The Blues Scene (February 2000)
BY RAY CURRY
There are many styles of blues - jump, swing, country acoustic, Chicago style, Texas style, big band, and several other popular sub sections. No matter which style of blues you prefer, almost all blues bands have one thing in common ö guitars.
In Texas we have more guitar based blues bands than any other type. With so many guitar players, its hard to stand out above the crowd, so every guitar player is always trying to find that "perfect tone". All the great guitarists in rock & blues have developed a tone that compliments their style & becomes their own signature tone. While guitarists like Clapton, Jimmy Vaughan, Hendrix, Buddy Guy have long been known for setting trends & defining style, some guitarists can be identified after only hearing 3 notes because their tone is so distinctive. Some guitarists that fit that bill that come to mind are, Albert Collins, Carlos Santana, Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, & BB King.
The major guitar magazines cover big name guitar players and the gear they use to produce their signature tone. However, Houston has many guitarists that have developed their own style & a signature tone, but unfortunately not many have received national recognition.
Being a guitar player myself for over 30 years I can tell you Iāve been asked countless times about my guitars, amps, & effects to get my tone. (To this day, one of my all time favorite amps that gets the best down & dirty tone is a Briggs & Stratton 3ø HP.) So for the guitar players in Houston searching for their own signature tone or are just curious to know how some of Houstonās top guitarists derive their sound & the guitars, amps, & effects they use ö hereās the scoop.
Tony Vega: The Tony Vega Blues Band. Tony has been playing for 16 years. Tony plays a hard driving blues - the kind that gets your blood to the boiling levels. Guitars: a 1986 American Standard Stratocaster & a 62ā reissue Strat; Both are fitted with Rio Grande pick ups. Also likes his Alamo Tone Monger. Uses DāAddario .10 - .48 strings. Amps: a 64ā blackface Fender Super Reverb & a Fender Bassman reissue as a back up. Effects: (runs them in order as listed) a Kern handmade all tube wahwah (very rare), Maxxon overdrive (similar to a Ibanez TS 808), MXR microamp, Arion stereo chorus, Maxxon analog delay, tuner (with a true bypass); & Tony uses George Lās cords and Tortex 1.14 picks RC: What would be the perfect gig rig for you? TV: Iād love to have an early model Kendrick 24-10. RC: Whose guitar playing on a national level would you say has inspired or influenced you? TV: You know a lot of players my age donāt like to admit they were influenced by SRV because they are scared they will be pegged as a SRV clone or wanna-be, but both Jimmy & Stevie Ray Vaughan were a big influence for me. I think they were the reason I decided to focus on playing the blues. T-Bone Walker was a big influence too. RC: What players on a local level do you admire? TV: I learn from everyone I play with & and I like to see a player right in front of me. Iāve enjoyed playing with Mark May, Qrk who plays in my band, Adam Birchfield, Tab Benoit, you (RC), Jim Embry, and Luther (of Luther & The Healers). All you guys have made a big impression on me.
Brad McCool: Bradās been playing 6ø years. Brad says, "I like big strings & good tube amps." Guitars: My main guitar is a photo flame Strat with a V-neck with Gibson T-94 pick ups, theyāre square like the old P-90ās, well theyāre single coils but beefier; an old Airline; also a Silvertone "Espenada" which is a Barney Kessel model. Uses .13 - .54 gauge strings tuned a half step down. Amps: Brad says heās not so much a guitar nut as he is "an amp junkie". He has an original 57ā Fender tweed Bassman; a Marshall 50w Plexi; a Fender Princeton for small gigs; says most are mainly stock but they are constantly in the shop for repairs, so there are quite a few new parts in them & he has refitted them with JBL & EV speakers. Effects: Boss Compressor, Rat overdrive, a Full Tone wah (Clyde model), Boss tremolo, Univox rotating speaker, Alesis nanoverb RC: What would be the perfect gig rig for you? BM: Iāve already got it! RC: Whose guitar playing on a national level would you say has inspired or influenced you? BM: Jimmy Vaughan, Little Charlie, Duke Robillard, BB King - I like swing mostly RC: What players on a local level do you admire? BM: Bert Wills
Adam Smith: Long time session guitarist known for his blazing fast licks & Eric Johnson styled melodies & tones, also has played with many of Houstonās top pop, rock & blues bands. Has been playing 35 years. Uses Ernie Ball .10ās. "When playing lots of gigs, I change 'em before each gig. As a result I haven't broken a string in a long-ass time. If I'm off for a while, then one time a week is fine. I use Jim Dunlop tortex picks, the green ones in the 'jazz III' shape. I just like the way they feel in my hand, so it may be more an ergonomics thing with me than a tone thing." Guitars: American Standard Strat Plus Deluxe with the Lace Sensors ( Bridge: Red, Middle: Gold, Neck: Blue.) and Wilkinson Trem system with roller nut. Its a maple fretboard as opposed to the rosewood; "I like the "snap I get off of maple. I like these guitars best because a single coil sound is more flexible for what I do. Iāve had Pauls, SGs, Kramers, etc. & then I played a Fender Strat and it was all over." Amps: Crate Vintage Club 2x12" 50 watt. Effects: DigiTech RP-7 "I donāt analyze what order they are in that much anymore. I used to. Now I just work towards getting a sound that has the emotive quality I want." RC: Do you use any out of the ordinary effects or devices to get your tone? AS: Out of the ordinary equates also to "used less often than others" so...sometimes a harmonizer set to diatonic intervals, sometimes I set it to parallel intervals, depending on the mood of the song & my mood at the time, a wee bit of ring modulator is cool too. RC: What would be the perfect gig rig for you? AS: First a roadie to haul it and set it up! I'm gettin' a little older these days. Then the Roland or Yamaha hex pickup setup, so I could trigger the V-guitar system, and 2 Johnson Millennium 100 combos with complete pedal setups, and set about 6-8 feet apart. RC: Whose guitar playing on a national level would you say has inspired or influenced you? AS: Pat Martino, Pat Methany, and Eric Johnson. RC: What players on a local level do you admire? AS: Although there are some really fine players in town, there arenāt many players in Houston playing in the style that I do, so I pretty much have look to my self for inspiration.
