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What do you recommend players do to develop that sense of style as a player or songwriter?
All of us have musical heroes and iconic styles we look to. You need to find a foundation of something you love to stimulate the creative juices and bring the music forward without being an archivist. You need to take it to another place.
A lot of people learn to play their heroes’ songs note-for-note but can’t take it beyond that.
One of the things that saved me—and that was a true gift in the long run—was that I either didn’t have the ability or the patience to learn songs note-for-note. Even when I was learning Reverend Gary Davis songs or Merle Travis songs, I got what I needed to play them. I didn’t agonize over the minutiae. I’m sure that some of the old guys didn’t know that a C# minor chord was very similar to an Amaj7, they just liked how it sounded. Yet these things fall into place as you learn other people’s songs. I hear cool chords and intervals in a Reverend Gary Davis song, and I think, “I need to snag that,” but I don’t need to snag all the other things that make it the Reverend’s song. I don’t have the ability—and at this point in my life, I don’t have the time.
Did you ever experiment with high-tech electronics like Jack did when you were in Jefferson Airplane?
No. Jack was always fearlessly exploring the possibilities of sound, but he’s probably the first to tell you that a lot of that is a less-direct tone path. If you pass the same instrument around a room, each player will sound different—and that’s the magic of the instrument. Your body mass affects it—how you hold it, how big your belly is pressing against the instrument. Everyone worries about whether the guitar has a mahogany back or a rosewood back, but maybe it’s about your beer gut pressing on the guitar’s back.
Dan Erlewine, who lives nearby, wanted me to put an armrest on my acoustic guitar to keep my arm off the face of my guitar because he said that my arm kills my tone. I went, “No Dan, it doesn’t kill the tone, it changes the tone.” I agree that it will make a difference, but I’ve spent my life changing the tone of my acoustic guitar with my arm.
Tell me about your signature Martin.
Much of my acoustic guitar playing has centered on my 1959 Gibson J-50, but at this point those large guitars are getting difficult for me to play. I got a Martin David Bromberg signature guitar and really liked it. I talked to [Martin’s director of artist relations] Dick Boak and he helped me put my guitar together. It’s based on Martin’s M series, and they’re very amplification- friendly. I used to always pare off bass from the sound, because the body was so boomy on jumbos and dreadnoughts. I’m not a guitar designer, but I knew I wanted a 1 3/4"-wide neck—because my hands have changed with age—forward bracing, and a larger soundhole. It also has a V-shaped neck, which I like now that I’m older. I can play it as long as I want, and it never hurts my hand. And I loved the Italian spruce top on the Bromberg guitar, so we used it on my guitar, too. It was a treat to put together.
You do a lot of teaching at your Fur Peace Ranch—how did that evolve?
My wife and I talked about doing a camp, so we bought this 119-acre property in ’89 or ’90 in southeast Ohio. She really drove the organization of Fur Peace. My idea of a guitar camp would have been a few bales of hay around a campfire, while her idea was a 200-seat theater, an NPR radio show, a restaurant, 17 cabins, etc. She did all the heavy lifting and my name helped get it started.
So we have a school with four-day weekends. We have great teachers and we all think it’s important to pass on what we’ve learned. Personally, I’ve learned so much about music, through teaching and learning the vocabulary necessary to talk about it, that it has made me a better player. It sounds sappy, but it’s a musical community—a bunch of like-minded spirits of all ages, hanging out and concentrating on music. It’s a place of refuge where you can get away from the weight of regular life and get back to the basics of music.
Jorma Kaukonen’s Gearbox
Gibson LP-295 Les Paul, Martin M-30 Jorma Kaukonen signature model with Fishman Aura preamp, Gibson SST acoustic-electric
Louis Electric Amplifiers KR12 head and 2x12 cabinet, Fishman Loudbox 100
Hermida Audio Zendrive
GHS Boomers (electrics), Martin SP Bronze light-gauge (acoustics)