by Adam Levy
If the tag jazz guitarist conjures an image of a guy in a tweed blazer, playing flashy bebop lines on a vintage archtop guitar, then you’re probably not familiar with Doug Wamble. Sure, the Tennessee-born musician—now based in New York City—has played alongside some very fine jazz musicians, including Wynton Marsalis, Charlie Hunter, and Cassandra Wilson. And he can play jazz like nobody’s business. But Wamble is just as passionate about composition and songwriting, and those interests have led him to hone a personal instrumental voice that is both steeped in tradition and wholly original.
Wamble’s first two albums were released on a Universal Records subsidiary founded by saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Those discs—Country Libations (2003) and Bluestate (2005)—showcase Wamble’s jazz and southern-soul roots. Wamble took a different turn for his self-titled 2010 release. With producer Lee Townsend (Bill Frisell, Loudon Wainwright III, Kelly Joe Phelps, John Scofield) at the helm, Wamble’s singer-songwriter skills were front and center. A heady cover of Fiona Apple’s “I Know” rounded out the collection of original tunes. Wamble recorded two more albums of original songs in 2012—For Anew and Fast as Years, Slow as Days. He plays nearly all the instruments himself on Fast as Years, Slow as Days (with a guest appearance by Avett Brothers cellist Joe Kwon), while For Anew is a true solo record—just voice, acoustic guitar, and some foot stomping, with no overdubs at all.
As Wamble explores musical territories farther and farther afield from his jazz-via-down-home-Memphis beginnings, he continues to deepen his commitment to great guitar playing and utter singularity as an artist. He has gone deep in two particular areas of playing that are rarely heard by players in any corner of jazz guitar—slide and D A D G A D tuning. He got into slide because of his frustration with the limitations of conventional approaches to the instrument. “I realized that there’s so many expressive things that the guitar can do that jazz guitar players ignore,” he says. “They’re busy playing lots of notes, but they don’t play with vibrato and they don’t bend the notes. Slide lets you do all that.” He also found that the slide got him closer to the big, bold tones of some of his musical heroes—like trumpeter Louis Armstrong and trombonist “Tricky Sam” Nanton.
Practicing with the slide led Wamble to look into slide-friendly tunings, such as open D and open G. Then, one day, as he was dropping down from standard tuning into open D to play some blues, he accidentally left the guitar in D A D G A D—forgetting to bring the third string down from G to F#. “I got this completely ambiguous sound,” Wamble says. “It’s mysterious. It didn’t exactly sound major or minor, but I quickly realized I could get all of that in there.” You can hear examples Wamble’s brilliant D A D G A D maneuvering on “Dying Language” (on Fast as Years, Slow as Days), “Now You Tell Me” (tuned down a half-step, on For Anew), and “Find Her Way” (on Doug Wamble). I recently met with Wamble to talk about his interest in D A D G A D and his two new recordings.
What’s the appeal of D A D G A D tuning for you over, say, open D, which seems like a more common slide tuning?
WAMBLE Well, without the slide for a second, if you want to play a major-key kind of song and have some droning strings, open D works. But what I like is the mystery. It’s suspended, not major. You can go either way with it. I particularly like that for slide. And it’s real easy to get major or minor sounds—when you want them—by fretting behind the slide.
How did you get started playing in D A D G A D?
WAMBLE Just messing around with it—playing familiar chord shapes at first. Seeing what happens if I play this Dmaj7 chord shape? How about this Dm7 or this D7. These familiar chord shapes don’t all work, but you keep searching and you find some things that do work.
You’ve also got some octaves built into the tuning.That gives you a lot of options, just playing around with those octaves. There’s already so much there.
Are you fluent enough in D A D G A D now that you can play any familiar tune in it?
Sure—and I know a few little tricks and ways to make some interesting chords. Let’s try “Amazing Grace.”
Do you have any other advice for players diving into D A D G A D for the first time?
Take a simple song that you like—like a folk song, or a Hank Williams song. Learn to play it and sing it in D. Even if you’re not usually a singer, just go ahead and sing it. Then see if you can play the song’s melody on the middle strings. Then play it up on the high strings. Use that droning, suspended sound that’s built into the tuning—let the open strings ring. Then play the melody again in octaves, on the first and fourth strings—still droning the other strings. It’s not that hard, and it gets you familiar with the tuning.
Let’s talk about slide now. What kind of slide do you use?
It’s a brass slide called the Axys, made by Shubb. I love glass slides too, but I prefer the sound of brass. I play a brass guitar, after all—my Amistar resophonic. The Axys is great, because I can spin it away if I want to use all four fretting fingers, or spin it back around to play with a combination of fretting and sliding.
What’s your right-hand technique for slide work?
Playing slide with a pick is cool for some things, but it’s way cleaner to play fingerstyle because most of your muting abilities are in the right hand. I’m doing some of that with the right hand—plucking with the fingers, laying the thumb across unused strings. I also mute behind the slide by resting my middle finger lightly across the strings behind the slide.
How do you work on your intonation?
By playing along with records. I’ve also worked on scales. I try to keep my slide finger as straight as possible, and you have to play right on top of the fret, instead of behind it. I’ll record myself playing up and down a major scale, fretting the notes regularly. Then I play back the recording and play along—using slide, trying to match the intonation. I’d do that without vibrato at first.
Once you get into it, vibrato is a very personal thing. Some people play with a fast, quivering vibrato. I like to use that when I’m playing in an early-jazz style, but my usual vibrato is a little slower and wider. I’ll generally hit the note first, then add vibrato while it’s sustaining.
