Dave Sharp – Hard Travellin’ Troubadour
This month the Spotlight is on Dave Sharp the Hard Travellin’ Troubadour. Dave was one of the founding members of the british rock group the Alarm. His guitar playing provided the edgy, punk-like guitar syle for many hits including “Marching On”, “68 Guns”, Rescue Me” and “Sold Me Down the River”. But that’s not all that Mr. Sharp is about. He is an extrordinary song writer that writes with the consciousness of generations dealing with a broad subject matter that sometimes cuts right to the bone. Guitarist, lyricist, artist and troubadour. In this interview we catch up with Dave to find out about his travels, what he has been up to musically and talk about his guitar rigs that made those famous hits as well as current choices he uses with the Hard Travelers and AOR.
300guitars: Hi there Dave. Please tell us where you were born and raised and when you first got interested in music. Was your family musical?
Dave Sharp: I was born and raised in Salford, Manchester, a cotton town in the North West of England. I discovered the guitar, age 7. Grandfather played the banjalele and recited monologues; mother played flamenco guitar. After being given a record of The Shadows, I put 2 and 2 together and have been in recovery ever since.
300guitars: When did you get your first guitar? What kind was it?
Dave Sharp: I acquired my first “proper guitar” age 9, which was a “Top Twenty” solid body with two pick-ups and a whammy bar. Ideal for dodgy versions of “Apache” and “Man of Mystery.”
300guitars: What kind of music were you listening to at the time? Who were your earliest influences?
Dave Sharp: Like most young whipper-snappers at the time, I tuned into the radio late at night with a torch under the covers listening to the John Peel radio show and strange sounds of Led Zeppelin, Horslips, The Who, Vinegar Joe, etc. I was particularly attracted to Credence Clearwater Revival and the guitar playing of Pete Townsend. I began to hear the music of Woody Guthrie around that time on some of the folkier shows and was struck by its simplicity…it cut straight to the heart in the same way as the flamenco music that I had heard around the house.
300guitars: What was your first band?
Dave Sharp: At age 8 I met drummer Nigel Twist whose dad happened to be a drummer in a strip club in the red light district of Manchester. He’d inherited his dad’s old pigskin Beverly kit. The obvious thing to do was to form a band which we named The Rhythm Rascals on advice from Twist’s old man.
300guitars: When did you start to play professionally? Were you a full-time musician or did you have a job as well?
Dave Sharp: I turned full-timed professional after Twist and I joined forces with Mike and Ed to form Seventeen in 1978, the precursor band to The Alarm. There was a post-punk mod revival happening at the time, and somehow we found ourselves in the middle playing mod shindigs up and down the UK.
300guitars: What was your rig like with your first band and how difficult was it to obtain gear in England?
Dave Sharp: I tried all kinds of ways to find the sound that was in my head, none of which seemed to work. The closest I came was by hooking up a Sound City 60w and a Carlsbro which gave me an unholy twang but couldn’t figure out how to tighten things up for playing rhythm, eventually settling on a Marshall MV 50w.
300guitars: What types of gigs were you playing at that time?
Dave Sharp: Seventeen played a mixture of pubs and small and large rock clubs, sharing the bill with other mod bands like the Killermetres, the Circles, and Squire. Like most bands we played some very strange places and were even thrown offstage at a few shows for not sounding like Herman’s Hermits.
300guitars: How and when was the Alarm formed? When did you finally get a recording contract and how did that come about?
Dave Sharp: In late 1979, we all felt that Seventeen had run its course, and we felt we weren’t really happening together as a band. We split up into two camps, Mike and Ed heading for the bright lights of London Town while Twist and I worked on a new project in North Wales. We had decided to form a skiffle band with myself on acoustic guitar and vocals, Twist on drums, and Seventeen’s roadie, GazJones on Tea-Chest bass. I’d begun to sing political songs, and somehow these seemed to fit with the skiffle beat, especially after I got the idea to put up a pick-up in the acoustic guitar and run it through my Marshall and mic-up the Tea-Chest bass through an Ampeg. It was quite a sound, I can tell you! We decided to call ourselves The Screamin’ Demons (a definite improvement over The Rhythm Rascals). Mike and Ed had returned from London and busted in on rehearsals one afternoon. They rushed out after hearing “Across the Border,” and re-appeared later that day brandishing acoustic guitars and equipped with a song called “Marching On,” which they insisted on playing to us. Halfway through the Demons started playing along, and The Alarm was born.
