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Harvey stays true to this mantra with his playing style and his gear. When it comes to his playing, Harvey compliments each song with the tastiest of licks, delivered with a hybrid style that mixes flatpicking and fingerpicking. Despite his formidable chops, he never overworks the guitar or overpowers the song. When it comes to gear, Harvey prefers to let the organic relationship between the amplifier and guitar do the talking. To his ears and fingers, the voice of a good soundin’ guitar and a cranked amp is the language of impeccable tone.
We recently caught up with the busy Lonestar guitar slinger after he finished the newest Head Cat album with Lemmy and Slim Jim [Stray Cats]. We talk with Harvey about Merle Travis fingerpicking, Head Cat soundchecks and recording in the shower.
What is your earliest memory of the guitar?
I started fooling around with the guitar around the age of 10—it was just something I did but had no clue what I was doing [laughs]. I’m left-handed so I used to pick up guitars and turn them upside down and tried to play left-handed, but I never really learned anything because I was never taught or restrung the guitar correctly. But when I was 13 years old I was living in Kentucky and my next door neighbor who was ‘bout 17 or 18 years old—the way I remember it he was a really good guitarist—knew how to play all the Zeppelin and Hendrix songs I had heard on the radio. He had a few guitars so we’d just hang out and he started to teach me to play familiar radio rock songs, but the first song I learned all the way through was “Purple Haze.” And because all of his guitars were right-handed, that’s how I learned to adjust and play right-handed. From learning those first riffs in Kentucky, I played guitar for hours every day then on.
While it sounds like you had a rock ‘n’ roll start to guitar-playing, you currently play more of a traditional rockabilly and country style of guitar. How did you make that transition?
Well, I grew up in the south in rural areas. I was born in Texas and then moved to Kentucky and my dad only played country music. But when I was a teenager I was never a really big fan of country—I didn’t dislike it, but I had no idea until later how ingrained in me it was [laughs]]. Once I was about 14 years old I became the best guitarist in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, [laughs] so I started playing with 40-year-old men and most [of] their gigs were country-style gigs. So at that time I would play country to make money, but I still played rock when I was at home or just hanging out.
We moved to California when I was 16 years old to another rural area north of L.A. and I really got into jazz because I was taking private lessons from Joe Pass. But what really got me into rockabilly was that it was the only style of music I could play all my jazz, country and rock licks. Most of the rockabilly stuff is 12-bar progression and if you get jazzy you can take it to swing and western swing or if you want you can get bluesy with it or just go towards country.
And how did that evolve into a career as a go-to rockabilly guitarist?
When I was in high school, Levi and the Rockats came over from England and I went and saw them perform in L.A. I just really liked how they took it all the way—they had the clothing, the hair and the ’50s swagger. And by this point I had began playing rockabilly but I was still just a normal teenager from L.A., but the way they embraced that whole ’50s style really struck a chord with me. Back then, there were no younger bands with greasy, slicked back hair and at one of their shows I was asked by their manager to go backstage and meet them because they liked meeting young Americans that were into the ’50s thing, too.
I went down to another Levi and the Rockats show that was on Christmas Day and when I got there they said they had just fired Levi and were looking for another guitarist and asked me to join. Then, I go into the dressing room and Levi tells me he just quit the band and was going to start a new band back in England and asked me to be his guitarist. I wanted to go to England so I decided to go with Levi and that’s when we started Levi Dexter and the Ripchords.
It’s hard enough for a young and unknown guitarist to get one job offer, but you got two within five minutes!
[laughs] And thankfully it all worked out. But ironically, after two years of performing with Levi, I left the Ripchords and started working with the Rockats—who had always kept in contact with me once I left for England. So I ended being in both bands after their split. A few years ago, they did a Levi and the Rockats reunion show and they asked me to play guitar because they lost touch with the original rhythm guitarist. Levi was like, “Well, you played in the Rockats and you played in Levi and the Ripchords so it only makes sense that you’re in Levi and the Rockats.”
For a guy that plays all styles of music and guitar, who are some of your favorite guitarists?
Whatever genre of music it is, all my favorite guitarists come from the ’50s. For jazz I really love Kenny Burell, even though my favorite record of his is Midnight Blue from 1963. For rock ‘n’ roll, I really love Cliff Gallup’s work with The Blue Caps and James Burton, and for the more rockabilly and country stuff I tend to favor Grady Martin, Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Those guys are on the top of my list of favorite guitarists and they all came from or started in the ’50s. I mean, I love Jeff Beck a lot but his older stuff was drawing from that same pool but he took it to another level.
I can definitely hear the Merle Travis and other finger-picking country influences with your Lonesome Spurs work—particularly in songs like “Lonesome Spur Stomp” and “Ride Straddle Saloon.”
Merle Travis is hands-down my favorite guitarist. He’s definitely the reason that I use a thumbpick and do a lot of flatpicking things using the side of the thumbpick and fingerpicking things. With the Lonesome Spurs, because Lynda Kay would play rhythm guitar and kick the suitcase—there’s not much you can do with a suitcase bass drum (enclosed inside an old red Samsonite suitcase)—so it was like playing with a click track [laughs]. She would just play straight quarter notes on everything—even when she’s strumming the guitar. It was great because I could do all my Merle Travis-style riffs and rockabilly riffs at breakneck speed because she was holding down the tempo and there’s nothing that gets in the way. So when I’d come up with licks, intros or solos for the Lonesome Spurs I would always approach it by thinking of the wildest part I could fit into the given song.
And the “Lonesome Spur Stomp” was like a fingerpicking riff … a warm-up type of thing I had written and played around with already. I just laid down a click track with her suitcase bass drum—because she didn’t record that part, but she plays the drum live—and went to town.