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GUITAR HERO…Interview with Top Topham

Top Topham in 1963.

Emmanuel Elliott writes...

Did you know that one of our longstanding Subud brothers here in the UK  just happens to be a legendary 'guitar hero' who helped launch the original Yardbirds?

As the sleeve notes to his Complete Blue Horizon Sessions says, "Thousands of guitarists have walked in the footsteps of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page - but only Top Topham can claim that they walked in his."

That's right, Topham - better known to us by his Subud name Sanderson.

I was delighted to come across a recent interview with Sanderson in Guitar International and thought it might interest you too - see below. I hastened to get the Blue Horizon collection on Amazon, at a very reasonable price, and felt very 'cool' when my son-in-law admired my taste in blues guitar! I love playing it: this is a guy with a real inner affinity with his instrument.

Top Topham: The Original Yardbirds Guitar Hero

By: Matt Warnock

Before there was Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, there was Top Topham. The original guitarist in one of the most famous, guitar-hero filled bands in rock history, Topham was the guitarist who started it all. Though his tenure with the band was short lived, being only 15 years old at the time his parents had issues with his late nights spent jamming in clubs, his influence can still be felt to this day. A blues lover at heart, in the same vein as Eric Clapton was when he was with the band, Topham has continued to record and perform stellar blues-inspired music after leaving The Yardbirds back in 1963.

A true Renaissance man, Topham is also a highly successful painter, and experienced interior decorator, alongside his envious resumé as a guitarist and recording artist. Though most people who left a band like the Yardbirds before they were famous would be haunted by the question, “What might have been?” Topham has instead focused his creative energy into his art, creating a musical legacy that will live on for generations to come.

Guitar International recently sat down with guitar legend Top Topham to talk about The Yardbirds, his inner creativity and his love of Fender Telecasters.

Matt Warnock: The world that I grew up in and learned to play guitar in is vastly different from when you learned to play back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, including the rise of popular music programs in Colleges and Universities. How do you feel about the current system where students learn to play rock guitar by going to school to study, as compared to solely learning in clubs as you did when you were cutting your teeth?

Top Topham: It’s like another universe really. My feeling is that technique has become such a predominant thing, and I think it’s human nature to want to gather as many techniques as one can and then put them all together in their music. I think that as we go further on down the road we’re producing amazingly technical people, but I’m not sure about that element of Soul in their playing.

I heard records that absolutely changed my life when I was growing up, as I’m sure happens to people today, but to me it wasn’t about the technique that the player possessed, it was about an overall sound and something that personally moved me inside. That was so foreign to British culture and British folk music, which is really boring actually. [Laughs] When you heard a guy bend a note on a blues track something happened to you. It was that quality that you wanted to emulate and that inspired you to push forward with your playing.

Matt: How do you feel about the commercialization of music that has gone on over the past 4 decades? It seems that when you were growing up it was more about being creative and artistic, but now, music is only deemed “good” if it sells a lot of records, at least in the pop-rock-radio world that dominates the music scene today.

Top Topham: Well, I think we have people in this country that are responsible for the demise of the music industry. These sort of ataman cows that just sit around and watch X-Factor where we see all these young kids queuing up to try and become famous. On top of it, their musical references when they sing are of course equally bad people that they’ve emulated. They’re not listening to what I call “classicism” in Soul music, and I think that’s what I miss with the younger generation of performers. When I see somebody playing I want to feel their life experiences. That’s what really grabs me.

One of the guys that I really feel this coming from is Jeff Beck. I have to tip my hat to the man. He’s never resting on his laurels. He’s always pushing himself and you feel that every moment is a total commitment to what he’s doing. That’s something that I used to really find attractive in a player, but I’m not sure I hear those qualities in the newer, younger players. What I hear, is a lot of people trying to emulate blues-based music and getting the whole point of it wrong, really.

But I think it’s interesting for guys like myself, who’ve done it on or off over the years. It’s not really about trying to emulate anyone else at this point. It’s just about finding one’s own sound and trying to be as creative as possible within that framework.

Matt: In your career you’ve been a very successful painter, interior decorator and of course worked with The Yardbirds, Peter Green and developed your solo career. It seems that sometimes when people rely on music as their sole source of income, the pressures that come with that situation prevent them from being able to reach their full creative potential. They take less risk because they need to have steady work to keep things going. Do you feel that because you’ve had a diverse career that that’s helped you keep your creative fires going, as a musician and in your other endeavors?

Top Topham with Gibson guitar.

Top Topham: I think so, in a way. The thing is that the painting was a way for me to make a living. I got to a point in my life where I had a family, I had children and needed to make money, and the painting allowed me to do that. I went back to music when I was about 40. I sort of rediscovered it after a number of years away from that side of my life. That was interesting, but I think creatively, I’ve been fortunate enough in my life that through my painting I’ve always been able to be creative, whether I was involved in music or not.