John A. Miller: The John A. Miller Blues Band. John has been playing for 25 years. Uses GHS .10 to .46 gauge strings. "Iām too lazy to use 11's, I like heavy picks & glass slides." Guitars: American Standard Strats and Teles - late 80's and 90's all stock. "I like the Fenders because they come with medium jumbo frets (a must for me), & the necks are usually consistent and the QC is good." Amps: Fender Blues DeVille, 2x12" speakers, and a Fender Pro Jr., & a Fender Blues Jr. Effects: Boss Floor tuner, Boss OD2 or an Ibanez TS5 Tube Screamer, sometimes an Ibanez tremolo, or a Boss chorus, depending on the gig. (I always run my tuner first) RC: Whose guitar playing on a national level would you say has inspired or influenced you? JAM: Too many to list RC: What players on a local level do you admire? JAM: Mark May, John Zuleger, Billy Wells, Ronnie Dobbs, Bert Wills
Cliff Faldowski: Cliff is a founding member of The Grateful Geezers, a popular R&B band here in Houston, (he proclaims himself to be the original old Geezer). He has shied away from the limelight and prefers to concentrate his energy on just playing the best that he can. A very modest man, but has played with numerous major musicians over the years. Some of those credits include: guitar on Bobby Blue Blandās million selling hit "Do What You Set Out To Do", and he has also played with Freddie Fender, Ben E. King, his own band Jambeaux, & Mickey Gilley. Cliff covers the full spectrum from pop, rock, jazz, blues & of course R&B. His technical approach to the guitar & the music, is job number one, and he says, "all the gear in the world is nice, but Iād rather hear what the musicians are capable of doing, first & foremost". Cliffās use of the Roland GR-30 is something to see & hear - he plays piano voicings on guitar getting a true piano tone and feel. Truly amazing! He proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks!! Guitars: Has a 1961 Gibson 345, but his main guitar is a Lone Star Custom (made by Jimmy Fulton at Lone Star guitar shop in South Houston. Its set up with the Roland interface and fitted out with EMG pick ups. He had the standard curved Strat styled neck replaced with a flat neck which was more to his liking & adds an extra fret to give him 22 frets. He uses .10-48 on the Lone Star, & .11ās on the 345. Amps: Uses a Seymour Duncan variable wattage, 60w or 100w with a 12" EV speaker in it. Its the "Convertible" model, (which Cliff says allows you to put the top up when it rains!) He also has a Dean Markley 100w amp to run his Roland GR-30 (keyboard effects) through. Effects: Ibanez chorus; Boss analog delay, Cry Baby wah, and his Roland GR-30. (he uses the GR-30 mainly for piano & organ sounds but has used the synth for R&R stuff & has dropped tuned a harmonica preset for Zydeco tunes creating a true squeeze box sound.) RC: Whose guitar playing on a national level would you say has inspired or influenced you? CF: Right off the bat Iād have to say Wes Montgomery - but I try to listen to all the top players. RC: What players on a local level do you admire? CF: Houston has some really good players. I like to hear Mark May, Bert Wills, Steve Hitt, Mike Sjunka, you (RC), Paul Chester, John Perry, JZ, Randy Corner, Scott Magill, and donāt forget Jimmy Don Smith. (Cliff tells me that he has been hanging out with long time jazz pianist Paul Schmitt over the last couple of years to pick up on jazz piano styles & play piano lines, as opposed to just playing guitar lines with a piano sound.)
