Two summers ago,when this blog was a good bit more active than it is now, I thought I would sing for the fences and try to get an interview with Stefan Grossman, one of my all-time acoustic guitar heroes. Stefan wasn’t the first folkie,finger-picking guitarist that caught my ear… I had previously spent a good bit of time listening to Paul Simon, Nick Drake and Donovan. When my friend Michael Turned me on to Bert Jansch, that was it. I was, and remain, an absolute fiend for British guitar music, a story that Stefan plays an appreciable part in.
So when I had the opportunity to peruse and purchase from a rather large record collection in Cambridge, Massachusetts a couple years later, I asked if there were any“British folk” records to be had. There wasn’t much, but there were a bunch of“Guitar Artistry” LPs on the Shanchie label, featuring John Renbourn (offolk/fusion supergroup Pentangle) and Mr. Grossman, solo and in duet. When I Put on Snap A Little Owl and heard the jazzy chording and harmonized bands of “Spirit Levels” for the first time, I was entranced. This wasn’t guitar accompanying folk music, it wasn’t classical music, and it wasn’t blues or jazz… it was dedicated, complex guitar music, combining all these things, and I was down with it. Still am.
Flash forward abou tten years… I had been reviewing records and DVDs from Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop on this blog, pretty much since its inception. I happened to see an announcement on Grossman’s Yuku forum that he was getting ready to present a country blues workshop in Sparta, New Jersey, his home base. I thought that this might be my opportunity to nab an interview with the man. I emailed Stefan and asked him ifI attended the workshop and stayed an extra day, would I be able to get an interview with him for W&W. He graciously agreed, and so that became the plan. When the weekend came, my wife and I drove out to Sparta(about a six hour trip from Pittsburgh) so that I could spend a couple days polishing up my picking, and then have an in depth conversation with one of the greatest.
The country blues workshop was a trip. As expected, I was about the youngest fellow there. Many Of the attendees appeared to be in their early ’60s or thereabouts, so I felt a little conspicuous. Stefan was very easy going, and was immediately interested in the guitar I had with me. In a sea of Martins, here I was with my custom Healy RM guitar, and I Handed it to him to try out. “It sounds great!!” he exclaimed, which was nice to hear, but not a surprise to me… Trevor Healy and I had the sound ofStefan’s Prairie State jumbos in mind when we designed the guitar, and it was intended to sound punchy with just the right amount of boom, especially when played aggressively.
Though my primary objective that weekend was to get a great interview, I figured that any tricksI could pick up during the country blues workshop would be a nice bonus. We Went through quite a variety of tunes, and I came away with “Mississippi Blues”in my repertoire. Before our conversations, Stefan commented to my wife “If Everyone there could play like Raymond, it would have been an easy weekend!”haha… a nice compliment indeed.
So without further delay, here is part one of my interview with Stefan Grossman. In this section,we talk about Stefan’s formative years, his early instruments and his ideas about acoustic guitars.
W&W – Thank you very much for having us, we’re very excited!
Stefan – It’s a pleasure.
W&W – I love listening to your stories about the blues players, your formative years and how you started out…but it’s very well documented. The profile in Sing Out [magazine] a couple of years ago was a really nice overview, and a lot of that ground is covered on the Stefan Grossman anthologies that have come out on SGGW.
Stefan – Right.
W&W – What I hoped to talk about for work and worry.com was your European period, the Kicking Mule era… as well as some of your specific ideas about guitars, and the players that you’ve helped out and crossed paths with throughout the years. We’ll start with a guitar question: what were some of your early guitars?
Stefan – Well I started when I was nine years old… learning how to read music, play “Autumn Leaves”, learning chords etc, from nine until eleven. My first guitar was an f- hole guitar, I don’t even know what the brand was, that my father got from a Goodwill shop, then Eventually had a Gibson cutaway guitar, which was also an f-hole top.
W&W – This wasn’t an electrified guitar?
Stefan – Unamplified, and I was just strumming chords… and then I gave that up. By eleven, I was more interested in going to the park to play handball and basketball.
When I started [playing guitar again] at fifteen, the first guitar was a Harmony nylon- string guitar, and I was starting to learn to fingerpick a little bit. I had gotten records of blues artists and white folks, you know, the Pete Seeger records, Woody Guthrie records… but there was also a record of a guy named Guy Carawan… and he had what I thought was a big Martin guitar on the cover, and I thought “Oh, I have to get that guitar!” In retrospect, it looked like a 12-fret [Martin] 000-28, but it was actually a 00-21.
So I got a 00-21, and when I went up to Reverend Gary Davisʼ house, that was the guitar I had, initially. Of course, because he was playing a [Gibson] J-200, the idea was that eventually after a couple of years, I had to get a J-200, and I did get one… but during those years,ʼ65/ʼ66, Gibson had changed their design… they still had the sort of mustache bridge, but they put a lot of hardware on, to where the saddle was very similar
￼to their electric guitars.
W&W – To make each string adjustable?
Stefan – Right. So those bridges had a lot of metal…
W&W – Which changes the sound a lot.
Stefan – Well there was no sound, at all! In ʼ66 I went out to California, and that J-200 was the guitar I was playing… but [Berkeley guitar shop owner] Jon Lundberg took all that stuff out, and just put a piece of ebony in the slot. That got it a little more tone, but it was never like Gary Davisʼ, which had a booming, strong sound.
W&W – How old was Gary DavisʼJ-200?
Stefan – Well, Gary Davis would get a guitar and then, after four or five years, he would wear it out. Literally!That meant that the action got too high and it needed a neck reset… and he just thought that if he had the money, he would just buy a new one. So when I went there, he had a sunburst J-200, which was an incredible sounding instrument…but he would use medium-gauge strings and the action was pretty high. When I Tried to play it, it was difficult for me to play. Eventually he got rid of that and got a clear-body [natural] J-200. When you see photos of the sunburst one, you know it’s in the late ʻ50s, early ʻ60s, and then after that it’s the natural.
Working at Lundbergʼs shop, that totally expanded my knowledge of instruments, because of Jon. His personal guitar was an OM-45, and I thought “Wow, what an instrument…” I ended up working the whole summer there, for a dollar and hour, and at the end of the summer, he was willing to sell it to me, I don’t know why! It was $1200.
W&W – That’s a lot of money!
