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Sonny Landreth: "You Have to Have the Antenna Up"

Slide master Sonny Landreth’s 18th album is a wickedly woven fusion of the styles he’s explored in the past, including zydeco, blues, rock, folk, and pop. He calls it “a combination of combinations.”
Photo by Jason Cohen

The Louisiana slide legend finds inspiration in standard fretting and the whammy bar on Blacktop Run, an acoustic/electric mashup of roots styles and rad techniques.

There is a contingent of players who came up in the 1970s and ’80s that many see as setting the standard for contemporary electric guitar. Informed by the jazz masters, Jimi Hendrix, the ’70s L.A. studio scene, and a shared love of blues, they possess immaculate phrasing, fearless experimentation, deep songwriting chops, and to-die-for tone.

Among these A-list 6-stringers are such icons as Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, Eric Johnson, and John Scofield. But there’s one player in this group who, with a slide on his pinky finger, a Strat plugged into a Dumble, and Cajun culture in his veins, carved out a singular sound all his own. That is southern Louisiana’s Sonny Landreth.

Landreth hit the scene in the ’80s as a session ace, creating a resume that includes work with John Hiatt, Jimmy Buffett, Mark Knopfler, and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. And it wasn’t long before his unique slide guitar style and string of solo albums catapulted him to the upper ranks of guitar heroes. Vince Gill and Eric Clapton regularly sing the man’s praises, with Clapton calling him, “One of the most advanced guitarists in the world.”

Part of what has kept Landreth at the top is his willingness to take chances and push his signature style in bold and new directions. From all-instrumental albums to half-acoustic/half-electric live recordings, and occasional all-blues releases, he’s open to following his muse.

“Slide is adaptable to any style of music,” says Landreth. “I think that’s really important because, if I can keep it interesting for me, then I feel pretty good.”

Landreth’s drive to stay inspired has never been more apparent than on his newest release, Blacktop Run. The album showcases his versatility, and with the help of his most trusted musical compatriots, he brings all the best elements of his past into a single recorded set.

From the title track’s opening resonator salvo, Landreth’s impeccable skill, tone, and songwriting are on full display. But just as you settle into the song’s Southern groove, here comes the high-energy and all-instrumental second track, “Lover Dance with Me.” In fact, Blacktop Run is rife with new sounds and techniques, from swapping slide for a Strat’s whammy bar to foregoing a guitar solo altogether on the album’s closing number.

“As I got started using those new techniques, I started writing songs, and one thing rolled into the other,” he says. “Like on ‘Something Grand,’ I thought it was much more intimate with the acoustic creating the underlying vibe of the song, and then we built on that.”

Landreth’s inspiration struck at the right time. With Derek Trucks and a new breed of electric slide players like Joey Landreth (no relation) and Ariel Posen on the rise and crediting Sonny’s influence, Blacktop Run is the perfect way to encapsulate his stellar career.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, you have to have the antenna up for when new inspiration happens. You have to recognize it and act on it.”

We caught up with Landreth to discuss his new album as he was packing for a performance that night. He talked about making Blacktop Run, the gear he used to elicit his awe-inspiring tones, and why he confidently says the state of slide guitar is “as things should be.”

Blacktop Run is your first studio album of mostly original music in a while. What inspired this eclectic record?
All that’s come before, in a way, laid the groundwork. I was able to imagine some songs as acoustic, some electric, some as a combination of the two. Then, there are songs with vocals and others that were instrumentals. In a way, it’s a combination of combinations [laughs].

I also brought back my old producer [R.S.] Bobby Field. We hadn’t worked together for so long. He’s so brilliant and so much fun to work with. He and I met back in 1990. He had called me to play on the John Mayall album A Sense of Place. Then he was my producer on my albums, Outward Bound [1992] and South of I-10 [1995].

