Tommy Ashby interview: guitarist, songwriter and massive Hofner fan...

Tommy Ashby interview: guitarist, songwriter and massive Hofner fan...

Tommy Ashby is a guitarist and songwriter with a difference; as well performing with Tom Speight, Rhodes and Jamie Lawson, he’s shared stages with the likes of Ed Sheeran, James Blunt and Bryan Adams. He has a PhD in acoustics and brings his academic knowledge together with a deep love of blues and singer-songwriters to craft his solo material. We met Tommy to find out more...

(Thanks to photographer Andy Lawson from @ugotthelove for supplying the fab images)

[MPS]
You have an enviable solo career but you also play alongside some big names; who are you working with at the moment?

[TA]
The last few years I have toured playing for various artists including Jamie Lawson, Nina Nesbitt, Tom Speight and Rhodes. With Jamie we have recently supported Ed Sheeran, James Blunt and Bryan Adams as well as doing headline shows around the UK and Europe. The Ed Sheeran support tour took up 3-4 months of last year and was an incredible experience. I’ve come back from a support tour of the USA and Canada with Tom Speight last month and have just completed a few dates of my own winter tour in the UK.

[MPS]
Your work has found its way into numerous TV shows and high-profile playlists; can you tell us a little bit about where your music comes from?

[TA]
I grew up playing guitar in my Dad’s blues band and was surrounded by folk and roots based music. Our house was full of classic, predominantly acoustic based music songwriters; Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, as well as country and roots stuff like Gillian Welch, Jason Isbell and The Dixie Chicks. At the same time I was trying to play like Jimi Hendrix in my bedroom and in my later teens I discovered Jeff Buckley, which opened up a new world of sounds and possibilities.

I think that my music is heavily influenced by the wee village I grew up in, Innerleithen in the Scottish Borders. Local to us were Frightened Rabbit, a brilliant band who always managed to bring such an intense atmosphere to their songs. I think the soundscapes and vibe of my music has a bit of the wilds of Scotland in it as well. I’ve always been into the academic geeky side of music too. I have a PhD in acoustics, specialising in human perception of sound and I think that creeps into my music.

[MPS]
You wear quite a number of musical hats; what kind of work do you get the most satisfaction out of?

[TA]
Doing session work is a lot simpler in many ways! With TV and film things, you go along, play the parts you are given and that’s you. There is a little wiggle room on the creative side of things with guitar sounds and textures. Playing for another artist is a bit more creative, your job is to realise their music but you can make up guitar parts, change sounds and just have a bit more of a creative input.

I probably get most satisfaction out of playing and recording my own music. Getting to hop around onto different instruments in the studio, playing with pedals and effects and seeing if we can come up with some original sounds. Getting into the minutiae of different parts or just seeing what happens when you twiddle a certain knob, it's just really fun! The songwriting bit is hard but recording a song in the studio is like a kid in a sweetshop. Playing live, when it is going well, is just an outpouring of all that creative energy.

I have also discovered that things that you write that seem idiosyncratic, intimate and personal, can also be universal and can find a home in interesting places. Quite a few of my original songs have appeared on shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Riviera, BBC’s Gold Digger, Netflix’s The Innocents and NBC’s Midnight Texas; quite a random selection of shows! They definitely weren’t written with that goal in mind and it is very exciting to see my wee compositions in such illustrious places.

[MPS]
You’ve played quite a variety of shows throughout your career; can you pick out a favourite gig?

[TA]
The first one that springs to mind was supporting an artist called Rhodes in Utrecht quite a few years ago. It was my first big show playing my own music solo. It went so well and absolutely blew my mind! People were coming up to me after asking for photos and CDs, something that had never happened before. It was a really sweet moment and I’m very grateful to Rhodes for taking me out on that tour.

Also last year we played 4 nights at Wembley Stadium with Jamie supporting Ed Sheeran. That was ridiculous.

[MPS]
Who do you count among your musical influences?

[TA]
My Dad first taught me to play guitar so he is definitely my main musical influence. There was also a guitar teacher called Vince Woods. Everyone in my hometown went to him for lessons. Our town was so full of great guitarists because of him that it was only when I went to study music at University that I realised I was actually alright! Also, my parents record collection taught me a lot; Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Buckley, Tom Waits, Radiohead, gosh I could go on forever.

[MPS]
If you could go back to any musical era what would it be?

[TA]
Ooof tough question. Probably the 60s/70s. It seems like there was still a lot that hadn’t been done in pop music. I guess maybe someone will look back at today and say the same thing though.

[MPS]
What was your first guitar?

