Guitar playing was once about innovation, expression and forming an emotional connection with the listener, but somehow it managed to lose its way in the eyes of guitarist Pete Hawkes. The Australian acoustic virtuoso, who has synaesthesia (a condition that causes him to see music in colours, something that Jimi Hendrix had as well), has penned over 1,000 recordings across various musical styles including Delta blues, jazz, Celtic and even orchestral arrangements, but he can’t help but feel that the popular vote has turned the guitar into an instrument for showing off technical chops. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t enjoy this style of playing, but Hawkes feels that there’s just not enough there to qualify as beautiful, listenable music. It’s a bold claim, but one that Hawkes steadfastly stands behind as he dives into a detailed explanation as to why contemporary guitar music needs a re-think.
Last year there were five full-length records released under your name. Do you have anything left for 2015?
I’m writing a couple of concerto classical pieces with an orchestra which I’ve had for quite some time. “Red Roses For Ada” and “Freedom For Palestine” – they’re pieces that I’ve worked on for a number of years, they’re huge and the only things that are stopping those is the financial aspects of getting a whole bunch of orchestral musos in to record and how to get it out there.
It’s also been a long while since I’ve done an album like Secrets Vows and Lies with vocals because I’ve kind of moved into instrumental and a whole heap of other things. So after I’ve done those two [classical pieces] I’m doing a folk blues record with vocals that will have more Celtic aspects to it.
Why did you feel like the time was right to get the concerto pieces going?
I had a guy write to me who was doing his Masters in Viola in Sydney. You know they
have to do a recital and all that kind of stuff and he wanted to use my music; they do Mozart and Beethoven – all the dead guys get a look in at the recitals – but the living don’t seem to cut it, and he said, “I really like your music and I want to use your stuff for recital”. So I said no problems, but then there was all this crap going on with the universities and I got really annoyed with the administration. This guy wanted to use a living composer’s works for his recital, we had it all organised and then the stuffy university knobs stopped us. Then the guy said, “Bugger them, let’s do a concert” because he was organising a few things and it kind of built momentum from there. I get really annoyed with the classical culture that doesn’t exist in other forms of music which progress naturally like jazz and blues, because anyone can play them and they evolve without cultural constraints. A lot of people who teach classical music, they don’t create anything and they often produce musicians with a robot kind of perspective who then read the dots on other people’s music for the rest of their lives and that’s what they think music is?
That’s not a musician to me! It’s a bit of a bee in my bonnet I guess, and with classical music you could almost give up if you weren’t really passionate about the music itself, which I am, because there’s a lot of these limitations involved. Classical music is, after all, a subset of folk music; that is to say, humans write it, folk, people. Louis Armstrong was once asked about folk music and he said, “All music is folk music, I ain’t never heard no horse sing no song” and that about sums it up. I think the classical cultural entourage could learn a thing about music from Louis.
What about the guitar record? What caused you to go back to the Celtic sound?
It’s not totally Celtic, but it has more of a Celtic view of the world. When you’ve been composing for a long time, it takes a while to get the feeling to go out there again and perform and finally that’s starting to happen with me again, so I’m wanting to do these new songs with vocals and play and get back into it. Plus there’s a different kind of [Celtic] tuning that I’ve invented, so I want to try and see if it’s working. While we are on the topic of performing, I went to see Joe Satriani in concert recently with a mate. Joe of course is a great player and we were expecting great things, but it was, disappointingly, just loud, fast noise – just one guy seemingly saying, “Look at me, look at me”. For me, that’s just taking music nowhere; I mean, it’s very impressive and much more than I will be able to do on an electric guitar without a doubt, but after the first song it’s like, “OK, you’ve got a lot of chops, you’re great, technically brilliant” but it then gets boring. To be honest, my mate Keith fell asleep after the third song. His song “Always With Me, Always With You” is a classic, absolutely brilliant, and I was looking for this kind of thing at the concert but instead it was a wall of sound, a barrage of ‘white’ noise. In my view music should not always be about speed, it should be about the arrangements, about emotion and impacting people, for me anyway, about changing their state, transcending them to another place. I’m not having a go at Joe by the way, or anyone for that matter, but I’m just trying to illustrate an example to explain a point. I guess the opposite of this ‘stunt guitar’ approach for me would be someone like Jeff Beck who can extract so much emotion with so little sound from his guitar. I guess he knows he doesn’t have to impress anyone, or doesn’t make his living based on a stunt guitar/impress scenario and gets on with developing a beautiful sound with the tune in mind. It’s much harder to do the latter with a crowd than the former.
What do you want to convey with your music and what do you want people to feel?
