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Geared Up: Charlie Cunningham Discusses His Antonio Bernal Flamenco Guitar

For our latest Geared Up interview, we discuss with Charlie Cunningham his favourite Antonio Bernal Flamenco guitar, first-ever instrument, and some other random related gear questions.



Charlie Cunningham, photo by Bennie Curnow

As an artist, Charlie Cunningham is proof positive that hard work really does pay off. That’s not to take anything away from the singer-songwriter’s immense talents, but it’s his work ethic which has gotten him to this point, on the brink of releasing his third full-length album, Frame, on March 31st. You may have gotten wind of the album coming soon through the release of the singles “So It Seems” and “Downpour,” and more recently “Bird’s Eye View,” the latter a sweet, delicate dedication to his grandmother who passed away at the age of 100 just before the pandemic began.

As the singles that have already been released have suggested, Frame will be a collection of delicate acoustic pop songs with plenty of influences intertwined from the worlds of art rock, golden era jazz, and neo-classical composition. The lyrics are very much autobiographical, with the tracks well connected by the themes of heartbreak, spirituality, grief, and climate-related anxiety.

The road to now has not been an easy one for Cunningham, but he has persevered. Growing up with dyslexia, he could not read music reliably, but despite such significant obstacles, he still earned a music degree and, by his 20s, was a songwriter and performer. For a few years, he disappeared to Seville, where he became very passionate about flamenco music, but he eventually returned to the UK, where his songwriting career really blossomed.

Today, we have turned the page from songwriting to gear. For our latest Geared Up interview, we discuss with Cunningham his favourite Antonio Bernal Flamenco guitar, his first-ever instrument, and some other random related gear questions.

First things first, what’s your current setup?

Charlie Cunningham: “I play an Antonio Bernal Flamenco/classical guitar which contains a K&K Sound ‘Pure Classic’ Pickup. I put that through a Grace Design Felix 2 pre-amp, and I’m using an Empress Reverb Pedal at the moment.”

What one piece of gear do you use to obtain your signature sound?

“I think it has to be my guitar; I have a technique of playing that lends itself best to a nylon string.”

How did you come to possess this particular guitar? Vintage shop, regular shop, borrowed money, gifted? Give us the details.

“I bought it from Antonio Bernal’s workshop in Seville about ten years ago. Having lived there for a couple of years and having been playing a relatively cheap one up to that point, I told myself that once I had reached a certain level, I would get myself something special, that felt like it was earned, but that also made me want to get better. Up to that point, I had been playing a relatively cheap guitar which just happened to be at the flat I was renting; it belonged to a guy who decided the guitar wasn’t for him, which was great for me.”

What made you choose this particular guitar and were there any close seconds or alternatives?

“I went into Antonio’s shop, he’s extremely nice and welcoming, but it was very intimidating as there are photos of legendary Flamenco guitarists playing his instruments all over the wall. I sheepishly had a go on a couple of his guitars. In those moments, you forget everything that you’ve ever known how to play!

“Once I had pulled myself together and was getting close to making a decision, Antonio put one more in my hands, I felt an instant connection with it. It cost a little more than I was planning to spend, so I had to do a couple of walks around the block to think about it, but I decided to buy it, and I’ve been playing it ever since.”

What about this guitar specifically makes it so important to you?

“I think it’s because it feels like I really earned it, and it represents a significant part of my life.”

How easy is it for you to tweak the Grace and get the tone/sounds you need?

“The Grace is very tweakable. The placement of the pick-up isn’t, so you have to make sure it’s fitted properly to start with.”

Do you have a special way that you recreate your album tones in a live setting, or is it more just plug-and-play?

“The big issue has always been trying to translate the natural sound of my guitar, which is an acoustic instrument, through a big PA. I tried quite a few options over the years as I didn’t want to drill a hole in my guitar for a jack-input. We really struggled with a standard Di box and various detachable pick-up options, especially with ‘low frequency’ stability on the pickup.

“Eventually, it seemed like a permanent pickup needed to be the way to go. K&K make very natural-sounding transducer pickups, and the ability to fine-tune the exact position of each of the four transducers combined with Grace Designs transparent, high quality, low noise preamps was a game changer. The Grace has two input channels with variable impedance switches and phase adjustments for each individually allowing us to achieve an accurate, stable signal at the source. Two parametric EQs with notch filters and high pass filters have given us added tools and flexibility to tailor the guitar tone at the source and remove or reduce any issues before the signal passes through to the house PA system.

“Depending on the show, I often add in a DPA 4099 instrument mic with guitar mount to the mix. This brings out the natural woodiness of the guitar and provides a more authentic tone, especially on solo and instrumental tracks.”

How does your guitar hold up with regular touring and gigging?

“My guitar is hanging in there! I’ve only ever gigged with the same one. It’s had a few knocks along the way but nothing serious, thank goodness.

“The main issue is always the temperature change as it goes on airplanes and into different climates, it doesn’t like that, and it can cause some tuning issues; I try and combat that by leaving it on stage after soundcheck so that it gets used to the room.”

What was your first-ever instrument?

“We were very fortunate to have a piano in the house when we were growing up. The first thing that was my own was a big acoustic steel string that my neighbour gave me; I remember it felt huge; I was about eleven years old. And the strings were in a bit of a sorry state; it was my favourite thing.”

What piece of gear has given you the longest service? Are you still using it?

“My current guitar I’ve had for over ten years, I feel like it will have to go to into retirement at some point, but I think I’d feel a bit lost without it. Unfortunately, that piano is no longer with us.”

Charlie Cunningham “Downpour” single artwork

Charlie Cunningham “Downpour” single artwork

Destroying instruments on stage: yay or nay?

“It adds a good bit of theatre/drama for the audience, for sure! But I think it would be a little misplaced with the music I make, plus I wouldn’t have anything to play the next day!”

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done with a musical instrument?

“I feel anxious every time I put it through the oversized baggage conveyer belt at the airport. I always wonder whether it could be the last time we see each other.”

Have you ever had any of your gear stolen or gone missing? Did you ever get it back?

British Airways has misplaced my guitar a couple of times; it’s very stressful.”

What setup did you spend the most time idolizing as a kid growing up?

“It was probably the Fender Stratocaster, but I think that probably had quite a lot to do with the movie Wayne’s World. Once I was aware of it, I saw how many of the greats played them. I eventually became more of a Telecaster guy, but I still hope to own a Strat one day. Fingers crossed.”

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