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Michael Lee Firkins’ signature axe is a custom reso-Tele that his neighbor Steve Dowler outfitted for him. Firkins’ guitars feature a Telecaster body with a resonator plate and biscuit, tapping both the acoustic and electric worlds for their distinctive, peppery range of sounds.
Michael Lee Firkins is the fire-breathing dragon of modern American roots guitar. When his instrument roars in his incendiary vocabulary of singing ’n’ grinding slide, hyper-speed chromatic runs, futuristic chicken pickin’, fat open-tuned chords and single string lines that scream “backwoods Paganini,” the roof-rattling sound is impossible to forget.
Firkins’ seventh album, Yep, is both his debut recording as a singer and a singular, licks-crazy distillation of influences that leap from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Chet Atkins to Jimi Hendrix to Elmore James to Albert Lee to AC/DC to Danny Gatton. From the mile-wide slide tone that makes “Long Day” gleam like a beacon to the solo in “Standing Ovation,” which pushes honky-tonk guitar into redneck jazz terrain, his intensity never lags. It helps to have a blue-ribbon rhythm section in Gov’t Mule drummer Matt Abts and that group’s former bassist, Andy Hess, abetted by keyboard MVP Chuck Leavell (George Harrison, Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones).
Despite the instrumental brilliance and the hush-to-howl layers of guitar that paint Yep’s 11 songs in vibrant Technicolor—plus his reputation as an über instructor—Firkins says he’s unconcerned with purely technical things. “I haven’t really gone full slide guitar on an album before, like I have on this record,” he says. “There’s slide and my whammy-bar-with-slide stuff. But I’m more concerned with the whole approach. I make music for humans, not just guitar players.”
For nearly a decade it seemed neither species would ever hear Yep. After cutting the basic tracks in Nashville, it took nine years of stops and starts for the roots fusion maestro to complete the album.
According to Firkins, moving, tour dates, inadequate home studios and other complications got in the way: “I was working on it all the while. I’d work on a few songs, put the album aside, and maybe come back to those songs again in a couple years. I knew Matt, Andy, and Chuck had left me a fantastic foundation. If you take my vocals and guitars away, their rhythm tracks hold up as songs.” He even recorded another all-instrumental album, 2007’s Black Light Sonatas, during that period.
A breakthrough came for the Omaha, Nebraska, native after he put together a dedicated band, and began singing live onstage in 2009. “Up until that point I didn’t know if I could even remember lyrics while I performed, and having a regular band to rehearse and gig with was crucial,” Firkins explains. “We rehearsed 80 times before we did our first gig, and then we went out and played three-hour nights of ‘everybody’s favorites.’” But typical of Firkins, he re-engineered covers in an idiosyncratic fashion, turning staples like “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” into slide-guitar blazers.
He was also inspired by the creation of his current 6-string warhorses, a pair of reso-Teles he made with the help of a neighbor. The guitars combine a Telecaster body with a resonator plate and biscuit, tapping the voodoo of both the acoustic and electric worlds for their distinctive, peppery range of sounds.
Firkins played the final studio track for Yep, his soaring slide crescendo solo on the epic “Long Day,” earlier this year. “I never plan my solos, but when I do go for a solo I know it’s going to be a long night in the studio, because I don’t want to revisit that solo again,” he says, chuckling. “I want it to surprise me and everybody else who hears it later.”
Firkins decoded some of the mysteries of his playing over the phone from his current digs in the San Francisco Bay area.
Why did you choose to make slide guitar such an important part of your vocabulary?
My dad’s family boarded up the farm and moved to Hollywood for a year in 1950—a Beverly Hillbillies kind of thing. My dad saw Speedy West play in 1951, and then he bought a lap steel. So there’s always been this amp in my house—a killer Magnatone. And my dad playing lap steel through it was the first music I ever heard.His lap steel had crumbling tuners. You could never really get it going. About 15 years ago my dad gave it to me, and I fixed it up and started playing lap steel. It’s been an evolution since then. When I first started I would listen to Speedy West, David Lindley, Ry Cooder, Billy Gibbons, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’ve tried to get all the different kinds of slide playing down.
How did you develop your signature slide-with-whammy-bar approach?
Slide is now the normal playing mode for me, and I really like the sound of whammy bars, too, so it was natural when I got into it. There’s a weird kind of sound I’ve been reaching for. It’s from between the big band and rockabilly eras. It’s almost like it’s from a past life.
My dad listened to Elvis and Jerry Reed, but the sounds I investigated on guitar were stuff like I’d never really heard. To me, that’s what everyone was doing with the whammy bar in the ’50s—exploring, like Chet Atkins’ “Chinatown, My Chinatown,” where he was doing these little whammy bar dips to emulate the pedal steel. For many years I entertained myself playing slide-like parts by manipulating the tremolo bar. Eventually I started blending the slide and tremolo on a Kahler bar, which was really springy and easy to use. Now I just do it on typical Strat-type trems.