From the September 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY GREG CAHILL, MARK KEMP, & WHITNEY PHANEUF
“My guitar history is very dysfunctional,” singer, songwriter, and guitarist Alejandro Escovedo said during his recent appearance on AG’s online video series Acoustic Guitar Sessions.
Escovedo isn’t the only player to arrive at our studio in Point Richmond, California, to tease us with fascinating tales about the guitars he’s owned or the places the instruments have taken him. Or the wisdom gleaned from a guitar. Fingerstyle whiz kid Andy McKee revealed how his viral YouTube clips of the mid-2000s landed him a gig with Prince. Bluegrass multi-instrumentalist Laurie Lewis recounted the dream that led her to a vintage 12-string owned by folk revivalist Mike Seeger. And singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco told of a humorous encounter with the 83-year-old woman who owns and operates the oldest music store in Grants Pass, Oregon.
And there are more six-string sagas, including those from Greg Brown, Valerie June, Eric Bibb, and Tommy Emmanuel.
As AG surpasses the 160th episode of Acoustic Guitar Sessions, take a look back at some of the series’ most interesting guitar stories, tales that have inspired the new AG department Guitar Talk.
Watch all the Six-String Sagas Sessions here or click artist’s name to view individual videos.
After more than a decade of recording and performing some of the most adventurous guitar music of the new millennium, Kaki King released The Neck is a Bridge to the Body in 2015. She’s been touring behind the album ever since, and the shows represent an innovative mix of music and performance art. Collaborating with the multi-media company Glowing Pictures (Questlove, Brian Eno, Ram Das), King says the idea behind the album and tour is to present the guitar as a creative entity unto itself. The concept grew out of King’s own relationship with her guitars, particularly her signature Ovation Adamas 1581-KK. In the shows, she uses an all-white version of the instrument.
I feel very strongly that my job is simply that I show up and I hold the guitar and I start to play. And then something else takes over from that moment that’s not just me. I’m not talking about some weird voodoo or spiritual stuff…. I just think that a really good guitar has its own ideas of how it wants to sound, and that it naturally leads you toward certain things.
So, in recent years I’ve been focusing on my relationship with the guitar, and I’ve been doing this show, The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, which is not exactly a piece of theater, but it’s a multi-media piece. In the show, the guitar is all white and it’s suspended on a stand, and I’m wearing all white and I’ve dyed my hair blonde. The idea is that I am this laboratory assistant; I’m simply a facilitator; I’m anonymous; I could be anybody, and the guitar is what has written these songs and produced these ideas. This is something that I take very seriously, because I find that in my playing and in my writing, the guitar leads the way. I will never master any of it. The relationship is not based on me being in control, or knowing all the tricks, or having all the cool ideas. There’s a puppet master involved, and it’s almost always the guitar.
It’s only after years of playing and understanding that I’ve come to realize that I will only ever be able to learn a small percentage of what’s to learn out there. There’s just such an insane amount of talent involved in the guitar and performance and composition, and so many different types of guitars and different types of gear—there’s just so much out there! I’ll never get a chance to touch a lot of it, and that’s a humbling thing to realize. It’s also a magical thing. I’ve been playing the guitar my entire life; I have no memory of not being able to play, and I’ll continue to learn forever. It’s still my favorite thing to do.
This singer, songwriter, and guitarist grew up immersed in the 1960s New York City folk scene. His dad, Leon Bibb, was a famed actor, musician, and civil rights activist who knew all the major players, including Odetta, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. The latter famously told an 11-year-old Eric at a family party to keep playing and to “keep it simple.” When Bibb came in to do Acoustic Guitar Sessions in 2014, he re-told the Dylan story and played a few blues tunes and folk ballads on a budget Gretsch Jim Dandy parlor guitar he’d picked up in San Francisco earlier that day. Bibb also talked about how he acquired the signature Fylde OM-style guitar he usually plays—and how much (or little) he paid for it.
A guy called me up and said, “Hey listen, I represent a friend of mine who’s a luthier up in the north of England”—Roger Bucknall of Fylde Guitars. I said, “Yeah, I know Fylde Guitars.” He said, “Well, Roger has been checking out your music and he really likes it and thinks you’d be interested in some of his guitars, just because of the way you play.”