Seventeen had toured with the Stray Cats after blagging our way onto their debut tour in the UK. The Alarm’s first move was to move down to London and march into the offices of the Stray Cats’ press agent, with our acoustic guitars. We insisted on playing him a song right there in his office. And after five minutes of total silence, he made the now-infamous comment, “Could be nice.” A record deal was not immediately to follow, however. There were to be many hard miles traveled, dodgy hamburgers eaten, and even dodgier gigs played before Miles Copeland from IRS Records laid eyes on a band that looked vaguely like Bob Dylan but played at 1000 watts. Copeland saw the potential and signed the band.
300guitars: During the Alarm days some of your guitars and amps changed and some stayed the same. Can you elaborate?
Dave Sharp: The guitar that started the Alarm was a ‘72 Epiphone accoustic dreadnaught to which I fitted a humbucker pickup from an old Les Paul that was lying around doing nothing. I think I bought it secondhand from Andy’s music store on Denmark St in London.
As we got closer to recording the second album I decided to move on to an electric style full on and was lucky enough to come across a ’64 Strat that belonged to Mick Ralphs from Bad Company. Seemed to me that the guitar that recorded Can’t Get Enough might work it’s magic in the Alarm…sure enough the track Strength was thankfully a big hit.
Around that time I was introduced to Tony Zemaitis who I guess Like the cut of my jib and built me one of his specials which I used to cut Absolute Reality. I wanted something that had a Pretenders ring to it for the song and Tony was the obvious choice. I still laugh at the fact that he had built an airplane in his garage based on an old biplane. Beautilful job. Motor ran and everything. Problem was it wouldn’t fit through the garage doors and he couldn’t get it outside!!!
On a US tour the band made one of its regular stops in Austin, Texas where I was introduced to Danny Thorpe from The Heart of Texas Music store. He came down to the sound check brandishing a ‘64 Firebird which he claimed would not only change my life but would produce a hit song. Well with a statement like that and being a firm believer in Danny’s mystical powers of persuasion I played the guitar on the show that evening and indeed things started to happen….the net result was the number 1 single Sold Me Down The River and indeed my life was changed forever!!!
I returned to London to find that vintage guitars had just acquired a ‘57 2 tone tobacco Strat which my good friend Chris Trigg at Vintage and Rare shoved into my hands and commanded me to play. I was knocked out and the guitar was in my hands and cutting Rockin’ In the Free World by the end of the afternoon.
I’ve been very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time with all of these guitars. I firmly believe that water does indeed flow over righteous ground!!
As far as amps I stuck with the Marshall MV 50w for quite some time until I had the good fortune to meet Pete Townsend’s guitar tech. Things began to get out of hand almost immediately and my puny 50w Marshall had evolved into three Marshall 100w heads, each with a different tone through three Hi-Watt 412s. Pete’s tech made me a £5 bet that in a couple of years I’d be down to two small combos. I, of course, was having none of it. But sure enough, two years later almost to the day, I had discovered the benefits of vintage Fender 4×10 Bassmans and pretty much ever since, my rig has consisted of two 40w or under combos having discovered that it was my fingers that were doing the talking.
300guitars: What types of pedals (if any) were you using?
Dave Sharp: Never been a big fan of pedals. However, I do use a delay as part of my over-all tone.
300guitars: How do you approach acquiring guitars and amps? Is it like a tool for a need or do you just wake up one day and say I think I will go to the shop and get myself a new guitar?
Dave Sharp: For me, a guitar has to be something special. Not sure I can say what that is, but somehow a guitar will speak to me. It’s probably got something to do with where the music’s headed. I kind of feel that I have little to do with the decision. I do prefer the sound of single coil pick-ups and smaller speakers seem to help tighten the sound up, especially in the studio. Right now, I’m playing a Gretsch Pro-Jet with two P-90 single coils through a Marshall Bluesbreaker with a Sound City SC30.
