Every once in a while you come across a musician – so little talked about, that you might wonder what the lack of fuss is all about. Dave Ball is just such a musician. So why is it that nobody wants to hear about this guitar playing legend (dictionary definition being: an unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical)?
He played with a few good bands back in the 60s & 70s; made a bit of a name for himself for a while and has had an extremely varied and interesting life since then and he is certainly not reluctant to talk about himself – so why the apathy?
Can’t answer eh? Me neither. Well, in order to redress this situation, I have taken it upon myself to interview well, me.
Tell us about your influences.
Ok I will. One point to note: your influences are constantly changing, so it is rather simplistic to just say so-and-so was your biggest influence. There are many stages that you go through where your influences change, plus occasional defining moments, like say, hearing Eric Clapton playing with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers for the first time.
To start – well, there is only one guitarist who influenced my playing in the beginning and that is Hank Marvin. The first two albums we (Brothers Pete and Den and me) ever owned were Cliff & the Drifters and The Shadows' first album. We had some singles, and EPs which included most of the Shadows hits. (So you don’t remember EPs? Well, EP stands for Extended Play. They were the size of a single, but had three or four tunes on them, and they had a mini album cover (with pictures of the band posing usually – and therefore very exciting because you could look at the guitars)).
That Cliff album – his first – was from a live performance and the Drifters was the name the Shadows used in their early days. These were the tunes we listened to mostly, although there was a raft of others as the British Beat Boom really kicked in. In our first ever band we played lots of Shadows tunes. I’d say most of them actually.
Were you the lead guitar player?
No. I was the rhythm guitarist. (In a wave of nostalgia, Dave now put on an album of the Shadows' greatest hits - Ed). There was a pecking order at home. Brother Pete was the eldest, and he bought the first guitar into the house so, basically, he got dibs on Lead Guitarist (and singer actually). Den was the second oldest and so got to pick next, and he chose Bass (and some singing) and I was the youngest so I got dumped with being the Rhythm Guitarist (no singing).
Maybe you should start at the beginning before we all get lost. (Haven’t you ever come across the concept of continuity?)
My Father Douglas Ball was a singer. He started out at fourteen years old by running away from home to travel with a Music Hall Show that passed through his home town in Burnley, England, to be part of a boy singing troupe called the Eton Boy Singers. He continued singing (opera, concerts then choirs) right up to his eightieth birthday, when he did his last two gigs, with Barbara Streisand (a dozen or so members of the Sydney Philharmonic Choir were engaged for her concert), and then as part of the Choir’s contribution to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Opening Ceremony.
My Mother was also from a musical background: largely classical musicians, but she preferred artists like Artie Shaw, Johnny Dodds and Les Paul (my first guitar record – a 78rpm copy of How High the Moon by Les Paul & Mary Ford). Mum played piano herself – again, preferring boogie to the classics. She had a great ear but some strange habits. She would insist on playing everything in odd keys, F#, G#, Bflat and would listen to a tune and just transpose on-the-spot.
I have two Brothers, Pete (Johannesburg, South Africa) and Denny (Sydney, Australia). Our musical introductions began with piano lessons. Actually, Pete – who was the eldest – completed seven or eight Grades, and Denny (the next-in-line) completed a couple, but by the time it was my turn Dad had rather foolishly allowed Pete to buy a guitar from a school friend of his for two quid (it was the “Russian Cossack” guitar from the Bell Catalog). This really was the reason I never actually started my piano lessons – which is probably why I am such a bad music reader today I guess.
Our first musical interludes at home comprised Pete playing the guitar, Denny playing piano and me playing the drums on Dad’s old Banjo (minus strings) with two brass ornaments for cymbals and knitting needles for sticks. I never lost this passion for drums, and of course brass ornaments. I managed to get over banjos, though, thank goodness. This would have been in 1962 – I was 12, Den 14 and Pete 16. We would play for Mum and Dad and their friends with me hiding behind the settee with my drum “kit” (I was a bit shy at the time – yes I know – hard to believe isn’t it?).
