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Guitar Player / April 1981

By Jas Obrecht

James Honeyman-Scott was raising vegetables and selling guitars in Hereford, England, during the summer of 1978, unsure of what his next musical direction - if any - would be. A phone call brought him to London, where he met Chrissie Hynde, an American-born musical expatriate who was crossbreeding bits of pop, punk, reggae, and an eccentric sense of meter to create crisp, no-nonsense accompaniments to her lyrics. Jimmy (as he prefers to be called) saw an opening for his abbreviated lead style between Chrissie's quavering, throaty vocals and unique guitar rhythms, so he joined her lineup, the Pretenders. In a series of basement rehearsals, he found his specialty - savage power chords, arpeggiated or percussive rhythms, and short hooks instead of extended solos - and proved that he could handle his role with a precision and flamboyance that belies his cheery, light-hearted stage mannerisms.

In January 1979 the Pretenders recorded their first 45, a fresh reworking of an obscure 1964 Kinks tune, "Stop Your Sobbing." The day after the session, the group left to play their first gig, a week-long stint at Paris' Gibus Club. Almost immediately after its release, "Stop Your Sobbing" shot into the U.K.'s Top 30 charts. Months later "Kid," with its lovely country-style solo and acoustic guitar background, became the Pretenders' second hit. A few gigs into their first British tour, the band members saw their names splashed on the front pages of most of England's music journals. A follow-up hit, the Motown-flavored "Brass in Pocket," proved to be their greatest success to date. A video production of the song has been aired on The Midnight Special, Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, and other shows.

Released in January 1980, their debut album, Pretenders, [Sire, SRK 6083], brought unexpected critical acclaim as whirlwind record sales shot the disc into the top slot of British charts and into the U.S. Top 10. The Who's Pete Townshend described the effect of its provocative, sexually candid lyrics and hard-driving beat as being "like a drug." After its release, the band toured Great Britain and the United States and appeared in numerous magazine articles. For Honeyman-Scott, the attendant publicity surrounding their rags-to-riches story was difficult to handle: "It's very weird at first when it happens. When you're eight years old and see the Beatles at Shea Stadium on TV or see the film A Hard Day's Night, you think, 'My God! That is the answer to everything!' And then when you have a number-one record and a gold disc, you think, 'What is this? What happens next?' You tend to think the stars are going to open up or something. They don't. But to get there, you've got to make a bit of a fight for it."

All along, James Honeyman-Scott knew he wanted to be a guitarist. At home in Hereford, a sleepy town on the Welsh border where he was born November 4, 1956, Jimmy began taking piano lessons at seven. Although they lasted for two years, he never learned to read music: "Everything I do is done by ear. I could never follow the theory of music. It all sounded very difficult, so I used to pretend I could read something, but in fact I always learned by ear to fool the piano teacher." At ten he was given a guitar that his brother brought back from Africa. He graduated to an f-hole arch-top a year later, and then traded that for a Rossetti Air Stream after the f-hole's neck fell off.

A self-taught guitarist, Jimmy at first thought licks were the most important thing to learn, although he now claims chord work turned out to be more vital. His main influences as a teenager were Hank Marvin & The Shadows, Eric Clapton with Cream and Derek & The dominos, and the Allman Brothers Band. "Certain records back then said a lot to me," he remembers. "Anything by Cream was important for guitar work, especially 'Crossroads' and 'Badge' - Jesus! And then came the Allman Brothers after that. Their song 'In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed' was real important."

A year after taking up guitar, Jimmy began performing at youth clubs, often appearing on a borrowed bass: "We were playing 'Sunshine Of Your Love,' 'Hey Joe,' and songs like that. Then I was with a band that had no name from what I can remember. It was probably 'something Blues Band' because everything turned out to be a blues band back then. This was in 1968." At 16 Honeyman-Scott bought a Gibson ES-335 and recorded tracks for an album by Robert John Godfrey. "I forget the title of that," he adds, "and except for the Pretenders, the only other album I've played on was Place Your Bets by a guy named Tommy Morrison."

