“I’LL OFTEN WRITE A SONG THAT I THINK IS GOING
to be for one project, and then it turns out that it works
better for something else,” says Canadian guitarist Paul
Pigat in reference to his two very different albums, Cousin
Harley and Boxcar Campfire. “For instance, ‘It’s a Sin’ was
originally going to be a Boxcar song,” Pigat explains. “But
then I plugged in one of my Gretsches and turned the
reverb up to ten, and it was like, ‘Hold on, there’s a great
surf guitar riff that fits with this.’ And all of a sudden it
became the title track for the Cousin Harley record.”
The titles for the two albums also reveal different personas
for Pigat, who alternately shifts between the Gretschwielding
(and also steel-playing) “Cousin Harley” for his
killer rockabilly thing, and the acoustic strumming—though
hardly traditional sounding—balladeer behind Boxcar Campfire.
“My favorite part on the Boxcar album was on “Storm
Song,” where I needed this big pad sound, but didn’t
want to use any keyboards,” says Pigat. “So I played a ’30s
Dobro with an Ebow, and spent hours doing those tracks
to get a big washy texture. It’s kind of a Daniel Lanois
sound, and I’ve always thought of it as distinctly Canadian.
I know it sounds weird to say that Canadian roots
music has its own sound, but it does.”
Who are some of your main influences?
For the Cousin Harley thing, and that style of playing,
it would have to be Les Paul, and also Jimmie
Rivers—especially for the western swing
styles of the ’40s and ’50s. Danny Gatton
really influenced me when I was a kid, and
I’m also a big Blind Blake fan.
What did you pick up from Les Paul?
Oddly, I picked up a lot of theory from him.
I have a degree in classical theory, so you’d
think I would know how to work my way
around jazz changes. But I remember the first
tune I worked on was Les’ version of “Up the
Lazy River” by Hoagie Carmichael. This was
maybe 25 years ago, and I could play through
the changes, but there were all these notes he
used over the changes that I couldn’t figure
out. So I did a little analysis of that style
and I really got into a different headspace
of how to use the altered scale and whole
tone scale. It’s what really put me on the
path towards getting into swing harmony.
When you mention Jimmie Rivers, was it
the Brisbane Bop album that you listened to?
Oh yeah. I’ve had that album for maybe
15 years, and I can say I’ve never ever
gotten bored of it for one second. I still
listen to it at least once a week. Jimmie
was the height of the Charlie Christian
style of guitar playing, and he also had
Vance Terry in his band, who was like
the whole Duke Ellington orchestra in
one steel guitarist.
Cousin Harley and Boxcar Campfire are
such different-sounding albums. Did the way
you record change for these records?
Not really, although with Cousin Harley
the process was a lot simpler because it’s primarily
a trio with some added rhythm guitar
parts. With Boxcar, I recorded the rhythm section
first as I always do, and also played all
the banjo and Dobro on it. But then it took
months and months for me to figure out the
record, because I had so little time to work
on it between other projects and touring for
Cousin Harley. I knew how I wanted Boxcar to
sound, but I sort of created it in the studio.
Does being adept at a variety of styles pose a
problem as far as establishing your own an identity
as a player?
I think so, but being a well-rounded
guitar player also means that you can sit in
on almost any kind of gig. Up until a few
years ago I had a jazz trio, a rock band, a cowpunk
band, and all sorts of other things. If
I had a chance to play everything I like, I’d
be playing in 50 different bands. Eventually,
though, you have to focus on just one or two
things so that people know what the heck
you’re going for.
So rockabilly isn’t necessarily a defining
style for you?
Well, I love it and it’s been the thing I’ve
done the longest, but I wouldn’t call it defining.
I’m actually doing a rock record with
a singer-songwriter in town right now. As
with any project I’m involved in, I just try
to be appropriate for the music. There are
going to be the occasional rockabilly inspired
moments, just because that’s part of what
I do, but then there might be some Tal Farlow-
inspired moments, too.
In what ways did Tal Farlow inspire you?
I think he was one of the best jazz players
to have ever walked the planet. And
not only because of his playing, which was
incredibly inventive. If you listen to that first
recording, The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow,
you can almost hear him think. He’s working
his way through these tunes, and you
can tell that he’s on the edge of his ability
and really pushing himself. I’ve always been
inspired by that kind of intensity.
What guitars and amps are you using now?
It really depends on what I’m doing. If
it’s a jazz gig, I’ve got some custom archtop
guitars that a friend makes over on Vancouver
Island. If I’m doing rockabilly, then the
Gretsch is usually my first call. I plug it into
a Gretsch Executive amp. Before I hooked up
with Gretsch, my main rig was a ’49 Gibson
ES-350—the Tal Farlow guitar—and an Ampeg
GU-12 amp. That’s what I used for 15 years.