In some way I want it to be the kind of music that people can sit and listen to; music’s not about flashing things on the screen and making loud, fast noise. It’s like colours: purples and reds are beautiful but if you spin the colours really fast they all turn white. I don’t like white noise. I like noises that look like a rainbow of beautiful colours. It’s about sitting down and saying, “That was really nice, I enjoyed that; that made me
feel better”. What I want to do with music is change someone emotionally, if I can, even if it doesn’t last long, or have them feel good and impact them in some way. For me there are two kinds of guitarists: one who uses the music to improve the tune, then there’s the other side like Satriani, where they use a piece of music to show off all their skills, and I just think that’s not the way to go. I know Joe is going to be technically better than I ever will be, but I don’t care. Listen to Jeff Beck’s album Emotion & Commotion and hear how beautiful it is. You can see you don’t have to fill the whole thing up with notes; leave some space, some contrast, and think about the arrangement.
So do you think the profile of a musician should be secondary to their music?
Absolutely, absolutely. Your music is who you are, it’s what you do, it represents you. Not many people go to Russia and hear the players there; we’re Western fed, but I lived in Russia for a while and there were some players there that will just blow your mind. They have no profile. On the other hand, Bob Dylan has a huge profile but needs harmonica lessons. The musicians that I admire are people like Charlie Parker, who really took it somewhere, or Tony McManus, who’s a great acoustic player in the Celtic style. He’s advancing the music in this form and it’s beautiful. They’re writing beautiful arrangements; they’re not trying to show off. I like to write music for adults, not kids, and I like to see guitar progress to something that’s not about playing fast or showing off your chops. It’s no good being able to have good chops if you can’t make a good meal out of them; burnt chops taste horrible without salad and a nice glass of wine.
Many of your songs convey emotion and tell a story without saying a single word. Why is that style of writing important to you?
If you can tell a story and change someone’s point of view then you’re making an impact. If you’re not making an impact, what’s the point? In the case of a lot of these heavy metal guys, in my view, it’s just loud, fast noise. That’s fine, that’s great, but you’ll feel the power of someone who’s got the ability to play fast but plays restrained, then you feel the power of that restraint in the music. Also it’s the melodic part of music that gives you the memory link; you whistle to it when you’re mind is on other things. If there’s no melodic component or counterpoint or anything, you can’t get your head into it so I don’t really see the point. But that’s me and that’s always been me. It’s easy to play fast; you can learn it, do it and that’s fine, but I don’t get up on stage saying, “Look at me”, I get up there wanting to play some really beautiful music. I might not succeed, but at least I try to do that. The violin in my view has evolved past the guitar to some extent in that it has a history of being used more in a melodic sense. Also less can be more, especially if there is style in the ‘less’. Recently departed JJ Cale had this style in spades; Hubert Sumlin also. So I would like to see guitar people having less of this attitude that I see a lot of, particularly with electric guitar – which is playing fast and loud as the objective – because I don’t get it. There are times when that really works and that’s great, everything’s got its place, but it’s not a substitute for an arrangement or a melody and it’s not a substitute for a good tune in the first place.
When do you think the progress stopped?
Things changed when people like Eric Clapton and others became this thing where they had these supergroups based on playing fast, long solos. Hendrix was a real innovator, then it changed gradually and evolved into fast metal music. I mean there are great heavy bands as well; Led Zeppelin wrote some beautiful music but generally there was a move into this kind of suped up “wow wow” kind of thing, and
the focus seemed to be on technical prowess and speed. MTV also turned it into a video thing where music was not the focus. In the end, a musician or composer should be measured by the tunes they write in the first place as a starting point including how they have arranged the music.
Then what do you do in your music to ensure that you form an emotional connection with the audience?
Volume swells on electric guitar are important; slide guitar is a very evocative mechanism. It’s not quantum, it’s continuous; so with a guitar when you’re playing notes, you’ve got a quantum stop, start, stop, start no matter how fast it is, whereas with slide guitar you can generate a whole continuous feel from one point to another. On acoustic guitar alternate tunings are valuable, because acoustic guitar really wasn’t designed tension-wise to be played in standard tuning, so there are a lot of beautiful sounds you can find in alternate tunings that you just can’t find in standard. I like playing a lot of things that have dissonant sound in the chord for interest, a 7th or a 9th, or I try to develop a counterpoint or try a harmony. There’s a lot of things you can try in harmony and counterpoint that can generate emotion. There’s also the combination of other instruments you can add to it; I’m a big fan of cello, I think that’s God’s breath in many ways. It’s a really beautiful instrument. I’m not the best at making emotion; there are many musicians who are better, but I’m just trying to talk about what the objective should be in the first place.
I also feel that music shouldn’t really be classified; it’s a bunch of sounds that are classified for financial reasons, and if you talk to a lot of musicians there’s no real definition on sound in the sense that you get a whole lot of different things together and generate airwaves. Also there seems to be a genre-specific type of defined set of instruments that can only be used. For me, jazz is usually associated with playing certain types of instruments and the focus seems to be on brass like saxophone or trumpet – why? Jazz cello should be out there in my view. Space and ambience is good also; music needs to have holes in it so there’s time to reflect. It all depends on what your objective is and what you’re trying to achieve