Jimmy was in three other lineups prior to joining the Pretenders - The Hawks, The Hot Band, and Cheeks. "That second band was named after Emmylou Harris' Hot Band. We were in some village in Herefordshire, and it was like 12 guys - accordion and all manner of guitars and things. Mott The Hoople was just taking big then. They came from a group called Silence, which had been on the Hereford scene for quite a while. Mott happened in the early part of '69, but I wasn't into their music until 1974.What happened was Martin Chambers, who is now the drummer in the Pretenders, and I joined up with Verden Allen, who was Mott's keyboard player, and formed Cheeks. That's when I got into Mott The Hoople and started to understand them. Mick Ralphs [former lead guitarist for Mott, now with Bad Company] lent me his little '57 Gibson Les Paul Jr. for a while when I was with Cheeks; that was a beautiful guitar. Mick Ralphs became a hell of a big influence because I started to steal his lead lines and things. I always liked the way he did finger vibrato."

Cheeks toured extensively for three years without ever recording. After they disbanded. Jimmy started making his living selling guitars in a Hereford shop. During the summer of 1978, after hearing the guitar sounds on new cuts by Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, he decided that it was time to reenter the music scene: "I was out in the garden, digging away, and Nick Lowe came on with 'So It Goes,' and then came Elvis Costello's 'Red Shoes.' And they had this big, jangly guitar sound, which was what I'd been wanting to get into for a long while. It was a huge guitar sound, like a big Rickenbacker 12-string or something. I thought, 'Ah, my time is here!' To get that sound at first I used a fantastic Ibanez Explorer-style guitar through an Electro-Harmonix Clone Theory pedal and a Marshall."

While Jimmy was back home perfecting his sound, Chrissie Hynde was in London, trying to find adequate accompaniment for her tough, yet vulnerable voice and punk-influenced rhythm style. A native of Akron, Ohio, Hynde took up the baritone ukulele at 16 and began writing songs. After three years of art study at Kent State University, she moved to London in 1973 and began writing for New Musical Express. She went on to play in bands in America and France, and then returned to London's burgeoning punk scene in '76. On the strength of a demo tape of "The Phone Call," Real Records signed her as one of its first acts. In search of a band, she met bassist Pete Farndon, a native of Herefordshire who had just returned from a two-year stint with the Australian folk-rock band Bushwhackers, and decided that his assertive style and full, round sound complemented her songs.

Months later Farndon invited Honeyman-Scott to join the group, and after a little convincing, the guitarist agreed: "We did lots of rehearsing - seven days a week, all hours of the day and night. At first a lot of the licks were very heavy - like 'Up The Neck' started off as a reggae song. I said, 'Let's speed it up,' and put in that little guitar run. The melodic parts of the numbers really all started coming together by me putting in these little runs and licks. And then Chrissie started to like pop music, and that's why she started writing things like 'Kid.' Her all-time favorite musicians are English. Her favorite guitar player is Jeff Beck, and her favorite songwriters are John Lennon and Ray Davies. I love playing 'Kid,' Talk Of The Town,' and pop songs like that."

Before joining Hynde, Honeyman-Scott's style was similar to that of Rolling Stone Keith Richards. "I wanted to use my current style before, but I couldn't because of the other band I was in. When I joined the Pretenders I could use a lot more melodic stuff, so my style changed quite a bit. Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe had a lot to do with it. I listened to them a lot and liked what they were doing. They always seem to have nice little guitar songs that you can sing along to, and that's what I started trying to do.

"I hated soloing, really. I like to do something that you'd end up whistling, something short. In 'Private Life' there's a long solo, and I really don't like doing that. I think long solos are a pain in the ass unless you can play them. I simply cannot do it, but I like watching Albert Lee and people like him play them. They can solo for a long time and not get boring. There's a real long run in our song 'Lovers Of Today,' and that was influenced by George Harrison, if anybody. I probably pinched that off a Beatles album."

