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America's Legendary Singer-Songwriter

Recorded Interviews

Including a fantastic interview with Don about his guitars, concert preparation and thoughts on music.

BBC Radio 1, England

This page contains seven extracts from an excellent interview conducted by Nicky Campbell live with Don McLean in October 1991. The show was recorded and broadcast in the UK by BBC Radio 1 and they have kindly given their permission for Don McLean Online to broadcast the following extracts. The copyright of the sound recording remains with the BBC. October 1991 was an exciting time for all UK fans of Don McLean as he had just released American Pie as a CD single (also containing Vincent and Castles in the Air). At the time this interview was broadcast the single was at No 45 in the charts; it soon climbed to the top-10 with Don subsequently appearing live on 'Top of the Pops' and included here is video of that appearance.

The final extract talks a little about the success of 'And I Love You So'. Don also discusses his meeting with Fred Astaire when they stayed together at Claridges in London. The show ended with the classic 'Everyday' sung Live

Listen: Part 7

We hear the end of Killing Us Softly followed by Don talking about his links with Roberta Flack and how he wished (wishes) she would record 'And I Love You So'........

Listen: Part 6

A burst of Fred Astaire singing 'Wonderful Baby'.

Listen: Part 5

This extract starts with a pause following Don singing '1967' live and then comment on the 'new' album, 'Headroom' and his enthusiasm for recording cover versions. Next, we get an unmissable bit of 'Wonderful Baby'. Sorry, copyright means you only get a brief few seconds.

Listen: Part 4

Yet more on American Pie including Don explaining one part of the songs meaning. He then moves on to talk a little about his position within country music.

Listen: Part 3

We hear the end of Don singing part of Pie Live. [Other Copyright restrictions (other than those attributed to the BBC) prevent me broadcasting entire songs!] We now hear more about American Pie including Don's account of the first time he sang the song for the public.

Listen: Part 2

Our extracts start with Don McLean commenting on version 2 of 'Castles in the Air' that introduced the show followed by the first of several obervations on 'American Pie'

Listen: Part 1

Let's Talk Guitars With Don McLean

Web site exclusive. This is an interview with Don McLean conducted in January 2003 by Alan Howard with questions composed by Ron Buck. Listen, as Don goes into detail about his guitars, playing style and recollections from rehearsals and performance. About 50 minutes of Real Audio.

Our own Ralph McTell recently published a great book just for Guitar Players (Songs for Six Strings). Here are some “philosophical” tips from him. Can Don give us a similar paragraph in the same vein for fans.

 Ralph Writes….Tips

"First let me say that I do not nurse my guitars. An instrument unscathed is an instrument un-played. All guitars carry the scars of triumphs, frustrations, ecstasies and accidents. That is how they develop their souls. If I am looking at a guitar with a view to buying it I usually strum just the bass strings whilst it might still be o­n the wall of the shop. If I am then moved by the quality of the sound to take it down I will o­nly play two or three chords before trying another instrument. If you sit long enough with any guitar you can adapt to its idiosyncrasies and your judgement can be flawed. Playability can usually be improved by a change of strings and minor adjustments of the neck. Tonality cannot. Sure, a sound might mature but it will still SOUND the same as when you bought it. In other words a Martin will not sound like a Gibson or vice versa no matter how old. If you are to play in my style i.e. first position play it is vital that your hand feels comfortable in that position. o­n cheaper guitars you can get the neck customised to fit your hand by a skilled luthier but if you are buying a classic you should not tamper with any part of the construction if you think at some time you might wish to part with it. Try to keep it original. Having said that, if you know it will never leave your care you can do what you like with it. In the case of my beloved 'Miss Gibson' (my old late fifties Gibson J45) I have had the guitar stripped twice (once by me with a broken piece of glass), new fretboard fitted (ebony), new bridge (twice), drilled holes for pick ups (now refilled), re-finished at least three times, re-fretted three times and two sets of tuners. It still sounds like the best Gibson in the history of the known world and no-one could buy it from me for any amount of money, yet I doubt it be worth half what a totally original o­ne would fetch."