Luther: of Luther & The Healers. Luther has been playing about 20 years & started playing professionally about 10 years ago. Luther & his band have been playing over 300 gigs per year, for the last 3 years, & is truly considered one of the best & most consistent blues guitar players in Houston. Guitars: plays a 1972 Stratocaster exclusively; he has had the neck replaced ö its a maple neck, set up with jumbo frets. Luther has become very attached to this guitar obviously ö enough so that he has named it "Miss Josephine". He has a back up Strat but has hardly ever had to use it. He says he started playing Strats because Hendrix played one & being a lefty himself felt naturally drawn to Hendrixās guitar. Uses .10ās or .11ās (mainly tens). He uses whatever strings are the cheapest at the time because he changes them every night, & he figures no matter how bad they are, they will sound good enough for one night. Amps: a 63ā Fender blackface "Super Reverb" is used 99% of the time; has a Kendrick 24-10 and a Matchless SC-30, a 30w amp with 1x12" speaker. Both the Kendrick & Matchless are back up amps. Effects: I keep it pretty simple - I use the ampsā reverb, a Full Drive II, by Full Tone (similar to an Ibanez tube screamer but with more sonic control, and a Full Tone Deja Vibe that simulates a lesile sound & gets a good chorus too. ("on my amp, I take all the mids out - treble set 5 to 7, bass set to 5 or 6") Iāve noticed personally that Luther uses a 50ā cord on his guitar to get into the crowd. A cord of this length will cuts some highs as well which he uses to his advantage. RC: What would be the perfect gig rig for you? Luther: To be honest - Iām happy with what Iāve got for the gigs we play. RC: Whose guitar playing on a national level would you say has inspired or influenced you? Luther: Oh man ö bunches of them. But I really like the three Kings ö Albert, Freddie & BB. Plus Otis Rush, Hendrix, Robert Cray ö you can see a little bit of Albert Collins & others in Crayās style. RC: What players on a local level do you admire? Luther: I like a lot of the local players like Mark May & Tony Vega, but my heart is with the older guys that have been doing it a while & are deeply rooted in their style. My particular favorites in Houston are Joe "Guitar" Hughes, & "Texas" Johnny Brown.
Mark May: has been playing professionally for about 20 years. He has received some national exposure since his band Mark May & The Agitators has toured with The Allman Brothers and his albums are doing quite well to boot. Mark flashes through blues guitar lines while interjecting his style, tone & licks, but he also throws in a liberal amount of licks from his favorite players like Albert Collins, and the "Kings" ö for those of you that donāt know the 3 Kings he speaks of - they are, "Carol, Don, & Burger!" Guitars: Mark plays a Peavey "Firenza" which has P-90 soapbars in it; he says, I still have my Huey Wilkinson (Hueyās co. is named Ax Handle) Tele; I have a Robin Savoy which kind of gets a 335/Les Paul sound; and I use a Gibson Nighthawk for slide (for me, humbuckers are a must for slide) The Peavey gets more of a Strat tone; the Tele of course for C&W & Albert Collins tones; and the Robin for that Les Paul sound. I use GHS .11- .52 strings. Amps: Peavey "Ranger" with 2x12" rated at 120w; and I use a Naylor "Super 60" Effects: I run a Vox wah first, but I forget the order of the others - I also use a DOD bass chorus, Ibanez TS-9, and a DigiTech talker. RC: What would be the perfect gig rig for you? MM: Well I pretty much like what Iām used to playing through. You could give me the most expensive gear in the world, but Iād probably just keep on playing what I have right now cause Iām comfortable with it. Although, an old Gibson Explorer would be a nice addition, & of course a late 50ās model Les Paul would be great! RC: Whose guitar playing on a national level would you say has inspired or influenced you? MM: Chris Cain, Larry McCray, Hendrix, Santana to name a few ö but there are so many RC: What players on a local level do you admire? MM: Bert Wills, heās very stylistic, and of course all the guys that have played with me in the band including JZ, Kirk, John, Billy Wells; and I like Tony Vegaās playing - heās one of the younger players that is really doing some great stuff.
Obviously I couldnāt possibly cover all the top guitar players in one column, so look for more interviews with Houstonās finest guitarists in future issues of Music News. Some of the players youāll see in up coming issues: Johnny Bockelman (The CityKings); Jim Embry (The Tweeds); Qrk (The Tony Vega Band); Adam Birchfield; Jay Hooks; Bert Willis; Eric Dolch (Matt Leddy & The Meatcutters); Ray Curry (The Tweeds - I may even give more info my infamous Briggs & Stratton 3ø HP amp!!); and a few others!!
On a sad note: Longtime Houston jazz & blues saxophonist Wilbert McFarland passed away this month from a heart attack. He will be missed by so many -- family, friends & his musical family here in Houston. For those you that knew Wilbert, you know he was truly a class act, & heāll be greatly missed.
Blues tip for February: Using a certain guitar, amp, or effects wonāt make you sound exactly like your favorite guitarist, and it wonāt make a bad guitar player sound good. You can of course fool people into thinking that you know what youāre doing. Hell - look at me --- Iāve been using "smoke & mirrors" for 33 years with a good dose of BS and its worked for me!!
Remember, the blues is a never ending story, and Iāll be back next month with another chapter. If you or your R&B or blues band has something in the works such as a new CD project, new band members, unplanned explosions on stage, playing a benefit, a favorite brand of guitar strings, a new tattoo that says "Born to Blues", or any other news let me know. I look forward to hearing from you.
Although I have more guitars now --- at least I had hair in this picture!!
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