Artist Lesson: Ian Thornley of Big Wreck

Sometimes it takes me awhile to truly appreciate the talent and artistry of a guitar player.

Such has been the case with Ian Thornley, lead guitarist and singer of the hard rock band Big Wreck.

For years, I’d hear praise of Big Wreck, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t hear what all the fuss was about. Their songs sounded solid with heavy guitar riffs and impressive solos, but nothing about the band grabbed me musically.

Maybe I was turned off by the tinges of country licks and instrumentation that are thrown against a post-grunge backdrop. Maybe I thought of them as a more commercial and bluesier version of Soundgarden.

Whatever the reason, I never found the right entry point into the Big Wreck catalog, and Ian Thornley kind of fell into the category of “Guitarists Who I Should Check Out, But Just Can’t Get Into”

Fortunately, this past week my perception of Ian Thornley has changed…all it took was a slightly different entry point.

A long-form video interview:

I’ll elaborate as to why the title’s assertion— a must watch for guitar fans — is completely true, but I just need to say right now that holy mother of all that is shred does this guy know his shit.

I had no idea how skilled he is as a guitarist, musician and songwriter. He imparts some serious knowledge that all guitarists can benefit from. He’s wise, insightful, and can expertly wail with finesse.

In the interview, Thornley talks about the experience of having multi-decade music career; he shows how he applies his diverse influences into his own music; he shows off some great blues licks and dives deep into his gear and tones. And despite his experience, he still is trying to find his voice as a guitar player. It’s intriguing stuff.

If I were you, I’d just stop here, click the video link and watch the whole thing — it’s worth it. Maybe skip a mini Netflix binge tonight and check out this video instead.

But because I know that we all don’t have a free 45, I’ll list some highlights, licks and nuggets from the video.

Hopefully this interview can give you some good tips and thoughts to chew on as you gear up to play your guitar next.

“Why Isn’t Big Wreck the Biggest Band in the World??”

At the beginning of the video, the interviewer asks “how is Big Wreck not the biggest band in the world??”  

Ian begins talking about his 20+ year career as a musician, and the story is interesting to say the least.

Essentially, Big Wreck started out with a bang with a hit first record in the mid 90s. They got picked up by a label and were primed to release an anticipated sophomore album…which ended up failing rather miserably. Thornley cites record label pressure, egos and band infighting as reasons for the band’s disharmony.

Big Wreck broke up, Thornley started a new band, aptly named Thornley, and over time, the original Big Wreck reformed and they’re steaming along ahead with their fourth studio album released in 2015.

Whether or not you are, aren’t or plan to be a career musician, it’s worth watching this to hear about some of the realities of being a working musician in a rock band.

Thornley’s experience hits home the fact that there are no guarantees in life, and especially in creative careers. Not everyone that sets out to be a  music legend is going to sell out arenas all over the world.

Even if you’re a MONSTER musician, that alone doesn’t directly translate into success. There are so many other factors that are largely unseen. The question, I suppose, is it worth enough to keep going?

He has some candid perspective on what went wrong, and indicates that, no matter what career you’re in, things might not work out as planned and how you deal with it will dictate your progress.

Good life lesson, I’d say.

Go Back to the Classics

Despite Thornley’s year of experience, he’s still apparently finding his voice as a guitarist. He, as he puts it, is still “fighting through his influences” to achieve his own identity.

He seems pulled between the complex, sophisticated and advanced world of progressive guitar playing (having consumed a great deal of killer players like Eric Johnson and Steve Morse), and the classic rock realm of the greats, like Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles.

The former pushes the boundaries of guitar playing. It can be worth the challenging study because it opens your eyes to what is possible musically.

At the same time, there’s something about the way timeless classic rock resonates with populations worldwide. That’s the stuff that lasts. Thornley, when he needs to be brought back from complexity, returns to the greats and reminds himself that it’s all about the song.

Thornley seems to want to satisfy both musical areas — progressive and classic.

I admittedly can’t say that I’ve listened to enough Big Wreck to say whether or not he pulls that off in his music, but I do love the sentiment of going back to the greats when you need refreshment.

Tip: If you ever feel too intrenched in the technical aspects of your guitar playing, go back to some of the music you first fell in love with. Listen to it, jam along with it, and let the songs speak for themselves.

The Lesson

After career and influence talk, Thornley transitions into an informal guitar lesson.

He talks about his approaches to soloing and his hybrid picking technique. In terms of recording, he goes into his process of laying down guitar solos and why recording simple guitar parts can deceptively difficult.

There’s a lot of stuff you can take away from the lesson, and I encourage you to dive deep, but I wanted to give you one of my favorite licks — a tricky string bending blues lick.

Click here for to watch Thornley’s instruction.

Thornley Lick

The real trick to this lick is achieving the strength to get that step-and-a-half bend (a minor third) up to pitch. The magic is the little chromatic pull of he uses after returning the bent note back down.

If you have small hands like me, you might find this tricky to pull off. It’s a good hand workout nonetheless.

Gear & Tones

The second half of the video, explores Thornley’s Suhr guitars amp and pedals. He demos some of his favorite effects and the massively beefy signature Big Wreck tone (a good example is “A Place to Call Home” off the new record, Ghosts).

I admit that I’m not really a gear and tones nut, but the nerd-out is fun to watch. Even if you’re not a tone aficionado, you can at least get an appreciation for this aspect of guitar playing.

Just Watch Him Improvise

Lastly, you can watch Ian Thornley spend a good five minutes improvising in a variety styles. Click here and simply watch him play.


Just when you think you know what you’re doing on guitar, you watch something like this and it completely puts you back in your place.

I mean, come on…watch this run and tell me that doesn’t rip!

Although someone could watch this kind of guitar prowess and see it as a signal to give up, I find that staying in awe and keeping the ego in check helps you see where the bar is and know what you need to do to get there.

That’s part of the lifelong challenge of guitar playing. It’s the joy, really.

That’s it for this week. Let me know what you thought about the Thornley interview and who you’d like to see covered in future Artist Lessons.

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