Stefan – In those days, yes. So I Had that guitar, and I never looked upon it as if it was a collectorʼs item…all of my guitars were always working instruments. I had that, but at the same time I had a Stella six-string that I had purchased at a pawn shop in New YorkCity. I was very good friends with Mark Silber, who ran the Fretted Instruments[shop]. My first trip across the country, I went with him, and the deal was that any of the guitars that we found, the pre-wars went to him, and anything after [went to me]… we found a great D-28 herringbone… but the Stella cost $47 or something, and the pawn shop across from the old Madison Square Garden also had an old D-18 for $50, and I bought both of them. I was teaching guitar at that point, so I had a little cash. The whole idea was that when you got a guitar, you sell one to pay for the other one.
W&W, speaking from personal experience – Still true today!
Stefan – The D-18 I sold to DocWatson, and I got the Stella fixed up… it had action that was about two inches high, and that was my bottleneck guitar, basically. So now I had
that and the J-200, and eventually I was able to get the OM-45. I wasn’t touring at that time, I was just a student at college. When I went to Europe, I Brought the Stella, because I didn’t know where I would be traveling. My Thoughts were that I was going to end up in India, so to me, the Stella was a cheap, traveling guitar. When I started to perform more in England, around ʼ67or ʼ68, my parents came to visit me in London and I asked them to bring the OM…so that was the performing guitar I had.
During that period I did find other guitars… I had a rosewood [Gibson] Advanced Jumbo, I had a 1930 rosewood J-200,which was a dog… it looked fantastic, but it didn’t sound good! I had a bunch of Euphonon Mauers… you start going through guitars, and I started to use them on different occasions.
Eventually everything changed, guitar-wise. I sold the OM-45 for $9000, which was an enormous amount of money in the early ʻ70s… but imagine what it would be worth nowadays! Basically, because I had played it out, and it needed a neck-reset. A neck- reset on an OM-45 is very expensive. So I started to play the Advanced Jumbo, which was a different sound. I also had a Prairie State that I had gotten from Lundberg, and I started to play that… each one became a guitar that I would perform with for several years.
Then I got a Franklin guitar.[Franklin guitar founder] Nick Kukich, he had never seen my Prairie State Guitar, which had been an f-hole guitar that Lundberg had changed into around-holed guitar… he had put a new top on it, changed the [neck] angle… he kept all the design features, the “bling”… that was sold to Dick Weissman inDenver. Dick brought it back to Lundberg because the top was too thin for Colorado weather, and it had cracked. So Lundberg put a slightly heavier top onit, and I got it.
Nick Kukich saw that guitar, only in pictures, and he started making his jumbos. He gave me one, it must have been the early ʻ80s at that point, and I was just amazed because the guitar sound as good as my old guitars, but it was coming right out of a case, it was new.
W&W – And Nick was just trying to approximate it from the pictures? It wasn’t like now, where all of the luthiers can go back to the original specs of desirable pre-war guitars…
Stefan – Yes! Right. He was just going from the pictures, and he was only making two types of guitars, the jumbo and an OM… though I think he may have made the occasional dreadnought. So I Thought, “Wow, this is amazing.” and eventually I ended up with a cutaway model in Indian Rosewood, one that was Koa…
But [the problem was] if you were performing in a situation bigger than a club or theatre, where you could amplify with microphones for the best sound… at that point, pickups were just beginning to be available, there really were no good pickups. Even today, people buy these very expensive acoustic guitars and they have pickups in them and they sound like crap! They sound like cheap guitars on stage. The best pickups back then were Takamines, but Takamine wouldn’t sell the pickups by themselves. So Nick would buy a Takamine guitar, take the electronic guts out, and put those into the Franklins. So I have three Franklins that have Takamine pickups in them! Then you would have to figure out how to adjust the tone, the volume and the bass, so there were three sliders on the side. I used those for many years, touring. I discovered other makers, [John] Greven was making guitars that were incredibly attractive, good sounding instruments. So I Got with Greven guitars, with Franklin guitars… it was mostly Franklin because nothing beat a Franklin. In a studio situation, nothing records, for me, as well as they do for regular fingerpicking. Likewise for slide, nothing records as well as an old Stella!
Nowadays, the old Stellas are so hard to find, and when you do find them, the prices aren’t extravagant like an old Martin… but Mike Hauver is making replicas of Stellas. They’re mahogany guitars, not ultra-expensive, and his workmanship is great. Because I live in two places, the United States and Britain, I have a Stella here and a Mike Hauver replica in England. I try not to travel with the guitars as I go back and forth. I have a Franklin in England and a Franklin here, I have a Martin signature model here, and one over in England… I didn’t have an OM and Nick said he would make me one… that is an incredible guitar. My friend El McMeen gave me a present, an OM-28V, and that’s over there… it’s a lot of guitars, but they’re in two different places.
And an OM is different than a jumbo.I’ve always found that with the music I’m playing, that can go from Mississippi John Hurt to Celtic music, which is delicate, to the music of Gary Davis, which his funkier and you want to use fingerpicks, that the Prairie State, that jumbo design, or the HJ-38 [Stefanʼs signature Martin guitar] is the design for me. I want a guitar that is not as responsive as an OM-28, because I want to be able to really dig into the guitar sometimes… most of the time. Eventually, I felt that the smaller- bodied guitars – always long-scale, I don’t like short-scale guitars, the string tension and the way they feel – I need to have a guitar that’s not as responsive as an OM, so I can put the picks on and really make it sound out. If I’m playing a John Hurt tune or a Celtic tune, that sounds fine on an OM, but it also sounds good on a big guitar.
W&W – I had the same conversation when I was designing my custom guitar with Trevor Healy. We talked about going against the idea of lots of lush overtones, I wanted to kind of dry it out… something boomy and deep, but that I could really dig into.
Stefan – Right, but you also want it to project. Last week I was at the Martin museum with Dick Boak, who is in charge there, and we were just taking out all the guitars… and there are a lot of good guitars in that museum! A lot of the OM-45s, 000-45s, 12-frets… they’re all great instruments, but the one that was the absolute, most phenomenal sounding instrument in that whole museum was a 12-fret Ditson dreadnought, one of the first dreadnoughts that Martin had made. It was totally different than the 45s, the rosewood models, where you pluck the strings and each one sounds like a jewel, perfect and individual… with the mahogany Ditson, you just strummed it and it was like cannons… literally like a dreadnought, a dreadnought being a battleship! You could just sit there strumming a chord slowly, and each string you thought “Wow!” It was mahogany, and that’s one of the virtues of mahogany.
W&W – Well, the player is also a big part of the equation!
Stefan – Absolutely. The sound of the instrument is totally in your hands. Once you have good hands, if you have a better instrument, you can get better stuff out of it. But you have to think of Mance Lipscomb on his Harmony Sovereign… later on in his career he got a J-200, and the Harmony was a much better sounding instrument for the way Mance played.
