Michael Lee Firkins: Slide Guitar’s Backwoods Paganini
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.
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.