Tag: Ry cooder

Rick Holmstrom’s Bent Blues

rick holmstroms bent blues

Rick Holmstrom says he spends “a lot of time not listening to guitar. I like trying to imagine the guitar taking the place of saxophone, Ahmad Jamal’s piano, or Mose Allison’s piano. Like Billie Holiday, who does those weird little micro bends that the great singers do—how can you get a feeling like that on the guitar?”


For Holmstrom, the answer is a style that blurs the lines between traditional blues—the genre where he’s invested most of his nearly 40-year career—and a place on the edge of the envelope, where chromatic lines, finger-crafted imitations of slide, microtonal bends, and a devout belief in the unerring power of the groove telegraph his vision. Those elements plus his clean and spanky and typically Tele-driven tone have made him Mavis Staples’ music director since 2007 and caught the ear of Ry Cooder. His ability to conjure the spirit of Mavis’ late dad, Pops Staples, on her renditions of Staple Singers classics is uncanny, yet still retains Holmstrom’s distinctive flavor.

While his resume most certainly slants toward the old-school—he’s toured with harmonica aces William Clarke, Johnny Dyer, and Rod Piazza, and recorded with Jimmy Rogers, Billy Boy Arnold, and Booker T. Jones—he’s also added spectral playing to the R.L. Burnside space-straddling classic Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down and recorded a solo album in 2002, Hydraulic Groove, that seamlessly wedded funk, trip-hop, ambient electronics, and roots music. In a less conservative place than the blues market, it would’ve been widely heralded as the masterpiece cognoscenti know it to be.

Bubbles – Rick Holmstrom

Now, he’s got a new instrumental album called Get It! that’s a funky and emotive showcase for his style; chasing down his passion for the almighty groove but doing so along his distinctive path where bends get weird (“Weeping Tana”), melodies swing hard (“Robyn’s Romp”), the great spirits of the genre are summoned (“King Freddie”), the strains of Morocco echo (“Taghazout”), and hip-hop-sample-worthy rhythm tracks (“Kronky Tonk”) do some heavy lifting.

Holmstrom’s journey started as a kid in Fairbanks, Alaska. His father, a local DJ, exposed Holmstrom to the blues, soul, and R&B that would define his career. No doubt the Staple Singers’ hits like “I’ll Take You There” and “Freedom Highway,” both part of Mavis’ live sets today, were on heavy rotation.

“Let’s get past all this existential, post-apocalyptic doom and have a funky good time.”

Cooder played a role in his arrival as Mavis’ musical right hand. “My band opened up for Mavis on the Santa Monica Pier,” he relates. “We get off the stage, and the promotor says, ‘Her band is stuck at LAX, but Mavis is here. Can you back her for a few songs?’ We didn’t really know her songs, but we played three or four.

“As I was walking off the stage, a guy with yellow glasses tapped me on the shoulder, and it was Ry Cooder. Ry was producing a record of Mavis’, and he liked the way we played with her. He kept telling Mavis, I guess during the session, ‘I really dug that band that played with you.’ Then our first gig with her, unbelievably, was The Tonight Show. [Laughs.]”

Holmstrom’s individuality is even more surprising considering he cut his teeth during the 1980s blues explosion. While he was digging on Chicago, New Orleans, Stax, and Motown, everyone else was fixated on a particular player out of Austin, Texas. “I didn’t want anything to do with Stevie Ray Vaughan,” he says. “And that’s no diss at all. He’s a really great guitar player. But when he came out, I was like 12 years old. Playing was still an option for me. Then he came along, and it was almost enough to give up guitar.

“All you had to do was look around and see all these guys that were copying him. Everybody had a Strat, a hat, some boots, and a Super Reverb,” he explains. “So, I got a big hollowbody with a single P-90 and no cutaway and tried to learn saxophone and big band horn-section melodies.”

