I had the pleasure to have a chat with Toby Walker about his backgrounds, his music, the old blues masters, his guitars, acoustic blues in general and a lot of other things. This is Part I of the Toby Walker interview, you can find part II of the interview here.

About Toby Walker

A short introduction: Internationally and nationally acclaimed Toby Walker has been hailed as a roots music fingerstyle guitar wizard who has toured the US and Europe. Walker was the 1st place recipient of the International Blues Challenge Award – Solo division – given out by the Blues Foundation in Memphis TN.

Walker blends the styles of blues, ragtime, country, bluegrass, rock and old time jazz into his own unique style. Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna and the Jefferson Airplane says “Flat out… you have to hear this great musician… I’m blown away” and has employed Walker to teach at his famous Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp for 6 years.

Walker has recently released several instructional guitar DVD’s for the world famous company Homespun Tapes which have been getting rave reviews. His latest CD release – ‘Mileage’ – has been hailed as a shining success in the genre of traditional blues recordings.

Carnegie Hall acknowledged his rare talents and hired him to augment and teach in their “American Roots” program aimed at honor level middle school students.

Toby’s passion for blues, rags, folk, and other traditional American music drove him to leave an apartment crammed full of recordings, books and instruments for the Mississippi Delta, Virginia and the Carolinas where he tracked down some of the more obscure – but immensely talented – music makers of an earlier era. He learned directly from Eugene Powell, James “Son” Thomas,Etta Baker, and R.L Burnside, among others.

What got you interested in blues music in the first place?

This was before I started fingerpicking. It started with listening to the Rolling Stones and from there I remember getting a B.B. King record. I already was playing guitar (flatpicking) and I was figuring out how to play B.B. King leads. I remember we had a neighbour who was living a few doors down from me and he was older then I was. He saw me walking down the street with my guitar case and he asked “Hey, what do you play on guitar? What are you into?”, I said “Blues”. “Well who do you listen to?” he asked, I said “B.B. King!”, he laughed and said “That’s not blues!!!!”.

Down in his basement he had a whole collection of Chicago blues records. He turned me on to Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and a lot others. I remember spending most of my summer down in his basement, listening to his records and figuring that stuff out on electric guitar. I had one person showing me one little guitar lick and from there everything opened up. It was like “Oh, that’s it!”.

I think when I got in high school, a friend turned me on to Eric Clapton. When I listened to his music I was like “that’s like Buddy Guy on steroids!”. At that time I was also listening a lot to Hubert Sumlin and the stuff that he was doing with Howlin Wolf and to Robert Lockwood Jr. and his work together with Sonny Boy Williamson. I had a lot of that electric flatpicking stuff under my hand. Around this time I started listening to the acoustic blues.

What was the moment you got hooked to acoustic blues?

Paul Oliver’s “The Story of the Blues”

It all started when I picked up a record, it was double lp set called “The Story of the Blues” which was produced by an English guy called Paul Oliver. I put that on and I started hearing songs like “Travellin Blues” by Blind Willie McTell, “Black Snake Moan” by Blind Lemon Jefferson and I think there was an Elmore James song (Sunnyland), Mississippi John Hurt was also on this lp set with “Stackolee” and a bunch of other great blues artists. I was listening to this and I was amazed. It blew me away.

In some cases I was convinced that there were two guitarists involved (*laughs).

At that time, as far as I knew, there were no methods to learn that stuff to play on the guitar. So it was just a matter of listening a lot to the music and fooling around on the guitar, trying to figure it out. Shortly after this I saw one of Happy Traum’s books in a book store and it had a picture of Mississippi John Hurt’s hands on the cover. It was a part of a famous picture and I recognized the hands in that picture. So I opened the book and it turned out that Mississippi John Hurt was one of the artists who was featured in that book. I remember buying that book and bringing it home and just practicing how to fingerpick properly and after that it was way easier to pick up the other stuff.

That was also the time I finally realized that it was one guitarist doing all the work on guitar (*laughs): the thumb was doing one thing, the fingers were doing another thing… than everything started to make sense.

One of my friends turned me on to Stefan Grossman’s material. At that time Stefan had just a couple of books out. I started picking up some of his stuff, during that time the transcriptions were very rough but it was enough to give me a good clue as to what they were doing on the record. It was not necceserally note-for-note precise but they were close. Looking at the transcribtions, the tunings, listerning to the record it all started to make more and more sense! With all these tools I was able to put it all together.