Listen: Ralph McTell

Advice to guitarists and guitar horror stories. What is the o­nE piece of advice you would give any Guitar-player that wanted to aspire to being able to play in a totally self-contained (pianistic) way the way you do in troubadour days and your solo spots at current concerts, i.e. just Guitar and voice? Travelling the world with valuable Guitars, how do you ensure they don’t get trashed or lost? Have you any “Horror Stories” about instruments that were lost or destroyed. Do you book a seat o­n the plane for your Guitar (There was a story that in the &0’s when you played solo you always bought seats o­n the plane for your guitar and banjo!

Listen: Horror Stories

At the soundcheck in London a couple of years ago before you ran through Ray Noble’s The Very Thought Of You with the boys you mentioned “I REALLY love the chord changes in this o­ne!” What particularly appealed to you about the chord progression and the way your Guitar works in that song?

Listen: Ray Noble's The Very Thought of You

More o­n previous question and Don McLean Guitar Style Book. Would you ever consider putting out a “Don McLean Guitar Style” Book/Video using your own songs as illustrations for all us aspiring Guitar Players to learn your fantastic guitar arrangements from or do you think that the real fun and the greatest benefit is to be derived from figuring out your stuff using our ears and a lot of sweat and effort. Another way of asking this question is “do you think kids have got it too easy these days what with all the reaching aids like homespun tapes, Stefan Grossman’s Guitar workshop etc.

Listen: Don McLean Guitar Book

Band vs Solo Arrangements. Does playing a the band mean you have had to rearrange some of your Guitar-work and your general approach to be “less busy” than when you were a solo act and having to support your voice o­nly with your Guitar-work, or do you pretty much play the same arrangements and way as ever you did, or can you stretch-out a bit more? Do you work out your separate parts in the band beforehand or do you all “wing-it” from a lead-sheet (I noticed the guys carry some sort of “Fake Book” each and that you “navigate” different chords o­n occasions (I recall some hot debate between you all about how you would negotiate the “Changes” for Love Letters at the aforementioned London soundcheck!)

Listen: Band vs Solo

Soundchecking. Can you give us some idea of how you carry used to carry out your personal soundchecks in the days when you played into a mike and compare it with what you do these days now that you go “direct” via the pickup in your Guitar, i.e. what sort of things are you looking and listening out for at each venue when you soundcheck? Have you ever considered using “In-Ear” (Ear buds) wireless monitors instead of stage wedges?

Listen: Soundchecks

Can you give us some indication of how things work during studio sessions?

Listen: In the Studio

You seem to have always favored medium gauge strings over the standard light-gauge o­nes most fingerpickers prefer. Why is that, and does it mean that the fingerboard “action” (height of strings above the fingerboard at the 12th fret) is set very low? (Side question – what would you say the height actually was set to? – guitars player’s are always interested in this. You Guitar seems to be set high – like a Bluegrass pickers would be!? You also appear to use a thumb plus THREE fingers technique o­n the right-hand (most fingerpickers use o­ne or two fingers), like a “classical” Guitarist, but you rest your pinky (little finger) o­n the table of the Guitar (pickgaurd). What’s your reasons for this unusual approach, is it to sound pianistic o­n the Guitar? Do you use your LEFT hand thumb for fretting bass notes (a la Chet Atkins and Merle Travis) a lot. Are you always conscious of the “top and bottom” end of the Guitar (Bass line and top note)? Do you ever use “power chords”, i.e. where open strings are employed as “drones”. In chain lighting for example I recall you moving up the two-fingered E minor Chord up to the fifth and seventh positions whilst “droning” the treble string open. Do you use any unusual “inversions” like this regularly (Examples?)?

Listen: Strings and Guitar Technique

In the early part of your career you were a traditionalist in that you always used small-bodied Martin Guitars with 12-fret wide necks and slotted peg-heads and miked them acoustically, in fact, in an interview in Guitar Player Magazine (USA) in 1972 you stated: -

 “I like a really high, sharp treble, and a deep mellow bass, and the smaller Martins have that”.

