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1997 Interview with Harvey Reid

This interview was conducted in October 1997 by e-mail between Harvey Reid and Greg West of 6-String Arts.


Q. Who were your musical role models when you first began playing the guitar?

I really had none. I have always suspected that my desire to play music was a genetic mutation. I had never even seen anyone play guitar in person. I had no relatives or neighbors or friends who played music. My mother loved Peter Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio, and I learned a lot of their songs plus what was on the radio, like Dylan, Simon + Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot. I played Chuck Berry songs very early also and Rolling Stones. I wanted to sing songs, and I was not trying to be anybody. I had been playing recreationally for several years when I heard my first role models for playing real acoustic guitar: Doc Watson, Norman Blake, Leo Kottke, John Fahey, David Bromberg. At that point (age 18) my desire to play serious acoustic guitar ecliped my love for using the acoustic guitar to accompany songs, though I continued to do both my whole life. I spent close to 10 years with guitar before I did my first gig, and never had any plans to be a musician. I am very educated about those who came before me, and I have studied and listened to every guitar player I can. Leo Kottke and Doc Watson probably had more impact on me than anyone, though I have songwriter heroes also who were not good guitar players.

Q. What was the first guitar you started playing on?

My first guitar was a $19.95 black, steel-string with a white stripe painted around the top (no cowboy painted on it!). I got a $60 Aria Classical guitar in 1969 or 1970, and then in 1971 I bought a Hoyer 12-string for $170 as my first half-decent guitar. In May 1972 I bought a Nagoya 6-string, and 3 years later, in 1975 I got my first really good guitar, my Gallagher, which I still have. I traded the Nagoya for my autoharp in January of 1975.

Q. Beginning and intermediate players spend so much time studying and emulating the works of successful artists; how can a young musician develop his own musical identity?

Don't think about it too much and play play play. It takes years to develop an identity, unless you are lucky, and people today I think are too impatient about their music. Because the best source of money in the music business is ownership of copyright, there is a greater emphasis on writing music than there needs to be, and since certain people are already making scads of music writing songs of questionable artistic value, there is no way to stop everyone from wanting to do the same. I think people should play music that moves them, and if it their own, fine, and if not, fine also.

Q. Several years ago I attended a large folk festival. In the "Singer-Songwriter Showcase" there was one performer who played mandolin and sang with incredible intensity and passion. He was talented, polished, and incredibly well prepared for his performance. He was immediately followed by a young woman with a "hooty" soprano voice, who sang out of tune, played the piano poorly, and had long pauses in her set as she tried to think of songs to play. The difference between the two musicians was like night and day, yet the audience responded to both with similar levels of applause and enthusiasm. You're a perfomer who demonstrates not only passion for the music but also great technical ability. Do you find it frustrating trying to reach audiences who can't tell the difference between excellence and mediocrity?

Yes, it is frustrating to be a serious student of music in a world that tolerates and celebrates mediocrity. However, it is not a simple situation. Music is about feeling, and many unskilled artists make great music that people like a lot. It's not just the acoustic guitar world where there are problems. David Helfgott (from Shine) is not much of a piano player as I hear, but he sells tickets and causes an uproar in the piano world because he steals gigs away from better players. What we perhaps need is to better distinguish between the refined art and the unrefined. This is hard to do, since big companies are spending millions in promotion and making a lot of money packaging and selling the amateurish stuff, and there is no comparable voice telling people that there is much better music they should be aware of. I make road tapes of music that moves me, and a handful of the people on the tapes are well-known, but for the most part, the artists that blow me away are working in the fringes like me. My favorite cello player is an unknown guy named Janos Starker, who to my ears is 20 times the player that Yo Yo Ma is, but Yo Yo fills the concert halls and gets the press. Great chefs must get frustrated by the crap that is served in chain restaurants. But there are a lot of people who do not appreciate Nouvelle Cuisine, and really do want a slab of steak and a baked potato and a salad with ranch dressing, and they are not wrong to want that. The problems occur when the corporations who mass-market the music or food or whatever it is and blanket the earth with ads like "Coors: the last real beer" as if their crap is the real stuff. Go to a crafts fair and see what real shoes are like, or real furniture, or real hand-made porcelain or something. I am not sure the media spotlight and big-time pop marketplace is the place where a serious artist can best work and grow and produce. Unfortunately you have to earn a living, and being a middle-class artist is a challenge.

