The following is a lightly edited transcript from part of an interview with guitarist Mike Dawes during an episode of the Newsweek Radio Podcast:
So, you’re out there touring with the great Tommy Emmanuel and also Justin Hayward from the Moody Blues right now. I’ve noticed that some people are starting to call you the best acoustic guitar player on the planet. What’s your life like for you right now?
Wow. Well, first of all, I think the only person that calls me that is my mom, and she’s slightly biased, but I appreciate that. That’s incredibly, incredibly kind.
The privilege of being able to go on tour with Tommy Emmanuel, who really is my absolute guitar hero, and as far as I’m concerned, the greatest of all time. In fact, every show I introduce him as the greatest of all time. It really doesn’t get more intense than seeing him play. And, and honestly, the biggest privilege of that is not only getting to play for his audience, but also being able to watch him play from the side of the stage every night and learn so much.
Nowadays there’s so much information about how to improve yourself as a musician, but it really does not get better than being able to sit side-stage and watch a true master play every night.
A large part of my time right now is actually learning, trying to learn and improve, and by getting to see these kinds of masters. I put Justin Hayward in that category as well, he’s the songwriter. He is literally a member of the Society of Distinguished Songwriters, so I feel absolutely blessed to have been able to come on tour with him. He actually was the one who brought me to America 10 years ago this year back in 2013.
This little English kid from a village in the south of England he took all the way to America. I’ve been able to learn from him in terms of stage show, songwriting, and performance. So I feel very, very lucky.
I’ve been given this, this masterclass in “shreducation,” as we could call it, from the Beast of Guitar and the Beast of Songwriting. So feeling very lucky at present. That’s how I would describe myself right now.
When did the guitar addiction begin? When did you first set hands on it and realize that it was something special?
Well, the first musical kind of introduction was actually the movie The Blues Brothers with Dan Aykroyd. What an amazing movie! I was introduced to that because my dad is a trumpet player, and I obviously like the blues, right? So, I would watch this, and I was fascinated with the sound, specifically the car chase scene when they smashed the shopping mall, from that kind of music playing.
I discovered that my mum had this old keyboard in the attic, and I was able to figure out how one note feels like this, and another like that.
My addiction to music was amplified when I saw the VHS of Rocky IV, which I still maintain is one of the best Rocky films, if not the best. The whole Ivan Drago thing with this amazing soundtrack by Vince DiCola, who I’m fortunate to call a friend now through a strange series of connections over the years. I think that kind of epic ’80s synthy-guitar-shred thing led me to the world of electric guitar. Van Halen, that kind of stuff.
But it wasn’t until I was about 17 years old that I switched to acoustic. The reason for that was actually because the addiction to creating music was so great and so prevalent, but I grew up in a very small town in the south of England where there weren’t really many other kinds of players. I had a few bands and things like that, but when you’re a perfectionist wanting to just play all the time, I realized one of the great things about the acoustic guitar is you could self-accompany.
Tommy Emmanuel explains that very well in his show—when you ditch the guitar pick, you’re able to play the bass line, the harmony and the melody together. That became a vehicle of self-expression without having to rely on anyone else’s availability. So, you could just go, go, go, go, go! Since that point, I’ve been very fortunate that people have enjoyed hearing the strange noodling that I produced.
I’ve absolutely got the live show bug, and with Tommy as well, just playing live in front of real people, especially in 2022 and 2023 after two years of nothing, is a profoundly moving experience. So, I just feel very grateful to be able to do that again.
Most kids start playing on the acoustic and then switch to electric, but you went the opposite way.
Yes! When I was 12 years old, I got an electric guitar because I already kind of had the music bug from Rocky IV and The Blues Brothers and playing my mom’s keyboard. But I actually only got an electric guitar because my dad moved jobs a lot, so I moved to a new town and I wanted to fit in, and the cool kid at school had an electric guitar.
So, I kind of begged and borrowed to get this Squier Telecaster for my 12th birthday, and from that, as soon as I played it, I was hooked. The idea that you could bend a note, and do vibrato on a note, and manipulate it beyond what you can do with a keyboard was profound.
The electric guitar became the bug for a good five years there playing Guns N’ Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beatles, drifting into Metallica and Iron Maiden, then a bit of shred stuff, some Joe Satriani, all of that.
For a wide Newsweek audience that might not be immediately familiar with your style, how would you describe the new progressive take that you bring to it?
Well, the finger-style guitar concept is instead of playing with a flat guitar pick that people might be familiar with, you get rid of that. And suddenly, if you look down at your hand, you now have four fingers and a thumb that are all available to pick the guitar strings.
