Tony McManus

Interview by Sue Kavanagh

Kavanagh: How did you end up doing what you do?

McManus: Well, I started on violin lessons at school and discovered a) a musical aptitude and b) I’m useless in the violin. I was no good at bowing the thing so my father, having noticed me strumming it, bought me a mandolin. I got a guitar the following year (age 9) and that was where I wanted to be. I played all through school and university and was half way through a Ph. D when I hit on the notion that I really am a better guitarist that I ever will be a mathematician and that it might be a career. Having made that decision I headed back to Scotland and threw myself at the session scene in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Dick Gaughan bent some ears on my behalf at the BBC and as a result I did a studio set for them in 1993 and that led to more gigs around the country and things just grew from there. I made my first trip across the pond in 1995 and have come back, often multiple times, every year since.

The more I travel the more musicians I came into contact with and the more opportunities to do different things appeared. At the moment in addition to the solo work I’m involved in separate duos with Alain Genty (great French bass player), Alasdair Fraser and Bruce Molsky plus the guitar quartet Men of Steel and also any other projects that presents themselves like last years tour with Mozaik.

Kavanagh: Tell us a little something about the guitar or guitars you are playing on this tour.

McManus: My main guitar these days is a Melville Custom 000. Chris made a guitar for me in 2001 that I played continuously until the new Brazilian rosewood version appeared at the door late last year. His guitars are really world class instruments and I’m very fortunate to have these instruments.

I’ve a bunch of guitars at home that get used for various things- studio work etc. I’ve three made by Scots master luthier Bill Kelday- a 000 12 fret (that’s on my three solo albums and the album with Alasdair) a Baritone that made it’s recorded debut on Kate Rusby’s first solo album and a tiny Terz guitar in Canadian birdseye maple that I got very recently.

I also have an incredible dreadnaught from John Slobod at Circa Guitars in Lewiston, Maine. He’s an incredible young builder making pre-war style guitars only much better.

I also have a Fylde Magician, an Avalon nylon string, a Larrivee 12-string, a Dave Stewart guitar that I use in high string “Nashville” tuning…..and a Stratocaster that I’ve used for some strange sounds in the studio.
There are a bunch of pictures of most of these on my website

Kavanagh: Apparently one of your Melville guitars has a pearl “nut” on it. Please pardon my non-player ignorance; (I’m thinking nuts and bolts, almonds and kooky people) but tell me, in the world of guitars, what the heck is a nut?

McManus: The nut is the bit at the top of the fingerboard. A vibrating string needs two fixed points- on a guitar these are the “saddle”, at the body end, and the nut, at the fingerboard end. It is usually a piece of bone or plastic but on my new Melville it’s been made from Mother of Pearl. Chris tells me it has the lowest friction for strings to pass over (and at that point there’s a lot of tension involved) but I just think it looks great.

Kavanagh: I read that one of your guitars has a dent on the front where the mayor of Nashville bumped into you in the dressing room at the Ryman Auditorium on his way out to the stage to present a framed citation to Les Paul. If objects could only talk, that guitar could tell me the mayor’s reaction (he cried I hope) to injuring something so important to you, but since it can’t, would you please?

McManus: I don’t think he realised. He was heading out to the stage and it was an incredibly busy night. I actually smiled - just because it’s such a silly story... but true! It was at a concert called the “All Star Guitar Night” that Muriel Anderson organises periodically. This particular night was a tribute to Les Paul who hadn’t been in Nashville since making an album with Chet Atkins in the seventies. I played towards the beginning of the show and at some point in a very crowded dressing room (also on the bill were; The Great Les, Frank Vignola, Béla Fleck, Victor Wooten, Steve Morse, Bryan Sutton, Hubert Sumlin, Muriel, Seymour Duncan, and a ton of others) the collision occurred.

Kavanagh: Your website indicates you have an appreciation and a respect for the luthiers who have built for you and I started to wonder about something you may be unable to answer, but I’m going to try you anyway. Do you know of any seasoned guitarists who actually build their own instruments?

McManus: Making high end instruments is such an intense and time consuming endeavour that it’s a full time job and more for most of them. I met Steve Gilchrist at Port Fairy festival last week who was playing one of his own mandolins (these are considered the world’s best and sell for $25,000) also at the top end of things is Grit Laskin who makes guitars inlaid with artwork you wouldn’t believe and few can afford. In general most instrument makers I know are so into making and getting through back orders they don’t have time to develop playing skills even of they did want to.

Kavanagh: In the interest of focussing on your music, do you stifle an urge to build your own?

McManus: I have no wood working skills at all and probably not the patience either. I love being around these crafts people and seeing the skill with which they work.

Kavanagh: As a studio musician, you’ve contributed to over 60 albums. With your busy solo career, pairings and special group projects (Men of Steel) do you still do session work or was that your training for your more independent career?

