Frets, April 1982

Leo Kottke

by Mark Humphrey

Page 2

Did you ever listen to Barbecue Bob or Blind Willie McTell, who played 12-string bottleneck blues in the 1920s?  

I listened to Barbecue Bob a long time ago, and I can't begin to remember where.  But it was after I had found out about the 12-string, and was snarfing up everything I could that had any 12 on it. But I was always looking for something a little lighter, something with more of a major chord structure, more melody, like Santo & Johnny's '50s hit, "Sleep Walk."

How would you contrast your slide style to Fahey's, or to that of electric guitarists Lowell George [of Little Feat] and Ry Cooder?

I'd have to say that I don't have as much blues in what I'm doing.  There's more foot in theirs, and I like to get more vertigo, a little more swoop .  
Article Photo (Uncredited)
Article Photo (Uncredited)
The drawback with blues is that you wind up plodding, being boring, and the drawback with the way I'm doing it is rushing it, being too much afraid to be where you are and being in too much of a hurry to get somewhere else.  But I'm interested in  the idea of restraint and finding a balance that helps you avoid that kind of trap.

Getting back to influences, do you recall ever hearing Robert Wilkins' "Prodigal Son"?

I think I did years ago at Fahey's.  There's a lick in "Busted Bicycle" [6 & 12 String Guitar] that turns out to be an absolute steal from that.  At one time I was playing a tune I called "The Turtle Hills," and it dawned on me one day that it was "Cripple Creek!"

Your right hand approach, as opposed to Fahey's, tends to be more rolling and propulsive, whereas his tends to be more angular.

Yes.  I think again that's because he started out listening to the blues.  I like them too, but he feeds off of them.

You've sworn off using picks of any kind, and are utilizing a certain degree of classical right-hand technique.  How did that change evolve?  

I got tendonitis and my arm was freezing up.  [Classical guitarist/teacher] Stanley Walker said I would get muscle-bound if I kept using those picks.  The other thing he told me was that when you fret with your left hand you shouldn't be seeing a white fingernail, you should see mainly a pink one.  If it's white, you're pressing down too hard.  I started then to correct my balance and play with less pressure and get rid of the picks.  Which is real scary, because you think you are going to lose all your power and your enthusiasm.  How on earth are you going to have any fun if you can't rip it?  But it eventually came around for me, though for a while I did sound really wimpy.

How has the change worked out?  

Now, with less force I get as much punch.  I found out that there's a point of diminishing return that you're not aware of when you're using picks.  You think it [your sound] is getting bigger and hotter, but it reaches a point where it's just compressing itself.  At that point you're wrecking your arm, your wrist and your fingers.  Without picks, you can't go past that point, it just won't.  If you want to get a rounder, louder note, then you have to tip up into classical right-hand position, and it will go a little further.  But at that point, you lose some of the kick in the syncopation, which is why I'm not interested in a Renaissance counterpoint approach.  I like to feel that little snap.

How should the right hand be positioned on the guitar?  

A lot of people rest their hands on the face of the guitar, and it really makes a difference if you can stop doing that.  The geometry is wrong, and you can't be as loose.  Also, if you're playing a syncopated style and are using patterns, you should make sure that you never close it off.  Otherwise, you hear that other thing revolving behind it all the time. The way to get out of that is to substitute your thumb for one of your fingers or to change the lead.  Cooder does that real well.  I do it some way or other, but I'd like to do more of that.  You can lead with your thumb or finger, and if you can alternate the lead at strategic points, you'll just bust out of that frame into another one.  Leaving it open and not opening it the same way every time makes for a more appealing delivery.  

Ralph Towner, who is classically trained, once compared his initial reaction to playing a 12-string to that of playing a cheese grater.  Since giving up the picks, have you had any trouble with broken nails?  

I broke my thumbnail recently; it's hung together with glue and tissue paper.  [Flamenco guitarist] Paco de Lucia showed me how to do that.  First, if you have a piece of the nail left, you glue if back on with Super Glue, let it dry, and put another coat of glue on.  Then you take a piece of two-ply tissue paper, Kleenex, and you split it into single ply, put a single ply over there, let it get tacky, put more glue on, and then put on the other ply.  Let it dry, and then just carve it into shape.  It's the same thing as fiberglass. You laminate a nail and it works pretty well, and it sounds a lot better than those plastic false nails.  

Can you describe your bottleneck technique?

I wear the slide on the little finger, which leaves the other fingers and the thumb open for fretting and balance. When you're using the slide, you have to buttress it with the third and maybe the second finger.  Those will help line it up.  The important thing is to get the index [finger] behind it an inch or so as the slide is moving.  That way you don't get all those clanks and rattles and buzzes. You might want a little of that sometime, so you just lift the index. But you're actually putting two things down there, your index and your slide, and they're going at the same time.  

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