When the Pretenders recorded "Stop Your Sobbing," producer Nick Lowe directed Honeyman-Scott to layer in tracks of Rickenbackers and Ovations, using different inversions and open tunings. As the band began Pretenders, Chris Thomas (producer of Sex Pistols and Roxy Music) decided that they should try recording some of the numbers live. As Jimmy explains, "We set up like we were onstage - with a PA and big ambience mikes, and we did a lot live. One of the guitars in the 'Kid' solo was recorded direct into the board. I love doing that because you wind up with a lot of compression and you can make it sound slightly like a pedal steel. Dave Edmunds and the boys like to go straight to the board. Chris Thomas doesn't like me to do it that way, though. He likes the amp."

One of the difficulties Honeyman-Scott encountered was getting used to Chrissie's sense of meter: "She does quite a bit of rhythm guitar, and I don't know anybody who plays like her. It's real distinct, and I can't count her beat half the time. Instead, I just put a little guitar line over it, like the lick in 'Tattooed Love Boys.' I just happened to know that those notes in that order fit rather well, so I kept doing it so I wouldn't go out of time. Her timing in that number is so weird, like 7/13 or something! Chris Thomas asked me to clean up the rhythm part of 'The Wait' - it sounded real scruffy - but I couldn't because Chrissie plays that way and I don't. This puts a lot of demands on me, and I bluff a lot. I think the rest of the group will be amused when they read this, because I've never told them I can't work out their time at all! They are used to me coming in a bar too late; they think that's the way I play. But it's because I've missed where she comes in! That happened on a new number, 'The Adultress,' and they think it's great - 'Oh, that's Jimmy's style.' I just bluff it and hope for the best."

For the album, Chrissie used two Fender Telecasters. Jimmy cut the solo in "Kid" with one of them, but for the rest of the tunes he used a 335 or a Gibson Les Paul. Frequently he recorded a solo on one track and then tracked it again note-for-note on another to get a fuller sound: "Sometimes we'd slow the machine down slightly to get it to sound like a 12-string doing the solo. I don't have too much trouble remembering solos because I like to have fixed patterns. Something like 'Tattooed Love Boys' was straight off-the-wall. I just wanted to go and turn nasty on that one - turn up the amp and not care. I couldn't have done that again. Sometimes we splice takes."

Jimmy came up with a number of interesting effects for the record, such as turning down his low E string while simultaneously tuning up the G for the ending of "Space Invader." The siren effect in "Precious" was created by hitting F# and C notes while running the signal through a Harmonizer. For the harpsichord-like ending of "Kid," a Gibson Dove acoustic was restrung, substituting high E and B strings for the bottom three. "This creates a high-strung guitar sound," Honeyman-Scott explains. "That was tuned to an open D, I think. We layed it down and then did it at half speed and doubled it up to get the top notes again. It's real difficult to do because it's going along very slow and you have to get each note right, but it turns out great. I also used that half-speed technique for the end of 'Mystery Achievement.' That was with the 335."

He concluded "Tattooed Love Boys" by flipping his selector switch back and forth while putting the guitar out of tune. At the beginning of the solo of "Lovers Of Today" Jimmy hit the wrong chord and decided to keep it: "I was using a Les Paul through a 100-watt Marshall, and the opening chord was a big mistake. But we kept it because it sounded good, and I just tracked that little lick again and again, very lightly and just slightly distorted. Then I did it at the top of the guitar, and we slowed the machine down. So there's something like eight guitars playing that, all very light."

Since the release of Pretenders, the group has had another successful single - "Talk Of The Town" backed by "Cuban Slide" - and they've begun recording another LP, which is due in June. Meanwhile, the band continues to play. "Live, I'm a lot more wild," Honeyman-Scott claims. "We did five tours altogether last year, and because you play those numbers night after night, you start to get a bit pissed off at them. Then you start to find new things as well. Probably a couple of those tracks off the album sound a little different onstage because we've put in different starts and stops and something clever to keep everybody on their toes. I love being on the road - it's non-stop partying. It's exactly as I imagined it would be."

