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Michael Lee Firkins loves to experiment with his slide playing, sometimes holding his lap steel like a regular guitar while playing it. “I love playing lap style, too,” he says. “When I think horizontally, it changes everything rhythmically. If I’m repeating myself, I switch it up.”
What tunings do you use for slide?
When I started performing vocals live for the first time in 2009, I started playing songs like “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and “War Pigs” with open-tuned slide. I like the barbaric approach of open tunings and three chords. I'm addicted to getting that true major third in those tunings. I also play slide in standard tuning. Which tuning I use depends on the rhythm guitar. I use open tunings on the rhythm guitars, typically. I used open G on the first songs on the record—“Golden Oldie Jam,” “Cajun Boogie” and “No More Angry Man.” “Standing Ovation,” “Wearin’ Black” and “Long Day” are in standard with a capo. The rest also use open-tuned slide. I play in open E a lot, and live I sometimes tune down a step-and-a-half to C#.
You also play single-note runs with virtuosic speed and intensity. How do you decide when an arrangement dictates slide or single-note riffs and fills?
If I’m playing the rhythm part with a slide, I try to play the solo with one, too, so it’s easier to accomplish. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll try anything, including the lap steel. I sit and hold the lap steel like a regular guitar when I’m playing it. I play my Oahu Diana like that. The Oahu is shaped like a guitar, so it’s easy. I prefer the Oahu because I need that 25-inch scale. It’s easier to get to the right notes when you have that much room. I love playing lap style, too. When I think horizontally, it changes everything rhythmically. If I’m repeating myself, I switch it up.
You have a unique high-speed, hybrid picking technique. Can you break it down?
I've never been one to play something slow and work up to speed. That doesn't work for me. Most of the things I do I wouldn't even know how to play slow. They are all improvised, natural little patterns that I forget as soon as I’m done playing them.
When I do three-note-per-string patterns, it’s always economy picking with a combination of hammer-ons and pull-offs. I can double-pick up and down when I'm playing two notes per string, and that’s usually what I like to do these days when I want to sound very aggressive. Stuff like the rapid picking—like the really high notes on “Wearin’ Black”—is all bare-fingered, and the Tele helps it scream. I only use my thumb, index, and middle fingers, and sometimes a thumbpick. I tried to play a few Albert Lee and Danny Gatton songs 25 years ago when I first started fingerpicking. It was very hard, and I wasn’t very fluent, so I just started making up my own licks.
I used a thumbpick for many years, and it got to the point where I could even do all my really fast double-picking with a fat thumb pick. But for the past three or four years I’ve gone back to regular picks. I’ve always been into the concept of fingerpicking and holding the pick with my middle finger. Because the reso-Teles I’ve been playing are tuned down a lot, playing fast on the lower strings is really easy, so I’m working on bluegrass double-picking, too, and I’m really digging it.
Tell me about the reso-Tele and how it has influenced your playing.
I went through all the slide guitar phases with my dad’s lap steel and electric guitars, and then I bought cool lap steels like the Oahu Diana. But when I bought a $300 pawnshop Johnson Triolian with a cutaway and a mini-humbucker, it sounded amazing. I brought a lot of songs to the record with that guitar. Three years ago, I noticed that the Johnson’s 10-inch cone fits right on a Tele. No other solidbody guitar is wide enough to fit that. I had my neighbor Steve Dowler, who makes vintage-style car doors out of wood, cut the hole. I suggested he do it to his guitar first [laughs]. Then he did it to two of mine. I bought a couple of Mexican-made Teles on Craigslist. They’re amazing. I’ve played them for every show of the last two years. They don’t break strings because the strings go across the little wooden biscuit bridge. They’re very loud acoustically, but don’t have much sustain unplugged. When they’re electrified, the notes turn into feedback as they die down, which is cool. If you find the right place on stage, you can almost have a sustainer effect. I haven’t messed with the stock pickups. Everything I do live is on the Tele neck pickup. I have more than two of them, but my two main ones have never failed. I figured I would beat on them and the cones would come lose, but they never did. Now I have a couple companies interested in doing a version of my reso-Teles.
In 2009 Michael Lee Firkins began playing three-set nights in clubs and funky bars to polish his singing chops while recording his debut vocal album, Yep, performing staples like Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” He also adopted the reso-Tele as his main axe. Check out how he applies his own brand to the song with his slide starting at about 2:05, ricocheting from grinding Southern rock to Eastern tonalities.
How does your tone influence what you play?
Most of the time I just dial up a sound I like and use it for the song without much premeditation. I don’t even mess around with tone from that standpoint. I’m a big AC/DC fan, so with every new amp I get, the first thing I wonder is “How do I get the Malcolm Young tone?” So I’m always dialing in “Highway To Hell,” no matter what I’m playing. And then, of course, I start playing the chords to a song I’m working on and I realize it doesn’t work.
My favorite thing about the reso-Tele is that it gets me into that acoustic world, and I can build the electric aspects of my guitar tone from there. I was heavy duty on the Supro/Valco scene for a while. I went through a phase because of my dad’s Magnatone—it’s the best sounding of all the ones I’ve found. They’re not clean, but for dirty blues they are really amazing. Today, though, I like amps that give me more clean headroom.
What’s the biggest insight you gained over the near-decade it took to make Yep?
The most important thing is just getting your shit done. It’s not about great guitar tones or perfect lyrics. It’s about having your shit together and getting it done. Now when I walk into the studio with a song, I’m prepared to record every aspect of it. At the end of the day when I walk out, I want my finished song.