This is the second part of a series of articles based on the interview that I had with Mr. Stefan Grossman on August 16, 2017.
You can read part I here. I tried to ask as many questions that I received from our community, as possible.
Did you ever play an electric guitar? Why in the end did you choose for acoustic? Did you ever had the feeling to switch to electric?
At one point, it was ‘64 I think, in NYC we had a band called “The Even Dozen Jug Band” and we made a record for Elektra Records. That band had a lot of my close friends John Sebastian (the Lovin’ Spoonful), Peter Siegel, Steve Katz (Blues Project and Blood, Sweat and Tears) and Joshua Rifkin. Pieter Siegel was a very close friend and he was very involved in recording the old musicians. In ‘64 he was finally able to buy a Nagra tape machine, these were these very fancy and small tape machines from Switzerland.
Peter and I were both very close with Rory Block and one day we sat down and recorded guitar together, some solo songs and some duets. Elektra records liked the idea so they put it out but as a tutorial record, even though the record itself was just for listening. But Jac Holzman, the president of Elektra Records, had his own idea so he added a booklet with the record. This record “How to Play Blues Guitar” came out and it became very popular.
In the summers of the 60’s I would go to Berkeley (CA) to stay there during the summers because I had a lot of friends out there.
That next summer when I was staying in Berkeley (CA), I got a call from Paul Rothschild (the producer of The Even Dozen Jug Band, Janis Joplin, the Doors and lots of others) and he said that he and Jac (Holzman) had this idea that the biggest hits in ‘65/’66 by the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas etc. where all acoustic. So they tried to get a band together with two acoustic guitars, two singers and two studio musicians who would cover bass and drum. I thought it sounded really interesting and they asked if we could have a rehearsal with two singers to see if it would work out.
The guitar player who I was hanging out with in California in that period was Steve Mann. He was a great guitar player and became the second guitarist in the band- Jefferson Airplane even dedicated a song to him later on.
So we had a rehearsal with Steve and I playing the guitar and Janis Joplin and Taj Mahal where the singers. That rehearsal went, I thought, pretty well – like ‘wow’! As we left Jac Holzman said “Ok, well we try to figure out all the contracts and everything and we get back to you”. By the end of the summer I had gone back to NYC, I wanted to find out what was going on and if this was going to happen. Than they said that it unfortunately was not going to happen because Janis had a contract with Columbia and so did Taj Mahal and they wanted to pursue their solo careers.
At this time I was broke, I didn’t had any money. There was this group in NYC who was very famous and they were called “The Fugs”. A friend of my said “Stefan, they’re looking for a guitar player because the guitar player that they had is going back to school”. Than one day I saw the head of the group on the street, his name was Ed Sanders, and I said “Hey you need a guitar player?” He said “Yeah, are you crazy?” (the Fugs were a pretty crazy band), I said I was and I got the job (without even hearing me). To play with them I had to play electric guitar. So for four months I played a Fender Telecaster and a Gibson Les Paul.
After these four months I left to play in a REAL rock ‘n roll band called “The Chicago Loop”. The band just had a slight hit and we toured around America and in the spring we had this ten day show it was the “Murray the K Easter Show” (1967). This was an old rock ‘n roll show so they had a headliner who would play three songs and about ten other bands who would only sing their hits, one song each. So the Cream was there, the Who was there, the Blues Project and a bunch of others… and of course our group ‘The Chicago Loop” was there.
There I met a lot of great electric guitar players and I was pretty friendly with Mike Bloomfield. Mike heard me play and he said “Stefan, you know… you are a great acoustic guitar player but you are SHIT at playing electric”. So I thought “Good advice Mike” and I stopped playing electric and that was it, these eight months I played electric was part of history and I never went back. I have a lot of friends who are very good at playing electric guitar but it really is a totally different language.
There is quite a difference in the mentality of someone who plays fingerstyle blues and the electric blues guitar players- the acoustic fingerpicker is someone who wants to sit in his own room and doesn’t need to play with other musicians while as an electric (blues) guitar player you need a bass and a drum player at least. They are musically dependent on others.
Does that tell us that a lot of the acoustic blues pickers are ‘control freaks’?
(*laughs) You said it, I didn’t (*laughs again).
