Nigel Barker came through a life-changing accident to reclaim the use of his injured hand and start a brand new musical life playing gigs and recording his own albums – and accumulating a selection of guitars with a nutty twist. Interview by Lars Mullen
For any musician, losing dexterity would be a nightmare scenario. It happened to Nigel Barker, who lost the use of his left hand after a near-fatal accident in the early ’80s. Aged just 23, he already felt his musical career was over. ‘It would be great if we always knew what the future held, but you don’t know what’s around the corner,’ says Nigel today. ‘For some, it can be an interesting twist of fate. I would never in a million years have dreamt I would now be playing guitar once more, and in a band – let alone launching a new album this summer.’
At the time of his calamity Nigel was employed as an assistant engineer at AIR Studios in London, one of the biggest recording facilities in Europe, working on sessions for artists such as Tears For Fears, Japan and Elton John. Before taking this job he had been busily gigging with his Les Paul Deluxe, and also gaining experience working at a studio in London’s Old Kent Road, where local bands like Dire Straits and Squeeze would record their early material.
‘As a reward for working non-stop for nearly 18 months, AIR Studios sent me out to the studios in Montserrat in the West Indies, which turned out to be a memorable experience in more ways than one,’ Nigel recalls. ‘One day I was driving back from a beach bar in a Mini-Moke, which is a typical form of transport for the islands – but with small wheels and low ground clearance, it’s not the best off-road vehicle.
‘Montserrat is a volcanic island, so there are lots of potholes and hairpin bends. The front wheels got caught up in a rain gully, I didn’t make the bend in the road, and went straight over the edge and ended upside-down in a mango tree. Much later I was luckily found by a passing off-duty policeman, who saw the headlights up in the tree. I came round in the morning to see my producer John Punter helping to give me a blood transfusion!
‘At the time it seemed like a fairly minor injury to my left hand, so I spent the rest of the time at Montserrat sitting by the pool with my arm in the air. I was really miffed that I couldn’t stay on, as the Police were scheduled to arrive on the island to record their next album, Synchronicity, and I wanted to work on it. But when I got back to the UK I went to hospital, as I felt something was wrong. They told me it was bad. Gangrene had set in.
‘I had several operations over the next 18 months, including procedures to insert false tendons into the back of my hand. Unfortunately at the time this was pretty new technology, and the tendons they put in turned out to be too short. My hand didn’t recover properly… it was basically a paddle that I couldn’t do much with.
‘So it seemed that any guitar-playing was gone for the foreseeable future. I sold the Les Paul Deluxe and started working in TV as a sound engineer, and then I became a screenwriter, director and film editor. I missed that Les Paul… but there was no point in buying another, and for 30 years I didn’t take much notice of any particular genre of music, or make any real attempt to play guitar.
‘However, I’d been riding my Harley for much of this period, and working the heavy clutch seemed to be just as good as any therapy I was having on my hand. I had an acoustic guitar that lived behind the sofa, but I would get really frustrated that my hand wouldn’t respond when I tried to form basic chord shapes. I did try, though, for years and years, until one day I suddenly found I could play open C, then a barre F. I persevered, and slowly some limited dexterity started to come back… and I began to wonder if there was any way I could play electric again.
‘So I was suddenly all fired up with new vigour and enthusiasm, and I went across town to Macari’s in London’s Charing Cross Road and asked if I could please just hold the Les Paul Standard that was in the window. I chose the Standard as that was the one I originally wanted, instead of the Deluxe.
I was a little nervous, to say the least, as it had been a long time. It was so weird, but it felt like a pat on the back from above. I fumbled about and it was all a bit crude and I didn’t have a party piece that I could play in a shop full of people, but I just couldn’t put that guitar down. I told them that I had to have it – but I didn’t have the £2700 asking price.
‘The guy at Macari’s was great, though, and he said he’d keep the Les Paul back for me if I just went in every now and again and paid £250 a time. I even wrote down the serial number, as I insisted it had to be that very same guitar!