In forging his own way, Holmstrom sidestepped the blues-shred of those years. Preferring to let his parts breathe, he fills that space with … nothing. Check out his solo on “Looky Here” from Get It! The guy sometimes drops out for a full measure. He even ends the solo by basically not playing at all for the last two bars. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t a guitarist who inspired this restraint.

Looky Here

When Rick Holmstrom was writing his new album, Get It!, the songs started with him developing melodies by singing them, then transposing them to guitar.

“Years ago, we were playing in Boston with Mavis,” Holmstrom recalls. “We got there a night early, and Ahmad Jamal was playing. He would break down a melody and only use two of the notes. It draws you in because you’re not hearing all the notes that could be there. Your brain is allowed to imagine the rest. That was a life-changing gig for me.”

Like his playing, Holmstrom’s songwriting is also decidedly non-guitar-centric. Instead of plugging in, turning up, and going for it, he says he listens. “When I’m making up songs or getting a groove going, I’ll hum or sing to myself,” he says. “Then I’ll think, ‘Where does this melody go next?’ I’m not playing the guitar at that point. I’m humming it and singing it to myself. ‘Does that flow? Okay, now let’s go back and learn that on guitar.’”

Of course, the contemporary zeitgeist—not just a quest for melody—also played a role on the creation of Get It!

Rick Holmstrom’s Gear

Guitars

  • 1953 Fender Telecaster with Ron Ellis neck pickup and ’50s Fender lap-steel bridge pickup
  • 1955 Les Paul Special with phase switching
  • 1940s Gibson ES-150
Effects
  • SIB Electronics Echodrive
  • ’60s Fender Reverb Tank
  • Milkman The Amp (used as a preamp for the rented AC15 when touring)

Amps

  • 1950s Valco-made 1×10 Bronson combo modded to tweed Tremolux specs (with 6V6 tubes)
  • Fender silver-panel Vibrolux (with 6V6 tubes)
  • Vox AC15 (rented backline when touring, with EL84 tubes)
Strings
  • D’Addario (.011–.050)

“It was January ’21 and my previous record, See That Light, hadn’t even come out. Then the insurrection happened, and it started to drive me nuts,” he says. “I’m watching MSNBC and reading The Times and stuff, and it was really bugging me. The only thing I could figure to do was get creative and get my mind off it. I booked a session and started making drum loops of grooves that I thought might work.”

While the world’s events have led some artists to exercise their struggles via dark, introspective works, Holmstrom went the other way. Get It! is all about having a good time, feeling free, and reminding us of a simpler, joyful way of looking at the world. “I wanted this record to be something you might put on when you get your friends together or when you’re having a barbecue,” he says. “Let’s get past all this existential, post-apocalyptic doom and have a funky good time.”

“I’ve gotten to the point where I hate guitar pedals.”

While the album is crammed with great blues, songs like “Surfer Chuck” and “Taghazout” play with ’60s surf rock, sultry Middle Eastern motifs, and whatever else caught Holmstrom’s fancy. “FunkE3,“ in particular, with its percolating Meters-style groove and stylistic shifts, shows how far Holmstrom and crew can go.

That one had been hanging around a while. “We did a tour years ago with Mavis, where Joan Osborne opened, and we also backed Joan,” Holmstrom relates. “One of our background vocalists said, ‘Man, why don’t you walk her off with an instrumental, and then, boom, go right into the Mavis set?’ So ‘FunkE3’ is the song I started working on and ended it up being that [transitional] song a lot of nights.”

Even with a wide breadth of styles on Get It!, the album’s sound and production are the secret behind its gleefully old-school character. Inspired by classic ’50s and ’60s blues albums, the musicians tracked together, in the moment, without overthinking. “I was always trying to make things sound like Chess Records in the ’50s—like that Little Walter, Muddy Waters kind of thing,” Holmstrom says. “You can tell it’s three instruments really close to each other, with some bleed.” The other two musicians in the room were Steve Mugalian on drums and Gregory Boaz on bass.

