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Harvey Reid Interview with Guitar Player Magazine Oct 2000

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 guitar.

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