Interview: Thom Pankhurst

Thom Pankhurst

Thom Pankhurst is a guitarist and composer from Brighton, UK who in August put out his debut, three-song EP ‘Lighthouse,’ which according to the musician “started with a minute long idea recorded in 2014.” Thom teamed up with drummer Yanir Aronowicz and bassist Alex Vanblaere for the recording of the EP, which also includes guest appearances by fellow guitarists Dan Thornton and Sam Bell

How would you describe your initial exposure to music?

I grew up in a house where my dad played guitar! He played in a function band when i was growing up, so I was exposed to all sorts of music. I distinctly remember listening to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds with my mum when I was little and being terrified! She also showed me things like Duran Duran and The Planet Suite by Holst – a really mixed bag of tunes!

Were you in the music programs in school while you were growing up?

Before I played guitar I played saxophone until I was roughly 12 years old, and had music lessons but never really played or took part in any music programs when I was in school. After I started playing guitar I joined a band through a program in 6th form college (age 17) for a short while but nothing to write about!

How did you get into playing guitar?

Through Guitar Hero 3! No joke. I played guitar hero with a friend of mine and my brother, and one day I decided that I’d just pick up the real thing instead. I remember coming home and learning a single string version of “Iron Man” using one of my dad’s guitars and a tiny Marshall practice amp.

Did you start to listen to music differently once you discovered guitar?

I started learning the things that I was listening to to begin with and found new appreciation for them. I was really into bands like Trivium and Lamb of God at the time and everything was a challenge to learn, so I guess I started leaning towards heavier/more technical music at the time to push myself, but I was still listening to non guitar music too. Some people claim that learning how the songs are done/what the band is doing ruins the magic but I completely disagree – I ended up appreciating things which I wouldn’t have gotten into unless I were a musician and learning other people’s parts really opened up my eyes to see how endless music is and how no matter what the genre/style/ability there’s always something you can learn or like in other music.

Who were some of your early guitar influences?

Matt Heafy and Corey Beaulieu from Trivium were big ones for me when I started. The interplay of their styles and way they’d come together was something I really liked! I was also a big Slipknot fan at the time – someone showed me their isolated tracks from Vol.3 and they’re SO tight. After them I became more interested in Paul Gilbert/John Petrucci as I disappeared down the technical rabbit hole!

Thom Pankhurst

Tell me about your guitar technique.

This is a weird one, it’s an odd mash of shred technique, math rock tapping (something I’d barely listened to) and faux-fusion style licks and phrases. For someone who used to massively be into Dream Theater and Racer X my alternative picking is actually super lame! Instead i’d focus on getting the same part down using economy picking where I can, as I’d always find it more comfortable. Something that I really care about is exactly what you’re trying to say with each note and note choice – what pick attack are you using? Does it snap at you or is is soft? Where does the vibrato come in? Is it on every note or is it on certain ones?

The tapping thing is more an extension of how I write, if I have a melody line that i really want to hear i’ll fill it in with my tapping hand, or if the part needs something extra I can usually add something with my right hand. Its constantly evolving/changing and (hopefully!) getting better!

What guitars are in your collection? What is your a guitar that you trust the most?

I’m currently using a Music Man JP6, a Strandberg Classic 6, a Mexican Standard Stratocaster, a Faith Venus acoustic and occasionally I use my 7 string Ibanez RG1527. I’ve also recently picked up an Epiphone Masterbilt Century to do some double tracking with an acoustic and I have two more Ibanez guitars under my bed! One is an RG1570 and the other is a Mick Thomson MTM2 from when I was an angsty teen that I’ll never sell as it’s got so much sentimental value to me.

The most trustworthy guitars are the JP6 and the Strandberg, I’m currently recording new music to be released fairly soon with both of them exclusively as they both intonate and record really well with minimal fuss and are perfect for the new track. Like many people I keep going back to my Strat though, I’ve spent so much time with it that it feels like home but I don’t trust it at all! The neck is warped and undulates, the bridge is fixed because when I use a whammy bar with it it’ll go savagely out of tune and the strip on the back of the neck is actually IN the neck so there’s a groove that goes the whole way down whilst you’re playing. It’s garbage but I keep going back for more!

With the advancement of the technology and amp/effect simulation, do you still use pedals?

Before I started using a Kemper for everything I used pedals all the time! I still have a pedalboard that I use occasionally for messing around with because having all the options right in front of you that you can adjust super quickly is really handy and good fun when you just want to sit down and play.

In your opinion, what are the three skills that every guitarist must bring to perfection?