300guitars: How did the concept of putting humbuckers on a flattop acoustic guitar come about?
Dave Sharp: The acoustic by itself just wasn’t loud enough. At the time I had two settings: off or brain-damage. The acoustic guitar fell into the former category… something, most definitely, had to be done!!!
300guitars: How long were the Alarm together and what year did you guys call it quits?
Dave Sharp: The band toured pretty much non-stop for a good ten years, from 1981 to 1991. We were a hardened road band, and eventually the pressure of constant touring took its toll.
300guitars: How did the disbanding go down?
Dave Sharp: Well, that’s a difficult question. The Alarm split didn’t come down to one specific issue-rather a whole bunch of things acting together. I would have to say communication between the band members became increasingly difficult and on the last gig of a UK tour at the Brixton Academy in 1991, Mike announced his departure from the band.
300guitars: What did you do after the Alarm?
Dave Sharp: For some time before the band split, I’d been involved in a burgeoning acoustic scene here in Manchester and becoming heavily involved in songwriting. Woody Guthrie had become an increasingly important influence politically and creatively. Once it became clear that the band was going to split, I decided to head to the US where I’d been planning to record an album with Bob Johnston. I’d been introduced to a group of musicians from New Jersey, calling themselves the Barnstormers, who were involved in the rock-a-billy music of the ‘50s. They had a very intuitive style of playing, and after a couple of impromptu jams, it became obvious that their music complemented mine, and we decided to take things further.
It seemed logical at that time to record my first solo album. So producer Bob Johnston, whom I was working with at the time, suggested the Barnstormers and I meet up at the Hit Factory in New York City to record. By the end of one studio session, we pretty much had an album together which was later completed in Nashville called Hard Travellin'”.
The Barnstormers and I hit the road in the UK. The tour was very well received which encouraged me to think about another album. I decided to return to the US to start work on the album that was to become “Downtown America.” I was based in New Orleans which seemed to me to be the perfect place to work from, and although I’d only planned to be there to work on the album, like most folks who live there, I ended up staying a lot longer. I was able to take onboard a great deal of American history which filled all the gaps in the music I’d been making. In 1996, I headed out to California to cut “Downtown America” with Bob Johnston producing. Working with the Barnstormers on “Hard Travellin'” and with Bob again on “Downtown America,” was a very influential experience which has pretty much defined all my solo work to date.
300guitars: What inspired you to write the songs you did on your own outside of the Alarm? Were you traveling at the time of holed up in one place with a guitar, pen and paper?
Dave Sharp: I’d long been inspired by the work of Woody Guthrie, and the political element of my songwriting had become increasingly important to me. The split of the Alarm freed me up to become more involved in things like Earth Day and Farm Aid. I knew I had a lot of work to do as a singer / songwriter, and the whole landscape of American history and politics helped me to connect more fully with the way I was feeling at the time.
On the songwriting front, I find that I pick up ideas for songs from situations and events as I go along. I’m not a great fan of locking myself away to come up with ideas, but I have to say that I don’t like to set hard, fast rules. The music and the songs seem to tell me what needs to happen. I tend to approach things on an album by album basis and rather than write a song here or a song there (which does happen), I find that I tend to work on one body of work as a whole. Once I have a collection of material which seems to make sense, I start to think about an album, and at that point I set aside a couple of months to put everything into focus. I do like to keep everything in a dynamic space, even up to beginning recordings, to allow things to develop. Although I have a fairly good idea of how things are going to go, I try to create a situation which allows the musicians involved the freedom to interpret things the way they see it.
300guitars: When you toured in support of Hard Travellin’ what guitars were you playing?
Dave Sharp: On the “Hard Travellin'” album tour, I was playing a Martin D28 and a Gibson J45. I’d pretty much hung up the electric guitar for awhile. I found that if I picked up the electric guitar, I’d instinctively play the way I’d been playing with the Alarm. The music I was writing was taking me in another direction which wasn’t yet fully realized, and I felt I had to resist the temptation to flang in a whole bunch of stab chords and spooky solos to allow things to develop.