[TA]
When I was about 6 years old my parents took me, along with my brother and sister, to buy a guitar. They both got nylon string classical style guitars, while mine was more of a steel-strung finger destroyer. I can remember really struggling at first with that guitar but I imagine that is how everyone feels. For Christmas a few years later I got a Yamaha Pacifica and life was good from there!

[MPS]
What guitars are you playing at the moment?

[TA]
My main gigging electric guitars at the moment are a 1963 Hofner Verithin and a Fender Deluxe Telecaster.

The Hofner is my main guitar for solo gigs, it is a lovely halfway house between an electric and an acoustic. It seems to almost overdrive in itself when I play it hard and just has the most beautiful sound. I think these guitars were competitors to Gibson for the European market, The Beatles played a few Hofners and I think more people should be using them. They don’t cost anywhere near as much as a Gibson and they really do sound great. The origins of this particular guitar are a little complicated (more on this below!)

The Telecaster has a crystal clear sound but is not too toppy like others can be. It sounds strong and full and is probably my main pop session guitar. The most common comment I get on that guitar is that it is a nice colour!

[MPS]
Tell us about your Iridium and Zuma, what made you chose them?

[TA]
I recently toured the US and Canada supporting and playing for Tom Speight. In the run up I discovered that my previous power supply was unable to operate at 110V and so I popped down the local guitar shop and bought a Stymon Ojai. It worked a treat, was small, lightweight and powered everything perfectly, so I’ve now decided to expand Strymon power supplies to all my boards and thus the Zuma is on its way. I have at least 6 pedals requiring 250ma or more so the Zuma is ideal for the job!

Last year on the Ed Sheeran tour I was touring around with my trusty valve amp and running a power soak and speaker simulator, as well as an amp mic. The constant in and out of tour lorries was a bit too much for it and we had some problems with a few shows that meant it had to go in for repair. So, I started looking into the amp simulation technology around at the moment (it was all very intimidating!) and decided I needed something simple and great sounding. I am not a player who likes going into sub-menu after sub-menu to attempt to make an amp sound good. I just want a great simple amp sound as a starting point, onto which a few big overriding adjustments can be made. The Iridium seems to tick all those boxes!

Also, I’ve been looking for something that allows me to record electric guitar into my interface at home. I had not found anything software/plugin based that I was happy with and the Iridium is great for that too. Being able to give the amp a bit of room is a brilliant addition too. This pedal kills at least two birds with one stone!

[MPS]
What else do you have on your pedalboard?

[TA]
I have a bit of a smorgasbord of Stymon pedals that I use regularly. On my board at the moment are the Big Sky, Timeline, Deco and Flint, as well as the new Iridium pedal. The sounds that come out of the Timeline alone literally got me a job on a tour a few years ago and so I can’t rate these pedals enough.

The Deco and Flint are great for the studio where with a twiddle of a few knobs you can get a huge variety of sounds. The Big Sky and Timeline are great for live work and programming and setting different sounds for different songs.

[MPS]
Is there anything you have parted with that you really miss?

[TA]
Well yes, but I didn’t part with it through choice. My Dad had owned a 1963 Hofner Verithin from his teenage years and it had always been in our house. He used to play it regularly with his blues band. When I started gigging around London I started borrowing it and fell in love. Unfortunately on a gig with Jamie Lawson in Manchester it was stolen after soundcheck and it hasn’t turned up since. It was an absolute disaster! There was a real outpouring of love on social media that I really appreciated and ultimately a nice man got in touch to say he had a Hofner Verithin from the same year which I could use instead. That is now my main guitar and sounds fabulous. Dad’s guitar did have something super special in its sound though, probably from 50 years of playing and love. I hope one day it will make its way home!

[MPS]
Can you think of anything that really changed things for you, and why?

[TA]
Oh gosh that is a tough question. On one hand, gear can really spark a creative moment; turning on the Deco can instantly transport me to Sun Records and then some Travis-style country picking thing will appear. I remember a few years ago buying a new acoustic and writing a whole ream of new songs that week.

At the same time, my favourite guitar to write on was well under £200 new and so you don’t have to spend a fortune to be creative. Also, I’m a big believer in putting the work in; if you want to write a song, put your bum on the chair; if you want to shred like Steve Vai, you have to practice loads of technique; if you want to shred like Joe Pass, you have to study harmony and the old standards.

But who am I kidding, new bits of gear are awesome :)

[MPS]
Is there any advice you can offer to people starting out on their musical journeys?

[TA]
Be open and enthusiastic, talk to people, play with people, go to gigs. Almost all of my gigs, after my initial good fortune, came from the people I met along the way. I also think there is a lot of luck involved in the music business but I guess you have to put yourself in the room first to get that wee bit of good fortune!

 

Find out more about what Tommy's up to on his Facebook page and Twitter feed

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