Acoustic Fingerstylists Andy McKee, Jon Gomm and Daryl Kellie Are Blazing a Daring Style of Percussive, Alternate-Tuned Shred
A few years back, Leeds, England–based singer-songwriter Jon Gomm was just another guitarist—albeit one with a devastatingly advanced extended technique—trying to carve out a musical career by gigging extensively across Europe.
Then his life was changed by a single word: in early 2012, British actor and comedian Stephen Fry sent out a tweet consisting of “Wow” and a link to a video of Gomm playing his song “Passionflower” live.
Today, that video has close to 6 million views, and Gomm has become one of the most talked-about players in the acoustic guitar scene, with fans ranging from David Crosby to Steve Vai to Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe.
One look at any of Gomm’s many videos makes it easy to see why his playing has caused such waves. On the main melody of “Passionflower,” for example, he builds an entrancing and hypnotic rhythm pattern by, among other things, scratching, banging and knocking the body of his guitar, a Lowden he calls Wilma.
He sounds notes, including harp harmonics, exclusively using eight-finger tapping and with both hands positioned over the fretboard, and he continually reaches behind the headstock to retune his two highest strings as they ring out, to create a synth-like effect. To top it off, he sings over the whole thing.
But despite the practically acrobatic nature of his playing, Gomm insists that his music is not a gimmick. “Every song has to have a meaning and connect with people emotionally,” says the 36-year-old guitarist, who actually composes his lyrics first and adds instrumentation afterward. “And you can’t make that connection just by doing gymnastics.” He adds that his favorite thing about playing in this style is that “there are no boundaries. I can think in any genre I want and try to put that into the music.”
Gomm has played many genres over the years. Early on, he schooled himself using Steve Vai’s instructional book Shred Extravaganza and later studied at the Guitar Institute in London and earned a jazz degree from the Leeds College of Music.
Thanks to his father’s career as a record and concert reviewer for a British newspaper, he received first-hand tips and pointers as a teenager from a famous players, including B.B. King, bluesman Walter Trout and the late steel-guitar virtuoso Bob Brozman, whom he credits with turning him onto the idea of using the guitar as a percussion instrument.
“He would flip his guitar over and play drum solos on the back of the body, which was mind blowing to me,” Gomm says. “I also had a guitar teacher who was great at flamenco, and percussive playing is a big part of that style. So while a guy like Michael Hedges was huge for me, it was probably less for the percussion thing and more for his amazing way with altered tunings.”
Altered tunings are a big part of Gomm’s style as well. For him, it serves as a way to further unleash his creativity. “I went to guitar school, and I learned a million scales,” he says. “But if I take the guitar and just twist a few pegs, all of a sudden everything is new. Sometimes the most creative thing you can do is tune your guitar wrong and let your ears, rather than your brain, do the work.”
Gomm also pushes his creative boundaries by using banjo pegs on his B and high E strings. The pegs can be set to toggle between two notes, allowing players to loosen and tighten a string’s tension to hit distinct pitches at will.
The effect, as demonstrated by Gomm on songs like “Passionflower” and “Telepathy” (both of which appear on Secrets Nobody Keeps), is similar to bending a note on an electric guitar or playing with a synthesizer’s pitch wheel. On another composition, “Hey Child,” which features an overdrive-laced shredding solo, he uses the banjo pegs to create dive-bomb-like whammy-bar effects.
“You can get really creative with them and bring your sound into so many different worlds,” Gomm says.
Which, essentially, is how he feels about this acoustic guitar style. “There’s just so much you can do,” he says. “When I pick up an electric guitar now, it feels like a toy. The acoustic feels so much more powerful and free to me. It’s a beast of an instrument.”
Jon Gomm Axology
GUITAR Lowden O12-C (“Wilma”)
PICKUPS Fishman Rare Earth Blend, Fishman Acoustic Matrix
STRINGS Newtone signature super-heavy gauge (.014–.068)
EFFECTS Three Boss PQ-3B Bass Parametric Equalizers, Boss OC-3 Super Octave, Boss DD-7 Digital Delay, Boss RV-5 Digital Reverb, Tech 21 SansAmp Character Series Blond, Line 6 Verbzilla, Line 6 Echo Park
AMP Trace Elliot TA 200