John Wright Interview - Young Blues Master

This is a monthly interview series that will be looking at nationally unsung, but locally championed guitarists. In every town and regional area the length and breadth of the UK, guitarists are out there playing in pubs, clubs and on the function circuit. And amongst all these players are the few ‘Hometown Heroes’, or ‘Local Legends’; players often just as accomplished as the household names and musos so beloved of the guitar media, but for whatever reason have yet to be embraced by real limelight.

Often unsung beyond a few square miles, these players nevertheless are the local ‘hot’ players, they are the ones who can guarantee that a gig, even one on a Wednesday night in a boozer in the middle of nowhere, will always have at least a good crowd – but more often than not, a capacity one. Everyone reading this magazine will be able to think of someone local to them that fits the bill – and if so drop us a line and we will do our best to feature them.

In our first instalment we feature a player well known to those who frequent live music venues and festivals across Cambridgeshire (and sometimes a lot further). John Wright is a 26 years old guitarist with already well over a decades worth of live experience on the pub and club circuit, and the possessor of a remarkably mature guitar style. An outstanding blues stylist, with a unique rhythmic touch and a maturity of phrasing and all combined with a tone to die for. It makes one wonder why on earth John hasn’t been picked up by any of the specialist blues or rock labels. Hopefully we can help redress that situation by profiling John here.

How did you start to get involved with music?

I grew up in a village just outside Cambridge and started playing guitar when I was eleven. My dad plays guitar as well, and has always gone to a lot of local gigs so it was sort of what I grew up with. I started straight away on electric, and was soon having private lessons with a guy called Chris Wong, who taught heavily in Cambridge at the time. Chris gave me a lot on technique, as I had a few bad habits that I’d picked up even by then! I also went to a Saturday music club in Cambridge that was run by some local musicians called ‘Rocktech’.

John Wright

I remember I went on the ‘Rocktech’ Summer 1995 Rockschool and winning the student of the week award, which was good for my confidence. I was about the youngest there – and the only bluesy player – everyone was into metal. The end concert was held at busy local music venue, “The Boat Race” pub in Cambridge. This was proper circuit pub, and lots of acts in the 80’s and 90’s played there, including Oasis. That was all good experience and by the time 14 I was also going down to these Sunday lunchtime Blues Jams they had at The Boat Race as well, so I was getting used to playing a lot of ‘real’ gigs with much older and really experienced musicians whilst still at a young age.

Who influenced you?

Well, from early on I was really into blues, BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lowell George, Jimi Hendrix – having a dad who was into all this meant that I was exposed to all of this when most people my age would have been listening to Metallica or something!

When did you have your first band?

From doing the jams I met a lot of the local bands and it was really good training ground. One of the first proper bands that I played for was a big local band called Jump Bump ‘n’ Boogie – and they played a lot of rock’n’roll, blues & jump jive. The band had a varied line up, at first I would fill in when one of their guitarists couldn’t make a gig for whatever reason, and gradually became a sort of full member.

What did you do after school?

I went to college to do a Foundation Course in Popular Music, which was a two year course. This covered a broad sweep of everything you needed to be a jobbing musician, a lot of sound engineering, studio techniques, playing styles. It was a good experience, and I graduated with a BTEC when I was 18. At this point I became a self-employed musician, and initially I did a lot of sound man work, doing the PA and sound at venues around Cambridge.

I also did a tiny amount of guitar teaching but really focused in on playing as many live gigs as possible. This was still with Jump Bump ‘n’ Boogie, and a band called Manalishi. I was very much still a full on Blues guitarist, but in Manalishi the other guitarist was heavily into Latin music, so I copped a lot of his styles and that really broadened my rhythm approach.

Did you work with many other bands?

I played with Heavy Load for about 5 years, and as far as the circuit went we did played going north up to around Peterboro/Lincolnshire area, east to Ely, south down to Baldock in Hertfordshire and went over to Huntingdon. Some gigs we would go further, but that was about our area. At this point we were playing a good two gigs every week of the year – obviously around Christmas and Bank Holidays you get extra bookings as well. I was still playing with Jump Bump ‘n’ Boogie as well, so it was always busy. Of course you never earn much doing these sorts of gigs, so my bread and butter was always my sound engineering.

How did you go about joining bands?

I have never really auditioned for any of the bands that I’ve played with – because I was out there on the circuit people get to know you and your style of playing so people would already know what I did and hire me for that.

John Wright

In around 2000 I was playing with The Midnight Creepers, which had Alex Cooper playing drums, who was in Katrina & The Waves. We played the Blues Festival up in Colne (Ed Note: Near Burnley, in the North of England) and in recent years I have played all over – Ireland, Germany, Italy and Denmark. A lot of this was through Jump Bump ‘n’ Boogie as they were quite established on the fringe circuit. In 2003 I started writing songs with local singer Stella Hensley, this is more acoustic & have currently recorded 2 albums. I have been playing with Jack for quite a long time now and have been playing with Split Whiskers for a couple of years now.

So nowadays what is your schedule?

Probably about 3 gigs a week at the moment; mostly still on the local circuit, but also I’ve been doing quite a few music festivals over the last year or so like Rockin’ Beer Fest, Waterford Sproai & The Big Day Out in Cambridge. It’s a lot better music wise at the moment, people seem to be back into going to see proper live bands again. Also I have gradually moved into teaching a lot more now so that’s probably my main source of income. I teach Mondays from about 4 p.m. till 8 or 9 at night, Tuesday a longer day; Wednesdays I run a music workshop in Huntingdon for people with mental health problems & in the evening run a Blues Jam in Cambridge. Thursdays we rehearse in the afternoons and in the evenings, Fridays and Saturdays I leave just for gigs and that’s about my average week.

Plans for the future?

With Split Whiskers we are planning on recording a new CD of original music, and playing more festivals around the UK and Europe. I’m still writing songs with Stella Hensley and hopefully we’ll make another Hensley & Wright CD in the next year.

What do you think is the best thing about being a musician?

Being able to make music and play in front of new audiences is always great, and also the opportunity to travel and see new places.

And the worst?

Working with the ridiculous music licensing laws and being relentlessly asked to play ‘Mustang Sally’!

What guitars do you use, and what string gauges and picks?

I mainly use a Fender SRV strat, which I’ve had for 11 years, with a fairly heavy string gauge (11-56). I also use an old Peavey Predator guitar for slide, & various acoustics. I always use Jim Dunlop Tortex 1mm picks as they last longer!

What amps?

I mostly play through a Fender Twin Amp with an tube screamer for overdrive, but for smaller gigs play through a Fender Blues Junior. For acoustic gigs I play through an AER compact 60.

John Wright

What sort of advice can you give to readers about band skills – i.e. setting the equipment, where to put amps, sorting out P.A.’s etc…

Positioning amps where you can hear them – i.e. not on the floor blasting towards your feet, and always make sure that you get a good sound balance out front between the instruments and vocals.

Finally any general advice you can give to those who want to make a living as self employed rock/blues musician?

Keep playing as much as you can and get yourself physically out there! Don’t wait practising in your bedroom waiting until you think you’re good enough get out there – I started at jam sessions and formed bands from there. It will take time to build up, and you will probably have to do some teaching or soundwork to make a living. But keep going, it can be a great life – just don’t expect to get too rich!