What exactly is a "Tricone," and how is that different from other resonators?
A Tricone is a National that has three smaller resonator cones; it was the invention of John Dopyera and was first produced in 1927. Dopyera considered this his ultimate invention – I think he was right! The sound is distinctive – harmonic-rich with quite a bit more sustain; it's the perfect guitar for slide. Add to that tone the baritone scale length and low tunings, which are open Bb and Eb, the exact same tunings as the traditional open D (Vastopol) and G (Spanish), just four or five frets lower, and you got something really deep and mesmerizing.
When did you start really exploring the 12-string? What was your initial attraction to it?
I always loved 12-string since I was a teenager and was knocked out by Leo Kottke, Lead Belly, Blind Willie McTell and all that followed. Paul Geremia really is a master on it. I had no resistance to it, but didn't end up getting one until a few years ago. National made me one and an ancient guitar-orchestra voice called my name.
Yes, guitar orchestra is really the right description. It’s a sound you can get lost in – so many layers and overtones and undertones! Was there a learning curve to learn to coax just the right set of sounds from it, or was it more intuitive than that?
Once you decide where to tune it and get it tuned up, the playing does become intuitive. The 12-string is really in its own guitar universe. Songs I play on it are very specific to that instrument – I wouldn't do them on six string guitar. I still feel like a baby with it, but that's the joy. It can be like riding a bucking bronco when you really get going on it, but it's a delicate thing too.
You've mentioned open D and open G tunings, and I know you've used a little DADGAD. What other tunings do you find useful?
I mostly stick to the sort of traditional tunings. On the acoustic guitars it's standard tuning and dropped D, though I pitch these guitars usually a whole step (two frets) lower. This way I can really bend and twang and chime the strings the way I like without too much pain. The 12-string is standard tuning, but pitched somewhere around C (four frets lower). The Radiotone wood-bodied single cone National I use for the DADGAD-type tuning on “The Cuckoo,” and my Baritones are Vastopol (Son House called this "Vestibule" tuning) or Spanish with tone centers around B or Bb.
How many different steel guitars do you use? What does each of these guitars give you that no other guitar can?
A National Baritone Polychrome Tricone
I have several Nationals; on this album four of them were used. My primary slide guitar is a National Baritone Polychrome Tricone. It's real deep and juicy, with the famous Tricone river-flow sustain and harmonic richness, only deeper. I always leaned toward lower tunings, and when Mac and Don at National let me play one of their earliest prototype Baritones, I flipped out! I found what I was looking for, and have used these as my preferred slide guitars ever since. This one has got big fat strings (.068-.017) and is usually in Bb Vastopol open tuning, played with fingerpicks and slide.
I have a custom wood-bodied single-cone National Estralita Baritone that I consider my Sister Rosetta Tharpe guitar, it's used on "Rock Me." It's played without picks, and has medium strings (.056-.013). It's so pretty with cowboy rope binding, figured anigre top and walnut back and sides, and the strings are real bendy and snappy. I can achieve unique effects with this guitar and hopefully get the spirit of Sister Rosetta flying out with pure guitar-splanging joy.
The Radiotone Bendaway is a cutaway, single cone, wood bodied National. It has found its niche with me for sort of frailing-style, mountain banjo-influenced pieces like "Blotted Out My Mind" and "The Cuckoo." Lots of percussive snap, but also dark, hollow and a little spooky.
Finally there’s the National custom 12-string Style One Tricone. There are so many wild and uncharted tones in it, it was a challenge to capture on record, but the result seemed to have a hypnotizing effect.
What is it about a guitar that makes you want to wrap it up and take it home?
Vintage guitars were my first love, so a new guitar with classic curves and great workmanship is a great start. Then there's the search for another unique voice that could be useful or just fun. I like a new guitar in vintage style, that way you got a lifetime ahead with a new guitar. I've worn out several guitars, so it's better to start brand new for me.
Let's talk nails. How do you do yours, and why did you decide to go with flesh instead of picks?
I use different techniques for different approaches. For the slide and National guitar, I almost always use fingerpicks – a big plastic thumbpick and metal fingerpicks on two fingers. On acoustic, fingerpicked guitar, I play without fingerpicks, using fake nails on my thumb, index and middle finger of my right hand. They are glue-on women's nails, filed down just right, and they give me the extra strength I need to twang the strings and achieve all of the harmonic effects I've made part of my style. I can't do these effects with fingerpicks on, so the fake nails became necessary to get the sound night after night. The sound is a combination of flesh and nail.
You have a bag of tricks up your right sleeve that is the envy of anybody who's ever watched you play. How much of your technique was discovery, imitation or invention?
The guitar is wonderful in many ways. One is that it's been re-invented again and again. I achieved my own style from absorbing many of my heroes' sounds and making my own expressions from that. Discovering ways to make sounds fly out of the guitar is a thrill. Many ways to play might come from other genres or instruments. The way that I play harmonics, for instance, could be attributable to Harpo Marx, or the way string bends are made could go back to that zither player in The Third Man
, or to Lenny Breau. But all of these ingredients are put into my own sort of acoustic blues style. These ways of playing helped expand the range of sounds for me and offered more colors to the musical palette. I suppose at that point it becomes invention.