Interview: Ten Talking Points with John Etheridge

The English fusion maestro and Soft Machine guitarist on loose trousers, car dancing, and retiring to woodshed…

John Etheridge

1) I couldn’t live without my…

“The best acoustic guitar I’ve ever had is my Collings OM1, but the guitar that I’ve had the longest is a 1951 Gibson ES-150, which was the first jazz guitar I bought. I hardly ever play it these days, but it represents something about history and continuity. I also love my two regular electrics – my signature model Fret-King Elise and my Martyn Booth Custom.”

2) In another life I’d have been…

“I did a degree in Art History and quite fancied working in a museum and playing music for fun. But when I got to London I started working and never got a chance to potter round amongst the ancient artefacts!”

3) The moment it all started…

”I saw The Shadows with Hank Marvin in The Young Ones – dodgy film – and suddenly there they were palying The Savage. Two red Strats and a Precision Bass… amazing! That was it!”

4) The one that got away…

“In 1981-2 I was fairly broke and I sold some lovely guitars foolishly – an old Martin OM, an original Gibson Charlie Christian ES-150. An Ovation that was specially made for me. Total regret. I don’t hoard guitars, but I don’t sell them any more either!”

5) My Spinal Tap moment…

“I have many, but a good recent one: Soft Machine were playing in Paris and we had to cross town to get the train to Marseilles. We arrived with two minutes to spare, so everyone was running for the train. Our tour manager was carrying John Marshall’s heavy cymbal cases, one in each hand… and as we raced for the train his trousers started to come down! There was no time to stop, as the guards were preparing to blow their whistles for departure, so he keeps running until his trousers finally reached his shoes! At which point the guards fall about laughing and forgot to blow the whistles, so we make the train!”

6) The best advice that I’ve ever been given…

“Probably the best advice was ‘Don’t do it’ – but I did it anyway! Stephane Grappelli used to say to me when I played my best stuff in the first tune, ‘Don’t give it away – sell it’. Meaning, keep something back for later. Good advice.”

7) The first thing I play when I pick up a guitar…

“I usually start with a slow chromatic scale and gradually speed it up. Also a chromatic scale jumping octaves is a good loosener. This is just to get the blood moving and then it’s on to real music.”

8) The most important thing on my rider…

“I’m very partial to a decent cup of tea and this is very hard to get in Europe or the USA, where they don’t understand these things! I ask for good quality English breakfast tea… this doesn’t always happen, so my performance is affected! [laughs] Not really – I’m able to rise nobly above the disappointment…”

9) My guilty pleasure…

“I do a lot of driving and as the motorways of England are permanently being ‘upgraded’ there are never-ending jams on roads like the M6. I find it very therapeutic to put on a track like Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehamer – which has the deepest bass groove – wind up the windows and belt it out while dancing in my seat like an old lunatic! It really helps to relieve the tension. The guilty pleasure is not the track – which is obviously a masterpiece – but the dancing!”

10) If I could play one thing…

“I have a band that plays Frank Zappa’s music – The Zappatistas. We do Peaches En Regalia and there is a passage in there played by sax and keys, which is really tricky on guitar. Frank never played it but Dweezil does – I really should practise it! John Williams, the great classical guitarist, with whom I play regularly, has some mind-blowing pieces. I particularly like El Tortumo, but it would take me years – I’m going to retire and work eight hours a day on it!”

Soft Machine’s new album, Hidden Details is out now on Dyad Records