For most guitar players, if it hasn’t happened by their mid 30’s it probably isn’t going to happen at all. Irish guitar phenomenon Simon McBride was just 15 years old when he won the ‘New Guitarist Of the Year’ award in ’96, turned professional at the ripe old age of 16 and now is a sell out at large venues around the world as the headline act.
I talked to Simon as he winds down after a hectic touring schedule and prepares the McBride household ready for Christmas.
“I may sound relaxed,” says Simon, “But as we talk, I have one ear open for my wife in the next room as she is over due going into labour, so be prepared for me to disappear.”
With that in mind we continue with interest, and the fact that Simon has been playing serious guitar since he was nine years old, he takes up the story.
“Well primarily, I was born myself into a house of rock n roll and was influenced by the music my Dad listened to as I was growing up in Belfast, he was and still is a fan of classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Free etc, which was always on the hi fi. He had a guitar himself but his ability to play had always been hampered by an accident to his hand after falling off the back of a tractor when was a kid. I was about nine years old when I just picked it up one day and sat down with a tuition book and started to learn a few chords.
I was a bit worried as to what he might say as I was doing it behind his back, but when he heard me joining up some chords, he was really pleased and gave me so much encouragement. I seemed to have been born with a natural ability to pick things up really quickly, so I didn’t have to work that hard at it. I didn’t want to put it down, when I came home from school, homework went out the window, I just played and played the guitar. In fairness, my parents were very supportive, they could see there was something there and gave me a lot of encouragement.
At an early age I was on TV playing Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ and some Joe Satriani songs. I remember I was at a crossroads as to which musical road to go down, my Dad said he wanted to buy me a CD, and asked me to choose between Swedish guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen or Joe Satriani.
There’s nothing wrong with Yngwie I hasten to add, he’s phenomenal, but looking back now, I’m glad I picked Joe who has influenced my bluesy rock style, having learnt his album ‘Surfing With The Alien’ back to front. I sat and learnt to play in the styles of many an iconic player, the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore and Steve Vai for example.
I was still very young, and I didn’t have a clue about the music business, it was my dad who approached various amplifier and guitar brands for endorsements and secured some cool gigs.
At school, music wasn’t really a priority subject, kids did try and bully me as I had long hair and preferred the guitar over any subject really, although I must say the teachers were very supportive. For a music exam I remember playing an intricate piece by Eric Johnston called ‘Cliffs Of Dover’ which, if you see on You Tube, would be quite challenging for a kid with young hands. But I did it note for note, the music teacher looked at me in disbelief but didn’t know how to mark it. Strange as it may seem, the inevitable school rock band didn’t materialise, I just kept practising and entered the Young Guitarist Of The Year competition in ’96 when I was 16, and won it.”
After a spell in a band called Sweet Savage recording two albums, ‘Killing Time ‘ in ‘96 and ‘Rune’ in 98 which were both based around heavy rock guitar, Simon had a complete change of playing style when he joined fellow Irishman Andrew Strong, whose talent as a vocalist was also recognised at a very early age and who made his name in the ‘91 cult film The Commitments.
“I’d always loved all those soul classics”, says Simon, “I just didn’t really play them on the guitar. I learnt the set list that Andrew sent me which was kinda strange for me at first as the guitar took a back seat most of the time, which I enjoyed and welcomed the challenge. I also enjoyed the musical journey of being part of a nine piece band and touring the world for the next nine years. But after playing the same set for so long and living out of a suitcase, I decided I needed a break, and in my heart I really wanted to find my own style and create my own music.
You know, I just sat down one rainy day with a recorder and played the first thing that came into my head, which ended up as ‘Down To The River’ the opening track on my first album called ‘Nine Lives’. There and then, I thought to myself, this is me, bluesy rock, this is it, this is what I want to do. I looked ahead at putting my own band together and I’m thinking uh oh, who’s going to do the vocals? Up until now, I’d only done backing vocals in bands. Most people have a fear of having to sing, but I believe everyone can sing, it’s a case of having confidence, opening your mouth and working at it. I trained my voice and eventually became confident enough to accompany my guitar playing.
I carried on writing songs and sent them off to various producers and had a call back from Richard Pavitt who also runs Nugene Records, he came to see me play live and became my manager.
My current band is a three piece which is ideal for me, as it leaves me so much room to be creative on stage, what you see is what you get, no messing. I’ve grown to be a complete perfectionist, it has to be perfect live and in the studio, where I’ll work and work on a guitar track, the arrangement or the mix until I’m totally happy. I’ve written, recorded, engineered and mixed my first two albums ‘Since Then’ and ‘Rich Man Falling’ myself. I knew exactly what I wanted and how it should sound. I’d been doing this from the age of fourteen with the old four track machines then moving on to digital, so I was familiar with all the in’s and out’s of the studio world.