 However, in a 1980 interview in Guitar Magazine (UK) you stated: -

 “ I swear by my Martin D35S. I can play Bluegrass o­n it, I can play all my softer things, and I can use a flatpick o­n it and really lay down the rhythm. It’s got a very crisp bass and a beautiful high tone. It’s o­nly in the last 5 years that I have started using the D35S and I would never change that now”

 However, when the Martin D40-DM signature model was released in 1998 it was a based o­n a standard Dreadnought Guitar with 14-frets to the body! Why did your ideal Guitar design shift from small-body 12-fret wide-neck design (00-21) to large body 12-fret (D35S) to large body 14-fret narrow-neck design (D-28, D40-DM)?

Listen: Guitar Design Changes

Practice Routines. How does Don "practice" the Guitar? (Then and now). Re-stringing - does Don have a "method" (Most pros do - they develop their own little idiosyncrasies) to keep his strings from slipping in a 2 hour plus show under the heat of stage lighting?

Listen: Practice Routines and Re-Stringing

Fingerboards. Rosewood or ebony preferred? Capos - what are Don's preferences and why?

Listen: Fingerboards and Capos

How does Don run his rehearsals, do the guys work from "lead sheets"?

Listen: Rehearsing

Does Don travel with 2 guitars o­n tour in case o­ne has an accident? (His concert rider calls for a Takamine (Japanese) flat-top to be provided - that's a lot different quality to any Martin I'd say - surprising choice!!!!). Cases - Does he use a "flight case" like a CARLTON or MARK LEAF, or standard Martin cases? Strings - Does Don change them for EVERY performance (Tommy Emmanuel changes them twice, o­nce before his concerts and during the interval!).

Listen: "Backup" Guitar & Cases

Don's got some snazzy o­nes! - are these Custom made? (Many pros have a collection, like silk ties, so they can "dress" differently o­n stage). Does Don ever make his own (he's an adept leather craftsman, so he may)?

Listen: Leather Guitar Straps.

Many pros have the standard guitar necks "shaved" to fit their hand precisely - does Don do this or is he okay with the standard sizes?

Listen: More on Bridges & Neck Shave.

Don appears to change (upgrade) the standard Martin tuners for examples produced by Waverley (the so-called ‘Rolls Royce’ of tuners). Why? I remember reading that Don used to "re-engineer" the bridges o­n his guitars because they used to develop cracks because of the very varied conditions he travelled in (humidity of Florida then the dry heat of Israel, etc.). Guitars are VERY prone to changes in humidity - what did/does Don do to cope with this problem?

Listen: Machine Heads (Tuners), Bridges and Saddles.

The guitars listed appear to be rosewood (back and sides) and spruce (tables/tops), i.e. no mahogany or cedar topped models. This is interesting as Martin use a variety of woods including, in addition to the above, maple and ovangkol, but Don is obviously a BIG fan of rosewood spruce models – there must be a reason for this?  What does Don think of Brazilian Rosewood (as opposed to the Indian variety) or Engelman spruce (as opposed to Sitka)? (Brazilian is considered the rarest and best and is no longer available.)

Listen: Guitar Wood

Don has provided an inventory of Martin guitars that he owns. The complete list, together with serial number and year of production is as follows:

00– 21                   52203 – 1932
000 – 28                39965 – 1929
000 – 28                37413 – 1928
000 – 45                378901 – 1976
D35 – S                 363882 – 1975
D35 – S                 371085 – 1975
D-35                      471783 – 1987
D-28                      287566 – 1971
D-28                      165193 – 1958
D-28                      178199 – 1961
D-40BLE               498703 – 1990
D-41                      376494 – 1976
D-41                      456528 – 1985
D-45                      500678 – 1990
D-45                      511522 – 1991
D-42                      642540 – 1998
D-40DM#6/71      665947 – 1998
D-40DM#7/71       665948 – 1998P>

(Thanks to David Fulton for providing year of production information). In this clip, Don McLean provides some further information about these guitars:

Listen: Martin Guitar Inventory

Main influences o­n Don’s guitar playing.

Listen: Who have been the main influences on Don’s guitar playing?

American radio interview

From around 1986

Listen: Don McLean on US radio III

Listen: Don McLean on US radio II

Interesting interview with Don McLean from 1987. Three parts.

Listen: Don McLean on US radio I