Bonnie Raitt bought her famous “Brownie” Strat for
$120 in 1969 and has played it at every gig since.
Photo by Buzz Person
While teaching herself to play acoustic
guitar as a teenager in the late ’60s,
Bonnie Raitt—now world-renowned for her
sultry voice and bracing electric slide prowess—
dreamt of leaving her native California
and joining the Greenwich Village beatnik
scene. As soon as she was old enough, she
left her parents—Broadway star John Raitt
and pianist Marjorie Haydock—behind to
head east and plant her musical roots in the
burgeoning folk activist movement.
From there, Raitt tapped into a wide
array of influences, with a big turning point
coming when she befriended influential
blues promoter Dick Waterman while she
was in college. Waterman gave her the
opportunity to share stages with blues gods
like Howlin’ Wolf and Mississippi Fred
McDowell, which no doubt left an indelible
impression on the blossoming slide player.
Despite such beginnings, Raitt’s road
to superstardom was anything but easy.
While a 1970 gig with McDowell led
to a record deal with Warner Bros., she
experienced only moderate commercial
success with the label. Her first hit didn’t
come until 1977’s “Runaway,” and she was
eventually dropped in 1983. She struggled
with addiction until Stevie Ray Vaughan’s
own recovery in the mid-’80s prompted
her to get clean. Not long afterward,
Raitt released the album that changed
everything. Released in1989, Nick of Time
won her three of her nine Grammys to
date and set her on a path toward her
2000 induction into the Rock and Roll
Hall of Fame. In the process, Raitt went
on to become the first woman to have a
signature Fender—an offer she originally
turned down because she was uneasy about
putting her name on a product. (Ever the
activist, Raitt used the profits to create the
Bonnie Raitt Guitar Project, providing guitars
to underprivileged kids in more than
200 Boys & Girls Clubs of America.)
Slipstream, out this month on Raitt’s new
Redwing Records label, is her first album
in seven years—although she’s been far
from dormant in the interim. Much of that
time was spent on the road, including on a
stint with Taj Mahal before her brother was
diagnosed with a second brain tumor. She
took care of him until his passing, and soon
afterward one of her good friends passed
away, prompting Raitt to take time off for
the first time in more than a decade.
The incessant road warrior’s hiatus lasted
only a year before things started pulling her
back toward her creative muse. She ended
up in the studio much sooner than originally
planned after meeting with producer Joe
Henry to see if their styles blended. What
was originally supposed to be a couple-song
jam turned into an entire album. “Halfway
through the first song,” Raitt recalls, “we
knew we had something very magical.”
Raitt says she can’t put into words
exactly how she knows when a song is
right, but she recently told Premier Guitar
her approach always seems to have a way
of illuminating her life. She also shared
why the guitar is her vehicle of choice,
how newer artists like Bon Iver inspire her
as much as Muddy Waters and John Lee
Hooker, and what her advice is for guitarists
trying to find their voice.
You picked up your first guitar—a Stella
acoustic—at age 8. What made you stick
I grew up in a very musical household, with
my mom playing piano all the time for my
dad’s rehearsals. So there was a role model
for me, with my dad singing these great
Broadway scores. Him being a Broadway
star was a great gift for us to be able to see
what that world was like. And the message
of playing music and getting paid for it—
doing something that you not only love,
but that doesn’t even seem like work—was
not lost on me. I must’ve tucked it away
and then remembered it when the opportunity
came years and years later to play
music for a gig.
You’ve said before that electric guitar
burns inside of you. What still turns you
on about the instrument?
It really sounds like a human voice. The
electric guitar will sustain a note, especially
a single note, much longer than an acoustic
will. And then when you play slide—which
is so much like a human voice—you can
work the amplifier and the overdrive. Now
I use a compressor when I play slide, and
with that you can sustain a note as long
as your emotions will hold. It’s like surfing—
you can ride that wave of emotional
intensity and taper it off and build it
up, depending on how you work your
volume knob. It’s really an exciting way
to express yourself. So electric guitar, for
me, has the raunch and the beauty that
more openly reflects the range of emotions
I want to get when I’m singing and
playing. It’s much more expressive to me.
And that’s what keeps me going back.
The solos on your new rendition
of the Dylan tune “Standing in the
Doorway” have that same lyrical quality—
they sound like someone crying.
Yeah, and then to have pedal steel behind
me. I rarely get to do that. Greg Leisz is
one of my heroes, and to be playing with
Bill Frisell and those guys was such an
honor. One of the great things about slide
guitar is that I found I could go to Cuba
and play with musicians there, and then I
went to Mali, Africa, where the blues was
born, and within a day I was playing with
those musicians—because it doesn’t matter
whether you know all the chords if you
know your way around with a slide. It’s
such a monophonic instrument: You can
sit in with the Chieftains on slide as well
as you can Cuban and African music.
