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Dickinson plays fingerstyle 95 percent of the time. Here he’s picking a cigar-box guitar built by Scott Baxendale.
Photo by Michael Weintrob
Are we hearing much of your new signature-model Gibson ES-335?
No, we did the record before I had that. I used just one guitar for the entire record: a new Gibson Custom Shop ES-330 reissue. Well, that, and the two-string, coffee-can diddley bow I play on “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” I just love that 330, and I’ve been using it on record after record. I can’t really play it live, though, because hollowbodies go crazy with feedback at the volume we play at. The first prototype of my signature model was an ES-335 with humbuckers. [Ed. note: ES-335s are only semi-hollow.] You don’t get quite as fat a tone, but it’s such a relief to cancel that hum. But I’m definitely a single-coil guy, and playing the ES-330 with P-90s gave me the idea of a 335 with P-90s, which is what we did with the second version of my signature guitar.
So are you migrating from humbuckers to single-coil P-90s?
Well, single-coil pickups have the most pleasing tone for me, but they are so damn noisy. That’s the main reason I started playing humbuckers. But one cool thing about my signature 335 is that you have hum cancelling when both pickups are on. It’s also got a Bigsby tremolo, which was inspired by something Ry Cooder used to tell me as a kid: The more springs on a guitar, the better. He likes mounting pickups on the pickguard because of the springs. Each spring is a tiny reverb center. The Bigsby is awesome, and the guitar is bitchin’. My friend Mike Voltz is doing beautiful work at the Gibson Custom Shop in Memphis.
There aren’t a lot of guitarists who can use the phrase “something Ry Cooder used to tell me as a kid.”
I know, man! My father and Ry worked really closely through the ’70s and ’80s. He’s just a genius. His hands are huge. His inversions are so wide and varied, like a classical player’s. He plays a lot in “cross tunings,” like playing a song in D when he’s in open G, or playing in A when he’s in open D. Almost nobody does that. I perceive a real similarity between what he and my dad were doing and what we’re doing. The way he’d reinterpret folk songs on albums like Boomer’s Story and Into the Purple Valley was a huge influence on us.
Ry wasn’t the only one.
Yeah, our whole childhood was insane! We were products of the Memphis underground of the ’70s. Dad and his bohemian folk music friends had the opportunity to interact with blues masters like Furry Lewis, Sleepy John Estes, Bukka White, Reverend Robert Wilkins, Fred McDowell. We grew up watching Dad’s band, Mud Boy and the Neutrons, reinterpret roots music, country, gospel, and R&B. That scene grew into the Alex Chilton solo projects and Panther Burns. It was the beginning of the punk blues scene. That’s the world boogie, man! The whole Memphis guitar thing is just amazing. I was good friends with Roland Janes, Billy Lee Riley, Teenie Hodges from Al Green’s rhythm section. There’s Steve Cropper. Scotty More. Paul Burlison. Willie Johnson. And I had a great guitar teacher: Shawn Lane.
Oh, yeah—totally forgot he was a Memphis guy!
Shawn was a genius. [Ed. note: Lane, who passed away in 2003 at age 40, acquired a cult following for his incredibly fast and fluid guitar work.] I’d give him fifty bucks, and we’d hang out all day. He’d make dinner, then he’d sit around with a joint in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other, watching a movie on a big screen, reciting the dialog, singing the score, and talking about some conspiracy theory, all at once. Despite all his technique, he’d always advise finding the easy way to do things, and not practice something that’s hard. For example, he never used the combination of index finger/ring finger/pinky. He’d always use index/middle/pinky, just because the other way just didn’t feel good to him. Obviously, that worked for him.
So you used to be a shred kid?
I was shredding my ass off! I can’t even fathom the melodies I used to play. Before the Allstars, we had a little experimental rock band called DDT—for Dickinson, Dickinson, and our talented friend Paul Taylor—and we were Shawn’s backing band for a year. It was fun, but at some point we burned out and wanted to have our own thing.
You also knew the great bluesmen who were part of the ’90s Mississippi Hill Country blues resurgence.
That stuff blew my mind. I was a blues snob who only liked the old stuff from the ’20s through the ’50s. Even Chicago blues was too slick for me sometimes. But all of a sudden in the ’90s there was electrified country blues right in my backyard. The stuff on Fat Possum records was the nastiest stuff I’d ever heard. It was modern-day, multi-generational, electrified country blues—that’s what inspired this whole band!
We were already old family friends with Otha Turner and [longtime R.L. Burnside collaborator] Kenny Brown, but once we got turned on to that scene, we could hang out at Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint on Sundays. We started the Allstars in ’96, and in ’97 Kenny Brown hired us to go on the road, opening for R.L. They taught me how to tour, and I’ve been on the road ever since. The entire basis for our band is trying to play acoustic country blues in a loud, electric power-trio setting.