You got so interested in this music that you decided to find some of these ‘older’ blues players. Tell us more about that.

We’re talking about 1972/1973. I was reading quite a lot about the first researchers who used to go into the south like John and Alan Lomax, Sam Charters and all those guys. That really gave me the motivation to do the same thing myself. But Mississippi John Hurt and a bunch of other great players weren’t around anymore. I missed out on that first wave of the legendary acoustic players. But I was determined to find other blues musicians that were from that time period, they were just as old but most of them weren’t discovered in the 30’s but in the 60’s.

Toby Walker and Eugene Powell

That’s how I found Etta Baker, Son Thomas, RL Burnside and Eugene Powell. Eugene Powell used to record with Bo Carter. He was recorded in the 30’s under the name of Sonny Boy Nelson but he didn’t really ‘make it’ like the other big names. He was recorded early but again his stuff didn’t catch on like let’s say John Hurt. He was brought up to New York and Philedelphia to make a record just like Mississippi John Hurt and Son House. Around the time I went south and visited Greenville, he started becoming pretty well known. It was an honour to study with him.  

But Eugene Powell’s guitar playing, believe me, was just as good as the famous guys from his time. His ragtime and his blues is just incredible, fascinating stuff.

What guitars do you play the most? Which ones do you prefer for what purpose?

Toby Walker with his National Resophonic

The one that I use the most to perform is the Huss & Dalton MJC with a cutaway. It’s the most versatile guitar I own because I can play almost any style with it. It’s quite big and I have a lot of reach because of the cutaway. Apart from that I use a National Resophonic a lot for concerts. It depends on the style.

If I get into some down and dirty blues I take out the Waterloo WL-S. It’s made after the Stella guitars and it’s 12 frets. Very punchy. Waterloo makes really good guitars.

Than I have a Dell’Arte 12-string guitar that I use for specific styles and songs. It’s made in the style of Leadbelly’s guitar. Originally this guitar had too much bracing underneat the top of the guitar. A friend of mine, who is a great luthier and an expert in old Stella guitars, he literally took the back of and removed a lot of bracing that the guitar didn’t need, put the back on again and now this guitar has that big beautiful sound.

I show up to a gig with about three or four guitars. I can pretty much cover all the things I wanna play with these guitars.

You have this beautiful Huss & Dalton guitar with a cutaway. I know there’s this ‘discussion’ about using cutaway guitars for playing traditional blues music. Is there a specific reason you have this cutaway guitar?

Toby’s 2004 Huss & Dalton MJC

The cutaway just gives me more access to the higher frets, especially when I’m doing a a Chicago blues thing in the key of E and I wanna get up to the 12th and 15th fret. There are also som instrumentals that I do where the chords go way up to the 12th fret and even further. It gives me more versitality. I don’t really think about who in the audience may not like my music. If they wanna just hear traditional blues for the whole night, they won’t get that from me. They’re gonna get a mix of Chicago blues, Texas blues, they get some old Delta blues they get even some more modern things as well. All within a blues style but they also get Merle Travis and Doc Watson things.

I always thought about Robert Johnson as being a synthesist. He put all these influences of his times together. When you listen to Robert you’re listening to ragtime stuff – like “Red Hot”, Delta stuff and all of a sudden he has this Chicago shuffle going on there. I think he just took everything that he knew and put it into one musical package. That’s kinda how I feel about myself, I don’t stick to ‘one thing’. That’s one of the reasons for my guitars of choice.

Like a jukebox?

If you think of Robert Johnson… The older generation like Son House, Willie Brown and Charley Patton, they didn’t really went too far beyond the Delta. But around ten years later there’s Johnson, he travelled further and when he came back and he was playing all that fancy stuff that he probably learned while travelling. All of a sudden everybody thought he sold his soul to the devil. But who knows (*laughs). He just travelled.

I would even speculate that he probably was influenced by the same musicians that travelled up and down the Mississippi on those river boats. And those guys, they were influenced by people all the way up in Chicago, St. Louis as far as New Orleans. All that music going up and down the Mississippi river. Robert even went to New York. He had a ‘biiiiig’ circle of influence.

Click here to go to Part II of the Toby Walker interview and continue reading 

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