It Got Nicked
Nick some ideas for songwriting, nick a few big semi-acoustic Gretsches, nick this issue.
In which rhythm guitarists rule the world, large bodied guitars are as gods, and fate conspires to separate us from both. In other words. The life and times of Nick Heyward. Told to Paul Colbert. Shown to Chris Taylor.
An afternoon with Nick Heyward leads you to several conclusions. He's a greatly skilled songwriter, a vastly under-rated and knowledgeable guitarist, and a natural television personality – for Police Five.
"I'm always having guitars stolen," was his reluctant verdict after two hours in the sun-kissed back garden of Arista records, guzzling Coke and removing the Arista puppy from the chewy ends of our shoe laces. "Don't ever lend one to me."
The time had been spent cataloguing the joys, applications and mysterious disappearances of a variety of six stringed instruments. There was the original orange Gretsch Chet Atkins from the earliest days of Haircut One Hundred – missing presumed 'liberated' by an American customs office. And the Gretsch Country Club, gained for a mere 56 dollars in a USA junk shop, lost for a paltry few minutes of inattention at a British studio. And the Gibson 335 which was only on hire. We stared at the crazy paving and tried not to get depressed about it.
Unfortunately, it's just one of those unhappy risks you run if, at an early age, you develop an intense yearning for certain of the world's bulkier instruments. Other less scrupulous admirers try to relieve you of them.
"I seemed to have always used big guitars," Nick reveals, shifting his seat to face the sun thudding onto the Cavendish Square patio. "My first was an old Guild semi-acoustic, then an Ibanez Artist. I started playing guitar at 15, when I was still at school, mainly because of the Talking Heads.
"They were dead funky," asserts the guitarist who spent many youthful hours poring over fuzzy David Byrne photographs, eventually deciding that only the semi-acousticness of his guitar could explain the huge sound it produced. It was only much later that he discovered it was... er... a 12 string.
And later came the Gretsch. By this stage the determined Heyward had already panicked his parents by staying in his room for an entire month, learning how to 'sing'. "That was my perfect guitar. I used that on 'Pelican West'... everything... because I could still use it for that clipped, rhythm style, but it was my own sound. If I'd played that on a Strat it would have been Chic-ish or a Doobie Brothers thing – brilliant, but not my own."
The present favourite, dragged through the traffic jams of Hyde Park especially for the day's discussion and photo-session, is a Gretsch Country Gentleman. "Obviously the best looking guitar I've ever had"... a respectful silence while we stare at the gleaming gold plating, Bigsby trem and walnut colouring... "and a sound that's wild as soon as you plug it in. The top E rings out a bit much, and when you're recording that can be a bit of a problem, but then I haven't had it set up for ages. There's the two switches, and two tone controls, one for each pickup, and the volume. I think it's the simplest they do. Really you need both pickups on and the tones turned down slightly. They're great, but they're one sound guitars, you can't change them around a lot.
"Then there's the Nashville which I bought in a music shop in Ealing. It was full of Japanese copies with this one bright red Nashville in the middle. Same old story, a jazz guitarist had to part with it because he was 'leaving the country'. That was a real find, but it feeds back tremendously.
"That's why the Chet Atkins had that pad on the back." You mean the round, soft cushion, I always thought that was to stop you scratching the finish. "So did I but it really helps prevent feedback, it deadens the guitar.
"If I was going to add to the guitar collection? Well, I'm still looking for a really brilliant Strat. I had one with a broken neck once and sold it. And you know who eventually bought it? My brother. It went all the way round and came back to him; same serial number, everything.
"I'm going to go out looking with Isaac Guillory (the fine jazz guitarist Heyward's been working with). A Telecaster as well, a good old 335, the old Justin Hayward sunburst one, but I don't think I'll ever find a Chet Atkins to match that first one.
"But I didn't realise how big the Gretsch range is – there are White Falcons, Vikings. Actually nobody uses a Viking. I think I might invest in one of them. There's this cream one in a shop I know..."
"I'm really happy with just being a good rhythm guitarist," volunteers Nick in one of those brief pauses where you're fascinated to see if the Arista puppy really can bite through the photographer's flash lead.
"I'd like to be able to play better solos and I'd love to play jazz guitar – that's something I'm saying for my thirties – but rhythm guitar is what I listen to on my record collection.
"It's those chuggy bits, the little picking bits in between the chords that make it. They're ignored by a lot of guitarists. If you ask a lead guitarist to do it, he can't sit right in there on the rhythm and play with a smile. Like this..."
"Sixties guitar riffs and rhythms are what I really like. Once I hear that, I go mental."
The Country Gentleman jumps into his lap and he knocks out two renditions of the same one chord strum, the first seems pushing and rhythmical, but you don't realise how rhythmical it is until Heyward smiles and slips into the lead guitarist's version, it's too accurate; too straight and precise and just what the metronome ordered. It also immediately exposed in my mind half a dozen guitarist who I always thought were funky but perhaps were only going through the motions.
"Those are the bits I listen to on Earth Wind and Fire records. They're not technically difficult. Start with simple chords, that's important. But once you've sorted those out, see if you can find an inversion around the middle of the fretboard that has an open string in it. That will give you something to throw in while you're whipping and damping the other notes, one or two at a time.
