Dave Cliff would be the first to admit that he isn’t exactly the ‘new boy on the block’, but he’s paid his dues and garnered an enviable reputation among his fellow musicians as a superlative lyrical and emotive player who can just as easily string a wild bebop line together as tear your heart apart.
Cliff grew up in a musical household with a father who was an amateur musician who played guitar and double bass in the local dance bands. “It was dad who made me my first guitar,” says Cliff. “But unfortunately the neck deteriorated and became badly bent and when it needed fixing, sadly he wasn’t around to fix it, as he died when I was just 14. Lessons? No, I didn’t have any – I just taught myself. And I didn’t practise seriously until I was 19. So I wasted a few years being a “three-chord’ merchant.” When he did finally string more than three chords together, Cliff joined a couple of skiffle and rock bands. “By then I was playing a Rosetti Lucky 7 (bass) and a Gretsch Tennessean and then later a Gibson G62.”
But the real musical moment arrived when at the age of 23 he secured a place at Leeds College of Music. “It was the very first and the only full time jazz course in the country at that time. I spent four years in Leeds: three at college and one unemployed. Then I moved down to London in 1971.”
As far as guitars go, Cliff brought what he had with him and anyway, as he says, he doesn’t like the idea of changing a guitar just because it might provide him with the sound that he’s looking for. “It’s the way you set up an instrument that’s important, the action, the strings, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a ‘jazz’ guitar or not. If you go out and buy a new guitar, it’s like starting a relationship. You might get on well together on the first night, but a month later things may not be going so well!”
Cliff currently owns four tried and tested instruments, a Fender Squier ‘Bullet’, a Takamine, a Tanglewood and a Gibson 175 which isn’t seeing much action. “I haven’t played my 175 in a while because it’s got a different-shaped neck and the strings seem to be further apart and it takes two or three hours of playing in to get used to it again – so I’m insecure about taking it out. It’s a top class guitar but when I play it again, it feels like hard work.”
When it comes to strings, Cliff is a D’Addario fan. “The 175 is loaded with 12 – 52 smooth wounds. I’ve also got 12 – 52 smooth wounds on the Tanglewood and 10 – 50 standards on the Squier ‘Bullet’. I change my strings on my guitars about every five years – I like them nicely played in. And I’m lucky because my palms don’t sweat and I have dry hands.”
“My amplifier? Well, I started out with a Burns many years ago, then moved on to the smooth sounds of the Polytone. Now I use an AER acoustic amp which a lot of jazz guys use these days, because they have an excellent volume/ weight ratio and as I don’t drive and I’m not getting any younger, that’s a very important consideration. In fact, I like them so much I have three of them. I have a 60-watt and two 40-watts. The 40 is for small jazz gigs and the 60 is for when I need a bit more power – festivals and the like.”
Although Cliff listens to the likes of Parker, Konitz, Lester Young, Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, he grew up with the sounds of the big bands and Rhythm & Blues. This background proved to be good preparation for spending a lot of the 1990s playing with Georgie Fame, both in the Big Band and Fame’s small combos. Of his time with Fame he comments: “It was great, because I was actually earning a full time living from playing music”.
Today Cliff works with a nucleus of players and is in about three to four small bands. “I love the group experience. To me it’s much more important than virtuosity.” He goes on to say: “I also teach at the Birmingham Conservatoire once a month and also at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. I also occasionally go into Trinity.” Philosophical about the current state of the music business, Cliff says: “Music’s a commodity now and things are different to what they used to be whether you like it or not”. And then returning for a final take on new guitars: “Getting a new instrument has never been the answer, it’s just down to me playing it right.”
Interview – David Gallant