When I got the Prairie State, I was very much into vintage guitars… pre-war, everything had to be from before 1944…
W&W – That was actually one of my questions: how early was the idea of vintage guitars being fetishized? It obviously is today, with the auctions and everything… but even back then, everyone was already focused on pre-war?
Stefan – Oh, all the time.Absolutely. By the early ʻ70s, Martins were so overly braced, they sounded terrible. So when Jon Lundberg would get a new Martin, he would go right into it and scallop the braces. It would void the warranty with Martin, but when you went to Lundberg and bought a new Martin, it had gone through his process, and it sounded fantastic! I’ll have to show you the Prairie State, because it shows how creative Jon was. I was doing a gig in Turino, in Italy, and was flying back to Rome… when I got the guitar out of the plane, the peghead had cracked.So how do you get a peghead back onto its neck? The way he did it was so creative, and made it even stronger. [note: I saw the guitar a little while later, Lundberg had created a new laminated neck joint much further down the neck, extending almost to the octave fret… agreed, a very interesting solution to this particular problem!]
So I realized… this is a guitar, it’s had one new top, and now it’s had a second new top, is it a vintage instrument? The rosewood around it is old, but the guitar itself, well it was sort of like a new instrument. So when Nick gave me the Franklin, I was open to it. My thinking had changed to where I thought “You don’t have to have a vintage instrument, necessarily, you have to have a good guitar” and at that point, there were a couple of makers building guitars with those ʻ20s and ʻ30s conceptions. You don’t want to go earlier than that, because those are too light. I had an old 000-45 12-fret that John Dikeman, who was the head of Martin at the turn of the last century, had built for himself at Martin.Design-wise, it was unique, it had an ivory bridge, and the nut was designed to play regular or Hawaiian [in place of the traditional nut was a multi-piece system, with a sort of trough which could have nuts of various heights dropped into it]… but the wood on the back was too thin, so the back had some cracks…but as a collectors item, it was very rare. So just because it was old, it didn’t make it an instrument that I could use professionally, and any guitar I get, I need to be able to use it… but that opened me up to idea of luthiers making new instruments.
Nowadays there are many, many luthiers. I haven’t tried all of them, but I’ve tried some where the guitars ainʼt so hot…
W&W – Do you get approached by a lot of luthiers for your perspective on guitars?
Stefan – Not so much. I think they realize that I’m very close to Nick at Franklin, and I’m very close with Martin. When we worked on the signature model at Martin, I was somewhat confined by the molds that they had, but [it’s different] with a luthier.
W&W – Where does Tony Klassan (ARK New Era Guitars) fit in?
Stefan – Tony wanted to make a guitar that I had owned, but he didn’t realize that I had owned it! He referred to it as John Faheyʼs guitar…
W&W – The Seniorita!
Stefan – The Seniorita. I told Tony that no, that was a guitar that I bought in New York City. When I went out toCalifornia, John Lundberg saw the guitar, and the first thing he did was to put his hand inside the body of the guitar, realized that it was overly braced, and so he shaved the struts. The pick guard on it was ugly, so John designed a pick guard. That guitar got sold to Fahey, and it was on the cover of the Vanguard record. Fahey sold it to Country Joe McDonald, who sold it to someone in England…
So Tony called me up and said that he was making one of these, and I told that story to him. I told him the guitar that he was hearing Fahey play had been through Lundbergʼs hands. He said he was going to make one, and I said that I’d love to get one. He said he was going to make three, one for Country Joe, one for Henry Keiser, and one for me. He asked me what specs I wanted, so I said Madagascar rosewood, thin frets… I like the bar frets, but they’re problematic for guitar makers… Henry wanted different frets, a different type of wood…
So Tony Klassan made the three guitars, and I had still not met him. I thought that what he was doing was very interesting, since most makers were reproducing pre-war Martin guitars… which actually got Martin to get off their asses! When they realized that with Santa Cruz and Collings guitars, there was this whole market, and Martin were ignoring it… that market was being filled with good instruments!
So Martin all of the sudden realized, “What are we doing?!” but Tony, he was doing Prairie States… so I had to talk to Tony about Prairie States. They got popular with players at one point, I think, because I was playing a Prairie State or a Euphonon, made by the Larson Brothers. But again, the Euphonon that I was playing, which was a maple-bodied one, had been heavily worked on the inside, to bring out the sound! So people would buy Euphonons and they would be dogs, because they were too heavy! I explained that to Tony. The Euphonon models were very different, they had nothing to do with Martins…
So when Tony was going to bring over the Seniorita, I told him to bring six of his other guitars, and that I would play the same song (“Mississippi Blues”) on each guitar, and then I’ll play a Gary Davis tune with picks, the same tune… and you can put it on your website, and people will be able to see what model they want. Just by chance, my friend Tokio Uchida was staying with us. Tokio plays very different than I do, he plays with his nails, a bit more delicate. So Tokio did the same thing, demonstrated the guitars the same way. It was wonderful to be able to help outTony, because he’s a great guy, and he’s a great builder… people were able to see and hear these guitars, and now he has a two or three year build list, which is terrific.
W&W – It’s great for contrast, too, because watching Tonyʼs own demo videos, he plays a lot of Fahey songs,and the guitars sound wonderful in that style… but when you play them, it’s a totally different feel, and it shows the scope of what the guitars are capable of. So what you’re saying is that Tony Klassan isnʼt making exact replicas, but something that reflects your input?
Stefan – And Roy Bookbinder. Roy likes a light guitar. I sent Tony my Prairie State guitar so that he could study the specs, he had it for a few months, seeing how Lundberg did it. Aesthetically, they look like the old guitars, but they’re better! They’re better sounding guitars than a lot of the old ones were. And whatʼs great is that he’s doing all the weird instruments, the Larson Brothers, the Senioritas, some strange Gibson guitars… and that’s great. It’s different, it’s an individual luthier who’s doing works of art as well, and he has many different models. He’s not doing only OMs or only dreadnoughts. Most of the makers are making dreadnoughts because that’s the preference of strummers, bluegrass and country players.
W&W – Hanging out at Acoustic Music Works inPittsburgh, I was able to get a peek at the sales figures for Collings guitars from last year… the rosewood dreads and OMs were far and away the biggest sellers.
Stefan – And it’s interesting, Ithink the OM was partly because I recorded with OMs and appeared in a lot of pictures with them. Not to say “Oh, I’m great!” but it’s the same thing as whenI saw Guy Carawan with that 00-21. Guitar players, just because it has a major pop-music name attached to it, that doesn’t sell guitars, but when you have someone with “integrity” in the guitar community, it’s somewhat meaningful. Martin and I were very pleased with the sales of my signature model, which exceeded all expectations.