I also recently bought a Squier Classic ’50s
Vibe Telecaster that I’m really in love with. I
actually sold another of my really nice Teles
when I got it because I really don’t need anything
else. I’ve got a Hipshot B-Bender on it,
too, that I use a lot. I found a guy in town
recently who made me a clone of a Fender
5E3 tweed Deluxe, and I’m using that amp
in the rock band now. I also have an old Silvertone
17" archtop, a couple of Gibson ES-
125s, and a Gibson L-1 fl at-top from 1928 that
I used on Boxcar Campfire. I’ve got upwards
of 30 instruments, including a ’50s Stringmaster
steel and an Audiovox steel from the
’20s, which is a very weird thing.
Which Gretsch model are you playing now?
I use a two-tone Country Club. Gretsch
first gave me a Falcon, and I completely
fell in love with it because it had a 25½"
scale, which gives you a little more clang.
But about a year later they sent me a Country
Club with DynaSonic pickups, and it
completely changed everything because
I was able to get the twang that I used to
get out of my old ES-350. I can also get
almost a Telecaster tone out of it, so I have
the best of both worlds with that guitar.
So you generally prefer single-coil pickups?
I’ve never owned any guitars with
humbuckers, and have mostly used P-90s
with my Gibsons. I find humbuckers hard
to control because I like to turn my amp
up a lot in order to get overdrive. Humbuckers
tend to oversaturate the amp for
what I want, and even though the DynaSonics
squeal really easily, you can get a certain
snarly growl out of them and still get that
hammer-on-a-sheet-of-steel kind of sound
off the pick. There’s really something about
the DynaSonic; it’s like a very big-sounding
Do you use any effects?
Yes. I have a small pedalboard that has a
couple of Boss pedals from the ’80s—a CS-2
compressor and a DM-2 delay. I don’t even
use the CS-2 as a compressor; I turn the compression
all the way down and the volume all
the way up, and use it as a lead boost. And
then, if I can’t turn the amp up loud enough
for grind tones in the venue I’m playing, I have
a Z.Vex Box of Rock that I’m quite fond of. I
also have three Nocturne pedals—the Dyno
Brain, Atomic Brain, and Billy Brain. I’m not
sure which is on my pedalboard now, but it’s
just another level of boost that I can use to
hit the front end of the amp. And if I have
to use an amp on the road that doesn’t have
reverb, I have a Malekko Chicklet. It’s really
small, and it has a weird vibe that reminds
me of an old Silvertone reverb.
Your fans seem to expect the unexpected from
you, so how do you keep moving forward musically?
I’m kind of like a pitbull on a bone when
it comes to practicing, and I always try to find
new ways around things. I don’t necessarily
like sticking to three-chord rock and roll, so
if I’m soloing over a simple progression, I’ll
try to use some subsitution harmony in the
melodic line just so it moves around in unexpected
ways. When you listen to a great jazz
guitar player you never can predict what’s
coming up, so I try to put a little of that in
my rockabilly stuff.
What I practice, though, is generally not
what I play. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of
work on altered scale stuff because I want to
get a little more outside with my shapes. The
bassist in my instrumental rock trio is a free
jazz player, and free jazz has always eluded
me. I’ve never been able to understand how
you can play for ten minutes and never establish
a key center, so I’ve been trying to learn
to do that, too. It’s never going to come out
in Cousin Harley, but it does allow a certain
freedom, because you can see that no matter
where you go, there’s a way out. Of course, I
may also just work on Buck Owens stuff—I
never know what I’m going to be practicing.
Do you improvise a lot when soloing?
Oh yeah. I’ve had students who want to
play solos off my records, and I’ve had to sit
down and learn them all note-for-note. In
the studio, I typically have a couple of goes
at the solo and pick the one I like. Now that
we’re touring more I’m trying to be more
specific with solos or riffs on certain numbers.
There’s only so much you can do when
improvising anyway—and I hate repeating
myself—so having a couple of tunes with
set solos can help me avoid doing those riffs
again on songs that I’m improvising over.
Will your rock trio become an album project
A lot of people have said they’d like me to
do a record with the trio, but I feel that I have
to focus on Cousin Harley and Boxcar Campfire
for now because that’s the stuff that is closest
to my heart. But there’s always time to make
a record just for fun. It’s just another opportunity
to get to play stuff that I don’t do all
the time, and that’s what keeps you fresh.