The world-class lap guitarist who creates his own
signature style of music after a motorbike accident
I’ve said many times, that in any form of writing you have to be careful and very sure of your facts before you can use the word unique. It’s a word I rarely use. In this next article, I have no reservations of including said noun in this interview with Tom Doughty, regarded by many as one of the world’s finest lap steel guitar players.
“I don’t think there are many musicians who can say, ‘hand on heart’ that they are completely happy with their sound”, says Tom. “A lot of the best players who have created their own sound are continually wrestling with this conflict. For example, they may occasionally wish they had more of natural improvisational flair, a bigger span in their hands, softer fingers or a more accurate way of tapping a harmonic…everyone is searching for this holy grail or lost chord of a way to producing something fresh and unique.”
This is an overlay that paints a picture for a lot of musicians, what you might call a relationship between mind and body. For Tom Doughty, his relationship between mind and body is tempered by a serious motorbike accident in 1974 which left him with a spinal injury and a permanent disability that affected his hands and fingers. He, therefore, approached his instrument with a completely new and individual flavour, because he had to and not out of choice.
“I don’t have a choice,” explains Tom, “There is no choice. I was a self-taught guitar player from the age of 7 and at 17 just before the accident, I was competent and an accomplished fingerstyle player. I loved all the classic bands from early blues to The Beatles and so many rock bands following on. After the accident, it became apparent that now paralysed from the chest downwards, I was never going to be able to play the guitar in a conventional way again.
If I was going to continue to play, it would have to be slide guitar and because of the way my impairment affects my hands, I developed my own chords and tunings, mainly because I can’t perform the same hand movements in the same format as slide and bluegrass players, like ‘bar twists’ which produces different chords and phrases. So I’ve developed my own tunings, voicing and chord shapes, playing certain strings and notes in blocks to produce my own playing style with taste and colour and to produce a sound which is identifiable as Tom Doughty. I don’t mean this is an egotistical or arrogant way.
One of the most beautiful things about the human condition and about music is the fact that we all don’t sound identical, even if we play the same notes on a guitar, this is the essence of people striving to be able to perform music.
I talk to a lot of guitar players at my shows who ask about the tunings I’m using and chords I’m playing, as they aren’t recognisable and can’t be found in conventional tuition books.”
The lap steel guitar, of course, is played in a horizontal position on the lap, and the bar that Tom mentions is the device that’s placed on the strings and often called steel, slide or a tone bar.
“I made my own bar purely out of necessity and to my own weight and specifications,” Tom elaborates, “When I exert forward movement with my wrist the weight of the bar will pull my hand down towards the strings. These wrist movements allow me to perform hammer-on notes, shapes and movements and create texture and sound that I’m looking for. I’m particularly pleased with the result, as one side is steel and the other is glass which offers a versatile range of different tones.
It’ll work perfectly for any slide player and I had so many asking me about it that it went into production as the Evolution Slide and is available on my web site.”
Tom has shall we say, rather a lot of lap steel guitars, in his own words, ‘more than some wives would put up with.’ From this assortment, the Weissenborn brand and an early steel resonator are his favourites for recording and live performances, as he explains,
“Firstly, yes, I do have quite a collection of divorce inducing guitars, but I’m happily married, let’s get that in print before I get into trouble,” he laughs. “Although wives would be inclined to leave a man with this many lap steel guitars in their house!
My collection also includes my working guitars, the ones that I use for recording and for playing live, these include a metal bodied National Tri-Cone resonator built in 1927, and a few Weissenborn models built by Herman Weissenborn in Los Angeles, during the 1920s and ’30s.
They all have their personal sonic characteristics, the Weissenborns for their connections to Roots music and original Hawaiian music and the Tri-Cone which, as we know with its 3 internal aluminium resonating cones, was designed to be a loud guitar to compete with banjos and other instruments in a band. I also have a gorgeous lap steel guitar built by Bear Creek guitars in San Luis, Obispo, California in the USA. This is a modern built version of a Weissenborn with beautiful inlays.
Unlike electric guitars, the task for the player is to coax the different tones and qualities from acoustic instruments, as you are relying on those qualities and not using electronics to artificially enhance the sound.
Whilst resonator and lap steel guitars are primarily associated with blues, Tom’s latest CD called ‘From Rock to Baroque’ suggests otherwise.
“I chose the title as that’s exactly the theme of the album with songs travelling through rock music to folk, with jazz along the way and features two baroque tracks that I recorded with a lute and theorbo player.
I mean, what is music? To me, it’s a soundscape, a combination of sounds that encapsulate every style of music I listen to and that I’m influenced by. I really hate categorising and labelling. l think Louis Armstrong was correct when he said there are no different types of music it’s just music, good or bad, and if you like it, it’s good. For that reason, I’ll wander in and out of any style and if I like it, I’ll play it on lap steel guitar. ‘From Rock to Baroque’ proves I can go anywhere and occasionally do - as I’m a member of The British Paraorchestra. In this guise, I have played with several orchestras, including the Birmingham City Symphony, the South Bank Sinfonia, various Philharmonic Orchestras around the world.