I said, “OK.”
He said, “What I’d like to do is come by with about a half a dozen and have you play them.”
So he came by the house and he unpacked all these guitars and I played them all. He said, “What do you think?”
I said, “Well, they’re really wonderful guitars and this one [referring to the Fylde Bibb still plays]—you can’t have it back.” [laughs] It was an OM-type guitar.
So I said, “Tell Roger I’ll work something out.”
And he basically said, ‘Are you gonna use it? Are you really gonna use it?”
I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “OK, I’ll send you an invoice.”
It was for a pound.
One of the earliest musicians to discover the power of the internet, instrumentalist Andy McKee was a modest guitar instructor from Topeka, Kansas, when he burst onto the acoustic scene in 2006 as his remarkable YouTube videos began to go viral. Even Prince discovered McKee’s videos and was so impressed by his fingerpicking and percussive tapping that he invited the guitarist to join him on tour. McKee has since graduated well beyond YouTube, recording several albums, including the new concert recording Live Book, and touring with many of the players he’d been inspired by as a teen. Here, McKee talks about some of those players and how they helped him become the guitarist he is today, as well as the spiritual connection he feels toward his music.
The guy that made me want to start playing guitar was Eric Johnson. I think he probably had the last instrumental guitar song on the radio, in 1991, “Cliffs of Dover.” I heard it on the radio and two things happened at that time: I fell in love with the guitar, and also fell in love with instrumental music—how you could say so much without any words, how a strong melodic idea can move you just as much as any lyrics. I really felt a connection with instrumental music at that point. Ever since then, I have wanted to write music that can really affect people, because music can really change your day, week, or month—maybe even your whole life.
I discovered the acoustic side of things with Preston Reed, a guy I saw when I was 16 playing over the top of the neck and doing percussive things. It was stuff I didn’t even know was possible. And seeing someone really covering all the aspects of music on one guitar was so inspiring. To think that you could have rhythmic ideas and melodic ideas and harmonic ideas all going [at once]—I just fell in love with that. And that led to Michael Hedges and Don Ross and Billy McLaughlin. Those four guys are my real big inspirations on the acoustic. There’s a lot of acoustic players I love, but those are the guys who really made me want to do this.
As far as having my eyes closed when I play, yeah, I try to listen closely to the music, so it’s sounding how I want it to. It is like a meditation as well. I try to not really exist—I prefer to just focus on the music so it represents who I am. In many ways, I’m trying not to be there—there’s just the music.
Inspired early on by seeing such musicians as Jean Ritchie, Doc Watson, and Mississippi John Hurt perform at the Berkeley Folk Festival, Laurie Lewis knew she wanted to become a folk artist. In 1986, the guitarist, fiddler, singer, songwriter, and music instructor released her first solo album, Restless Rambling Heart, on Flying Fish Records, and she hasn’t looked back. Lewis has performed with numerous bluegrass bands and artists, most recently with Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands. The group’s latest album is a tribute to country songwriters and guitarists Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard entitled The Hazel and Alice Sessions (Spruce and Maple). Here, Lewis tells how Mr. Holzhapfel, a 1905 12-string guitar once owned by the late folksinger Mike Seeger, haunted her into buying him.
It actually started with a dream. I had a dream. I mean, I’ve never really been interested in 12-string guitars, and I had this dream one night. I woke up and remembered it really precisely. I had a 12-string guitar and it was a beautiful thing and I loved the tone of it. I was just, like, entranced and taken away, and I knew there were songs that I hadn’t written, that I would. . . . I just woke up and I go, “I think I need a 12-string.” [laughs]
I started sort of looking, you know, in music stores. I would gravitate over to the 12-strings and pick them up and play them, and I hated them. I mean, no offense to all the other 12-strings out there, but it’s got a brash, kind of jangly sound, you know. It wasn’t really what I was imagining in my dream. So I just kind of let that go and I thought, “Well, there’s no reason for me, really, to be looking for a 12-string.”
