“We’ve become complacent,” sighs Kevin Moore, aka Keb’ Mo’, the multiple Grammy Award-winning American blues artist who also counts collaborations with Taj Mahal, Jackson Browne, and Bonnie Raitt among his many golden moments. “But see, I grew up in the ’60s,” explains the gregarious 67-year-old, who’s just released his first album since 2014, the wide-ranging Oklahoma, “and the art of the protest song is different now than it was then. These days, a protest song can be more about bringing forth information and creating awareness. Plus, we need to recognize that, especially in terms of ecological problems—like the ones I address in ‘Don’t Throw It Away’—although we may protest, we’re also very much part of the problem. So, a protest song is a very fine line.”
That said, even on an album featuring some of his most moving personal lyrics in “The Way I,” Moore certainly pulls no political punches on tracks like “This is My Home”—in which he rages at the lack of compassion toward asylum seekers—or “Put a Woman in Charge,” which finds him dueting with Rosanne Cash on an insistent hand-clapper on behalf of gender equality. “Look, despite the fact that I’m on the left, I need to understand that some portion of my audience is not,” he explains. “So, my job really is to try to unite around things we can all agree on, rather than alienate on the things we can’t. This is also one reason why folk music has always been an effective vehicle for social change—it helps to frame things as storytelling.”
Speaking with Six Strings
Moore’s rich, baritone voice delivers those stories with a raconteur’s skill and resonance, not to mention a comedian’s faultless timing. And with Oklahoma guest artists like Cash, steel master Robert Randolph, Jaci Velasquez, and his wife, Robbie Brooks Moore, he’s surrounded by similarly gifted storytellers. Still, it’s his voice on the guitar, both acoustic and electric, that delivers the musical message—indeed, the entire musical legacy—that he perhaps almost accidentally found himself the ring bearer of back in the halcyon 1990s. With regular Grammy wins and nods in the Blues category, and a strong identification with acoustic and Delta blues traditions, some might be surprised to learn that Moore only found his calling as an acoustic stylist after playing electric guitar mostly for decades.
“Yeah, I actually began taking acoustic guitar seriously quite late,” Moore offers. “I started on acoustic, yes, but within two years I was playing exclusively electric, and I didn’t really look back until the early ’90s, when I heard Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson for the first time. Now, that just tore a hole in my entire universe. It was like, ‘How’d did I miss that?!’ Sure, I’d listened to B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, all my electric people, but I realized that I’d missed the boat on the acoustic stuff.” Moore would build his acoustic fingerstyle technique by modeling the styles on Broonzy, Robert Johnson, Elizabeth Cotten, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and especially Mississippi John Hurt’s explosive “Shake That Thing.”
“Those artists are very much the basis of my blues fingerstyle playing,” says Moore. “I’m a thumb-and-three-fingers guy, and I guess I move my right hand around the soundhole as I’m playing to get the sound I want; I do also palm-mute to some extent, because I think muting is so important—when you stop a note is just as important as when you start it, y’know?” Moore says he plucks the strings with the flesh of his fingertips, and keeps his right-hand nails quite short, in fact, barely using them at all. “I think of my technique as being like a bow-and-arrow approach,” he suggests, “where I grab the string, pull, and let go. Maybe this is because the first guitar I learned on was a nylon-string classical guitar. But also, let’s be honest—nails break, and I don’t wanna be running to the store for press-on nails!”
Old Dog, New Tricks
While he’s been honing his powerful, engine-room fingerpicking technique for years, Moore confesses that he’d never really paid much attention to learning how to strum, which meant that the kind of aggressive, Richie Havens–approved up-and-down strumming he performs on songs like “Put a Woman in Charge” required some serious woodshedding. “For that song, yes, I really needed to learn how to strum, man, because I’ve never been a good strummer! Sure, I’ve done a light strum before, but that big, bold sort of strumming is something I never really used. I now have a new respect for great strummers, people like KT Tunstall, for example. She kills it at strumming! After listening to her, I thought, ‘Man, I suck at this!’ I’d always just assumed that fingerstyle was the ‘real’ technique, and strumming was… well, just strumming.”