My last performance at Birmingham Town Hall, an ensemble of The Paraorchestra was a composition called ‘In C’ written in 1964 by Terry Riley and hailed as a minimalistic masterpiece. All the notes are in the key of C and there are 53 different cells each with a riff, the musicians play the cells three behind or three in front of real-time and for as long as they like. It sounds complicated, but it’s an interesting piece to play and fascinating to hear the orchestra play it. The intro to the track that The Who recorded in ’71 called Baba O’Riley is a tribute to Terry as it’s a close relative.”
Whilst Tom is a popular and very talented lap steel player, his work as a solo performer is in the mainstream, and he has, over the years met many musicians with similar disabilities, but none have been guitar players, here again, our word ‘unique’ springs to mind, Tom continues,
“I played a festival a few years ago where I’m looking at a sea of faces and beautiful countryside from a makeshift stage on the side of an articulated lorry. I see a chap in a wheelchair and think, there’s one of me down there, and I could tell he was thinking, there’s one of me up there, what’s he’s doing with a lap steel guitar?
He watches me play my set and heads over to my dressing room which of course is a tent as it’s an outside event. Now, he’s in a wheelchair and he’s only 50 yards away, but it’s uphill and it’s grassy, so it’s far from an easy task. After 20 minutes, he finally reaches my tent, he looked at my hands and just said how on earth did you play like? I just replied I’m not telling you,” Tom roars, “We were both instantly on this phenomenal wavelength that you get a few times in your life, we didn’t need words really, it was one of those rare moments
Soon after, I thought “Tom, it’s about time you did start telling people”, this was the catalyst in me asking why isn’t this sort of activity used in hospitals as a rehab tool? It could be used for other people like me who have gone through a similar change in their life.
In 2012, I got some support from the music industry and persuaded the English Arts Council to fund a tour where I visited every one of the 12 spinal injury units and started teaching people to play. It was an outstanding success and I think an improvement on some of the traditional activities and exercises that people have to undertake that can be menial.
The classes have a maximum of ten patients, which is the most I can teach to as they will have mixed abilities both musically and physically. It’s a very individual approach and I’ve had to invent and design various types of equipment for people with different hand disabilities to be able to play. I’m delighted to say that Bridgwater Hall in Manchester where I often play, heard about this scheme and approached me recently saying that they would fund another tour of spinal injury units during 2019.
This time, the amount of support from the music industry has been overwhelming, I’ve had guitars donated by Takamine, and Roadie Tuners from Shure which makes tuning the guitars easier for those with limited use of their hands. There’s also an endless list of accessories like guitar stands, strings and plectrums and online videos for example. Each hospital visit will include a full day’s workshop and a concert in the evening that’s also open to the public.
On the last tour, I left the hospitals a guitar and some equipment, but of course the staff are not really guitar tutors, so I have made a series of videos are for the patients. These cover everything from how to tune the instrument, how to use the equipment I’ve designed and a simple breakdown of how to play ‘Imagine’ written by John Lennon.”
Tom was recently featured in ‘Changing Lives,’ a book about spinal injury victims who have indeed been seen to be an inspiration to others…..although modest Tom did have reservations about taking part. He explains,
“‘Changing Lives’ is a fantastic book written and produced by Regain, a charity which gives support to British men and women with spinal injuries, but I was a little unsure about being in the book.
I don’t want to be seen as a hero or have a gong, I just feel particularly fortunate to be able to play lap steel guitar, share my experiences, ideas and techniques in music with anyone who cares to be interested. I don’t believe I own that, it should be open to everyone, but I do think people should buy music and not download it for free.
The public tends to forget that this is our livelihood and if I was totally relying on my recording content, since downloads, my income has gone down at least 85%. It’s not just me it’s the same for everyone and more to the point, it takes me so long to write songs… haha.”
For all the time and goodwill that Tom puts into helping others, the word often gets out and recently a well-deserved reward as Tom recalls,
“The Spinal injuries tour has had some very positive publicity and as a result, I was asked recently to play at Ronnie Scott’s, the famous London jazz club in Soho. I opened up the evening for The Ronnie Scott’s Blues Explosion. I am chuffed that they asked me to play on such a hallowed stage.
Most stages have steps of some kind meaning that, if there’s no direct elevator, I need to be lifted on and off. I’ll always announce the last number to the audience and say if you want an encore, just close your eyes, pretend I’ve got off the stage and open them and pretend I’ve just come back because I’m not being carried down those damn steps again!”
Interview by Lars Mullen.
For more details of Tom Doughty, his music, his gigs and spinal injury tours visit:
Regain Sports Charity https://regainsportscharity.com/
About the Author
With over 30 years in the music business, Lars Mullen does indeed wear many hats, as a writer, journalist, photographer, press person for his own company Music Media Announcements. As an extensive traveller, he's a familiar figure reporting from music trade shows around the world. Spending many years touring as a professional guitarist, Lars has also interviewed a host of top bands and artists, continues to write articles for magazines globally and still finds time to track down Fusion artists for our Artist Spotlight column.