Guitar Showcase 2021: Type ‘shred guitar’ into YouTube and you’ll be rewarded with a long list of identikit shredders telling you to ‘Smash the like button, share and hit that subscribe bell!’ Rick Graham isn’t one of them. From humble beginnings learning the guitar alongside his brother and mentor, Lee, Rick has carved a career path that has seen him reach technical heights most of us can only dream of.
After a life of “adversity and pain” as he describes it, Rick suffered his ultimate blow in 2015 with the loss of his brother, an event that he’s still coming to terms with now. But with his heart firmly attached to his sleeve, Rick’s open and honest nature about life’s challenges, coupled with some of the most bonkers guitar playing on the internet, Rick has amassed an ever-growing quarter-of-a-million subscribers on YouTube.
Now, in 2021, he’s realised most guitar players’ ultimate badge of recognition: a signature guitar. His signature Charvel DK24 bucks the expectations of a ‘shred’ guitar, while simultaneously fulfilling them too with sleek cuts and carves, a versatile Bare Knuckle pickup configuration, Gotoh and GraphTech appointments and an overall tasteful vehicle, regardless of the kind of music you make.
Here, we get inside the head of one of the UK’s most gifted shredders to find out a bit more about his background, approach and newly christened signature model.
How did you get into guitar playing?
“I grew up in a very working class, very broke, poor background. However, and this is very important to me, the way I started was through my brother. He was discovering everything about music, and had such a clever mind. He’d wake up in the morning and say ‘Rick, I’ve got this idea for this guitar thing that I’m developing!' So what we would do is test each other to see who could do better, and he would kick my ass every single time.
"It was healthy competition. It was like ‘Man, my brother is so good, how am I going to be as good as him?’. I’d practice all the time and go, ‘Lee, look, this is what I’ve done!’ and he’d go ‘Nah man, you ain’t even close!’.
"So with all the YouTube stuff that I’ve done, my brother is a huge part of that, and it’s important to have healthy competition. If i think about Bach, he was inspired by other musicians. Dietrich Buxtehude was an organist who he would study, and he’d walk miles just to get there! I love that side of somebody who’s willing to really push themselves in terms of learning music. So I guess that’s where that dedication comes from for me.
"I grew up with Genesis, my dad played A Trick of The Tail to me when I was three years old, and you can’t be normal after that! Then I got into classical stuff and started practicing Bach religiously. But at the same time in the 80s I was, and still am a huge fan of Jan Hammer. It blew my mind completely.
"It’s a strange concoction of influences! Most people know me for the shredding thing, but that’s not something that envelopes my life very much. It did for a while, Satch’s The Extremist album blew my mind, and Nuno Bettencourt is somebody who I respect a lot, but I’ve always felt I’ve got to do my own thing, discover my own musical journey.”
You studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama too?
“I did. That was an interesting period of my life, I was there for one year. What happened was, I just thought, ‘No, I need to grow in my own way’ and ended up leaving. I still think, ’Shit, if I’d had stayed, what would I be now?’ Probably a lot less than I am now.
"But I did one year there, studied lots of classical music, did lots of performances and it was amazing. But I realised had to leave, I had to leave because I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t comfortable. So I had to find myself, and I kind of put myself in those sort of situations a hell of a lot. For most people that seems like ‘Why do you do that?’ But I do that, and that’s why I play the way that I do.”
You must have already been at a pretty high level to be accepted, how did that develop?
"It was just me and my brother, together. We went through all sorts of crazy stuff, some really tumultuous times. He’d be like 'Get yourself out of bed. Work hard. This is what you’ve got to do’. And I did it. He’d be the one under the duvet going ‘I can’t deal with life!’
"So it’s purely through adversity that I’ve gone ‘Do I want to be good at guitar? Yes, I do. So I’m going to use all of the pain I’ve been through as the motivator to be good at it.’
"I was watching Stevie Ray Vaughan talking about alcoholism and how he realised that it wasn’t leading him in a good direction. He had a mental breakdown, and woke up on a bus at 3am or whatever it was and was just like ‘What is going on?’. We’re talking about one of the best players in existence, ever. He went through that, and that’s a video that i go back to regularly to help me through my own foibles. Because I do have them, as most people do!
But to watch somebody like SRV say ‘We’re all suffering in some way, but I’m here to help,’ that’s what that video does for me. He had a really good message, he should have lived much longer. What’s important is to do something of value to support people while they’re alive."
Your YouTube channel seems to follow that message, you’re very open with your followers.