Holmstrom’s commitment to tradition also permeates his guitar sound. From beginning to end, he smothers the album with vintage-style amp tones from a small combo with a split pedigree. “I used a very tiny guitar amp called a Bronson. It’s a weird Valco-made amp from the ’50s. I had a buddy of mine turn it into, like, a mid-’50s tweed Tremolux. It’s a great-sounding, magical little amp.”

Despite the wide range of gain used throughout the new album, the Bronson’s onboard tremolo, a tube-driven SIB Electronics Echodrive delay, and a 1960s Fender Reverb Tank are all the effects Holmstrom used. Even that may have bordered on too much for him.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I hate guitar pedals,” he says. “I absolutely hate them. Ideally, I would love to plug straight into an amp. No 9-volt power, no wall warts, no skinny little power cables that are going to break right before the gig. I would rather use my hands.”

“I was always trying to make things sound like Chess Records in the ’50s—like that Little Walter, Muddy Waters kind of thing.”

So how does he get all his sounds? Like everything else, the old-school way. “I turn the volume of my guitar down and pick a lot with my fingers. Then, if I turn the volume on the guitar all the way up and pick with a pick, it’s pretty gain-y.”

Not surprisingly, Holmstrom also prefers vintage guitars. Save for a couple of tunes, the entire album was recorded with only one of them. “The album is all my ’53 Tele except for two songs,” he says. “It’s the variety of sounds you can get out of them. ‘All About My Girl’—that’s the neck pickup. It sounds like it could be a hollowbody. The middle is pure Stax or Motown, and then the bridge is whatever you want.”

As versatile as the Fender Tele is, the songs “King Freddie” and “Pour One Out” begged for something different. And though that something else—a 1955 Gibson Les Paul Special—is also a drool-worthy vintage piece, this one was different. “It has an out-of-phase, push-pull tone knob on the bridge pickup,” Holmstrom says. “I can blend the amount of out-of-phase so that it’s not completely nasally thin. It’s what Peter Green did, I’m sure, with his Les Paul. All points lead back to the blues, really.”

Erlee Time – Rick Holmstrom

In this live performance video of “Erlee Time,” from Get It!, Rick Holmstrom demonstrates his playful bends, joyful sense of melody, and the vintage Tele tone that’s part of his signature.



Reader Guitar of the Month: A Tribute to Two Mentors

reader guitar of the month a tribute to two mentors

A love for Ry Cooder, Dave Bernstein, and good Tex-Mex were combined into a sentimental 6-string.


Here is my Tres Hombres Coodercaster. Look, as much as I claim to be a “serious musician,” a songwriter, and a player who is trying to develop his own original voice, I freely admit I’m a hopeless, pathetic wannabe and a fanboy of Ry Cooder. I was first introduced to Ry via his Borderline album: a masterpiece that blew my ever-loving mind in the way it combined many of my favorite genres in one cohesive, unique sound. Ry became my distant mentor, teaching me about “less is more,” the relationship between fingers and strings, the magic of open-string voicings, and the importance of listening and creating space.

Recently, I decided to refurbish my “D” Strat and go full Cooder. My Strat was already a solid working tool dedicated to slide guitar. It sounded and looked close to Ry’s main guitar but just needed a few iconic pieces. I started with a sunburst Fender Robert Cray model for the body: a great hardtail with a vintage-style bridge. I heard that Ry had a very wide neck on his Strat to help with fingerpicking, so I went with a custom 1-3/4″ nut width, ’59 roundback neck by Warmoth that’s about as wide as an acoustic guitar neck. Like Ry, I put a P-90 in the bridge position and was really happy with what I heard when I played.

But, you know, once you start moddin’, you just can’t stop. I knew I would need to make the “Supro move.” When I had the means, I began to build a guitar that would truly serve as a platform to emulate the sounds that I’d fallen in love with. I finally got a Lollar Supro in the bridge and a vintage Teisco Gold Foil towards the neck. The Teisco was not the Teisco as you can see from the screws. But it sounds fantastic, so, I’m okay with it. I kept it simple with one master tone and a Tele volume knob for faux pedal-steel tricks.