McManus: I still love to do session work. Since moving to Canada I’m doing less of it - maybe people don’t know I’m here!

Kavanagh: Can you pinpoint your greatest learning curves and teachers along the way?

McManus: As a kid I listened to the rhythm work of the Bothy Band and Planxty. In terms of individual guitarists- Gaughan was a big influence, the late Tony Cuffe (from Ossian and many other things) was a bigger one. Martin Simpson opened my ears to many possibilities in fingerstyle guitar and Arty McGlynn did the same for flatpicking. All of these influenced me through recordings and performance. I’ve never had any instruction though I’ve sat and played with all of the above and learned enormously form doing so.

Kavanagh: I caught your show last year with “Men of Steel” (Don Ross, Beppe Gambatta, Dan Crary) and loved it. I see you’ll be playing with these guys again at a Folk Fest in Edmonton in the summer. Do you get a chance to visit or practice with each other much in between?

McManus: Don Ross lives the other side of Toronto from me so we see a fair bit of each other. Beppe and I are doing some gigs in Texas later in the year and I see Dan from time to time but it’s a hard thing trying to deal with four hectic schedules to get the band together.

Kavanagh: Is it likely that this team will put out another CD?

McManus: Our first album was a recording of the first gig! We have recorded a few shows since then (in Genoa and at the Glen Gould Studio at the CBC in Toronto) so the guts of another album is there. Watch this space....

Kavanagh: Tell us something about your experience wearing a producer’s hat.

McManus: It’s always a great honour to be asked to assume that role. My first experience as producer was with the band Deaf Shepherd who were making the “difficult second album”. It was a bit of a baptism of fire but they were happy with the result.

The weirdest experience was coming to Ottawa to record Cathy Ann MacPhee’s vocals for her last album. Half way through the first day the lights went out and we were in plunged into total darkness. Only when the engineer turned on her car radio did we discover that we were in the middle of the biggest power outage in North American history. Amazingly Cathy-Ann took it in her stride and got everything we needed in the remaining time.

Kavanagh: I noticed you sometimes get some very special, and quite unique I think, sounds from your guitar – sort of ringing and bagpipe-like notes. Perhaps your technique is like a secret family recipe you’d fairly rather not share, but please tell the guitar players out there whatever you can about this sound you achieve.

McManus: There’s a whole load of right hand techniques involved. I occasionally use a sort of banjo technique, learned from Martin Simpson, called frailing where you play with the back of the nails. It can give a very percussive sound to the music. I also use triplets with the three fingers (ring, middle and index) and also the thumb.

For droning sounds I often use special tunings like DADGAD, but for bagpipe music I use DAAEAE so two strings are in unison and ring sympathetically.

Kavanagh: Your new work, Singing Sands (with Alain Genty) recorded in Paris is now released I believe. Did you have a surplus of material from that recording with overflow ready for another CD?

McManus: There are a few ideas that didn’t get recorded but lots of things we’ve been playing for a few years did and also lots of very new tunes too. With that duo it’s very fluid so arrangements that have been recorded can still develop.

Kavanagh: Why the title Singing Sands?

McManus: It’s named after a beach in Ontario that Alain visited when he was over for my wedding. The picture on the front is actually the very beach in question. It’s nice to have a Canadian connection.

Kavanagh: And how was Paris?

McManus: Fine, until they started digging up the road outside the studio. Better than a power cut I guess.

Kavanagh: Australia, where (you are) you’ve just been touring seems to play a significant role for you. At least one of your guitars is made in Oz and you’ve just done a substantial tour. How does a Scottie, living in Canada, end up with such a thing going with the land down under?

McManus: I met a broadcaster called Robyn Johnston in Scotland in 1996 and she told me about playing my first CD and getting great response from it. So I made a couple of calls - I had a cousin Louis McManus, a well known musician in the Australian scene - and an agent in Melbourne set up the first tour in 1997. I’ve been back six times now- five solo tours, one with Alasdair and now with Alain Genty.

Kavanagh: Sunday morning breakfast in the McManus household: stove or cereal box, and what’s in the CD player?

McManus: Usually cereal... music has to be gentle. My wife can’t cope with some of the things I want to listen to in the morning.

Kavanagh: Do you remember the first album you ever bought?

McManus: Might have been the Chieftains “Bonaparte’s Retreat”. They were certainly the first live band I saw.

Kavanagh: Is there a kilt in your closet or suitcase?

McManus: Never worn one! My family name is Irish and there’s definitely no Clan McManus.

Kavanagh: And haggis?

McManus: Not in the suitcase. I love McSween’s haggis from Edinburgh - especially at the Babbity Bowster pub in Glasgow, served with neeps and tatties and drizzles with malt whisky.