In a career spanning five decades, singer, songwriter, and guitarist Eric Bibb has proven to be a musical alchemist—combining heaping helpings of blues, gospel, folk, and world music styles into a distinctive and magical amalgam that feels like its own genre. A relentless collaborator, through the years he’s shared albums and stages with literally hundreds of players and singers—many of them from Sweden, which Bibb has called home for decades, but also other European, North American, and African countries; you name it.
His latest release, the two-disc Global Griot (Stony Plain), is a magnificent portrait of this thoroughly eclectic artist. The 24 songs—20 of them written by Bibb and an assortment of musical friends—were recorded in seven countries (Sweden, France, Jamaica, Canada, Ghana, the UK, and U.S.) and touch on all the styles mentioned above. It’s deep, soulful, inspiring, literate, and supremely tuneful. The album booklet defines a griot (gree-oh) as a person “responsible for maintaining an oral history in the form of music, poetry, and storytelling.” Bibb’s collaborators are truly modern griots, on a mission to heal a deeply troubled world through song.
I phoned Bibb at his abode in Stockholm last October to discuss the making of Global Griot.
Do you have a favorite guitar that you write on and do demos with?
No, because I have too many “favorite” guitars [laughs]. According to my wife, maybe I have too many guitars in general. The one I’m currently getting to know and love is a custom-made Santa Cruz. So I don’t have a favorite, but there are guitars I’ve had for a long time that have been the conduit of quite a few songs through the years. I know a lot of luthiers, and through their generosity and passion for the music I’ve been able to be the owner of some really fine, unusual instruments.
Well, I’m in my kitchen right now looking at two guitars on stands near the refrigerator. One is a baritone guitar that I used on the new album made by a really fine Swedish luthier named David Sundberg. There’s a plethora of great luthiers in Sweden these days. Standing behind it is a parlor 12-string made by a guy named David King in England—it’s a really fantastic guitar with an angelic sound that is beguiling. So, if a song comes through in the kitchen, it might be based on something that happens first on one of those guitars.
So, the guitar influences the writing.
Very much so. I’d say most of the time they’re intrinsically linked. It becomes a composition between a vocal melody and a guitar part that is basically fixed. In other words, I don’t write a song like: “Oh, this a C chord, this is a diminished. . . .” It doesn’t go like that for me. It goes from a guitar song to a vocal melody on top, and they evolve parallel to each other simultaneously. That’s the way I usually write, though it’s not the only way I write.
What is the 12-string resonator heard so prominently on the album?
That’s a great guitar. It’s a really, really wonderful innovation that is the work of a man named Peter Wahl [the German luthier behind Peters Resonators]. He basically resurrects older acoustic instruments that he finds, like Sears-catalog guitars from the ’30s and Stellas. But this particular instrument is an Otwin—a ’60s, East German, tractor of a 12-string; a really sturdy beast. He basically converted it into a resophonic 12-string—because he makes his own custom resonators and implants them and refurbishes the old guitar. It sounds almost like a Celtic harp—it chimes. I have two of his instruments.
There are so many fine luthiers I could name. Roger Bucknall at Fylde Guitars in England sent someone around to my house with six guitars for me to try out, and later I said, “You’re getting five of them back; the sixth I can’t part with—it’s enchanted me, so you have to tell me what we have to do to be square.” The signature guitar he ended up collaborating with me on is a wonderful cedar-top that’s kind of an OM model, and it’s been my workhorse for many years.
I’ve been working a lot on the road with a Larson Brothers guitar—not the Larson Brothers of old [Chicago-based luthiers, originally from Sweden, who were popular in the 1930s and ’40s] but a newer one made by Maurice DuPont, a French luthier. There are some folks in Germany who acquired the Larson Brothers logo, or the brand, and they’re putting out really nice guitars. Mine is all mahogany. I was on tour opening for George Benson over the summer, and I was onstage doing a sound check when George came out and said, “Man, that sounds great—what is that guitar you’re playing?” I showed it to him, and we had a little guitar-buddy moment, and as he was walking away I said, “I’ll send you one!” It’s not every day you get to send a guitar to a guitar idol!
There are so many luthiers in Scandinavia alone who are making seriously good guitars. I have another one I like a lot from a guy named Thomas Fredholm, who’s made guitars for folks in Alison Krauss’ band.
