John Oates on handmade guitars, Chuck Berry and 1920s Martins

Posted Feb 3, 2015 at 3:58am
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For over 40 years, he's been one half of the biggest-selling music duo of all time - Hall and Oates - but can he stand up to the 10 Questions We Ask Everyone...

What was your first guitar, and when did you get it?

"My first guitar was an acoustic - handmade by my best friend's father when I was six years old. It had hand-painted playing card hearts and spades for fret markers - and the action was so high, I almost gave up trying to learn! So I purchased a simple acoustic from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, sanded down the finish, then hand-lacquered the top.

"I put it out in the garden to dry, then my neighbour decided it was a good time to mow his lawn... so it dried with little bits of grass and dust settled into the finish! I still have it - and it plays okay!"

"If you combine Chuck Berry, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson and Curtis Mayfield, that would be my style. But I'll never play as good as any of them!"

The building is burning down - which guitar would you save?

"My 1958 Fender Stratocaster - the same one I'm playing on stage with Daryl every night. But I'm sure I could get at least one more guitar under my arm as I ran out... that would have to be my custom 000-18 Martin!"

Is there a guitar you regret letting go?

"Yes - I had a 1964 Guild F40 acoustic in blonde - with a great neck..."

What's the oldest guitar you have?

"The oldest is a 1923 Martin parlour acoustic. The most recent acquisition is a 1958 Les Paul Junior I just bought recently in Nashville. But the new stuff I play on stage is a TV Jones Model 10 guitar through a Swart combo."

What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you on stage?

"I fell off the side of the stage back in the 1970s and landed on my back, breaking my collarbone. But my guitar was on my chest so it was okay, and I finished the show!"

What song would you choose to play on acoustic around the campfire?

"I'd play some Mississippi John Hurt or Doc Watson - fingerstyle tunes... or maybe some Jobim bossa nova!"

What aspect of guitar playing would you like to be better at?

"I'm at the point where my goal when I play is not to think so much, and allow my brain and fingers to communicate freely. Then I can surprise myself with new possibilities beyond habit and pattern."

Who influenced you as a guitarist when you were starting out?

"If you combine Chuck Berry, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson and Curtis Mayfield, that would be my style. But I'll never play as good as any of them!"

If you could change one thing about a recording you've been on, what would it be - and why?

"I don't think like that. Recordings are a moment in time - and are best left that way. However, I have re-recorded a song called Keep On Pushin' Love, which was originally on the Ooh Yeah! album, and I have plans to re-record a more acoustic version of How Does It Feel To Be Back."

Which song from your own back catalogue do you enjoy playing the most?

"Probably I Can't Go For That because the arrangement is open to improvisation every night - and I never try to play it the same way - even though there are some signature riffs that are always there.

"It's a fine balance to retain the original elements of the song, and then continue to look for ways to let the arrangement evolve..."

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