With the music thing, I still really never feel like I fulfilled what I could have fulfilled. I never felt like my true voice was able to fully come through. Though, when I play now I am completely myself and I feel it’s very creative with the band that I have. We don’t rehearse at all. We just get up and do it. I think you’re probably quite right, if I had done music full time, which I would have loved to have done, I would’ve been affected by the commercialization at some point. Whether I could have sustained that admirable quality that Jeff Beck does in his music, I’m not sure if I could have done that, no one really knows really.

Matt: You’re obviously a big lover of the blues, but you also like Jeff Beck, who went in different musical directions after he left the Yardbirds. You also had to leave that band very early on, because you were so young and your parents had issues with you being in clubs late at night. How do you feel about the direction that the Yardbirds took after you left the band?

Top Topham: It’s interesting really. I saw them, obviously, through those years with all those different aspects, with Jeff Beck in the band, with Jimmy Page in the band, with both of them in the band at the same time. I think that they produced three or four really good records and wrote some really interesting material, some very beautiful songs. I can’t say that I ever loved the music particularly. If I’m going to be absolutely honest, it wasn’t my kind of band.

If I had stayed in the band, I think I would have been pushing, like Eric Clapton did, to keep the blues as the focus of the band. You have to bear in mind, that in those early days we hadn’t even heard B.B. King. [Laughs] If you haven’t heard that music before and then you hear Live at the Regal, you can’t really be the same after that.

Matt: Because you’ve continued to perform over the years, your playing has grown and sounds absolutely great today. What do you think is the biggest change that your playing has undergone since your early days with The Yardbirds and later Peter Green?

Top Topham: I think that when I was younger I was very limited in my guitar style. The access to decent instruments was fairly depressing. [Laughs] I mean, I played a Harmony Sovereign in that band. Then I played a Strat-o-Tone, and I didn’t get my first Gibson until a few years after that.

It was hard to get good guitars in England back then because of the embargo on selling American goods. So, we were pretty starved of things. There were a few people who had the money and could get those things, but money back then was few and far between.

The main difference, musically, is that now I can get up and just hear things and let them flow into my playing, and I don’t think I could do that back then. I could definitely do it around the Blue Horizon days, but that was in a live situation.

Matt: Speaking about the Blue Horizon days, you recently released the Complete Blue Horizon Sessions . What inspired you to rerelease this collection of recordings at this time in your career?

Top Topham: I had no part in that project. Unfortunately, Sony is releasing all of that stuff and not paying anybody. It’s a sin really. They were going to release it and gave me the opportunity to be involved, which I took because I’d rather be involved than not involved.

I’m glad it came out, because I think it’s a good project and sets things straight in a sense, because the person that owns all that music bought the whole catalogue and has been raking in money over the years. He’s been licensing it to different companies over the years, and guys like myself have never seen a dime from that music.

Matt: How does that feel to know that someone else has ownership of your art, that they have control over something that you created years ago as part of your artistic output?

Top Topham: I mean, I suppose I read many stories about blues guys never getting paid for their music, and I think it’s always been a little bit like that. I think that there are some players who were very smart about this side of things, the Peter Green’s and Eric Clapton’s of the world. I feel resigned to it, but I think it’s very unfair really. But it’s something that has always been a part of that business.

Matt: Moving on to a more positive note. [Both Laughing] You’ve played a number of different guitars over the years, what is your number one guitar of choice these days?

Top Topham with Fender Telecaster.

Top Topham: My main guitar these days is a Fender Telecaster. I have a very lovely ’66 Telecaster, absolutely fabulous. Tom Principato was jamming at a festival with me and he turned around and said “That’s a ’66.” I said, “How do you know?” He said, “Because I’ve got loads of ‘em.” [Laughs] Mine is very doctored, I have to say.

I bought it when I was working at Andy’s guitar workshop. A friend told me to check out this guitar, so I went down and found this guitar in pieces. It had been run over by a Taxi. I had the guys put it back together, put some P-90s in it, with some Hot Rails in the middle with a 5-way switch.

If I use the Hot Rails and the neck P-90 I can get that woody, Wes Montgomery sound. It’s a very expressive guitar. I don’t use any effects or pedals at all, just run it through a Fender Super Reverb, an old one from the ‘70s. There’s nothing more to it. I love that sound. People come up and ask about my sound, and it’s just the guitar through the amp, nothing special, just a great sounding guitar.

Matt: Now that you’ve gotten back into music, what’s your musical future hold for you? Is there a new tour or new album on the near horizon?

Top Topham: To be honest with you, I find it difficult here to get any gigs these days. You can try for months and not find anything. There are very few venues to play here right now. There’s nothing that I like to do more right now than play gigs, but they’re hard to find. We’re all finding it very hard going in this country to make things happened these days. Ideally, I’d love to be out playing more and so hopefully the opportunities will come back and we’ll be able to make that happen.

To hear Top play go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1FnkQqWaD4&NR=1

Originally published in Guitar International magazine. Thank you for the permission to republish.