Sitting down on the job is a requirement for Ben Harper, since he’s best known for his lap slide guitar playing. But his fiery performances and songs that often explore social issues, like his new album’s title track, keep his audience on its feet. Photo by Joe Russo
You spent your formative years around your family’s music store in Claremont, California. Did you work on instruments?
I did. I was a bona fide luthier.
Is that something you keep up on?
In a word, no, but I do go out and work in my family’s music store quite often, and it’s always the best feeling to be back in the shop and having my hands on instruments. It also comes in handy on the road.
The acoustic Weissenborn guitar has become nearly synonymous with your style. Did you stumble upon it at your family’s shop?
That was it. We were one of the rare stores that actually recognized them. People used to come in and, because they couldn’t fret them, would try to play them like regular guitars. Imagine, in 1958, my grandparents actually recognizing that Wiessenborns were a unique contribution to the acoustic instrument pantheon. David Lindley got his first Weissenborn from my grandfather.
What specifically about that instrument spoke to you?
I don’t know. I had every guitar at my fingertips. Although the guitars that I wanted to consider mine, my grandfather made me pay for, so I had to work them off. I’ve played Dobros, Nationals, Triolians, Duolians, Regals, and all the resonators. Everything from African koras to sitars were at my disposal. There was just something about that freaking Weissenborn. From the time I could hear it, I would just gravitate towards it. Some sounds are out there waiting for the player. Why would anyone want to play the tuba? I don’t know, but people have devoted their lives to the tuba. There’s a sound out there for everybody and that was the sound for me.
How do you wrestle with the Weissenborns at stage volumes?
I kinda stopped trying to force the Weissenborns up above the band. That’s where Billy Asher [of Asher Guitars and Lap Steels] and I co-designed my lap steel. It’s a hollowbody with a maple cap, like a Les Paul. It still has this hollow nature, but I don’t have to struggle to get over the band. On certain songs I will still crank the Weissenborns up. It’s always fun. I make sure I have it out for about a quarter of the set on the blues stuff, like “Homeless Child,” “Welcome to the Cruel World,” and “Give a Man a Home.”
What tunings did you use on the album?
I am all over the map. Mainly versions of open D (D–A–D–F#–A–D) and “Spanish” G (D–G–D–G–B–D). I will take the open D tuning and move it down to C and then I will tune the Spanish G up to A or B. I will even go as high as F on a Weissenborn in the D tuning with lighter strings.
When did you get caught up in the sphere of Dumble amps?
From the time I was probably 9 years old onward, I grew up next door to David Lindley. David’s daughter, Rosanne, and I were thick as thieves. Every once in awhile David and his band at the time, El Rayo-X, would have rehearsals at a place called the Alley. David would bring Rosanne and I to rehearsals. I was about 10 or 11 and was at a rehearsal playing the pinball machine. This super-generous dude was giving me pointers on how to shake the machine and how to get the best of it. It was Dumble. He and I first met huddled around a pinball machine. When I started really jumping into tone, would you believe that he remembered me from that? Dumble and I have been at it awhile.
How did you get your first Dumble?
He helped me put out feelers for people who had them for sale and I was able to get my hands on one pretty quickly. Then he actually brought me in and let me plug into his oscilloscope, which he rarely does anymore. He took notes on the frequency patterns of my instruments and he built an amp for the sounds that my instruments make. The only reason he charges so much is because the market has insisted. Otherwise he would charge $5,000 and someone would make $40,000 on his amps. He has no choice. Are Dumbles worth it? You listen to [David Lindley’s version of] “Mercury Blues” and tell me whether or not it is worth it.
Are you a big pedal guy? Do you like to tinker with those?
I do, although I’m going for fewer pedals. Charlie Musselwhite will say, “Hey, man. Careful when you are using those pedals and calling it blues [laughs].” He will walk over and glance at my pedalboard and say, “How many of those you gonna use for the blues? How many you need?” So Charlie got me thinking about relinquishing all pedals. For now, it is real simple. I’ve got a [Hermida Audio] Zendrive, Strymon Flint, Electro-Harmonix delay, and that’s about it.
“Finding Our Way” has such an authentic reggae groove. How did you learn about playing reggae guitar? Conceptually, it seems very simple, but it’s quite difficult to get the right feel.
That skank. Oh man, it’s nasty. First, it’s just in me. Second, I have lived reggae music my entire life from Lee Perry and Ernest Ranglin to “Stepping Razor” and “Legalize It” by Peter Tosh. My dad took me to see Marley when I was 10, and it was a life-changing experience. The only way I have been able to illustrate what that skank means is to be in the studio and take it out of the mix. The bottom falls out. It’s just this weird, mystic thing. I will never understand why Neil Young’s G chord sounds so different than anyone else’s in the world. I don’t know man; it’s the mystery of the guitar. It just pulls you in.
How collaborative is the band in the studio when it comes to creating parts?
This record is credited to the band, as far as production. Everybody was producing. It was magic. You would think it would be too many cooks in the kitchen. I’ve never been in such an ego-free environment. It made you want to try everyone’s ideas even if you thought they were crazy. When someone was driving, like Oliver Charles on those drums, he took the lead. He knew what he wanted, he heard it in his head, and he found it. Sometimes production is patience, but it’s also letting people find their way.
Might there be another hiatus in the future?
We won’t do that again. There might be a couple of other side projects, but they would be in between Innocent Criminal projects, for sure.
What next thing on your list?
I’m going to leave you with this: instrumental album. [Luthier] John Monteleone. Acoustic lap steel.
Hermann Weissenborn’s distinctive guitars are hollow-necked acoustics, and while Ben Harper can make them howl like Hendrix at Woodstock, this solo performance of the socially pointed title track of his new album, Call It What It Is, showcases the instrument’s super-warm, amplified natural tone as well as Harper’s fearless lyrics.