W&W – Your signature model is also unique, it’s an interesting instrument. It’s not just a traditional OM or dreadnought with different appointments and your signature on the fretboard! Would the HJ-38 be considered a small jumbo?
Stefan – No, it is a jumbo. Initially I thought maybe the guitar wouldn’t be quite as deep,
and I had the custom shop make me one like that… what they would probably call a 0000 or an “M” model. But the HJ I think is even better than a 0000, and I made sure that my name did not appear on the fingerboard! That was one of my stipulations.
W&W – It’s a little cheesy.
Stefan – That’s what I thought!
W&W – Almost done talking about guitars… but I’ve always been curious about the guitar on the cover of Guitar Landscapes. Is that an Ibanez?
Stefan – Yes. At one point while I was living in Rome, Ibanez approached me, and they wanted to do a signature model. At that point, I was somewhat associated with DʼAddario strings, and they were represented in by Morris Somerfield, who also represented Ibanez in England. So they came to him, he came to me, and we agreed to do a signature model… so I showed them my Prairie State, which John Lundberg had modified, andI said “Letʼs do this.”
They did one like that, a jumbo model, but it was so garish, it just didn’t work! So I said “No, thank you!” Then they sent that guitar [from the record cover in question] which was more like an OM, which was not what I wanted. I sort of gave up, thinking that it was useless… so that was the “Stefan Grossman Ibanez”.
W&W – But you didn’t ever playit?
Stefan – No, no. In fact, that picture was for them. That was the promo photo for Ibanez.
W&W – One last guitar question… I’ve seen a lot of pictures of your guitars, and in some cases you had the full-on “tree of life” inlay, the real bling-y OM-45, the bling-y Larson Brothers guitars… do you have particular aesthetics when it comes to guitars, things that really appeal to you, visually?
Stefan – Well, the one with the “tree of life”, that was a guitar that was just a regular guitar that was scarred, or something like that… so I gave it to Randy Woods, who was working at Gruhn Guitars at the time. I said that we should do a sunburst, and the thing on the neck, but I never played it! In the ʻ70s I went to Japan and ended up giving it to the guy that arranged the tour!
Basically, what I like is not to have very much on the fingerboard… just dots or snowflakes. Because whenever you have to do work on the fingerboard, if you have all that stuff, it just gets impossible [to work on]. You have to understand that in the ʻ60s, when you had abalone on the side of the guitar, that was really something special. It designated that the guitar was a 40, 42,45, which in the case of Martins meant that not only did it have the abalone, but the wood was better. When the Japanese started to make guitars, all of a sudden every guitar had that. So it didn’t really mean anything.
So I really like just a simple herringbone. When we made the Martin signature model, I wanted it to have as little bling as possible, to keep the price down, you know? The OM-45, or any45, tends to use the best wood that Martin has… but there is something about that joint, where the top and sides meet, there’s something happening there…all that binding, that has some affect on the tone of the guitar. If I was going to put abalone on a guitar, I would do it like the old Larson Brothers guitars, because theirs was different, it was thicker. But to be honest, I just prefer the simple herringbone, like the binding on the Stella, it’s just lovely. I like the Brazilian and Madagascar rosewood, aesthetically, over Indian… I don’t know if it really sounds better or worse.
W&W – When you first got to England, you had already met Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker (from Cream) back in New York… did you get involved immediately with the folk scene, or did you dabble with the rock guys as well?
Stefan – Well, I hung out with Eric… I stayed at his place, we hung out and played. The first place I went when I was allowed into England – the customs people hesitated to let me in – was to go to Gingerʼs place. He lived in a very, very modest house. We would go to a pub, I’d hang out with The Cream as they were getting their stuff together, I would go to gigs with them…
My friend Mark Silber had been there the year before, and so had Danny Kalb. There was a house on Somali Road… on one floor, there was a group called The Young Tradition, with Heather Wood, Royston Wood and Peter Bellamy, they sang traditional English music, unaccompanied. On the other floor was John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. I just went down to say hello to The Young Tradition, I didn’t know them… they said “We’ve heard all about you, play a set at this club…” I had my Stella, and I did a set. Somehow, there was a reporter from The Observer, and I was written up in the Sunday paper! Heather said “You know, you could play around here, there’s folk clubs, there’s a whole scene…”
From Heather I met John and I met Bert, because everyone was playing at a club called Les Cousins… Roy Harper,John Martyn, Al Stewart, just all hanging together… I think it was Martin Carthy who took me over to meet Davy Graham. I would meet these guys at the clubs, and I would tour with them. Bert and John were just getting The Pentangle together, so they had me open up some Sundays at their club at The Horseshoe. So people start to get to know you, and I became good friends with people. I became close with John, with Bert…
W&W – Pretty much all the seminal British players say that Davy Graham was ground zero…
Stefan – I’ve never understood that.
W&W – What was your initial impression of him?
Stefan – By the time I got to know Davy, he was past that. Eventually, when we started Kicking Mule, we sort ofr esurrected Davy, and he started to play stuff that was interesting. But in America I was used to David Laibman, he had just come back from England. He had also played with Bert and Davy, and he spoke very highly of them… but in America, we were playing some complex stuff!
So I go over to England, and what impressed me wasn’t the people playing blues… I thought [Stefan makes a“grossed-out” noise, like a kid who doesn’t like the look of his creamed corn…]I felt like they were missing something. When they were playing guitar instrumentals, it sounded like cheap Chet Atkins stuff. What impressed me was Bert and Martin. When they were playing their British stuff, they were able to create a very unique style to accompany British traditional music. It wasn’t based on boom-chick, and it wasn’t Mississippi John Hurt playing “She Moved Thro The Fair”… but they all spoke incredibly highly of Davy.
I would hang out with Davy, and his brain cells had been somewhat compromised by too much heroin… but he was of fit, he was clean, but he was still a peculiar character… but really nice, really friendly. But I just didn’t see that brilliance. To me, a David Laibman was Earth-shattering, maybe not the sound that he’s producing, but his approach to the guitar… but they all spoke of Davy like that was it, and of “Anji” as this incredible tune, and they audience would go wild over “Anji”… to me, it sounded like a watered down version of “Windy and Warm”, that we would play in America. That was a much more interesting instrumental than “Anji”. But I don’t know, they still stick by their stories! There are now recordings of Davy in his early years, before the Decca records came out, and I still don’t hear that“something special”.
W&W – What about the exotica, that side of it? Did you recognize that as something important?
Stefan – No, no! Because we had Sandy Bull here!
