How Do You Get That Sound?
A Percent Here, A Percent There
My understanding is that you are involved in the electronics of the electric
guitar, that you constructed or modified or customized a lot of the
equipment that you use?
Right. Yeah. Kind of a hot-rod mentality, more than anything else.
I used to sit at Grateful Dead concerts and envision that the guitar and the
amp, and the microphone in front of the amp or whatever simulation of
that they use now, and the connection to the soundboard and the
connection to the p.a. was actually a big Dr. Seuss-like instrument. In one
sense you seem to be playing this medieval instrument, but in another
sense you're playing this modern-day electronic instrument. When you say
"my instrument," are you thinking of this object you can carry around or
are you conscious that there's this whole electronic body of the
instrument that goes beyond the guitar shape in your hands?
When I talk about my instrument, I talk about my relationship with my
guitar. I dig the production stuff. I dig it a lot. I love to tinker and I love to
fuck with the stuff. The cool thing about the technology we're working
with here - that strat design is from the what? early '50s or late '40s.
That was the first popular solid-body electric guitar, you know? That
instrument over there, the Regal, that's from the '40s. These aren't new
designs. This guitar, the Epiphone Emperor, was made in '53, but it's an
archtop box. It's the same basic instrument. I've got pickups on guitars
that were made in the '30s. I've got amps here from the '30s and late '20s.
It's not really modern technology. The technology is generations and
generations old. You can get into this stuff just like an old car and, for
pennies, do something that improves the sound.
I'm all about the production though, sure, but I don't see it as the
It has to do with clarifying the result?
You're always trying to get a few percent here and there, and if you get a
percent here and a percent there a hundred times, you've got a hundred
percent improvement. It's easy to do with the kind of gear I use because
it's just old junk. You can make it better just messing with it.
Sitting Down while Playing
It seems like your comfort zone on stage is usually sitting. Some people
interpret you standing up as meaning you're more into it, putting more
energy into it. We were talking about Miles Davis before, and Miles used to
get criticized for playing facing away from the audience. It's the question
of showmanship. How much of your job is it to show people what you're
doing and how much of it is to just do it?
Sometimes you've got to stand up and jump around a little bit and have
some fun with it. There's a fun-factor thing with moving around on stage,
and there's times when it's appropriate, but a lot of times when you're
just playing and you're trying to concentrate, you've also got to relax. I
normally play with a fairly heavy action on the guitar. In order to get
interfaced with that properly, sitting really works better.
Heavy action means the strings are strung tight or high off the frets?
Big strings and the action's kind of high,. You don't want to get yourself in
a situation where you're supporting the weight of the guitar with your
shoulder or your hand all night. You want to save whatever energy you have
for getting around on the thing. My concentration's always better when I'm
relaxed, and the playing's always better as relaxed as you can get. You
should be able to just kind of like knock me over at any point.
I think guitar is supposed to be played sitting down, in spite of all the
various really cool duck-walking, guitar-tossing, and windmilling that
accompanies the rock 'n' roll thing.
I have seen you playing it over your head.
I can do that, yes. And I can throw it and I can jump around, and I used to.
Where were you guys twenty years ago if you wanted to see me jump
around, play the Les Paul with the wah-wah through the Marshall, and
throw shit? Yeah, I did that, but I think I've proven to myself that I can do
a good job holding the thing properly. So I jump around occasionally, but
mostly I just try not to let any additional muscle tension create
additional musical tension that's going to cause me to lapse or fuck up.
I think I zone a little more quickly when I don't have to worry where my
body is. Oftentimes, when it's time to play, even when I am standing, I get
down on one knee, let the instrument rest, and relax and start to play. So, I
apologize if it's not too showy, but it works for me.
I don't think you have to apologize. I want people to understand it doesn't
mean you don't care. I think they're reading it as rock 'n' roll, performance
Yeah, that's cool, and it's not like I'm being lazy, but if there's going to be
any authenticity to my own presentation of the thing, I've got to be
responsible for my body getting onto the guitar properly. I really will get
more quickly to the point if I don't have to worry about standing up.