Dad – in a moment of weakness for which he never forgave himself – bought us real guitars. Pete got the lead guitar – a two-pickup Broadway. Den had decided to play bass and had a Vox Clubman Bass. I got what I was given (youngest kid you see!). Mine was an Egmond Lucky Seven – looked like a Jazz guitar – one pickup attached to a huge white scratch-plate. Howled as soon as you brought electricity anywhere near it. Still, I was only the rhythm guitarist, so who cared? The amps consisted of a Watkins Westminster (four channels lead, rhythm and one microphone). Den had an enormous old reflex speaker cabinet and a Linear Amp that had co-ax cables, one high one low impedance that he had bass and vocals going through. We learnt a few instrumental tunes and Dad put us on at one of his gigs (a pub) as a kind of novelty act. We played our few tunes in a terrified sort of way, using the dance band drummer Dad was using for the gig. We then accompanied “himself” while he sang You’ll Never Walk Alone. What a start!
Anyway, the bug had bitten. We found a local guy who played drums and set out to rehearse a show. The drummer promptly got called up to the Army for his National Service, but kindly left us his drums (if you are interested it was a Broadway Kit comprising bass drum, snare, hi-hat and one Ajax (no really!) cymbal with rivets). We recruited a mate from Den’s class at school who agreed to drum for us. He had never played before but soon got the hang of it, AND more importantly, he bought himself a full Premier kit. We did our first real gig at a Youth Club in Lichfield for the princely sum of ₤2.10 (shillings). There are still some photographs in existence at the family home in Sydney. It shows us wearing white shirts – and I would say school trousers – with gold lamé cravats, and curiously at some point – cowboy hats! I had dark glasses on too. We called ourselves the Rockin Perfidias, then the Perfidias and finally the Deadbeats.
So was this the turning point when you knew you wanted to play professionally?
I think it was inbred with us. I would think it would be 1962 when we got the guitar. We all knew that we would be playing music of some sort. It was just expected in our family – I just wouldn’t have known it would be my career at first. That happened once I had the taste for gigs really – which, if you are interested, would have been 1963 with the Deadbeats. There was (and still is) nothing quite like being on stage. Perhaps you are born to it. I know my entire family were born show-offs and would break into a routine at the slightest excuse.
What were some of your early bands?
Well, The Rockin Perfidias / Deadbeats were simply my Brothers and me. After that I played in Thomas Paul’s Blues Disciples; The Little People; The Applejacks (briefly); Chicago Hush; The Madding Crowd and The McKinley Sisters (in Germany); Big Sister; Ideal Milk; Ace Kefford Stand; Big Bertha; Procol Harum; Long John Baldry Band; The Beast – aka Bedlam; (gap while I joined the Regular Army) – Duffo; Melbourne to Memphis; Cross the Border … actually, after this it was mostly odd and sods of gigs. Over this entire period (except when in the service) I played sessions and performed with individual artists of various sorts sometimes just once, some just jam sessions, sometimes repeatedly. The list includes Graham Bond, Jeff Beck, Jonathan Kelly, David Byron; Donovan, Gary Hamilton (Original cast of Hair), oh, and I guess a few more. It gets a bit boring reading guitarists' CVs. Besides, most of the ones I read are so much more impressive than mine.
What type of stuff were these early bands doing? Are there any recordings?
With the Deadbeats we did enter a competition for a recording contract. You had to make a tape of an original tune and also do a couple of standards. We wrote an instrumental called Telstar (had something to do with the Andromeda Galaxy as I recall). The melody was played by Pete on a tiny organ – I don’t mean Pete’s tiny organ, I mean the keyboard. Now I cannot for the life of me remember what make it was but it only had about three octaves I think, and it was grey. Then we did a couple of Buddy Holly songs with a girl called Dianne on vocals. I suspect my brother Denny would have the tapes from this – he being the family archivist.
