From Duran Duran to the Sugababes and many projects besides, Dom Brown is a player who needs the right guitar for every occasion. Lars Mullen visits his studio
Having toured and recorded with a host of household names in the music business from the Sugababes to Mark Ronson, Dom Brown – session guitarist, engineer/producer, successful songwriter and currently full-time guitarist with Duran Duran – has an impressive CV indeed, with a cool bunch of guitars to boot.
‘As a session musician you need to be able to play just about every guitar style, and that gives you the ability to adapt to all the different genres of music,’ says Dom. ‘I’m lucky enough to have a good ear and the ability to warm to a song pretty quickly.
‘That proved invaluable when I got the call asking if I was available to play a gig with Duran Duran in 2004, at a time their original guitarist Andy Taylor was unwell. The idea sounded great, although it was a little daunting when I was told the show was only two days away, and that there would be no time for any kind of rehearsal as half the band were away! Luckily I was able to meet up with bassist John Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor that same evening, and they put on the band’s Greatest Hits album for me to jam along with!
‘I took along a favourite old Strat which I felt really comfortable with both live and in the studio, and the whole thing went very well. They gave me a pile of CDs with about 20 songs to learn overnight prior to a quick run-through with vocalist Simon Le Bon and keyboard player Nick Rhodes at the following gig’s soundcheck; okay, no pressure then, I thought!
‘It was a really good gig, as it turned out, and later the guys asked me if I wanted to help them out on a six-week tour of the USA. I said, sure… but when it came down to discussing rehearsing for the international shows, I got the same sort of answer – that we were about to leave but that we would have an extended soundcheck on the first night’s gig… which was an 18,000 seated arena in Atlanta!
‘It’s cool to play in a band that in the ’80s were the biggest British pop/rock band to hit the USA since the Beatles. My roots are blues-based, but I love a catchy, well-structured song with the verse-chorus-verse format. I signed up full-time with Duran Duran in 2006 and have played to sell-out arenas with them ever since, including a two-week run in London’s Wembley Stadium for the Princess Diana memorial concert.
‘Duran songs vary quite a lot when it comes to construction and they way they need to sound. For live work I’m always swapping back and forth from humbuckers to single coils. I’m a total analogue man when it comes to sound, and would never go down the amp or guitar modelling road. While modelling does an adequate job in certain circumstances, I’d rather make a guitar and amp physically work for its supper.
‘Songs like Rio and Hungry Like The Wolf need a really a powerful Les Paul kind of sound, and my black Les Paul Classic is usually my first choice. This guitar has been on several world tours with me and it’s starting to look a bit tired. It was originally loaned to me by Gibson to tour with, but after so many shows it just became one of those guitars that seemed to fit. I loved it so much that I couldn’t part with it, so when they asked for it back, I bought it. As far as Les Pauls go it’s pretty much an average weight… not too crippling after a two-hour show.
‘It’s completely the opposite story with this ’99 cherry sunburst Les Paul Standard, which is a hefty lump at around 6kg. In fact, it’s so heavy that I’ve retired this one from the road… although I did use it when Duran Duran opened up the 2012 London Olympics in Hyde Park. It’s okay for playing the odd gig now and again, but for a two-year global tour it’s a big no-no.
‘On the plus side, though, it has a very rich, warm tone, and actually for studio work it has turned out to be the best-sounding Gibson I have. I used it pretty extensively when we recorded Duran’s All You Need Is Now album, which was released in 2010. On that one I co-wrote all but two of the songs. The Les Paul also stands out on a song called Chocolate Fever from one of my solo albums called Between The Lines. I recorded it through a ’62 Vox AC30 with blue speakers and a reissue Fender Twin Tweed ’57 combo.’
When the need for pure humbucker blues arises, Dom has another favourite Gibson. ‘I only use this tobacco sunburst Les Paul Standard in my own band, Blue To Brown – a five-piece blues outfit that has my father ripping it up on lead vocals and bongos! How crazy is that? The midrange has a kind of big, woody resonance about it that effortlessly beefs up the front end of my amps. It also stays really full and fat even when you back it off a tad, and toggling the selector switch offers the perfect rhythm/lead balance.’
Let’s take a little diversion and check out the black mini-guitar, branded Nashville and fitted with two single-coils. It isn’t exactly Dom’s: he bought it for his son… and his son’s name is Floyd. ‘We had this PE teacher at school who was a bit of an ex-hippie, and he would put on hours of Pink Floyd in lessons. Songs like Welcome To The Machine stayed in my head for years… when I hear it now, I feel as though I should do some press-ups!
‘I still love David Gilmour’s playing, so much so I named my son after the band. I bought this small-bodied electric for him. I’m always sneaking it into the studio as it records really well, with a high-end twang that’s up in the next register. It’s also a cool travel guitar.’
Originally, Dom only played battered Fenders until his session work demanded a more diverse sound. ‘I only a bought a Gibson Les Paul when the recording and live work started to pile in about 12 years ago,’ he explains. ‘That’s really how my collection began. I generally prefer older guitars. There are some excellent new models on the market now, but I don’t know… I think it’s all down to the maturing of the woods. For me, older guitars are more suitable for my work in the business.
