John Williams: guitar hero

ANGI KENNEDY John Williams is the foremost ambassador of the guitar. Ahead of his Norfolk and Norwich Festival headlining show, he tells Angi Kennedy why he believes it really is a world instrument.


Sixty years is a long love affair. But for John Williams, the guitar still holds all the magic and fascination it did for him when, as a small boy, he first fell under its spell.

His life has been devoted to the instrument, and to showing the listening public its versatility and international roots.

In May he will be doing just that when he plays a sell-out concert as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. His concert at St Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich on Saturday May 13, the penultimate day of the festival, promises a marvellous mixture of music from home and abroad.

“It is something I have been doing for so long now,” explained John. “Essentially I try to encourage people to think of the guitar as not only a Spanish instrument. By its nature as a plucked string instrument it has its identity in a lot of music from around the world.”

His own story is very much an international one too. Born in Melbourne in Australia in 1941, John was taught the guitar by his father. His talent was obvious even as a child, and he was soon attending summer courses at the Academia Musicale Chigiana in Italy and studying music at the Royal College of Music in London.

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By the early 'Sixties he had already performed in London, Paris, Madrid, Japan, Russia and the US.

Nowadays he admits he has no great love of travel and touring, although he is looking forward to his visit to Norwich.

He has a great fondness for Norfolk and is a big fan of the festival fortnight.

“I prefer to only go to certain places I like these days,” he said. “My daughter (Kate, an accomplished pianist and composer) went to the UEA, so I am very familiar with the area.”

Even so, his work schedule does still read like a world tour. This summer, a string of concerts in this country followed by Singapore and China are planned with Richard Harvey.

John recently formed a duo with Richard, who plays a great variety of instruments. They have put together a World Tour programme which includes music from the Far East, Asia, Africa, Madagascar, Latin America, Ireland and Medieval Europe, plus a little Handel and Piazzola.

Alongside this, there is the jazz guitar duo with John Etteridge. The two Johns will be recording live in Dublin later this year.

“It is a very entertaining way of life, but there is always rather a lot going on,” he said.

And it has been ever thus. He has worked with a tremendous range of musicians. Famous collaborations have been with Julian Bream, Itzhak Perlman, Andre Previn, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth.

There were, of course, the groups SKY, John Williams and Friends, Attacca and his work with The National Youth Jazz Orchestra among others.

He even hit number three in the UK pop charts in 1979 with his recording to Cavatina from the soundtrack of The Deer Hunter.

“I never think back over the years. I just keep going,” he laughed. “Being a musician entails such a mixture of disciplines. I do a lot of arranging and writing for instance. Every week there is something.

“There are always things for anyone to do in music, and I always encourage people to do it because they love it.

“A famous English singer and teacher once said that the critical question he asks his students is: 'Do you want to sing or do you want to be a singer?'

“And that is how I feel when I am talking to people who are starting out. Do they want to learn to play the guitar or do they want to be a guitarist?

“I think that too many ambitious people want to be guitarists, but don't want to learn to play the instrument.”

With John, for all his musical accomplishments, there has never been a time when he has felt he has learned all there is to be known about the guitar.

In recent years, he has delved deeper and deeper into the wealth of world music for inspiration and invigoration.

An example of this is included in the programme for his Norfolk and Norwich Festival appearance, as he explained.

“Malinké Guitars, which I put together, is based on West African music. People tend to generalise about African music but it is so varied as, of course, you would expect it to be from such a large continent.

“There is West coast, East coast, South African and Central African music which are all very different to each other. Township music, for instance, is quite different from the Arab music of the north.

“Then there is the music of South America, for which the guitar is very important. It is as much the instrument of South America as it is of Spain. The guitar was taken there by the Spaniards when they colonised it.”

Gradually John is seeing Western music becoming more inclusive, taking influences from around the world.

“Minimalism would be a prime example. It was a very western concept but based in African music that was all minimalistic at its core. Or you could look at jazz, which was probably the first to identify with Indian music.”

It is not just about musicians becoming more open-minded in their choice of sources. Crucially, audiences have to learn to embrace the wonders of world music.

“A lot of African and South American music is very complex and sometimes a little bit difficult to switch into. The complexity of rhythms can sometimes be far beyond what people are used to in classical music, for instance.

“But I just hope that by continuous exposure to it, people will begin to understand how it works.

“There is nothing new in this. It is really a case of Western countries coming to realise that there is more in the world than just western European music.

“I look at it as rather than being a challenge to learn from these different countries' music, it is more of a continuing opportunity.

“The challenge for me is actually getting other people to interact with it.”

Tickets for the John Williams concert at St Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich on Saturday May 13 have been sold out for weeks. But the Norfolk and Norwich Festival - which runs from May 3 to 14 - has other treats in store for guitar-lovers.

t The Hungarian-born Katona twins, Peter and Zoltan, will be performing at the John Innes Centre in Norwich on Sunday May 7 at 7.30pm. Their programme includes works by J S Bach, Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos and de Falla, with arrangements by the twins, who share a fabulous guitar technique and highly-refined musical instincts.

t The Katonas have given recitals throughout the world, including performances at Carnegie Hall in New York, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Royal Festival Hall and Wigmore Hall in London, the Forbidden City in Beijing, Alte Oper in Frankfurt and the Philharmonie in Cologne.

t And there is a lunchtime concert by Petar Culic at the Assembly House in Norwich on Friday May 5 at 1pm. Croatian guitarist Culic is not yet 20 years of age, but he has already performed in more than 60 professional concerts as a soloist, as well as giving numerous performances in duets and quartets, and with orchestras. His concert, support by John Lewis, includes music by J S Bach, Sor, Ponce, Koshkin and Milotti.

Tickets for the Culic concert are £8 and £5, and for the Katona twins £15 and £5, and are available from the festival box office on 01603 766400. For more information about this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival, visit its website at

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