There are some recording from Ideal Milk. We did one of those BBC Live music sessions. Ideal Milk was the precursor to Bedlam – well actually to Ace Kefford Stand, Big Bertha and then Bedlam. Basically, it was the Den, Cozy and Dave line-up. On these BBC tapes we did a few Bluesbreakers and Cream impressions: Hideaway, Steppin’ Out, Swlabr and so on. The name Ideal Milk was taken from a tinned evaporated milk product by Nestlés. Sort of a humble nod to a watered down Cream.
We did a few demos with Ace before our Atlantic Records sessions. These still exist on acetate and on Denny’s computer. Nothing overly exciting; I remember doing Born to be Wild by Steppenwolf, something off Music from Big Pink, and a couple of original songs.
With the earlier bands – along with all the rest of our contemporaries in the group scene at the time – you might dream about getting a record deal, but most of us just gigged. That was the job – you went up and down the country doing live shows.
I think you were going to tell us about your greatest influences before you went off on a tangent (again)
Ah, quite right. So, Hank Marvin was the first. At this point he was the only guitarist we had on record anyway so it was natural enough. Actually, we had a couple of Bert Weedon things on singles. Never took to Bert that much – nor Duane Eddy though I seem to recall we did play some of their tunes.
Just read that previous paragraph and realised that it is not entirely accurate because we did have a 78 (rpm) record of How High the Moon by Les Paul and Mary Ford. I used to listen to this a great deal but it was just so far outside of my league that I couldn’t even begin to understand his playing. I had no idea that he was using recording tricks – eg multi-tracking – either so, well, have a listen to it yourself and see what I mean. (at this point Dave puts on How High the Moon – and realises it is still way ahead of him – Ed)
Once we started doing gigs our repertoire expanded rapidly. Let’s face it, only the Shadows can get away with playing Shadows' music all night, and we were playing at youth clubs full of confused, testosterone-soaked, hormonally-imbalanced teenagers who wanted to dance and smooch with each other whenever the opportunity presented itself. So we had introduced rock & roll numbers – Elvis, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and so on, and British pop from the hit parade which meant the likes of Cliff Richard, the early Beatles, the Mindbenders, Dave Berry and the Cruisers, Gerry & the Pacemakers etc. We even played something by Freddie & the Dreamers but I’m happy to say we got over that eventually.
No real guitar bands there, so who were you getting inspiration from?
Well, even though there were styles I picked up on from Buddy Holly, and Scotty Moore (from Elvis’s band), it was only when we came across Chuck Berry that things started to change for me. I mentioned that Pete was the lead player and that he was pretty well-schooled in music and music theory. He could handle a learnt solo or an instrumental really well. You just copied the notes and that was that. Chuck Berry was much more random (to our ears), and he didn’t always stay within the bounds of good theory. Pete had difficulties with this, whereas I had basically no schooling in theory, so no boundaries. Chuck was right up my alley, so I got to do the solos in the twelve-bars.
To sum this up, what we were actually hearing was our first exposure to improvisation – within a pop or R'n'B record. In hindsight I can recall that we had heard improv before in amongst Mum's favourite records – so we had heard Artie Shaw, Johnny Dodds, (clarinet) and Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, etc. (boogie woogie) on the 78s for some while. We just didn’t know what we were listening to. Now that we had access to Chuck Berry records I was able to emulate his style and essentially improvise solos within the song structures. You may notice that I haven’t reached the point of knowing what a free-form extended solo was, never mind jazz. We still had a way to go.
So, Chuck Berry was my second influence.
Who came next and what direction did you take – musically?
Like most of my peers, my musical influences came from the records we could get hold of. In the 1960s imported records were not particularly easy to find, and we had very little money to buy them, so you needed to be selective about where you splashed your cash. For instance, you might have saved up a pound or two to buy a tab collar shirt and slim black suede tie (things you really needed badly), when suddenly you heard about a great new R'n'B album that had been imported into the local record shop. What to do? What to do?
