Gareth Williams - Piano and Keyboards

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Williams might have been a doctor. Then again he might have been an English teacher. “But I wouldn’t have been any good at either,” he says. “Playing the piano was the only thing I had left.”

Music was in the blood. “My grandfather was a professional singer, mostly in the Welsh language. But he thought he’d do better with an English-sounding name, so he called himself Harcourt Meadows, after the names of two streets in Llandudno.” Williams also sang when he was younger. “I was in two school choirs and sang in the church choir four times a week. I think that’s where I got my real musical education.”

Williams was about four years old when he started piano lessons and then when he was about 10 he started “fooling around on guitar”. “I had a mixture of peripatetic and private lessons on the piano, but I also did a lot of playing by ear and working things out for myself. I didn’t have guitar lessons and enjoyed it much more as a result. However, I couldn’t have progressed as easily on the guitar without all the knowledge that I gained from piano and theory studies. I played percussion a few times in the school orchestra “because I could read music” and had a band called Satan’s Claw. “That just about says it all,” he says with a laugh.

After going up to Cambridge to study medicine and then English, Williams’ musical education continued at the Guildhall, where he joined the one-year jazz course – “because that was all there was in those days. I went as a guitarist but took my final exams on piano.” Although Williams is known for his piano playing, it seems that his real affections lie with the guitar. “I love guitars and you can relate to them in a very personal way. With pianos, you play what’s there or buy a makeshift electronic alternative that you don‘t bond with because it’s by definition disappointing.”

His first guitar was a £12 Spanish guitar with a huge split in it. But because he played it so much, his parents decided to buy him an electric guitar and an amp. “I still have that guitar and the receipt for £125. It’s a Maya, made in Japan in 1981.” Williams continues. “When my jazz leanings were really established, my dad went out and bought me an Aria Pro 2 ‘Herb Ellis’. I remember having trouble with the neck and the machine heads were rubbish. In actual fact it wasn’t a particularly good guitar and I never got the sound or setup I was looking for. It was only when I started playing guitar after an eight year layoff that I bought myself a really good guitar. It’s a Heritage Golden Eagle, handmade in the old Gibson Kalamazoo factory. It has a wafer thin carved top and as such can be played with real dynamics. You have to watch the feedback though and the floating pickup has a ridiculously low output.” Then as an afterthought “I also have an old Japanese Ibanez Artist. That’s a real alternative to a Les Paul and I use that instrument for my fantasy blues and rock alter ego!”

Williams uses flatwound 12s on the Heritage for the fat jazz sound. “You can still bend the odd note with this set-up. On my solid (Ibanez Artist) I use 10s, as I like to bend by a tone and use across the frets vibrato. When I was actually a budding guitarist I was always chasing the Holy Grail setup, which would allow me to do everything I wanted. Unfortunately, that was never going to work for me. I love string bending but also adore the Pat Martino ‘fat’ sound. You need two mindsets and two guitars. As far as pianos go, I have a Bechstein upright piano (thanks to my ever generous mother), which I love and a Nord Stage keyboard which I use a lot. I love the Rhodes/Wurlitzer sounds and the real time effects editing. I used to have a real Rhodes, but I sold it to pay off my osteopath!”

Williams pairs his Heritage and Ibanez instruments with a Polytone “for portability with jazz credentials”, but says that Fender valve amps would always be his first choice. “My keyboard monitor is an AER, which once again I use for its portability and its clean sound.”

Williams has an eclectic taste in music. “I spent my early teens listening to the Beatles and the blues with a smattering of Bix Beiderbecke, Rachmaninov and Chopin. Later on it was Coltrane, Jarrett, Coltrane, Bill Evans, Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Coltrane and Coltrane. Later still it was Mahler, Welsh tenor David Lloyd, Italian tenor Franco Corelli, Schoenberg, Free, Thin Lizzy, and I was greatly influenced by Gareth Edwards,” he says finally tongue in cheek. A recent big influence has been Freddie King, the blues guitarist.”

Interview by David Gallant