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Richard Thompson probably isn't the first name that comes to mind when listing the greatest guitarists of all time, but it should be. In his seventh decade of existence, Thompson is a respected figure among those who appreciate superb musicianship informed by a rich imagination.
Thompson first came to prominence as a member of the influential folk-rock outfit Fairport Convention. After parting with the band, Thompson played on the first two Nick Drake albums. As a solo artist, his recorded output has been as critically acclaimed as anything he did previously.
In 2003, Thompson embarked on what he called 1000 Years of Popular Music, in which he and his collaborators covered popular songs from the eleventh century through 2003, including a song by Britney Spears. Director Werner Herzog's production team tapped Thompson to score Grizzly Man. We spoke with Thompson about his choice of recording his new album, Dream Attic, live, and what it was that nudged the guitarist into territories of technique largely unexplored by his peers.
Westword: You have a new album coming out at the end of the month called Dream Attic. Why did you record it live in front of an audience?
Richard Thompson: I think the original reason we were thinking of recording it live was financial, because it's harder to get record companies to commit to giving you an advance to make a record. So I thought, surely it's cheaper to just skip the studio process and go straight on the road and record it live. As it turns out, it costs almost exactly the same amount to record it live as it would in a studio, so that wasn't such a good idea. But it seemed a way to get more energy into the performance. Obviously what you lose is accuracy in the performance, but you gain the energy, so it's a trade-off.
At this point, you're considered a legendary guitar player with creative technique. Who have been your favorite guitar players over the years, and why?
Whew! Probably the people I grew up listening to, people like Les Paul, Django Reinhardt. My dad had some jazz records in his collection, so he had a great Django LP and a bunch of Les Paul singles. That was the first guitar playing I'd heard, and I thought it was just fantastic. I listened less to guitar players and more to other instruments. It was a way to widen the vocabulary of the guitar, so I took things from other instruments.
You say to yourself, "I wish I could play things the pianist could play. How can I get the left hand and the right hand on the guitar?" People like Chet Atkins tried to do the same thing in playing the accompaniment and lead at the same time. You look outside the guitar to take it forward and further. I tried to make the guitar more orchestral.