How did you track the album?
We did a little bit of everything. Typically, I’ll start at home to jumpstart the whole process. I’ll put down a guitar track or two to get the vibe. Maybe, if it’s an instrumental, I’ll develop it a little bit more. Then I’ll go to my engineer Tony Daigle’s studio [Electric Comoland, in Lafayette, Louisiana] to finish those ideas up. That way, I can go ahead and have the guitar done, sing the verses, and take those tracks into the studio. Then I’ll have the guys [bassist David Ranson, drummer Brian Brignac, and keyboardist Steve Conn] come in and lay down their parts live.

TIDBIT: Landreth starts albums by cutting guitar parts at home. He then takes them to Electric Comoland—a studio owned by his longtime collaborator, Grammy-winning engineer Tony Daigle—to polish before his band tracks the final recorded arrangements.

Blacktop Run covers a lot of stylistic ground. How does it differ from your previous work?
I think the heart of it is a rootsier feel on some songs, while others are going in a more instrumental direction. The acoustic and electric give different types of grooves. I think it’s more of an electric album, but it was nice to get back to some more real-deal ballads like “Something Grand,” which is one of my favorite pieces. For me, building an atmosphere with a track is one of the best, most rewarding things.

Another way it’s different is that some of the songs are by Steve Conn, my keyboardist and buddy. He’s played on just about all of my records, and he’s a great writer. I’ve played both of those songs with him over the years: “Somebody Gotta Make a Move” and “Don’t Ask Me.” I always loved them.

On “Beyond Borders,” doesn’t Steve play a part that was written for Carlos Santana?
Yes. That was for the guest album, [2008’s] From the Reach, where I wrote songs for guest artists to play on. And that was a bit of a gamble. “What if they say no?” Well, that’s what happened. We cut all the tracks in the studio, and we sent that to Carlos. It apparently wasn’t a good time for him, for whatever reason.

But it was cool to revisit that song. Man, it’s got so much energy, and it’s very different. It’s got a lot of different changes and different colors. So I asked Steve, “What would you think about playing Wurly on it, instead of Carlos?” He thought that was pretty funny. Actually, I think it gave it more of a contrast between the guitar and the keyboards, making it really interesting. It gave each section of the song its own voice.

You mentioned “Something Grand” is one of your favorites. But there’s no guitar solo on that song. That might upset a few Sonny Landreth fans.
Well, I didn’t set up to go, “Okay, this would be a song without a guitar solo.” But when I got through with all the parts, it was really obvious to me that it didn’t need it. Sure, I could have put one on there, but I was so sensitive to every aspect that went into creating that atmosphere that a big guitar solo would have taken away from the interplay.I think it’s interesting that the piece that I care so much about, it’s the only one I never played a solo for. It’s cool.

For “Lover Dance with Me,” what about that song inspired you to put down the slide?
Back in 2018, John Hiatt called me and he pointed out that it would be 30 years from the time we recorded his album Slow Turning. So we decided to do a 30th-anniversary tour. The only thing was, back in the days of playing with him, I was playing half the songs without the slide. That’s how I used to operate in the days of being in a road band. I hadn’t played like that in 13 years! [Laughs.]

Now, not only did I have to remember how I played those songs, but I had to get my chops back together without the slide. And I got to tell you, man, that is a strange feeling. It was quite the experience, trying to whip that into shape.

Watch the slide master at work (and show off his gear) in this 2012 Rig Rundown.

With an approach that incorporates high levels of speed and accuracy, unconventional picking, and a mile-wide tone, Landreth gives his Stratocasters, in particular, an instantly recognizable voice. Photo by Douglas Mason

It’s fascinating, players around the world are trying to learn your slide technique. And here you are saying that playing a standard-tuned guitar without a slide was a challenge.
I know, man. Truth be what truth is. Here’s the thing: I still use the fingers on my left hand when playing slide. But the positioning of the way that I do it with slide is very different, especially with the first finger. Without a slide, doing double-stops or using it to barre a chord, boy, that’s … [sighs].

But the cool thing that came out of it was I started hearing all these melody ideas, riffs, and chord melodies. As I was learning and working on the Hiatt songs, I got these ideas, and it started to flow. I started putting the ideas down for a standard guitar. Now I’ve got so many, I’m aiming toward a whole album like that.