Vibrato. Vibrato. Vibrato. You can be the most technically challenged, simplest player of all time and play three notes but if that vibrato is on point it’ll keep coming back for more. Conversely if someone has the most insane shred chops, can tap at the speed of light and writes the most technically interesting music but ends their phase with a note that sounds like a cat being dragged through a blender that sticks out like a sore thumb it really turns me off of a player – vibrato is the most humanising thing, especially on guitar and it says volumes about a player and how much they care about what they’re playing to me.

How did you work on perfecting your rhythm and solo parts?

For recording – play them until you can’t play them wrong and the only thing that separates takes is tiny imperfections which give it more character. For writing – lay down loads of takes and listen to them back and decide what you like and where you want to go with the idea, jam over what you’re writing until you find something you like, decide you hate it and come back in a few days and write something different! Then decide you hate that more and go back to take one ;) . In all seriousness, really think about what you’re trying to say, what the part needs and how it fits into the context of the whole vibe of the song or section.

Thom Pankhurst - Lighthouse

Back to music… You have recently launched a debut EP. Lead me through the creative process of Lighthouse.

Lighthouse started as a single idea just before I finished university at BIMM in Brighton. It originally ended as a big fade out with waves crashing in the background rather than the super abrupt end it has now. The whole EP has a few repeating parts which come back around in each song in a different context as this was always the idea from the beginning (I love prog!), and the whole EP is very much about me finding my feet as a composer of music. Generally I’d start with an idea and build on it and flesh it out as much as possible with the idea that nothing is creatively set in stone and everything can be re-written to suit where the track is going. The biggest thing I learnt with this was to “let go” of an idea that you can’t make work, I couldn’t find a way to put the original end of Lighthouse in and realised I’d be doing myself a huge disservice if I did from a creative point of view, so I really found my feet in following where I should go with music and following my musical instincts for direction.

What evolution do you feel this EP represents for you as a composer and guitarist?

The biggest evolution I think I’ll ever do! This is the first music that I’ve ever written to completion and release. I taught myself how to record, how I record best, how I like to write, how I like things to sound when I play and how I want them to sound as a whole over this whole process. My playing style has been refined by only letting my best musical self come out and it’s really helped me find who I am as a guitar player and a musician in general and in the future I feel like I’m going to be more streamlined as I’ll actually know what I’m doing and not fumbling in the dark for solutions to problems.

What were the biggest challenges you faced as a guitarist when making Lighthouse?

Pro Tools. The learning curve isn’t a curve at all. More like a cliff. Learning how to get the best results from myself was a big challenge, and how to follow my “inner musician” was also something that was something that was quite hard to get to grips with. I feel like I’m getting there though!

How do you go about channeling inspiration into writing?

Get the idea out! Record it even if it sucks and your playing is super sloppy, you can always re-record it later on. The biggest change for me is using a Launchpad as a MIDI controller, I can program drums really quickly to keep the creative ball rolling and program whatever I need by pressing light up buttons – win win. I’ve been listening to loads of music outside of the realm of instrumental guitar music too, outrageous pop bangers and solo piano players and a number of other curve balls. There’s always something inspiring about listening to something which is outside of your immediate musical circle and you can always get inspired by something completely different if you let yourself!

Back to tech talk, tell me about your guitar rig you use for recording?

It’s all Kemper! The main out of the kemper into a Focusrite 2i2 that goes straight into Pro Tools is all I use. I’m using a mixture of profiles – a Fender Princeton, a cranked Marshall, a Blackstar HT Studio 20 and a Seymour Duncan Convertible amp for leads. In regards to guitars, its whatever feels and sounds right for the job (Usually my Strandberg/Music Man).

What are your five favourite pieces of gear in 2018, and why?

The Kemper has become the central part of my rig and i’m likely to be using it for years! It’s so easy to use and to record/play live with, especially with the foot controller so I’ve basically replaced my entire rig with it. The Strandberg guitars are also a firm favourite. They have a super quirky neck profile which is essentially three flat planes that change your hand position along the neck which sounds really odd but it’s the most comfortable thing to play on for hours on end. I recently tried a Friedman Jerry Cantrell Amp with the guys from Guitar Bros Demos and DAMN that thing sounded amazing. I’ve just started using the Dunlop Jazz III Tortex picks and they’re super comfortable too. It’s not music gear related but I found my old PS2 in the loft and I’ve been smashing out Battlefront 2 in all of its pixelated glory as well!

What comes next for Thom Pankhurst?

I’m releasing a video for my track “Lunar Wave” from the EP really soon! After that, I have a single that I’d like to release sometime in the next few months/early next year, a couple of playthrough videos that I’d like to shoot and another EP some point next year!

Thom’s debut EP Lighthouse is available from Bandcamp here. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.