While most of the songs on Oklahoma were written in standard tuning, Moore also experimented with DADGAD on both the album’s slinky leadoff single, “I Remember You,” and the four-on-the-floor stomp of “Ridin’ on a Train.” Among the tuning’s virtues, says Moore, is its tonal ambiguity, accomplished by its lack of a defining major or minor third: while open D would be D A D F# A D, giving a root-fifth-root-major third-fifth-root voicing, DADGAD is essentially a Dsus4 chord, with its unresolved quality. “I love that suspended sound,” Moore smiles, “because when you use a slide to move that suspended fourth, you get this nice tension on every chord you arrive at. On ‘I Remember You,’ on the bridge, it just makes for a really nice, pleasingly haunting sound; there’s no third defining the harmony or telling the listener how to feel.”
Tools of a Blues Master
For his slide guitar work, Moore leaned on a National ResoRocket and a Republic Highway 61 resonator guitar. For those big strumming moments, he reached for a recent-model Gibson Advanced Jumbo, a Martin 00-18, and his own Martin HD-28KM signature model. “The HD-28 is a lot like a D-28, with that same big sound,” says Moore, “but it’s tricked out with a big, wide neck, which is much more suitable for fingerpicking, especially for players with big hands, like me. But by and large, most of the guitar parts on the album were done with my 2006 Gibson Keb’ Mo’ Bluesmaster acoustic, which was one of the earliest production models. That guitar truly is the engine of the whole album. I have three of them here at my studio, but the one I take on the road with me is the one that gets played the most, and has the most character, because it’s my road dog.”
Like his signature Martin, the Keb’ Mo’ Bluesmaster—modeled after small-bodied L-series Gibson acoustics of yore and inspired by an Epiphone Bluesmaster that was stolen from Moore years ago—boasts a wide neck profile, and also features an L.R. Baggs Element pickup with soundhole-mounted volume control. “I love a wide neck, which is one reason I like the Bluesmaster so much,” says Moore. “That neck is big and wide, almost like a classical guitar. I feel like it leads to not only better separation of the strings when you’re picking, but also better separation between notes tonally. Since I play with the flesh of my fingers, it also allows me to really get in between the strings. And, honestly, I like the neck to meet the body at the 12th fret rather than at the 14th. Sure, you lose two frets of real estate up there, but there’s not that much that’s useful up there anyway,” he laughs.
Acoustic, Up Close and Personal
Perhaps surprisingly for an artist so associated with legacy music and artists, Moore is extremely well-versed in studio equipment and recording concepts, and indeed, he recorded virtually the entirety of Oklahoma in his Franklin, Tennessee, home studio, where his first choice for an acoustic guitar microphone—his favorite for his vocals is the Shure SM57 or the Miktek CV4—is equally surprising: “I’m telling you, man, for the way I play, there is no better acoustic microphone than a good ol’ Shure SM57. I just like a nice, loud, up-close-and-personal acoustic guitar sound for my fingerpicking. The SM57 is perfect for me, because it doesn’t pick up a lot of those higher-end frequencies like a really expensive microphone does. It just hears what you need to hear. That said, I think you do need a really good mic preamp on the back end of it. A few of my favorites are the Universal Audio LA-610 Mk II, the Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Channel, the Avalon VT-737sp, and API lunchbox preamps like the 512c.”
For Moore, the intimate detail and nuance of the recording environment allows him to hear the deep characteristics of an acoustic in a way that’s hard to rival. “Since an unamplified acoustic guitar just isn’t that loud normally, it’s always amazing to have it miked up, have your best headphones on, move the mic around the neck joint and the soundhole to find that sweet spot, and suddenly be hearing all these incredible subtleties and overtones that you can miss just playing in your living room, y’know? That’s why, while the engineer can certainly suggest where the microphone should be placed, it’s up to the player to finesse that placement until he really arrives at the sound he’s hearing in his head. I love that process.”
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.