Another thing that happened is, I started experimenting with the whammy bar. In the past, I played around here and there, but nothing serious. But then I realized that I could take some of the right-hand techniques from the slide and apply that to the trem bar. That got me fired up, and “Lover Dance with Me” came from one of those ideas.

It’s an entirely different technique, and yet it still sounds like Sonny Landreth.
Well, one would hope [laughs]. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, you have to have the antenna up for when new inspiration happens. You have to recognize it and act on it.

You are as famous for your tone as your playing. And one of my favorite tones on the album is the fuzz lead on “Groovy Goddess.” What did you use to get that?
Man, that’s a classic fuzz sound. The one I use on the road is the Demeter Fuzzulator, because it’s like a high-end version of fuzz. I can play chords and do a lot of different things. But for that song, I wanted more of the quirky, cool little personalities to pop out. I used the [Fulltone] ’70 pedal. I played through that into the Demeter TGA-3 head, into my Fender Bandmaster cab with Vintage 30s.

You said you played the Demeter on the album. But readers would scream at me if I didn’t ask you about your Dumbles. Did they make the album?
Oh, yes. For sure. In fact, on one of my favorite tracks, “The Wilds of Wonder,” I played it with my ’60s Les Paul Standard sunburst. It’s a match made in heaven.

“Slide is adaptable to any style of music.”

I always hate to say it, because everybody says, “Oh, here he goes talking about premium instruments and stuff.” But I’ll tell you that the humbuckers in that guitar, they don’t have the output or some of the type of sizzle that some PAFs have. It’s got its own thing. It’s unique, and it’s very subtle. With the Dumble, in particular, it’s perfect. I can dial it in, it articulates, and it actually comes out better than with other pickups. It’s a great combination, and it worked out well for that track.

What other amps did you use on the album?
I also used a ’65 blackface Bassman. And I used Komets. They’re great, man! They’re super high-quality. They hooked up with Ken Fischer [the late founder of Trainwreck amps] many years ago. They worked together and then branched off with their own designs.

Ken was like Alexander Dumble, in that he was a genius and a real eccentric. I talked to him a few times on the phone. He’d be able to listen to my amp over the phone call, then tell me how to tweak it for my slide playing. And sure enough, he was right!

The other thing: I got into using a Leslie again. I haven’t done that in a long time. I didn’t want to overdo it, but I think it added another level to the overall picture.

Several of those amps are famous for both their clean and dirty tones. Do you prefer to get your overdrive from your amps or pedals?
It’s both. Live, I run them clean and use the pedals that I have. I run into the Demeter Fuzzulator first, but I only use it for a boost. From the Fuzzulator it goes to Al Hermida’s Mosferatu pedal. That’s my main drive pedal. It’s a little amp in a box. You always hear people say that, but it actually is. From there, it goes to an Analog Man compressor. From the compressor, it goes to a Giggity by Voodoo Lab. Those are great—like a mastering EQ for guitar. They’re especially great for fattening up single-coil pickups.

Do you leave it on all the time?
Yes, I do. Then from there, into my Analog Man chorus pedal, and that will go into whatever delay unit. I’ve used different ones over the years. But on the last project, I used a Fulltone tape delay [Tube Tape Echo]. It’s like an Echoplex, but better. Then from there, it goes to the amp.

1980s reissue Fender 1957 Stratocaster with Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot pickups
Fender Sonny Landreth Signature Strat prototype with DiMarzio Fast Track pickups
1966 Fender Stratocaster
1960 Les Paul Standard Sunburst
1969 Martin D-28
Pogreba Resonator

Dumble Overdrive Special
Demeter TGA-3
Demeter TGA-1-180D the Mighty Minnie
Various Komet amplifiers
1965 Fender Bassman
Fender Twin (for backline gigs)
Fender Bassman 2x12 with Celestion Vintage 30s

Demeter FUZ-1 Fuzzulator
Hermida Mosferatu
Voodoo Lab Giggity
Fulltone ’70-BC Fuzz
Analog Man Chorus
Analog Man Compressor
Fulltone Tube Tape Echo

Strings and Picks
D’Addario XL (.013 –.056 with wound 3rd)
Dunlop Herco Flat/Thumbpick, Heavy
Jim Dunlop Heavy Wall/Medium Glass 215

And I’ll use different guitars for different sounds and parts. For example, there may be something like “Mule,” where I had a really clean, chimey rhythm sound. That’s a late-’80s reissue of a ’50s Fender Stratocaster. I guess that would be a ’57 they were shooting for. I think that guitar sounds great. It’s got Lindy Fralin pickups. That would be the bed track. Then we went back and used one of my signature Fender prototypes with DiMarzio DP181 Fast Tracks. It’s my go-to pickup all these years.

