If you haven’t heard of Jon Gomm yet, you will soon. After building an audience through constant touring in the UK and Europe, his video for Passionflower has recently gone viral, reaching a whole new global audience.
I asked Jon for an interview and he suggested doing it on Skype. We ended up talking for almost an hour and touched on a lot of topics, so I decided to split the interview in two parts.
In the first part Jon talks about the response to Passionflower, his influences, and his songwriting process. We also talked a bit about Passionflower itself. The second part will deal with Jon’s gear, marketing as an indie musician, and his plans for the rest of the year.
You’ve been releasing a series of singles and the first one, Passionflower, has already passed 1 million views on YouTube. How’s the response been so far?
It‘s been great, it’s been really surprising. I didn’t realize that having something happen on YouTube would make any difference. I thought it would make a difference to my sales, I mean it has. But I didn’t think it would make a difference in terms of people wanting to actually give me concerts and stuff like that, because most people that watch YouTube aren’t musicians or concert promoters. They’re not working in the music industry, they’re just regular people doing different stuff, so I didn’t realize there would be such a big difference, but it’s made a huge difference.
Last year was a really exciting year because I was traveling around Europe playing concerts and stuff, and then this year I could go almost anywhere because I’ve been offered so much stuff, so i just have to choose the best looking tours. I’m going to Australia, Estonia, Finland, Poland, Portugal, and probably Canada I think as well…a lot of places so it’s pretty exciting.
What were some of your earlier influences, and how did you get into acoustic guitar?
Well I started playing classical guitar when I was really young. I started having lessons when i was 4. I was also really into blues, so i used to basically play classical and blues on a nylon string guitar until I was maybe about 8 or 9 years old. Then i got an electric guitar and I was playing both for a long time. And I used to play flamenco guitar as well. Not very well, but I used to mess around with that. Then I went through playing in bands and going to guitar school. I went to the Guitar Institute in London. I went to Leeds College of Music — Leeds is the city where I live now — and did a jazz degree there. I was still playing a mixture of acoustic and electric styles.
To be honest the main reason I started playing solo was just as an easy way of playing gigs.
People are still surprised by it, which is strange to me because it is so popular now. It’s good, I like the fact that its more popular now as well, because people don’t just listen with their eyes anymore, because they’ve seen it before. They can actually start to say ‘Yeah, that’s cool, but is the music any good?,’ you know? so they start listening to the songs, so it’s better now.
You also have a bit of shred background, right?
Yeah, I love Vai, Satriani…when I was a kid, there was a book called Steve Vai’s Guitar Extravaganza, which was tablature from loads of his songs and I learned that entire book. It took I think about 3 months. I didn’t do any of my homework at school or anything, I just spent the whole time just playing from this book. I really love Steve Vai, but there’s other shred guys that I like as well.
It’s strange, I think there’s a big parallel to be drawn between the shred thing of the late 80′s into the fairly early 90′s, and what’s happening now with acoustic guitar. It’s a really similar thing, really similar. Even with the fact that there’s a record label. Back then there was a record label called Shrapnel Records, and they had loads of shred guys on there, some of whom I thought were amazing, like Richie Kotzen and Greg Howe. And some were just guys who would just play scales up and down really, really fast.
And we have an acoustic kind of shred label now with Candyrat that the guys are signed up to. And a lot of those guys are good friends of mine as well, so some amazing music on that label, but it’s strange how there’s a scene…I think i know pretty much everybody… there’s probably a couple of guys that i don’t know personally, but pretty much everybody in that scene who tours around internationally, we all know each other. It’s a small world, really small, and there’s only room for a small number to be popular really.
But also, people can forget how niche this style is. It’s a little bit easier for me cause I’m a singer-songwriter, so it’s a little more accessible than if it’s just instrumental guitar music. Because not that many people are gonna go out and buy that, you know. Not many people are interested in that style.
Speaking of being a singer-songwriter, what’s your songwriting process like? Do you start with the basic chords and melody, or do you work out everything from the beginning?
Generally what I have first is some lyrics, maybe not all the lyrics, but I have a concept for the song. And then I have to think of a way to express that musically. So there might be a melody, or at least a rhythm for the melody that’s suggested by the lyrics, so you can start to think about…I actually think about what style of music I want the piece to be, which is something that we have the freedom to do as solo guitar players. Because you can play any style of music pretty much on the acoustic guitar, and it something that i think a lot of acoustic guitar players, they don’t take advantage of that. I know that you do, ’cause I’ve heard your stuff. So you can think before you start playing a song ‘Am I gonna make this song have a jazz mood?’ or would it be more of a blues thing, or more rock, or more classical. Or I think this would suit an Indian style, or a particular scale, or a particular mode or something like that.
I don’t want the technique to force the song to come out a certain way.
And Passionflower was like that, you started with the lyrics?
