Meeting Simon McBride

The Carrickfergus blues-rock guitar virtuoso hailed as a worthy successor to fallen Irish guitar heroes like Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore

Now 34, McBride has released four albums - 2008’s Rich Man Falling, 2010’s Since Then, 2011’s Live Nine Lives and 2012’s Crossing The Line - which have earned him rave reviews in influential British magazine like Mojo and Classic Rock and he has toured the UK extensively, supporting legends like Joe Satriani and Jeff Beck as well as headlining his own shows.

But, surprisingly, despite his prowess as a guitarist, McBride focuses even more on his songwriting which he believes is the most important element of his music. ‘If you don’t have a good song, what’s the point?’ he argues. ‘If you’re a virtuoso guitar player you can record stuff that a lot of time is just nonsense. I used to be a bit like that because I grew up with Steve Vai and those American widdlers. They’re all phenomenal but I grew out of it. At the end of the day, music’s about listening to a song – it’s not about listening to somebody flying up and down the fretboard at ninety miles an hour, because you can get a computer to do that.’

Crossing The Line includes covers of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ ‘Go Down Gamblin’’ and Gareth Dunlop’s ‘Home To Me’ but is otherwise self-written. McBride explains that he draws his songwriting inspiration from personal experiences. ‘For example, ‘No Room To Breathe’ was about when my wife and I were in a really bad house fire and got trapped so that was very personal and very emotional and very hard to write and sing about,’ he says.

Throughout his career McBride has played guitars made by high-end American luthier Paul Reed Smith, whose other customers include Carlos Santana. McBride actually recorded Crossing The Line in Smith’s Maryland studio and collaborated with him in the writing of one of the tracks, ‘Rock And A Storm’. ‘I played him this little acoustic guitar idea,’ recalls McBride. ‘He has this filing cabinet with thousands of lyrics and he just lifted one and gave it to me. I started to think of a melody and the song was written and recorded in half an hour. So it was pretty random but that’s sometimes how the best songs are written.’

McBride’s music clearly has blues elements in it but also hard rock elements which are at times brutally powerful. The problem of labelling his music is alluded to in the album title, Crossing The Line. ‘I cross the line between rock and blues,’ he explains. ‘People put me in a category of blues or blues-rock or rock-blues or whatever and I get fed up with categories so I came up with that title. And if you listen to the album you can’t say, 'It’s blues,' or, 'It’s rock.’

McBride admits he hasn’t been directly influenced by blues pioneers like Son House and Robert Johnson who recorded in the 1930s. Indeed he admits also that he hasn’t been directly influenced even by the likes of Muddy Waters who, from the late 1940s, was amongst the pioneers of electric blues and massively influenced the musicians who emerged in the 1960s British blues boom, like Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. ‘My oldest influences would be people like Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan,’ he acknowledges. ‘People say I should listen to the old guys. Why? I appreciate they were great but I like doing my own thing.’

One of McBride’s great Northern Irish predecessors as a blues-rock guitar virtuoso was Gary Moore who found international fame first with Skid Row and then with his own bands, whose music varied from heavy metal to hard rock to blues. McBride was hugely influenced by Moore, who, shockingly, died of a heart attack, aged 58, in 2011. ‘He’s one of my favourite players,’ he declares. ‘I saw him at one gig and thought he was going to break the guitar neck he was holding it so tight. He’d just such pure passion and aggression.’

Surprisingly, however, McBride wasn’t influenced by Rory Gallagher. Like Moore, Gallagher died young, aged 47, in 1995, following a liver transplant but he is still widely revered and regarded as Ireland’s most legendary and beloved blues-rock guitarist. Indeed, McBride says that he has rarely listened to Gallagher. ‘I don’t know why,’ he muses. ‘He was a great player but there are just so many other people I’ve been listening to.’

McBride was actually a child prodigy and won Guitarist magazine’s prestigious Young Guitarist Of The Year competition when he was fifteen. The final was held in London, in Wembley Conference Centre and one might imagine that he would have been terrified to be playing in front of such a large audience at such a young age. McBride, however, was already something of a veteran. 'I was used to playing in front of people because since I was eleven I was doing demos for Marshall amplification,’ he says. ‘I played a Joe Satriani track with a backing track but the prize was funny. I’m on stage with this beautiful Paul Reed Smith guitar and the prize was this hideous guitar that was one of those weird shapes with the dodgiest painting of the Grim Reaper on it!’

McBride later joined Belfast heavy metal veterans Sweet Savage upon their 1995 reformation. The band were well-respected and had a following in Europe and America, partly, perhaps, because the original lineup had included guitarist Vivian Campbell who later joined Def Leppard. However the reformation was badly timed. ‘I made two albums with them,’ says McBride, ‘but at that time, in the grunge era, heavy metal had died off so nothing really happened. But it was good experience.’

Following Sweet Savage McBride joined Andrew Strong’s band. Strong had created a sensation in his starring role as Deco Cuffe in The Commitments film, in 1991, and the success of the film helped him develop an international career. ‘I toured with Andrew for six years,’ recalls McBride. ‘It was all old soul stuff which broadened my horizons and was good for me musically. Sweet Savage was just guitars, guitars, guitars. But with Andrew there was brass, keys and everything so it was hard for me and you’ve got to realise you’re not the front man and you have to fit in.’

After leaving Strong, McBride finally formed his own band. It seems strange, however, given his prowess, that it had taken him so long to do so. ‘I never did it before because my voice never developed until I left Andrew,’ he explains. ‘It’s like any other instrument. You start off and you’re crap but the more you practise you get better and you work a sound into your voice, so I did that.

‘Singing to me now is very important because it adds to the songs. There are many guitar players who can’t sing but do it anyway and I didn’t want to be one of those. I’m not the greatest singer but I work at it.’

It is, however, as a guitarist that McBride is still most acclaimed. His approach to soloing is strikingly different from that of many guitar virtuosi and helps explain some of his distinctiveness as a player. ‘Of course I like to do the tricks we all have but for me the most important thing is being able to play a melody on the guitar,’ he says. ‘Everything I do I sing in my head first before I play it. Melody is the key to music. If you don’t have melody, it’s pointless.’

Simon McBride plays Belfast's Holiday Inn on March 8 as part of the Belfast Nashville Songwriters' Festival (28 February - 9 March).