‘For years I only used this ’63 Strat – it’s the very one I took along to that Duran Duran audition in 2004. I know a few players who don’t gig their vintage models because of tuning and intonation issues, but I very rarely get any problems, not even when I’m out on tour. I’m lucky to have Micky Finlay as my guitar tech, as he has an amazing knowledge of guitars.
‘I’ve used this guitar a lot live with Blue To Brown, and we’ve just released an album of the same name on my Remedy label. You can hear the Strat on songs like Blue Boy and Sweet Mercy. I often use the middle pickup, both clean and overdriven. On the album I used one of Audio Kitchen’s amazing The Big Trees overdrive pedals into my 37W Divided By 13 FTR37 head and matching 2×12" cabinet. I also use the same overdrive through Audio Kitchen’s 30W Big Chopper head and another 2×12” cab loaded with blue and green label Celestion speakers. This rig has been really versatile and reliable on all the Duran tours, where I run it alongside a Mesa-Boogie Roadster.
‘For me, the ’63 is a classic example of an old Strat – the bridge pickup is bright and yet it cuts through with a warm kind of tone, whereas I feel a lot of the modern-day models are just too harsh. In my experience a naturally-matured guitar works every time. I bought this one from a vintage shop in London. It was the same old story that you hear so often… I was almost in a hypnotic state of mind after playing so many Strats, but I woke up with a jolt when I tried this one. It just felt perfect. It’s a really warm-sounding guitar, helped no doubt by the rosewood fingerboard, which I’ve always preferred. I’ve installed a five-way switch, but that’s the only thing I changed. Stevie Ray Vaughan had a big influence on me, and in a similar fashion I switch around the pickups a lot to enhance the sound of the lead lines. Similarly, I tune down a semi-tone, but my 11 to 52 string gauge isn’t as heavy as his.
‘I’ve toured a lot internationally with this guitar, although I’m a little wary now considering the value of it, and I’d rather not take it to certain parts of the world. So my first-choice touring Strat now is this 1987 sunburst, which started out life as a Strat Plus. I went through a phase during the ’90s where all my guitars had to have extra-large neck profiles – again, there’s the Steve Ray influence. While I prefer to keep my guitars stock, here I’ve installed Lindy Fralin pickups and I managed to track down this really huge-profile Fender neck.
‘If we go back to Duran Duran for a second here, I’m grateful to the guys for allowing me to play out of the box, as they say, to put my own stamp on a lot of the hit songs. Ordinary World, for example, has a whole new guitar solo I’ve added. It fits the song really well and it really comes alive when using this guitar.
‘My other Strat is finished in a shade of daphne blue, and I built it about 20 years ago. It’s got Texas Special pickups and a fat Fender neck, and I shaped the body myself from a big piece of alder. This guitar has a really bright, clear sound, big in the midrange, with a nice bite at the higher end.
‘The Fat Tele is ideal for Duran Duran songs like Notorious and Girls On Film where I need more of a funky groove, and with a single coil at the bridge and a humbucker at the neck it has the best of both worlds. This is a well-used guitar with this band and a cherrypicker when it comes to slide work.’
The black Roger Giffin guitar was Dom’s first professional guitar. ‘I commissioned Roger to make me a guitar back in the mid-’80s, when he had a workshop under a bridge down by the Thames in London – this was before he moved to California.
‘I was a teenager at the time in a London-based band called Nexus, and I was into all the classic ’80s players like Angus Young and Eddie Van Halen. There isn’t a lot of sonic subtly here, it’s purely built for performance with a pair of high-output Seymour Duncan humbuckers, a Floyd Rose vibrato, a sleek neck and an ebony fingerboard. The neck was actually based on a Westone Thunder 1A, an entry-level guitar I had owned earlier, but the profile was superb.
‘The Giffin is still a great guitar when the occasion arises. It certainly fulfilled my passion for a metal guitar, but not long afterwards I fell in love with the blues after seeing Buddy Guy in Dingwalls in London, and hearing players like Muddy Waters and Albert Collins.’
Just when we wondered when Dom had time to sleep, he hits us with another project. ‘I also own and run Church Row Studios in South London, where I work as a producer and engineer, session musician and composer for Blue To Brown and for visiting bands in between all my other projects,’ he tells us. ‘Although I have access to all sorts of techno plug-ins, I prefer the old-school analogue approach for recording.
‘I keep a few bass guitars at close quarters in Church Row purely for recording, such as this wonderful 2006 Alleva Coppolo KPB4 Classic 4, designed around a P-bass and made by Jimmy Coppolo in Upland, California. It’s just one of those basses that you know you can reach out and grab and get the sound that’s in your head. It’s beautifully made, with a European alder body, a maple neck and an African rosewood fingerboard, and it plays and sounds great.. It has “JT” on the headstock as it was made for Duran’s bassist John Taylor, but it’s been here so long that I hope he’s forgotten about it. I have to hide it away when he comes to jam in the studio!
‘Considering the street price, this OLP replica of a Music Man StingRay is a cool bass. It’s not the real thing, of course, but it plays and sounds pretty good and it’s a nice thing just to have lying around as a spare.’
