The Magpie From Budgie
John Thomas | Budgie
John Thomas — Guitarist buys up World supply shock
Through a succession of albums and a live history dating back into the first emergence of Heavy Metal, Budgie have had the misfortune of being one of those bands with a large and dedicated following that has never quite been large enough to raise them into the first rank of chart-toppers.
It's probably something to do with the fact that they have always been a thinking man's heavy outfit — with songs which are far too versatile to be classed as mind-numbing metal and lyrics (courtesy of the very Welsh bassist and singer Burke Shelley) which have never been any less than cleverly witty.
And yet Budgie are still classed by the majority (perhaps) as a Heavy Metal band pure and simple. True, live they can be as dynamic as any group in the country, but it's a dynamism which conceals both fine writing and playing from those critics who, apparently, don't want to hear it.
So Budgie have worked on, through the dull times when Punk ruled by sensation alone to the 1980's when what Sounds dubbed the 'New Wave of British Heavy Metal' came thundering back, propelling lesser bands (like Saxon, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest et al) above an outfit which could blow most of them offstage any night of the week.
But this Summer sees Budgie back in force. Currently a new album is being recorded at the rural delights of Ridge Farm near Dorking, Surrey. A tour of Poland follows (yes, I did say Poland!) and then they headline the first night at the Reading Festival and play second on the bill to Motorhead at a couple of their Blitzkreig attacks on the harmless citizens of the U.K. It's good exposure for the band and a lot of Music U.K. readers are probably going to be seeing Budgie live for the first time in several years.
In that case you'll also probably be getting your first cranium full of guitarist John Thomas, who replaced founder member Tony Bourge and debuted so impressively on Budgie's last album, NIGHTFLIGHT.
I talked to John during the recording sessions for the new album. Expecting a Welshman (Budgie have always been a strongly Celtic team in the past) it came as a surprise to hear John's strong Birmingham accent. All was explained, the Brum Metal Mafia had struck again! I don't know what it is about having a Midlands background but it seems to be true that the heart of England is a hotbed of musical talent, especially in the harder side of rock. Prior to joining Budgie, John had worked in numerous outfits, probably the best known of which was the continuously re-incarnating George Hatcher Band.
"I was in that band for about three years during which we had about three line-up changes. I got so fed-up with it that I packed-up completely. I hated living in London and I was so sick of what was happening with the band that I went back to Birmingham and did nothing for about eight months; then I realised that I just had to start playing again. "What I did was form a band called Bomb Shell, which was remnants of different lineups of the Hatcher band. We did about five gigs, one of them at the Music Machine supporting Budgie — Well you know the rest from there because here I am."
Like a lot of Birmingham's guitar and bass players, John is a devotee of ace Brum guitar maker John Diggens — known by everyone as J.D.
Personally, I first met J.D. when he was working with John Birch, whose guitars (although the actual woodcarving was undertaken at his premises by several other craftsmen) were among the first British-made axes after Burns to be worth bothering with. J.D. gained such a reputation for his immense skills that he eventually went out on his own, since when he has become almost a legendary guitar maker to many top players like Angus Young from A.C./D.C..
"...THAT HASN'T STOPPED HIM AMASSING WHAT MUST BE ONE OF THE BEST COLLECTIONS OF VINTAGE GUITARS IN THE MIDLANDS... HE'S AN OBSESSIVE GUITAR BUYER AND FALLS AROUND LAUGHING AT WHAT THE SIGHT OF SOME RARE OLD AXE CAN DO TO HIM."
John Thomas, for example, uses a J.D. guitar (credited on the NIGHTFLIGHT album as the 'Hooligan Guitar'!) and endorses the man's work with tremendous praise.
"Right now I've got a J.D. 'Explorer' — a natural finish one. I've also got a black one, that's the one shown in the Superwound ads. That's a horrendous guitar — it's amazing that guitar! He's also made me a 'Strat' and a 'Tele' and one of his 'Flying V's' and right now he's in the middle of making me a six foot Flying V."
Now, in case you get the impression that a six foot Flying V might be just a little hard to play, let me explain that what J.D. is actually working on is a giant MODEL of the guitar which — and they're not kidding — Budgie intend to literally have flying around on stage during their gigs!
"The bit about 'Hooligan' refers to his Hooligan pickups, (at least that is what we call them) which he's put on my black Explorer. I don't know how he makes them but the winds he put on are really, really fine and then he puts them in a block of resin and everyone thinks I'm using Di Marzios on my guitars because they end up looking like the SDS, but if you put one of them next to these you could forget it! These are really special.