With the pickguard, I decided to pay tribute to another mentor: Bay Area guitarist Dave Bernstein, who passed away in 2008 after a heroic struggle with cancer. Dave was one of the strongest personalities I’ve ever met. To many, he was a caustic, bitter, rude bastard. For those who knew him, he was the sweetest, funniest, most patient, most generous friend you could have. Dave had two rare gifts: an extraordinary love and appreciation for music and being totally blunt. He was a respected blues guitarist, backing harmonica artist Mark Hummel for years. Dave had an enormous impact on my life, and I miss him a lot.

Once, Dave and I were having a passionate discussion about Mexican food and where we would go that night to have some. He said, “Let me show you something.” He pulled out his LP copy of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres and opened it up to reveal a giant image of a gorgeous Tex-Mex spread. That’s the thing about LPs that still matters—the folded image! As I was savoring that spread, Dave, as usual, remarked, “Now that is the shit.” He was right of course … about so many things. In a strange way, that image has always represented my memory of Dave. So, I had Carmedon Guitar in Jacksonville, Florida, print it onto my pickguard. I love the way it plays, and it sure looks terrific. Thanks, Ry. Thanks, Dave.

Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder: “Ragged, but Right”

taj mahal and ry cooder ragged but right

Deep into Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s Get on Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, percussionist Joachim Cooder lays out, letting the two elder musicians can take a pass through “Pawn Shop Blues.” To start, they loosely play around with the song’s intro on their acoustic guitars. “Yeah, nice,” remarks Mahal off-handedly in his distinctive rasp—present since he was a young man but, at 79, he’s aged into it—and Cooder lightly chuckles. They hit the turnaround and settle into a slow, loping tempo. It’s a casual and informal affair—some notes buzz, and it sounds like one of them is stomping his foot intermittently. Except for Cooder’s slide choruses, neither guitar plays a rhythm or lead role. They simply converse.


The two legends sound less like they’re making a record in a studio and more like they’re hanging out and catching up over some music. Mahal describes this feel as “ragged, but right.” It’s the same kind of collective sound that historic blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee often possessed. But on Get on Board, it’s unique to these two old friends, who set out on their journeys long ago. “We’re bouncing off one another, we’re bouncing off the music, and we’re bouncing off the joy of being able to play this stuff, having the opportunity,” says Mahal.

Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder – The Making of ‘GET ON BOARD’

That “ragged, but right” vibe pervades each track on Get on Board, from the opening thump of “My Baby Done Changed the Lock on the Door” to the springy call and response of “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” to the closing ritardando on “I Shall Not Be Moved.” And it’s why, as Mahal explains, Get on Board transcends its recorded form: “It’s the kind of thing, when you listen in on it if you have the record playing in the other room, you’re sure those guys are in the other room,” he says. “Even though you know they’re not there, you gotta go and look.”

There are plenty of blues and folk albums that celebrate the genre’s early heroes—tribute projects that offer a feel-good time for musicians and listeners alike. And Get on Board is a masterfully produced, creative take on fantastic old music. But it’s also a one-of-a-kind reunion of two musical polyglots who, it’s fair to say, have explored the depth of the blues, following it on separate paths to the ends of the Earth and delving into the music from every angle—maybe more than anyone else. Now, five decades after their initial career-starting collaboration in 1965, they’ve come back to their roots together.

The Early Days

Each player’s early history is essential to their music as a duo. “Both of my parents were musical, and their culture was extremely musical and at a very high, sophisticated level,” Mahal explains. “We’re talking Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Billy Eckstein, Billy Daniels, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald … this kind of music. But there was also swinging, dancing music that was happening. Jitterbugging, all kinds of different stuff.”

