I first started busking while still a student, hitch-hiking round Europe with some friends from college.
Since my bass guitar was too big and heavy to hitch-hike with, I dusted off my Grandpa’s old violin, sprayed it metallic purple and stuck a Barcus-Berry pick-up on the bridge. Played through a small battery-powered amp, it was portable, and sounded great! We busked all round Europe; Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Florence, even round the Greek islands, busking to earn the ferry-fare to our next destination.
It was my first taste of real freedom and life on the road, and I loved it! Once I slept underneath the Eiffel tower on a starry summer night, using my violin case as a pillow. In the mid 1980′s the first digital delay effects pedals were invented, just when I needed them! These produced echoes and loops just like a Copicat, but were portable and battery- powered, and so could be used on the street for busking.
My first digital delay was an Ibanez DDL, which only had a 2 second delay, but I soon learnt how to capture short phrases on the violin and then improvise harmonies over the top of them. I started using a Boss Octaver pedal which enabled me to play bass lines on the violin, mimicking a bass guitar. Armed with these two pedals, I started busking on my own, first in Oxford, then travelling by coach and train all over the country. I gradually added other effect pedals to my set-up; phaser, harmoniser and wah-wah, and built them into a home-made pedal-board.
After taking part in several Anti-Nuclear Missile demonstrations at the Upper Heyford Air Base and reading Doris Lessing’s ‘Report on the Threatened City’ I came to the realisation that the human race was on the brink of insanity and self-destruction; our leaders had let us down, and the world was facing a very real threat of nuclear annihilation!
This inspired me to try and compose a soundtrack for the society around me, bittersweet violin music combining sadness for the current state of the world with optimism for the future, and faith in the underlying goodness of humanity. That’s how ‘Purple Electric Violin Concerto’ was conceived, as a sort of musical antidote to the alienation of modern city life, which could be played live in city centres and draw people together in a shared experience.
In 1985, my Grandpa’s old violin got seriously damaged in a bar in Amsterdam. I decided to design and build a solid-body electric violin to replace it. I got some seasoned walnut, maple and oak from a harpsichord manufacturer, and fashioned them into a new violin using a jig-saw, a router, an electric sander, and a small Kitchen-devil knife which I used to hand-carve the neck and head-stock. I built a guitar pre-amp pedal into the body, and used a Barcus-Berry pick-up, after seeking advice from legendary Fairport Convention violinist Dave Swarbrick, who I met backstage after seeing his new band Whippersnapper perform in Oxford. A few weeks later, my new violin was finished, and my first performance with it was at Richard Branson’s birthday party, held in a marquee in the grounds of Virgin’s Manor recording studio.