Andy Powell

"I'm all about the journey — enjoying the ride," says Andy Powell, the leader of legendary British rock band Wishbone Ash. So the Gibson Flying V maven is spending time between tours and cutting new albums chronicling that ride in a memoir, Eyes Wide Open: True Tales of a Wishbone Ash Warrior, due for publication early next year. He's also just cut the band's first direct-to-vinyl album, Metropolis Live, at London's legendary studio of the same name, for September release. And that LP – yes, it actually is an LP — will be followed by a new DVD title Wishbone Ash – Live in Paris.

What's the English ex-pat and Connecticut resident doing in his spare time? Compiling a 32-disc boxed set and coffee table book retrospective of Wishbone Ash's nearly half-century history, which will see light in late 2016. Somehow he also found time to talk with about his durable and still hot-wired career.

Since 1972 "the Flying V has been my talisman," says the gregarious Powell. "When I started playing it in Europe and the States, there simply weren't many people who'd seen them. After I started playing my V, a lot of young players started coming to our shows that would later be in pretty dynamic and successful bands. K.K. Downing from Judas Priest, the guys in Iron Maiden, Rudolf and Michael Schenker were fans... So I like to think I had some impact in getting the Flying V out there. If you question one of those guys, they'll undoubtedly say the first time they saw a V was with Wishbone Ash. Wishbone Ash played everywhere: England, Germany, the States... We were a real road band and we still are.

There's an interesting trajectory in Wishbone Ash's recordings — an evolution from a blues-based sound to an approach that's more instrumentally lyrical with elements of jazz and textural music.

If we suddenly popped up now you'd probably call us a jam band, but the first song we ever wrote was a blues called "Blind Eye." I'd been playing in soul bands — seven or eight piece bands with a brass section — and the idea was to construct a song that used twin guitars for musical punctuation much like a horn section would do. So we went from shuffles and exploring that kind of thing as we were touring the States early on to discovering other avenues of the blues.

In the late '60s and early '70s band could be eclectic. And about three years into the band we went more into a folk-rock direction. All of that affected the guitar playing. The great thing about being a guitarist in Wishbone Ash is that I could never rest on my laurels or stay bound to tried and tested grooves. There was a need to keep growing and developing, and so we moved into fusion and progressive rock, but always with a blues and folk foundation. As a British band, maybe the folk won out. It certainly won out on our most known album [1972's] Argus, because that was a folk-rock cult hit album by default and a template for a lot of the twin guitar bands that came after. Folk was the scene we mined the most. I will say the bands that had folk and rock roots in the early '70s have stood the test of time.


How did moving into new musical territory affect your playing technique? For example, as your music got more dynamic and intricate, was it necessary to move from using a plectrum to more fingerpicking?

Definitely. When my original guitar partner Ted Turner was in the band, for its first three or four years, we were bluesier guitar players. Then Laurie Wisefield joined and he was from a country-rock band called Home. He introduced me to pickers like Albert Lee, so I stared to use the pick clenched between the thumb and forefinger and the three remaining fingers to pick in this sort of claw hammer style. Today there are quite a few guitar players who use that, but back then it was quite fresh. You could get a lot more impact by grasping chords with the right hand rather than just strumming them. Laurie was with me for 12 years and our styles rubbed off on each other. That technique opened me up to other styles — country, folky, prog. I've had seven guitar partners in all. Wishbone Ash has always been a twin guitar band, sort of like the Allman Brothers. Sometimes I think, "Wouldn't it be great to be in a band with one guitar player?" But that's not been my destiny.

There are a lot of good aspects to playing with another guitarist. For one thing, you get well versed in rhythm playing because when you're not soloing you're backing up the other guy. And you develop a great ability to listen, which is not a bad skill for a guitar player in a band. One of the criticisms I've got of some of the new breed of blues players is that they don't leave a lot of space. They almost nail you to the wall with a constant stream of riffage, and lose the things that drew so many of us to blues — which is emoting and space.

The latest Wishbone Ash album, 2014's Blue Horizon, has no shortage of genuinely emotional playing — achieved via the use of melody and space.

Melody is hugely important in Wishbone Ash. To me a guitar solo has a beginning, middle and end. One of the things I've always been known for is being able to construct a conversation on the guitar. That's me in a nutshell. Some great guitarists, like Eric Clapton and Gary Moore, migrated to being singers after they explored the guitar, and that happened with me. And my desire to craft solos with melodies really helped with that as well.

What compelled you to adopt the Flying V as your trademark instrument?

I used to make guitars. The first year I was in Wishbone Ash I played a homemade guitar. It was Les Paul knockoff. I used to call it the "Les Powell." There was a store on Denmark Street in London, where all the music shops were and the guitarists used to hang out, started by Cliff Cooper, who teamed up with a German amp maker, and they came up with Orange amplifiers. Cliff sold guitars on the side and imported a pair of 1967 Gibson Flying Vs into London. Very few had ever been sighted in London at that time. Keith Richards and Dave Davies had them. It was not a popular guitar at the time. It was a style designed to thrust Gibson forward into the more futuristic side of guitar building, but I don't think the general population caught on.

These guitars had been in the packing cases in the States for five years. I went to Cliff's shop to have a look. I heard they were about 300-pounds, or $450 US dollars. I had been playing a Gibson SG with two P-90s and really liked that. I tried both Flying Vs and felt that the second one really had a sound. I couldn't sit down, because it kept slipping off my knee, but knew it was a good performance guitar.