W&W – Were Sandy and Davy developing independent of each other? I make that connection as well, but did the British guys know about him?
Stefan – They may have known about him, because of the records… but I was hanging out with John Fahey, and while John wasn’t exotic, Robbie Basho was! He was doing some heavyweight Eastern music, and he’s never really been recognized… because he would sing, and he had this operatic voice… but he was incredibly creative. So comparing [Davy] to Basho, Sandy Bull, they were influenced by the Indian music… and Davy was doing stuff like it, but it was not of a higher caliber, that’s for sure. So no, it didn’t impress me. Not at all.
W&W (huge Davy Graham fan) – Okay, okay…
Stefan – [sarcastically] That will make me friends! Do you feel the same way, are you trying to figure out what it was [all the fuss]?
W&W – I actually love hisplaying! I love the mercurial element of it, the way he tackled the fretboard…if I had known him, maybe it would have been different, I don’t know… I might have thought him strange or aloof… but from that group of British players, I thought he had a very unique feel. He was also one of the first players that I really got into, along with Bert.
Stefan – Well, the scene in England Was actually a little stagnant. When I came along, basically playing Laibman arrangements and lots of blues stuff, I wouldn’t present it as a blues singer… I’d Present it as a guitar player. That, I think, is one of the reasons that I got accepted in England. I was saying “Here’s this stuff, I learned this from SkipJames, I learned this from Reverend Gary Davis…” I was sort of a bridge, and they liked that. I wasn’t a “personality”. I think that sparked something there, and there was this little bubble.
But over the years, since the lateʻ60s, it’s John Renbourn who’s constantly developing. Constantly exploring new territories. He’s not recording enough records, so the people out there don’t all realize what he’s doing, he’s doing a lot of composition at home. He was constantly growing and growing, whereas Bert did his brilliant stuff early in his career. Martin Carthy got a brilliant thing and he stayed with it, it’s always great!
W&W – Love him!
Stefan – But John Renbourn kept growing, doing arrangements of medieval tunes, of jazz tunes, of whatever. We hung out for fifteen years, touring the world, and our conversations were constantly about guitar playing. He was very interested in parlor guitar, he did his thesis for university on that. We would talk about American guitar styles, how it affected the English, etc.
W&W – Were you initially unimpressed by Renbourn? He was doing lots of straight blues…
Stefan – Well, I was unimpressed, because remember I’m hanging out with Eric! Clapton was a great blues guitar player, with incredible tone… I’m talking about when Eric is playing acoustic, which at that point people weren’t hearing. If you were just playing together, you would see Ericʼs hands, and the vibrato, the tone, the phrasing…
W&W – Did Clapton already have some Robert Johnson arrangements under his belt?
Stefan – No, he didn’t, but he had a complete vocabulary, just as big as my vocabulary was, of pre-war and post-war blues. He was obviously better with the post-war, he was taking, let’s say, Tommy McClennan and putting it on the electric guitar. He Listened a lot. He was really involved in the music, trying to hear as much as he could.
W&W – He got Skip James songs onto Cream records!
Stefan – Yes!
W&W – So you hurt your hand atone point, and you became a singer/songwriter.
Stefan – Yes… well for one thing, because everyone was doing singer/songwriter stuff, all my friends… Al Stewart,John Martyn, Roy Harper… and what happened was that I was living in Rome and went to a furniture store, and it had a real modern door. It was a metal door, and the jamb was very close to the handle. So as I was leaving, I closed the door and my thumb got caught it the jam. It literally amputated my nail, all the way to the bottom, so it hurt too much to fingerpick… but I could bandage it and hold a flat pick. So I just started, for it must have been six months, just writing songs and strumming. It was interesting [to me] because the record company wanted to do songs.
W&W – Was this Fontana still, or Transatlantic?
Stefan – No, Transatlantic. So I had done a record called Ragtime Cowboy Jew, which was a combination of songs and instrumentals. That sold well, but the next one was just singing and playing guitar, with guys from the Cat Stevens band, some friends I had that were more in the pop world. That really got slammed! The critics, they wanted me to shut my mouth and just play guitar!
We did another one, Hot Dogs, which was kind of going back to my roots, I guess… and I did Yazoo Basin Boogie, which was recorded in a closet, when I was living in Rome. I put blankets around it, and I sit in this little closet with a Tandberg mono tape machine, and I would play instrumentals. I recorded that, and they put it out, and it was a really big hit! But to show you how crazy reviews can be, I remember the Rolling Stone magazine saying it was the best recording of an acoustic guitar, and it was just mono in a closet! Give me a break!
W&W – So during your singer/songwriter period, where did your lyrical inspiration come from? Were they really sincere, or just keeping with the lyrical poetics of the times?
Stefan – No, really sincere! I would use a lot of biblical references. I was a young twenty year old…
W&W – Did Paul Simon loom large on the British scene when you first got there?
Around that time, I remember going to Colletʼs Record Shop, where everyone used to hang out. I was friends with a guy who worked at Colletʼs, Hans Fried, who one day told me that Paul Simon was trying to get a hold of me. I thought, “Paul Simon… who’s Paul Simon? Popstar..” But for months, wherever I went, people would say “Paulʼs trying to get in touch with you” and I thought “Who cares?” But finally, it must have been November, I was staying with a friend who was a writer for TheGuardian and The Observer, and he was there when I called up Paul. It turned out that Paul had a bulletin board with all my clippings… he had them, I didn’t have them! He was splitting up with Art Garfunkel. So I said that I would be coming over [back to the US] around Christmas time to see my parents, and we would get together.
So we got together, and at that point he wanted to change, to go solo. For that next year, I would be with Paul. I would be over in Europe and I would get telegrams asking if I could catch a flight to go over to Columbia Studio E in New York, or L.A. or SanFrancisco… all these great studios, incredible musicians. At the end of the day, I ended up just being on one track on that first Columbia solo record.
One of the funny stories was when we went down to Nashville, we went to the Quonset Hut [studio]. Each one of these studios had a specific sound, and Paul, it was quite amazing… he would get the best musicians possible, in the most unique studios that had a sound and a history… so we went down there, and I had brought the Dikeman guitar, the[Martin] 000-45. The players came in, and the drummer, Kenny Buttrey, came in and his eyes were all bloodshot because he had been up for 24 hours, doing session after session. So Paul said we would take a break, come back in six hours.
