I couldn’t live without… My nail kit

Classical guitarist John Williams, 71.

Good fingernails are absolutely vital in your business, aren’t they?

Yes and I have naturally strong ones which is a blessing. I perform what I call my “calcium cull” and cut them right down every couple of weeks.

The left hand nails are kept short for the fingerboard and the right ones are really important to provide a range of tone colours from the strings. You can change the angle of playing with a fingernail and the sound changes. They become part of the instrument. Flesh doesn’t have any variety in it at all.

Do you constantly have to be careful picking things up or simply shaking hands?

If you pick something up and you scrape a nail, it has to be smooth again before you play so the kit goes everywhere with me. I don’t refuse to shake hands like some guitarists do but I’m always on the look-out for people who look like they may squeeze a bit too hard.

Ever broken a nail before a concert?

Never and if I did, it would mean a cancellation. I’ve cracked a few on occasion and mended them with superglue and polish.

What’s the worst damage you’ve done?

Back in about 1960, I was playing in the orchestra at Glyndebourne in the first performances of Henze’s opera, Elegy for Young Lovers. During the interval, I played table tennis dressed in my black tie and dress shirt. I went for a backhand shot and my thumbnail got caught in the shirtfront. It was torn backwards and started to pour blood but didn’t actually break off. I had to play the next couple of nights with all fingers and no thumb… and a clean shirt, of course.

Is there a steady supply of new guitar music?

We constantly need new repertoire and I’ve commissioned a new piece for a performance during the City of London Festival. I was in the very first festival 50 years ago and am delighted to be playing again. The new piece, The Flower of Cities, is for guitars and chamber ensemble by Stephen Goss and has been inspired by different sites and open spaces around the capital.

You played in the electric supergroup, Sky. Do you sometimes still yearn to plug in and rock out?

Not really; I think that was a one-off band. It had its faults but was naturally put together by a very disparate group of musicians to play in their very different styles, the opposite of those “fusion” things assembled by record companies. “Fusion” and “crossover” are terms that have been taken prisoner by the marketing boys. The other one I don’t like is “world” music. Where else is it supposed to come from?

John Williams plays with John Etheridge at the World on the Heath family day on Hampstead Heath on 1 July and at the Fishmongers’ Hall, London Bridge on 10 July as part of the City of London Festival.
For more information, visit www.colf.org


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