300guitars: How was that experience for you not playing electric guitar and being the singer/songwriter/frontman?
Dave Sharp: It was difficult to set everything I’d learned playing electric with the Alarm to one side; that music was a big part of me and I knew I was going to miss it a whole lot. But I did know there’d be a way to bring everything together at some point in the future.
300guitars: When did the Hard Travelin’ tour end and why didn’t you continue to tour and record within that framework?
Dave Sharp: “Hard Travellin'” happened at a time when the Alarm was going through a messy divorce, and there was a lot of record company politics going on. It was a huge fight to get “Hard Travellin'” out there and, at the end of the day, the record company, although they’d agreed to do the album, started to use it as a lever to force certain decisions around the Alarm. Ultimately things came down to a creative and musical question, and at the time I felt extremely trapped. I had to follow the music, and the record company found that very hard to take. Without the support of IRS, I knew I’d have to go my own way and eventually was able to hook up with a new company in New Orleans who understood what I was trying to do.
300guitars: Where did you go next?
Dave Sharp: I decided to stay based in New Orleans and toured “Downtown America” from there. It was a great place to be creatively. It was far away enough from the “business” end of things in Los Angeles and New York, and was populated by musicians from all walks of life who were there to learn and grow. It was a great proving ground, and I was able to grow at my own pace.
300guitars: How much writing and recording did you do?
Dave Sharp: I eventually decided to build a studio there, and for two or three years the whole thing was an intense period of writing and recording. Being able to be completely immersed in things creatively, I was able to find my direction and also spend some time actually living, which I’d been unable to do in over ten years of being on the road.
300guitars: There was an Alarm reunion on VH-1 a few years ago. How was it to play with your old band mates again? Did you dig out your guitars and amps from the old days?
Dave Sharp: Folks had been trying to get us back in the same room together for a long time. The VH-1 thing somehow felt like the right time and the right situation for us to do it. There was no pressure, and somehow we all found ourselves in the same space. It was a great experience, and we were able to rediscover the spirit and potential of the Alarm’s music. I took the opportunity to try some new things out. I brought in a couple of 1959 50w Marshalls. By this time my playing had become far more expressive, and the ‘59s gave me the flexibility that I needed. I decided to try out an idea I’d long had, and for the show I brought in a Gibson 335, which proved to be a very interesting experience. It opened up a direction for me which led to eventually settling on a Gretsch Pro-Jet, which I’m now using with The Hard Travelers and the AOR.
300guitars: Fast forward to present day. What have you been up to and how has it been going?
Dave Sharp: I’m at perhaps one of the most exciting times in my career to date. 2008 was the 40thanniversary of the passing of Woody Guthrie, and to mark the event I’ve put together a great group of musicians to form a band to celebrate Woody Guthrie’s spirit. I met up with a long-time hero of mine, Henry McCullough, whose career had followed a similar pathto mine, and we found we had a great deal in common. The band toured the festivals with Zoot Money on keyboards, Colin Allen on drums, and Gary Fletcher on bass. I’m very excited with the concept of The Hard Travelers. The music is very fluid and instinctive, and I’m able to bring all my experiences from “Hard Travelin'” and “Downtown America” together, and for the first time it feels like I kind of know what I’m doing. This band is most definitely in its infancy, and so far we’ve had a great response from audiences and in the press. We’ve even made it on to YouTube!!
It’s kind of weird though at the same time I was offered an opportunity to revisit the music of the Alarm in a way that made sense, so I find myself playing in two bands at once, the second band being made up of a great group of players. I’m just about to go on the road with this project, which is called AOR (Alarm Oriented Rock), and so far it’s been a great experience revisiting the music
300guitars: Being back in the “electric guitar chair” so to speak what are you playing these days?
Dave Sharp: Right now I’m playing a Gretsch Pro-Jet and a stock Strat through a mixture of Hiwatt, Marshall and Sound City amps. I’ve customized the Pro-Jet with two Brian Eastwood single coil P-90s. The amps are a Hi-Watt 50w going through 2x 12’s loaded with ‘70s Brownback Fanes. The Marshall is a reissue Bluesbreaker and I have two Sound City SC30s which deal with the clean and delay tones.
