Onstage at Los Angeles’ famed the Troubadour, Oliver Wood goes for a radical bend on his mid-’60s Guild T-100D—a hollowbody with DeArmond pickups that he describes as “a poor man’s Gibson.” Photo by Debi Del Grande
You have a lot of guitars you don’t take on the road, but onstage you often use a Guild.
Oliver: The Guild electric that I have been playing for about 30 years now is a T-100D. A lot of people call it a Slim Jim. It’s a thin hollowbody guitar and it has two little DeArmond cheapo pickups. It’s like a poor man’s Gibson. It’s mid-’60s. I got it back in the ’90s when everybody had a Strat, including me, and I thought, “Everybody’s playing a Strat. I’ve got to find something that nobody’s playing.” That’s the only reason I picked it, but I ended up falling in love with it. It has a Tune-o-matic bridge, which, of course, is not original. I added good tuners and the pickguard fell off long ago. I used to stuff underwear and washcloths in there so it wouldn’t feed back, but I use pretty small amps now, so I don’t really have that trouble anymore. It feeds back just enough.
You’ll find the sweet spot on stage if you need feedback?
Oliver: Exactly. I’m in love with that guitar—that guitar and the amp I have been playing since the beginning of the Wood Brothers. I’ve been playing a little four-watt Kay 703, these $200-on-eBay amps that are basically made of plywood. They have a 6" speaker and you would have bought them at Sears or a department store back in the ’60s. It fits in the overhead compartment of a plane. I’ve been playing that Guild through that little amp since the beginning of the Wood Brothers, and it’s become a signature tone that I feel is my thing. We have a bunch of them. They need work every once in a while. They’re pretty flimsy, but they are remarkably durable and they keep sounding cool. Now I do add a small Fender amp to it, so I have two amps onstage. I have either a Princeton or a Blues Junior or something: a 1x12 or a 1x10 amp right next to the little Kay. We run those together and the sound man favors one or the other based on what song we’re playing.
Chris: That Kay was originally a guitar amp I owned. When we started the Wood Brothers, and we were just a traveling duo, for a long time Oliver would either play acoustic guitar and the electric guitar through that tiny little Kay amp, and I wouldn’t have any rig. I would have just a mic and DI going into the system. We got by for a long time that way, even when we became a trio. I remember playing the Greek Theater in L.A. with the Kay and nothing else for the electric guitar, and it is just four watts. That was always a signature of our sound—a little bit lo-fi and junky—and that Kay really defined it. But the upright bass is a different beast and benefits from more of a hi-fi approach. These days, live, I have an Ashdown amplifier. The whole point of having an amp onstage is to help my stage sound for me, not necessarily for the audience. I tend to get a lot of the tones out of the amp that are good for intonation, good for clarity, and a DI can be mixed with that.
Oliver, your tone tends to lean towards grit and buzz, even when you’re using an acoustic.
Oliver: I have a National guitar, a Tricone, that doesn’t have a pickup or anything, but it’s a dirty sounding guitar. It’s like something is rattling in a way that sounds like distortion, and it is not unpleasant, at least to me, but it’s by no means a pure, pristine sound. It’s messy and I definitely like that. I like that on the electric side, too. I like using small amplifiers with not a lot of headroom.
A good example of that is the guitar tone on “Don’t Think About My Death” from the new album.
Oliver: On that song, I’m playing an old Harmony Bobkat guitar, which has little gold-foil pickups. If I am not mistaken, I am going through some little Epiphone tube amp. It might not be obvious, but that’s also Chris playing his Hofner with a pick, also through a dirty amp. You’re hearing the bass guitar as well, and that’s part of the nasty guitar business that’s going on in that song.
Chris: For a bunch of those recordings, I was using the Hofner going through an old Bassman. I don’t know if people officially think of that as a bass amp or guitar amp, but it sounds great with the Hofner. “Don’t Think About My Death,” for example, has that setup. For some of the song, I’m playing a real guitar-like riff, high up on the neck, and there is a lot of counterpoint with the guitar. But for some of the song, I overdubbed a P-bass, just to thicken it.
When you’re on the road, do you go to pawn shops or guitar stores looking for stuff?
Chris: I used to do that a lot. But I haven’t done it much these days, because I feel like I’ve collected enough stuff, and I don’t have enough time to mess around with the stuff I have, so I feel silly about acquiring more. I’d rather experiment with what I’ve got—set things up differently to get different sounds.
Oliver: If I have time and I find a spot, I’ve been known to put a few things on the bus every once in a while. A newish one for me that I would love to brag about is a ’30s Stella parlor guitar. I sent it to Reuben Cox [of the Old Style Guitar Shop] in L.A. He has this thing he does. He puts an old pickup in the soundhole—I have a Teisco pickup that’s nice and quiet—and then flatwound strings and a rubber bridge. What this does is basically make a guitar with no sustain. Normally, that’s not what we’re going for. We guitar players want it to ring and sustain forever. This is different. It’s a whole revelation in leaving space. When you make a statement on the guitar, it happens, and then it just goes away. It leaves a lot of space for other stuff. The guitar riffs on “Alabaster” were recorded with that guitar. On “Little Bit Sweet,” I’m fingerpicking on that guitar, and, again, I plug it in to a little dirty amp, but it has a dark and sustainless sound. It is unique after playing guitars that ring on forever. It’s cool to have a guitar that’s just dead.
Do you use any different tunings?
Oliver: I play almost entirely in standard. We do a lot of slide guitar songs, and I use what I call a half-G tuning, because I just tune my 1st string down to a D, and that’s all I do. It’s a good way to almost be in open-G tuning, but by compensating a little bit, you can still play most of your chords. You also come up with new, weird chords. You can play a cool seventh chord easy, just because of that one string being changed.
Did you play together when you were growing up?
Oliver: We sure did. I am four yours older …
Although he also plays a Hofner 500/1 and a Fender Jazz bass, Chris Wood is best known for wielding this 1920s G.A. Pfretzschner upright in both the Wood Brothers and Medeski Martin & Wood. Photo by Debi Del Grande
You’re the cool older brother.
Oliver: I am the cool older brother. I started on bass. I gave it to him and switched to guitar, and he just, of course, made history on it. But there were a couple of years there where we were both proficient enough, and into it enough, to jam together. We had a 4-track and we used to jam in the garage. We’d make little weird recordings, then we went our separate ways for about 15 years before we started the Wood Brothers.
Chris: Oliver went to California, and then ended up in Atlanta, and had a band called King Johnson for a long time. I ended up in New York City and started Medeski Martin & Wood. It really wasn’t until 15 years later that our two bands ended up on a double bill. He sat in with us and it became clear that we both had the same job, and there was natural chemistry immediately. That’s what gave us the idea to try to make some music together.
Is this your main gig now?
Chris: Yeah. It is very full time.
What about Medeski Martin & Wood?
Chris: We don’t really tour any more. Occasionally we’ll do some festivals or one-offs. We actually just had a documentary come out. I don’t know how much distribution it is going to get. It just showed at the Woodstock Film Festival. There’s a record we’re trying to finish up from the making of that documentary, which was filmed a couple of years ago.
Oliver: This is our full-time thing. We all do other stuff on the side a little bit—studio stuff, or Chris plays with MMW once in a while still. But no, this is a full-time effort. Between this and family home life, I am toast.