So I was talking to the musicians, showing them the guitar, and these are working musicians, so to them it was just a piece of bling. So I went to George Gruhnʼs shop to trade the guitar, and I came back later on that evening with twelve instruments! That 000 was areal collectors item, so I traded it and came back with a sunburst OM-28, a LesPaul sunburst, which I later sold for nothing, banjos, tons of instruments… I thought, “How funny this is, this New York guy leaves with one guitar and comes back with all this stuff, like a carpetbagger…”
But it was very interesting working with Paul. He was a very generous, wonderful, smart person. What he does with musician is also interesting… he would get top-flight musicians, the best studio musicians there are. The musicianʼs idea is to go in there, do two or three takes, you’ve got it, you’re happy, thank you very much… it’s usually a good vibe, telling jokes or whatever… but Paul would say “Can you do another take? Can you do another take?” until the musician is out of ideas, out of the natural, knee-jerk stuff. Paul would do that until something really unique comes out. So when you listen to the record, the sounds that Paul is getting out of those musicians, you almost don’t see it coming, they’re digging so deep into their psyche. When Paul was in England trying to record “America” with the Cat Stevens band, they were recording for two weeks and weren’t getting anything, and the guys didn’t understand it, they felt like they had failed! But they just had to get on Paulʼs trip, to keep playing until something was flowing that you’ve never done before.
W&W – Paul Simon was also a sonic architect in the studio, cutting takes together…
Stefan – Well, and Roy Halee, he was an incredible producer. I’ve been in the studio
and seen Roy Halee get sounds out of instruments, I just couldn’t believe.That whole team that works with Paul is great.
W&W – I’d love to talk about Kicking Mule.
Stefan – With Transatlantic, that was run by Nat Joseph, a Jewish guy from London. He and his wife were trying to have children. Initially, I licensed Yazoo Basin Boogie to him. Well I’m a Brooklyn Jew, and I would also go there with my newborn son David, to negotiate contracts. I realized that was a good thing to do, because it would loosen up Nat… Nat had a reputation for being a real son of a bitch when it came to contracts. But for me, I licensed [the album]. After that, he signed me for three or four records, but always licensed, so that after seven years I owned them, the records would come back to me.
W&W – Whereas usually, the artists weren’t thinking that way, they just wanted a record company to back them up long enough that they could have a go at it…
Stefan – Right. Guys like Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell, they couldn’t believe that that was the deal I was getting, you know? But who knows exactly why, was it because I brought my son there, or we were landsmen? Who knows, maybe that meant something to Nat.
At that point, I had these masters.I didn’t go to Europe to become a professional musician, but at that point Iwas a professional, so I thought, “How can I get these released in America?” SoI wrote to John Fahey, who was a friend, asking if he would put the records outon Takoma, and he never got back to me! Never wrote back…
When John put together Takoma records, he put it together with Ed Denson, who was a very good friend [ofmine]. I used to stay with him at his house in Berkeley, or he would leave, the house would be empty and he would give it to me. So at that time, Ed had already been booted out of Takoma, and I said “Why don’t we start a record company?” At that point, he had been the manager of Country Joe & The Fish, and they had gotten very popular, but I think they had broken up. He liked the idea of the label, so I went over and told him that I had all these masters, plus I knew all of these guitar players who were not professional, necessarily…Ton Van Bergeyk, Leo Wijnkamp, Peter Finger, really good kids that I’m seeing…I say kids, I was maybe five years older than them…
But out of Holland, I mean, Ton was fantastic! He introduced me to Leo and he was fantastic, along with Ton Engels.So I said [to Ed] that we could do records, but let’s make them different, let’s put tablature books in them, the way Elektra had with How To Play Blues Guitar. The name Kicking Mule came about because Ed was a stamp collector. He would collect one commemorative series, and keep on collecting it, and as a result he would find tons of variations on these stamps. One of the famous postmarks was of a kicking mule, so that’s how we got the name.
I was also friends with a company in Sweden called Sonnet Records, and Sonnet decided to open up a London office. I went to Rod Buckle, who was their English representative, and asked him if he would put out our records there. So it was different from Takoma, which was a small American company, in that we had US and European distribution.
W&W – You guys were a true transatlantic label.
Stefan – So we were able to put out records that would be released in both territories, and they would eventually be licensed to Australia, etc… and the idea of the tab booklets made them really different. A lot of people signed on, and in America there were some records of, say, Ralph McTell or John Renbourn that hadn’t been licensed, and we were able to license them there. It grew very nicely.
Ed eventually moved to northern California from Berkeley, to some kind of a farm… and unbeknownst to me, after a while he forgot to send out royalty checks! It’s one thing not to send out checks, but you at least have to send out statements, so artists know what they’re owed. Artists always think they sell five million records, when they may have sold five! But they need to know what they’ve sold! When I found that out I said “You can’t do that, I have a reputation, blah blah blah…”
So we decided to end it. What happened was that I decided to take all of the records that I produced, which was all the guitar stuff – Ed had gotten very involved in producing dulcimer records, banjo records – he took all that stuff, which he subsequently sold to Fantasy Records, which had also bought Takoma Records. So I had my 45 or 50 masters of all these guitar players, and they lay dormant for a long time. So now these last four or five years, I’ve decided to reissue this stuff. But now, it’s a pain in the ass to make TAB booklets, to print them up, because you have to decide how many to do, the paperwork…
W&W – Well, I had a question about that… was there a point, even back in the LP age, where that was becoming untenable? The costs and such?
Stefan – No, you were always able to do it. Sometimes it was handwritten or somehow funky, but people didn’t care,they just want tablature. In Europe, they were printed and put into the LPs, whereas in America, I think you got a card and people had to send for it, and get a spiral-bound 8 1/2 x 11.
So at a certain point with the Guitar Workshop [Stefanʼs current company that produces CDs and DVDs] here, I decided that it was the right time… even though the CD world has collapsed completely, as far as the market, I think it’s important historically to have this stuff available. Now we’ve had the TAB booklets redone more professionally, and we include it on the CD as a PDF file. Just about everything has been released now. Some don’t sell at all, but some sell a lot. The way Guitar Workshop functions, it’s very important for me to do things for posterity, for historical reasons. The things that sell underwrite the things that don’t sell. We don’t look at the “bottom line” type of thing.
W&W – What was the scope of the LP releases back in the Kicking Mule days? How many were pressed?
Stefan – Five to ten thousand, usually.
W&W – I was curious to get a handle on just how rare they are… sometimes you’ll be able to pick one up in arecord shop for $5, sometimes they’re on Ebay for $50.
Stefan – Well it’s also different pressings. The European pressings were much better, the quality of the vinyl. Plus, the European tracks that I produced, I would use Malcolm Davis to cut the masters. Malcolm was the one who did all The Beatles records at EMI. It’s was much easier to work in England because it’s such a little community, everyone knew everybody… at least in those days. So the quality we were able to put in was pretty good. But the quality of the vinyl was much better in England than it was in America.
