Top Topham Interview: The Original Yardbirds Guitar Hero

By: Matt Warnock

Before there was Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, there was Top Topham. The original guitarist in one of the most famous, guitar-hero filled bands in rock history, Topham was the guitarist who started it all. Though his tenure with the band was short lived, being only 15 years old at the time his parents had issues with his late nights spent jamming in clubs, his influence can still be felt to this day. A blues lover at heart, in the same vein as Eric Clapton was when he was with the band, Topham has continued to record and perform stellar blues-inspired music after leaving The Yardbirds back in 1963.

A true Renaissance man, Topham is also a highly successful painter, and experience interior decorator, alongside his envious resume as a guitarist and recording artist. Though most people who left a band like the Yardbirds before they were famous would be haunted by the question, “What might have been?” Topham has instead focused his creative energy into his art, creating a musical legacy that will live on for generations to come.

Guitar International recently sat down with guitar legend Top Topham to talk about The Yardbirds, his inner creativity and his love of Fender Telecasters.

Top Topham Fender Telecaster

Top Topham with his Fender Telecaster

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Matt Warnock: The world that I grew up in and learned to play guitar in is vastly different from when you learned to play back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, including the rise of popular music programs in Colleges and Universities. How do you feel about the current system where students learn to play rock guitar by going to school to study, as compared to solely learning in clubs as you did when you were cutting your teeth?

Top Topham: It’s like another universe really. My feeling is that technique has become such a predominant thing, and I think it’s human nature to want to gather as many techniques as one can and then put them all together in their music. I think that as we go further on down the road we’re producing amazingly technical people, but I’m not sure about that element of Soul in their playing.

I heard records that absolutely changed my life when I was growing up, as I’m sure happens to people today, but to me it wasn’t about the technique that the player possessed, it was about an overall sound and something that personally moved me inside. That was so foreign to British culture and British folk music, which is really boring actually. [Laughs] When you heard a guy bend a note on a blues track something happened to you. It was that quality that you wanted to emulate and that inspired you to push forward with your playing.

Matt: How do you feel about the commercialization of music that has gone on over the past 4 decades? It seems that when you were growing up it was more about being creative and artistic, but now, music is only deemed “good” if it sells a lot of records, at least in the pop-rock-radio world that dominates the music scene today.

Top Topham: Well, I think we have people in this country that are responsible for the demise of the music industry. These sort of ataman cows that just sit around and watch X-Factor where we see all these young kids queuing up to try and become famous. On top of it, their musical references when they sing are of course equally bad people that they’ve emulated. They’re not listening to what I call “classicism” in Soul music, and I think that’s what I miss with the younger generation of performers. When I see somebody playing I want to feel their life experiences. That’s what really grabs me.

One of the guys that I really feel this coming from is Jeff Beck. I have to tip my hat to the man. He’s never resting on his laurels. He’s always pushing himself and you feel that every moment is a total commitment to what he’s doing. That’s something that I used to really find attractive in a player, but I’m not sure I hear those qualities in the newer, younger players. What I hear, is a lot of people trying to emulate blues-based music and getting the whole point of it wrong, really.

But I think it’s interesting for guys like myself, who’ve done it on or off over the years. It’s not really about trying to emulate anyone else at this point. It’s just about finding one’s own sound and trying to be as creative as possible within that framework.

Top Topham Guitar

Top Topham back in 1963

Matt: In your career you’ve been a very successful painter, interior decorator and of course worked with The Yardbirds, Peter Green and developed your solo career. It seems that sometimes when people rely on music as their sole source of income, the pressures that come with that situation prevent them from being able to reach their full creative potential. They take less risk because they need to have steady work to keep things going. Do you feel that because you’ve had a diverse career that that’s helped you keep your creative fires going, as a musician and in your other endeavors?

Top Topham: I think so, in a way. The thing is that the painting was a way for me to make a living. I got to a point in my life where I had a family, I had children and needed to make money, and the painting allowed me to do that. I went back to music when I was about 40. I sort of rediscovered it after a number of years away from that side of my life. That was interesting, but I think creatively, I’ve been fortunate enough in my life that through my painting I’ve always been able to be creative, whether I was involved in music or not.

With the music thing, I still really never feel like I fulfilled what I could have fulfilled. I never felt like my true voice was able to fully come through. Though, when I play now I am completely myself and I feel it’s very creative with the band that I have. We don’t rehearse at all. We just get up and do it. I think you’re probably quite right, if I had done music full time, which I would have loved to have done, I would’ve been affected by the commercialization at some point. Whether I could have sustained that admirable quality that Jeff Beck does in his music, I’m not sure if I could have done that, no one really knows really.