All creators of excellent things have to struggle in this day and age of mass-merchandised mediocrity, though in a weird way, they now have an edge. 200 years ago, all chairs were hand-made, everybody knew how to sew and cook and saw boards, and it was no big deal to make something hand-crafted. You can now make a big deal out of it, and the very mass-merchandised junk that is burying us is the very same stuff whose existence and mediocrity shows those who care to look closely that what the crafsmen are doing with their skills and their hearts IS better. But if all you want to do is sit down, a K-Mart chair will do the job. Just because I make a beautiful chair does not mean there should not be K-mart chairs or that everyone has to be educated about the difference between the two. There is room in the world for both the refined and the unrefined. The store shelf should have Wonder Bread and also whole-grain organic bread, and consumers should understand the difference.

Q. You made some cynical comments about Bob Dylan in an interview I once read. Do you enjoy challenging the "sacred cows" of the folk world.

I enjoy telling it like I see it, and I try to talk about things I know about. I did not intend to make bad comments about Bob Dylan, I criticized something he did. I admire him. I know many of his songs. If the greatest carpenter in the world saws a board crooked, someone should tell him. I was disgusted with Dylan's lame ripoff of the old ballad Canadi-i-o that he took directly from Nic Jones, an obscure English guitarist. A lot of us who study these things feel that Nic's guitar part on that song is one of the shining gems of acoustic guitar, and I don't know a soul among my community of fingerpickers who will touch it, out of respect and awe for the playing. Then along comes famous Bob to butcher the guitar part and do a ... well- just go and listen to the two versions and then report back to me. I always thought Bob was a pretty good guitar player, especially 30 years ago, and if he is going to make a solo acoustic album, he should have kept the tempo steady and stuff like that and worked at it. Traditional music usually involves skills that have to be worked at and learned, and I always get pissed when pop stars trivialize those art forms by dabbling in them.I do not enjoy saying bad things about anybody, and maybe I was feeling hot-headed when I originally made that remark, but I will stand by it. I had just made an album of traditional music before Bob's, and it got little attention and Bob's got a lot. But I am not the least bit in awe of Eric Clapton or famous people, if that's what you mean. I am in awe of excellence, not famousness. And I do not slam all those who are famous. Jerry Douglas is pretty famous, and he is an astoundingly good player who just blows me away regularly. So is Mark Knopfler. I guess I wish Beavis and Butthead would critique folk music too, so somebody would be reminding us who sucks. I don't enjoy doing it myself, since it makes me look like sour grapes.

I think folk music and any music will do better if people work harder at what they do, and strive for excellence. I work my ass off to play and record the best I can, and you bet I will push others who are around me and elsewhere to raise their standards.

Q. Adrian Legg decries the "snobbishness" that acoustic purists have established around themselves and their music. Do your feel that acoustic musicians are becoming more closed-minded? Is open-mindedness about music necessarily a positive thing?

Adrian Legg is a fine musician, but it is mystery to me why he gets included in the lists of acoustic guitar players. As far as I can tell he plays electric guitar, and the flak he gets must be from those who love the actual acoustic guitar, which I have never heard him play or record with. A problem arises because there is a magazine called Acoustic Guitar Magazine, and we now have to decide if Adrian fits in that category or not. I think what he is saying is that we should just be guitar players, and not flatpickers or whatever. What his critics are saying is that wood sounds better than transistors, and that the two are different.

