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“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,” says Dickinson. Photo by Michael Weintrob
And that’s why you usually play hollow-bodied or semi-hollow guitars?
Yeah. I’m trying to get an acoustic guitar-type response out of an electric instrument. I’ve always wanted to play something like the acoustic sound of R.L. Burnside or Fred McDowell, but on electric. The first signature 335 got me close to that, but the new one, with the P-90s and Bigsby springs, is really there. I’ve always been most interested in the blues players who used DeArmond soundhole pickups on acoustic guitars, like Elmore James, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Lonnie Johnson, as opposed to, say, Muddy Waters, who wound up playing a Tele in standard tuning using a capo. They maintained more of that country blues fingerpicking sensibility.
How often do you play fingerstyle?
About 95 percent of the time. Having a strong right hand on the instrument feels so good! There are so many amazing and expressive sounds it can bring out, like when you accidentally hit a harmonic. I just adore the range of tones you can get. Some things are obvious, like the fact that you get a tighter, brighter sound when you pick down by the bridge. But I also love the way the strings resonate when you play closer to the middle of the neck. R.L. Burnside tended to pick that way, while Fred McDowell tended to be tighter. My dad told me how Ry Cooder would say he had eight different contact points with his thumb. Sometimes Derek Trucks just thumps the strings, just like you’d thump the back of someone’s head. That’s what so fun about playing with your hand: Anything goes!
What slides are you using these days?
I’ve been using a Dunlop 212 on electric guitar for years because it fits me perfectly, though I’m not satisfied with how it sounds on acoustic. For acoustic, I’ve been using socket wrenches and different metal slides, though I’m still experimenting. My main concern is being able to bend the second joint of my left-hand ring finger—I can’t play with the slide all the way down my finger. I can’t use bottles—it gets too sweaty and humid in there, and those seams will kill you.
Ry says he likes to play on top of the seam.
So did I! But my wife is really sensitive to noise. She hates scratchy slide, even finger-squeaks on acoustic. I usually use a .011 or .010 set on electric, but on acoustic I mix and match a lot. I’ve even started using an unwound .024 third string on acoustic, and it’s amazing! It cuts back on 50% of the squeak. And it’s the shit for slide because it’s so heavy. I use relatively heavy acoustic strings—something like .014, .018, and .024 on the high strings—because I’m always tuning my acoustics down. I like dropping down to open C, for example—just like open-E tuning, but lower.
How do you amplify your acoustics?
I love DeArmond soundhole pickups—I’ll put them on anything. But I hate modern-day under-the-bridge pickups. The sound just grosses me out, like fingernails on a chalkboard. But the key to my acoustic guitar sound is my friend Scott Baxendale, who takes great, soulful old Harmony and Kay acoustics and re-braces them. All the classic ’60s players used those guitars: Page, Townshend, Keith. Every time Robert Plant saw my Harmony Sovereign, he’d go straight to it. “This is what Pagey had!” he’d say. Baxendale knows I like magnetic pickups, so for my custom guitar, he made me a humbucking magnetic pickup and attached it to the neck bracing inside, so it doesn’t deaden the resonance of the body, which regular DeArmonds can definitely do. I think it’s a revolutionary pickup, and it sounds so good.
Are you always in a transposed version of standard, open E, or open G?
Usually, though I’ve been playing with DADGAD, and sometimes I go down the tritone wormhole and tune my sixth string to Eb and raise the fifth string to Bb. These days I keep everything tuned down a half-step, so I’m in Eb standard, open C#, and open F#.
You’ve said you prefer turning up an amp to generating distortion via a pedal.
Usually, though I always have some pedals with the Allstars. The Analog Man King of Tone is a real useful overdrive pedal. I sometimes use that when I have to play through backline amps that are too bright—I back the tone down with the pedal, just to make up for the sound of a shitty amp. I also like the Foxrox Octron octave pedal because it’s so nasty.