Matt: You’re obviously a big lover of the blues, but you also like Jeff Beck, who went in different musical directions after he left the Yardbirds. You also had to leave that band very early on, because you were so young and your parents had issues with you being in clubs late at night. How do you feel about the direction that the Yardbirds took after you left the band?

Top Topham: It’s interesting really. I saw them, obviously, through those years with all those different aspects, with Jeff Beck in the band, with Jimmy Page in the band, with both of them in the band at the same time. I think that they produced three or four really good records and wrote some really interesting material, some very beautiful songs. I can’t say that I ever loved the music particularly. If I’m going to be absolutely honest, it wasn’t my kind of band.

If I had stayed in the band, I think I would have been pushing, like Eric Clapton did, to keep the blues as the focus of the band. You have to bear in mind, that in those early days we hadn’t even heard B.B. King. [Laughs] If you haven’t heard that music before and then you hear Live at the Regal, you can’t really be the same after that.

Matt: I’ve heard rumors that you were approached by Jimmy Page to join Led Zeppelin as the second guitarist in the band. Can you address those and put a rest to that story either way?

Top Topham: Well this is what happened,in 1968 I was making Ascension Heights, my album with Blue Horizon records (CBS), with Mike Vernon as the producer. I received three telegrams, which I still have, from Peter Grant and Jimmy Page,expressing an urgency to get in touch with them,one of these said “great news for you.” I called them from our local telephone box in Kingston on Thames, Surrey, we didn’t have a phone in those days, and I spoke to Jimmy who I saw reasonably regularly. He said he wanted to reform under the name of the New Yardbirds and hit America, and asked if I would be interested.

Wait for it, I said no. As I was writing and playing on my own album at that time it seemed like the right choice. Whether he was intending on me being in the band, I know not. It was a flurry of ideas and I would think at that time as he owned the Yardbirds name, which was a very clever move.

Also, it’s a fact that a pre-Zeppelin album exists under the name the New Yardbirds, and includes much of the same as early Zepp. I believe this has never been released. Who knows? Interestingly, Robert Plant and the Band of Joy played in our interval at Mothers in Birmingham ’67-’68. I was in the Fox and they used my Marshall amp for the gigs. Jimmy played with Duster Bennett and I at an Epsom Art school dance in 64. I remember us all raving about Earl Hooker. I think he played some slide on that gig as well. What goes around comes around, it was all normal really,
Top Topham Guitar

Top Topham with a Gibson Guitar

Matt: Because you’ve continued to perform over the years, your playing has grown and sounds absolutely great today. What do you think is the biggest change that your playing has undergone since your early days with The Yardbirds and later Peter Green?

Top Topham: I think that when I was younger I was very limited in my guitar style. The access to decent instruments was fairly depressing. [Laughs] I mean, I played a Harmony Sovereign in that band. Then I played a Strat-o-Tone, and I didn’t get my first Gibson until a few years after that.

It was hard to get good guitars in England back then because of the embargo on selling American goods. So, we were pretty starved of things. There were a few people who had the money and could get those things, but money back then was few and far between.

The main difference, musically, is that now I can get up and just hear things and let them flow into my playing, and I don’t think I could do that back then. I could definitely do it around the Blue Horizon days, but that was in a live situation.

Matt: Speaking about the Blue Horizon days, you recently released the Complete Blue Horizon Sessions. What inspired you to rerelease this collection of recordings at this time in your career?

Top Topham: I had no part in that project. Unfortunately, Sony is releasing all of that stuff and not paying anybody. It’s a sin really. They were going to release it and gave me the opportunity to be involved, which I took because I’d rather be involved than not involved.

I’m glad it came out, because I think it’s a good project and sets things straight in a sense, because the person that owns all that music bought the whole catalogue and has been raking in money over the years. He’s been licensing it to different companies over the years, and guys like myself have never seen a dime from that music.

Top Topham

Top Topham with his Fender Tele

Matt: How does that feel to know that someone else has ownership of your art, that they have control over something that you created years ago as part of your artistic output?

Top Topham: I mean, I suppose I read many stories about blues guys never getting paid for their music, and I think it’s always been a little bit like that. I think that there are some players who were very smart about this side of things, the Peter Green’s and Eric Clapton’s of the world. I feel resigned to it, but I think it’s very unfair really. But it’s something that has always been a part of that business.

Matt: Moving on to a more positive note. [Both Laughing] You’ve played a number of different guitars over the years, what is your number one guitar of choice these days?

