Harvey Reid Interview with Guitar Player Magazine
I thought they might print some of this when we did it-- but they
ran about 5 sentences of this in the Feb 2001 issue feature. All the more reason
to post it all here. (HR)
1) What's the attraction of playing solo acoustic guitar? (As opposed to
electric; as opposed to playing in an ensemble.)
Unlike a lot of solo acoustic players, I have played electric guitar, and I
have played in bands. I enjoy it all, and am a huge fan of good Telecaster players.
The acoustic sound of steel strings on a wooden body is really the touchstone
of my art, it's what drew me to music, and it still thrills me. I prefer music
that reflects the soul of a person, which is why I listen to more singers than
instrumentalists, and why I like solo instrumental music more than ensembles.
Probably the other greatest factor in the development of my solo art has been
the need to earn a living. I have been a professional guitar player for 26 years,
and it is simpler and pays better to play solo. Bands have a fundamental economic
disadvantage, and that's why so many of them break up. There a quite a few so-called
solo guitarists who record with overdubs and lean on a lot of duets with other
instruments. Chet Atkins and Doc Watson don't perform solo, for example. There
is something really challenging about performing or recording totally alone,
and the kinds of rhythms, chords, grooves and melodies I play have been largely
shaped by the limitations of the solo guitar. Add even one rhythm guitar and
it totally changes what you can or would play.
2) When you decide to cover a traditional tune or, say, "Miss the Mississippi"
do you approach the music differently than you would one of your own tunes?
(In other words, when you write music, does the arrangement and the tune happen
all at once, or do you sketch something simply, and then arrange it?)
I have never found a system of creating, which is a good thing, because we would
have computer programs that would do it if there were a formula. Sometimes things
come in a flash of insight, and other times I work on them for weeks. Sometimes
I can find an old tape from years ago and finish something I started, and sometimes
I can't. I have always been a singer, and I usually conceptualize a song as
a melody with some kind of chord accompaniment, and some kind of rhythm. I then
look for the key and maybe even the tuning that will allow the richest voicings,
and to allow it all to flow. I usually experiment with capos, try the 12-string,
try the tune with fingerpicks, bare-finger and flatpick to see what feels right.
On "Uncloudy Day" I tried everything-- it's a strong melody, and a
flowing gospel bluegrassy rhythm, and I went though cross-picking things, a
couple different slide arrangements in different tunings, fancy Travis-type
approaches, and eventually settled into a bare-finger, dropped-D, slow Travis
thing that clicked. "Miss the Mississippi" was an afterthought, when
the album was pretty much done I was looking for something to put there that
was out of place, to point in another direction than the bulk of the CD. I wanted
something familiar and something bluesy but not a pounding Robert Johnson-ish
thing. I used to play that one at brunches, and when I tried it out and recorded
it, it worked vastly better than I expected.
3) What qualities to you look for when choosing a song to cover?
It's all about feel. When you get a good song and a good arrangement, it puts
you into a zone that is one of the great joys of being a musician. I have always
likened the feeling to riding a wave (though I am not a surfer) since you are
always in the present, on top of the moment, and you can't look too far ahead
or behind. The guitar has attracted me because it occupies all of you-- emotions,
spirituality, aesthetics, muscles, communication and social skills, they are
all involved simultaneously. A good song and a good arrangement fill up your
consciousness totally. If you have some spare consciousness, you add some more
notes, or play with the rhythm, until you are in a sort of self-hypnosis state.
It's the beauty of counterpoint, I have read, that since the listener cannot
listen to more than one thing at a time, you only need 2 different things going
on to create a mesmerizing effect, and more things than that can be just clutter.
With rhythm, melody and chords and bass lines, you can create a sound with a
guitar that implies much larger things. I think the charm of the guitar is its
limitations-- on piano, you can do anything you can think of, and on guitar
and other stringed instruments, you have to reach and slur and bend and use
various tricks, and that's what gives the guitar language it's accent. If you
pluck every note with an identical controlled attack, it sounds boring-- when
you use all the tools-- hammers, trills, slides, not to mention attack and phrasing,
you can bring a melody or arrangement to life. I have always know this subconsciously,
but I saw a mountain dulcimer player this year, and that instrument has way
more limitations than the guitar, and the guy was working really hard to play
a melody, and I realized that it was the odd fingerings and problems he was
solving that made it really entertaining.
4) Could you discuss your approach to composition?
