Holder wears the hollowbody Peavey JF-1 he played on Let It Slide. Recently the guitar has been supplanted onstage
by a Gibson SG. Courtesy of Alive Naturalsound Records
One thing that struck me about the record is that you have that gutbucket, juke-joint, slide-guitar sound, but for most of the songs on the album, you didn’t fall back on the straight-up 12-bar form. Did you intentionally try to take the blues in different directions?
No. Really, it’s just that I’ve spent a whole lot of my life trying to become a blues player I would want to hear. I’d never taken my own songs as seriously as sort of learning the canon. And I just realized that maybe the time had come to do that. I wasn’t concerned about making a blues album. I figure that you’re going to hear some blues in whatever I do. So, I tried to be a little freer, and really was trying to pretty much make a rock record.
And after a while genre terms almost become meaningless.
Yep. What did Johnny Winter play? Was he a blues musician or a rock musician?
Exactly. What made you decide to start the album with a 30-second snippet?
That was actually Mike Pack. And I didn’t even know what he was doing. He said, “I’m going to roll tape for a second, play something.” One of the bands that came up while we were recording this thing was Black Sabbath. And their little excerpts they do sort of inspired the idea of doing that.
I really enjoy “Disappearing.” It’s got some of that dark flat-fifth thing, and I really dug the solo on the outro. What inspired that song?
I was seeing a woman, and I was in the hospital. She was separated from a doctor that worked at that hospital, so she wouldn’t come see me. And I was pretty gravely ill. I wrote that out in the hospital. I think it was on a napkin that had come with my lunch, and it laid in the back of a notebook for years. And I finally arranged it as a song.
“My Black Name” has got a great nasty, dirty guitar tone. Do you remember what you were playing through?
We had one guest guitarist on the record—a guy named Matt Bohannon—and he loaned me a vintage Fender Bandmaster that he had. And we had a pedal in the studio that apparently is a prototype [Bixonic] Expandora pedal. It was built when the guy was getting the Expandora together. And we used that fuzz pedal, that amp, and for most of the record I used a Peavey JF-1 335 copy. “Let It Slide Reprise (No Doctor)” has my National Tricone Baritone on it.
Was it a tweed Bandmaster?
No, it was a blackface into a 2x12 cabinet.
Do you play exclusively fingerstyle? Do you ever use a flatpick?
Never use a flatpick. I wear acrylic nails on my right hand.
“Headlights” reminds me of the Rolling Stones a bit.
I’m playing in the same tuning that Keith wrote a bunch of his stuff in: open G.
Do you use many different tunings?
I use a whole bunch of different tunings. Most of them revolve around taking one of the two canonical slide tunings, open D or G, and then I’ll change a couple of strings on it to get a different voicing. For example, “Stagger Lee” is probably the most far-out tuning on the record. Bass to treble, it is C–A–D–D–A–D. The two center strings are the same D. “Stranger” is in standard tuning.
So sometimes you use just a standard open D and G, too?
Absolutely, I do. A lot of the time.
And on the National Baritone?
Because it’s got a longer scale, I will drop it down, normally three half-steps. I’ll be in open B relative to a standard open D tuning, and open E relative to G. That’s the whole point of having the Bass VI along—in case I want to preserve the key that one of those baritone tunes is in, I’ve got a longer scale guitar for that.
“Stagger Lee" is an interesting number. It’s one of the most recorded songs in American music, but typically, people write their own version of the tale, so they’re not really the same songs. Are your “Stagger Lee” lyrics your own?
I’ve heard that form used for that lyric. Mostly what I did on that version as far as the lyric was to listen to a whole bunch of versions. I would say maybe my lyric concept comes from somebody like John Hurt. I don’t know for sure.
It has echoes of Led Zeppelin, to my ear—kind of a “When the Levee Breaks” kind of nastiness.
The harmonica took it there for sure.
Speaking of which, how did you get the harmonica tone on “38?” That is a sick harmonica sound.
We decided to plug in a little crystal mic I’ve got that’s got a quarter-inch input, and see if we could play through the guitar rig, with the pedal on, without it completely exploding in feedback. We isolated me away from the guitar rig and plugged that thing in and the tone was really monstrous, and I started fooling around with it. “38” was pretty much improvised on the spot. I had a basic lyric idea for a song, but it pretty much just happened in the moment.