Onstage Jimmy usually uses one of three guitars that were crafted for him by Tony Zemaitis, a luthier in Chatham, England. "I chose these because [Rolling Stones guitarist] Ronnie Wood used to use them, and I thought they looked beautiful. Two of them are made of engraved metal, with two Gibson humbuckers on each and ebony fingerboards [for additional details, see photo]. One is a 22-fret guitar; the other has 24 frets. I've also got another 24-fret one that he built for me, but the front is crushed mother-of-pearl. It's got three Mighty Mite Stratocaster-style pickups that are inlaid in big silver blocks. Tony's building me another one now that will have three humbuckers set in a big silver map of the world. He'll build you pretty much what you want. I don't go for active electronics or any of that, so I just have the normal two pickups, two volume controls, two tone controls, and a treble switch. A Zemaitis definitely makes me play a bit more like Ron Wood, whereas the 335 probably makes me play more like Dave Edmunds."

Among the other instruments James has accumulated in his travels are a recent-model Les Paul Standard, a '62 cherry 335, a '63 single-pickup Gibson Firebird 1, a three-pickup pink Firebird, a Fender Stratocaster with an Elembic Stratoblaster pickup kit, a Music Man StingRay, three Hamer electrics, plus flat-tops including a Martin D-28, a Gibson Dove, and a Guild 12-string: "One of the great things about having success and a bit of cash is that I'm able to pick up these guitars at various places."

The electrics are strung with Ernie Ball Super Slinkys and set up with the action fairly low. Jimmy holds a standard Fender medium pick between his thumb and first finger. He tends to play with down-strokes, resting his right hand on the bridge. "I use the little finger of my left hand," he adds, "but probably not as much as I should. I also love playing slide, but I haven't been able to do it on record." His guitar signal runs to three Boss pedals - a chorus, an overdrive, and a compressor. From there it goes to one of three 100-watt Marshalls (the other two are spares): "I always play with the guitar flat out, and I set the level as it would be for a live rhythm sound. Then if it comes to showing off and doing a solo, I flip on the overdrive. I like a really loud rhythm sound."

Jimmy says that he sometimes goes a long while without picking up his instrument, and then when he does, he tends to go overboard and find many new ideas. Instead of a systematic practice schedule, he prefers to just play. Recent sources of inspiration have been two fellow English guitarists who have appeared onstage with the Pretenders from time to time, Nils Lofgren and Chris Spedding: "Chris has got a totally different style from everybody else. I've noticed that it's often built within two frets, using just two strings at one time and elaborating over that. You can play a complete solo that way, and it never gets boring. Nils Lofgren and Billy Bremner from Rockpile have also been showing me a lot of little tricks."

Another source of inspiration Jimmy taps when he's in the U.S. is the community of fine guitarists in Austin, Texas. Here, he says, he can test his country licks: "The thing is, you've got to make a very good go of it down there because everybody's a better country guitarist than you! I like to spend a couple of weeks jamming with the guys there when I come to the States. They've got some of the best players in the world."

Back home in England at the time of this interview, Honeyman-Scott was preparing for a series of club dates with former Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor. Jimmy's one aspiration for the future? "I'd like to play with Ronnie Wood!"

Three years after his short-lived stint as a gardener/guitar vendor, James Honeyman-Scott can look back at several singles, an album, press accolades from around the world, and a bright future. He offers this insight to those who would follow: "You have to stick with it. I started selling guitars and not really caring, although I knew that one way or another I was going to get heard. I settled back a bit and then thought, 'No, no - you've got to make a fight for it.' But I think it just turns up. You've either got the style or luck or whatever is needed, or you don't."

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