W&W – Good to know! Please talk about producing those records… some were recorded in kitchens, some were recorded in studios…
Stefan – Yes, some were just done ona simple Tandberg or a Revox.. with Ton Van Bergeykʼs first record, I was becoming very good at splicing tape, editing… Eventually, I began recording at Livingston Studios, and Nic Kinsey was a fantastic engineer, though he’s passed away now… so after maybe the first ten records, the recording quality is better.
…though certain big sellers, Country Blues Guitar [with Rory Block] half that record was done on a mono Nagramachine, and Tonʼs Famous Ragtime Guitar Solos was all done on the Revox.
W&W – Was your perspective that with someone like Ton Van Bergeyk or Lasse Johansen, these sort of guitar-monster European players, that the playing and the arrangements would speak for themselves, and that you didn’t have to fuss so much over the sound of the recordings?
Stefan – No, we tried to get the best sound possible, always. In the studio, the problem was that the guys who played the real intricate arrangements, they could never play them from beginning to end, so you needed to have a good editor, whether it was me or Nick, who could cut it up and put it together. So the sound quality was very important, but since the music had such strong melodic content, it wasn’t as important as quote-
unquote “New Age”, Windham Hill types of things that were more…
W&W – Atmospheric.
Stefan – Yes, atmospheric. As for me,I wasn’t into the atmospheric stuff, I thought that quite a bit of it was just open tunings gone ape-shit! There were some players that were doing good things, Alex DeGrassi is great… the initial stuff that [Michael] Hedges did with the tapping was interesting, though in the rock and roll field, they were tapping all the time!
W&W – It just seemed more novel to do it on acoustic guitar.
Stefan – Yes, more novel. But when he would do fingerpicking stuff, I was not impressed at all. ArielBoundaries I liked, I liked the sound of that, it was good atmosphere andI could dig it… but he did an instrumental dedicated to Pierre Bensusan and I thought, you know, “Give me a break!” I was working with Dave Evans, and Dave was doing original instrumentals, but they were so much stronger than anything that was coming out of the other part of the world.
W&W – Dave Evans is a huge heroto my generation of players! He really appeals to almost everybody, and I think a big part of it is that performance from The Old Grey Whistle Test [Evans performed his signature “Stagefright” on the show in the ʻ70s]… he’s like the coolest guy that ever lived, just playing effortlessly! I know a writer in the UK who would love to interview him, is he still reachable?
Stefan – Oh yes! Dave lives in Belgium. He was a merchant seaman, and he started to play guitar late in life,after his 20s. He was basically a singer/songwriter, but as he was doing that, every once in a while some nice instrumentals would pop up. At one point I approached him, because I had been gigging with him as well, and I said “Dave, I’d love to do a record of your instrumentals.”
W&W – And that became Sad Pig Dance, right?
Stefan – Right. I didn’t think we [Kicking Mule] could represent him as a singer/ songwriter, because we weren’t like a Warner Brothers, you know? So we were able to get a very high quality studio at night, midnight to 5:30 in the morning, and those were all first takes, second takes, very little editing…
After that, he really wanted to do the singer/songwriter thing, so I said that we could do some demos, and I could help him shop them around… but no one was interested. So we made the record, and it was called Take A Bite Out Of Life, and that album has a couple of instrumentals… but we really didn’t have the facilities to market it. You had to have a PR guy, come out with a single, all this stuff… but every time that he would come into town, I would tell him if we were making an Irish record or something, and we would record four or five tracks, instrumentals, and we’d put them on these anthologies.
Eventually, he just left playing, got more involved in pottery, and moved to Belgium.
W&W – But were hissinger/songwriter records at least embraced by the Kicking Mule fan base?
Stefan – No, because he’s not a great singer. His instrumentals are great, and his songs are great, but he’s not a great singer.
W&W – His lyrics were kind of fluffy, too.
Stefan – A little bit “flower power”, yeah!
W&W – Were the artists in the Kicking Mule stable matching your energy? Were they touring and promoting to help make the albums successful?
Stefan – What we did in England was that I was already performing a ton, so we would do Kicking Mule tours. We would have me, Marcel Dadi, Dale Miller, Leo Wijnkamp… basically, I could do the gig by myself and get payed x amount of money, the promoters didn’t know the other people… but I would say that we [all of us] should just do it, and share the money evenly.
We would do tours all over Europe. One time we did a tour and it was myself, Happy Traum, Art Rosenbaum and Duck Baker… and in those years there was a lot of terrorism, terrorist attacks. As we entered France, we were stopped by the police, and I was driving. The police asked for everyone’s passports, so everyone handed over their passports… so the policeman asked me “Who’s in your car?” and I said “Duck Baker, Art Rosenbaum and Happy Traum.” He looks at the passports and says “Come with me.” So I went into the office, and he asked again “What’s the names?”
After about a half an hour, I went back to the car, saying “Duck Richard Royal Baker the Fourth! Harry Traum! Art Sparks Rosenbaum!!” I hadn’t known their real names!
W&W – All this time everyone was just getting by on their “blues” names!
Stefan – But in Europe it really worked well, we were touring, promoting the records… Ton Van Bergeyk didn’t like to tour, because he was very nervous. In fact, on Tonʼs records, the playing is so incredible… but also accessible. The arrangements were made that way. But eventually you thought that he could do it, that he would get a nervous breakdown trying to perform the stuff… so he eventually ended up playing rhythm guitar, Eddie Lang-style guitar and harmonica in the Dutch jazz bands.
W&W – I’ve seen some of those clips. He also puts up some great ukulele solos, things like that.
Stefan – He’s a great musician!
W&W – Did you ever having a feeling while you were in Europe, that you were losing touch with the blues, or missing anything that might be going on back in the states?
Stefan – No, I was coming back all the time. By the time I had left in ʼ67, most of the blues players, John Hurt, Skip James, Bukka White, theyʼd already been rediscovered. Quite a few of them were starting to pass away, Reverend Davis passed away in ʼ72… the people that were coming after that weren’t as important or as vibrant, and the music they were playing wasn’t as intense or as interesting, and I was never that interested in things like Chicago blues. I was interested in the acoustic guitar, and how unique it was in the blues tradition, and all these different sounds that were developing… whereas when you start to listen to electric guitar, it starts to get a little bit same-y after a while.
