When did you start playing the guitar, and who influenced you?
My brother had a flamenco guitar laying around in his room. When he joined the Army here was this guitar collecting dust, so I picked it up a couple of times and went, “Hey, I hit some chords!” I started to learn everybody’s favourite songs like, for instance, “Tom Dooley.” I was eleven years old then, and it didn’t matter too much as to what I was playing.
About the same time I got a Fender Mustang and Champ amp, bit I didn’t like the sound so I started playing Stratocasters. The I went though a couple of ES-335s, but eventually I went back to Strats because I liked them too much.
What guitars are you presently using?
A Stratocaster. I try to buy a stock guitar so if it gets stolen I can replace it easily. I like Fender bridges because they’re more tunable. You can really get the tuning adjusted way up the neck, and that makes a big difference.
I have three guitars that I use for studio work, and the Strat always winds up being used the most because of its ability to be tuned and stay that way all the way up the neck. I also have a Gibson ES-345 Custom that’s sort of okay. I had some work done on it. I asked the repair guy to put a Telecaster pickup on it because sometimes for studio work, and for the group, I may need a real bright sound. I switch between a rhythm and a lead sound, and I use a rhythm sound that is very crisp. For some reason he wired it in with the other two pickups so that different pickups in different amounts are being used, which was not what I wanted at all.
How many guitars do you have?
I’ve had fifty, twenty of which I no longer have because they’ve been stolen.
How did you manage to get so many stolen?
Just turn your back for a second. and they’re gone! If you play in bar bands in a town like Los Angeles, one wrong move, and it’s all over.
One time we were playing some place north of San Francisco, and we had a trailer. We put all our equipment in it, and parked the thing in front of our apartment. I was saying to myself at the time, “I’ll sleep by the window, and when they try to steal it, I’ll wake up and get them.” I didn’t hear a thing, nor did anyone else, and it was gone the next morning. I lost a real nice Strat. But you know, it happens I’ve lost ten Strats and I’ve had about thirty. The attrition rate for me has been very high, but from what I understand from a lot of people in L.A., it’s been a lot higher lately for other musicians.
For a while I was carrying my guitar with me everywhere I went, and the only time I’d put it down maybe was to move a Hammond B-3, and do you believe it, I’d be away for just a minute, and my guitar would be gone.
Do you work on your own guitars at all?
Well, I installed the Telecaster pickup on my Strat, which is not big deal at all. I like to switch between the real nice, mellow Strat sound to the big boom sound.
Do you buy guitars when you’re on the road?
I get really afraid of acquiring a real good instrument because when I’m on the road the airlines have a way of mashing them up. I have gigantic cases to protect them, and when they’re all brought up to my room it looks like a warehouse! Maybe you’ll only have three guitars and a mandolin, but you wind up with this pile of rubble in the corner. I’ve been holding off on buying guitars while I’m on the road until we could afford to have someone sleeping with them at all times.
What kind of amplification have you been using?
I’m using a custom-made Howard Dumble amp which is the best one that I’ve ever played through – it’s like a Fender made right. If you want a screaming Twin sound but don’t want it too loud, you can do it. That amp has an overdrive section, somewhat similar to that of the Music Man amp.
With the reverb on a Fender you have only two choices: on or off. But this reverb has a send and return so you can vary the amount of each. The spring inside the Fender reverb unit is a joke, and when you send the same amount as the input of the guitar signal, you’re asking for it – everyone sounds like the Ventures. The way around it is by having separate controls, which the Dumble amp has. It costs about the same as a new Marshall with four 10″ speakers in the bayonet cabinet. I’ve always liked that Marshall cabinet sound because it really projects. And it still has some nice lows.
The Dumble amp has a switch so you can activate the overdrive section during a solo without having to turn up the amp or guitar volume up. I like it a lot, it’s the best amp I’ve ever played through.
You are an unusual guitarist because you stick exclusively to slide playing on stage. When did you begin playing, and how do you account for your unique sound?
Actually, I was in a session, and I used to play a lot of open D tuning, and a friend of mine said “Watch this.” He tuned the A string down to G, and in fact it was an open G tuning! Then he went, “see this!” and he picked up an old flower vase and went whee!!! I said to myself, “That’s it!” and that’s what started it about six years ago.
I use an open A tuning which is an open G tuning moved up a whole step. Instead of moving the first, fifth, and sixth string down, I leave them alone and move all the other strings up a whole step. There’s a lot more tension on the strings, and it gets a much cleaner and brighter sound.
Did it take you a long time to figure out that tuning?
About six years! it’s a whole different frame of reference, and you have to rethink the whole neck. That’s nothing new though; jazz people sometimes use other tunings. Then again, a Django Reinhardt would play a regular guitar in a regular tuning, and it would sound outrageous! He was the one that put guitar players on the map as far as recording goes. The biggest influence for people like me and Larry Coryell, Frank Zappa, and Ry Cooder was recordings, rather than anything that musical literature had to offer.
What device do you use for playing slide?
I use a Sears Craftsman 11/16 socket. I’ve used glass, but kept breaking them everywhere I went.
Have you noticed any difference in terms of sound between metal and glass?
There’s a difference in sound, but in terms of the way I play, I think a glass bottleneck on an acoustic guitar is a much better sound. Then again, a Dobro with a metal bar is a much better sound than glass would be.
There’s a lot of ways to approach it; what is the best sound anyway? Sometimes it’s a raunchy, ugly, terrible sound. I remember my mother used to come into my room when I was playing and say, “Would you turn it down, it’s so loud and terrible we can hear it vibrating though the house!”
