The Darkness’s Justin Hawkins: my top 5 tips for guitarists

(Image credit: REX/Shutterstock)

There is no-one in the world quite like Justin Hawkins to interview. The founding singer/guitarist of The Darkness has a way with words, and easily could have been a comedian in another life.

While he’s never shied from sharing that sense of humour through his music - penning phallically charged Christmas singles, odes to hometown Lowestoft and, more recently, a scathing attack on Southern Trains (“It’s a journey into pure despair, there are fucking arseholes everywhere”) - his sense of musicianship has always been anything but a joke.

Before sharing five guitar tips that are “guaranteed” to make every MusicRadar user a millionaire rockstar, he fills us in on the recording of this year’s fifth album Pinewood Smile…

For me, hearing the rhythm tracks bleeding into the drums and stuff like that makes it sound like a proper album

“This time round, I played all my solos through a Friedman amp, which was a bit unexpected,” explains Hawkins.

“Other than that, it was all very straightforward - we did the drums, rhythms, bass and lead vocals live in the first part of the session, then all the overdubs in the second half.

“There were no clicks or anything like that; it was an organic process. For me, hearing the rhythm tracks bleeding into the drums and stuff like that makes it sound like a proper album.”

That said, it wasn’t a completely organic experience - thanks to some ’80s digital gear that was found lying around in the studio…

“There was also an old metallic orange Boss rackmount guitar modeller, which most people would think was horrendous,” laughs Hawkins.

“It was some Joe Satriani thing from the late ’80s. The models didn’t really sound like what they were supposed to, but they did have their own vibe - so we used it on the end of Solid Gold, with the delay ringing out after the last strike, specifically because it was sorta horrible.

“The album was a combination of super-organic, in-the-room, loud Friedmans and Marshalls combined with horrendous late-’80s digital modelling - I admit it!”

It’s been a good year for the Suffolk rockers, including stadium dates with Guns N’ Roses on the biggest rock tour of 2017. For Justin and his bandmates, the run-up to releasing their fifth opus couldn’t have gotten off to a better start…

“We didn’t get to hang out with Axl,” says Justin, “but we did see Duff very briefly as well as their drummer Frank, who was super-cool. It was great to hear those songs loud, played by largely the original line-up. Axl’s voice still sounds fucking amazing, even after all this time.

“Plus there was a fresh cowboy for every song… can’t argue with that! Every type of material and colour combination - it was most impressive.  

Appetite [For Destruction] was the first album I bothered learning the tablature for, so I can actually play every note on it… accurately, too!

Slash is fucking amazing, too; he’s still one of my heroes,” nods the singer/guitarist.

“There’s the tone, the taste and the touch that only Slash has, and no-one can simulate that. It’s a big part of GNR’s sound - he’s a living legend in my opinion. He loves Les Pauls and Appetite [For Destruction] was the first album I bothered learning the tablature for, so I can actually play every note on it… accurately, too!

“And then Richard Fortus is a great guitarist in his own right, doing a lot more than Izzy could in terms of lead. Strangely enough, I actually met him in the gym when he was in Thin Lizzy and we were touring together. Obviously him and I share enormous, powerful guns and that’s only because we’re in the gym all the time…”

So about that guide to becoming a guitar god/millionaire rockstar? Look no further…

1. Turn sounding crap into something really great

“My ultimate tip is when you hit a bum note, don’t try to smudge it and get away as quick as you can. A bum note played with true confidence can be powerful, even if it’s not in the scale you’re looking for.

“The best way to get your own sound is to put yourself in different situations and play beyond your abilities. I’m not a brilliant player, but when I write solos, I try to play things I can’t really pull off, and somehow that brings the character to it. That’s what gives it the silly, falling-apart-at-any-moment feel which actually makes it more exhilarating to listen to.

Rock is some edge of the seat of your pants sorta stuff… you need to hear the struggles in what you’re playing

“Nobody wants to hear comfort or someone not pushing themselves. Rock is some edge of the seat of your pants sorta stuff… you need to hear the struggles in what you’re playing, otherwise it sounds too easy. That kind of playing belongs to a different style of music; it isn’t rock, where you express yourself and sound more unique.