300guitars: What is on your pedalboard if any?
Dave Sharp: I am using a pedal board for the first time, although I’m keeping it real simple. I’m using a Boss Giga-Delay instead of more complex TC2290 I was using with the Alarm, and a Boss Super Distortion which I use when I’ve completely lost my mind. It’s kind of fun.
300guitars: What about your strings and picks for both electric and acoustic?
Dave Sharp: For the past 15 years, I’ve been playing John Pearse strings on both acoustic and electric guitars. I was very sad to hear that John passed away recently, so I want to take the opportunity in this interview to pass on my condolences to everybody at John Pearse and, of course, to John’s family. John was a real music man in every sense of the word. He’ll be greatly missed. For picks I use Jim Dunlop Tortex Fins, thin guage. With these I can put in all me flamenco stuff. Very trippy!!!
300guitars: Who is doing your tech work these days or are you doing your own?
Dave Sharp: My Current tech is Kevin Rowbotham..he’s relativley new to the scene..a born and bred Salford lad like myself…He tells it like it is and tunes the rods up the same way!!!
300guitars: Who do you like to listen to nowadays? What kinds of music and guitar players?
Dave Sharp: I’ve always listened right across the board. Just lately I’ve been listening to The Band. I’m still amazed at how well they are able to capture the American spirit. There’s quite a lot of The Band in The Hard Travelers.
300guitars: What is the song writing process like for you?
Dave Sharp: I find it to be a very social experience. I used to take somewhat of a hermit approach to the whole thing, but these days I’m a lot freer and a lot further down the line, and it’s certainly a whole lot more fun than it used to be.
300guitars: Is songwriting something you always have done or were you a guitar player first and then got inspired to write?
Dave Sharp: From the very first band I was in with Twist, I was writing songs. I was even precocious enough to write my first “political” song when I was ‘round about 10. A few years ago, I heard an old tape which was a real howl, but, hey, it was a start.
300guitars: What are some of your most memorable moments in your career and life?
Dave Sharp: I have to say standing onstage in Central Park NYC celebrating what would have been Woody’s 80thbirthday alongside Pete Seeger, Arlo and Nora Guthrie, and the Right Rev Jesse Jackson was a seminal experience.
300guitars: What do you like to do outside of music?
Dave Sharp: Never really thought about it much, although I’ve done a bit of scuba diving here and there. I do enjoy the ocean. I’ve done a fair amount of sailing and ridden the odd nag.
300guitars: What are some of your favorite books and what are you reading now?
300guitars: What inspires you? What moves you and lets you know that you are alive?
Dave Sharp: You know this far down the line I see amazing things everywhere I look. Just recently I visited the mountains in Glencoe, Scotland for the first time and was totally awe-struck. There’s an immense presence of something all-powerful there, which reminded me that being alive in and of itself is an awesome experience. It’s easy to take life for granted, and those kind of experiences can remind us all, even in the hardest times, that there’s something far larger out there than we can possibly know.
300guitars: What brings you down and possibly inspires you to write about it or take action?
Dave Sharp: I could write a book on that one. LOL!
300guitars: What is a typical day like for Dave Sharp?
Dave Sharp: Right now, complete chaos. Like most folks, I can never find enough hours in a day. Sometimes though, it’s good to hang out and take time to reflect.
300guitars: What do you see in the future for Dave Sharp? What are you plans?
Dave Sharp: The Hard Travelers and the AOR are a big part of my life right now. There are a lot of changes going on all around, and the world’s a pretty messed up place to be. There’s plenty of work singing about all that stuff. I’m looking forward to finishing albums with both bands, and especially looking forward to getting back out on the road.
300guitars: Thank you very much Dave for your inspiring work over the years and taking the time for this up-close Spotlight interview. I wish you much success in the future!
Dave Sharp: Thanks for having me onboard Billy, it’s been a great pleasure to take part…An online resource with in-depth info for everyone has been long overdue on the net wires…300guitars is the place to be if you need to get face to face with the artists you respect.. Keep the faith.
You can read more about Dave at the links below.
Dave Sharp official website click here.
Hard Travelers official website click here.
AOR official website click here.