I plugged it into one of the Orange O-100 amplifiers in the store and, being a guitar maker myself, what struck me is that it wasn't just a cosmetic design. The one-piece mahogany body with two wings assisted giving the Flying V a very vibrant ringing tone...more so than, say, a Les Paul, which is more mellow. I loved it because I was able to do all these open, ringing chords. So I grabbed it and took it home and put it on a chair near the bed and just looked at it. I thought, "Wow! This is my instrument."

As a young player, you look for your instrument and I became hugely enamored with it. I used to get photographed with it all the time. It was a chore to get in the British music press, and the guitar was very photogenic — so then I was too, with it.

At that point we were getting quite well know and making good money, and when we went on tour we'd been running around the States going to pawn shops and picking up unbelievable guitars — every model of Firebird, you name it. Every acoustic Gibson you could think of. But it was the Flying V that I stayed associated with. At one point I started playing a Gibson Firebird VII and our manager, Miles Copeland said, "Don't stop playing the V. That's your trademark." Stephen Stills actually bought that Firebird.

What kind of amps were you using in the band's early '70s years?

The Flying Vs were very clean sounding guitars and we had very clean German amplifiers, the 100-watt Orange amps, and loaded the cabinets with JBL-120 speakers. As you can imagine it was a hard, bright sound. We didn't used pedals in those days, so if you wanted to solo, you'd just turn up. Most of the time in those days you'd be playing between three and five on the volume pot for rhythm and just crank it up for a solo.

How do you define your tone, which has become more refined and sustained over the years?

I don't think about tone much. When I was growing up in the '50s, in a little housing estate after the war, a lot of neighborhood guys would walk down the street whistling. My dad was a champion whistler, and I whistled, too. Something in what they were doing... I like to think that's where I first got the idea to solo on a guitar from. It used to thrill me to try to get my whistling together.

There was also a guitar player I heard when I was young named Django Reinhardt, and he had some beautifully ebullient solos. That fed into my fluid style, and over the years I've become more measured and don't throw everything up against the wall. The overriding thing really is trying to get what's in my heart or my mind across, so that dictates my approach to tone. As long as the sustain of the humbucking pickups is there, and I can overdrive my amps and get harmonics, I can plug into a really wide range of amplifiers and get a really good tone. Good players really have intrinsic tone. I'll experiment with overdrive units and change out pickups, but I think that even if I pick up an acoustic I have my own sound.

Do you have go-to gear these days?

Certainly I still use that 1967 Gibson Flying V and it plays just as well as ever. It has the original Vibrola tailpiece, which is another idiosyncratic piece of equipment I melded into my style. I grew up listening to surf guitar players and rock guitarists like Hark Marvin and the Ventures, so I love having a whammy bar. I could use it to keep a chord in tune and almost to chorus a chord. I loved the Vibrolo. It's a pretty hefty unit so I could rest my hand on it.

I also have a white early '70s Flying V that comes out with me on the road. It has a fatter neck and a somewhat stubbier headstock, but is still an excellent guitar. I've also owned a lot of other '67 models... a champagne sparkle one, a sunburst one, and have also owned 1958 and 1959 Korina models. One of those now belongs to Rudolf Schenker. Those are a different animal than the '60s construction — heavier neck, thicker body, but still an amazing instrument. I used the '58 and '59 on early '70s recordings as well as my '67.

In May you cut a new album, Metoropolis Live, direct to vinyl in front on an audience of fans at London's Metroppolis Studios. What made you decided to undertake that challenge?

It reminded me of recording live shows for the BBC in the old days and was an exciting idea. The experience was nerve-wracking, because it was a one-shot deal. It's quite a technical feat because there are people in the cutting room working, the engineer is mixing live and the band has to get it all in one shot. There's no pausing between tracks. You're rolling with the set. And of course, as a band we needed to ask ourselves, ‘Guys are we up to this?" I also went out the night before with a colleague to a French restaurant and drank a bit more wine than I should have, which is unusual for me... So elements like that add a little extra frisson of tension and excitement. You can't go in and ProTools this thing. What you hear is what you get.

Why write an autobiography now?

Well, I'm 65 and this life has been extremely good to me. It's afforded myself and my family a window on the world which... I sometimes wonder if some politicians see the world with the same amount of detail as musicians. Just this year we've already flown many thousands of miles. We just did a tour of South Africa.

I wanted to get these experiences down. When I listen to our old recordings and look back at the past, it's got sepia tone to it. So I wanted to leave a document for my children, who are grown men now, and more importantly I went through a period of the first lawsuit I've been in during my life involving music, over the name of the band. So one of the chapters deals with the aspect of branding due to that. A band with a brand name like Wishbone Ash or the Allman Brothers or the Beatles — there's something we can impart to young musicians, which is whether you like it or not you wake up one morning not just a band member or founder but a small business owner — or a big business owner — which comes with its own issues. And that's what I became with this band. I've been in Wishbone Ash 46 years now.

Plus, after all these years I have a lot of stories to tell — recording with the Beatles, touring with the Who, playing Carnegie Hall to Fillmore West to Madison Square Garden... And I also wanted to get across how influential Wishbone Ash has been.

We also had a real wild period. I had to work very carefully in the book to reconstruct the '70s. When I was between 20 and 30, those were the party years. There was some hanging off of chandeliers, the drug culture was pervasive, you couldn't avoid it. And we saw a lot of amazing sights. People ask me, "Andy, was it really as amazing as they say it was during the '70s?" Of course it was! It was totally amazing! It was an incredible time to be young, successful and touring the world!