What about articulation—how’d you develop those skills?
At first, I’d stop the note by lifting the slide off the string. Then I worked on stopping the note with my right hand. That’s how you really develop your control.
Any other advice for first-time sliders?
Eschew the pick. Get some scales happening. Play some blues—taking a simple phrase and repeating it over the changing chords. Then start thinking about making one note sound good. That’s where you really want to be.
You’re releasing two new records—For Anew and Fast as Years, Slow as Days. Did you approach the two recordings differently?
Fast as Years is a fully produced rock record. I had a cellist on one track and great drummers on a couple of tracks. But, other than that, I played all the instruments myself. I multitracked layers of guitars. I played bass and keys. I created drum loops, and added other kinds of percussion and ambience. I sang lots of background vocals.
For Anew is totally stripped down—all recorded live, at home, with no edits or overdubs. It’s what we used to call “unplugged” back in the day. I set up a mic on my voice, a mic on my guitar. I stomped on the mic stand sometimes to get a “bass drum.” Everything was done in just one or two takes.
What made a “keeper” take for you?
Not forgetting the words! [Laughs.] It was mostly about getting a combination of a good guitar performance and a good vocal performance.
What was your stripped-down recording setup?
A Blue Bottle microphone for the voice and an AKG C414 on the guitar.
Which guitars did you use?
I used five guitars on For Anew—my custom Amistar resonator, my 1929 National Triolian resonator, a Ken Parker archtop, an Art and Lutherie parlor guitar, and I used a Rick McCurdy baritone on one song—“A Brave Refrain.”
How did you decide which guitars would be right for each song?
In the case of the baritone guitar, it was a fluke. I’d borrowed it from a friend who’s got a great guitar collection. I originally wrote “A Brave Refrain” on a You Rock MIDI guitar, using a Fender Rhodes electric-piano sound. When it came time to record, I thought, “How can I get that kind of feeling with an acoustic guitar?” I happened to have the baritone in that moment and decided to try it. It really worked out. The Ken Parker has such a beautiful, rich sound. I used it for the more lush songs—like “Now You Tell Me.” It sounds great tuned to D A D G A D. I love the Art and Lutherie guitar for that fingerpicking/slapping-on-the-backbeats thing on “Walk Awhile.” It’s a very inexpensive guitar, made in Canada. Not a big sound, but it’s a beautiful sound when you mic it up right. The Triolian has a banjo-like quality to it. I like the punchiness of that sound. I used it on “The Rest of Me”—one of my faux Chris Whitley kind of tunes. The Amistar has a good combination of all those things. It has the punch of a resonator but also has a certain mellowness when you play it fingerstyle—and it’s great for playing slide. I feel such a strong connection with that guitar. It’s kind of becoming my trademark sound
How did you mic your Amistar?
I had different ways. If I was playing an open-tuned slide thing—like “Bad Californian”—I’d put the mic a few inches above the biscuit, slightly up towards the fingerboard. On a fingerpicking tune, I’d put it a few inches away from the lower f-hole for a more mellow sound. I’m always conscious of where the mic is. You can get some subtle things happening by leaning into it for certain parts—like a trumpet player would.
Do you have any formal training as an engineer?
No training whatsoever. I’m a terrible engineer! But I learned a lot when I was mixing Fast as Years, Slow as Days with engineer Ryan Hewitt. I’d done all the tracking for that record myself. I asked Ryan a lot of questions about my sounds. He told me which things he’d have to fix with EQ. When something I’d done actually worked, he’d tell me, “Remember whatever you did to get that guitar sound. That’s stellar.” I learned that way.
Tracking acoustic guitar and voice at the same time, how did you fight the bleed between the mics?
I didn’t. I embraced bleed. Everything is in everything, but it doesn’t really matter to me that much. I always think back to those Robert Johnson recordings. I’m more concerned with getting the vibe—the emotional immediacy. That’s what I want.
There’s a time and a place to make an audiophile record—with better separation and all. I look forward to doing that at such time as someone gives me a budget to do so. [Laughs.]
What was your writing process like for the For Anew songs? Did you write them as a batch?
With the exception of one song, they were all written between October and December of 2011. It was a tumultuous, transitional time in my life. The songs are sort of about that—about love, loss, and pain. They fit together as a snapshot of that time. I’d recorded a basic demo for each song when it was written. When I was getting ready to record For Anew, I went through the demos and picked the ones that I thought worked best together.
Had you performed these songs live before you recorded them?
Have you been playing them since?
I play them all. I’ve gotten good responses to them.
Does For Anew have an official release date?
Fast as Years, Slow as Days came out in January . I’m going to wait a little while, then release For Anew later this year. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to. Those songs are kind of painful. In a sense, I feel like I made For Anew so I could get them out of my system.
ADAM LEVY is an itinerant guitarist and performing songwriter based in Los Angeles, California. Read more of his writings and hear his music at adamlevy.com.
What Doug Wamble Plays
Acoustic Guitars: Amistar custom-made Style O resophonic. 1929 National Triolian resophonic. 1955 Gretsch Constellation archtop.
Electric Guitars: 1988 Fender American Standard Telecaster. 1990 Fender D’Aquisto archtop.
Amplification: Headstrong Royal Reverb amp.
Strings: D’Addario EXL116 medium top/heavy bottom (.011–.052).
Flatpick: D’Andrea Ultra-Plec.
Slide: Shubb Axys reversible.