Keb’ Mo’ first crossed paths with Taj Mahal when the legendary blues pioneer gave a concert at Mo’s high school back in the late ’60s. Mahal became a touchstone of Mo’s style, and helped facilitate the then-fledgling artist’s first record deal. Over the next several decades, the two internationally recognized multiple-Grammy winners have shared the stage on numerous occasions, but it wasn’t until recently that the opportunity for a more formal collaboration presented itself.
Keb’ Mo’ (left) with Taj Mahal.
“We first discussed doing an album project at a Greg Allman tribute in Atlanta three years ago,” says Mo’. “Taj and I were at a hotel bar, and he suggested we do something together. We weren’t able to line up dates until later in the year, but when we recorded the first song, we realized everything was going to come together. Because of our schedules, we were only able to work intermittently over the next two-and-a-half years, but we eventually got it done.”
The resulting album, TajMo [Concord], is a joyous musical celebration of two titans that’s steeped in intimate acoustic blues, but also incorporates pop, rock, and world-music influences.
How did you work out who played what on TajMo?
Usually, Taj would just pick up an instrument he felt might be right for the song, and we’d go from there. For instance, on “All Around the World,” he started off on banjo, and he later added ukulele. For most of the album, Taj either played banjo, ukulele, tri-cone resonator, or acoustic, and I played acoustic, resonator, and electric.
On the more acoustic blues numbers such as “Diving Duck Blues” and “She Knows How to Rock Me,” were you able to track your parts at the same time?
We tracked “Diving Duck” together. Taj played an acoustic, and I used a National steel-string resonator. For “She Knows How to Rock Me,” I recorded the drum and bass tracks at home, and I sent it to Taj in Berkeley. We layered the rest of the track there.
How do you tune your resonators?
On “Diving Duck Blues” and “She Knows How to Rock Me,” I used a National in open D [D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high], and I capoed on the first or second fret. For “That’s Who I Am,” I used a Republic in open G [G, D, G, D, B, D, low to high]. The Republic is kind of unique sounding, because you have to fight it to get it to play in tune. If you’re playing slide on it, you really have to just play what’s in tune on the instrument, and negotiate with it a little bit. It’s a funkier sound in a way, because you’re limited to what you can do, and it makes you think more carefully about what you play.
What about electrics?
I used a Gretsch Electromatic Center Block and a Suhr Strat, but my main guitar on the record was a Custom PRS that Paul Reed Smith made for me. It has special humbucker pickups that have the desirable aspects of single-coils, but with a bit more density in the midrange. There’s a bump at about 7.5kHz that I like. When played by itself, it sounds kind of harsh, but in a track with other instruments, it stands out like a little jewel.
Are you particular about how you EQ your sound?
EQ is one of my favorite subjects to talk about. I think guitarists can get a little lost with how to use it sometimes, and they believe it’s something for the audio engineer to worry about. What’s interesting is that a lot of times, I’ll go into a guitar store and they’ll have all kinds of stompboxes, but they’ll very rarely have a lot of EQ pedals. But if you’re only controlling your sound through Bass, Midrange, and Treble knobs, you’re limiting yourself to a small part of the tonal spectrum. Very often, it’s the guitar player in a band who is guilty of playing too loud. They turn up, because they want to hear themselves in the mix, and they think that’s the solution. Usually, though, they’re not being heard because their sound isn’t EQ’d correctly.
What kinds of EQs do you use, and how do you generally set them?
With electrics, I use a Mesa/Boogie Mark Five: 35, which has a 5-band graphic EQ. The first thing I do is start cleaning out some of the low mids around 200Hz-250Hz, because they clash with the bass and kick drum. I also have an Empress 5-band parametric EQ pedal, and an MXR 6-band EQ. I use the MXR for general sweeps. I’ll pull down the 100Hz range, which makes the guitar sound thinner. Then, when it’s too thin, I’ll start to bring the frequency back in until it’s rich, but narrow enough to fit in the mix. I’m also really conscious of how my sound translates through the P.A. as part of the entire mix, so during soundchecks, I’ll go out into the audience to listen.
It’s important to be aware of how you sound in the overall mix, and not just in your little area of the stage. For example, a certain amount of reverb may sound good right in front of your amp, but it can make you get lost in the overall house mix. I have to admit that I sometimes get a little invasive with the other musicians in my band about their sound and how it’s translating. As a band, though, I feel it’s our responsibility to give the front-of-house engineer everything they need for a good mix. You want to give your audience a spectacular experience. A big part of that is musicianship, but another big part of it is the sonic experience, and this can sometimes be overlooked.
Do you have to alter your approach when equalizing acoustic instruments?
With a regular acoustic guitar, you’re almost always dealing with a piezo pickup that can be very unforgiving as it picks up the sound at the bridge. It hears what the bridge is hearing—not what the wood is hearing. Because of this, you have to do a lot more to sculpt the sound. To EQ an acoustic, I’ll usually start with the low end and bypass up to about 150Hz to 175Hz. Then, I’ll do another little scoop at about 250Hz. From there, I’ll go to the midrange and make a pretty significant dip at around 800Hz. Finally, for the high end, I’ll do a dip at around 2kHz. Those are my general go-to numbers. I’ll often use picks on my fingers to make the tone a little brighter, too.
How did the collaboration with Joe Walsh on TajMo transpire?
He was in town while we were recording. I invited him to stop by the studio and visit Taj, but I wasn’t so presumptuous as to ask him to play. Next thing I know, he shows up with his Tele and his amplifier! I played him the whole record, and I asked him what he was feeling, and he picked “Shake Me in Your Arms” and “Om Sweet Om.” He also played on a version of “Suzy Q” that we recorded, but didn’t put on the album.
What are your favorite aspects of Taj’s style?
He’s one of the most multi-dimensional musicians I’ve ever heard. He can play in any style, and he listens to so much music and absorbs it like a sponge. For example, he’s not really known as an electric blues player à la B.B. King, but he can pick up an electric and just kill it—all the while still sounding like himself. I think one of the reasons this is more than just a blues record is because Taj brings so much to the table. He can put his own stamp on so many different styles, whether it’s folk music, world music, or jazz.
Your take on the blues seems to be informed by a lot of other kinds of music, as well. Did you ever study jazz?
I can play changes and understand what’s going on, but I’m not a jazz player in the same sense as someone like John Scofield. I still find that I can say all I need to say within the context of diatonic chords and their inversions. If I do bring in an altered chord here and there, the fact I don’t use them that often makes it stand out that much more. To me, playing the blues, or jazz, or any sort of improvisational music has always been about being present in the moment. In order to play the blues, you have to be real. If you want to make a statement, you can’t fake it.