‘After a couple of weeks I called him up to say I was on the way with the credit card. That day I was editing a film in Soho, and during the lunch break, as I strolled towards Charing Cross Road, the church bells started ringing to the same rhythm as my boots on the pavement. It was really quite emotional!
I thought there must be something special happening – could this be a celebration of me buying this guitar and reinstating my playing? The bells seemed to speed up, and much to the amusement of people queuing for buses I was now literally skipping on the way to the shop where I bought the Les Paul!
‘And here’s that very guitar – a 2011 Gibson Les Paul R8 VOS, based on the spec of an original ’58. It’s factory relic’d, but not too much, with a mahogany body and a carved maple top, with an original-style ABR-1 Tun-O-Matic.
‘I was soon having marathon 18-hour practice sessions, and as the Les Paul was set up with a really low action I soon got to grips with playing blues licks on the huge C profile neck. It has the typical Les Paul stadium rock sound through my 50W Marshall DSL, but as the Les Paul was originally a jazz guitar it can also do that, with a lovely warmth from the neck pickup into a clean amp.
‘As I was getting on so well it seemed natural to form a band, so I decided to start a couple of tribute acts. I chose to cover ZZ Top and Seasick Steve because they both had gritty blues as a common denominator. It turned out to be a whole new blues-rock education – and in no time, I discovered that I somehow had a guitar collection!’
Nigel dived into his tribute bands with typical energy. ‘I’d always loved Billy Gibbons’ playing style, although I can’t get on with his .008 gauge strings – he’s a delicate player, but it’s like playing elastic bands.
‘As for the look, I had a small beard already, but went to my local hairdressers and explained what I needed, and they said the best thing was to have extensions. For two years I went to work with the extensions rolled up and unfurled them for gigs – but it’s all real hair now!
‘I do love the Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates humbucker, and for the ZZ Top act – which we called El Loco Plays ZZ Top – I installed one of those into a replica of the custom guitar built for him by John Bolin called the Super Model, complete with the legendary Lucky Strike cigarette in the neck pickup cavity with two puffs taken out of it, just like the original.
It’s really got the real Billy Gibbons sound. The pinky on my left hand still barely moves, but I managed to get the whole El Loco Plays ZZ Top set pretty note-perfect. The only problem I had was wearing those damn sunglasses… I couldn’t see a thing.
‘I had the Super Model built with a left-handed neck, like the real thing. All the work was done by a London-based luthier called Will Russell, and I also asked him to fit an on/off switch for the humbucker. It honestly couldn’t be more basic… it’s a real just-get-on-with-it guitar. Mind you, it isn’t enough to just call Will my “guitar tech” – he’s really one of the finest electric and acoustic luthiers I know. Not only has he built several of my guitars, but he’s also adapted some of the simpler, more eccentric ones into really great, good-sounding, practical working instruments.
‘With El Loco underway and now getting to grips with these guitars, I also found the time to get my writing back on track. Having worked in some of the best studios I knew some tricks which could help me get good results using Logic and Garageband on my Mac. For my first album I had 10 songs lined up, and to keep the iron hot I set myself a challenge to complete the whole thing, from recording to the final production, in just 48 hours.
‘I had the sound I wanted but I was stuck for a name for this new project until I saw the American guitarist Buckethead, who famously wears a KFC bucket on his head. I thought, well, I’m always wearing a hat… so I called my project Cowboy Hat And That Fuzzbox Voodoo. The latest album is called A History Of The American West And Other Stories, and it’s a combination of Americana and blues-rock, full of kick-ass overdriven guitars, all themed around some of the tales, legends and lies that make up American history.
‘I was recently asked who my three favourite songwriters are and I just said “Jack White” three times. Jack is God, but I don’t really sound anything like him. The closest I’ve got is probably on the song Daniel Boone And Pioneers Of The Wilderness.