I used to wait around for things to happen, and when I was young I played guitar
12 hours a day sometimes, so a lot of things were happening. Once you have become
a professional, and you are gigging a lot, and traveling and doing the business
and promotion thing, it gets harder and harder to find large blocks of time
to create, and serious instrumental pieces get fewer and further between. Last
year, I set aside the whole winter to stay home and write guitar music, because
it was not happening enough on its own. This is sort of a paradox, because it
is hard to wait for the music to appear, and it is hard to shake the tree to
get coconuts. I have learned, though, that with a lot of discipline and effort
I can set out to write a specific kind of tune, and bear down on it, sometimes
for weeks at a time on one song, and hammer something out that is good. There
is as much hard work and crafstmanship as there is inspiration, especially when
you are playing technically difficult guitar stuff. I wish I could write down
music, since it has been a constant struggle to manage the boxes of unlabeled
cassettes that result from the 3 AM idea sessions. Keeping track sheets and
finding something you worked on a couple months ago is extrememly hard to do.
I have recently cut the Gordian knot, and started recording directly to MP3,
and not using tape anymore. I can record into my laptop with the built-in mic,
and I found I was able to keep dozens of pieces of a tune in a folder on the
computer much more easily than I could keep track of them on tape. I will compose
that way from now on. It allows me to work on several songs at once, and jump
back and forth between them, which is my nature.
I am also very conscious of my place in the 500 year history of the guitar.
I have listened a lot to those who have come before me, and I am very aware
of who I am and where I come from. From the thousands or maybe millions of people
playing guitar, there have emerged a number of solo guitar styles that work:
flamenco, delta blues, ragtime, celtic are some-- most people have heard a number
of them. I used to try to play in a lot of the styles as an exercise, and I
still write tunes specifically in a style, what they might called an étude
in classical music. (I have no classical training, but they have a language
for talking about music, and I use it for lack of another one) I have written
fiddle tunes, or a Merle Travis-type rag, for example. Lately I have been trying
to write new things that suit the solo steel-string, with an American flavor,
that hint at American guitar's roots in European music, blues, country, and
the other flavors in the beautiful melting pot. I want to help build a repertoire
for the American steel-string guitar, and participate in the still-exciting
explorations that many of us have been doing in the last 30-40 years, when that
instrument has really come into its own as a music voice.
I have always liked to jam, and playing live gigs so much has kept me from getting
as deep into the open tunings thing as others have gone. I have also pioneered
the idea of the partial capo, which I often use instead of a tuning to change
the landscape of what is possible of the guitar. Playing guitar is a constant
process of running out of fingers, and the Third Hand Capo, and the various
chopped-off capos I have used since 1976 have been a big part of my sound. I
do not know of anyone who explored or recorded with this idea before me, and
I have been responsible for most of what is known about it. Many of the pieces
on my newest and on earlier recordings are explorations of the new possibilities
this offers. "Pegasus", one of the most ambitious pieces on my new
CD, is a direct result of exploring a new combination where I capo 3 of the
strings and retune one of them, and when I do this on a 12-string, and then
play a pair-splitting right-hand thing in the manner of the chromatic banjo,
out jumps an astounding sound whose roots are mostly technical.
5) Could you discuss your approach to practicing?
I have never been able to do a practice schedule, and I have always kept in
shape by playing gigs. Some days I will play all day, and sometimes I will go
long periods without playing, which is bad for the chops, but great for the
desire to play. If you're doing a concert, it is probably more entertaining
and meaningful for the audience if you are a little out of shape physically,
but mentally hungry to play music, rather than the opposite situation.
6) You travel so much. Could you share a funny/sad/intriguing/surprising
guitar-oriented anecdote from one of your recent road trips?
It's always entertaining when I go through the metal detectors at airports,
because I carry a guitar on the plane, and because it has a smaller body I bring
my metal-body slide guitar. It's the biggest piece of metal they have seen all
day. If you bring one on the plane, put it through the machine headstock-first,
so they realize it is a guitar before they see the huge metal body. Put it through
the other way and they will make you open it.
I have started touring with a Chrysalis
inflatable guitar/mandocello, which fits in a briefcase. It looks like something
Batman and James Bond would be fighting over, and when you yank it apart after
playing it, people are slackjawed. I am afraid to do it, because I hate to get
upstaged by my equipment. The plastic bag sound chamber doesn't sound that great
compared to a wood guitar, but if you are playing plugged in, which I usually
do, it sounds like any other guitar pretty much. It's graphite, so it does not
trigger the metal detectors at airports, which is good, because I would have
hard time explaining what it is. It looks more like an assault rifle than a
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