Perhaps I should go through the albums we had access to since that more or less dictates more accurately the influences on my playing. Our greatest find was the Howlin' Wolf album called – well, Howlin' Wolf. Hubert Sumlin was the Wolf’s resident guitar player and I listened incessantly to this album and the guitar playing in it. So there is no doubt that Hubert was a big influence on my playing. I think that this was the first truly improvised blues guitar playing I had come across.
So we’ll make Hubert Sumlin my third influence
I think the next and perhaps THE major influence – and a defining moment, was Eric Clapton on the Beano album. This was just the most exciting sound I had heard. The solo work on this album is just extraordinary, and live, Eric was reigning supreme at this point. Never mind that you might trace some solos back to say Freddie King, or Otis Rush, the fact was that he played with just that extra bit of tension. Remember, you have to put this into a time context. Freddie King (one of Eric’s influences) had the most superb sense of timing and the dramatic, but you hear that more on his later 60s' and 70s' live recordings. His earliest (available) album, which has the original Hideaway, is not as “electric” sounding as he later became. Otis Rush did have the full- on sound in his guitar, but for me, Eric had better tone, and much more consistent playing. So, I played the Beano album over and over again. Still do actually (just to prove the point, he puts it on now – Ed)
So Eric Clapton is my fourth influence, but by far the most significant.
Talk to us about guitar playing technique … um, well do you have any?
Do I have any technique? Cheeky bugger. Well, I guess I must be physically capable of some sort of technique, though it may not be anything you could write a book about (except some crappy ‘book’ like this – hahaha! Ed)
Hmmm – this is quite a tricky and often controversial subject so let me think about this for a while. Playing techniques have taken some massive strides over the past forty years – at least in terms of the rock/blues genre (jazz has been pretty well developed for a longer time but lucky for us not too many jazzers came over to the dark-side of pop and modern blues) (lucky for the majority of you because you would have all sounded pretty tragic by comparison. Ed)
I personally don’t think that better technique has actually helped me as a listener enjoy the new breed of guitar player. If we allow my gross generalisation (because there are lots of great new players that I do enjoy), and also agree that techniques have improved off the scale, then why is it that I am so dissatisfied with what I am hearing?
The key word here is: Punctuation.
I want you to compare the following two passages:
‘The sun lingered on the horizon bathing the trees with a translucent glow suffused with orange red and yellow Daphne sipped gingerly at her martini whilst Daniel threw back his Scotch a servant struck the gong the call to dinner the mood having been broken the loving couple joined hands and ankled indoors where they proceeded to demolish an enormous supper since they were they said famished’
You really should have got the point already. It is pretty damned obvious isn’t it? Still, you can’t fill up books that way so I shall now labour the point by punctuating the above passage. (Please tell me that wasn’t another attempt at a pun. Ed)
‘The sun lingered on the horizon, bathing the trees with a translucent glow, suffused with orange, red and yellow. Daphne sipped gingerly at her martini whilst Daniel threw back his Scotch. A servant struck the gong – the call to dinner. The mood having been broken, the loving couple joined hands, ankled indoors and proceeded to demolish an enormous supper, since they were, they said, 'famished'.’
All right, so it is not the most stirring bit of prose you’ll ever read, but did you get the point? If you didn’t then please go back and read it out loud, and take care to USE the punctuation – or lack of.
Now do you get it?
Please say yes … it is so bloody obvious.
The thing is, so many of today’s young virtuoso guitarists rarely pause for breath. They seem driven to include every trick they know into every solo they play. Any sense of dramatic tension disappears into this veritable vomit of notes.
Now – written music does have its own way of punctuating melodies, and they are called rests. Also, the measure (length) of a note can be adjusted to add emphasis, and if that wasn’t enough they TELL you (mostly in Italian) how to play the piece dynamically, eg legato, pianissimo, etc.
Well because improvised solos do not generally get written down, we have to rely on our own common sense – or our feelings and sensibilities in order to create these dynamics. This is where a lot of you go wrong. You want to show off how much ‘stuff’ you’ve got.
I think that’s enough for this first session. You can almost hear people's eyelids drooping. We will reconvene this interview for the next issue (oh really? Ed.)
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