Gwyn Ashton has gained a reputation as one the UK’s finest live players, delivering gritty, riffy, edgy, high-volume blues guitar, both as a solo artist and in company with percussionist ‘Killer’ Kev Hickman in his mean, lean, double-header combo Two Man Blues Army. He’s got his own sound and his own writing style, but at the same time he’s passionate about classic guitars and amps and emulating the original sounds of his heroes, such as Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher and Stevie Ray Vaughan. ‘Sure, we all know it’s in the fingers,’ says Gwyn in his distinct Aussie drawl, ‘but with the right gear, I like to think I’m getting into the same ballpark.’
Though Gwyn is usually dubbed an Aussie, and indeed he feels more Australian than anything else, he was actually born in Wales. ‘We moved to Adelaide when I was just a nipper, arriving as British immigrants in 1965,’ he explains. ‘I remember leaving a cold and snowy Britain to arrive in 50 degree heat, where about 200 families were herded into this bloody great hostel like a tin shed without walls, where we stayed until we were housed by the government.
‘My first impressions were how hot and how big the country was! Initially we were based in Whyalla, a steel works town in Southern Australia, but my dad had a job in TV and radio which meant we were always travelling and moving house. I had something like 28 schools before I was 16. In hindsight, I think this was an introduction to a lifetime on the road as a musician.
‘The distance between some of these towns was incredible, so we had plenty of time to listen to the car radio en route. I was into Johnny Cash and the whole guitar thing, especially blues-based music from some Australian bands like Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs, Chain, Country Radio and Carson. I was also a real Beatles fan, but later the kids at a lot of the schools said it wasn’t cool to listen to a band that had split up two years before. It was a great time for rock music, although records that were released in the USA or the UK often didn’t appear on the Australian airwaves until six months or a year later.
‘By the age of 16 I was plodding around feeling pretty unsure of the future. By this time we seemed to be a little more settled up in the Adelaide Hills district. It wasn’t long before I bought a guitar, joined a band and got a day job fixing tyres in a dusty, oily gas station. I got my driving license and it felt really cool driving around in an old Vauxhall Victor, but it blew up travelling home at four in the morning after my very first gig. I ended up hitching with a ’60s Maton Sapphire Deluxe strapped across my back. That was a great guitar – it was far from new, but I loved it because it smelt funky!
‘So without a vehicle I spent months illegally hitchhiking the freeways to gigs, until I bought a 1965 Bedford Post Office van which I hoped would solve a lot of problems. On the first trip out, I realised the crankshaft was busted. Working at the garage was ideal as I could repair it in my spare time, but I was sacked when it caught fire while I was pumping gas! Luckily, I managed to rescue the guitar that was in it – my first Fender Strat, a black one bought on hire purchase with my mum as guarantor. Looking back, it was tough, but they were great times.
‘I bought that Strat after a bad experience with a Les Paul. I’d seen Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham playing a white one, so I put in an order. It had to come from the other side of Australia, but by the time it arrived I’d gone off the idea, so I stuck with the Strat.
‘My first band had older guys who were into ’50s and ’60s music, so I was always 10 years out of date. In the ’70s I was playing ’60s stuff, so when Jimi Hendrix arrived I just didn’t get it… I was into Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry, and Adelaide bands like Cold Chisel, who I’ve ended up being buddies with. By 1980, I’d had six years of learning 20 years of music played by my heroes, which now included Hendrix, Billy Gibbons and Rory Gallagher.’
Gwyn’s assembly of guitars for stage and recording is both mighty and deep. Pride of place goes to a white Strat that bears the scars of thousands of miles and years of loving use.
1. Have Guitar Will Travel