Do you think your style is distinctive?
Well, it’s not a literary musical style – I don’t use literary means as communication with the rest of the band and other musicians.
It’s not literary in the sense that I take a sheet of paper and write it down and have them follow the part per se. My belief is that the best use of a player, in terms of a session, or even the stage, is to let them concentrate on their own parts. I don’t like to communicate with other musicians in a literary sense because you don’t get the best out of them. Some of the best music that I’ve heard or been involved with is when everybody forgets about the charts and learns the tune with the singer on the scene, not in the booth, and the singer sings and inspires somebody to play something in a certain way, and someone else is inspired by that.
Written music is used for two purposes: to copyright a song, and to communicate a piece of musical literature that has classical overtones and should not be changed. To get the essence of the music it should be played this way or should be interpreted from the sheet music. For me, the best interpretations are without that written stuff.
Do you use any sound modifiers on your guitar?
I have a low compression unit just to keep the signal constant to the amplifier. I’m about to try using a delay line, similar to a tape repeat but very, very fast. It spreads the signal out very wide so I don’t have to play as loud to get the same sound quality. I use it a lot on records, and I just got to the point where I want to spend the money it takes to get that kind of equipment, the cheapest one being $1,100, and a real good one costs about $3,000. I use it in the studio so much that I might as well get one myself, because I’m always having to rent one.
How do you get the action on your guitars?
Very high. I use flat-wound Fender F-50 strings, which are fairly heavy gauge. I just use a regular pick, no kind in particular, and I use my fingers a lot.
Do you use a capo?
Sometimes I do. The length of the string determine the sound, so if you have positions up the neck of the guitar, the sound of the strings is inhibited or loses its quality or loses its quality because of the nature of the pickup. The pickup is magnetic, and the string isn’t allowed to vibrate as far. The more open positions you can use, the better the sound of the guitar.
You seem to play beyond the twelfth fret a lot, getting a high piercing sound.
Yeah, and the tuning I use makes it sound even higher. It’s real hard to get a lot of those notes on a guitar that isn’t tuned that way. Both sides of the string from the slide or bottleneck vibrate along with the tone that you want, giving off some very interesting chord inversions. that’s another reason why I’ll use a capo – to get rid of that.
When you were first learning to play slide, did you have any difficulty in muting the strings you didn’t want to sound ?
I finally figured that one out. When you want to play a certain string you lift your finger off of it and pluck it, or else palm it like a pedal steel player does. The damping of those strings is real important, and palming it is the easiest way to do it.
What kind of music do you like to listen to?
Third world music really intrigues me, like Paraguayan harp music because these guys are really brilliant. They’re natural geniuses, and they’re playing the kind of music that will never become commercially successful. The music had nothing to do with the pop record market, but they’re just brilliant musicians. In Latin America countries these people are respected just the way we would respect a Casals or a Bernstein. In this country, the media creates this whole mystique about music, like Don Kirshner. What about people like Larry Coryell? When are we going to see him on TV?
What do you think of the sudden amount of attention from the media that Little Feat has received in the past year ?
I don’t read my press clippings, but there are a couple of people I have read because they took the group and put in their sense of humour about what the band was really about. And being in the music field can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a heartbreak. From the time I was 21, when I first started playing professionally I thought I was hot stuff. From the the time I was 23 until I was 28, I was completely under the impression that I wasn’t any good. Just recently I started not caring about it at all – I just play!
A big stumbling block is one’s own attitude or vision of himself as a musician. I’ve known guys that are great guitar players, but they’ve got such high standards of themselves that they’re complete jerks, and nobody will play with them. And then there are those guys that are so scared!
There’s a guy, Elliot Ingber from the group, The Winged Eeled Fingerling – who is such an amazing guitar player but thinks he’s terrible. He played guitar on the Mother’s Freak Out album, and with Captain Beefheart. One time I was jamming with Elliot and Jimi Hendrix, and Hendrix stopped playing to listen to the guy! But in front of an audience, nothing – the guy’s scared stiff!
Is there anything that sticks out in your mind about Hendrix?
Just that he was a real nice man, very pleasant and lighthearted. He wasn’t trying to impress anybody. That was a couple of years before he died, when he got his new band together. He had a palatial estate, rented of course, in Beverly Hills, and all the guys were there outside the house jamming incredibly loud.
Do you have any advice for aspiring guitarists who hope to play professionally someday?
The first thing is to consider one’s own vision of himself. Plan out what you like to do when playing the guitar, whether it’s writing songs, singing with the guitar, backing somebody up, or whatever. But you should figure out where you’re supposed to fit in the hierarchy of a group. Decide where you’re supposed to be. You have to fool around with that for a few years and not get discouraged and quit too early.
Also, try to keep music schools in perspective. Most schools that I have seen have been debilitating to students and the cause of grief in one way or another. Of course it’s great to learn harmony and arranging, but in terms of the essence of what someone is going to do, the purpose of a school is to study what music has done before – not to see what music is going to do tomorrow.
Most of the composers that I really respect didn’t spend much time in school. They either had the talent or else were angry enough to force the talent they did have out. If you want to play rock and roll in bar bands, or do sessions, or play in a big band, then don’t let anyone else tell you what you want to do. Advice is always good, but nobody is as well acquainted with what you fell about than yourself.
A Selected Little Feat Discography: The Last record Album, Dixie Chicken, Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, Sailin’ Shoes With Others: Robert Palmer, Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley, Robert Palmer, Pressure Drop, Chico Hamilton,The Master.