21/05/2012 19:12 BST | Updated 18/07/2012 06:12 BST

Nigel Price: Striking Chords

To paraphrase a well-known British songwriter, he's got a pick in his pocket and it makes him a player. Nigel Price, one of the leading lights of the UK funk and jazz scene, spoke to Jason Holmes about his taste in music and how devotion to the guitar transformed his life

Just back from a tour of England with The Filthy Six, which included dates in Derby, Newcastle, London, Cardiff and Bristol, plus five dates in Ireland in Dublin, Belfast, Limerick, Galway and Dundalk, Nigel Price looks tired, and yet sated, his countenance a mix of elation and exhaustion.

We take a table in the back of The Blue Posts on Berwick Street in London's Soho and in the gloom he bears a passing, but much healthier, resemblance to Mani from Primal Scream, but I elect to remain silent on that point. The ferry back from Ireland left at midnight and he and the band only got back at 6am that morning. The band members have rehearsals or music classes to teach and will carry them out despite the hangovers and lack of sleep.

'The best gig was in Dundalk,' says Nigel. 'The hospitality was second to none. Unbelievably nice people. The minute I got back to London, my back was up, I had road rage!'

Nigel, 42, was born in Molesey in Surrey and now lives in Epsom with his long-term partner and three children. The previous week, when The Filthy Six performed at The Social on Little Portland Street, a sea of young women were heaving at the stage's edge, all eyes on the musicians. 'They weren't looking at me,' he says. 'I've got that "I am hitched" look etched across my forehead.'

Nigel's stage presence is low key and that of the serious musician. 'When you're part of the jazz scene, all us musicians have phones full of numbers. It's a question of spreading yourself far and wide and not limiting the number of people with whom you work. We're all slags, us freelance musicians. I mean, why wouldn't you work as much as possible?'

For this columnist's money he's the best jazz guitarist to be seen in a long while, with phrasing that nears perfection. 'How good a musician is is directly proportionate to the amount of time he puts in for practice. I think anyone who can actually play an instrument has put a shedload of time into mastering it. And the guitar is no different.'

Eric Clapton slept with his guitar for one year to master the blues, I say. 'One year? That's nothing,' comes the reply. 'I started playing the guitar when I was 11. I picked it up and was amazing immediately!' he laughs. 'But seriously, my first guitar was an £8 job, an electric Kay. I paid for it myself. But before that I had built a cardboard guitar and practised chord positions on that, so by the time I got the real thing, I already knew the chords.'

I mention how The Who made their own guitars as kids by nailing lengths of wire to wooden boards. 'Well, I'm not very good at carpentry,' he says. 'I left school at 16, but I never thought music would be my first profession. I used to play bass back then for a short while. Music was my calling.'

Nigel performed with David Axelrod at the Royal Festival Hall in 2004 and in 2005 he returned to his jazz funk roots and spent three years playing with the James Taylor Quartet. He has performed with the BBC big band and has led his organ trio to first place in the All Party Parliamentary Jazz Appreciation Group (APPJAG) awards for the 'best ensemble' in 2010. He has also played with Carleen Anderson, Snowboy, Pee Wee Ellis, Pete Long, Dave O'Higgins, Don Weller and Pete King, to name just a few. Being the busy gigger that he is, he also leads the Nigel Price Organ Trio which comprises Matt Home on drums and Pete Whittaker on Hammond organ.

It was when Nigel was rehearsing for the Axelrod gig that he first heard about Nick Etwell's band [The Filthy Six]. 'One of the guys said "Who wants to see Nick's band tomorrow night?" and I thought, I like the sound of that.

'The Filthy Six was going for a couple of years before I joined it. They had a great guitarist called Jerry Haglund, but he moved back to Sweden and left the door open for me, so I stepped into his place. I couldn't believe that there were these guys doing it like I wanted to do it. They're kindred spirits. The band's influences include Lou Donaldson, Donald Byrd and Grant Green.

'With the guitar it was, you know, having something to do; with music, it was having a purpose in life. I always knew I would stick with the music. I've had a look at pop music, yeah, when I was young, because you have to explore all genres when you can.'

'Haircut 100?'

