Twin lead guitars — whether played in unison, harmony or counterpoint — have long held a place in the rock tradition. You'll find them on everything from Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" to Wilco's "Impossible Germany," with the Eagles, Steely Dan, and Television in between.
But all the above are predated by Wishbone Ash, the British band whose lead guitarists, Andy Powell and Ted Turner, were once hailed by Melody Maker as the most interesting guitar team since Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were in the Yardbirds.
After charting with sophisticated rock albums like Argus and Pilgrimage, Wishbone Ash's share of the spotlight faded with the decline of album-oriented radio. Yet Powell has kept the band alive for more than four decades, releasing an average of one album every two years. He's also preserved the group's legacy and signature sound, both of which he discusses with wit and candor in the following interview.
I notice on the new album, Blue Horizon, that it takes exactly 48 seconds for the twin guitar parts to kick in.
Does it? That's interesting. You're the first to tell me that.
So how did you come up with that approach in the first place?
I think that, by the early '70s, Britain had already been through the blues boom. We'd also been through the beat group boom, where you had a lead guitar and a rhythm guitar. So with bands like Yes, Jethro Tull, and Cream, everybody was of a mindset that you had to have your own sound. But guitars were still the cheapest way to tour, so what do you do with a garage band setup to make it sound different?
I'd been in bands all my teens with horn sections, so that was the precursor to the idea of doing the same thing with guitars. And, you know, a couple of other bands were sort of dabbling in it ...
Well, specifically, there was a band called the Blossom Toes, who were completely unknown in America. And Fleetwood Mac were doing it a little bit when Peter Green and Danny Kirwan were still in the band. So we just started doing it in rehearsals, and we were like, "Oh my God, this is such a cool sound."
It seems like most art-rock bands at the time were hauling around massive Mellotrons that were impossible to keep in tune. Did you ever consider going that way?
We actually did. We had a guy from Van der Graaf Generator who came down and we seriously considered him at one point, and then Matthew Fisher, who was one of the co-writers of "Whiter Shade of Pale," played on our first album. But I think we wanted to keep our sound leaning more towards rock with blues and folk elements, rather than English pastoral or progressive.
I'm also thinking it would be more fun to tour with Deep Purple than it would be with Genesis.
Exactly, yeah. [Laughs.] I mean, a lot of the progressive rock bands — and I love them as much as anyone else — but they came out of the English private school system, and they were a bit more cerebral rather than physical. Nothing wrong with that. But I just think that we were a bit more working-class and more into the physicality of it all. We were still doing complex time signatures, but having those roots stood us in good stead.
I do have one non-musical question, if that's alright.
Bands are like marriages, and when they break up, there can be custody battles over the child. But with bands, there are no visitation rights, it's all or nothing. What was the situation with [former bassist/vocalist] Martin Turner and the band's name? I assume this had been going on for a long time.
Yeah, you're very right, a band is like a marriage. And very few musicians can actually hold a real marriage together. In our situation, Wishbone Ash had a lot of members, and people have always left of their own volition. And with Martin Turner, he'd left the band and was absent from the music business for 15 years. And when he came back to the field of music, he decided it would be a great idea to just take the name again.
Obviously he'd had a lot of involvement in the early band, but life had gone on since then. We had deals with record labels and agencies, and it was confusing to the public. So we tried to mediate out of court at least five or six times. Didn't work. We just had no recourse. And after a two-day high court hearing, the judge ruled in our favor.
And finally, I'm curious about the guitarists you've worked with over the years. Is there some degree of meeting in the middle when it comes to your different styles?
Well, with Ted, I think he was a bit bluesier than I was, and I initially handled a lot of stuff that was a bit more poppy. But as the years went by, we became interchangeable in our styles. That's just what happens with two guitar players. You always learn to leave space for your partner, and you're always listening. And it's the same thing when it comes to recording and who should take which solo or whatever. There's never a great deal of competition about that. We're quite gentlemanly, actually.