Parlor guitars suddenly seem to be in vogue these days.
Yes, it’s interesting how things change. The dreadnought was sort of the standard for so long in bluegrass and folk circles. But using parlor guitars on acoustic blues started coming on, and people got interested in those smaller-bodied guitars. The parlor 12-string is really unique because it’s hard to make; you don’t see a lot of them around.
I should also mention my passion for the 6-string guitar/banjo. I prefer older ones and own two from the 1930s—a Weymann and a Vega.
What is the Bulgarian guitar on “Michael Row da Boat”?
It’s a guitar that was made in Sofia, Bulgaria, and it has two soundholes—it has a kind of exaggerated upper bout that has a sound port in it. It has a trapeze tailpiece, and it sounds like this [he plays a very chimey chord]. It’s got a layered plywood top; a real cheap guitar, but I love it. You can actually see a version of one of these guitars on the cover of [Malian musician] Ali Farka Toure’s African Blues album. At that time, I think Mali was a Marxist country that had an exchange-student relationship with Bulgaria, so some Bulgarian instruments ended up coming back to Mali.
Speaking of Mali, the kora player Solo Cissokho appears on the new album. To what degree has working with a kora as much as you have affected the guitar parts you write with it? Obviously a kora has its own crisp, well-defined sonority, so it seems like a lot of times you’ll pair it with the 12-string resonator, which has more sustain.
That’s right. What I like to do—because Solo is such a masterful player and amazing improviser—is, in real time, play a sequence of changes that are usually arpeggiated. My way of playing actually evolved from early years of playing classical guitar to a degree, so I started incorporating what I knew from classical guitar technique with alternate thumbpicking and acoustic blues–style playing. This is a very specific way of getting melodies into the first three strings, and then there’s an inner melody, and there’s a bassline. So that came together from a combination of studying country blues and classical guitar. But when I started playing with Solo, he said to me very early on, “Man, there are so many kora melodies in your playing!” I’d been listening to kora music for a long and it’s true—that arpeggiated guitar style is quite reminiscent of a lot of kora melodies I’ve heard, and I’ve drifted toward that kind of modality and been influenced by it. So we had an easy time meshing.
I didn’t realize you had a classical guitar background.
I grew up listening to Segovia and playing Carcassi. You realize that a thumb and three fingers on the strings, and maybe a pinky anchoring—that’s an orchestra right there. There’s a lot of stuff going on simultaneously; you can do a lot with four fingers.
Did you use a lot of alternate tunings on the album?
Yes, I used dropped D a lot, as well as open G. For the song “Rosewood” I used D G D G A E, and for “Mornin’ Train” it was C G D G B D.
Did you go through a period when you were playing regular Martins or Gibsons?
Sure. I had a high school friend who had a wonderful Guild 12-string that he used to lend me all the time—I’m looking at a picture of it now! That was one of my favorite guitars. When I came to Europe, not only did I get interested in local luthiers, but the vintage instruments that used to show up, and still do, at the better shops are quite interesting, even though they’re too expensive for most working musicians. Older, smaller-bodied Gibsons and Kalamazoos are guitars that I owned and loved. I have a Martin—a Roger McGuinn 7-string with a high G string added. Roger basically got tired of lugging two guitars around for his solo gigs, and of course he needed to have that 12-string jangle, so he came up with that interesting guitar.
How many guitars would you bring if you were coming over to America to tour?
Three, usually. I wish I could take more, but it’s often three, and it changes. Not too long ago I acquired this wonderful Waterloo guitar—you know, Bill Collings’ thing—and I love it! It’s the Jumbo King model. Then there’s the custom-made Santa Cruz I mentioned, which I take with me; that’s an even more recent acquisition. I call it the “Howlin’ Wolf” because it’s got a beautiful inlay of a howling wolf, and it’s 13 frets to the body, all-black. I’m also traveling with a smaller-bodied guitar with a redwood top made by a great Finnish luthier named Juha Lottonen.
Is there a Holy Grail guitar out there for you?
Oh, there are probably lots! [Laughs] But I’m going to say a D’Angelico New Yorker.
I think of you as being very prolific—you come out with a lot of stuff. What is it about this particular batch of songs, 24 of them, that said to you, Global Griot is a 2-CD album; these songs should go together?