About a year later I was visiting with Alexia Seeger, Mike Seeger’s widow, at her house, and Mike had just an amazing musical-instrument collection. I was there with people who were trying out other instruments, and I just happened to ask Alexia, “Did Mike have a 12-string?” She said, “Oh, yeah, Mr. Holzhapfel, he’s upstairs.” [laughs] And she told me where he was—middle bedroom upstairs, against the wall. So I went up there, just by myself, and found the case, put it on the bed and opened it, and just went [puts on a look of surprise], “Ah! This is it!” I took it out and I played it and it’s just like [she strums the guitar and it sounds orchestral with lots of sustain].… it has this sound that just doesn’t quit! It also has a complete baseball bat neck that, as you can see, is really huge.
I went to my other friends who were there and said, “Hey, what do you think of this?” Because I was really excited. I said, “What do you think of this?” And they both played it and said [shakes her head], “No. We advise against it.”
So we left, but it just kept haunting me.…
Hailed as the Crown Prince of the Austin Music Scene, Alejandro Escovedo dropped by Acoustic Guitar Sessions in April to perform three songs from throughout his career. Escovedo pens wild rockers and heart-wrenching ballads. His first band, the Nuns, was one San Francisco’s seminal punk acts. He went on to join brothers Chip and Tony Kinman in the legendary cowpunk band Rank and File, and later spun off the True Believers. His songs have been recorded by Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, and Son Volt, to name a few. Fresh from a recording session with producer Peter Buck of R.E.M., Escovedo brought along a parcel of stories and a sweet 1951 Gibson Southern Jumbo that had been restored by Tony Nobles of Wimberley, Texas.
My guitar history is very dysfunctional. My dad was a plumber. He bought me a guitar when we moved to Santa Ana, California. He bought me a little tweed Fender Champ amp. And because he worked for a man who made guitars for mostly country-and-western stars in and around Orange County—there was a big country scene there in the 1950s and ’60s—my dad agreed to buy me one of those guitars if I would cut my hair. [laughs] I wanted the guitar but immediately decided to change the color, so I took it apart and never put it back together again. But my younger brother, Javier, did and ended up being a much better guitar player than me.
I didn’t play guitar again till I was 24. We were making a movie about the worst band in the world and since we couldn’t play, we became that band. And that band became the Nuns, my first punk-rock band. At that point, it was electric guitars. I started out on Danelectros, then Silvertones, then Melody Makers, then Juniors, and eventually Les Pauls.
It really wasn’t until I got to Austin in 1980 that the acoustic guitar became essential. I had never really played it before, though I’d fooled around with them and always found them somewhat intimidating. But when I get to Austin, I discovered that Austin was a city of songs, it was all about songs. You’d go to any social function and somebody would have a guitar and right away they’d hand it to you and ask, “What have you got to say? Play your songs.”
So the first song I learned was “I Wish I Was Your Mother,” by Ian Hunter. I was a big Ian Hunter fan and a Mott the Hoople fan. The thing about their music was that he was in love with that Dylanesque storytelling, but it related to rock ’n’ roll like nobody ever had. It was all about what it was like to have a band and to have fans and to fall short—the struggle of a musician. And that intrigued me. And, of course, I was around guys like Joe Ely and Butch Hancock and Townes Van Zandt, who were suddenly being very supportive of me and encouraging me to write songs. And the acoustic guitar became the tool—once I started writing songs, they were all on acoustic guitar. I think that’s why people think I’m a country-western singer. If you told someone from Texas that I’m a country-western singer they’d laugh at you. But I’ve fallen in love with acoustic guitar.
Ani DiFranco is a guitar nerd, though she won’t admit it. The New Orleans-based singer-songwriter uses more than 50 alternate tunings and is quite knowledgeable about gear. DiFranco started out playing Alvarez Guitars onstage in the early ’90s and her stage rig boasts an arsenal of Alvarezes that includes two Yairi WY1 Bob Weir Signature acoustic-electrics, a Yairi DY62C, an MSD1 short-scale dreadnought, and a custom mini-jumbo baritone. She also owns a 1930s Gibson-made Cromwell tenor guitar with a Fishman archtop pickup, vintage Epiphone Zenith tenor guitar, and a generic parlor guitar named Ted. More recently, DiFranco’s husband, Mike Napolitano, a producer and someone DiFranco calls “a real super taster of sound,” has been helping her to shape her guitar sound. “I just play guitars, I don’t know anything about them,” she says, shortly before launching into a technical explanation of the frequencies that flavor her tone. “He’s been helping me evolve my gear during the last bunch of years.” It’s all part of a quest, she says, to find “a bigger, ballsier sound onstage.”
