Eli Cook

August 16, 2007

Like Son House, Skip James, and the other prewar country blues masters who inspired him, Cook received his grounding in gospel music—he was even invited to play in backwoods black churches—performing at local revivals around Charlottesville, Virginia, where his deeply emotional solo-acoustic playing made him stand out. Unlike those early bluesmen, however, Cook was never conflicted about performing sacred versus profane music.

“It didn’t seem unnatural,” says Cook, who was the product of a rural Southern upbringing where people moved easily between genres. “It’s what was around me, and I just tried to pick up on everything and everybody, including Doc Watson and Chet Atkins. In fact, hearing Chet fingerpick made me realize I didn’t need a band.”

On the stunning Miss Blues’es Child [Valley Entertainment], Cook’s fingerstyle technique features his thumb and a metal fingerpick turned backwards on his index finger to create a larger and louder “fingernail.” His slashing slide work on a ’64 Gibson J-50, fitted with a Dean Markley ProMag pickup, and plugged into a reissue Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer and a ’68 Fender Super Reverb, often turns into a ferocious howl. He also stomps a kick drum. A self-taught player, Cook’s introduction to classic blues and rock came via his parents’ record collection.

“I remember hearing that Keith Richards played in open tunings,” he recalls. “And, one day, I fell into open D [D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high] and it sounded like Elmore James. I thought, ‘S**t, this is it!’”

Although Cook’s playing would eventually be influenced by the blues-rock styles of Duane Allman and Johnny Winter, he was initially more influenced by Brian Jones, who launched him on a journey back to the originators.

“Son House was raw and basic, playing at the 12th, 5th and 7th frets, and I was happy to play early blues and R&B that way,” explains Cook, referring to where the I, IV, and V chords are located in open D tuning—an approach that can be heard to devastating effect on his cover of Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues.”

Using a combination of fretted and slide licks for the I chord in the open position, and at the 12th fret, he also quotes James’ “Dust My Broom” and Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” within a maelstrom of grinding, overdriven tones. Cook’s mournful take on Earl King’s “Trick Bag” is lower in volume. Fretting without the slide on an unamplified Washburn 12-string acoustic—reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hear My Train a’ Comin’” and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Life by the Drop”—he tosses off twisting, serpentine runs as effortlessly as his predecessors. Playing with a high action and hefty D’Addario EXP13 bronze strings helps him achieve his big sound.

Like many solo-blues guitarists, Cook employs his left hand thumb for fretting.

“With the slide on your pinky, you can play bass notes with your other fingers,” he explains. “I do that on Leadbelly’s ‘Goodnight Irene,’ which is in D tuning. In the first verse, I pluck the sixth string (D) open, and then, using the slide, I move up to the 4th fret on the first string (D) to F#, the major third. Then, I slide down on the first string from the 7th fret (A) to the open string (D), while moving my thumb up on the sixth string to the 4th fret (F#), at the same time picking the middle open strings for a drone effect.”

Cook’s dark, unamplified, non-slide original “Highway Song” is in D, and it shows a Skip James influence, though James tuned to open Dm [D, A, D, F, A, D, low to high].

“I play octaves on the three D strings, and, because it is sort of a minor key song, I play the minor third (F) at the 3rd fret on the sixth and first strings, while mainly staying away from the major third (F#).”

Cook does execute the classic blues move from the minor third to major third, however, “by playing the fourth string at the 3rd fret (F) and then plucking the third string (F#) open.”

The album’s apocalyptic closing track, Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die,” is done up in hill country style, similar to the late R.L. Burnside. It is an outgrowth of the work songs of the past—such as “Walking Blues”—that were sung in the lumber camps to synchronize the workers when chopping trees, and is founded on a relentlessly thumping 4/4 groove.

“That’s the rowdiest track,” says Cook. “I’m hitting the strings real hard with the side of my thumb. It’s a combination of alternately strumming up on the treble strings with your fingers, and then slapping down with your thumb on the bass strings.”

With rhythmic drive and intensity rivaling Son House, he hammers the I chord modal stomp with a power that makes the White Stripes sound like polite parlor music.

“It’s one of those simpler songs that people take for granted, but the technique is subtle,” Cook explains. “For example, the main riff in D starts with the bottom three strings, sliding up to the 3rd fret (F), the 5th fret (G), and then back to the open strings, with variations on the order of the chords. And there’s also deciding when to slide into a chord from above or below.”

Likewise, there’s the consummate skill with which Cook builds towards the climax of a song without a backing chord progression to provide forward momentum, by scatting along with the riff, and then exploding in the upper register like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Cook admits, however, that having great feel and authenticity is not something you can practice.

“You see some guys making facial expressions, and really getting into it,” he says. “I’ve never focused on that. Unlike rock or pop, the blues is music that is not so much for entertainment. The original blues was used for entertainment, but it was written and sung by the artists as a means of expressing their feelings of oppression. It was an outlet for people who had music as their only outlet—and that’s the purest form of art.”

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