"All the other J.D. guitars that I've got are fairly standard except that Hooligan guitar, the black one. We spent so much time working on that one for a tremelo, about eight months altogether.
"I wanted to be able to use a tremelo but I could never use one before because I just can't play the Fender type without breaking them! I've no idea why that is because I like Fenders — I even collect them, but there's just no way that they are right for me on stage. So what I wanted was a tremelo system that would work on the Explorer — the Hooligan.
"We tried a lot of different ideas to get that tremolo right. In the end I suggested that we kept a clamp at the top which we'd developed and then put six fine tuners, like the Gibson TP6 tailpiece, in the bridge. It's great now, I tune up, clamp the strings down on the top and then forget about the head of the guitar — just stay down the bottom all the time, using the fine tuners for all the adjustment I need."
"...ON THE ROAD WITH BUDGIE. THE RARE OLD VINTAGE AXES ARE LEFT AT HOME, WITH THE EXCEPTION OF ONE LES PAUL, BUT HE TENDS TO STICK WITH HIS FA VOURITE, THE HOOLIGAN J.D. EXPLORER..."
You might be thinking about now that John is a complete devotee of J.D.'s fine handmade instruments. Well he is, but that hasn't stopped him amassing what must be one of the best collections of vintage guitars in the Midlands. He admits that he's an obsessive guitar buyer and falls around laughing at what the sight of some rare old axe can do to him.
"I've got about thirty five guitars altogether! I've been collecting them for about five or six years and I just can't seem to stop. My wife goes bananas every time I bring another one home, but I don't seem to have any control over myself at all!
"My favourite guitar to play is the John Diggens but my actual real favourites are a 1958 Dot neck Gibson 335 and a 1960 Les Paul Standard and that one is really amazing, that guitar is phenomenal.
"But I've also got about five or six old Fenders and Rickenbackers, Gretsches, some old Hofners like the Presidents and a Congress, about six Les Pauls, a '57 Junior, '58 Special, '56 Gold Top, 1960 Les Paul, a black one that's about 1967 — I just lose track of them all. Oh yeah, you know that Gibson Heritage Series? Well I bought an amazing one of those, it's like that guitar Robert Johnson's shown with in the Gibson book. I just had to have that guitar. I never buy new guitars except John's but I just had to have that one. But I've never plugged it in, would you believe that? I've just left it untouched in its case so that in a few years' time it'll be a completely mint guitar. It's like when you try to find a vintage guitar today, like a '58 Les Paul or something. Imagine if you came across one of those that'd never ever been played? Well, that's what this one'll be in time.
"Obviously I've got them all insured and the house is really well secured but I couldn't take them all out even if I wanted to because they're just impossible to insure economically. I just like to go upstairs, take one of these old guitars out and drool over it — I've really got the bug, haven't I?"
John's obviously some kind of nut about his guitars but he can see the joke, and notwithstanding the fact that he's a little, er, 'tired and emotional' following the liquid hospitality of the Ridge Farm crew, he talks with a real passion about his collection. Eventually we started to talk about the current line-up of gear he's taking on the road with Budgie. The rare old vintage axes are left at home, with the exception of one Les Paul but he tends to stick with his favourite, the Hooligan J.D. Explorer which he runs through a battery of Marshall 100 valve tops, each driving the ubiquitous 4x12's. "I'd get ten of them on stage if I could, really go mad with them. They're great. I use them in the studio too, along with a Mesa Boogie which is fantastic. I'll probably be using that later today to do some of the guitar overdubs with."
Time rolls on and we never really do get around to talking about the usual subjects like what's going on the next album. But that's how it is with this amiable Brummy who breaks almost every sentence he speaks with near-demoniacal laughter! John's one of the friendliest people I've ever had the pleasure of interviewing and I reckon that, guitar collections aside, his playing is going to make a lot of people stand up and take notice when they get the chance to see Budgie during this current Summer round of gigs. If you get the chance to see them in action then don't miss it. And if you happen to be into talking about vintage and rare guitars then just start talking to John about them - I guarantee that you'll be in for a fascinating time!
One thing that talking with John has done for me, personally, is that it's reaffirmed the idea I've had for some while now of getting out the MUSIC U.K. Roller Skates and taking a trip up the M.1. to see how John Diggens is getting on with his guitars. When I do I'll report back — but you might be inclined to beat me to it once you've heard the sound that John Thomas is getting out of his Hooligan!