City of Derry Guitar Festival

Virtuoso guitarist Gordon Giltrap on working with Cliff Richard and taking inspiration from Bert Jansch

English acoustic guitar virtuoso Gordon Giltrap, who headlines this year’s City of Derry Guitar Festival at the North West Regional College on August 23, was a pioneer on the British folk scene of the 1960s so reverred by the current crop of chart-topping indie/folk artists.

He went on to become a hit-making prog-rock star in the 70s and was a collaborator with Cliff Richard in the 90s. But, notwithstanding such fame and success, he still regards being honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at Northern Ireland's own Ards Guitar Festival in 2008 as one of the most satisfying experiences of his entire career.

‘Being presented with that award was one of my great, proud moments,’ Giltrap declares. ‘I’ve been virtually ignored in the UK but I go to Ireland and they honour me. I just feel that is so fantastic.’

Giltrap released his eponymous debut album in 1968. He readily acknowledges that at that stage of his career he was crucially influenced by the legendary Bert Jansch, a guitar hero for many and a songwriting pioneer, who died in 2011. ‘He changed my life,’ Giltrap says.

‘Jansch showed me the possibilities of what one could do with a solo acoustic guitar, that one could be complete, and that inspired me. To me his first album [Bert Jansch, 1965] was ground-breaking because it had everything – incredible guitar compositions, incredible songs that were virtually poetry and atmosphere. I miss him dreadfully.’

Jansch, unfortunately, seriously damaged his career and his health through alcohol abuse. Giltrap, indeed, has described him in the past as a ‘tortured soul’.

‘I think most creative people are,’ he argues. ‘Including myself, because we’re always reaching for the unreachable. The prerequisite for creating anything great is struggle. If it becomes too easy it’s not worth anything, and I think with Bert that struggle manifested itself in his drinking. Because he was an introvert coming to terms with his incredible talent and trying to communicate it in a live arena was tough for him.’

Fortunately, Giltrap hasmanaged to avoid the path of excess that Jansch and so many of his contemporaries trod. He believes that his dedication to his music saved him. ‘I cared deeply about my guitar playing. I was a very fast, intense player and drugs would have taken away that intensity and marred what I was all about. I didn’t want to be slowed down so I didn’t dare go down that road.’

While still performing as a solo artist, Giltrap joined the band Accolade for one album [Accolade, 1970]. The band attempted something similar to the jazz-folk fusion of Pentangle, the massively successful band that Bert Jansch had formed. Giltrap, however, found playing in Accolade – which included the hit-making busker Don Partridge – unsatisfying.

‘I thought it would be great but Don was a nutcase. Barking mad,’ Giltrap laughs. ‘He was a great singer, wrote great songs, was a fine guitar player, but he could be quite destructive in many ways and he was taking a lot of acid and smoking a lot of dope and I didn’t really feel comfortable around people like that.’

Giltrap returned full-time to his solo career as an acoustic singer-songwriter, but by and by moved on to playing instrumental prog-rock. His reasons for changing style are brutally frank. ‘In all honesty I think my vocals were terrible and my songs were rubbish,’ he says.

‘I had a meeting with someone from my record company and he said, “Gordon, you write quite nice songs but when it really happens is when you play guitar.” And a light went on in my head and I thought, “Yeah, he’s right. Why don’t I just stop singing and devote my time to the acoustic guitar?”’

With his new approach, Giltrap became something of a pop star with hit albums like 1977’s Perilous Journey and a hit single, 1978’s ‘Heartsong’. Surprisingly, however, he doesn’t recall that era with any great affection.

‘Looking back, I can’t say in all honesty that I enjoyed it,’ he says, ‘because my personal life wasn’t great at that time. But what it did for me was it make me a household name. People wouldn’t know Gordon Giltrap to the degree that they do today without those records.’

Indeed ‘Heartsong’ was used from 1978 – 1985 as the theme tune on BBC’s hugely popular, peak time programme Holiday. As such it became part of the fabric of life in the UK. ‘Even now when I play that song, it’s got its own magic,’ smiles Giltrap.

‘When we recorded it it didn’t take a lot of effort, everything just fell into place. There’s a great drum sound, great bass sound, and everything we added to it just made it sound better and better. It’s an exhilarating piece. There aren’t many of those that come along in a lifetime.’

Inevitably, over time, Giltrap’s run of big-selling records petered out and he found himself once more playing solo, in smaller venues. One would imagine that finding himself in reduced circumstances must have been depressing for him. ‘It was quite depressing,’ he agrees.

‘It wasn’t depressing going back to solo acoustic guitar because that’s my roots and what I still feel most comfortable with. But a lot of people are of the opinion that I should have been massive because of my contribution to the music scene at that period, so it would have been nice to have carried on. But it wasn’t to be.’

Nevertheless, in the late 90s Giltrap performed to some of his largest-ever audiences when he played the role of the Troubadour in Cliff Richard’s West End musical, Heathcliff. The critics were largely unimpressed with the musical but Giltrap remembers the experience fondly.

‘The concept is amazing but it lacked a major song. The songs are great but there wasn’t one killer song, which musicals need. But I had a great time, a terrific seven months. I’d never been in a theatrical production before and as a kid Cliff Richard and the Shadows were my heroes, so to be on stage with one of my heroes was pretty cool.'

I interview Giltrap before Richard makes headlines after police very publicily search his London apartment following allegations of sexual assault dating back to the 1980s. At the time, Giltrap's opinion of the rock and roll stalwart is overwhelmingly positive.

‘And he’s a great guy,' he says. 'When you consider he hasn’t been part of the real world since he was 17 he does all right. And he’s a consummate professional. He has an incredible work ethic and I think he’s a very underrated talent.’

Around the time he was in Heathcliff, Giltrap – long regarded as a guitar virtuoso but one with a very individual style involving the use of a plectrum and little finger – made the extraordinary decision to go for guitar lessons.

‘I thought I’d like to play the guitar properly,’ he now says. ‘So I went to a guy for classical guitar lessons and he didn’t know who I was and he said, “Just play me what you do.” I started playing some stuff and he said, “That’s fantastic, what are you coming to me for?” And I thought, “Yeah, you’re right. I should stop wasting your time and stick to being Gordon Giltrap.”’

After leaving Heathcliff, Giltrap released one of his finest solo albums, Troubadour. Cliff Richard actually guests on it, singing on one track, taken from the musical, ‘A Misunderstood Man/Be With Me Always’.

‘Cliff just came in and said, “OK, what do you want me to do?”’ recalls Giltrap. ‘He must have spent four hours, with hardly a break. For me it was great. I just sat there and enjoyed listening.’

Recent albums, such as 2013’s Ravens And Lullabies (with Oliver Wakeman) show Giltrap’s musical prowess to be undiminished. But, he admits, to maintain his standards requires a rigorous practice regime.

‘I need to practise more now than I’ve ever done. As you get older you have to keep the old fingers working and it gets tougher and tougher to keep that level of virtuosity. Of an evening I will sit in front of the TV and practise and maybe do three or four hours and maybe a couple of hours during the day as well.’

City Of Derry Guitar Festival continues at the North West Regional College in derry~Londonderry until August 24.