The Living Tradition
|NIC JONES' Guitar Style by Mike Raven||
Nic spent many hours in the sound archives at Cecil Sharp house and was knowledgeable about traditional styles of both singing and fiddle playing. However, he also liked modern popular music, especially that of the American West Coast, such as the Eagles. This accounts for his "singing behind the beat", his characteristic easy listening sound, and also the modern chords and syncopation's that he often used at unexpected moments. This blending of the old and the new was done with taste and restraint; it was delicious.
His early guitar styles are very English, and some were quite lute-like. He used the standard tuning, and adaptations of it. His accompaniments are a varied and imaginative bunch - a tune played in counterpoint to the song melody, the tune followed in fourths below with a tremolo drone, a rock riff, a moving bass line, etc. Seven of these songs and their accompaniments are transcribed note for note by Nic and myself in my English Folk Guitar (1976). These are: "Annan Water", "The Butcher and the Tailor's Wife", "Dance to Your Daddy", "Don't You be Foolish Pray", "Lord Marlborough", and "Sir Patrick Spens". Nic was then influenced by Martin Carthy's Blues derived "monotonic bass, tune in the treble" technique and gravitated to open tunings. He admired Carthy and acknowledges the debt that we all owe to him. Equally, Carthy is quick to show admiration for Nic's work, especially these early pieces.
Imperceptibly Nic developed the style for which he is best known and which is widely imitated to this day. Towards the end of his career he used open tunings in C and G (see below) and a variety of rhythmic patterns that characteristically had a missing, damped beat. This took the place of the off-beat drum, endemic in modern popular music. He played with a plastic thumb pick and the nails of his right hand were bitten to the quick; like lutenists, he plucked the strings with the flesh only. To get volume without nails one has to pluck very hard. This leads to the strings frequently being lifted up and slapped down on the fingerboard. (Carthy, of course, plays with his nails, as do Classical players).
This "spitting" sound combined with damped bass strings (muffled by placing the thumb palm on the strings close to the bridge) was an important part of his very percussive, rhythmical sound. He dropped the idea of playing the tune as an accompaniment, which was, and still is, the essence of Carthy's technique, and reverted to playing chords, albeit with considerable skill and imagination. His classic Canadee-i-o accompaniment, for example, incorporated a scale phrase in tenths and some very tasteful "bends".
Technically, everything he did was quite easy, and Nic freely admits that. He was, after all, primarily a singer, not a solo guitarist. Today he talks about himself as being "a crap guitarist". Baloney! This is a mixture of false modesty and the fact that what he did was natural and easy to him and therefore needed little effort on his part. Unless one has to work hard at something one often undervalues one's achievements. Nic rarely used great barre and the left hand led the life of Riley. Most of his "sound" came from the right hand. Nic executed his chop, his missing beat, by striking down with his middle and ring fingers together. They struck the strings, mostly in the bass area, and then stayed there for a moment to damp the sound. The result was a subdued click. I have heard many people imitate this but almost all do it too viciously. The result is an unmusical clang, especially when amplified through a P.A. What many do not realise is that Nic executed this "damped click" by striking the strings very close to, and often actually on, the bridge.
On a number of occasions I had conversations with Nic about guitar techniques. He admired the skills involved in playing Classical and Flamenco and incorporated some of them into his own style. I remember him asking if it was fitting to use vibrato in folk guitar music. I said that I thought it was, if used with discretion, and subsequently Nic used this to good effect - listen to Canadee-io. The tremolo is another technique he flirted with. I also remember mentioning the use of "light and shade", playing louder and quieter, a basic musical effect used by almost all musicians except folk artistes. Nic also used this on occasion - hark to Canadee-i-o again.
From his fiddle playing came the "dips and raises", the slight accents and spaces that give the lilt so perfected by the top Irish fiddlers, which he incorporated into his singing style. It was these subtleties that lifted Nic above the pack. He absorbed and integrated all these and more so that they never sound contrived or unnatural. (It is noticeable that many world-class musicians play very stiffly at times, especially in the way they labour to make every note of an ornament equal and as strong as the main melody note, and their mundane, somewhat heavy, treatment of rhythm).
Another point of interest is that Nic sometimes uses his index finger to pluck the on-beat bass note, not his thumb which then played with less volume on a lower, off-beat, bass note. I have heard it said that Nic got this from banjo frailing, where the thumb plays an open string drone. But he refutes this, even though, I must admit, there are distinct similarities. I have heard a five string banjo player make a guitar sound more like Nic that Nic himself! Incidentally, Nic still has his old Fylde Oberon guitar. It was damaged in the accident, but was repaired and sounds fine.
Nic Jones' Tunings
Here are the tunings most used by Nic in the time before his accident.
G major D G D G B D
C major C G C G C C
G minor D G D G Bb D
C minor C G C G C Eb
G modal D G C G C D
C modal C G C G C D
He also used D A D G A D, which is very popular with Irish musicians today.
Here are some song titles and their tunings.
Canadee-i-o, Wanton Seed, Gordon, Ten Thousand Miles and Wanton Glove are all in C modal; Crockery Ware and Indian Lass are in G major; Isle de France is in G modal; and Miles Weatherhill is in C minor. He did, of course, sometimes use a capo to alter the pitch.
It should be noted that today Nic only plays in the standard tuning, as do most of the younger folk players I see these days, especially the singer-songwriters. Personally I welcome this trend. The character of a stringed instrument is very much linked to its tuning. What is more, most of the melancholic, harp-like major 2nd, minor 7th and suspended 4th chords that are typically used in open and modal tunings are equally easily made in the standard guitar tuning). I know, EADGBE is a compromise to make playing in many keys possible. But it is an extremely good compromise, and one that has proved its worth over many centuries to millions of players of all kinds of music.
Links, further information and recordings:
Buy Nic Jones Recordings On-line from
The Living Tradition Listening Post.