Is there such thing as a ‘career’ in music? We tend to assume it’s the biggest artists who can successfully make money from playing music, but fame is fickle and irrational, so there can never be the guarantee of widespread popular acclaim. Releasing music as Chris Woods Groove, Chris Woods is a percussive guitarist living in North London, whose talent and commitment have secured him a career of a different, and far more reliable, kind.
Chris Woods makes his living by playing solo gigs and teaching people how to imitate his unique percussive style across the UK and further afield. He says that, for him, making a living from music can actually be easier than for more mainstream musicians. “I’m never gonna get a big break with some massive hit single, and I’m not going to fit into an X Factor bracket in any way, shape, or form. But that makes it easier in some ways, because I need to make it financially viable, and I’m not gonna just sit round and wait for something epic to happen – so you get on with working out different ways to make a bit of cash. I can sell things like the music for each tune, because guitarists like what I do, so they want to learn it, because it’s particularly sort of ‘guitar-y’. And I have a book on how to play the style, and that gets sold in America and the UK.”.
Chris’ playing style is his main selling-point: through a combination of self-teaching and lessons whilst at university, Chris has developed a skilful, richly-textured sound which draws on jazz, pop, rock, and classical music. “When I was learning jazz playing, I was basically trying to learn to play as a solo guitarist rather than playing in bands. I thought the idea of writing solo guitar stuff would be kind of cool. Turns out it’s not very cool, but I enjoy it. There’s a way [jazz guitarists] play that means you’re not just strumming a chord, you’re playing the bassline and the melody and a chord at the same time. And then I think I just started to take it a little bit further, I guess, and then started to listen to John Martyn, so that it started to seep in, really.”
Despite the tricks garnered from his jazz training, Chris Woods’ music is hard to place into a genre. “Ultimately it’s just instrumental music, and that’s sort of a genre in itself. I’m certainly not rock, I’m certainly not blues, I’m certainly not, like, dubstep or anything.” Chris is aware of instrumental music’s marginalised position in modern popular music, but he doesn’t think it should have to be ‘niche’. “What I find most surprising is the idea that instrumental music is almost something strange. I’ve listened to instrumental music all my life. Not just instrumental music, but it’s been part of my listening library, and some of that is the most powerful, emotional music that I’ve ever heard. I’m not saying my music is the most powerful, emotional music you’ll ever hear, but I think music is music: it makes you feel stuff. And lyrics are wonderful and beautiful, but they’re just part of a package, aren’t they?” Chris has written lyrics in the past, which he says he has “really enjoyed”, but his solo tracks are designed to stand alone. “I’m writing them as pieces of music, so it doesn’t really come into my head to write lyrics or to try and get a singer. I think they would just sound like bad songs with lyrics squeezed into them, ‘cause they’re not designed for that.”
For a while, we discuss whether it is possible to express as much in an instrumental track as it is in a song with lyrics. Chris says that lyrics “resonate with people better”, but “words can be really contrived, whereas music, it’s just sound, isn’t it? You don’t have to worry about sound being contrived.” Nevertheless, he still tries to communicate meaning in his music. “Usually there’s a bit of a story behind stuff, purely because something’s coming out, and I start to build a picture of what it might be about. And then I focus on that image, that idea, so it doesn’t become a meandering mess of notes and tricks. [Then] I’ve got a clear focus of a feeling or an atmosphere, a progression or a story.”
Considering the way he writes, Stories for Solo Guitar is a fitting title for Chris Woods’ debut album. Despite his songwriting’s highly personal focus, he is not immune to a bit of straight-up imitation of his favourite artists – it is refreshing that he admits it, as I suspect most artists do it. My favourite track on his Woodcraft EP is ‘Rolling Hills’, which was inspired by John Mayer. Yet, even when conscious of his influences, Chris takes it in his own direction. “I was listening to [John Mayer’s] ‘Neon’, and I was trying to rip off some of his sound, and I just kinda got that riff going on really. But then once again, it blended into stuff that was happening at the time. I was living in the West Country and it was one of those turbulent times when friendship groups sort of implode on themselves, so that became the focus really.”
It is clear from Chris’ uniqueness that at least some of his talent comes naturally, but the story of how and when he learned to play could give heart to anyone hoping to develop a skill after the malleable childhood years. “I was a late starter to music, I think. You know how it is when you’re a kid or a young adult, you’re either into music and bands or you’re into football, y’know what I mean? You almost fit into a ‘genre’. I wasn’t part of that creative genre of people until much later, and then it sort of hit me really, all of a sudden, all this music. So yeah, I was really late I think. But that was cool, because I probably felt like I was making up for lost time.”
Finally, I ask Chris with whom he would particularly like to collaborate, given the chance. Since we had talked mostly about a range of singer-songwriters, I’m surprised when he chooses jazz drummers. “There’s a guy called Benny Greb and a guy called Jojo Mayer, and either of those two I’d really love to sit down with, particularly Jojo Mayer.”
Though their music is an entirely different listen from Chris Woods Groove material, I realise that all three would be placed on a store’s ‘instrumental’ shelves. The genre of instrumental music is so varied and huge, it holds thousands of untold gems for listeners who have never ventured away from HMV’s Pop/Rock section. If you have never heard Chris Woods Groove, perhaps it’s time to make up for lost time yourself.