Top Topham: My main guitar these days is a Fender Telecaster. I have a very lovely ’66 Telecaster, absolutely fabulous. Tom Principato was jamming at a festival with me and he turned around and said “That’s a ’66.” I said, “How do you know?” He said, “Because I’ve got loads of ‘em.” [Laughs] Mine is very doctored, I have to say.

I bought it when I was working at Andy’s guitar workshop. A friend told me to check out this guitar, so I went down and found this guitar in pieces. It had been run over by a Taxi. I had the guys put it back together, put some P-90s in it, with some Hot Rails in the middle with a 5-way switch.

If I use the Hot Rails and the neck P-90 I can get that woody, Wes Montgomery sound. It’s a very expressive guitar. I don’t use any effects or pedals at all, just run it through a Fender Super Reverb, an old one from the ‘70s. There’s nothing more to it. I love that sound. People come up and ask about my sound, and it’s just the guitar through the amp, nothing special, just a great sounding guitar.

Matt: Now that you’ve gotten back into music, what’s your musical future hold for you? Is there a new tour or new album on the near horizon?

Top Topham: To be honest with you, I find it difficult here to get any gigs these days. You can try for months and not find anything. There are very few venues to play here right now. There’s nothing that I like to do more right now than play gigs, but they’re hard to find. We’re all finding it very hard going in this country to make things happened these days. Ideally, I’d love to be out playing more and so hopefully the opportunities will come back and we’ll be able to make that happen.

8 Comments

  1. Merlin (6 years ago)

    I couldn’t agree more, that there are tons of technical players today, and why not there are schools and colleges everywhere that teach rock guitar, even offer a degree. And few have any real soul in their music. You can’t write that down on paper, it comes from within. Back in the early years it all came from within, there were no other options. Players were told all the time find your own sound, be an individual with your music. And there weren’t a ton of choices about equipment either. There were only guitars and amplifiers, a few eventually had reverb and maybe tremolo. But if you wanted something like distortion you either needed a really bad amp or you damaged it on purpose, like slashing the speaker cones.
    To all the young players, and even the old ones, imitation is fine for learning how to play, unless it’s all you ever do. Better you should reach down deep inside and find your own voice, your own style, play every tune your own way.
    And the Blues is all about telling the story of your experiences, not how many notes you can play in a row at top speed.

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  4. stephen Paulson (6 years ago)

    Top, There is no doubt you were an original pioneer with the electric guitar. I had watched my Father suffer from being a studio musician, He was dicovered by the late Dale Hawkins and had a lot of the same views. (Kenny Paulson) was his name and played on multiple records that made millions and all he could do was sit back and watch. Roy Buchanan was a lover of kenny and his style of playing.He was a product of the mid fifties in the U.S.Unfortunately his drug addiction lead him into a jail cell for multiple years. I google him often and there is always a different quote, He made freddy “boom boom “Cannon with leads on tallahassee lassee and so many to mention it would only bore you.I myself have the same goldtop deluxe in the photo above, I just wish you got what you deserved(like Dad)instead of being sidelined and watch the money mongers wallets getting fatter and fatter. I’m looking forward to yor new poject. Jeff is also my idol, amazingly Jeff’s was Roy B.I was saddened after hearing of Roy’s death,as were many others.Thankyou Top and I hope you hear my lonely voice from Boston Ma.I have read the truth and I want the truth be known, Thankyou for your innovative inspiration, God bless you and your suportive family…Stevie Paulson

  5. ben (6 years ago)

    i cant agree more about the technique point ,im 14 and one of my mates plays contempory metal and evrything he plays is by the book exactly as the original, technically amazing…and soulless
    another freind plays music influensed by hedrix (rythm guitar and hey joe style riffs) and the beatles (early ,rythm and a bit of lead) and his play is less stunnig but because of the soul is stunning
    and me my playing is crude raw technically so primal int cannot be described but because of the soul itts ….no im not that good at lying i reacon suck

  6. home improvement idea (3 years ago)

    I comment when I especially enjoy a post on a site or I have something to add to the discussion.
    Usually it is a result of the passion displayed in the article I read.
    And after this article Top Topham Interview: The Original Yardbirds Guitar Hero : Guitar Interviews.
    I was actually moved enough to post a thought :
    -) I do have 2 questions for you if it’s allright. Is it only me or
    do some of the responses look as if they are coming from brain dead visitors?
    :-P And, if yyou are writting at other online social sites, I would
    like to follow anything fresh you have to post.

    Could you make a list the complete urls of yyour community pages like
    your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

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