I have some vintage instruments that I play onstage now and I’m looking for more. I’ve sort of learned that maybe I’m a Gibson Girl. I’ve messed around with some nice old Martins and thought, “Oooh, that’s pretty, but it’s not me.” The guitar I’ve been loving a lot is a Gibson LG-1. It’s warm and I don’t have to do as much EQ-ing to get to where I want to go.
The other day I was in Grants Pass, Oregon, and I went into the Music Shop located on the one street in town. And here’s this woman, Pearl E. Jones, who’s had this shop for 53 years. She was a Gibson dealer, back in the 1960s, and she’s 83 years old now. She still has her shop and she has all vintage instruments. At first I walked in and said, “Oh, can I play some of your guitars?” and she said, “No. We don’t let just anybody play them.” Then she kind of looked at me and said, “Unless you know how to play.” I said, “Well, I’m playing tonight down at the theater.” So she starts handing me guitars, including an 1860 Martin that you see in the books and that looked like a little peanut. It was insane. It just shook my body.
She also had a Gibson there that I’m still thinking about. I might call her up and say, “I may just need to buy that guitar after all.”
The acclaimed 26-year-old singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz started out as a mandolin player, though she had a fierce interest in all kind of fretted instruments. Joining bluegrass jams in her hometown of Waverly, Texas, Jarosz started playing more guitar and banjo. She later added to her arsenal the octave mandolin, an instrument she likes because it strikes a sonic balance between the guitar and mandolin. In her Acoustic Guitar Sessions, Jarosz discussed how she finally bonded with the guitar, and brought along a Collings D-1A she has owned since age 14.
The way I got really comfortable with the guitar was by writing songs on it. Before that, I had been writing instrumentals on the banjo and the guitar, but it was through the process of developing as a songwriter that I began to warm up to the guitar, to become really comfortable with it. . . . I’ve gotten to know the folks at Collings pretty well. This guitar [the D-1A] was one of two that Collings built for David Bromberg. He kept one. This is the one he didn’t choose. [laughs] I don’t know if that’s a good thing but I love this guitar. The size is perfect and it’s always felt right for me. And it seems to only get better with age.
The Iowa-based singer-songwriter is often associated with Gibson guitars: In his song “Eugene,” Brown mythologizes about the loving nature of his celebrated World War II-era Gibson “Banner” J-45 built by women during the company’s wartime years. But he recently purchased his dream guitar: a vintage Martin. AG caught up with Brown as he cradled that road-worn dreadnought on his lap during an interview at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, California.
This is a 1949 D-18. I always wanted a Martin D-18, though I’ve mostly played Gibsons most of my life, or Gibson copies by a few different makers [including a much-loved Jubal mahogany J-45 copy with Brazilian rosewood fingerboard built by the late Michigan maker Aaron Cowles]. The Jubals aren’t well known, but Aaron, who passed a couple of years ago, had worked at the Gibson plant in Kalamazoo [Michigan] before Gibson moved to Bozeman [Montana]. He lived outside of Kalamazoo in a small town and he didn’t want to move, but before Gibson left, he bought a lot of Gibson’s wood, including a big piece of solid mahogany that they used as a ramp to drive trucks up the Gibson loading docks. The only way I can describe those Jubals is that it’s like having a new, old Gibson. He made them with old techniques—the neck on the one I have is like a baseball bat. I mean, those are beautiful guitars.
So I play a lot of Gibsons, but I had always wanted a D-18 and just figured that they’re out of my price range. Anyway, one day, I happened to be in Philadelphia, and my daughter Pieta, who’s a little bit of a mystical person, she said, “Dad, I think we should stop in at Vintage Instruments.”
I said, “OK.” So we stopped and she walked straight to this guitar. She took it off the rack and said, “Here, play this, Dad.” I did and I really liked it. Owner Fred Oster wandered in about then and said, “That’s the best-sounding guitar we have right now.”
