Bob Weir Channels Big Sky and Cowboy Chords on "Blue Mountain"

February 23, 2017

In the November 2016 Guitar Player Hall of Fame Awards, Bob Weir was inducted into the Gallery of the Greats along with his former left-hand man, Jerry Garcia. They’re infamous for electrifying San Francisco’s iconic psychedelic ’60s scene, but prior to that, they were a couple of acoustic aficionados playing in Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions.

“Jerry was on guitar and banjo,” recalls Weir. “I was mostly on washtub bass. I played some jug, and some guitar.”

Just before his jug and washtub glory days, Weir spent time as a teenager working on a Wyoming ranch, hanging around campfires and playing cowboy chords accompanying elder storytellers singing traditional western songs. He harkens back to those times on his first solo album of all original music in three decades, Blue Mountain [Columbia/Legacy/Roar].

Weir anchors the entire affair on acoustic guitar, with tunes such as “Ki-Yi Bossie” and the title track consisting solely of Weir’s plaintive plucking-and-strumming, and earnest vocals. However, much of Blue Mountain is layered with electric-guitar textures by the National’s Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner, and Steve Kimock lent lovely lap-steel to “Whatever Happened to Rose.” Weir partnered with Josh Kaufman on the production, which sounds like a cross between T-Bone Burnett’s modern/roots affairs and Beck’s Sea Change. It’s beautiful and melancholy.

Josh Ritter served as Weir’s primary lyricist—a role traditionally held by John Perry Barlow, who has had a serious string of health problems. Weir recently threw a benefit for Barlow’s mounting health-care expenses at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, California—a classic club near Weir’s home that he helped resurrect.

Congrats on being inducted into GP’s Gallery of the Greats. Not many rhythm specialists have made it. Can you offer some insights on how to be a rhythm ace?

Thanks. I approach rhythm guitar with the same passion your average lead player approaches his or her instrument. When I’m singing, my guitar playing is the springboard for my vocal, and it’s all part of telling the story. If somebody else is telling the story, then I listen carefully to what they’re saying—whether they’re taking a lead or singing. I try to contextualize it with what I’m doing on my guitar, and, at the same time, provide colors they can pick up on to fill out their storytelling. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a duet.

How did your campfire jam summers prepare you for life in the Dead?

Most of the old cowboy songs only use two or three chords, so it was pretty easy to intuit what changes were coming up, and when. All I had to do was listen to the story and the melody. That was a huge lesson in ear training and serving where the song wanted to go, rather than what I was actually playing on guitar.

When I wasn’t out on the ranch, I was listening to Joan Baez and folk of her ilk—maybe even a little Bob Dylan. They were playing way more developed stuff on the guitar, but none of that was appropriate for what I was doing in the bunkhouse. The old cowpokes would have thought I’d taken leave of my senses—gilding the lily—if I tried to get fancy with any of that stuff, and I would have undergone some abuse [laughs].

Have you ever experimented with open tunings?

The acoustic guitar carries “Cassidy” on my first solo album [Ace, 1972], and I wrote the song in a semi-open tuning. I can’t remember the original way I played it, but it was in a tuning something like DADGAD that David Crosby showed me. I’m sure he doesn’t remember it, because he was all about strange tunings at the time. I went through that phase real quickly, but then bailed on it because it was confounding. I couldn’t have a whole stage full of guitars in different tunings—moving back and forth between them, capoing up when we were drifting from key to key, or trying to do a seamless fifth. So I went back to standard tuning, and that’s where I’ve pretty much stayed for the rest of time.

How would you describe your acoustic playing on Blue Mountain compared to all the electric ensemble stuff that has been your bread and butter over the years?

I approached most of my acoustic playing on Blue Mountain as if I were playing in an electric ensemble. I’m selecting notes, rather than playing full chords, and I’m arpeggiating most of the time. Each note is important—a little stop in the story. Also, I mostly played and sang at the same time. The whole idea was for it to feel natural.

What’s the backstory on the primary guitar you played—the vintage Martin?

According to what’s stamped inside, and what I’ve found online about the serial number—68257—it’s a 1937 Martin 00-17. It’s made of all mahogany. I don’t think they’d come out with the mahogany-and-koa wood combination yet, and I prefer full mahogany anyway, because it’s crisp and clean in the high end. Koa wood rings a little more in the upper midrange. I found it in in the classified ads, and picked it up in the East Bay 12 to 15 years ago for $1,100. At that price, I figured it was beat up in some way. Sure enough, the neck had been pulled way forward, and it was unplayable. But just by thumping on the box, I could tell it had the sound I was looking for.

You were specifically after a smallbodied sound?

Right. I wanted a tight-sounding guitar. For instance, dreadnoughts and all the famous big-bodied guitars were developed to sound full as an accompaniment instrument without a bass. As soon as you add a bass to the equation, you’re in a pissing match with it. I figured that out real quick when I was doing a duet deal with Rob Wasserman. So I became fond of smaller-bodied guitars for that situation—not lacking in low end, but a tighter low end. The double- and triple-0s have that. So I zeroed in on that kind of body style, as I didn’t have a small-bodied acoustic of any sort. I’d been nosing around for a while when that Martin came up. I sent it back to the factory, and they did a really nice job of resetting the neck.

How much of the Blue Mountain music did you sketch out on acoustic guitar before entering the collaborative process?

Most of it was back and forth, but “Lay My Lily Down” sprang out of that guitar all by itself. We created the song around that particular lick.

Have you been using the vintage Martin on tour?

No. I haven’t done that yet. I’m reluctant to subject it to the road, and I’ve got the prototype for a new pickup system currently mounted in a Huss & Dalton mini jumbo. They make a hell of an instrument, and it has been my go-to acoustic onstage, but it’s much bigger than the Martin.

What’s going on with the pickup system?

I’m working with David Koltai (Pigtronix/Zinky/Supro), my longtime engineer Mike McGinn, and the folks at D’Angelico on a system. We’re basically combining an internally mounted, omnidirectional microphone with a bridge pickup. We cut the entire low end out of the microphone signal, and all of the high end out of the pickup, to get a three-dimensional tone that sounds like a miked guitar, but it can get considerably louder onstage.

What’s the latest on your signatureguitar deal with D’Angelico?

We’re doing the electrics first. They will combine various traits from a bunch of my favorite semi-hollowbody instruments, including a tremolo system. The first one is my signature SS. It’s coming out at the Winter NAMM show, and I think I’m going to be there. I’ve been touring with one. The acoustic will wait until after we get the electric out.

Can you preview the acoustic?

D’Angelico has a concert body style, which is close to the triple-0 body size I like. We haven’t really gotten busy yet, but we’re planning to look into the possibility of doing a graphite-reinforced neck, so that we can use tonewoods for the neck. We’ll do that on the electrics, as well. The electric model will be constantly refined. We’re also going to try an arched back on the acoustic, because I’ve had good luck designing guitars in the past with that feature.

What sonic properties does an arched back have?

It makes the tone a little more cello-like, and it makes the sound project a little better.

Are you planning to continue balancing dates with your Blue Mountain band and Dead & Company?

Yes. The plan is to do a bit of both, and maybe some other stuff, as well. I’m hoping to have the new acoustic ready for the summer.

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