Early in her career, a teenage Chantel McGregor was turned down by a record label executive who appreciated her voice but chastised her musical approach, remarking, “Girls don’t play guitar like that.”
Photo by Steve Howdle
McGregor, who picked up the guitar at age three and was playing in bands by age 12, redirected but was undeterred. She enrolled at Leeds College of Music, where she earned a degree in Popular Music, graduated with honors, was awarded Musician of the Year,
and became the first student in the school’s history to achieve a 100 percent pass mark.
After graduation, she opted for the independent route and launched her own record label, Tis Rock Music. In 2011, she released her debut album, Like No Other, which was followed four years later by Lose Control.
Between albums, McGregor has toured consistently in the U.K. and Europe, cementing her reputation as a virtuoso guitarist and powerful singer with repeat wins at the annual British Blues Awards. Along the way, she performed with Joe Bonamassa on two of his U.K. tours, contributed a track to the compilation album 100 Years of the Blues, appeared in the 2010 documentary The Original Twang, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Fender Telecaster, and charted singles including “Take The Power,” which spent five weeks on playlist rotation on Planet Rock radio. Not bad for a “girl who plays guitar like that.”
Guitar Girl Magazine caught up with Chantel McGregor via e-mail as she was preparing for her 2018 fall tour.
Our first question, of course: When will there be a new album? Is there something in the works, and if so, are there any details?
Album 3 has been a long time coming. It’s been a tricky couple of years for me, family-wise, so that has sort of taken over everything. Between that and touring, finding time to write and work on Album 3 has been a bit tricky! That’s recently sort of concluded itself, so now I have a bit more time to write the next album.
Lose Control and Like No Other were produced by Livingstone Brown, whose resume is quite diverse — from Ed Sheeran to Shakira. That working relationship began when you were 15. How did it come about, how has it grown, and what makes him right for your music?
Livi and I work so well together. I met him when I was 15 and working with another producer in Nottingham. Livi came in to do some production on some of the things we were working on and we hit it off. He’s a fantastic producer and always gets the best from me. I’ve learned so much from him about arranging and production. It’s always a pleasure to work with him.
In a 2015 interview with MusicRadar, you said, “I’m also a bit of a control freak, I like things being done my way and being able to say when it’s done without being told by someone else!” How does that translate into working with musicians and a producer? Are you able to easily step aside, encourage ideas, and take direction?
I think I’m a control freak as a form of quality control, be that in live work, studio, business, etc. I’ve always been this way. I work on the theory if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I still take direction from other people and love working with other people, bouncing ideas around, but I do like the ultimate say in the quality of things, making sure everything is how I want it.
Speaking of musicians, please tell us about your band, your history together, and what they bring to your sound.
I’m really happy with my current band. We get along great and the music is fabulous. I’ve been through a few lineup changes over the years as the band has evolved, which has changed the sound in various ways. I think the lineup now is the heaviest it has sounded,
and probably the most technical.
I’ve known Colin, my bass player since I was about 15. He was in a band with some other friends. I remember back then wishing that I could one day have him in my band. A few years ago, I needed a bass player and asked him, he said yes, and we’ve worked together
since. He’s a lecturer in Bass and Popular Music Studies at Leeds College of Music.
Ollie joined my band a couple of years ago. Colin had recommended him, as he’d done a few jazz gigs with him. I met Ollie for a beer and we got along great, I trusted Colin’s
recommendation, and Ollie joined us. He’s a phenomenal drummer and only 24 years old.
Both Colin and Ollie are great to work with as they really push my playing and make me think outside of the box. Plus they’re good fun and good friends, which when you’re spending days on the road together, you need to be with good friends!
In a podcast interview, you discussed “mind maps” as a songwriting tool. How did you come across this process and how long have you applied it to songwriting? Do you still use it?
It’s a process I’ve seen a lot of people teach and it’s highly recommended. It basically just stretches your ideas out so you’re exploring every avenue of the subject you’re writing about. I also use imagery when I’m writing, so I’ll find pictures or artwork on the internet and have them on my computer whilst I’m writing. It’s really useful to get emotion into lyrics and to put you “inside the song.”
What is the recording process like for you? How do you track guitars both spontaneously and precisely — enough takes, but not so many as to lose the live edge?
I really enjoy working in the studio. It’s a totally different thing to live shows, but it’s so satisfying.
Basically, we go in as a band, play the songs to a click track, which records the drum parts, then build the rest of the instruments around the drums.
I tend to be very precious about my guitar parts, so there’s lots of takes until I’m happy with a take that is perfect and captures the excitement. I also like to do a lot of layering with the guitars. I like to give it a more complex sound, and it can be really interesting to
weave the harmony and melody through the guitar parts.
I like to arrange things at the demo stage. It gives me a good idea of how things will sound in the studio. Of course, things evolve, get added, taken away, etc., in the studio, but it’s good to go into the studio with a vision of how you want the finished product to
Are there certain recording techniques that you swear by for guitar sounds and vocals?
I like to use a few different outputs for the guitar, so I tend to split the signal through two valve amps, with microphones, and then a clean DI into the computer and also sometimes re-amp through a processor. I find that by doing this, you can get some really
interesting sounds. I think it’s good to have a really individual sound. It would be so easy to just use one amp, but then it wouldn’t give such an individual sound. It’s so important to experiment with the sound and find what sonically works best in the track.
Vocal-wise, I love using harmonies and tracking to create interesting melodies. I think you can get some really interesting things going on through weaving backing vocal parts through the main vocals. I use a lot of layering when it comes to vocals.
Is it true that you own over 40 guitars? Which ones are your go-to instruments for the studio and the stage?
My dad used to play the guitar and regrets selling so many guitars over his younger years, so since I started playing, he’s kept hold of any guitars that he’s bought. I’m incredibly lucky, as it means that I have many different sounds to choose from for the studio.