Some of the other ones I love are Fishman’s Fluence pickups. I’ve been on the road with those, too. I like mixing those up, depending on the song. And then, of course, the humbuckers on the Les Paul. Those are some of the guitars I used for different parts.

Open tunings play a significant role in your music. What tunings did you use on Blacktop Run?
Well, it depends on the song. But on this album, whatever key they’re in, I’d generally tune to that. And I do this a lot, too, where I’m tuned to G, and we’ll be playing in Bb, F, or Eb. Then I can mix up different open strings within that tuning, or that key, or that mode. It’s a cool thing. You can tune to G and then play in A, getting a cool Lydian vibe.

I imagine you keep your tech plenty busy on the road.
Yes, he’s got a lot to do, man. We try to space them out so that I have three songs in the same tuning at a time.

Acoustic and resonator guitar play a big part on Blacktop Run. The tones on “Somebody Gotta Make a Move” are particularly beautiful.
Yes, man, I love that guitar. That’s my old ’69 Martin D-28. It’s aged over the years and become so rich and resonant. It has a really nice compression. It’s perfect for just about anything. For two years, 1970 to almost ’73, I didn’t even play electric guitar. I played that guitar and my resonators.

I also used a Pogreba resonator guitar, which is really cool. Bonnie Raitt has one, too. Larry Pogreba takes vintage hubcaps, and that’s what he uses for the cover plate on the body. And he makes the guitars out of aluminum, so they’re really light and have a different sound.

You did a Rig Rundown with us in July 2012. Has your live rig changed much since then?
Yes. Demeter made this mini amp [the TGA-1-180D Mighty Minnie]. It’s a little 4 1/2-pound travel amp. It has the same front end as a TGA-3, but the back end is Class-D power. It’s cool. It’s a great way to travel because it fits in my pedalboard case. And I always have a backline Twin in case anything goes wrong.

I’ll bet you blow a few of your fans’ minds when you show up to a gig with a mini, solid-state amp.
I’m sure [laughs]. I get asked about it every night. If I could bring all the other stuff out on a commercial airline, I would. Like, when we do the Crossroads festival for Eric Clapton, I bring it all. It’s so much fun. I’ll have the Dumble rig set up next to the Demeter, and I can switch back and forth.

What was it about playing slide guitar that initially attracted you?
I think that’s the vocal quality about it. Listening to the old Delta blues records, I didn’t realize it at the time, but my heroes were all using the slide to emulate the human voice. And I know a lot of the jazz cats do that. That’s what they want to do with their saxophone, trumpet, or whatever. They want to emulate that, to give it more expression, more soul. That’s what caught my ear.I couldn’t have articulated it as such back then, but that’s what I was hearing. And also, as time has gone on, realizing the potential it has for some of these different genres of music, it has served me well.

Today, players like Derek Trucks, Joey Landreth, and Ariel Posen are bringing electric slide to the forefront of guitar. And they credit your influence. What does that mean to you?
Well, it makes me feel great. It’s probably the best affirmation there is. I think they’re super-talented, creative, and they’re doing their own thing with it. And that’s the greatest compliment. I aspire to honor what my heroes did and what I got from them. Then I take that and find my own way with it, my own voice, and my own sound. And that’s what they’re doing. So, it’s as things should be.

Call it a slide summit: At Eric Clapton’s 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival, Sonny Landreth and Derek Trucks, arguably the two finest living slide guitarists, spar amiably on a fiery version of Landreth’s “Congo Square.”