Aynsley Lister and his weathered red Strat have steadily become pillars of the burgeoning British blues scene, and his hard work on the circuit has earned him a host of ardent fans, all convinced that this explosive homegrown talent is capable of taking on the likes of Joe Bonamassa and John Mayer. A new live album, Tower Sessions, captures the guitarist on blistering form - and it's heartwarming to note that the '89 Japanese Strat which features throughout is the very same one that has been with him since he was a 12 year-old guitar obsessed kid growing up in Nottingham.
'I got my first electric, a Marlin Slammer, when I was 10,' recalls Aynsley. 'I wanted a real Stratocaster so badly, I even scratched off the logo and wrote "Fender" on it with a felt tip pen!'
A trip to buy a case for the Marlin convinced Lister's father that his boy needed a new guitar. 'I was after a Fender case, and the guy in the shop said, "Hang on... this case is worth more than that guitar." He talked my dad into buying the cheapest Strat that said Fender on the headstock, and that's the one I still play.'
The Strat has been refretted, Lindy Fralin Blues Specials have replaced the original 'slightly naff' pickups, and due to constant string breakage Aynsley swapped the saddles and the nut for a graphite GraphTech set. 'It was a very bright guitar, and the graphite has probably softened the treble,' he explains. 'GraphTech nuts and saddles have sort of killed o?ff the other guitars I've tried them on, but with the Strat it just seems to work - and I can't actually remember the last time I broke a string, either.'
In fact, it's all worked so well that Aynsley's never actually got around to acquiring that US Strat he so desperately craved as a youngster. 'I just never really needed to. I know this guitar so well, I can plug into anything and get a good sound.'
What he generally prefers to plug into is his '70s 50W Master Volume Marshall JMP 2104 2x12", one of just 200 made with spring reverb - a must for the Lister sound. 'It's the amp I always come back to. I actually managed to find another original one as a back-up, but for some reason it sounded worlds apart.'
Puzzled, he took a trip to Marshall. They immediately realised his treasured amp was not as it had left the factory. 'They took a look inside and found that it had the wrong output transformer; they said it looked like it came from a Fender or a Music Man amp. Apparently it's only putting out about 35 watts, and on paper it shouldn't actually work at all.'
Marshall offered to kit out the amp with the correct transformer, but Aynsley declined. 'They said it would make it brighter and more waspy, like a typical Marshall, but I love it as it is. I have the treble and presence almost all the way up, and it sounds really fat and warm.'
The Marshall's tone is tweaked with a Boss GE-7 graphic EQ that acts like a line driver and which, in Lister's opinion, outperforms many more pricy alternatives. 'The EQ is set flat and I have the level raised by 4 or 5dB, just to push the amp a bit harder and get a little more character out of it. The only other pedals I use are a strobe tuner and a T-Rex Alberta for solos.'
The Strat and Marshall combination covers 90 per cent of the sound on the CD, but cameos are made by a couple of other guitars that are close to Lister's heart. Both were spotted by Aynsley's pal, consummate guitar-hound Rod Thomson.
'Rod is a guitar fanatic. He's always on the lookout. He found the archtop that I use for slide hanging on a junk shop wall. It didn't have a brand name on it and they wanted £60. I said, "It's got no strings! I'll give you £50." Rod put the P90 and the controls on it. The strings are about as low as they'll ever go, and that's still about half an inch high, but it's got a really authentic sound that's brilliant for slide and blues. I play it on the album on Sugar Low through my Fender Deluxe Reverb.'
Aynsley's other guitar - used on his solo gigs, playing old blues tunes in the John Lee Hooker style - is another unusual find. 'I thought a 335 would be great but I didn't have loads of money at the time, so I asked a few friends who were guitar nuts to keep an eye out for me.'
Once again, Rod came up trumps. He spotted another unbranded guitar, a little the worse for wear, in a shop window in Newark. 'The pots were hanging out, the neck was quite bowed and it was in a really bad way, but you could tell it was solid wood and it was well put together. The guy in the store said it was made at the Newark School of Violin Making in the late '70s as part of a course. It had been through a few different people locally.'
The guitar was virtually unplayable, but Rod was convinced it was easily fixable, so the deal was done for just £180. A week later Rod returned it, and Aynsley was staggered. 'It's one of those guitars you can just sit and play for hours. Acoustically, it's really responsive.'
Lister wasn't happy with its DiMarzio Super Distortion pickups but within a couple of months his mate had hit the jackpot again. 'Rod found this guy who had a couple of pickups out of a '65 SG Custom in the loft, and he only wanted £pound;30 each. Now it sounds wonderful.'
He still prefers the violin course special, even though now has a '67 Gibson ES-345. 'The 345 does sound incredible, but the handmade one has got the edge... it's the best 335 I've ever played.' You can hear it in full flow on Quiet Boy! from Tower Sessions, and when he's out solo he puts it through a 15W Princeton Reverb.
Aynsley's just added keyboards to his power trio. 'To start with I was shocked. It made a massive difference to the sound. I think my playing also became a bit more melodic and musical. The whole thing started to breathe a lot more.'
The band had just come off a run of 40 or 50 dates and were on a roll, so Lister decided he wanted to make a permanent document of the live set. There was no time to even organise an audience: they just went into the nearest venue where they knew they could get a good sound - which happened to be the Tower in Winchester - and rattled through the set three or four times. The stand-out track is a 10-minute version of live favourite, Prince's Purple Rain.
'Lots of people at the gigs were asking if we had a CD with Purple Rain on it, and the answer was no, so that was part of the reason for making this album. When we first added it to the set it only lasted five or six minutes, but the more we expanded it the better it went down. It's not the kind of thing you'd do in the studio... it only works in the live setting. There's no overdubs on it, and none anywhere else on the record at all.
'We did Purple Rain in one take. We played the set through once and went off and had a cup of tea, and then we said "Well, what do you think?" We weren't going for technical perfection, and there's a great looseness to it. We captured exactly what you would get at a gig.'