I read a discussion on the Woodshed forum (www.guitarvideos.com) between John Miller and you about the question “should you play and sing or only play”? You always say ‘I’m not a singer, I’m a guitar player’. Do you regret that you are ‘not a singer’ or ever felt that you were missing that in your career?
I think from a teacher perspective it’s so wrong to tell students that they have to play the guitar AND sing while learning a tune.
There’s learning how to play the guitar, there’s learning how to sing and there’s learning how to perform. All three of these are specific art forms, it’s very hard to do them all together. Especially if you try to learn the guitar. And there are some risks if you want to learn them all at the same time- one skill will suffer from the other.
One of the first things that I do when I’m teaching at a Workshop, I tell the students not to tap their feet because they don’t tap their feet in time. They tap their feet out of time to how they’re playing instead of listening to what they’re playing. Because if you’re playing with an alternating bass, that’s like a metronome. So if you open your ears you should be able to hear that.
But back to the question, more importantly: not everyone enjoys singing besides that to learn how to sing the blues (with all the phrasing etc.) is a very specific art form in itself and you have to study that. So in my way of thinking: first you learn to play the guitar and if you can play “Nobody’s Business” (by Mississippi John Hurt) and someone comes and chops of your head and you can still play it than that’s the time, if you want to, to start adding the words/singing. Once you can sing it and play it together with the guitar real well and someone comes and chops of your head and you can still do that perfectly than you are ready to perform it. That’s my thinking process.
Reverend Gary Davis told me specifically after a couple of years, I was playing guitar pretty well, “You can’t play in public Stefan”. I said “WHAT, you tell me I shouldn’t perform in public?” he said “NO, because you’re taking my name with you”.
Apart from that, personally in general I’m not interested in people that play the blues- like playing the guitar and singing. It’s not that I don’t like it, but my interest and focus is fingerstyle guitar and it happens to be that the main part of that interest is in the blues guitar techniques that came out of America in the 20’s and 30’s. From there I learned to play the guitar pieces of Lonnie Johnson, Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Blake, John Hurt and the like and I then extended to play Celtic music to playing jazz music, original instrumentals etc.. That’s always been my interest, I’m not interested in becoming a ‘blues guitar player’ at all. John (Miller) he likes to do that, he has a different approach and that’s cool.
Like you said the Reverend felt very responsible for his students, how do you feel about that approach?
Well, when he told me not to play in public- I didn’t play in public, I took him very serious. But after two years in Europe I went back to the USA and I had this concert in New York. Reverend Gary Davis came to have a look and after the gig he complimented me and what was the strangest.. his favorite piece that I had played was one of my original pieces (“Requiem for Patrick Kilroy”). It wasn’t a piece of his.
Did Reverend Gary Davis’ approach on teaching have an impact on your way of teaching?
Absolutely, what I (and Reverend Gary Davis) want is for a student to feel the joy when playing the guitar. That all of a sudden after practicing and playing one tune, to start to hear that that tune starts to sound like music. That first moment that you finally ‘got it’. Than that tune is ‘yours’ – WHAT a feeling! You know, your professional job might be something completely different but all of a sudden you ask yourself “I can make music????”! And it sounds good and people say “Hey, that sounds like music and I like it!”. That’s a pretty precious thing to have in life.
I’ve been lucky because music is like a giant hobby that I been able to make a living out of but I’ve seen so many friends, like cardiologists – people who deal with life and death every day, and they need something to escape and unwind. If you can play music that is such a great way to escape and unwind. But you have to work on it, you don’t get it for free.
Darrin Tenney likes to know if Son House ever spoke about his first recording experience, writing Dry Spell Blues and how he learned to play guitar
That’s a weird one, that’s an interesting question because to me some of the finest, most incredible guitar playing with singing, was Son House’s Paramount recordings that he did. These are his first recordings, these are incredible arrangements.
When you would talk to Son, it sounded like he had just learned to play the guitar just a couple of years prior. To us that was sort of… “how did you go from that to playing such incredible arrangements?”. The Paramount recordings of Son House are quite different from his late recordings. Those 1928 recordings are great and you can hear that he hasn’t yet developed the shakes, in the ‘60’s you could hear he had the shakes because he was an alcoholic. But in 1928 he was spot on.