W&W – Do you feel like it’s come back around at all? In part because of the work you’ve done, so many more players are playing acoustic blues guitar, innovating…
Stefan – Some of itis great. Guy Davis… Eric Bibb, great singer, great guitar arrangements. There are other younger black players, white players that are really terrific. I’ve contributed a certain amount, but I’m sure Ericʼs [Clapton] Robert Johnson records and unplugged records contributed much, much more. When The Rolling Stones do “Prodigal Son” or “You Gotta Move”, that really turns people on. One thing is for sure, if Eric Clapton does a Skip James tune, or Barbecue Bob – he did a great version of “Motherless Child” a number of years back – that doesn’t increase Barbecue Bob sales, maybe by a half of a percentage point, but the kids are relating to a white singer singing that, not some old guy from theʻ20s.
But you can just goon YouTube! I discovered Tom Feldmann, we’re doing a lot of work with Tom now, I discovered him on YouTube and he’s a great player! I must talk to Tom via the internet twenty times a day…
W&W –Tom has an upcoming instructional DVD on Son House, right?
Stefan – That’s not out yet, but yes, and he’s done Blind Willie Johnson, the gospel music of John Hurt… he’s mostly a slide player. So we’ve got a new one coming out, Masters of Bottleneck Blues Guitar, a Fred McDowell lesson, Son House, Bukka White have been recorded, we’re just waiting to get the TAB back. He’s a great player, he’s 33! He turns me on to guys on YouTube.
W&W –Before today, I had wondered if Stefan Grossmanʼs Guitar Workshop was maybe located in your house, or if had offices, a warehouse somewhere…
Stefan – Well, historically if you wanted to run a “business”, you had to get a building, offices, warehouse, all that stuff. As a result, you have a DVD that retails for one amount, you’re wholesaling it for another…
Our idea was that we wanted it lean and mean. So we have distributors, Mel Bay, Rounder Records,City Hall Records, in England it’s Music Sales. So we’ll sell to Mel Bay at a certain price and they’ll warehouse the stuff, or we’ll pay a little extra to have things warehoused at our DVD manufacturer in New York.
W&W –And they’ll do the fulfillment to places like Mel Bay…
Stefan – Exactly. So we try to keep it as simple as possible, and the only thing we run out of here is the mail order. Susan [Steel] takes care of that, completely. So as a result, we had to find a house that had a large basement! We’ve got a lot of stuff in there. Every week, Susan will place an order from the DVD manufacturer, 10 of this, 20 of this, to make sure the shelves are full here…but most of the DVDs are warehoused at the manufacturer in New York.
W&W –Would you say that, at this point, you’re out of the traditional record business? That is to say that if you discovered a young player that you were crazy about, who had original material, that you wouldn’t feel compelled to put out their album?
Stefan – Well it used to be that you wanted to be signed to a company, because they could send out five thousand promo records to every radio station in the country. Nowadays, my advice to anyone is to do your own CD, and sell it at gigs yourself. You won’t be able to send out those five thousand copies, but if the CD is a vehicle to make money and spread your music, do it yourself. I can’t do any better.
In the old days, alabel like Windham Hill was successful because they were in the northwest and the radio stations would just play the hell out of the albums! It was at the right time. Nowadays that doesn’t happen… people don’t buy CDs, they expect everything for free! Our CDs, we’re able to sell them because they have PDF files on them, this added value… but now everyone can make a CD. It used to be that if you had a vinyl record or a CD, it meant that you had arrived at a certain point in your professional life as a musician. But now, a kid at two years old can make a CD! The whole business has totally changed. Now you can fill up a hall because you have a hit on YouTube, like Andy McKee. He can fill up halls all over the place. It used to be the records, now it’s the views.
W&W –Physical media is on the wane, and you’ve now got an on-demand service. Is it as successful as you’d hoped it would be?
Stefan – Yes! For us, it hasn’t decreased the amount of hard-copy DVDs that we sell, but it has increased the outreach of the material. It’s really convenient for people overseas, you don’t have to pay postage, duties. That has really been great. And with the on-demand, we’ve been able to do what we haven’t been able to do with physical: people have been asking for single lessons, and now you can get single tunes, on- demand. So that has been going very well. It’s increasing the possibilities.
W&W –Teaching-wise, do you feel that anything is being lost with the video being the primary method these days? Not everyone can have a great teacher to study with…
Stefan – The people that do instructional videos for us do teach, the DVDs aren’t just glorified performances. We do those on Vestapol, our Guitar Artistry DVDs. But I believe that on the instructional videos, the person really needs to be able to instruct. Initially, in the early days of DVDs, we weren’t able to put PDFs on them. So I thought that the one thing the audio lessons had was that if I was going to teach “Stagger Lee” by Mississippi John Hurt, I could actually put a track on there of John Hurt playing it. But now the DVDs have it all. They have the lessons, the audio tracks and bonus video performances. We try to pack as much as we can into it.
W&W – Is there a lot of remuneration involved with the work you’re producing now, the families of the old blues players?
Stefan – All of it! If I’m going to do a DVD on Freddie King, I contact Wanda King, we have an agreement with her… if I’m doing The Guitar of Freddie King, it’s different, I would contact the publishers. But morally, I feel like you have to do that. Unfortunately, in most cases the artists are gone, so we’re contacting the estates. The only one that was weird was Son House, after he passed away his wife just wouldn’t open the envelopes… she thought it was devil’s music!
W&W – My last question… in the last year, you’ve released serious instructional DVDs on Lonnie Johnson, you’ve got Ernie Hawkins doing Big Bill Broonzy, Lightninʻ Hopkins, etc… so it’s going on 100 year that a lot of this music has been around, and there’s still so much to uncover. Are there particular blues players that you feel will represent the next wave of discovery?
Stefan – Well, with the blues guys, there was a fixed amount of players who were truly great, who would interest guitar players. You have blues players, like John Lee Hooker, who’s a great player and musician, but I wouldn’t make an instructional DVD of his style, necessarily. It is a finite amount. The hard part is to find the teacher who has gotten it completely. Like Ernie Hawkins is great for Gary Davis, Ari Eisinger is incredible for Blind Blake, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller…
With someone like Reverend Gary Davis, a normal company would release one or two DVDs and that’s it… because they don’t want the DVDs competing with each other. But I don’t care! We put out a four volume set, three double-DVD sets, and Ernie probably has enough to even go into the key of F… well, that ainʼt commercial! That’s Not how a business should operate!
W&W –But there’s a historical imperative!
Stefan – Sales-wise, I just don’t care… it’s important. It’s history being made, trying to put this music onto guitar. Ari, he works very slow, but there’s different projects I want for him. Tom Feldmann, we have a whole list of projects for him to do.
What I’m trying to do is document those styles. The music is timeless, and learning to play in these styles, with these techniques, that should live on forever.