Now, finger-style guitar isn’t necessarily limited to the acoustic guitar. The late, great Jeff Beck played with his fingers, and so did Mark Knopfler, all on electric guitar. They’re then known to have played with their fingers, but the finger-style guitar sort of terminology, the brand, has become largely associated with acoustic guitar through players like the late, great Michael Hedges, who was very prominent in the USA up until and beyond the date of his unfortunate death in the ’90s.
Along with that right-hand fingerpicking where we now are able to self-accompany by playing a melody with some of your fingers whilst perhaps your thumb plays the baseline. This is what I mean by self-accompaniment. We’ve expanded that in recent years to include hitting on parts of the guitar’s body like a drum kit to replicate some drum elements, but also change the tunings of the acoustic guitar, very similar to people like Joni Mitchell or Davey Graham.
People like that, experimenting with different tunings to create a palette of very hard-to-achieve sounds if you would’ve played the guitar in a traditional way.
I suppose the one sentence answer would be something like finger-style guitar breaks down the boundaries of traditional guitar playing and enables you to just do so much more with it as a standalone one-man band performance, for those of us not blessed with the gift of voice, such as myself.
It’s an amazing thing to watch somebody do just a solo performance. It’s so much different than watching a band, I can only imagine it’s just a completely different world as a performer. Can you talk about that difference and what it really takes to keep that audience going? Because you do a fantastic job at it. Not only are you a phenomenal guitar player, but you’re also extremely hilarious, and it keeps the room going.
Thank you! When we had the lockdowns in the U.K. where I was unable to play a show for about two years—right up until that point I’d been playing for about seven years straight on the road. When I stopped and then came back to it, I realized how insane it is to just stand onstage by yourself with no bands to hide behind. It’s just you and a guitar…life without a net.
I really was taken out of the moment, thinking, yeah, this is pretty intense. So when you’re up there by yourself, the audiences are getting a true window into what it is that this person’s doing. There’s no backing tracks or big crazy production. There’s no drummer to hide behind. But it does take a lot to try and hold an audience for anything from half an hour to 40 minutes, to a full hour and a half headline.
But the reason I love it is because it’s such a rare opportunity for honest expression to a captive audience, or a potentially captive audience. And why that is so valuable is that I feel nowadays, with people on their smartphones, and Instagram and TikTok, and all of that entertainment, that people are getting…almost arbitrary. They could be swiping past something that entertains them for a second, and they give it a little heart-heart emoji while they’re sitting on the toilet, and then they keep scrolling.
But there is something much more profound to the craft of trying to hold an audience for something like an evening in a room, and you can reach people and get inside their hearts and their souls in this much deeper way, which you just can’t really do nowadays with how most people consume media.
So, in an ethereal, spiritual kind of way of putting it, it’s a profound opportunity to hopefully be able to make people forget about the worries in their lives for an evening, or just make people happy, and it’s hard to do that from anywhere else other than the stage.
Now, you mentioned the whole entertainment aspect. Yes, I do like to joke around onstage and try and have as much fun as possible. And part of that, other than the honest self-expression part, is also to reach the friends of the guitar players and the people who they might have brought to the shows.
Because my show is not just for guitar players, it’s, it’s supposed to be for everyone, and that is something that I did learn early on from Tommy Emmanuel. Just because you’re doing an instrumental guitar performance doesn’t mean you have to be a guitar player to enjoy it.
It’s supposed to be equal parts moving, equal parts spectacle, and equal parts comedy in some places. But at the end of the day, we’re just trying to give people a positive emotional response and give people an evening where they can forget about all the b******* in their lives, and it’s a profoundly wonderful way to get to spend your days.
It’s a mastery that you and Tommy both have with that range of emotion and being able to slow down a show that’s just bouncing off the walls, but then be able to bring it in, and zero in on more of an intimate feel at that moment. When did you learn about the range of emotion and its importance to your performances?
Well, a big part of it is when you’re standing onstage by yourself, there’s actually two instruments. I put the guitar with that, but also the silence and the audience are the second instrument. The room is the second instrument. And you must listen to the room and you must listen to the response you are getting from the people there.
And sometimes you’ve just gotta slow things down. Sometimes you’ve gotta speed things up and you can ebb and flow with the vibe of the night.
And that’s something that you do learn over time. When people are kind of on their feet screaming and you wanna then just like crank it up a notch. And a lot of that is honestly how you’re feeling on the night.
The great thing about being able to perform completely solo is there’s no set list. You can just change what you play on the fly. You don’t have to check with your bass player—it’s just you, you’re responsible for it.
But early on in my career, I was writing a lot of slow numbers influenced by Celtic music. Where I grew up and where I live now in the southwest of England is very near the Welsh border, so there’s a lot of traditional folk music from Wales, from the southwest of England, and from Ireland as well.
