Latest release: Recorded Live in Lafayette (Provogue)Website: www.sonnylandreth.com
American slide guitar legend Sonny Landreth is hailed worldwide as one of, if not the best living slide guitarist today. Given the high praise his names regularly invokes, it is interesting to note that he is quietly spoken, has a great sense of humility and readily shares his remarkable playing techniques with those willing to listen and his attitude is something that can be applied to all music genres. Sonny continues to have a huge impact on blues music and whilst he is loyal to the sounds and styles therein, he is always looking for new ways coax interesting sounds from his guitars. As a result, his latest live album Recorded Live In Lafayette combines electric and acoustic sets on companion discs offering a smorgasbord of slide guitar treats. If you’re a musician looking to branch out of a musical rut, listening to a different genre might help and given blues is so expressive with broad appeal to many musical tastes; Sonny’s latest album is definitely worth exploring. Loud Online spoke to Sonny recently from his home in Louisiana and obtained some amazing insights that only someone with decades of experience can impart.
The latest double live album has a lot going on. As you use a lot of different tunings does that require you to have a lot of different guitars in your live rig?
Yeah, they’re all in different tunings so the G tuned songs are most of the acoustic set. There is also a D tuned song and I used a capo to get an A minor tuning into B minor. For the electric set, there are different ones like A, E and G. So that is how it is doing the open tuning thing. One of the advantages of doing the album here at home is having all of my equipment here and that helped out a lot because typically we fly to the show which makes it limited in what we can take for any kind of production. So, it was nice not to have to worry about that.
Does using guitars with specific tunings limit spontaneity live in any capacity?
No it is actually the other way around. I’ve used those tunings for so long so there all have their own personality or things about them that I like that I cannot do in standard tuning. So it is fun to do. A lot of the time when we do festivals, we’ll do our set and then somebody will ask me to sit in so it really doesn’t matter if you only take two guitars because you can play in any key for whichever tune that you’ve got the guitars tuned for but I would prefer being able to have those open strings because there are a lot of nifty things that you can do to utilise that and to make a more complex sound overall.
Generally speaking, the Fender Stratocaster neck holds up pretty well when changing string gauges with different tunings and so on.
Oh yeah, they are awesome for that. Strats are such a working person’s guitar. They stand the test of time, cope with travel and all that kind of abuse. It has been great for me to have that as a resource. I love Gibsons too, you know, it’s just that I can’t just fit my Firebird in overhead luggage. They’re not conducive for that with the headstock angle and so forth. Strats are great for all that is does.
Is it more challenging with a Resonator guitar in a live situation?
Oh, they’re so finicky man but the thing that is great about them is they have a unique sound which I am totally enamoured with and have been for a long time. They are temperamental as far as tuning and coping with temperature changes. But, to be fair, not the spider bridge assembly and the wooden bodied Dobros that the bluegrass cats play like Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes, but the National style Resonator that I use; the pressure from the strings hold the whole thing together with the Biscuit [bridge] and the bridge saddle and that’s what gives it the mojo which is a great sound but then it is conducive to some of the things we mentioned. So I have to tune it when I play every song which is kind of a pain. When you’re playing an electric you can mute it or give it a little tweak from the solid body electric which doesn’t make a whole lot of sound. When we first started doing shows to get ready and prepare for the recording, I made the mistake of taking the DI [Direct Input] off the guitar first. It is actually a better way to do it for the front of house engineer. Every time I would go to tune, I would mute the pedals and my amplifier so that in the monitors, you could hear that happening loud and clear. So we had to work out signals to work around that to mute things in between the songs.
Feedback from acoustic guitars is no doubt an ongoing problem and be a real issue live.
Oh it sure can. Once you get past the frustration and you get used to the difference in the sound of a Resonator guitar amped up, so to speak, then it is a matter of finding those frequencies that are mean and nasty so you can work around it. You can also use it because there is actually a point on ‘A World Away’ where I got a really cool feedback sound and you can hear it in the background because that’s the amp and I was mostly using an open microphone. It is a cool sound and it gives it a layered effect. So it is a case of finding the sweet spots and then avoiding the others.
Is that one of the ways you discover new techniques and sounds; by playing live and having happy accidents?
Oh absolutely, you find the good, the bad and the ugly. Anything to be had, you will hit upon it, like it or not. Ha-ha. The thing that we had going which I really enjoyed was the layered effect of the sound or should I say, the layers of sound that had such a cool effect because there are different signals to mix. So then it is piezo pickup in the neck position on the Pogreba which is a really cool Resonator guitar that Larry Pogreba makes with these aluminium bodies. Mine has a ’56 Oldsmobile hubcap for the cover on the resonator. He makes them like that so we have that sound coming out from the piezo pickup and then we split the signal that went into my pedalboard so I can kick in a chorus effect every now and then for some bite or even some overdrive. Then the other signal went to the DI and out to the front of house. Then we have an open microphone over the Resonator to pick up with the authentic sound so that way, my front of house guy can blend those sounds. We kind of had a game plan which we talked over strategically about when it was best to do in the songs. Some of that I worked out in the studio before we went out on the road with it during the pre-production of the album. That was another good reason to do all of this at home because that way I could work all of this out with my engineer, take it on the road, get a head of steam and we went to the venue where is was to be recorded, so we had some of it worked out but still had some room for spontaneity.
