Blessing at the Bristol International Jazz & Blues Festival.

Studio guitar: A Gretsch Country Gentleman from Adrian's collection

Jamie Dickson

Jamie Dickson is Editor-in-Chief of Guitarist magazine, Britain's best-selling and longest-running monthly for guitar players. He started his career at the Daily Telegraph in London, where his first assignment was interviewing blue-eyed soul legend Robert Palmer, going on to become a full-time author on music, writing for benchmark references such as 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and Dorling Kindersley's How To Play Guitar Step By Step. He joined Guitarist in 2011 and since then it has been his privilege to interview everyone from B.B. King to St. Vincent for Guitarist's readers, while sharing insights into scores of historic guitars, from Rory Gallagher's '61 Strat to the first Martin D-28 ever made.