FOUR NIGHTS A WEEK IN NASHVILLE YOU CAN SEE THE DON KELLY BAND HONKY TONKIN’ at Robert’s Western World on Broadway. The band is the American equivalent of a ’60s-era John Mayall’s
Bluesbreakers (which featured at various times Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor) in
that an apprenticeship has become a rite of passage for the best guitarists in town. That town being
Nashville, it means some of the best players anywhere—and Guthrie Trapp followed Johnny Hiland’s
tenure. Gigs with Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, Randy Travis, Vince Gill,
Sam Bush, Travis Tritt, George Jones, and dozens of other heavyweights followed.
Trapp developed his prodigious chops while growing up on the border of Florida and Alabama,
and by 16 he had won the Alabama guitar and mandolin competitions twice running. But before
you pigeonhole Trapp as a country player, you should know his electric schooling came courtesy of
his uncle’s Johnny Winter records. And, any categorization becomes irrelevant once you hear Guthrie
Trapp [Guthrie Trapp Records], featuring Nashville bass legend Michael Rhodes and drummer
Pete Abbott (known collectively as TAR). On it, Trapp’s country, bluegrass, blues, and jazz influences
meld together into a high-octane blend spanning odd-time fusion to Latin funk to blues to
New Orleans grooves.
How did you get the Don Kelly gig and did that
help break you in Nashville?
My band on the Gulf Coast played country,
jump blues, swing, jazz, and rockabilly, so
when I moved to Nashville I had already been
doing that Danny Gatton thing, where you mix
all kinds of music into one style. I had heard
Johnny Hiland on a Don Kelly record, so the first
thing I did when I moved here was try to sit in
at Robert’s Western World. I hung out and tried
for months, but Don would never let me. When
he finally did, he said, “Johnny’s leaving. If you
want to play with the band, come on down.”
My chops were smoking when I had that gig.
It was four nights a week, four hours a night, no
breaks, burning tempos, and no other instrument
to share solos. But when you start doing
studio work, or touring, you don’t get to solo and
play like you do when playing in bars—nobody
is going to let you play that much. You develop
a different kind of chops that are more about
playing for the song—playing around vocals and
other instruments—rather than technical chops.
From there, word spread, and I toured with
Patty Loveless, and then Jerry Douglas for four
years. I also formed the band 18 South, played
with Shawn Camp, and I have some sessions
coming up with John Oates of Hall and Oates. I
can’t believe the list of people I have been able to
play with, some of whom are my heroes. I used to listen to Jerry Douglas when I was a kid.
Last week I got a call to play with Rodney
Crowell and Emmylou Harris on a session.
In a town full of pickers, what do you
think has enabled you to be as successful
as you are?
I’ve heard from people I respect that my
playing is very “seat-of-the-pants” and soulful,
which is what I live for. I have no idea
how to read music, and although I can read
a Nashville number chord chart, I only use
it as a roadmap and then try to get away
from it, because I don’t want to sound like
I am just reading a chart and not playing
Your great tone might also be a factor.
Tell us about your Rockett Guthrie Trapp
OD signature pedal and your approach to
tone in general.
My signature pedal is modeled a bit on
the Nobels ODR-1, which a lot of people in
this town use, and which I like because it
doesn’t sound like a pedal. I have two of them
on my board. My signature overdrive pedal
has more gain and is excellent for playing
single-note lead lines, and for getting David
Lindley-like slide sounds. Mark Samson from
Matchless helped design it.
For good tone, I think you should turn
a nice old Fender tube amp up to five, get a
fat and warm clean tone, and then add your
pedals. When people ask me what kind of
compression I use I say, “Natural—just turn
up the amp and hit the strings hard.” I have
an Xotic Effects RC Booster that I leave on
all the time, to just add a little bit of body.
When I need some drive I’ll add one of the
Nobels pedals set for low gain, and when
I want higher gain I will add the second
Nobels, or hit my signature pedal, which is
more compressed sounding.
For Leslie effects I use an old Arion Stereo
Chorus, and for tremolo I use a T-Rex Tremster,
though every now and then I will use
a Swart AST Pro amp to get a tube tremolo
You also have an Electro-Harmonix Deluxe
Memory Man, a Boss DD-7 digital delay, and
a Strymon Brigadier dBucket Delay on your
pedalboard. What functions do they serve?
I bought the Strymon so I would have tap
tempo for sessions, but I am hooked on the
Memory Man. I use the Boss delay for reverse
delay, and, before I got the Strymon, I used
it to split the signal to two amps.
What are your go-to guitars and amps?
I’m a Fender endorser and I love their
guitars. I also play an LSL Les Paul Junior-style
guitar. There is a guy named Floyd Cassista
who built a Tele-style guitar for me. I
bonded with that guitar years ago and it’s
the one I feel most comfortable on. I might
bring a bunch of guitars to a session, but in
the heat of battle, when I am playing live,
it’s the one that I go to. That guitar started
out with Fender Mexican Tele pickups, then
had Lindy Fralins, and then went back to the
Mexican Tele pickups.
My go-to amps are two Fenders: a ’66 Deluxe Reverb and a ’66 Princeton Reverb
with a 12" speaker. I also use Vox amps and
a Swart AST Pro on sessions.
You also play a lot of acoustic. Do you
modify your right-hand technique when
switching from acoustic to electric?
Very little actually changes. If I am doing
any single-note picking, whether acoustic or
electric, I am just using my flatpicked bluegrass-
style down/up/down picking, where
you get a note in each direction. As soon
as I get on electric I start incorporating my
fingers, but I have to say they sneak in on
acoustic as well. You can play full chord
voicings plucking everything with the pick
and three fingers.
Do you treat the nails of your picking
I let the nails grow to where they just
peek out over the flesh. I use a little bit of
flesh and a little bit of nail—the nail mostly
reinforces the flesh.
Why did you choose to record most of your
record with just guitar, bass, and drums?
The trio thing is fun because there is a
lot of space for everybody, and I don’t have
to be harmonically conscious of what a keyboard
player or another guitarist is doing.
With our trio, TAR, we can go anywhere.
Michael will go with me or I will go with
him. It is the true definition of fusion. We
are bringing in all our influences, but we are
not playing like we are at the Baked Potato
[a famous Los Angeles club showcasing
The music is not so far out that people
can’t understand it, because if it was, I
couldn’t understand it. We do songs in odd
time signatures, but if I had to count the
time I couldn’t play them. I am not thinking
about chord extensions and all that stuff.
It is a kind of uneducated free music. There
will be even more of that on the next record.
With your ability to mix musical genres,
how do you decide how far you can stray from
the pure style when you are on a session?
A lot of people in Nashville want to keep
it safe, because they are trying to get their
song cut, or get it on the radio. They say,
“Make it funky,” or “Make it bluesy,” but
if I actually go there, they say, “Oh no, not
that much, bring it back.” They really want
it the same as it always was.
I say push the boundaries as far as you
can. That’s why I don’t do a lot of heavy pop
sessions. I get calls to do my thing—more
rootsy sounding stuff, where I do try to push
the boundaries. I will take 12 guitars, four
or five amps, and a bunch of pedals—but no
matter what I pick up it is going to sound like
me. People say I am more of an artist than
a chameleon and I am thrilled with that.