Yeah, I had some lyrics and I had an idea of the sound I wanted to create within the song. And then what came next for that one was a tuning. The cool thing about that song is, basically the chord sequence is this [plays the open strings while alternating the bass on the two bottom strings].
So its different sets of open strings.
No, it’s just the two bass strings, so its going between G minor and Eb major, and that’s it. So because you have that interval between the bass strings, that gives you the chord sequence straight away. It’s a really cool compositional trick on acoustic guitar, I find that really handy. And then whatever you do on top of that, it doesn’t matter. I could play anything on the treble strings as long as it’s in the right key, and it’s gonna work over both bass notes, and it gives you a chord change. It’s not rocket science, but it’s really useful.
And it gives you the freedom to do other things, like the percussion and all that.
Oh yeah, that’s really hard to do in standard tuning, really hard to create actual solo guitar pieces in standard tuning using percussion. It’s almost an insane thing to attempt. I don’t have a single tune that’s actually in standard tuning. I have things that are close, but I remember one of Andy McKee’s tunes on harp guitar, which is one of those kind of ostinato pieces, and I cant remember what it’s called, but I remember actually going to watch him at a gig, and I was listening to that song, and there was something strange about this song. And I looked at his fingers as he was playing and it’s like ‘That’s standard tuning! You maniac!‘ He plays it on the harp guitar and the top 6 strings are just in standard tuning, and its all tapping and that’s really strange. I don’t remember what it’s called. [We concluded that it was Into the Ocean, but it's actually The Friend I Never Met.]
Andy is funny, people think he’s very…because his music’s so musical and melodic, it seems like he’s really restrained and quiet. And the way he plays as well, he’s very relaxed and he smiles, and he’s a really mellow guy. But actually some of his music is really quite deranged. The music is sane, but the way that he plays it is deranged. So he seems normal, but he’s not normal.
What is the tuning for Passionflower actually?
Uh, we have Eb G Bb F G Bb, although in my head its F A C G A C. The reason for that is, about 5 years ago I went from using gauge .13 to using really heavy gauge .15 strings, and I tuned all of my tunings down an extra whole step. So in my mind my guitar is like a transposing instrument. It’s a B-flat instrument like a trumpet or a tenor saxophone. So if I tune my guitar to standard tuning and read music, I’m actually reading a tone below what the music says.
And what’s the first chord? That’s a really nice chord.
It’s uh…so we got root, root, 9, #11…that’s a 3rd, that’s a 5th, so I guess you’d call it an Ebmaj (add9/add#11). So its kind of a Lydian chord, but it’s not a major 7 cause there’s no 7th. I like it because it has a whole scale there. It has the first 5 notes of the Lydian scale, so when you play the chord and you arpeggiate it, it’s like a harp effect, ’cause its like your playing a scale really, really quickly. So it’s a nice effect. It’s very Steve Vai I think, that chord.
Yeah, it really is. Everything, even this, this is my favorite little move that he does, where he plays a note and he just slides into the note, so you can keep the same note going forever with just hammer-ons and pull-offs and vibrato, just keep it going forever. Steve Vai is a really underrated player by serious guitar players. Obviously he’s a big superstar, but everyone thinks it’s just all showmanship and tricks and speed, but he’s an awesome, awesome musician, and composer as well.
I actually wrote that intro after I went to a thing called Guitar Nation, which is a big guitar show in London. I was there because I was doing a lecture for this guitar school, and they had invited Steve Vai to be there as well. So I got to meet him afterwards and but I couldn’t really speak. I was completely overwhelmed. I’ve met famous guitar players before. I met B.B. King, for example, when I was about 13, and I played his guitar and we had a long conversation. But Steve Vai, he’s like an alien, he’s like landed from another planet, and I found it impossible to speak to him. I was just kind of terrified, and I couldn’t even ask him to sign my guitar *laughs*. My friend who was with me, he had to do it for me ‘Mr Vai, he can’t really speak right now, but can you sign his guitar? This is what he wants you to write.’ So yeah, I think I’d kind of forgotten of Steve Vai for a few years, and then I saw him at this event and I thought, yeah i should do something that’s a little bit of a hommage to him.
And it gives it another sound with the acoustic guitar.
Yeah, also on acoustic guitar you can play legato stuff more easily than you can on electric guitar. So if I was gonna play that intro on electric guitar, you would need quite a lot of overdrive to get a good sound, and maybe some compression as well. On acoustic guitar, especially with the strings that I use, because it has so much more volume from the strings, and because the pickup is active, you can do it with a clean sound and it sounds really effective. Whereas if you…I do use overdrive on Passionflower, but you can totally do it with a clean sound, and it sounds really good. Whereas if you try that Vai stuff on an electric guitar with a clean sound, it sounds really quite pathetic and it doesn’t work at all. So yeah, it’s interesting. The acoustic guitar is kind of a more powerful instrument, even though people think of it being a quieter instrument. No, it’s not.