The following interview with Dominic Miller appeared in the January 1998 issue of Guitarist magazine. The article was by David Mead.
The nylon string classical guitar isn't an animal you'd expect to thrive on the rock'n'roll concert stage - its shy, softly spoken eloquence is quaintly out of place, somehow. Unless it's being played by Dominic Miller, that is...
Amid the multi-colored swirl of Argentinean music, right where the national sound emanates from that most enigmatic of instruments, the nylon string guitar, Dominic Miller's life began, as did a promising guitarist's career.
From South America, he moved to the mid-west, finally settling in the UK where his musical career began with a regular scanning of the 'Musicians Wanted' column in Melody Maker, attending every audition going.
Such persistence led to King Swamp, World Party, Level 42, Julia Fordham, Phil Collins and, for the last seven or eight years, the king of the nylon string has played with Sting.
Dominic is a versatile player, equally at home on acoustic or electric guitars. Gigging with Sting means pounding out up-beat Police songs like Roxanne or Synchronicity II on the electric one minute, then over to nylon string to explore the delicacy of songs like Shape Of My Heart and Fields Of Gold the next.
Guitarist talked to Dominic just after he'd finished a world tour with Sting. 14 months on the road with little time off would prove more than enough for many, but Dominic is eager to elaborate on past and future projects with the enthusiasm of a consummate pro. He begins by telling us why he still considers the nylon string his first guitar.
"That was what I learned on. It wasn't until I was 14 or 15 that I picked up an electric. So the nylon string is definitely my main instrument. I can get more sounds out of it than I can out of an electric. The first thing I played was Brazilian stuff. I was always listening to Argentine music. It must have had an effect on me, because what I do now is influenced more by the South American sound than anything else. People think South American music is just Brazilian music, but it's not, it's a whole world of different styles. There's Peruvian, Argentinean, tango, samba... it's amazing."
Other influences are obvious in Dominic's work, though.
"My elder sister played guitar and she taught me. We got records by The Stones and The Beatles and I was really into that, too. But nobody dared play that in Argentina, so we stuck to what we knew best, playing simple tunes and songs."
A prominent feature of South American music is its intense rhythmic feel, which Dominic says prepared him for Sting's 5/4 and 7/4 time signature aberrations.
"Technically, it's a constant movement in the bass. It's like having a bass line and a chord line instead of just strumming. I always use my right-hand fingers - your fingers play a chord and your thumb plays against the rhythm. The thumb anticipates the rhythm by playing before the downbeat, so that kind of thing comes naturally to me. I learned a lot of really cool sounding chords, too. The thing about Brazilian music which is great is that there's always movement; for every chord there's another note you can put in to create movement. For example, instead of just playing a static major seventh, you'd alternate with the major sixth as well."
Do any of these techniques transfer to electric guitar?
The idea of movement within a chord does. That's how I approach all the 'jangly' stuff with Sting. It's moving all the time, as opposed to staying on one chord. You find the other color to the chord and jangle it! But rhythmically speaking I don't so much differently, except hold the note longer when I transfer to electric to give the note more depth and breadth."
What about picking style on electric?
"I'm playing more with fingers now. On electric, I play about 25 per cent finger; I love the idea of using fingers when playing; it's like you're working the guitar. You get a better sound with fingers. If you're going to do widdley-widdley stuff, then forget it! I've tried it, and I think we should let Jeff Beck deal with that. He's the master right-hand man!"
I ask Dominic what he sees as the main difference between playing nylon string and electric guitar in a live situation.
"I think a nylon string cuts through much more than an electric. The only dilemma I have on stage is where to use nylon strings. I have to ask: 'does this song really need it? Am I just using it because this is what I do?' I play it when I think it needs to be there, so over the last few years, it's there a lot - on more traditional-sounding Sting songs, for example.
"It depends what the set is, but I use the nylon string on Fields Of Gold, Shape Of My Heart, I Was Brought To My Senses and Seven Days, but occasionally I change. I play Seven Days on nylon string now, I've banned the electric. But sometimes I might just alter things radically on stage and see if Sting notices!"
The catalyst for Dominic's live work with nylon strings evolved because of the development of his Fernandes P-Project electro/classical.
"The guitar was made because I needed an acoustic nylon string on stage. I told Fernandes I was looking for one, and I went to Japan and there it was! It's a solid-bodied nylon acoustic guitar, slightly hollow on the bass side. I don't know what that's about, but I'm sure it's got something to do with the depth of the sound. There's a real contrast between the Fernandes and any other solid nylon string. It's tone is more crisp, so the high-end sounds much better. If I play a Gibson Chet Atkins, I find it's a very round sound; if you look at the actual signal, you'll find it's round, and I don't hear the fingers. I can't hear the index finger going through the string before it strikes the note, I just hear the note. It's like a classical guitar and a flamenco guitar. The flamenco is lighter, so it's brighter and the same is true of the P-Project."
Dominic's P-Project nylon string also has an under-saddle pickup with bass and treble EQ controls on the rear of the guitar.
"I usually get the sound I want if I leave it flat. I've also got a steel-string version of the same guitar, but for years I couldn't get it to sound right. Fernandes told me to try electric strings, and instantly it sounded great. I'd assumed all along that it should have an acoustic set on it. They were horrified!"
Is the P-Project nylon string used in the studio as well as for playing live?
"Yes - I plug in and the sound is right there. Engineers are amazed at by the sound, because it's like someone sitting out there with this elaborate mike arrangements. It sounds good whatever you plug into. And it's great for live work too - you can use it on a big stage and there's no feedback. With a lot of other acoustics, you'd have difficulties. The way round it is to cover the sound hole, but then you lose some of the sound and just hear the strings. I don't use an amp for it at all; I just DI and have it through the monitor system. Out front, I think it gets slightly different treatment, but it's user friendly and never lets me down."
But if things suddenly go awry, Dominic's got that covered too.
"I've got three P-Projects, but I've never had used the spares, which is impressive considering the guitar's been around the world with me two or three times. I use the others for different tunings where they're drop-tuned to E flat. Sting does a couple of things in E flat so I like to have the open strings available."
Dominic admits he has a bit of a rebellious streak when playing live.
"It's great when it goes mad on stage - I live for those moments because it's dangerous. Sting will suddenly start jamming on something else completely, and then he finds himself in a key that's alien to all of us and we just have to pick it up. We have to learn how to get through it then go back to the song we were on. It's a bit mad at times but it's worth it!"
As well as his sideman role, Dominic is fostering his solo career. His album "First Touch" was recorded in 1995, and is now available world-wide.
"It's only recently that people have picked it up. In America, it's available through Dreamworks. I'm really glad I've finally got a distributor in America, because that sort of thing can be very difficult, but Dreamworks think it's perfect and are putting it out. It's been a slow climb; I didn't mean for this record to take the world by storm, but it's got a life of it's own now which I'm really happy about because I'm moving on."
Not one to let the grass grow under his feet , Dominic already has other projects in the pipeline as well as his own solo gigs.
"I'm working on two different things now. I'm doing an album with Manu Katché and Pino Palladino where I'm going to use half electric and half acoustic - probably steel string a little more. But I'm also working on my next acoustic album. The gigs are pretty scary, especially playing and not singing because people think 'He's not going to play is he?' And I'm going, 'I'm not really going to play, am I?' It's more nerve-wracking playing in front of 100 people alone than playing in front of 100,000 in a stadium. That's easy!"
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