Early on in my career coming to America, I was playing a lot of these slow Celtic ballads, and I just found this transcendent response with the American audiences in particular with that kind of music. And it wasn’t until I did some research that I realized how much kind of Irish heritage there is here, especially places like Massachusetts.
I’m actually going to be playing on the East Coast early February on a headline U.S. tour. It’ll be the first time I’ve ever done that on the East Coast, so very much looking forward to that.
Playing these kinds of slower, melodic and traditional songs that resonate with people is a really wonderful thing as well, and I see that in the love that the American public also have for Tommy’s references to Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, and people like that who have been very important in American culture since the 1950s.
While we’re talking about different audiences around the world, what is an American audience with your kind of music compared to Japan or South America? I know those crowds can tend to be a little bit more enthusiastic about the guitar genre specifically. Is that changing in the States, or are other countries more receptive to guys like you and Tommy around the world?
Well, that’s really interesting you say that because I agree with you in terms of South America. My brief experiences playing in South America and in the Caribbean have been absolutely wild. The audiences down there, it’s like a soccer match. They just go wild for all music and my friends and colleagues in bands who go down there have a wonderful time.
But America is honestly my favorite country to play in. And I think that you guys have a special relationship with the guitar, but not just the guitar, but also through immigration and foreign people, it’s a country built on immigrants essentially.
And people like me, being from England, and Tommy, who’s natively from Australia, you guys just make us feel stoked about playing and the American audiences. That’s the word, you are welcoming. You are the most welcoming audiences that I’ve ever played to, and that’s why I love playing here.
That’s why over six months of every year I tour in America. I will also say, as a side note, you love British humor for some reason. I don’t know why, but you do. And as a Brit with an awful sense of humor, you embrace me with open arms, and that’s not something that I get from other countries. So, I appreciate that.
Let’s go back a little bit toward your younger years again. When was the first moment where you realized that you might have an actual career here? When did you get your first break and realize that you were inevitably heading in this direction?
Well, interestingly, there was no plan B, and I’m incredibly grateful for the support of my parents, because a lot of parents might insist their child have a backup plan, but mine didn’t. They just said, “Cool, let us know how we can help. If you need a lift to band practice or something like that, let us know and we’ll see if we can take you.” I had that kind of relationship with my mom and dad—I really feel for people that don’t have that opportunity, and I understand how privileged I’ve been for that.
Once I made the decision to switch to acoustic, I was out almost every night of the week playing in bars and open mic nights because I loved it. I loved the thrill of playing in front of an audience. And I loved learning how to control the drunk Englishman in the back of the pub who’s heckling. All of that stuff is an invaluable education into live performance and touring.
But when I graduated university, I was about to go straight out onto a world tour that I’d booked with a record deal, but I was in a musical duo with a girlfriend at the time, and unfortunately, we broke up.
So what happened is, as I thought I was graduating, going into this world tour and record deal, all of that went away instantly. So, I ended up down at the job center and I was trying to beg, borrow, and get any money I could to pay rent.
I ended up teaching ukulele to kids for a while, which was an interesting experience. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a kid attack another kid with a box of ukuleles, but I ended up channeling that kind of energy of that turmoil into an arrangement of a song called “Somebody That I Used to Know,” a very popular song by a guy called Gotye from 2011.
All that energy of this lost opportunity and the years of practice culminating in this big record deal, and then having it all go away culminated in this music video I put together playing a one-man-band version of “Somebody That I Used to Know.” I put it on the internet not really thinking much of it, and to my sheer surprise and immense good fortune and gratitude, it went super viral, and all the news outlets were talking about it. All these tour offers came in, and suddenly, I was able to rebuild what I had lost through that breakup.
All these promoters were emailing me saying, “Hey, come and tour in Lebanon, China, wherever.” And I couldn’t because I didn’t actually have any songs because this relationship was a duo project. It was a separate set list.
But through that next year around 2012, I taught myself how to manage myself. I taught myself how to be my own booking agent. I taught myself how to book visas, book flights, build a set list, write an album. And that all came together in the spring of 2013. I’ve been on the road ever since, about 10 years now.
So, it’s been a very Hollywood movie-type journey, but it’s completely true. It’s just a lot of hard work and a lot of having no backup plan, just this is what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna get on with it and do it, which I think is why I respect the American culture so much as well. Because you guys have a big culture of picking yourself up by the bootstraps when things go wrong.
That’s another reason why I have this connection with the United States, and that’s why I’m here now. I’ve got an American girlfriend now, and I’m sitting in her house about to go out with Justin Hayward. So, it’s good times.
Jesse Edwards is the director of radio and podcasts at Newsweek, and the host of Newsweek Radio.