When your own lungs literally run out of
air, you can take the slide guitar and add
that other voice.
Bonnie brings at least three of her signature Fender Strat prototypes on tour to accomodate the open slide tunings she uses on different songs.
Photo by Sioux Nessi
You cut three tracks with Frisell.
Did you have him in mind originally
or was that something you and Joe
Henry [who produced four Slipstream
songs] decided together?
Joe first suggested we work with Bill.
When we were getting to know each
other on the phone, we were talking
about mutual friends and people we love,
and I was complimenting him on his
Scar record. I love Bill’s playing on that,
so he said maybe we should get Bill in
on the sessions.
Slipstream is your first release in seven
years, and around 2009 you decided
to take some time off. What was that
like for you after working for so many
We did a two-year tour after [2005’s]
Souls Alike, and then a year before the Taj
Mahal tour my brother was diagnosed
with a second brain tumor and I took a
break to care for him. I hadn’t really had
a break since my parents passed away. In
10 years, I had been on the road or recording
pretty nonstop or going through my
brother’s terrible illness and passing, so I
needed to take a break and step back. In the
past, “taking a break” really meant writing
songs and looking for new material. But I
had been doing that basically since 1970
without a real break. Sometimes you need
to clear the deck and let the field go fallow
and not think every time you’re playing a
song, “Is this something I want to record?”
Sometimes you just have to live.
Yeah! I got to listen to other kinds of music.
I went to a lot of shows and didn’t sit in—
didn’t even tell [the performers] I was there. I
love doing yoga, and I love hiking and biking.
For somebody who’s on the road all the time,
just being home is really the vacation you
want to have. So I got to balance some of the
other aspects of my life and be with my family
and friends and really enjoy some time at
home, watching what fours seasons look like
changing in a row from the same place.
How did you know you were ready to go
back into the studio?
After a year at home, little sprouts poked their
head up. I was listening to songs when I called
Joe about working together. This was months
earlier than I was expecting to go back in the
studio, but those sessions were so exciting that
it really jumpstarted the record for me.
So you got the itch?
At a certain point, you just want to go back
and do the other thing—you don’t want to
do anything too much. I don’t know if you
have members of your family or have known
people whose mom or dad retire or got laid
off after many years of going to the job, and
they don’t know what to do with themselves.
It’s not the music part I was tired of—it’s the
promotion, clothes, sets, tours, interviews,
marketing, and monitoring the distribution.
All the business of being in this business is
what gets wearing, not the music. But without
all that, you can’t go on tour.
How did you go about determining
which songs to put on this album?
It’s pretty much the same as it’s been since
my first album: I listen to a lot of different
song ideas that I’ve written, and the ones I
like I put in this pile. Ninety-nine percent
of the stuff I listen to isn’t right, but I know
when I have to do a song. I’ve already said a
lot of stuff in previous records, and you don’t
want to repeat yourself musically or lyrically.
I don’t plot it—I don’t conceptualize it—I
just let the music speak to me, and when I
have a enough songs that I think are going
to go well together, then I go into the studio.
What makes a song one you have to do?
It’s hard to put into words. It just has to
speak to me personally. I mean, I’m probably
not going to cut polkas or disco or speed
metal [laughs], but other than that I don’t
have any limitations on the kind of music it
can be. I mean I like listening to that stuff,
but it doesn’t mean I’m going to do it. There
are definitely veins of styles that I stay in. I
just let that mysterious process wash over me
than rather than try to analyze it.
What are your favorite slide tunings?
I play in open A [E–A–E–A–C#–E, low
to high], or I go down to G [D–G–D–G–
B–D, low to high], which is the same but
everything is one whole note lower. The reason
I use so many guitars onstage is because
songs are in different keys—open D, open E,
open E%—and it saves time between songs.
Sometimes I use capos, too—if I’m singing
in C, I’ll put the capo on the third fret.
Which guitars are you going to tour with
this time around?
I’ve got a really great collection. My brown
Strat—the body is a ’65 and the neck is
from some time after that. It’s kind of a
hybrid that I got for $120 at 3 o’ clock in
the morning in 1969. It’s the one without
the paint, and I’ve used that for every gig
since 1969. I also have two or three of
my signature Fenders. Those guitars are a
metallic blue to indigo, and they have Texas
Specials pickups—which are really great—
and jumbo frets like my other Strats. Then
I have a ’63 sunburst Strat that used to be
owned by Robin Trower. I have Seymour
Duncan pickups in that.
You also use a Gibson, right?
Yes, I have an old Gibson ES-175 cutaway. I
went to the cutaway because I use a capo on
the third and fifth frets, and I can’t get the
octave unless I have a cutaway. That’s part of
the reason I went to electric, as well. Partly
for sustain and partly to be able to get the
octave when I have a capo on.