‘As well as using the Will Russell guitar on the album I also brought out my gold sparkle Gretsch Electromatic, which I believe is from the Jet Series. This was a very inexpensive eBay buy, and it’s kept in open E for slide. It’s got great sustain, this one, and no wonder… it must weigh about twice as much as a Les Paul. I asked Will Russell to breathe on it, as I do with all my guitars. He fitted a new spring to the Bigsby and now it works a treat, returning to pitch every time.
‘I have four guitars which are left over from El Loco and the Seasick Steve act – which, incidentally, was called Carsick Nigel. These guitars are far from redundant… they’re still essential studio guitars for me.
‘First is a pair of Gretsch Bo Diddley models. The larger one has Gretsch’s own Special Design humbuckers and just three strings; it was won in a raffle by my wife Melanie. The smaller Bo Diddley Junior is a backup guitar. Both were used for Carsick Nigel, played through a Roland Cube amp. They’re wonderful for slide.
‘The next two are a Dean Metalman bass, which I bought for El Loco’s bass player to use as he was broke at the time, and an Epiphone Explorer with a Pearly Gates pickup at the bridge. Unlike the bass, the Epiphone still has its sheepskin covering in the style of ’80s ZZ Top – it’s actually a coat which I bought from Shepherd’s Bush market! For full authenticity when playing the song Legs, this guitar and the Dean bass were fitted with guitar-spinning mechanisms that we built from cake dishes and straplocks.
There’s a certain amount of concentration, poise and accuracy required to perform this movement on stage under dimmed lights. We nearly knocked our brains out on more than one occasion, but it really worked. You can see us do it on YouTube!
‘Here’s another favourite, based around a Gibson Firebird but with a reverse Tele-style neck. I had Will Russell build the body and fit a single Pearly Gates humbucker and a Schaller Floyd Rose, which has turned out to be very useful for the heavy whammy work I do in Cowboy Hat And That Fuzzbox Voodoo. This is a great all-rounder … the versatility is a bit limited, but that’s single-pickup guitars for you.
‘I love the Firebird shape, and I know that a lot of players of a certain age will recall Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera on Top Of The Pops with his fantastic red three-pickup model back in the ’70s. This one is perfect for me, and in homage to Jack White I’ve put in three stutter buttons for creating outlandish machine-gun type feedback effects.
‘It’s probably apparent by now that I’m a huge fan of humbuckers, but having never owned a Strat and having been constantly told how good they were for 30 years without being able to try one, I found myself this white US Standard Strat. After the thicker-sounding guitars I’d been used to, I’ve realised that this has got to be the most versatile guitar I own. This was another good eBay purchase and it’s now taking the lead role in the Cowboy Hat project, although I’m helping it along with various boosters in the chain to beef up the sound a little bit.
I’ve also cheered it up with some stickers… including a million-dollar bill.’
Nigel loves acoustics as much as electrics, and he’s got a few. ‘This little Washburn R320SWRK is from their Vintage Series. They’ve done a good job of echoing the original Washburn parlour models from the late 19th and early 20th century with aged parts and delicate wear on the wood, but as they’re built using modern technology, they’re a little bit stronger than they look. This one records really well, and it’s got a Seymour Duncan Woody pickup fitted in the soundhole.
‘I always seem to get inspiration for writing during the night, and I often sit bolt upright and grab this little nylon-strung parlour guitar. I couldn’t tell you where it was made… it could be Spanish, or even German. It’s pretty old, and it was a great deal at £80. It’s light and dead easy to play, and always kept beside the bed. It’s like a nightcap – after a few strums, I’m gone!
‘For the Carsick Nigel gigs, the Washburn knocked my little ’50s South African-built Gallotone Wonder acoustic into second place. I bought the Gallotone because I thought it looked garishly beautiful in red and yellow. John Lennon used a Gallotone Champion in the Quarrymen, although that one didn’t have f-holes. I believe it sold for about £155,000 in the late ’90s… maybe I should hang onto it. I used this on the album on a track called The Cherokee Trail Of Tears.