It’s all changed now though within professional studios, it’s not like it was say 30 years ago, when the record company would pay for the band to go in a studio for a month and see what they came up with. There simply isn’t the budget for this anymore, even if you could find a decent studio these days - there aren’t that many left – they can charge £600 a day, so you’d need a cool £80k to make a quality album. I’m a little sceptical about spending so much money in the studio to get the sound to where I want it, when so many people just listen to music on a tiny speaker on a mobile phone.
My last album ‘Crossing the line’ was recorded in two studios, the bass and drums were put down locally in Belfast, whilst the guitar work and vocals were laid down over two weeks in Paul Reed Smith’s studio in the USA. I’m endorsed by Paul’s PRS Guitars and amps, so I was delighted when he invited me over. I used a variety of his vintage PRS amps he had there at the time, but near the end of the recordings he bought in this new amp called an HXDA which he cloned from an amp that Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman used at the famous Filmore East gig. I plugged it in and thought holy sh*t, this is amazing, I wanted to re record everything with that amp. His amps are wonderful, apart from getting them serviced now and again, I can see no point in ever needing to buy anything else.
I love his guitars as well, I get asked now and again why I don’t play one of the other major brands which are synonymous to all those guys out there in the blues rock arena. I like PRS guitars, they suit my playing style and produce the sound I hear in my head, I’ve been playing them for 20 years now so why change? My current model is the 408 which is beautiful, and with coil tap facilities on the humbuckers, it covers all the sounds I need, from delicate acoustic to full on rock.
I’m really pleased how they sound on ‘Crossing The Line’ which was mixed and mastered by Peter Denenburg in New York, he’s renowned for his work with the likes of The Spin Doctors and Deep Purple. I’m due to go in the studio for my next album later in 2016, and I’ll spend a lot of time on it to make sure it’s of high quality throughout. 2016 is looking really busy already, I’m touring with Don Airey in March on his European tour, then I have my own UK tour during May, so it’s full on for me.”
Simon’s spare time - yes he does get a few days here and there - is divided between family life and putting something back into the music business, as a guitar teacher.
“I’m really in support of giving as much encouragement to students of all ages, and I make sure when I’m not touring I take two days a week to teach guitar at the BIMM (British and Irish Modern Music Institute) college in Dublin, they also have institutes in Bristol, London, Manchester, Brighton and Berlin. There’s a certain criteria regarding theory and what the students have to learn, but what’s not to like about sitting around teaching a class of about 25 players all talking guitars?
In this modern world, people do not want to spend time learning, it all has to be instant. Some of the students come saying they’ve learnt a guitar piece by watching it on You Tube without learning the basics. That’s ok to get your dexterity working, but I’d rather teach students the old way, a time when we didn’t have You Tube, Internet, Skype, X Boxes or mobile phones.
I ask them to go home and practice and come back with something they have put together by listening to themselves and the guitar. If you learn something this way by ear, you’ll remember it in six years time, but if you learn by watching a screen or tablature, it’s forgotten six hours later. I meet so many players who can play a million notes a second, and when that’s a little tiring, I often say ‘let’s have a jam’ and often they’ll go blank, they’re totally lost and in the trap of learning from a computer screen parrot fashion and not having individual skills.
It not easy out there right now for musicians, they’re doing it all themselves, they don’t have the money to hire in somebody to play the bass line in a studio for example, they have to finalise it. Not only the writing and recording, but sourcing and promoting their gigs. I’ve come to the conclusion that you just need a lot of money behind you and a massive pr company.
Take Adele for example, an amazing singer and songwriter, but do you really thinks she’s travelled up and down the motorway in a Ford Transit promoting her gigs, and Joe Bonamassa a great player who started from scratch but who has an amazing team behind him. We have to keep on top though, UK album sales figures are scary, CD and download sales are pretty much gone, it’s all taking a shift into a new direction, streaming is leading the way now, but I’m presently enjoying my own ride.”
On that note we talk about travelling the world with a guitar strapped across ones back and the joys of travelling on a luxury tour bus.
“I love travelling although I rarely sleep in the tour bus, it’s a smooth ride but I still feel like I’m on a roller coaster, it lurches just as I try to nod off, any spare time for me in a hotel is sleep time. Must say though, since I’ve had my Fusion Urban Electric Guitar gig bag, I can walk miles without having back ache like I had with an inferior bag, the padded back straps are amazing. I’ve never had any problems at airports with it either, I’ve always been allowed to put it up in the overhead as it’s so compact and light, and yet there’s so much room in it. My PRS guitars are expensive, so I need the ultimate protection which the floating head stock support and the internal padding offer. There are so many roomy compartments, I can easily accommodate all my essentials including my laptop, I just need to remember which pocket holds my passport!”
STOP PRESS: Just as we go to print we are notified that Simon’s wife gave birth to Mia on December 28th 2015.
Congratulations from all the Fusion Team
For information on Simon McBride visit: www.simonmcbride.net