So I ended up getting it and at a price that was a lot less than I expected.
Yeah, I’ve always had a soft spot for these old D-18s, and I enjoy singing with it.
Chris Smither has made a name for himself as a singer and songwriter and one of the most original blues players around. AG asked him to share a few playing tips.
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[Crazy Heart composer] Stephen Bruton used to say that if have more than three fingers on the [piano] keyboard at a time, then it’s superfluous. He was a great guitarist as well and the point is well taken: Keep it simple. Also, one of things I do is to get my fingers down into the bass strings—so many fingerpickers depend on their thumb down there to keep the rhythm [plays an alternating bass line] and then they stay mostly in the top three strings, but you’ve got to get down there [and bend those low notes]. Mark Knopfler does that a lot and he’s a big hero of mine.
Her guitar playing is heavily influenced by Mississippi John Hurt and the Carter Family. Norman Blake became an early mentor. June met Blake after a mutual friend brought her to visit Blake and his wife Nancy at their home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “I was able to hang out and pick songs like ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ And he was sooo cool. I mean, I was a beginning guitarist jumping [clumsily] from chord to chord to chord! He didn’t discourage me at all. He said, ‘Come on now, you’ve got to go out and start picking with us. You can do it.’ Here, June discusses the music that made her want to pick up the acoustic guitar. She plays a Martin 000-15M.
My playing style just came from living in Memphis. I sang a cappella in church—the Church of Christ—because instrumental music was seen as against God’s rules. It was pretty strict. You just sit in the pews with everyone else and sing. Even picking up a guitar was against God’s law. . . . Eventually, I decided, “Well, I just love the sound of the acoustic guitar”—it’s the warmest and it feels so good, when it’s against my body, to feel the vibration against my chest. I just knew, this is the one, this is the one! Hearing those songs, like Maybelle Carter’s “Walk That Lonesome Valley” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Farther Along,” songs I had sung in church a cappella, but backed up by the guitar, it opened my mind. They played those songs in the sweetest way. I just had to do that because I just love Southern spirituals—I’ll never get away from that. I just love it, love it, love it!
As the co-founder of the Hot Club of San Francisco and a frequent guest at Djangofest events, guitarist Paul Mehling has helped spread the gospel of Gypsy-jazz giant Django Reinhardt and the legendry Hot Club of France. Here, the soft-spoken Mehling reflects on his own evolution as a Gypsy-jazz guitarist.
The Django bug bit me when I was a kid, probably around the age of five or six, because I was really precocious. My parents later told me that I would sit in front of the stereo speakers and just move—move and groove. [laughs] I was exposed to Benny Goodman and [his guitarist] Charlie Christian, you know; all the big-band guys. But my dad was hip enough to have a few Hot Club of France records. And then I heard the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s TV show [in 1964]—I was about six. That was it—I totally bought into the culture of the guitar as a kid. At seven, I got a guitar. It was like living in a parallel universe with the Beatles and the jazz stuff. When the Beatles broke up [in 1970], it was a crisis for me because I didn’t like the way rock ’n’ roll had progressed. So as a socially developing pre-teen I shut down and just listened to jazz. The more I listened, the more I found that I liked jazz guitar. But the Django thing sounded more like rock ’n’ roll than the Charlie Christian thing [bends a note on his Selmer acoustic] with these really soulful bends. Then you add the vibrato [twangs a note] and that is just so rock ’n’ roll! You add these kind of things [strums the guitar loudly and then softly] and you get all that Gypsy stuff—loud to quiet, quiet to loud, fast to slow, slow to fast, all the extremes. I realized, ‘Hmmm, there’s something there.’
When Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks came along, I was like “Wow, this is essentially contemporary rock ’n’ roll, folk-rock, but played with the Django guitar style” and that was it for me. So I jumped in. When I started playing with Dan Hicks, I got really better. He encouraged me to be a bandleader and to write tunes and to really just do it. He said, “You’re good at this, but you could really go deep.” So I did.