I fitted a mini floating pickup at the neck, which works really well. The action is a little high, but it’s ideal for that early bluesy sound. It’s also great for slide, although the frets are raised with square edges so I have to be accurate with the bar – or it sounds like someone’s knocking at the door.’
Nigel also has further goals concerning his manual mobility. ‘I’ve obtained this Fender five-string banjo – I do love the sound of a banjo – and a Mahalo ukulele, as they’re both a real challenge for my hand. Another thing I’m working on playing at the moment is this Clearwater electric mandolin… they call a Mandocaster. It’s good for that little sprinkling of icing on the cake on some of the songs I’m recording right now for the next album, which will be called American Cities.
‘I also have two electro- acoustics that I keep in the studio most of the time – a jumbo-bodied Countryman, which is a cool guitar for a ridiculously low price, and a wonderful Simon & Patrick from the Songsmith series. This was one of the first acoustics I bought when this all kicked off again. It’s a fantastic guitar and it records just as well it sounds on stage, with a nice, balanced, sweet, mellow sound.
‘I have a travel bass guitar, a fretless Ministar Basstar Pro F which is described by the company as having “unrivalled portability”, which I think must be correct – after all, it’s really just a long piece of wood. I play it as conventionally as possible rather than making the most of it being fretless, but the opportunity is there if needed. I haven’t travelled with it, but it’s come in very useful in the studio as it’s got a really deep, thuddy sound. I also have the “stand up kit”, so it can be played as an upright bass as well.
‘I recently bought a black active Hohner headless G3T guitar simply because I’d fancied one in my early days as an eccentric-looking alternative to that first Les Paul Deluxe I had. I’ve since realised how very ’80s it is… which isn’t all that bad. I’ve replaced the humbucker with a Pearly Gates. The separate on/off pickup toggle switches offer some neat options, but I tend to just use the humbucker on its own. It’s now employed as a baritone guitar, with heavy strings and tuned down to C. It works well for really thick, meaty overdrive. In a good way, it sounds bad.’
Seasick Steve is of course renowned for his basic, primitive guitars with very few strings, so for his Carsick project Nigel inevitably needed to follow suit. ‘This four-string Fat Walrus cigar box guitar was built by the Muddy Bog Holding Company,’ he explains. ‘The bridge pickup wasn’t that good, so I added a P90 onto the lid by the bridge, and boy, does it rock now!
‘You can come up with riffs on a three-string or four-string guitar that are so different to a regular six-string model. For me it’s like taking the extraneous strings out of the equation, and the simplicity is a real virtue for inspiration and songwriting.
‘There’s primitive, and then there’s really primitive… as with my Hub Cap four-stringer. I like the fact that the nut is a real nut and bolt! The drawing pin position markers on the broom handle are in fact pretty accurate, but unless I can somehow keep the broom rigid, tuning stability is always going to be a bit of a problem. Still, through an angry amp, it howls like a good ’un.’
The strings are growing fewer and fewer, and Nigel finishes by producing with a flourish a one-string wonder. ‘Over the last few years I’ve gone to Will with some crazy ideas and guitar parts, but when I arrived with a four-by-two, a Maglite torch and a window winder from a ’57 Chevrolet, one baritone string and a Tele pickup and said “make it work”, his face was a picture,’ he grins. ‘It’s an approximate replica of Seasick Steve’s one-string guitar, the one he calls a “diddley bow”, like the one you can see in his Live At Reading video from 2008. The car window winder is only a mock vibrato, although Steve’s own one is not as vintage… mine is a real ’75 winder.’
And has Nigel got enough guitars by now? ‘Well, my wife has asked me to stop buying them, and I must admit the ones I have now add up to a pretty good collection… not just in terms of eye-candy, but in terms of what they can do. There’s always the wish list, of course… but I must admit that any more
For information and videos of Nigel’s Cowboy Hat & That Fuzzbox Groove project head over to www.cowboyhat.tv