Adrian Legg - guitar hero on top of his game
There’ll be no need to call for a guitar technician if any of the instruments suffers a mishap on the International Guitar Night tour that’s heading this way. Because there’s a guitar technician in the touring party, playing onstage. Indeed, as well as demonstrating the kind of ability with six strings that turns mere mortals green with envy, Adrian Legg, for it is he, was once known as the guitar doctor among London musos.
It was while setting whole warehouses full of production line guitars on the path to playability that Legg developed the skill that, for this writer, was best summed up by a slightly bewildered chap in a north London hostelry back in the 1980s. Jostling for position at the door of a packed back room of the Rising Sun in Islington while Legg strutted stuff that sounded like the work of a dozen hands, our cultural commentator bellowed to his companion: “Hoi, mate, there’s only one of him!”
How right he was. Legg has been beguiling a small but dedicated army of followers – the Leggheads – on this side of the Atlantic with his unique assimilation of country guitar picking, the Irish ballad and dance tune traditions, Bach, Hank Marvin and all manner of other “misremembered” musical snippets since the late 1970s. His albums Fret Melt and Technopicker, championed by the late, much lamented Alexis Korner on his Sunday night Radio 1 programme, were bought and listened to with awe for the sheer energy they projected and the tangible joy Legg took in playing mesmerising acoustic guitar picking patterns.
“Going into the instrument side of the music industry was great for me,” says the affable Legg whose previous trips north of the border have been few and far between. “Being surrounded by guitars, I was able to work on my own musical ideas while making sure that what the customers were getting would let them do what they wanted to do. I had all day to practise, edit, expand, join phrases together until they sounded natural and still do what I was being paid to do, and it essentially allowed me to develop the kind of things I’d been hearing in my head for years.”
Before taking on this job – a decision that was made after an expensive repair by a Denmark Street shop turned out so badly that he thought he could have done better himself – Legg had been plying his trade as a guitarist on London’s weddings, pub and Irish showband circuit. His parents had been so set against their Shadows- and before that Lonnie Mack-loving son’s interest in anything other than classical music that they’d forbidden him from even bringing a guitar into the house.
A member of the under the bed clothes club, who listened to Radio Luxembourg’s wavering signal illicitly, Legg tried building his own guitars with limited success, then left school, left home and joined a succession of bands including one that also featured Scots fiddler Bobby Campbell, who’d played with Archie Fisher in the Wayfarers, and another whose exploits turned Legg teetotal because he felt, after one particular marathon, that he’d drunk his share. “I have,” he says with the voice of experience, “played the Crown in Cricklewood and lived to tell the tale.”
Despite the best efforts of Korner and a group of guitar music enthusiasts including fellow guitar players who were determined to spread the word, Legg remained pretty much a prophet without honour in the UK, unable to take his own music beyond small, albeit packed pub rooms such as the Rising Sun. America, however, was a different story. When he was invited to take part in the launch of a new amplifier, especially designed for ‘acoustic’ guitars, across the Atlantic, America ‘got’ what he was doing big time.
“I remember years ago someone saying to me, if you haven’t got a category you’ll never get anywhere,” says Legg. “I never thought too much about it at the time but it’s true. If you don’t fit into a handy pigeonhole over here, people don’t know where to put you. The listings in Time Out used to have me under folk music as ‘a completely uncategorisable guitar player’ until I played Montreux Jazz Festival and then they listed me under jazz as … ‘a completely uncategorisable guitar player.’ But in America, they understood what I was trying to do. There’s a circuit there where people just want to listen to guitar music and I was lucky because I fell into that fairly quickly and I began to spend more and more time over there.”
With a sympathetic, supportive – and large – audience in the US, Legg has been able to develop as a composer over the past two decades. If his initial impact was based largely on gobsmacking licks played with an attack you could almost physically feel, there’s been a tendency more recently to use his formidable technique to achieve music that affects the listener on a deeper level. His tribute to the great bass guitar innovator Jaco Pastorius, for example, managed to summon up the Pastorius sound in all its soulful glory, where once the temptation might have been to try for the bassist’s spectacular grandstanding style.
“The best music, for me, is a combination of the technical and the emotional,” says Legg. “I remember being impressed no end by the pedal steel player Weldon Myrick on Skeeter Davis’s Never Ending Song of Love, which is a bit of a drudge until Myrick appears and plays a solo from the heavens. I actually started retuning my guitar after trying to figure out how he did what he did technically. But it was the feeling in what he played that got to me, and that ability to communicate is what I’m after. If someone blows their nose after a tune, then I know it’s worked. We’d all like million sellers but if a hanky comes out on a gig, that’s my idea of success.”
From The Herald, March 1, 2012.