"Try to hear the bits that are almost buried on the records, and listen to what the bass player is doing, that's very important. When I write a song, I'm always thinking of the bass note, and maybe thinking of string or brass parts." Perhaps it's his instant yet complete vision of the song and arrangement that filters down to the rhythm part writing? He cites Elton John as a good 'rhythm' pianist for the same reason. "He fills every gap, every finger is doing something, putting down all those things in his head, that's why he can perform a song on voice and piano and it sounds so full."
The weekend before this interview, Nick Heyward and band had marched onto the stage at Wembley to wake up an audience there to witness Wham's last gig. And that day Nick Heyward broke a promise. "I always swore I'd never get to the point," the words came slowly, now, "where I'd use", he choked... a Marshall stack...
"I used to use a Fender Champ and they're brilliant but it came to the concert at Wembley and I thought, sod it, I'll hire a Marshall. I used a bit of compression as well. In the studio I don't think I'd ever be without it. I use a Rockbox by JHS, not the Rockman which has a problem with a buzz. These Rockboxes are so clean. The chorus is a bit... naive... so I just use it for the compression which is brilliant. It's there, you can't get rid of it at all. Normally, when you DI in a studio the sound goes flat, it's depressing. The Rockbox just gives an edge and a slight liveness.
"I started using an active Aria guitar, but apart from the batteries running out at precisely the wrong moment, they're almost too clean. You still do need the bottom strings for that rhythm sound to make it."
I wondered if he also changed playing style from one guitar to the next. "Yeah, Strats I always play just over the neck and on Gretsches I rest my hand on the bridge." (Holds up little finger of right hand, shows dents and scars as proof.) "I never play any guitar where it's supposed to be, in the middle. I got to a point where I realised I am not going to be Al Dimeola... you just develop your own things, don't you? Sixties guitar riffs and rhythms are what I really like. Once I start putting those bits on, I just keep going.
"That's why I like Johnny Marr (The Smiths) because he fills every hole with another twang. I love it. Then you can find bits that personally make me melt, something dead simple like the Bangles are doing at the moment with those 12 strings, Byrds' stuff. Once I hear that I go mental. But you can get to the point where you've lost it, especially if the guitar's compressed because it all ends up at the same level. Then you have to go back and start taking some out."
Though you'll never please everyone, of course. "Originally that sixties guitar at the end of 'Over The Weekend' was all the way through but people said it sounded too much like 'Nobody's Fool'. So I took it out, and then they said it sounded too much like Wham! I shut myself in a room for two weeks and got depressed." Yup, s'terrible to sacrifice your favourite bits. "No," he laughs, "it's terrible to get this far and then get accused of sounding like Wham!"
A shrill beeping bursts into the conversation at this point which is not the tape recorder protesting, but emanates from the Heyward key ring. It's one of those 'unloseable' jobs which warbles when you whistle for it. "Trouble is, everything sets it off, especially the TV. You have to hide it somewhere the TV won't reach it, then you can't remember where..." So is the Heyward home a hi-tech haven? Hmm. No.
"I've got a cassette recorder where I play along, then an acoustic guitar which I use for the bass notes, and that's it. I've thought of getting an RX11, DX7, the whole 1980's kit but I don't think it would make me write anything. It wouldn't stretch me."
Where many musicians are sketching out an arrangement in miniature on their Portastudio, Heyward is prepared to let the track grow in the studio. "It's always live drums, bass and guitar. If you've got a song and people are acquainted with it, but they don't know the number or you inside out, then for about an hour there are pulls and pushes in the music because you're still waiting to see what other people in the band are going to do. That's good. It's when you start taking out the guide guitar or think 'right, now I'm going to go back and do that bit properly', that's when you begin to lose some of the liveness."
Yet strangely there are certain details which other bands may fill in at the closing stages, which Heyward insists on finalising before the first chord is written. The title, the melody, and the plot. "Otherwise you'll end up with a song which you think has everything there, but somehow it's lost its point because at the beginning you didn't know where you were going."
The most recent studio sojourn results in "Steambus Junction" released in September. There are already enough songs to go straight back in and do another. One problem with a backlog of material, reveals Heyward, is that you have few routes out for that brilliant song you wrote last night. Single B-sides are the most obvious. "But really, you might as well make a record for the cutting room now. They use such cheap vinyl the pressings are rubbish. The last single was loud and vibrant in the studio, but I'd say 20 per cent of that disappeared at the test pressing stage. I suppose at least on compact discs you hear what you actually did coming out."
But we leave Arista acres and that diminutive canine (now ravaging a daisy) with a cheerful memory about the main subject of the afternoon's discussion. Guitars. What was the greatest delight and experience they'd ever given him.
"Seeing Paul McCartney's Hofner with the set list of Shea Stadium on the back. It was up at Air when I was working with Geoff Emerick. McCartney had all his gear in the other room, everything in there was left handed, and I was singing my vocals surrounded by God's equipment. A bit inspiring that." Nick, you didn't borrow... no forget it, silly question.
Interview by Paul Colbert
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