Jim Mullen - Guitar

David Gallant talks to leading musicians about how they got started, the instruments they have played over the years and their all time favourite choice.

Jim Mullen
grew up on the East side of Glasgow in the mid-1940s. “My claim to fame is that I taught Billy Connolly the chords for ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ on the banjo,” he says with a wry chuckle. 
Jim Mullen - Guitar
As teenagers, they had both locked into the local music scene, but as Mullen recalls, “music was something that I became aware of very early on. The radio was always on and it became my connection to the outside world. I was very fortunate in being exposed to the golden age of song writing, getting to hear all the standards – the Gershwins, the Cole Porters and the Irving Berlins, from guys like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.”  

But for Mullen the “ghetto kid,” there was only one way to make music – make your own instrument! Mullen was lucky that his father was a carpenter, and remembers his first instrument being a tea chest bass. “I wanted a guitar,” he says, “but dad found the strutting and the fretwork too much, so he reluctantly allowed me to buy my first instrument on one year’s hire purchase.” The guitar was an Egmond and cost the young Mullen around £10. He laughs: “It was an almost unplayable thing! I was left handed and found myself playing on a right handed instrument – it felt weird holding something in my right hand – but that’s how I started playing with the thumb.” By the tender age of eight, Mullen had already started to listen into jazz. “I had an older friend, about 13 or 14, who was a guitarist and who listened to jazz,” he remembers.

“It was the mid-50s, and for some reason all you could get was the West Coast labels like Pacific Jazz. I would go round his and bother him into letting me listen to the likes of Mundell Lowe, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney and Barney Kessel. I couldn’t relate to this music, or what was going on – but it still fascinated me. I would be like a sponge soaking all this up, trying to figure out what was going on, and to this day, I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on!”
Mullen’s friend also had a ‘proper’ (as Mullen puts it) archtop guitar. “It was a German instrument called a Hopf,he remembers, “and was a straight copy of one of the classic Gibson archtops.” The frustration grew and by the time he was 14, Mullen had mothballed his Egmond and was playing the double bass and bass guitar. “I was lucky to have a good ear,” he says, “so I could hear and identify sounds quite quickly.” Then when he was 18 or 19 he got back into playing the guitar again. “The next guitar I had was a Hofner solid,” he says. Then on reflection – “a cheesy copy of a Les Paul!”  

Over the next few years, Mullen would go onto play with a number of semi-pro bands, one of which would metamorphose into the highly successful AWB (Average White Band). In 1969 he decided to venture south and was hired by Pete Brown to join his band Piblocto. “By this time,” remembers Mullen, “I had a Gibson SG special, and I used this instrument for the next few years and on into the time that I played with Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express.” From there he had a short (and tempestuous) stint with Elkie Brooks and Vinegar Joe, before once again finding his musical feet with the band Kokomo.

“I was around 27, and Kokomo became really big. We ended up doing a tour of the States with Earth, Wind & Fire,he says. “Now that was something.” But the big, heavy sounds didn’t suit Mullen, and he was eager to get back to the quieter, more melodic moods of jazz, and in 1975 found a kindred spirit in the saxophonist Dick Morrissey. “We were listening to jazzers like Stanley Turrentine andGeorge Benson, who were on the CTI label, and saying to ourselves – this is where we want to be.” Mullen changed from solid bodied instruments to the archtop models that he had so admired years before.

“I currently have an Aria Herb Ellis, and a larger blonde Aria FA51. This gives me a much darker sound than the smaller Herb Ellis and it’s the one I use as my road guitar. I also have a prototype archtop by the English luthier Andy Crockett. But this is such a beautiful instrument that I daren’t take it to a gig – it’s my recording guitar.” And what amplification does Mullen use to create those deep, warm tones? “I’m not into heavy gear, so at the moment I’m using a Gallien & Kruger 65 watt bass amp, with a 12 inch speaker. I used to use Fender Twins, but the Gallien & Kruger is so portable – it’s great to be able to sling it over my shoulder and just jump on a bus!”