His unique take on the percussive acoustic style has formed the foundation for four top ten albums (most recently 2013’s Studio Zoo) and inspired a raft of new generation players.
Here are eight tips from the man himself on building your technique, snatching songwriting inspiration and, err, the importance of manicures…
Mastering a tricky track by a different guitarist can improve your technique, but you can also develop by challenging yourself within your own writing.
“I don’t have that much time to learn other people’s stuff, but when I’m writing I write stuff that I can’t play, which kind of satisfies that bit of my brain. The bit of my brain that wants to push itself further and further is getting the opportunity to do that without having to learn other people’s songs… I purposely attack weak areas of my technique so that I have to work on them to play perfectly live.”
Everything's an instrument
Newton may be best known for his unusual ‘percussive acoustic’ style, but he wouldn’t have got there without thinking outside of that particular wooden box.
“My playing style is predominantly acoustic, but there’s electronic stuff as well because I’m definitely not a purist. Everything’s an instrument if it makes a noise. It’s all about what you can do with something and what you can get out of it, which is how I compose stuff. If it sounds good, I’ll boldly do it!”
Songs come in all shapes and forms and from all sources. For Newton, a short deadline and, ideally, a loud stage help kick-start his creative faculties.
“I write better in really short spaces of time. If someone said, ‘You’ve got a week and all we want you to do is sit at home and write a couple of songs’, that would be my worst nightmare. I’d just sit at home all week and come out of it with nothing. It’s the way my mind works.
“Soundcheck is brilliant because it’s so instant - as soon as you play anything it sounds exactly the same as all your other stuff because it’s loud, it’s at a venue and you can hear what it’s gonna be like when it gets to that stage. I’ve written a lot of stuff when I’m plugged in and messing around.”
The advice of others can be valuable, but if it’s not producing the result you want, don’t be afraid to pipe-up!
“With my first album [2007’s Hand Built By Robots], I felt as though I was out of my depth and production-wise I wasn’t that involved. I mean, I would say stuff but if no-one was overly enthusiastic then I’d say, ‘OK, that’s cool’ and leave it at that. I felt as though I shouldn’t be telling people who have been doing their jobs for years what to do.
“But on [follow-up, 2009’s] Rebuilt By Humans I was like, ‘No! We’re not doing that, we’re doing this! This will be fun!’ Luckily, the guy I was working with, Mike Spencer [Jamiroquai, Kylie], really got my ridiculous ideas.”
Experiment with tunings
You don’t become a boundary-breaking string-wrangler like Newton without a bit of experimentation. Alternate tunings are one of the easiest ways to spark creativity. Get twiddling to find your favourite….
“My ‘standard’ tuning is basically DADGAD but changed slightly to DGDGAD, so the A [fifth string] has gone down a tone. I like the amount of octaves you get to play within that… [I invent tunings as I write] - I hear stuff in my head and then work it out on guitar, and a lot of the time I write things that I can’t actually play.”
Write with others (or, err, don't)
If you’ve hit a dry patch in your writing or playing, try roping in a partner. A temporary collaboration can quickly send you in a new direction and help expand your technique arsenal.
“If I write on my own it’s an incredibly slow process - there are tracks on Rebuilt By Humans that I was writing before Hand Built By Robots. I’m really slow on my own because I get very meticulous and each song has to be perfect, but if I’m writing with somebody else and they like it and I like it, it’s done. [That said], the stuff I write on my own is really satisfying.”
Turn adversity to advantage
Whether it’s playing a nightmare show, getting your gear nicked or personal injury, we all suffer set-backs. For Newton’s part, a broken wrist resulted in an improved fretting ability.
“[In 2008] I slipped on ice and landed badly, dislocating my hand and fracturing my wrist. There’s a huge metal plate in there now, but I think the accident improved my technique. I think my general articulation in my other hand got much stronger because I’d sit there for hours with the one hand and practise, just doing hammer-ons really violently. I’ve got to the point where if I strum and then hammer-on, it’s pretty much the same volume.”
Hit the nail bar
Strong nails are central to fingerpickers’ tone so Newton heads to his local nail bar and has acrylic nails fitted.
“The attack with acrylic nails is much more immediate,” he says. “It’s like playing with four picks!”
If you don’t want to brave a nail bar, other methods to consider are: fingerpicks (good for strong tone and projection); lacquer (cheap but not as strengthening); and even pin pong balls cut and glued under your nail (but be warned, the plastic can react with glue and turn green!) all improve your articulation, tone and volume dramatically.