You’ve got a subtle gain structure in your sound. Are you letting the tubes do that work and then turning up the volume for a bit more gain or do you prefer using a pedal?
There were two stages of gain; there was the pure signal which we blended with a Radial Engineering Elevator pedal which is a great and versatile boost pedal. You can choose flat gain or there is a bump for mid boost in two different positions or frequencies so I just put it in the middle which gave it a little fatter tone which was a little more distinctive and worked to cut through in the live mix. Then I would kick in a PlimSoul pedal by Fulltone, Michael Fuller’s company and that was really transparent. It gives a little bit of grit for some things because every now and then I like to build up a solo when maybe it is the second time around or is in the particular section of the song and kick that in. One happy surprise was when using a chorus pedal on ‘Bound by the Blues’ and with that tuning, it gave it more of a characteristic of a steel drum. I thought that was pretty cool and it was fun to play the song with that vibe.
One of the interesting aspects of your slide playing includes muting strings and also doing pull-off behind fretted notes whilst also using a slide. How did that sort of technique come about?
Yeah muting is really important and there are various ways of doing that with both the right and left hand. Fortunately I was a kid working in a music store and there was an older cat there who showed me the Chet Atkins style of right hand fingerpicking technique. So, that is inherent in that style of playing. Essentially you are finger guarding and anytime you are not using a string on the right hand with you finger, that finger is resting on the string so it is an automatic muting system, as it were. It is a great way to get more control and to clean up the sound. Then of course, with a slide, you can dampen behind that with your fingers just by draping it over the strings as much or as low as you want or you can open it up and not dampen it at all to get a lot of those tones and harmonics behind the slide. So it is a combination of all of that. The other method is to use palm muting with the right hand. Combining all of those give you more control. If you want it real clean you can do that but if you want to open it up, to get it more on the wild side, it is there to be had too.
You’ve also come up with a tremolo effect using the slide, in a sense, and your right hand. Do you think these sorts of techniques are in danger of becoming a lost art?
That’s a good question but I don’t think so because I think that enough people have seen it and picked up on it. There is kind of an insidious, in a good way, nature to those kinds of things. People try their own way to do certain techniques and embody that in their style and sound. I love that and it should be the way it is and we all owe B.B. King, I mean, My God, you know and others so I think that it carries on in that regard. I’ve got a couple of instructional courses on TrueFire so a lot of that is pretty well documented. The first one I did was maybe a bit too involved for folks, I don’t know, I think I could have done a better job (laughs). The second one when we went back in, I had a more simplified approach to playing the blues tunes. I concentrated more on the top three strings for melodic purposes. So I hope that people are able to use the information and to take it in their own way to help them down the path a little further.
Have you found inspiration from watching other guitarists you’ve played with such as Johnny Winter, Eric Johnson, Duane Allman and Derek Trucks?
Oh always, you should always have the antennas up and take it all in. Also, in any setting such as a sit-in at an outdoor gig or at a venue inside or in particular, recording, I always like to get up close and see how the people work and see how they approach things. It is really great and anything that you pick up, you’re the better for it. You always hope that their cosmic dust will rub off on you. I always tell kids to be open to anything and everything that is done well because you can learn something from anybody and it doesn’t matter if their skill set is not as developed as your own or if it is developed a whole lot more. My point is that everybody has a different way to approach things so I can be watching somebody playing and think, ‘wow, I didn’t think of that’. That’s good, you know, it is what keeps you growing.
Indeed, agreed. In the song ‘Walkin’ Blues’, the solo has a lot of wide vibrato going on. Did you spend a lot of time over the years in developing your great vibrato technique or is it an ever evolving thing?
I’ll let you know when I get there. It is and because you can adjust the speed of it, you can get different effects for different songs. Also, for intensity, if you want to build a song, you can start out at the lower register with a slower vibrato when you land on a note and as you build it up to the higher register towards the end of the solo, you should always build dynamically. It is all about dynamics and then use a faster vibrato at the top and at all points in between because it is an art. The basic sliding up a string and landing on a beautiful vibrato is the essence of slide guitar. That is where most of the vocal quality and the legato, long lines and beauty of it really shines. I kind of think of it as a separate effect, really. The faster vibrato is very much something you can get from a Leslie type of effect and with a built in organic chorus sound combining palm oscillation techniques with vibrato. A bit like with your right hand and building that up with vibrato on whichever finger you use on your left hand, assuming this is for right handed guitar players. So, the variation and the speed can really make a difference in the effect which can be really sparse or really dramatic. It is very versatile and a big part of the sound of playing slide guitar.
Given your knowledge of the blues, when Ry Cooder did the Crossroads film soundtrack back in 1986, did you find that to be quite authentic to traditional blues and brilliantly done?
Oh absolutely, I mean, Ry is the cat, man. He is the master of the big note and you know, my guru, for sure. He did a wonderful job and he was also smart enough to get Steve Vai in the project with his incredible technique and the way that they wove that into that counter play all of which Steve did for the battle at the end. It was really cool the way he brought in classical music because it was a whole another perspective together with the heavy sounding guitar like that. All of the blues and cutaways with different songs that they used showed Ry as the absolute master of finding the alternative route through the country. He has always been the purveyor of that and is most inspirational.