I have a problem with the tribalism, both philosophically and career-wise. I am a Performing Songwriter, and a Fingerstyle Guitar guy and a Flatpick Guitar guy and an Autoharp guy, and none of the magazines want to write about me because I don't neatly fit their format. Autoharp Quarterly actually told me that they would not review my new album because I do not play primarily autoharp, even though I was the only performer at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival to play autoharp, and I take the instrument to more new audiences than most of the people they do write about. It's unfortunate that musicians are circling their wagons into camps instead of mingling with other groups. There should not be such deep distinctions between genders, or between those who sing and those who don't, or between songwriters and non-songwriters, though it is probably human nature to do so. They have been trying to define folk music for 40 years, and the Bluegrass community has similar problems of definition, that I think are pointless and destructive. The musicians should be encouraged to play what they feel, and not to try to fit into an established category for marketing purposes. Musicians need to experiment and combine and blend and distill, and don't need to be second-guessing markets all the time. This all may be a subtle consequence of computers, which need to sort things in the database, and lead us to attach labels to things more than need be.

Q. What are your opinions of the growing use of electric guitars and keyboards in contemporary folk music?

Folk music is when folks play music, and to my mind instruments are just tools. I might mind when a novice chump at an open mike plays loud electric guitar, but I sure love when Roy Buchanan cranks it. It's not the electricness that is the problem. I think an acoustic instrument has more nuances of tone (especially when it is played well) and I almost always prefer the sound, though I used to play Tele in a country band and I love electric guitars. The acoustic piano is a glorious instrument, but there is almost no way to travel with one, and some of the modern digital pianos sound as good or better on stage than real ones, so I am all for them. It's too bad that music has to be as loud as it does today. People tolerated and even wanted much quieter music even 20 years ago. I am surprised that there have not emerged more gigs where people could pay big bucks and get the real thing, since the finer things in life usually end up costing more and being harder to find.

Q. I could have stood up and cheered when I read your comments about universities teaching "monks to teach other monks how to be monks." Could you tell my subscribers your feelings about formal musical education.

This may have to wait for a time when I have the energy to expound more. Let's say that I cannot find an example of a discipline of study where the curriculum and methods of teaching involved at the university level are further from the reality of what that discipline is really about. Sports, history, languages, chemistry, nutrition, whatever-- universities are right at the cutting edge of what is happening. In sciences, it is a toss-up whether industry or academia are at the front. And then there is music. They are still teaching it the way it was taught in 1750. As if figured-bass exercises in Eb Mixolydian mode, viola clef has any meaning whatsoever except a way to pass or flunk people. It's really sad. So many people are hungry to learn about music, and you essentially have to quit school to study music, and there is an avalanche of awful books and how-to methods by people who know nothing of education. There has been some progress with jazz making its way into music departments, and maybe in 100 years there will be some reality. I have no use for a system that does not allow a musician to play and sing at the same time. Are Ray Charles and Doc Watson worthless because they cannot read music, and will not choose between being instrument majors or voice majors? Give me a break. Why can you study gamelan or some extinct instrument, but not banjo or mandolin or pedal steel? Why is the steel string guitar treated like some bastard child, and its wonderful range of techniques and repertoire ignored in almost all university guitar programs? There is hope, and change is taking place, because there is a new generation of classical guitar players, many of whom also play steel-string and electric, who are taking the positions, and whose open-mindedness may end this situation.

I believe in the apprentice system, and those who do can teach those who wish to learn. I also have high hopes for video, since it returns things back to "sit on daddy's knee" and learn to play. Maybe with more and more videos, people will just learn from each other the way we learn languages as kids-- just by immersion. I think that is how a lot of the music got passed on all this time.

Q. What advice would you give a young player just starting out on the guitar? What is important for them to learn and develop in their first year or so as a guitarist.

Learn to love playing music. Pay no attention to anything except the feeling, and find a place in the world where your music is wanted and welcome, and find a social setting where you want to bring your guitar and people want you to get it out. Play at parties, on the beach, in the street. That means more than anything. Techniques have no meaning for their own sake-- they are to deliver a feeling to the listener.

Q. You are renowned for your live sound. Many of my readers ask questions about how to get the best sound from their instruments in a live context. Can you describe your gear, pickups, effects, etc. for us.

