The Road to Wijk an Zee – the final chapter

Well, the waiting is nearly over, the Dutch International Rory Gallagher festival begins tomorrow.It’s going to be a great weekend with some great bands and lots of good friends. I would have liked to be there for the Friday night but unfortunately commitments at home make that impossible.

Rory Tribute


So today I’ve been making the last alterations to the Elm Strat, ready for proper action for the first time.


The first thing that had to be done was to file the fret ends again. This time though I finished the job properly as I would a refret on an older guitar. Instead of shaving the ends off uniformly as I normally would a modern guitar and then just taking off the edges to the straight edge of the board, I have really rounded the ends of each fret with the hand file. The neck is like all ‘vintage style strats’, quite narrow, and the string can ‘fall off’ the edge of the fretboard if they are turned over at the full 45 degrees I use on modern wide fretboards.. I have had the guitar in the teaching room for a few days with the central heating up hard, this has dried the neck out properly, and the slight shrinkage that occurs in the ebony as it ‘dries out’ leaves the fret ends exposed ready to filed back. As the wood won’t get much drier than this, I can expect the guitar never to feel sharp again.

When I built the guitar, I set it up to play fairly light- especially in terms of string heights. My other recent build has a 20″ radius and you can hardly slip a cigarette paper between string and fret. Mainly this has been because I have developed a mild case of tendinitis in my left hand, so the hand gets tired and sore quite quickly. Having the ‘superstrat’ set up like this allowed me to play longer without problems.

But you can’t play this kind of music on an instrument set this way. The tension in the sound comes from the player having to fight the tension in the strings, wringing its neck, wrestling the note out of it. So for the first time in what must be now 6 years, I have set up the guitar back to how I would have done my old strat back in the Secret Agent days – strings high off the board, a little more relief in the neck. I set it up to fight back!


Suddenly it’s a different beast altogether. It feels louder and the sustain even at workshop volumes, well it’s Nigel Tufnel territory. In fact I’ve just gone for a coffee and it’s still ringing. Suddenly I feel much more comfortable with it.

Now, when I put the heavy brass slide on the strings it doesn’t rattle onto the tops of the frets, it almost doesn’t sound any different to the fretted note tonally – it’s big and fat sounding with that clean edge to each note.

I also realise now why I used to go through a set of strings each night. If you’re not careful, the left hand pressure that is needed to grip and bend the strings translates itself into a vicious right hand motion that batters the strings with the pick. And really, I don’t need to hit it as hard as I probably will, but it now seems part of the technique that I have developed for playing the Rory Gallagher’s songs.

So it’s time to box it up ready for the rigours of KLM and Schipol baggage handling!

I can’t tell you what a strange, but very pleasant feeling it is to be contemplating being back in the Netherlands  with Tim & Mark (and of course our trusty sidekick Frank van Pardo – couldn’t do it without Frankie!). Last time we were there together was 2009. A lot has changed for all of us since then.  Between us, two weddings, two children, several grandchildren, a solo record and several other musical venture. It’s been a while.

When Paul Handgraaf originally approached me to be involved again this year, he did so not knowing whether putting the band back together would even be feasible. After all, we haven’t played together since 2010 (at Mark’s wedding I think), and we are spread geographically over about 120 miles. But I had a feeling that both Mark and Tim would jump at the opportunity to reform Secret Agent. I wasn’t wrong – they had no reservations at all!

If anyone was apprehensive about it, that was me. I knew that I would find it difficult to learn the songs again, remember all the lyrics, and even to return to playing the aggressive guitar style that I used to. And how true has that prediction turned out to be! Even yesterday I was sat here in the office learning lyrics for the acoustic set, and I’m still not quite done! I’m probably not going to be ‘quite ready’ – which is actually if I’m honest, just about how it always is with me. Never quite as prepared as I’d like to be, flying a little by the seat of the pants! And there’s also the added tension in that we haven’t done this for so long, it will be like doing it for the first time again.

So here we are. This might be Secret Agent’s last mission, our one and only comeback gig. I hope you’re ready for us, we’re coming in at full throttle and we don’t care if we land it on the wheels or the fuselage!

See you Saturday Night!



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