James Bay by Dan Harris
Photo by Dan Harris

English rocker James Bay may only be at 25, but he’s already earned the attention of two veteran musicians: Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Bay has opened for the Stones in London. Wood also jammed with him at one of his solo shows earlier this year. Earning kudos from the Stones feels good. Really good.

“That's a wonderful feeling given the huge inspiration their music and guitar playing has been on me since I started out,” Bay told Gibson.com. Bay – who released his debut album, Chaos and the Calm, in March – checked in with Gibson.com to discuss his life as a budding rock guitarist and songwriter.

Congratulations on the new album, Chaos and the Calm. How did you go about writing the songs on this album?

It's a collection of songs that are a lot about growing up and getting out and dealing with all the relationship struggles and situations that come in between.

What was your guitar philosophy on this release?

I wanted to start simple. This is my first record. I plan to release many more into the future and, record by record, the guitar playing will become more involved. But for this first record, I wanted to really get the songs across and be more subtle with the guitars. So I kept riffs and parts simple to keep room for big choruses and more lyrics at times. I want to be known as an artist who can really play as much as just a guitar player.

James Bay by Oliver Halfin
Photo by Oliver Halfin

Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards have praised your work. It doesn’t get bigger than that. What was it like to open for the Rolling Stones in London?

It was amazing to be a part of that day of music and to have that small association with the Stones for that moment in time. That was two years ago, things really felt like they'd stepped up a notch recently when Ronnie came out to join me on stage at one of my own shows at Brixton academy in London back in September this year.

You have a 1964 Gibson J-50 and Gibson SJ-200 . Tell me about those guitars and why they’re go-tos for you.

The J-50 was really just a little present to myself a couple years ago when I signed my record deal. I really fancied an old acoustic, a “writing guitar,” so I went and sat with a load of old guitars and played them until the right one revealed itself. The J-200 has been my go-to since I started out as a solo performer. I love the depth of the sound of those guitars, especially since I tune everything down a whole tone (DGCFAD) using 13s. It always allowed me an extra bit of dynamic whilst playing solo, acoustic. Plus, they look great!

What other Gibson guitars are in your arsenal?

I use a 1964 ES330, a Luther Dickinson sig 330, with the P90s wound 1000 times less. There's a 1965 SG, a 12 string acoustic that I forget the model name of.

What makes Gibson guitars the right fit for your sound?

They're so robust. You don't always have to be delicate with Gibson guitars. If you are, they make beautiful sounds, but they kick and shout in just the right way when you fight with them, too.

What’s next for you?

Humbuckers. I'm trying to learn how to like them as much as P90s. At the moment all I play is P90s, they just sound way better. Maybe it'll never happen, but I'm always curious to try different combos of pick up and body type.

Photos Oliver Halfin and Dan Harris, Brixton 2015.