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Q&A: Michael Brinkworth Discusses All Things Guitar

Photo by Magda Kucharska

Known for his impeccable songwriting, and even more enticing alt-country sound, Michael Brinkworth has proven to be an unstoppable force, especially with the release of his latest album, ‘Wasted Wonder’. Based in Berlin, Brinkworth channels his Australian energy, pouring a sense of heartfelt intensity and a worn yet timeless experience into each track. ‘Wasted Wonder’ delves into the journey of an independent musician in a 21st-century landscape- documenting everything from struggle, success, and most importantly, the tale of a soul maneuvering its way through the minefield of the music industry.

Commonly his most prominent vessel, Michael’s use of guitars in his storytelling is unmissable! We had a chat with Michael about the power, importance, and his experience with the instrument!

What type of guitar(s) do you own?

My primary acoustic guitar is my Ibanez Artwood (AW3050CE-LG) full-sized dreadnought cutaway. I tune it down a whole tone and string it with heavy 14-gauge strings. I’ve had it for 8 years, written the bulk of my songs on it over the last few years, and gigged, busked and toured with it all over Europe, North America and Australia. This guitar has become part of me and it really suits my voice. It’s got pretty road-worn over the years, but with its solid wood top, back and sides, its sound just keeps getting better with age. I hate to think of ever losing this guitar - I’ve had so many memories with it.

My primary electric guitar is a pretty rare cherry-red 1979 USA-made Fender Lead II that I’ve had since I was about 18. I got it for a bargain off a guy who put up an ad in the trading post, who’d bought it cheaply over in the States, along with 30-odd other guitars! It’s got a ridiculously playable thin neck and maple fretboard. Whoever owned it last had replaced the two single-coil pickups with humbuckers at the bridge and neck, so you get more of a growl still with the feel of a Strat. I love playing this guitar live with my band, but for recording, I’m not as attached to it and have often borrowed friends’ guitars for certain songs.

I’ve got another Ibanez acoustic 12-string (PF1512-NT) that I picked up for only 100 Euro on the outskirts of Berlin - after a set-up, it’s the most playable and one of the best-sounding 12-strings I’ve come across. I also have a golden Mexican Fender Stratocaster electric, given to me by a mate, who felt like he wasn’t using it enough, on my last tour back in Australia. Plus a very cheap but charming Spanish guitar that I take to lakes, beaches, or on cycling tours.

Different types of guitars create different sounds and moods. Some guitars like the Jazzmaster end up being more of a surf rock staple than for jazz. For your artistry, which guitar(s) do you prefer to play and why?

I almost always write songs in relative solitude on my own before I show them to my band. I also believe a song really needs to stand on its own with just the vocal and one accompanying instrument, before you think about any kind of arrangement and different instrumentation. For these two reasons, the bulk of my songs are written on my primary acoustic guitar, my Ibanez Artwood, as mentioned above (and sometimes my 12-string, Spanish guitar or the piano too, depending on what’s around when I have inspiration) and this would be why it is still my most preferred guitar to play.

Having said that, I also love playing and overdubbing with my 12-string acoustic, because it immediately takes me back to the 70s or something! I don’t know - it can really give a song an expansive and also timeless feeling.

As for my Fender Lead II, I must admit that I don’t play electric anywhere near as much as I used to when I was a guitar player in bands a long time ago. When we play live, I’m on the acoustic most of the time, driving the band rhythmically, besides on a handful of electric-heavy songs. I leave most of it to Fritjof Brandt, our electric and pedal-steel player who’s a musical genius and so much more of an accomplished player than I’ll ever be. When we record, that’s when I get excited about playing and coming up with parts on the electric, and for that, I often borrow Fritjof’s legendary black Gibson Les Paul with a Bigsby tremolo arm (much like Neil Young’s ‘Old Black’!) - I love playing that guitar and eventually want to get something like that for myself - or a Gretsch. It’s got a weight and a growl to it that I love, whenever I solo on it, I feel like I’m channeling Neil with Crazy Horse hahaha...

At the end of the day, I’m not really thinking about different guitars for certain genres. It’s all song-based for me and if anything, besides some rock’n’roll first-take vibes where a bit of shredding works well, I think of guitar parts mainly as an opportunity to add in another iconic layer to a song to make it more memorable to the listener.

What is it about the guitar/your guitar(s) that resonates with you?

With my Ibanez Artwood acoustic, I guess the fact that I down-tune it a whole tone and use the heaviest gauge strings adds to the body and warmth of its sound and it really lends a solid foundation to my vocal - its rawness perfectly suits my rough around the edges vocal! This might sound silly, but I guess the fact that it’s quite road-worn - I have played and travelled with it everywhere, on the street, on stages, on snowy mountaintops and tropical beaches, wherever, and that I’m not too precious with it - I think this has added to its character and sound somehow, and that really resonates with my equally weathered voice.

Photo by Denise Dombrowski

How do you think the role of the guitar has changed in music (as a whole say since the 2000s for example) and songcraft? Is it more or less prominent than before? Has it stayed the same?

I think the role of the guitar in music and songcraft has changed a lot since the 2000s. The 2000s was the time of indie rock bands and I have a lot of beautiful memories growing up with this music. The guitar was much more prominent during this era, especially the electric guitar, as it was in the 90s too - and pretty much every decade since the 50s. But I think the guitar’s role in songcraft is as strong as it ever was. Just practically speaking, it’s a very portable instrument that you can take anywhere and it’s still the easiest instrument to write a song on, even if you only know 3 or 4 chords. But nowadays, electric guitar solos and intricate guitar arrangements seem like they are regarded as ‘uncool’, ‘dated’ or ‘redundant', at least in popular music. If we’re being precise, I guess we’re talking about less old-school distorted rock guitar in favour of more clean-dream-pop 80s guitar. Beats, synths, and lots of spaciousness seem to be more popular production styles too. But at the end of the day, there will always be great music made with guitars, and at least in the genres my music dabbles in, alt-country-indie-folk-rock-roots-Americana-etc, it’s very welcome. I don’t care about what’s cool or trending anyway. If I feel like a song needs a lot of guitar to fulfill my vision for the song, then I’m going for it!

It seems that guitars have been a staple in the Australian indie music scene for years. In your opinion, what is it about guitars and indie music that work so well?

I think guitars and indie music go hand in hand. I don’t really know what ‘indie music’ is these days, to be honest. But the original indie music was a bunch of friends getting together in someone’s garage and starting a band, and usually, that band would be drums, bass, a singer or maybe a couple of singers, at least a rhythm acoustic or electric, and a lead electric guitar - if not more than that, or a power trio with a really accomplished guitar player doing everything. Then they’d play in small sweaty bars and house parties in a very DIY fashion and if the songs stuck, it went on from there. Growing up in the hey-day of 90s grunge and 00s indie, I can draw on a ridiculous number of iconic guitar lines that have easily become ear-worms and calling cards of those songs and albums - the guitar parts in a lot of that indie music simply made it so much more iconic and memorable. The sound of a guitar, especially electric, up and loud, is rock’n’roll, which was the original DIY thing in popular music and that’s what I call indie music. For that reason, I reckon guitars and indie music are forever entwined.

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