At age 11, this Muscle Shoals, Alabama, native became the second-youngest winner of the prestigious National Flatpicking Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. That was in 2007, and nearly a decade later he’s released firekid (Atlantic), an album that blends pop, electronica, bluegrass, and jazz. But he’s maintained solid bluegrass chops. Hodges, featured in last month’s Guitar Talk department, discusses the theft of a prized Gibson J-45.
I got an endorsement from Gibson when I was 13. They gave me an ES-335 and J-45. In bluegrass, everybody played Martins. I was self-conscious about my Gibson—I loved the way it sounded but I didn’t want people to think I was a weirdo who had a sunburst guitar that looked different from everyone else. So I got Gibson to make me a natural finish J-45 that would blend in with all those Martins. It was always this special thing for me, because it’s also left-handed. That was the only guitar I ever played, though other guitars have come and gone—I had a Collings that I loved for a while. But that natural-finish J-45 was the guitar I won the [National Flatpicking] championship with, it’s the one I competed with forever, and I recorded with it on every one of my albums. But I was playing a show in Nashville two years ago and the guitar got stolen from my car.
It was heartbreaking.
I filed a police report to no avail. But then it showed up on eBay. I contacted the detective assigned to the case and she contacted eBay, but eBay refused to help her. They wouldn’t give her the seller’s contact information, which I thought was absurd. So I posted about that situation on Reddit and included a picture of me with the guitar that showed the serial number, which matched the serial number of the guitar being sold on eBay. A Reditt-er—and I don’t know how he did this—got the seller’s name, address, phone number, and social security number. I turned that all over to the police and we got the guitar back! Now I call that J-45 “Boomerang.” I even wrote a song about it.
These days, I still take it on tour, but I don’t perform with it—I have a new [sunburst] J-45.
The fingerpicking legend came into AG’s studio in early 2014 for one of the first installments Acoustic Guitar Sessions. Emmanuel brought along his trusted Maton BG808, on which he bashed out a thrilling performance of his famed Western-themed instrumental “The TE Ranch” And, in his signature Australian brogue, Emmanuel regaled us with a tale about why he trusts his beloved Maton guitars so much.
They’re made in Australia. I got my first one in 1960 [laughs]—it was a while ago, back when I had hair and teeth. You gotta remember, back in those days we were a little country, a long way from anywhere. Unless you had some serious money and were in one of the big cities, you couldn’t find a Gibson or a Fender or a Gretsch. I didn’t even see a Fender guitar until I was about 14 or 15. I dreamt about them, and I looked at Chet Atkins record covers that had him with his Gretsch. But the Maton was my first electric guitar. Years later, I switched to a Telecaster, but I still have the Maton. In fact, my first guitar is in the Maton museum—it’s up on the wall, you can see it. But for what I do nowadays, I play this model [holds up his BG808 acoustic] and I have two of them on the road. And then I have a third Maton guitar: a dreadnought with a cutaway. That one’s rosewood, this one [looks down at the BG808] is maple.
I use Matons because the moment I pick up one of these guitars, I’m at home with it—I’ve played them for so long. I mean, I love Larrivée guitars and I love John Larrivée, because he’s such a great person. And I know everybody in the biz. I know Chris Martin and Bob Taylor and the people from Gibson. We all know each other. And I do have a Gibson acoustic guitar, I do have Martin acoustic guitars, and I have some beautiful handmade guitars, as well. But this one [looks down at the Maton] is my guitar of choice because no other guitar has the sound that this guitar has.
When people say to me, “You should play such-and-such hall because of the acoustics,”
I say, “I don’t really care about the acoustics, I care about the electrics.” I care about the P.A.: Is it a good enough P.A., does it have enough power, does it have a beautiful tone? Because what people are gonna hear is not the hall; they’re gonna hear the [guitar through the] P.A.
Now in the studio, I like to vary the acoustic guitars, and all of my Matons sound great with just a mic on them. So I’ll sometimes use this guitar on certain tracks, or I’ll use my Larrivée on certain tracks. [he gently rubs his fingers together] It depends on what kind of texture I’m looking for. Some songs suit the sound of a Martin or the sound of a Larrivée. But when you have a show and you gotta get out there and go from song to song, feel to feel, and genre to genre, nothing comes close to my Maton guitars. Nothing. I can just turn up, plug in, and go.
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.