"Yeah, it’s a strange dichotomisation that I’m dealing with as a guy who plays guitar, but is also trying to figure out what’s going on his life and how to share that with other people at the same time. That can be tough sometimes, but the best thing to do is to shut your mind off, don’t let your mind control your direction because it will really take over how you do things.
"So that’s what I try and do with my videos, turn my mind off and just play. When that happens i’m like, ‘Wow, did i just do that?’ I’m just a useless, poor bastard from a working background, however i do seem to be able to do it! Creativity and artistry is a very unusual thing to explain."
You were an early adopter to YouTube, what made you start the channel?
"Literally just as a recording to look back on and go, ‘Did I do that as well as I wanted to do it?’ Some of the videos I’m most proud of are things like Roland Dyens, some of the Bach stuff, Manuel Ponce, and nobody watches it!
I watch it back and think ‘How the hell did I do that?’. But again, I just shut my mind off and go ‘I’m going to play this bloody thing.’ it’s a real stream of consciousness thing when it happens and it’s a wonderful thing when you allow it to happen.
At that point the term ‘influencer’ didn’t really exist in this context, but how much has it impacted on your career?
“Well, put it this way, don’t call me an influencer because I’m not one! Whoever came up with that etymology, it doesn’t work for me. But it is what it is. I guess I am an influencer in some ways but i don’t like to deem it that. Because what I want people to do is just learn about music and get really, really good.
"But the impact has been massive. I wouldn’t be speaking to you now, I wouldn’t be dealing with Charvel or all of those things. But I’m still aware that the music is the most important thing to me. All of these things that come along are wonderful, but I still never forget about the most important thing to me which is ‘Rick, are you going to be the best musician you can be? Yes.’”
Was it strange to film yourself and put it out there at first?
“Yeah, it was. I became the best hurdler in the world! I’d be going ‘Did I put out the right thing? What is the right thing?!’ It’s a learning process, but I’ve tried to avoid falling flat on my face. I’ve lost my balance occasionally doing videos, but I seem to fall on my feet.
"But I have to refer to this again, not being able to wake up in the morning and know that my brother is still alive, that’s tough. So that is what is really getting me through and enabling me to be at the peak of my ability as an artist.”
"January 17th, 11:30am, 2015. That’s when he passed away. I went to see him the week before and gave him three hundred quid, and bang. That was the last time I saw him. My dad phoned me a week later on the Saturday and said ‘Rick, I’ve got some bad news.’ I said, ‘Go on then, get on with it’ and he said ‘I’m going to tell you. Your brother’s dead’. That was tough, so tough.
"My partner, Gina who is a wonderful woman, saw me literally collapse and cry my eyes out, and said, ‘Come on, let’s go out.’ She showed me Orion, the constellation and said ‘Look at Orion, that’ll get you through’. And it did. Every time I see Orion I’m like ‘I’m okay, I’m alright,’ you know?…What a deep dive we’ve taken here!
"I have to allow that to take it’s natural course, but I still think, ‘Oh man, why aren’t you here?’ But if he was alive now he’d say ‘Rick, you’d better sort yourself out because you’re a loser, that’s what you are!’ Ha! But I mean that in the nicest possible way, because that’s how we’d converse with each other. ‘How good are you? No, you’re shit! Get better!’”
Was there a turning point with the channel where you thought ‘I’m on to something here’?
"Ha! It’s funny you should ask that, because one of the most popular videos is ‘Alcohol, Liquor, Booze’. I have addiction problems, and that is one of them. That’s why I uploaded that in 2016. I was literally just trying to tell people, ‘I’m not perfect’.
"Somehow, that has garnered over four million views, but I want people to understand why I uploaded it. The guitar stuff is great, you know, it’s cool. But I’ve got a much more important message, which is artistry is a wonderful thing. You ain’t going to be perfect, but do the best that you can. That’s it.
"I wish somebody had told me this when I started; guitar playing isn’t about being perfect, it’s about discovering yourself. But nobody did. Well, my brother did, I think, and maybe my family did. But maybe I wasn’t listening. That’s a really important message for anyone. The people that care for you and are close to you, are you listening to what they’re saying?
Your fans and followers most likely appreciate that approach too
"I’m just completely allowing myself to try and discover what life is for me. In the meantime if i can help people that watch what I do…I’m flying by the seat of my pants, but also, not a bad guitar player!"
What advice do you have for people who want to start their own YouTube channel?
"What I’d say to them is feel the fear and do it anyway. Don’t be scared…or do be scared but still do it. There’s a lot of people in the world that will try and pull you down, but don’t let them. If i hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t be doing the stuff that i do now. Ignore those people and just go ‘This is it’."