He began forming his own tastes in the nascent days of rock ’n’ roll, which Mahal says “was a step way down” from the music he was exploring—music by artists from the 1930s and ’40s, who, he points out, were still alive and recording. “I was getting their juice as it was coming through—not as an echo. By the time I came around to hear it, I kept thinking, there’s gotta be some older form of the music. And I would hear a little bit of it; my mother would sing some songs from South Carolina.” And thus began his lifelong search for deeper and deeper musical connections: “Once I found out that you could jump into that river, even into the ocean, and keep on finding it, it’s like fish in the sea. The more you find, the more there is—and you’ll never get to the end of it.”

“We’re bouncing off one another, we’re bouncing off the music, and we’re bouncing off the joy of being able to play this stuff, having the opportunity.” —Taj Mahal

A young Ry Cooder was simultaneously on his own version of this quest, digging deeper into the history of American music. At just 12 years old, Cooder found a record called Get on Board by the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, along with percussionist Coyal McMahan. It was just one point in a long line of musical discoveries that would inform his life and music. Cooder points out that Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee “must have been the most recorded blues act ever.” But his interest set him apart from his pre-teen peers in California, and he soon developed a reputation that reached Mahal—five years his senior—all the way in Massachusetts.

Mahal tells the story of hearing a guitarist perform one night early in his career and says, “It was obvious this guy was listening to something else and played the instrument in a different way.” They struck up a friendship, and Mahal learned that this guitarist had studied with a Californian named Ry Cooder. Upon learning Cooder was just 17 years old, “I blew my top!” he exclaims. Soon enough, he packed up, booked a few gigs across the country, and headed west to find the young guitarist and start a band.

Despite their quick demise, Mahal looks back favorably on the Rising Sons: “Ry’s work on that album is still, to this day, stellar,” he says. “I could listen to it any time in any joint. Anything that he plays. There was never nothing that he ever played that I did not like. Nothing. He heard the music.” Mahal struck out on his own, with Cooder in the band for his 1968 self-titled debut. But they soon went their separate ways on long and fruitful careers.

Together, After a Lifetime of Achievement

It wasn’t until decades later, in 2014, when the Americana Music Association awarded Mahal a lifetime achievement award, that Mahal and Cooder would collaborate again. Backed by an all-star band at the AMA awards show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the two former Rising Sons revisited “Statesboro Blues,” which they recorded almost a half-century prior. But this version sounds nothing like the quick, youthful version on the ’92 reissue. Instead, the mid-tempo groove—driven in part by Don Was’ bass and Joachim Cooder’s drums—is slower and deeper, Mahal’s voice lower and stronger, and his dry, percussive fingerpicking is complemented by Cooder’s dark, fuzzy slide work.

While this warm, rousing reunion lasted just under five minutes—and got a serious standing ovation—it reconnected Mahal and Cooder and planted a seed. Soon enough, Mahal says he “took three or four instruments and a suitcase and a handbag and got on a train and went down to L.A. We got together and did some playing.” Mahal pitched Cooder on the idea of doing a project together, trusting Cooder to come up with the concept. “He knows what he likes, and he knows what I like,” Mahal says. Encouraged by his son, Cooder formulated the Get on Board idea, and as Mahal explains, “Next thing you know, I’m on the train again back to L.A.”

Taj Mahal’s Gear

Guitars

  • Gibson Keb’ Mo’ Bluesmaster

Strings

  • D’Addario

Cooder built his concept not just around the duo, but included Joachim. “There’s Taj and me. There was Sonny and Brownie,” he explains. “Duet music, right? But the original Get on Board included the mysterious Coyle McMahan on bass vocals and maracas. I always thought the trio was more interesting. So, Joachim stepped into the McMahan chair, and that gave us a wider range.”

When considering songs, Cooder points out that Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee “had a huge repertoire for us to consider. You have to figure out what will work best, and a record can’t be all blues shuffles—for that kind of music you need Otis Spann or Memphis Slim, and a horn section, etcetera. So, we listened for songs more rural in feeling, like ‘Hooray Hooray,’ and ‘I Shall Not Be Moved.’ Folk-blues, as it used to be called.”