He laughs. 'Yeah, I had a little look at them, but they used to wear their guitars too high for me!

'I'm not keen on using effects pedals on a guitar. For me they are "talent boosters", so I'd rather go without and have a purer sound. Not that I think others shouldn't use them, of course. A guitar magazine once asked me to speak about what I used and I said "I plug in, and I play". That's it, really. Using pedals produces effects which are easily replicated from one player to the next. And really, they just get in the way.'

And what about his guitar of choice? 'Charlie Crabtree, the maker of my main guitar, a Crabtree, I guess, saw me play and suggested I started using one of his handmade models. He comes from Lewes in East Sussex, which is a town well known for its luthiers. I went down to see him a few months later and tried out a couple of his guitars and told him, in no uncertain terms, what I didn't like about them. Which annoyed him a bit. But he agreed to make me a guitar with me involved at every step of the process.

'I've got this welt, or dent, in my arm which has just developed over the years from me draping my arm over the guitar body, so I told him the guitar had to be exactly the same shape as my last one.

'I insisted that the neck be exactly the same too. Charlie measured it with a micrometer. I wanted the neck wide but shallow. I mean, my hands aren't big enough to play a deep neck. I was there for about seven hours as he sanded it all down. The more he took off, the more annoyed he got. He stopped at one point and said that if I made him take off any more I was going to ruin it. But when I finally said stop, it's fine now, he stopped. Annoyed but relieved.

'Then he measured it again, and he went very quiet. The reason being, it was the same as my last guitar neck to within one thousandth of an inch, and he said "You know what you want, dontcha!"

'It's a really good thing to have done, while you're alive, you know, to have a guitar made to your own spec. Charlie and I have become good friends now. I see quite a lot of him.'

So people still have an appetite for the jazz scene? 'The jazz scene in the UK is still healthy. It comes in and out of vogue in the media, but as far as I can tell, it's as popular as ever. And people get into jazz later in life because there's substance to it.

'The "scene" is what you see as a jobbing musician. It's what is going on. It's not a rumour or a notion, but who you meet and what you play and what they play. A player makes his name by turning up to a session and playing well so, unless you're socially inept, you will always keep getting called back.

'When I improvise on stage, it's a dredging up of things as you react to what's going on around you. Of course, you can fall back on certain licks, but really it's about the language of music in that given moment. So, I have no idea until that moment of what I will say through my guitar.

'For every jazz musician who makes it, for want of a better expression, there's another 250 who don't, and they're also jazz fans who support the whole scene along with the other punters.'

Has he had another job in his life? 'Before I was a pro musician, I was an infantryman in the 1st Battalion of The Duke of Wellington's Regiment. I was also a gardener in a mental hospital. You'd plant flowers in a flowerbed, and by the time you got to the other end, someone would be eating them at the other. So, yes, I have lived a little bit,' he says, grinning. 'I started playing the guitar because it was a sociable thing. We got a band together from the very start. If music remains a bedroom thing, it puts people off it as a career.

'Being a musician is still not recognised as a proper trade. I love what I do, but at the same time, I do want to be paid. I did 30 gigs in April. It's where the money is, because the downloading situation is sinking the music industry. People aren't paying for music like they used to.

'I'm in The Filthy Six but also have my own organ trio known as, believe it or not, the Nigel Price Organ Trio, which has a nice swinging feel.

'When The Filthy Six recorded the album [The Fox on Acid Jazz Records], it was because we all made time for it and did it quickly, using live takes, to capture the feel of the moment. It's odd, because really the best moment is now. My next gig. It's always the present that informs and drives me. So the LP is a calling card. We were album of the week on Jazz FM [the digital station].

'I do seventy five per cent of my gigs in London, but I can't wait to get out to pastures quieter. I can't knock the gigs I do here, but the audience can sometimes be, how shall we say, "inattentive".'

I ask him about his musical influences. 'My guitar heroes are Wes Montgomery. He's the default setting for great tone, taste and feel of straight ahead jazz. My musical appreciation started from a historical perspective, so I went backwards before I went forwards. In fact I think I'm still going backwards! And George Benson! He's a phenomenal player. A kid at the Dundalk gig asked me who I thought was a great player and I said just check out George Benson! Ivan 'Boogaloo Joe' Jones, too. The Black Whip album from 1973 was superb. I was knocked out by it. He was high energy without distortion. I loved the style of it. It's hard to put into words; maybe it's a bit like being into antiques. There's something wonderful about the tone of an old jazz guitar.

