Donovan on Working with Beatles, Beck and Page — and Welcoming Jimi Hendrix to the UK
He’s a famous Sixties folk-pop troubadour who worked with Jimmy Page and played with the Beatles. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is…
What do you call your unique picking technique, and which artists inspired it? — Dingy Bell
It's called the claw-hammer, and it comes from the Carter family and Maybelle Carter, who's called “Mother” Maybelle now. In the Twenties, she transposed a banjo-picking style to guitar so there’d be a walking bass on the guitar. I learned it from a guy called Dirty Hugh. And I learned it well.
I know you taught John Lennon the picking style heard on the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and “Julia.” Which one of your own songs best exemplifies this technique? — Cindy Moorhead
That early folk style, which I taught John and he adapted, would be in a song of mine called “To Try for the Sun” from the Fairytale album from 1965. It’s actually played with a capo. John plays a very clean, basic fingerstyle on “Dear Prudence” and “Julia.” He became quite proficient at it very quickly, and he developed his own style.
What can you tell me about your original 1965 Gibson J-45 and Gibson’s new limited-edition 1965 J-45 Donovan model? — Sal Jennings
I bought it on Sunset Boulevard, probably for 300 bucks. I wrote every song on it from late 1965 into ’70, when it was stolen during a college-town gig. The security was nil then. I kind of remember a guy walking in and saying, “Hi, we’re looking forward to the concert,” and then wondering later where the hell my guitar was. So I was speaking to Peter Leinheiser from Gibson two years ago, and I said, “My little J-45 still hasn’t turned up.” I think he said, “You’re being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why don’t we make you one?”
When it was offered, I said, “I'd like it exactly the same, really the same.” The chief luthier said, “We’ll make you a prototype right away.” I said, “Great, but you’ll need an original.” So I found one in Ohio. I was playing it, and it all came back to me. Old tunes came out that I used to play on my old J-45. It was very touching, a wonderful feeling. And then there was the feeling of, How can you repeat this? I sent it to Gibson, and they said, “We can make it louder.” I said, “No.” They said, “We can make the body deeper.” I said, “No, just go back to the original.” The only change they made was that the new one has a pickup. It’s a very fine guitar.
What are your memories of working with Jimmy Page? — Tad Poole
He walked in—he was a session guy [on “Sunshine Superman”]. He did the session and we liked each other. That was as quick as it was. My father worked with me for a while, because I was underage and couldn’t sign contracts. I loved my father; he taught me a lot about poetry and stuff. And he kept everything. He gave me a box of papers that he kept, and in the papers was something from a Jimmy Page session: “Jimmy Page, £3.10.” It was amazing.
Did you ever meet Jimi Hendrix? — Johnny Cola
When we got into the music business, Gypsy Dave [Gyp Mills], my road buddy since we were 16, and I used to hang out with the Animals. Gypsy was dating Yvonne, a Swedish girl, and [Animals bassist] Chas Chandler was dating another Swedish girl, the friend of Gypsy’s Swedish girl. It seems a lot of rock bands were dating Swedish girls in the Sixties! So one day, we’re sitting around—me, Gypsy and Yvonne—and a call came in.
It was Chas, and he said to Gyp, “You’ve got to get in a taxi and get to Heathrow. I’m picking up a guitar player from New York. He’s fucking amazing.” So Gypsy finally arrives at this horrible hotel we were staying in because we were busted and couldn’t go back to our apartment [laughs], and there was Jimi. He was thin, had an afro, a matchbox suitcase and a Fender guitar. We were the first to welcome Jimi to England.
What was it like working with Rick Rubin on the  Sutras album? — Scott Devon
When we met, he asked me, “How did you make records in the Sixties?” I said, “We did three songs in three hours and an album in a week.” He said, “That’s why it sounds so ‘live.’ Let’s make a record like that.” As soon as we went into the studio, the guy put up baffles and Rick said, “No baffles. They didn't have baffles in the Sixties. We’re going to do three songs a day, an album in a week.” It took three years! He became fascinated with the songwriting process. He’d ask me, “How did you write ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’?” and things like, “You'd just pick up a book and write a song?”
So he asked me to go to Book Soup [book store] in L.A. every day. When I’d play him the new songs, if he moved his leg this way, the song was on the “maybe” list. When he tapped this foot, it was “I don't think so.” I got the code. He never said much. Over three years, I realized how meticulous he was. He stripped it all down. One day he played me demo recordings of Johnny Cash playing acoustic guitar. He asked me, “What do you think?” I said, “I like them. I think they’re amazing.” I’d never heard Johnny with one vocal, one guitar. And of course, we know what happened [Cash’s Grammy-winning 1994 album, American Recordings]. He said, “I like your demos too.” And the album became an event.
Who’s the best guitarist you’ve ever worked with? — Arnold Stang
I think I've worked with everyone in Britain except Eric Clapton. But it’s hard to say, because, really, we’re talking about sessions, and there were overdubs. But I have to say that, in terms of improvisation, which takes into account my love of jazz, it would be “Barabajagal” and Jeff Beck.