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Susan Tedeschi

January 1, 2009
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FANS OF CONTEMPORARY BLUES AND SOUL need no introduction to Susan Tedeschi. The Norwell, Massachusetts, native busted onto the scene in 1998 with Just Won’t Burn, and soon thereafter fans all over the states were exposed to her passionate, Janis Joplin-like vocal style and teal-colored Telecaster. She was a regular on the Lilith Fair tour and opened for B.B. King, Buddy Guy, the Allman Brothers, and other marquee names. But it wasn’t just everyday fans taking notice early on: Tedeschi snagged Grammy nominations in 2000, 2003, and 2006—not to mention the heart of one of the guitar universe’s hottest slide masters, Derek Trucks, whom she met on the 1999 Allman Brothers tour.

This year marks the release of Tedeschi’s seventh studio album, Back to the River [Verve Forecast]. Packed to the gills with her gritty wails and beefy guitar tones—plus jawdropping leads from Trucks and intriguing textures from Doyle Bramhall II and bandmate Dave Yoke—River also showcases the fruits of Tedeschi’s efforts co-songwriting with such powerhouses as Tony Joe White, John Leventhal, Gary Louris, and Sonya Kitchell.

You worked with some prestigious songwriters for River—how did that come about?

The label suggested calling in some other songwriters to write with. I’ve been writing songs since I was about 13 years old, but I’d never done that, so I had no idea what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised to meet some really nice people and to tap into their creative worlds a little bit. I wanted this record to be universal on a lot of levels—politically, musically, spiritually, and stylistically—so I wanted to have folk, gospel, rock, and blues elements, without any one style being overbearing.

Did working with the other guitarists change how you viewed your role?

Originally, I wanted to make a really heavy guitar record, with me doing most of the playing. It is a heavy guitar record, but after having Derek, Doyle, and Dave on there, I didn’t feel like I needed to do as much of the playing myself—though I will play a lot of those parts live, of course. It was nice to hear how Doyle and Derek and those guys played the parts. I’ll take the ones I like and adapt them to my style.

What’s your favorite guitar part on the new album?

Derek plays beautifully on “700 Houses” and “Revolutionize”—his solos on those just make me want to cry. And Doyle’s playing on “Talking About” just blows my mind because he’s such a wonderful rhythm player. He makes a song by how he uses different tunings and vibrato. I’ll hear something a certain way but I can’t do it—and then he’ll do it, and I’m, like, “Man, that’s it.” Derek will do the same thing. And then there are songs like “Break in the Road,” which was a blast for me to play on. I used a little overdrive on the amp and just freaked out a little bit.

How do you think your playing has evolved over the years?

With Just Won’t Burn, I was just starting to get my confidence up when I soloed in front of people. I wasn’t a guitar player as much I was a singer, so I was trying to communicate on guitar what I do vocally—which is very hard to do. Now I feel like I have more of my own voice on the guitar. I have a lot more control, and my playing is more melodic than it was before.

Is that progress due to more confidence, technique, or theory?

I feel like it is mostly due to having more technique, but also to listening to other players better to find greater dynamics and more textures. On Just Won’t Burn, I was mostly trying to get out an emotion that was super raw. It is still raw at times, but now I’m getting to be more confident and musical.

Describe your ideal tone.

I like a warmer sound. So, if I’m playing a Telecaster it has to be a warmersounding Tele, not a straight-up maple fretboard model. I like maple fretboards for Strats and rosewood for Telecasters. Lately, however, I’ve mostly been playing my D’Angelico NYSD-9, which has a rosewood fretboard and is more like a Les Paul in a way, because it has humbuckers. The D’Angelico has a really fat tone, and I just plug it straight into any blackface Fender amp— whether it’s a Super Reverb, a Deluxe Reverb, a Vibrolux, or a Princeton Reverb. If I’m playing a Tele or a Strat, and I need a little more meat, I’ll sometimes combine a 4x10 Bassman with one of the blackface amps. On tour, I usually use the 80-watt Victoria that Buddy Guy gave me—which is similar to a tweed ’50s Bassman, but with almost as much wattage as a Marshall— combined with a reissue Super Reverb. The reverb and vibrato from the Super really determine my sound.

Did you use those same amps on the album?

I didn’t have mine with me because we flew to Los Angeles. We rented a ’65 blackface Super Reverb, a ’66 Vibrolux, and a Magnatone. I also used a Moollon Overdrive, a Vox V848 wah, a Boss tuner, and a Whirlwind selector box for switching between amps. For guitars, most of the time I used my D’Angelico and my Telecaster. I also used a Gretsch White Falcon with DeArmond pickups.

For many players, it’s probably hard to imagine what it is like for two high-powered guitarists to be married. Care to bust any myths?

Well, it’s definitely interesting because I think couples are naturally a little competitive. But really there’s no competition on guitar—Derek kicks my ass, though he does respect my guitar playing. He gives me confidence to do what I love to do, which makes me think I must be on the right path, because he’s phenomenal. I’ve seen him play with artists as varied as Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, Buddy Guy, the Meters, and the Grateful Dead—and he always holds his own and sounds incredible.

Do you guys ever have big musical disagreements?

No, but sometimes I’ll be, like, “How do I play over these changes?” And he’ll say, “Just play an A major.” Or he’ll say, “That part sounds kind of corny—maybe you shouldn’t play those changes right there.”

Do you always take his advice?

Sometimes I get ornery and say, “Shut up—it’s just not your style, Mr. Music Nazi.” [Laughs.] No, he’s really supportive. And every bit of musical advice he’s given me has been right. It can be infuriating sometimes, though, because I don’t always want him to be right.

What’s the toughest part of your job?

Having enough time in the day for everybody and making everybody happy. I’m only one person, and I’m trying to be a mom and a wife and a bandleader and a friend. Just being a parent alone is hard, but then you add in juggling everybody’s schedules and trying to get us all together and it can really be challenging.

Are you able to practice as much as you used to?

No. I have to schedule time to practice and get my mother-in-law to watch the kids. Or I have to wait for them to go to bed and, if I’m not too tired, then I’ll practice. It’s like working out—you just have to make time for it and schedule it in there. You can’t just say, “Oh, I’ll get around to it.”

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