'My inspiration comes from my favourite records. That's how I developed my taste, by first playing along to records and then saying to myself that yes, perhaps I could do this for a living. In holding my own with some classic recordings, it gave me a knowledge of my own ability as a player.'

How many guitars does he own? 'I'm only allowed five at any one time...' He laughs. 'It's a policy of one in, one out with my partner. I've got a back-up guitar, a Gibson 137. I like my action a bit low on the fretboard. I can't have it too high or I'll end up with swollen tendons.'

The fingertips of his left hand look remarkably smooth. 'My fingers aren't calloused because I use round strings, and after years of playing I know precisely the right amount of pressure required. Some people's fingers fall apart because they don't know exactly where to apply the pressure on the board.'

When asked if he'd consider playing classical music his answer is firm: 'No, it's not for me. It would take a large effort on my part to acquaint myself with the discipline now. There's enough in the jazz idiom for me to be getting on with, anyway.'

Is he the best jazz guitarist in the UK right now? He shakes his head. 'Loads of people are better than me, so I just have to be happy with the sound I make and the type of player I want to be. You only get one shot at this, so you have to be single-minded. The guitar is the hardest instrument to play. I may be chastised for that, but I stand by it.

'When I was 26 and my partner was pregnant with our first child, I had the wake-up call. I realised then that I had to devote myself to the music. I built it up so that I was doing three of four hours of practice every morning, at that point. When our baby came along, life was turned on its head, and so I began in earnest to gig and earn. And I haven't stopped.

'I practise early in the morning, take the kids to school, come home and continue. But there's nothing worse than getting through a day and then realising I haven't got round to picking up the guitar. That's when I feel guilt. Guilt at having ignored my vocation. Other than my family and my health, it's the most important thing. The more I practise, the more I realise how much more there is to learn.

'The only reason I have the things that I have is because I am so fucking good at the guitar!' he wisecracks. 'No seriously, if you're not prepared to put the effort in today, why would you be prepared to put it in tomorrow? And that, I believe, is why people want to play with me.'

'I am my own worst critic, and I know that what I'm doing, technique-wise, is officially wrong, that is, my picking is unorthodox because I tend to pick upwards across the strings, but it came naturally. It's called inside picking: it helps avoid string skipping. It's also partly because I've broken my right little finger five times and so I can't rest my hand on the guitar body for support.'

What about the sitar? Does he want to stretch himself to a raga? 'I tried the sitar, but I couldn't get on with it. Especially sitting in the ladies position! I'm not supple enough. It's another discipline entirely, so I leave that to the fellas who have devoted themselves to it. I just want to keep on playing and getting better while at the same time playing with the best players I can, be it here or in the world at large.

'Gigging has taken me overseas, but there are problems associated with that because I love my family and home life. I'm happy to do things for very little money and for the love of it, but the idea of getting on a plane and travelling hundreds of miles just to play one gig doesn't really interest me. Once I played a gig in Kuala Lumpur; that was a lot of aviation fuel to burn just for one gig!

'We [the James Taylor Quartet] supported Whitney Houston once. I have a picture of my wah-wah pedal next to her microphone. That was the closest we got to her. Such is the touring game. But catching a plane somewhere is so easy now, and people are now so blasé about it. And I don't like that. Being at Stansted is as commonplace as standing in line at Asda.'

Does he take his craft, his genius for granted? Nigel looks at me owlishly over his Guinness: 'Not at all. I've worked hard for every single thing I've got and I manage myself. The admin of being a musician is all-consuming. It takes up so much time on email to arrange gig dates. If I let my missus organise my diary, it would be full of completely different things, trust me!

'And when, and if, people have tried to dissuade me from being a professional musician, it only makes me want to do it more. The lack of job security is the worst thing. The future is a blank page that I fill with gig dates. But you can't worry about it, that's the thing. The diary's looking alright at the moment, so I have no reason to be miserable.'

© Jason Holmes, May 2012