Sometimes, I'll actually fall down. I'll kind of get away from it and go, oh
shit, and I'll be teetering.
I've seen you playing while stanfing on one leg, like the "tree posture" in
I don't know why I do that. Lindley
does that too, and I don't know why, but especially on the steel, where
you're physically located on the instrument makes a big difference in how
you're able to do your intonation. I think sometimes when standing still,
I'll pick up a foot just so I don't move. I'll be in the right place, and I'll go,
I'm just going to stay there, because here's the spot. Here's the balance.
When you mentioned having one leg on the ground and one in the air, it
makes me think of an electrical ground.
Well, if there is some electrical potential in the body going one way or the
other, with your hands on those metal strings all the time some little
circuit must be completed.
What about that guitar someone brought you? The Florida guitar?
Oh, yeah. This guy calls me up and asked if I needed anything for the tour. I
said No, and then, just making conversation because it seemed so
unobtainium to me, I told him I have a bunch of altered-body stratocasters
and plywood archtops with wooden bridges, but I don't have anything with
the big clear neck-through kind of sustain that Jerry's guitars had, like
the Irwins or the later stuff. That was on a Wednesday. By Friday, this guy
had gone out and found - unassembled, just a neck and a body - a guitar
made by that Florida builder, Steve Cripe. He made Jerry's last couple
So this guy bought it, took it to the guy who had been doing the setup on
Jerry's guitars, Gary Brauer, and had it set up just like Jerry's guitar. He
brought it to me and said, "Here, this is for you." The guitar is just
beautiful beyond description, an orders of magnitude better instrument
than I've ever played or heard. It's just a killer guitar, man. It's beyond
special. Even when you just hold it and wear it, the balance of it and how
it presents itself to you. It has a kind of presentation to you, like, "OK,
let's go." It's just awesome. I'll be playing a bunch of that.
Welcome to the Crew
Who's going to be packing your gear on the tour?
Me! I've had the same guy doing my gear for 30 years, man. That's me!
Does it focus your mind? Does it help you concentrate?
It's just an awareness thing, trying to be aware of all the myriad little
details that go into it. Stringing the guitars, getting the stuff set up, and
making sure that everything is as right as it can be, it's trying to stack
in your favor as much as possible. The less involved you are, the more you
defer that kind of stuff, probably the less able the are to do the job. I
know how far I can push my stuff and what it's going to let me do. If I'm
going to set it up a certain way, I know what it's going to point the
playing towards. It's part of the meditation, yes. I would be uncomfortable
if somebody else were packing my 'chute.
It sounds like on some level you focus on the handcraft, the hands-on, the
things you can control. Your position, where you're sitting, the equipment
I enjoy that. The actual production part of it has always fascinated me.
The Grateful Dead's production I always thought was at least a decade
ahead of everybody else's and was all very creatively done. I didn't go to a
lot of Grateful Dead shows, I went to like three Dead shows, but every
time I went or listened to any of the stuff, the production was always
incredible, and I was always so impressed by it. I'm a fan of that aspect of
the thing, because I used to work in the theatre and do lights and stage and
all that stuff. Those guys kind of wrote the book on taking a big, creative,
crazy rock thing out on the road and making it work, and I'm really, really,
really honored to know those guys and watch that happen. So when Parrish
said I could be on the crew, man, I was like, whoa!
So is that sort of like a new playground then, for you, this very advanced
Well, the part of it that I'm privy to, that bit of it that I can see, I'm
enjoying seeing. I'm happy to be on board, and I'm going to learn what I
can, and I have a keen interest in the production aspects of it. The thing
that I like best about doing this trip right now with the Other Ones is
being on that accelerated learning curve, which I'm always very up and
very happy for. I don't want that curve to be limited to that time that's
spent on stage playing. I'm not going to learn anything sitting in a hotel
room. I'm not going to learn anything sleeping on a bus. I've sat in hotel
rooms and I've slept on buses, man. I want to see the work going on.