I use a built-in Crown GLM mike somewhere in each of my instruments, combined with one or more pickups of varying types, that are both fed into a Fishman Blender (which I helped design) and usually into a Fishman Performer Amp I use as a monitor. I use no effects and essentially no EQ, except house reverb and a tiny tinge of chorus on the autoharp. It has taken years of experimenting and frustration to have finally reached a minimalist set-up that sounds awesome and lets me think about the music and not the sound. The exact gear I use is detailed on my web site at http://www.woodpecker.com/

Q. In addition to the guitar, you also have a love for the autoharp. How did you come to take up that instrument?

I have never been able to explain why or how I play the autoharp. I began playing it in around 1972, and have always played instinctely, and I almost never practice it or forget anything. I have worked very hard at guitar. If autoharp were a traditional instrument I might be able to explain my playing of it as a past life thing, but the instrument and the playing styles I use are only a few decades old. Big mystery. But the autoharp connects me effortlessly with a special place where I need to go, and I rarely have to fuss with it. It is very giving. The guitar is always a wrestling match by comparison.

Q. Being a solo act, acoustic musicians often have to be their own "roadies." How do you manage your instruments and equipment when you go on the road?

It is very hard, and the biggest part of my touring life. I have developed techniques and strategies over the years. You bring it, you ship it, you rent one, you borrow or buy one, etc. When I get to stop lugging things and actually play music it is a treat. This is good for my career, since the times when people see me are when I am on stage, playing music, and that's the best part of the whole lifestyle, and so it is almost impossible for me to do a bad show.

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Q. Do you have a particular guitar that happens to be your favorite? Can you tell us about it? (We don't have sponsors or advertisers, so you can tell the truth!)

On stage I have different requirements than I do off-stage. I play a Larrivee wide-neck C-10 cutaway on stage, and a Taylor 810 at home most of the time, though at some shows I use both. I have a 1974 Gallagher that I use for Bluegrass that is the best-sounding guitar I ever heard, but it is hard to play and takes a lot of energy. There are many many good guitars out there and I am not a snob about it. There are special purpose instruments that sound great for Celtic or blues or Bluegrass, but I look for an instrument that can be pushed to do all of those things, which means an ordinary, average guitar. I tried playing a Bach piece on Paul Geremia's awesome old Gibson, and it sucked. I can't get a bare-finger Celtic jangly sound out of my Gallagher-- it needs to be banged hard with a stiff flatpick to sound good. There are so many good guitars out there it's not an excuse anymore. There is no best brand or model or anything.

Q. What was the worst gig you ever played?

2 gigs come to mind, both during the period (quite a few years ago) when I would take any gig whatsoever that paid money and that fit in my calendar. One of them was Smokey the Bear's 40th birthday party at the local shopping mall, where I set up a PA and led 300 school children in a "Happy Birthday Dear Smokey" and where I also joined 6 forest rangers in full dress uniform singing the "Smokey the Bear Song" that I had learned the night before. I got $75 for 2 songs, which was OK by me, but I did get caught doing it by one friend who teased me mercilessly about it. The gig where I felt the worst was a private party (they are usually the worst gigs, when they are booked through an agent who doesn't want you, just somebody...) They didn't respond to my music, and wanted me and the party to be "more fun," so when I asked them sarcastically if they wanted me to tell jokes instead, they said "yes." The birthday boy then liked my jokes so much he ran and got his tripod and video camera so he could tape some jokes, and thus remember them so he could tell them to the guys at work. It was a low point of my musical life, staring into this video camera, surrounded by un-fun people. I hope the tape never surfaces.

Q. Will you describe your picking technique? Do you prefer picks or bare fingers? What string guages do your prefer?

I use many picking techniques, including several gauges of flatpicks, bare fingers, nails, and fingerpicks. I use 3 fingerpicks and a thumbpick when I use picks. The only person I know other than me who uses bare finger and picks alternately is Catfish Keith, and I don't think he flatpicks. I like to strum and pick at different times with a flatpick. They are all good ways of playing guitar. I have spent vast amounts of time studying right hand techniques.

Q. You've been the leading proponent of the "Third Hand Capo" for some time now. Most of my readers have probably never heard of it before. Tell them how it works and what you use it for.