He never really spoke that much about who taught him guitar or why he did this tune in that tuning etc.. With all these older musicians we never really asked where the origins of an arrangement might have come from.
Didn’t Charley Patton had an influence on Son House?
I doubt it because if you listen to how Charley Patton plays and the way Son House plays, it’s quite different. If anything he had some influence from, it’s from his friend Willie Brown.
In those days you had ‘families of songs’, for example they recalled “The Jinx”. It was in open G and Willie Brown recorded it as “Future Blues”, Son House recorded it as “Jinx Blues”, Charley Patton recorded it many times as “Screamin’ and Hollerin the Blues” and many other recordings. A lot of people believe the theme of this song family was from Tommy Johnson’s playing of “Maggie Campbell Blues”.
Likewise playing a blues in E, Son House had his way of playing a blues in E, Willie Brown played “M&O Blues” which was more precise. Charley Patton’s playing in E is “Pony Blues” or “Stone Pony Blues” and to me it always sounded as if Patton plays more ‘free’. He has lots of ideas and he changes the arrangements as he’s playing the song. If you listen to Son House he has an ARRANGEMENT. And those early songs “My Black Mama”, “Preachin’ Blues” and “Dry Spell Blues” – he constantly had a specific arrangement, these arrangements were not as free as Patton’s. While Son House’s arrangements were very similar to Willie Brown’s “Future Blues” and “M&O Blues” and we know Son hung out with Willie. He wasn’t hanging out with Charley Patton, he even didn’t respect Patton. Son House thought Charley Patton was a clown.
I remember that Reverend Gary Davis also had a specific opinion about Charley Patton?
(*laughs) He didn’t like any of those people. Reverend Gary Davis was VERY competitive. The people he liked, strangely enough, well not strange that he liked Blind Blake because he thought Blind Blake was a sportin’ guitar player. He liked Buddy Moss, because Buddy Moss’ recordings in the early ‘30s influenced a lot of recordings afterwards in the Carolina’s. Blind Boy Fuller did a lot of his tunes. And Reverend Gary Davis liked amazingly Blind Willie Johnson because he was singing the Gospel.
But when I would go up to his house with tapes of old recordings. I would play for example Blind Lemon Jefferson, then he would say “Ugh, that guys sounds like he’s crying when he sings”, he didn’t like him. When I played Bukka White he said “Ugh, playing with a slide is cheating on the guitar”. Reverend Gary Davis was so skilled, he was one of the only ones that could improvise- playing a blues in C and play it for 10 minutes and every verse would be different.
I took Mississippi John Hurt up to his house in the Bronx and we had a great afternoon together. They were playing songs and being very friendly to each other. The next day I went up there and I said “Wasn’t that really great yesterday?” and Reverend Gary Davis looked at me and he said “You like that old fashioned picking?”. The way he said ‘old fashioned picking’ he meant that that’s the old way of doing it. I said that I did like it and I used to joke and said “Well, you can’t do it”, he said “Oh yes I can” and started to play tunes like “Cocaine Blues” and “Candyman” which he considered the old fashioned way of playing the guitar.
What did he specifically considered as old fashioned picking?
The old fashioned picking was basically doing an alternating bass. The right hand would imitate a piano, but a basic piano- boom-chick, boom-chick. You have to realize the guitar players were playing dance music, so as dance music changed like in the 20’s the people were doing the Charleston, well John Hurt doesn’t play anything that’s like a Charleston but Blind Blake does. So therefore John Hurt’s music is the old way of playing the guitar. Reverend Gary Davis would keep going.
This week I’m listening to lots of his tunes in the key of F. Very few musicians play in that key (Mance Lipscomb does a bit). But if you listen to the Reverend’s tunes like “I decided to go down”- the modality of it and his ideas are incredible. Reverend Davis could play in any key without using a capo. It’s amazing he is like a guitar monster. Technically he was very very advanced. But if you would play RGD’s music and John Hurt’s music to a friend of yours who is not into guitar playing, I guarantee you they like John Hurt more then Gary Davis. Reverend Gary Davis’ music is just so much information, it’s so complex where John Hurt’s music is much easier to understand.Recommended1 recommendationPublished in