“A record can’t be all blues shuffles.” —Ry Cooder

“This music was making a fleeting disappearance from the inside of the music I was listening to,” says Mahal, adding that “something about the rural music was more connected with the African in it.” But he refutes the idea that their goal was to keep Sonny and Brownie’s music alive. Instead, he insists the music is already alive and he and Cooder are just helping it find new ears. “What you ain’t seen ain’t passed you yet,” he quips.

Cooder says they aimed to capture an “old-style” sound, “like a Folkways record,” the natural environment for these songs. To cultivate an authentically comfortable, low-key vibe, they set up in Joachim’s Altadena, Calfornia, living room for four days—three for live tracking and one for overdubs. And things proceeded simply, with “live singing—one take, maybe two at the most,” according to Cooder.

Ry Cooder’s Gear

  • Adams Brothers acoustic (circa 1900)
  • Fairbanks long-scale custom banjo (circa 1900)
  • ’60s Fender “Coodercaster” modded with an early ’60s Teisco pickup (neck) and a Valco lap-steel pickup (bridge)
  • 1919 Gibson F-4 mandolin
  • 1946 Martin D-18

Amps

  • White amplifier (made by Fender)
Effects
  • Echoplex
Strings
  • D’Addario

Get on Board isn’t a genre exercise, but it feels vintage, thanks in some part to the select gear they chose. Mahal switches instruments, playing a Steinway piano, harmonicas, and fingerpicking his Gibson Keb’ Mo’ Bluesmaster. Cooder brought along some vintage items. “I played a 1946 D-18, similar to Brownie’s—light and twangy,” he says. “Also, a peculiar Adams Brothers guitar, circa 1900. It’s rowboat size and super resonant. Check it on ‘Beautiful City.’ And my old Gibson F-4 mandolin on ‘Hooray Hooray.’ Taj commented that I had played the same instrument on his first solo record. The lead instrument on ‘Packing Up’ is a giant gut-string Fairbanks banjo, probably a custom order.”

Although most of the record is acoustic, the opening track features a driving electric slide part that bears Cooder’s unmistakable sonic thumbprint. “I overdubbed my usual bottleneck Stratocaster on ‘Changed the Lock,’” he explains. “That’s a White amp with a busted speaker, and a tape Echoplex which belonged to the great Leon Rhodes.” [Rhodes played guitar in Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troudabours.]

“What you ain’t seen ain’t passed you yet.” —Taj Mahal

Except for the tight, driving version of “Packing Up Getting Ready to Go,” there aren’t any particularly radical reinventions on Get on Board, so the biggest differences in Mahal and Cooder’s versions of Terry and McGhee’s songs are what the individuals bring to the music. As Mahal points out, Sonny and Brownie were the original purveyors, and he and Cooder are “a couple guys who have spent their lives bringing back these nuggets of great music for all to see and hear.”

But Mahal and Cooder both bring a warmth to the music, and it’s easy to think that stems from their mutual appreciation—a feeling that was missing from the original duo, who were famously at odds. In 1982, The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Terry, the harmonica player and singer, and Mr. McGhee, the guitarist and singer, are staunch individualists whose partnership has been marked by feuds, splits, and reunions.” Mahal and Cooder, as individual as they may be, are quite the opposite. It’s friendship that brought them back together after all these years, and helped fuel the creative energy on Get on Board, which Mahal says “felt exciting.”

And if that’s not enough, he adds: “I can’t think of anyone else I’d really wanna play this kind of music with.”

Taj Mahal Ry Cooder Statesboro Blues

When Taj Mahal received a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Music Association, he joined the award show’s house band, which featured Ry Cooder, onstage for this performance. Not only is the performance stellar, it also put the two back in touch and catalyzed the Get on Board project.