“I’m still learning my own licks - there’s a lot of stuff I did by accident in the studio and need to learn properly for when we play live. We all have an arsenal of licks we come back to - and those can only be found by stumbling over them, or copying everybody else!

“If you have the choice, go down the stumble option and run down that hill as fast you can. Even if you fall into a mess at the bottom, it still can be something people want to see. Things going horribly wrong are always memorable!”

2. Don’t get too good!

“At first, playing guitar is a bit like working out to maintain a sculpting physique. You might have periods where you work out every day, but after a while, you might not go for a month. Same with guitar, you practise all these hours every day and you’ll have a sudden brilliance - but every time you play a guitar it has to sound like you’re discovering it.

“So practice is important, but if you overdo it you’ll lose something. It’s a balancing act, and I recommend three days on and three days off! You learn all the scales and familiarise yourself with the instrument, but once you’ve got that - I’d say put it down.

“It’s different with songwriting: you need a guitar in your hands all the time for that, but if you just want to be a guitarist, time away is good. Plus, absence makes the heart grow fonder… you will start yearning for more.

“Also, time away means your fingers will get softer and it will hurt to play, and I think you can hear the pain sometimes. If it’s pure agony, you’ll also pull all the right faces to express the world of pain you’re in.”

3. Softly softly catchy butterfly…

“Writing a song is a bit like catching a butterfly: you need a net in order to be able to do that and you wait by the side of the river for one to fly by. You just wait; you don’t rush it.

The songs are out there, just flying around. There’s no real science to it: you just need to catch them when they pass

“You can’t put yourself under pressure from 9-5 or 7-10 on weeknights. You just need the guitar in your hands and wait for the butterfly to arrive. Then once you’ve got the butterfly, you can spend three hours perfecting it, mounting it in a glass box or whatever the metaphor should be.  

“So sit there and wait for inspiration to strike and follow your fingers. Easy! I honestly believe the songs are out there, just flying around. There’s no real science to it: you just need to catch them when they pass.  

“We’ve been lucky enough to have a few crossover mega-hits. They all came from simply following your fingers and letting them go - if you’re over-rehearsed and force it, you’ll probably follow the same sort of riffs you always do.”

4. Make sure you look cooler than everyone else

(Image credit: ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock)

“A lot of the great guitar players I’ve been touring with lately… guys like Nuno Bettencourt, Yngwie Malmsteen, Slash - they all have a unique style of carrying their guitar. There’s a certain way it looks, and that comes down to strap length and postures, which affects how fluid and free you appear.  

“Players that have it too short look a bit wooden or frightened, like the guitar is so close to them they’re almost restrained. Then there are the guys who have guitars down so low they can’t actually play!  

“It depends on your physique - so find the right strap length that lets you run about and do stuff with your guitar that isn’t just playing! Nobody wants to see a recital. All the great guitar players look like the instrument is an extension of them. It’s not slapped onto them; it’s 100% part of them. Everyone’s different, so you need to find that out for yourself.”

5. Never stop learning tricks

“I do a lot of plectrum tricks, where I throw it to the side, then kick it back up and catch it! Things like that can’t really be taught. I have laser-like precision in how I throw. I can launch things up to 200 metres.

“When you throw something and release it, the position of your hand should be pointing at the target - and for me, nine times out of 10 I hit the opponent right between the eyes. I worry about stuff like that way more than amp choices and tone.

I don’t think you can be in a rock band and do barre chords traditionally

“Somebody noticed the other day that the way I hold my pick is a bit different. I rotate it a little bit, which is a good way of getting that scratchy attack sound Brian May has. Learning how to do it makes you more versatile because you have more ways to play a note. I do it naturally now; I don’t even realise.  

“After some lessons, I retrained certain areas of my playing. The way I was doing barre chords changed, because I don’t think you can be in a rock band and do them traditionally. What I was doing was hitting the root and going down from there, while now I’m doing a lot more of the thumb over the top stuff kinda stuff.

“You can get all of that from watching players like Hendrix, who had a raw, organic approach in how he played. Remember, no matter how good you are, there’s always more to learn!”

The Darkness’s new album, Pinewood Smile, is out on 6 October via Cooking Vinyl.

Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences. He's interviewed everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handling lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).