Byron Bay Guitar Festival | Byron Brewery | 6–7 October
For 12 incredible years now Ash Grunwald has sustained a level of success in the Australian music scene that is true testament to the well of his talent; nominated for six ARIA awards and three APRA awards, winning two of the latter. Global tours, remarkable collaborations with musicians both old and new, a fanbase that is not defined by age, along with critical acclaim as the bastion of traditional blues while being at the forefront of innovation. He is one of the headline performers for the Byron Bay Guitar Festival next weekend.
You are playing for the guitar festival so maybe tell me: what was your first guitar?
I am here in the sunny US. My first guitar was a nylon string – I started playing classical guitar when I was 10. I did classical lessons at school and I used to play at nights with my grandad, who use to do a fair bit of recording for himself. He would use a multitrack record and it’s where I learnt a lot about recording initiallyand played bass; my grandad had a big crappy old electric. He actually gave it to me and I loved that guitar.
Do you remember how you felt when you were playing? What drove you to master it?
It’s hard to answer that question because I definitely feel like I haven’t mastered it. I think I had an interesting approach to the guitar because I didn’t have aspirations to be a diverse guitarist at all. I just wanted to play blues music and I just wanted to play simply and with soul. At the very start I didn’t even know I was even going to be onstage. So I feel like the way that’s translated is that when I’m playing blues solos my bends are good, because I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid, but it’s been more of a challenge to learn the tricky stuff. That’s what I’ve been working on to this day. Actually 2018 has been a big year for me musically; I’ve been trying to master the fast playing and get a bit more tricky in soloing. Playing the guitar is a never-ending journey… it’s funny when I embarked on this journey of improvement this year, I think I underestimated what I was taking on. The more I’ve looked into it… my god there are some amazing guitarists in the world. If you ever want to stand out as a guitarist you’ve definitely got your work cut out for you.
What was it about blues that drew you in? I imagine most of your peers would have been listening to hip-hop?
Definitely. The soulfulness drew me in. It was a sound that was in a lot of different things. I was so full on about blues that my friends originally had to talk me into getting into Hendrix – I used to say he would play ‘too many notes… it’s just flashy guitar playing’ – he’s now one of my favourite guitarists of all time but it took me a while and it was finally hearing Red House. It sounded like he was just spewing out his soul – the fast notes, the fast runs. Those fast runs can be emotional in a different way; they can communicate a more excited kind of emotion and a bit of a frantic state, but what I’ve learnt is they can still be soulful. Fast notes can convey abandonment and take you to somewhere different, and that’s why I’m developing that area.
My friends were listening to a lot of hip-hop when I was a teenager: Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, Metallica and a lot of different hip-hop. All that stuff was still coming to my ears and it still does seep its way into my music even today.
Tell me about the guitars that you play and write on. Do you have a favourite?
My new favourite guitar is the D’Angelico, which I was actually given a few days ago in LA on my birthday. It’s a beautiful instrument. It’s similar to my Gibson 137 and a Gibson 335; it has a really playable neck and is just a beautiful thing.
I got that hook-up through getting to know the D’Angelico guys over here in America when I was working on my book Surf by Day, Jam by Night, which is about surfing and music and a bit of an autobiography as well. I was interviewing the amazing Steph Gilmore, six-times surfing world champ from Australia and a really great guitarist, and she’s got a sick guitar collection. I was playing her D’Angelico and I was just loving it. The guitars you play influence so much the way you write. I’ve played a Les Paul for a number of years recently, which is really good for playing the band setup with that high gain; the rocky thing, the big sustain is amazing. I’ve played a lot of different National steels throughout the years. My signature guitar for a while there was the Stylo National Steel that I used to belt a lot when I was playing solo; that was a big part of my sound for a long time. I still do play a National onstage for my slide stuff.
The best part of a new guitar is that it gives you new songs, and I love that. First and foremost I’m always a songwriter and I love when guitars teach me new songs. Especially when I got a National steel many years ago and tuned it to a funny tuning and in one second everything I’d learnt went out the window – especially when I tune to open C, which the way I do it: it’s just one big power chord. Everything I did just became infinitely simpler and I think my music improved a lot – and that’s why I did my first album Introducing and a lot of that was so simple.
A musician I interviewed once said that he liked to pick up an instrument and try and find the song that it held. Like it wasn’t him making it up but it was trapped inside the instrument he was playing… Does music come like that? Like an unexpected surprise? When has that happened for you?
I love that metaphor that there’s a song inside the guitar and you’ve got to find it. I don’t know my art history very well but I believe it was Michelangelo who said, ‘The sculpture is already inside there but you’ve just got to chip away and find it’. I think that’s a really good way of looking at it. I’m going to really think about that when I pick up a new guitar: ‘what song have you got for me?’.
Who are the guitarists who have most influenced you?
I find songwriting to be a really eclectic process, especially if I was writing as much as I’d like to, which is daily. There would be all sorts of different ways of writing songs. Definitely sometimes they just come to you and sometimes you have to work hard for them and I think that’s all part of the same process. For songs to come really easily to you and to just appear – you probably have to do your time working at it and then it’s not appearing – and then when you’re in that habit more they just arrive. I feel like I’ll be up to the 100 songs mark pretty soon and it still remains an eclectic process; and you go through so many different stages with it.
Who are the guitarists who impress or inspire you?
I think my list would read like a lot of people’s. When I was growing up, I listened to a lot of Muddy Waters, Albert King, Buddy Guy, A LOT of B.B. King; I often forget him because he is just so obvious and at the forefront for me. John Lee Hooker; I listened to Robert Johnson but I’ve never really got his style down – maybe that’s something I could do one day. I never really got that good; I mean everyone who sits down and is playing acoustic blues is paying homage to Robert Johnson but I never really nailed it. I loved Son House and he’s really influenced me but I never nailed what he was doing. I never really nailed what anyone was doing really. But also I often forget how much of a big role Cream, Clapton, and even how big that Unplugged 90s was and a lot of that was Robert Johnson. A lot of Hendrix – Voodoo Child is just a seminal text for blues rock for me. I think that’s so special and I still don’t feel like I could play that and really do it justice. That’s something I really want to achieve in my playing; I’ve been working on that a lot this year, working on that explosive style of blues rock, where you could do really a good version of that track and do it justice. To date my best versions of Voodoo Child have been when I’m playing solo and not under so much pressure to be compared to Hendrix.
What should we expect for your show at the Byron Guitar Festival?
Recently I’ve been getting a little more ambitious with my playing, and practising a lot. I think in the modern guitar space, and the guy who is out in front and has the most success, who is a mind-blowing guitarist is Joe Bonamassa. It took me a while to really recognise his amazing playing ability. When I first heard him a year ago it was a flurry of notes stretching into blues and even a more proggy realm, but I’ve really come to appreciate what he does in a big way as I’ve got more ambitious with my playing.
Byron Bay Guitar Festival 6–7 October at the Byron Brewery.
Tix at byronbayguitarfestival.com