For my live shows, I mainly use a Music Man JP6 Piezo and a Fender Strat Plus Deluxe (tuned to Drop D) as my electric guitars and a Taylor GS Mini Koa as my acoustic.
For the last album, in the studio, I used a classical guitar for the acoustic tracks. Livi and I found that it gave a lovely mellow tone to the tracks.
What else is in your rig?
At the moment I use either a Carvin Legacy 3 or a Carvin VM3 amp head with a Thiele ported Mesa Boogie cab with an EV speaker, which has a lovely warm sound.
I use 9-42 Fender 360L strings. They’re stainless steel, so they don’t irritate my hands (some strings react with my skin). I’ve recently started using slightly thicker picks, 0.71mm. I used to use Jim Dunlop 0.43mm picks, but I found I was breaking so many of
them. I really like the tone the new thicker picks produce. I use a variety of pedals on my pedalboard and run them through a One Control Iguana Tail Loop:
Hotline, Mini Wah
Boss, TU3 Tuner
Shure, GLXD16 – wireless guitar system
Electro-Harmonix, Micro Pog – octave
TC Electronic, Petrucci Dreamscape – chorus
TC Electronic, Flashback Mini – delay
TC Electronic, Spark – boost
JHS, Sweet Tea – distortion
If I’m touring abroad and it’s a one-off fly-in show and I’m using a provided amp and cab, I take a Tech 21 Fly Rig, Kotzen pedal, which has a delay, distortion, boost, preamp all built into a small pedal.
For my acoustic setup, at the moment I’m using a Tech 21 Sansamp Acoustic Fly Rig pedal. It has a sweepable, semi-parametric active EQ, a low pass filter, a preamp, compressor,
reverb, notch filter, boost, delay, and chorus. It’s a fantastic sound.
You’re described as a blues guitarist, which is certainly accurate, but with recent recordings and gigs, you’ve leaned toward a more rock sound. Has it been challenging to bring the audience along as you … not shedding that title, of course, but as you expand your horizons as a recording artist and live performer?
I think my style crosses many genres. When I was younger (ages 12-16), I used to go to jam sessions most nights of the week, so I cut my teeth on improvisation, psychedelic rock, blues, country, etc. — basically anything anyone threw at me. I think it’s so
important to learn and listen to all different styles. It’s easy to just say “I play blues” and close yourself off to everything else, but I think to be a well-rounded musician you have to consider every style and genre.
I really enjoy playing rock. I’ve always been interested in rock bands; even as a child, I used to play along to Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden CDs. I think my style has always been rock. I think I was labeled “blues” at the start of my career, as the two genres are
often so closely related through guitar solos, and a lot of rock has its roots in blues. I honestly think and have always said there are two different genres of music, good and bad, and both of those categories are down to the individual and are subjective. I’m so lucky with my fans, in that they appreciate what I’m trying to do with my music. They enjoy the fact that I experiment and try different styles like for instance, I have been doing some acoustic solo shows, which are totally different from the band shows, but people enjoy them equally.
There seem to be two schools of thought regarding playing guitar. One believes that it’s important to study theory and know how to read. The other believes that study creates limits and rules, and it’s best to learn on one’s own. You come from both backgrounds. What are your thoughts about each?
I think it’s important to do both. It’s not imperative, but it helps. I think if you’re armed with knowledge about theory and reading if you get it thrown at you, you know how to deal with it. It also gives you the knowledge to be able to arrange properly and work
with different techniques for songwriting. I think it only limits you if you become so wrapped up in it that you can’t think outside the box and work without the theory, i.e., sheet music being a necessity. I do think that the practical side of music and working with your ears is incredibly important. That’s the only way to get feeling and emotion into the music.
How do you incorporate each into your practice? How much is theory and scales, and how much is improvisation and tossing the rules aside?
I don’t get much time to practice at the moment, unfortunately, as everything is so busy with the business and the touring. When I do practice, I tend to do a lot of improvising rather than scales and theory. I do want to start brushing up on my theory again when I
get a bit more time.
You’ve spoken about the need and importance of working with other musicians. With the advent of technology, and the ability to program an entire band and make an album from the privacy of one’s home studio, has jamming become a great lost art? Is it still something you do with your band and with others?
I think both working with other people and alone has equal merit. I think the art of improvisation is getting lost somewhat, as people don’t seem to just jam things as much anymore when learning; they seem to learn songs or solos. To me, it’s so important to find
your own unique style through improvisation and not just copying someone else’s style and technique. Also from a creative point of view, the ability to work with others and experiment is imperative. I still love jamming and improvisation, and in our live shows, we
do quite a lot of this. Obviously, we have set song structures, but the solos in some of the songs like “April” and “Walk On Land” are all improvised on the night. I love doing this as it gives each show something unique for the audience and for ourselves. It also means that you can get different emotions into every performance, keeping it fresh and exciting.
I think the ability to work alone is also really important. For instance, I like to write alone. I am quite self-conscious about what I write, and I like to perfect it as much as I can on my own before letting other people hear it.
What is next for you? Is there any chance that we’ll see you on tour in the U.S.?
I’m working on Album 3 at the moment. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s getting there. I’m also planning on recording an acoustic album, as a lot of my fans who have been to the solo shows have asked for one.
I have a busy tour coming up for the rest of the year in the U.K., which will be great fun.
I’d love to come and play in the U.S. I get many offers to play festivals there, but sadly, the visa situation is a total nightmare. It’s ridiculously expensive and difficult to get a visa to play there. That, coupled with the costs involved, makes it hard to be viable. Hopefully one day this will change (or I can get a tour set up or a tour supporting someone fabulous!), but at the moment I’m concentrating on the U.K. and Europe.