It allows you to capo any combination of strings at any fret, and totally changes the landscape of what is possible on guitar. It allows you to sound like you are in a different tuning, and remain in standard tuning (though I do use the capo with altered tunings sometimes, which is very confusing), thus preserving the geometry of the chord and scale fingerings you have learned in standard tuning. It also allows you to move back and forth in the same song between a standard tuned sound and an open-tuned sound.

I am not aware of anyone who has recorded anything using a partial capo any earlier than my first LP, "Nothin' But Guitar (1982)" which used the capo on 9 cuts. I made a point to not use it when I won the National FIngerpicking Championship at Winfield Kansas in 1981. I published a book about it in 1980, and I believe that everyone using it today can be traced back to my research, which began in 1976. I invite information to the contrary.

Q. You sometimes work with more than one capo and use lots of different tunings. How do you pace your live sets to accommodate the changes and keep the show paced well.

I keep my 6-string in standard tuning and my slide guitar in Opoen Eb and I do not change tunings much on stage, and I have constant problems staying in tune. Tuning is the best time to chat with the audience and become a human being to them. There is no way around it, so I just make the best of it. Thank God for electronic tuners!

Q. Tell us about your latest album.

It is "In Person" a 2-disc compilation of live tracks from my archive of concert recordings. It is about 70 mins of unreleased things and 70 minutes of previously released things, most of which were selected because they were different or better than the previous versions. There is some between-song chatter, and what I think is some of my best playing and singing ever, especially the more up-tempo stuff. My studio recordings capture more of the lovely music and serene things, though everything on this album is not rowdy.

As it says in the liner notes: "This is a compilation of virtually unedited recorded performances culled painstakingly from my archive of hundreds of hours of concert tapes. It contains what I think are some of my best musical performances, though it is admittedly almost impossible to make the choices, and perhaps someone other than myself should have done so. Hopefully this music offers something vital, not attainable in a studio environment. The shows were recorded with stage mikes and pickups, with a

strictly historical and documentary attitude. No extraordinary meaures were taken, no special equipment was used, no attempt was made to organize a special performance for the purpose of taping, or to mike the audience or alter the sound of the applause (or lack of...) If this was photography, these would be snapshots. So often the real issue is simply whether or not you brought a camera, and this is what was captured from those concerts that were taped. We can only imagine what got away during the 4000 or so other performances in my life I did not record. There were also plenty of cuts I might have used, but rejected because they were out of tune, the mix was bad or I sang a wrong line or something. The sole purpose of this recording is to present the best music I could find, no matter how humble the gig"

Q. How can my readers order your albums? Online ordering? Direct mail? Retail outlets?

The record distribution business is such that my recordings are not easy to find, except in the places where they are easy to find. They are always available online at or http://www.woodpecker.com/ and by mail and phone or fax from Woodpecker Records Box 815 York Maine 03909 207-363-1886

Q. You spend a lot of time on the road. Do you do your own bookings? Is it necessary for folk musicians to have artist management, agents, and all those sorts of business trappings in order to make a living?

I have never felt the need to entangle myself with managers and agents and all that. A calendar is not a very hard machine to operate, and since I played clubs for 15 years before I started doing many concerts, it was not a big deal to handle a lot of it. It's hard, and I would rather not do it, but that's how I feel about clearing my driveway and painting my house. I have never been surprised by a gig I booked, if I talk to the promoter myself and get a feel for what it is. I have often been surprised (usually negatively) by gigs that agents booked.

Q. Is it advantageous for a folk musician to belong to organizations such as ASCAP or BMI if they release independent albums in small quantities?

It is neither hard nor expensive to join ASCAP or BMI, and it is your one chance to eat a piece of the pie, in case on of your songs ends up going somewhere. The system is set up to pretty much ignore the little people at the fringes, and to pay attention and money to those at the top, and there is a temptation to boycott the whole system, except that it occasionally works for your benefit. I am a member of BMI, and I receive a pittance from them every year in royalties. even though the system is crooked and I don;'t approve of the way it is set up, I would still encourage people to join it, in the unlikely event they might get some airplay or a song cut by somebody big.

THANKS FOR READING MY DRIVEL. Good luck with your music, all of you.

Chordally yours,

Harvey Reid