How did you first get involved with Charvel, were you playing them before you became an endorsee?
"I went to New York and I was hanging out with Angel Vivaldi. He showed me some guitars and i was just like, ‘Wow, this is great!’ They were just really well made instruments. I played them for a bit, and when I got back home he was still in touch, and Mike from Charvel was tentatively pushing things. Eventually he said ‘Do you want us to make the best guitar that we can make for you?’ And I went ‘Yeah, that’ll do!’
"I’ve always struggled with advertising stuff. I’m not one of these shills who just goes ‘Yeah, buy this!’. I’m not really comfortable with that. But when somebody like Mike comes along who says, ‘Rick, this is going to be something very healthy’, that’s why I have a signature guitar with Charvel now, and it’s a good thing.
How did you start putting ideas together for the guitar?
"I had to think about that quite a bit, what’s right for me as a player. I’m a Strat guy, through-and-through, nothing makes me more comfortable. So I had to reassess how it was going to work. I thought ‘It doesn’t really take that much…stainless steel frets, cut out the lower horn a little bit to allow my sausage fingers to work’. But what a belter of a guitar they’ve done. They’ve knocked it out of the fucking park!
The caramelised neck is a strong feature of many Charvels at the moment too, how did that come about for you?
“I think it came down to stabilisation. But what Charvel has done is made it so aesthetically beautiful. It’s great, so why would I change it? If it’s not broken, don’t change it!”
More and more players are moving towards stainless steel frets now too…
“Yeah, for me it’s longevity that stainless steel frets offer. That’s why I opted for stainless steel. It’s a very simple choice, so that I can be free to play the stuff that I do without impedance.”
There are custom Bare Knuckle pickups in there as well, were they designed specifically for this guitar?
“They are. I’ve been working with Tim [Mills, Bare Knuckle founder and owner] for many years and he bizarrely knows exactly what is right for me. Mike from Charvel got in touch and said, ‘Speak to Tim and find out what you need in terms of the pickups.’ So i contacted Tim and he goes, ‘I know what you need.’
"He sent them, and I was like ‘fuck me!’ I should be more of a pain in the arse, you know, but that’s the way it works with Tim. They sent the prototype through with the Bare Knuckles in and I thought ‘Jesus Christ, this is great!’.
"I’m not [normally] a bridge pickup guy, I tend to spend a lot more time on the neck pickup. But with this I’ve spent so much time playing through the bridge pickup because I’ve been working on my legato a lot, and the clarity on my bridge pickup now is just astounding. It makes me play better, and it’s just awesome.
"I was looking for a balance of being able to shred the hell out of the guitar, but also the chordal capacity. That’s a big deal to me, to be able to roll the volume off and make really clean chords sound really good. Tim really delivered, and Charvel delivered, so now it’s down to me to deliver!”
Obviously, this is a signature model, but your music covers such a wide range. Who is it aimed at?
“Everybody. I spent a bit of time playing signature models that had the signature emblazoned on the front, right in my face. I just thought ‘I don’t want that [from my guitar]’. I want people to be able to play it without the forcefulness of ‘Buy MY guitar!’ I want people to feel free, because it’s a liberating feeling when you’re free, artistically. I love that.”
When people think of shred guitars, they might picture fluorescent colours. How did you arrive at the Celeste finish?
“I actually started off with a blue, but my favourite colour is green. So we sort of navigated towards that without talking about it, and Mike just knew. It didn’t take long, and I love the correlation with astronomy, celestial. So anything to do with Lunar - Lunarcy! - that works with me!”
What’s in the rest of your rig at the moment?
“I’ve literally just stuck with the Fractal Axe FX II, purely because I’ve found my settings and it works for me. I kind of miss my old Marshalls, and I think that’s to do with living in an apartment, because I can’t crank it up.
My favourite amp in the world is the Vox AC-30. I auditioned with my brother for a Beatles tribute band in 2000, and I’ve never played an amp like it. My brother was like ‘Rick, you smashed it there’. But I never got the job because George Harrison wasn’t fat.
The guy said ‘Yeah, we want you, but we don’t want your brother because he’s too overweight.’ They wanted my brother, but not me. But anyway, what an amp!”
You made your 2010 album Insideout available to stream this year, and you’ve been putting new stuff out too, what’s next for you, musically?
“I think I’m going to kind of go one-track-at-a-time. But what interests and intrigues me more than anything is film music. If I can create for film, that’d be amazing, because I’ve got so many ideas in terms of that, that I think would work great. I’ve just got to find the opportunity. I’ll just keep playing my Charvel! It’s a strange journey, I’m just allowing it to happen.”