KNOWN FOR HIS VASTREPERTOIRE OF FOLK,
blues, ragtime, bluegrass, Celtic, and fiddle
tunes, Harvey Reid has impressive chops
on mandolin, bouzouki, and 6-string banjo,
and is a virtuoso acoustic guitarist and
autoharp player. His career took off when
he won the National Fingerstyle Guitar
Championship in 1981 and the International
Autoharp Championship the following
year. As the first Taylor Guitars
endorser, he began doing clinics for the
company in 1983. He has also had a long
relationship with Fishman Transducers and
was involved in research that led to the
company’s Aura Acoustic Imaging products.
A longtime proponent of independent
recording, he has released more than 300
songs on 20 albums, all on his own Woodpecker
Reid is the world’s leading authority
on partial capos and continues to pioneer
new techniques with these devices. “I’m
writing a book that documents and
explains the partial capo configurations
I’ve discovered over the years,” he says.
“For some reason, very little of what you
can do with a partial capo is obvious. Even
a good guitarist has to be shown how to
On his latest album, Blues & Branches
[Woodpecker], Reid performs an eclectic
mix of traditional tunes and lively
originals on flattop, resonator, and 12-
string guitar, Dobro, 6-string banjo, and
autoharp. One song even features soaring
lines on a cranked lap-steel—heresy
to some diehard acoustic fans. Unperturbed,
Reid says, “I consider myself a
purist, but not a snob. That was the most
fun I’ve had in a while.”
The acoustic timbres on Blues & Branches
sound rich and detailed. Do you have an elaborate
Not really. For the last 15 years I’ve
recorded in my house, but it’s not what
people usually envision as a studio. It’s
just a small room with a few quilts on
the wall and a rug. I run some nice Audio-
Technica 4047 mics into an API 3124
preamp and an Apogee AD-8000 converter,
and record on a Mac with MOTU
Digital Performer software. That’s pretty
much it. I can get away with a simple
setup because I’m not loud. It’s a happy
consequence of playing acoustic guitar
and singing—neither of those sounds is
enough to shake a room.
Describe your recording approach.
My goal has always been to capture
music in its wild form. Long ago I discovered
I have the patience to play a piece
over and over with the recorder running. Of
course, after you record all day, then comes
the cruel and unusual punishment of listening
back to what you’ve done and choosing
the best take. I know people who have
flunked horribly in that school—they’re simply
unable to stomach what it takes to go
back and listen to literally dozens of takes.
For some reason, I have the iron constitution
required to record a lot of material
and then sift through it to find the right
performance. It can be tough because often
you’ll record a piece over a period of days.
There will be a few takes here and there,
so you have to start notebooks to keep track
of everything, and it’s easy to misjudge the
results when you’re working by yourself.
I long ago wore out all my friends asking,
“Which one of these do you think is the
Digital technology made it possible to
record this way. When I started, I had to rent
studios and the limiting factor was the cost
of blank analog tape. Living in my van and
trying to make my first LP, I couldn’t do a
dozen takes of a song—a big reel of tape cost
a fortune and it would only hold about 15
minutes of music. The turning point came
in 1989 when I realized I could do a solo troubadour
performance into a DAT machine. A
two-hour tape cost ten bucks, so for the first
time in my life I could record as much as I
wanted. Solo guitar has always been the center
of my art form, so it made immediate
sense to work this way, but if anybody saw
my shelves full of tapes and track sheets,
they’d think twice about taking this approach.
So although you’ve migrated to computer-based
recording with its unprecedented editing capabilities,
you’re still emphasizing live performance.
Right. I don’t mean to belittle what others
do, but I believe history will be kinder
to recordings that capture something real
than it will to recordings pieced together one
frame at a time. If Robert Johnson had used
a computer and spent all day punching in
solos over sampled drums, nobody would
be paying any attention to his music today.
But the fact that he was performing live in
that hotel room in 1936 is a big part of why
he makes the hair stand up on the back of
You’re known for interpreting traditional
songs. What draws you to them?
There’s something beautiful about the
world of unschooled music. If you took the
20 most important recorded versions of
Schubert’s Impromptu Opus 90 No. 3 in G-Flat,
few listeners could tell one from the other—
there are only minor variations in the
interpretations. But man, no one would ever
mistake Little Richard’s version of “The Rock
Island Line” for Johnny Cash’s.