It was kind of an organic, intuitive process. And it’s a double-album because I couldn’t stop! [Laughs]. There were just too many friends, collaborators, too many things I wanted to sing about, sounds I wanted to include, musicians. The album that’s traditional—ten songs, 12 songs, whatever—I think that has been more steered by marketing than by anything that’s part of the real creative process.
It spans seven countries and zillion recording studios and so many different musicians. How were you able to give it the continuity it has? It’s amazing to me that you can jump around in styles from gospel to African to blues, but it all hangs together so well.
I wasn’t actually able to foresee how compatible all the material was; I just kept going. And because I don’t have a lot of downtime—weeks and months off the road—it comes together incrementally and I feel like I’ve had a guiding hand somehow. And the things that came to me and sort of pulled my coat—“This should be included”—actually ended up working. And sonically, a lot of it is down to the fact that despite that we’re recording in all these different places around the world, the technology has become quite ubiquitous. So in this digital world, we can send sound files from Ghana to Quebec in half a minute.
How “live” is the record? How often are we hearing multiple musicians playing together in the same space at the same time?
It happened that about a third of the record is based on a core live performance. I think it was important to do that. There are so many ways to record and make records these days. My whole oeuvre has always reflected my fascination with modern technology, as well as being really old-school and wanting to be Lead Belly sitting on a chair in front of a microphone. That’s where I come from. All this is fascinating and challenging to me. So the record is a combination of a lot of different kinds of recording. Some of it started in my bedroom, where my recording engineer friend comes over with his laptop and an interface and some microphones and that it. Start with a click-track and put my guitar track down, and the next thing I know, it’s going to Jamaica or some other place. [Laughs]
When I interviewed your friend and occasional playing mate Rory Block not too long ago, she said that although players definitely get better as they go through life and mature and learn new things, she felt as though she learned most of what she knows about guitar-playing from when she was an adolescent hanging around in Greenwich Village in the mid- and late ‘60s, and that most what’s come after has been additive, in terms of technique. I’m wondering if you have that same experience of still drawing on your years of being in New York and listening to Richie Havens and Odetta, Josh White, Taj Mahal…
Absolutely. Taj was a big influence and continues to be in the whole exploration into world music. But basically, my whole mission from an early age was to be able to accompany myself as a singer. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to stand up and make it on my own. I love playing with other people, but in the absence of other players I wanted to be able to have a guitar part that sounded like a piece of music in itself, with supportive bass line and all that going on. And when I started checking out the great fingerpickers—John Hurt, Skip James and those people—I really understood how the guitar can be like an orchestra, capable of so many different sounds and nuances
Did you emulate or copy the players you admired, or were you always interested in developing your own style?
I’d say mostly the latter, again because I wanted to figure out a way to best accompany myself, so that involved developing my own way of doing things to as great extent. Also, besides the classical and the folk stuff, there was also quite a bit of world music around already—though not as popular as it became later. But I was hearing Macedonian music, steel pans from the Caribbean, some African things; music from all over.
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You play with a lot of Scandinavian musicians—they’re all over the album. Why are they so good at playing folk blues? And there are also a lot of Scandinavian guitarists who play what I would call “American” acoustic guitar music in the tradition of Leo Kottke, John Fahey, and the early Windham Hill guitarists.
That’s true! It’s amazing. A couple of things: There are a lot of Scandinavian-Americans who have influenced Scandinavians, so there’s a kinship on that level. But also, Swedish folk music has powerfully influential tradition. Their fiddle music has been around so long, and it’s quite intricate; it’s like delving into country blues. So there’s a whole history behind that fascination with stringed instruments. Then there’s the wood—there’s a lot of great timber here and a lot of people making great instruments from that timber. Craftsmanship of all kinds have a long tradition here.
But you’re right: The Americana thing—and I’d include blues with that—is really big here and there are so many fantastic players. If you close your eyes, you wouldn’t know where they were from. And that includes some blues people.
Well, they are, in fact, “global griots.”
Yes! You said it! I’m so grateful and blessed to be part of a tradition that has glued the world of music lovers together in an amazing way. This music that came from the American South and the experience of the trauma of slavery has created a music style that has enthralled the whole world. There are gospel and blues groups everywhere, from the Philippines to Quebec to Sweden.
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.