The Current's Guitar Collection: Frank Turner, Gibson J-45

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Frank Turner performs in The Current studio. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)
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While visiting The Current without his backing band, Frank Turner's acoustic guitar playing went front and center. "One of the fun things about being here on my own today, rather than with the Sleeping Souls — who are fantastic and I love them — is that it's fun toying around with different arrangements," Turner says.

In his in-studio visit with Jade, Turner played three stripped-back, acoustic versions of his songs. Afterwards, he sat down to talk about the guitar he was playing. Here's what he had to say about that instrument and, on a broader level, about his approach to guitar playing.

Were you playing a Gibson today?

Yeah, it's a Gibson J-45. It's a new guitar, but it's called the Antique Range, which is slightly confusing, but I'm a fully signed-up Gibson endorsee guy these days. They're great.

I mean, my reason for switching to them full time was at least partly influenced by their infrastructure. For instance, I have some really fantastic bespoke guitars that I like — in particular, a guitar that's made by one guy who's a luthier who lives in North Wales, Patrick James Eggle. It's one of the nicest guitars I've ever played in my life, but he's one guy. If I break a guitar in Melbourne, Australia, there's essentially nothing he can do about it.

The other thing about Gibson is that I beat the crap out of my guitars live — like, really. So live, I play a pair of Gibson Hummingbirds. They sound good and they play good and everything, but a big part of it for me is just that I can also throw pretty much anything at them and — touch wood — thus far, they've survived.

Is there something about the tone of the Gibsons that strikes you?

It's interesting because to me, there are two forums in which I use guitars. From a live point of view, I want a guitar that plays well, but the sound of it is as much about the pickup and DI and that kind of thing, because I'm playing with a live band and it's a full-band arrangement. I use Fishman Aura Spectrum DIs, which are fan-f******-tastic, by the way, and I have Hummingbird presets kind of running through them, so hopefully that kind of gives me a vibe of what the actual guitar itself would sound like, but we don't mic up my acoustics on stage. That would be totally impractical given that it's a full rock 'n' roll show and I spend most of it jumping all over the audience and in the crowd and all the rest of it. So there's that.

On the flip side, when it comes to the physical tone of a guitar when you're doing more recording stuff or indeed just playing for the love, I'm always keen on guitars that have a very full sound. There are a lot of acoustic guitars out there that I think have quite a thin, top-endy kind of sound because people make them as a kind of accoutrement instrument, a sort of sideman's instrument. Certainly in the early days when it was just me touring, I got very keen on having a guitar that would take up the full sonic spectrum. What that actually means is I'm keen on guitars that have a rich, full, weighty bottom end. Hummingbirds have that, that J-45 that I have definitely has that.

Actually, my main "home" guitar, if you like, is a 1957 Gibson Country & Western, which actually is the only kind of rock 'n' roll excess extravagance I've ever really had. I'm not a particularly materialistic person. I don't spend money. I don't give a f*** about what I wear, I don't drive, and I don't drink in expensive bars or eat in expensive restaurants. The only thing I've ever really spent a serious whack of cash on is this guitar. It cost me a lot of money, but it's an all original, absolutely pristine 1957 Gibson Country & Western.

I went in to a store to buy an old Gibson, and I was playing some old Hummingbirds and that kind of thing — they were nice, but then I got on to this Country & Western and it was just like, "Ah … I have to own this!" A couple hours later, it was back at my house.

Did you get it in Denmark Street?

I did, actually, yeah! Which was great … but I really don't know how much longer anything to do with music is going to be on Denmark Street. They're redeveloping that whole area. The 12 Bar Club closed down, and a lot of the music shops are leaving. A lot of the people do their shopping online these days, which I think for newer instruments, I don't particularly have an issue with; I do think if one is shopping for an antique instrument or for a vintage instrument, you need to play the thing to make a decision about it.

Going back to your J-45, do you write songs on it?

I've only owned it for a short period of time — only six months now. But actually, the thing I've been doing lately at home — I've never been interested in sitting still, resting on whatever paltry laurels I may have in life — so lately I have a friend called George Frakes who is a great bluegrass, classical and folk guitar player, and I've been taking lessons in bluegrass guitar from him. I've been using that guitar for that.

That makes sense: In the studio just now, you were mixing up flatpicking and strumming, plus you were doing some bluegrass turnarounds between takes.

Yes, this is the stuff he's been turning me on to. I'm definitely a beginner in that world right now, in the flatpicking thing, but it's something I'd like to get better at.

I've been playing guitars for years, but I was never the guitar player in the band. For a long time, I was the singer and I'd write some riffs and then give them to the guitar player in the band who would play them better. But since I started playing as a solo artist, my main kind of inspiration for that was always Neil Young's acoustic playing, because he's got that kind of mixture of flatpicking-with-strumming kind of vibe going on, just sort of picking out the melody from the chord structures.

But I love bluegrass playing; I've been listening to a lot of Tony Rice tracks and stuff like that lately, which is great and it's good to learn from, but it's very precise. It's almost kind of surgical.

And what I like about Neil Young is that he's ragged. He's f****** buzzing and strings all over the place, you know? Even on the records that are 40, 50 years old, you can hear his right hand just bouncing off the strings. I love that sound. Such a good noise.

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