To me, it’s your job as a musician to tackle
some of those classic songs and find your
own way to interpret them. I like to use
iTunes to study the dozens of versions artists
have done of certain songs. It’s a joy! You
used to have to be a dedicated folklorist or
librarian to pull up 50 versions of a song and
compare them, but now we can all do it in
What guitars did you use on Blues & Branches?
I played two Taylors—a 1984 rosewood
810 and a 1987 maple jumbo 12-string—a
1975 rosewood Bozo B-809, a 2004 cocobolo
Bourgeois jumbo OM, a 2002 Owens
Bayou Special resonator guitar, a 2000
graphite Chrysalis Damsel, a 2008 graphite
CA Series 8, and a 1997 Dobro.
On “Hollywood,” I dug out my ’61 Supro
lap-steel, plugged it into a Mesa Boogie
F-30 1x12 combo, and overdubbed a screaming
electric solo for the first time ever. That
Supro pickup just won’t quit. I’d have been
an electric player if I’d found a guitar that
sounds as good as this steel.
You’ve been using partial capos for decades.
Give us some background on these devices.
Non-guitarists often have an easier time
than guitarists understanding the concept.
It seems to be fundamentally confusing
because the mind just doesn’t like playing
strings of different lengths across a single
fretboard, which is really what it’s all about.
For centuries, guitarists have altered the tuning
of their instruments, yet very few have
played around with this other parameter.
As a solo guitarist, you quickly discover
that just one ringing note can determine
whether an arrangement works or not, so
you’re always looking for an open string that
will keep the song going while you move
around the fretboard. Essentially, a partial
capo changes the landscape of where those
open strings occur.
Where’s a good place to start exploring
The three-string Esus configuration, which
you’d notate 0 2 2 2 0 0, is by far the most
common and seductive. It offers great depth,
yet it’s easy to use because it’s based on standard
What are your latest discoveries?
I did two sneaky things on Blues &
Branches, both of which involve putting the
guitar into an open tuning and then capoing
selected strings. “Sly Damsel Serenade”
is a slide piece in a minor key. I keep my slide
guitar in open D [D, A, D, F# , A, D, low to
high], and this piece uses that tuning. But
at the first fret, I slap on a capo that’s notched
at the third string to allow it to ring open.
You’d notate this capo position as 1 1 1 0 1 1.
In open D tuning, clamping a standard capo
at the first fret would give you an Eb major
chord. But because of the notch, the third
string is lowered a half-step and this creates
an Ebm when you strum the open strings. It
gives me the effect of an open minor tuning
and its corresponding Im chord, yet because
the guitar is actually in an open major tuning,
when I barre with the slide, it makes a
There isn’t much minor-key slide out
there and that’s probably because not many
songs have more than two different minor
chords. Using this partial capo approach, I
was able to create a piece that combines the
harmonics and ringing resonances of an open
major tuning with an eerie minor-key feel.
I have the ability to grab a major chord—a
IV or V, for example—and still have the Im.
It’s a cool effect and a million times more
interesting than having a minor chord at
And the other sneaky trick?
It’s just the opposite—I capo one string
as opposed to notching out one string. I’ve
owned a Woodies G-Band Model 1 singlestring
capo for years, but only recently figured
out how to use it. It creates an effect that’s
beyond what you’d imagine, and it worked
wonderfully for “St. James Infirmary
I started with open C [C, G, C, G, C, E],
an old blues tuning. I realized by capoing
the first string at the first fret [0 0 0 0 0 1],
I could transform the open C into a Csus4
chord. The first string [E] becomes F when
you capo it, and that note belongs to both
the IV [F] and the V7 [G7] chords. The voicings
that come out of this Csus4 tuning are
perfect for the song, and once again a barre
yields a major chord. I call this configuration
Almost all Celtic guitar music is performed
in tunings that feature a suspended
4 chord, so I used Csus Plus for “Paddy’s
Green Shamrock Shore”—another tune on
Blues & Branches. It’s surprising how different
Csus Plus is from either tuning the guitar
to open Csus4 [C, G, C, G, C, F] or tuning to
Csus4 and then capoing 1 1 1 1 1 0 to bring
the open-string chord back to a major.
Csus Plus is one of the most exciting discoveries
I’ve made in over 30 years of exploring
partial capos. It’s cool to think there’s still
something like that hiding inside the fretboard
I’ve been staring at for decades.