Not all Dom’s ‘older’ guitars have the tired look, and next he produces a spotlessly clean classic. ‘This mid-’60s Epiphone Riviera is beautiful,’ he marvels. ‘I was in a shop in Birmingham actually buying the ’62 Vox AC30 you see here, and it caught my eye. Hooking the two up together completed the package, and I went home with both.
‘The mini-humbuckers and the big arched maple semi-acoustic body give a really tight, punchy, cutting sound – this one just works so well straight into an amp. I think the fretboard is solid Brazilian rosewood, and the hardware includes the Frequensator tailpiece designed to equalise the bass and treble response by shortening the top three strings and lengthening the lower three. I’m not sure that it makes any difference, but either way this guitar sounds stunning with or without effects.’
Songwriting is another everyday talent in Dom’s life. ‘I don’t have a format for writing songs… it can be a riff or lyrics, whatever comes first,’ he muses. ‘With Duran Duran we just jam with a clean slate and literally see what comes out of the blue, then work on that.
‘But I think it’s essential to have a good acoustic for songwriting. I have two Taylor acoustics which I find very inspirational indeed, and I used both of them extensively when touring and recording with the Sugababes.
‘This nylon-strung NS42CE Grand Concert electro-acoustic was used when the girls performed a stripped-down acoustic version of one of their hits called Shape Of My Heart, which always went down well in the arenas and the summer festivals. There’s something about playing a nylon-strung instrument, and this one sounds so sweet, with an ovangkol body and solid sitka spruce top.
‘I also used this gorgeous 900 Series single cutaway 914CE L7 electro-acoustic. This is a cool guitar with a pretty high spec, including a spruce top, a Brazilian rosewood body and mother of pearl inlays. I like the Gotoh 510 tuners because they’ve got a higher ratio for smooth and precise tuning. Acoustically the clarity and sustain are stunning, and with Taylor’s Expression System which includes an under-neck pickup and a body sensor under the soundboard in the lower bout, the electrified sound is extremely natural… it’s perfect for live work.
‘I spend a lot of time in hotel rooms and I’d be lost if I didn’t take a guitar on a plane with me, but it needs to be small enough to fit in the cabin. I have a choice of two Baby Taylors, or Baby Mahoganies as they’re sometimes called. They’re ideal as they’re small and light, but they have a remarkably big sound. A laptop, a microphone and one of these guitars make perfect travelling company.
‘I bought my Martin HD28 while visiting Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter in New York. We had a dedicated guitar day and had a real blast as he took me around various stores. I was determined to return with a decent acoustic, and I was so pleased when we happened across this Martin. It’s got an LR Baggs pickup system and I used it continuously for over three years, playing my own material on the acoustic circuit around London’s pubs, clubs and cafes.
‘The Gibson Dove Artist is one of my favourite acoustic guitars. For playability and tone it just covers it 100 per cent, and it’s certainly my favourite songwriting guitar. I bought it secondhand in the late ’90s. It’s done a lot of work and you can really hear how the tone has mellowed as the woods have aged. Fingerpicking and chords are so clear, and it’s got superb single-note definition. There’s certainly no corners cut with the construction, and the “dove wing” inlays look pretty cool as well.’
Another guitar that lives at Church Row Studios is a wooden-bodied dobro made by Dorado. ‘When I record this one I just sit around with a few mics strategically placed around the studio and hit the record button and capture it straight in and dry,’ Dom says. ‘I got this a few years ago from one of the students I was teaching; he just couldn’t get on with it, so I swapped a handful of effect pedals for it.
‘As far as I know, it dates from the late 1970s… it’s Japanese-built and was distributed by Gretsch. The typical reso-clank is way up there, but the body and neck are mahogany, so it’s a lot mellower than most. I used this on a track called Bad Boy on the Blue To Brown album.’
If you’ve got a guitar that never sees the light of day but that you could never bear to part with, then you’ve got a kindred spirit in Dom. ‘Yeah, we all have one that doesn’t get that much attention any more,’ he laughs. ‘This Fender Newporter was the first acoustic I owned. There’s a lot of fond memories tucked away here… I did a heck of a lot of bedroom strumming with this one! I think these were made in Korea and Japan during the ’80s and ’90s. It’s got an all-laminated mahogany body and a solid mahogany neck. I always found my early chords and lead runs were a doddle to play when I progressed to an electric guitar, as the neck profile and fingerboard radius are very close to a Strat’s.
‘I think most guys with a bunch of guitars have something quirky in the cupboard, and this bass certainly qualifies,’ he adds. ‘No one seems to know who it’s made by as there’s no name on the headstock or any serial numbers. It’s obviously been designed with a Hofner Violin bass in mind. It just looked so cool in the secondhand shop, so I went ahead and bought it, and it doesn’t sound that bad!
‘And finally, these two oddities are cigarbox guitars made by Ghetto Guitars. They were a bit of a novelty at first, but there’s some cool sounds on offer here, and when played with a heavy slide they can be quite inspiring. Mind you, I can’t fit them into any live work… well, not at the moment!’