“The acoustic side of making a blues record is important to me because it counterbalances the electric aspect,” Ben Harper says. “I don’t want to make a record that’s entirely one way or the other, which is what traditionally has been done. It’s exciting to mash them up and blend the two successfully.”
When Harper and blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite teamed up for Get Up!, their 2013 collaboration, they proved a winning combination, receiving the 2014 Grammy for Best Blues Album. Harper’s next musical partner was his mother, Ellen; a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, she manages the Folk Music Center in Claremont, California, an institution founded by her parents 60 years ago. Mother and son released the entirely acoustic, aptly titled, Childhood Home in 2015, before Harper reunited with the Innocent Criminals, his longtime backing band, for 2016’s Call It What It Is. But, in March of this year, he rejoined Musselwhite to produce another badass batch of progressive/traditional blues on No Mercy in This Land (Anti-), featuring guitarist Jason Mozersky and bassist Jesse Ingalls, both of whom perform with Harper in the group Relentless 7.
“The blues has to shapeshift in order to move down the line, through the ages,” Harper says. “Purists and academics may fight me on that, but I’m going to hold my ground. I love the evolution. Charlie and I carved out a niche that honors tradition and hopefully brings the blues into the 21st century. It fit too well to not continue down the road.”
Where does the inspiration for your acoustic blues start?
Blind Willie Johnson set the precedent for acoustic slide guitar. I bet David Lindley, Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt would say the same. Blind Willie Johnson is the mojo hand for steel guitar. For players that haven’t checked out Blind Willie Johnson yet, I’d start with “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” tuned to open D — from strings six to one that goes D A D F# A D. You can also take that tuning up or down a step, and it’s sometimes called Vestapol tuning.
What kind of guitar and slide did he use?
That’s a damn good question. No one knows for sure. I believe there’s only one photo of him playing. My guess is an early Gibson L-0, or one of the other early L models because they were the main game in town. It could have also been a Stella or a Tonk Brothers, because those were going around back then. Blind Willie’s slide style always struck me like he was playing it on his lap, but he wasn’t, and given that he played back in the ’20s and ’30s, he probably played bottleneck using the end of an actual wine bottle. When I started studying Blind Willie’s playing back in my early 20s, I found that I could reach deepest and get closest to his sound playing overhand on lap steel. I prefer a nickel-plated brass slide in medium thickness for speed and dexterity.
How did you develop your obsession with the Weissenborn Hawaiian lap steel in your early days?
I was Weissenborn crazy because, of all the instruments in the family’s music store where I was raised, the Weissenborn spoke loudest. For a lot of players, hearing Hendrix play a Strat for the first time was their moment. Well, I heard all sorts of players come in and play the Weissenborn, but when David Lindley played it, he set the place on fire. I thought, “There it is!” I had the same reaction when I heard Ry Cooder come in and play the Weissenborn for the first time.
Were your acoustic intentions completely focused on the Weissenborn?
I always had my hands on a fretted round-neck acoustic for songwriting and picking apart the blues. I started learning Robert Johnson tunes note for note, including “Come On in My Kitchen” and “Terraplane Blues.” Going to school on that bottle-neck stuff requires a roundneck acoustic, specifically. I eventually realized that I had to choose a lane — try to purvey tradition or focus on songwriting in my own original style.
Your blues influences have always been apparent, but the music you’re making with Musselwhite is the real deal. How does playing with him inform your blues?
Playing with Charlie gives it a framework where the blues belongs. It’s not just traditional. It’s not just the ’50s-to-’60s influence. It’s all of that wrapped into this crazy amalgam that is Charlie’s and my commitment to the blues.
Get Up! kicked off acoustically, with “Don’t Look Twice.” What was the guitar and tuning on that track?
The tuning is open E, and the guitar is my signature Martin.
The tech specs indicate that the guitar combines an M-style body’s 16-inch width with a 000 depth. Can you speak about those choices?
When you’re playing folk hip-hop with the Innocent Criminals bringing the funk, there’s a lot of low end kicking around onstage. I couldn’t have too much bottom coming out of my instrument, but I didn’t want to sacrifice all of it. For my signature model, we resurrected the M-style body, which is actually a 0000. It’s a little bigger than a triple 0, but not as big as a dreadnought and not quite as elongated either. I went with the shallower depth of a triple 0 to limit feedback onstage. I’ll use a feedback buster in the soundhole to save my ass if I have to, but I’d rather go without one.
Can you shed some insight on the neck?
It’s a low-profile neck that’s a little wider than a standard dreadnought neck but not as wide as a typical classical neck. It’s actually like a triple 0 neck. It’s the kind of neck you want to put your hands on when you pull a guitar off the wall.
I checked listings online at Guitar Center and Sweetwater, and it appears to be out of stock.
Yeah. It was a limited run back in 2008 or 2009, and I assume they’ve sold out, but I think you can call Martin and get one custom made. I actually need another, so let me know if you find one!
Did you play your signature Martin on the new record’s title track, “No Mercy in This Land”?
That’s actually a “war period” Martin D-28, meaning circa 1943 or ’44. The song is in open C tuning, so it’s all Cs and Gs with the third — E — on the third string [low to high, C G C E G C]. Once you’re tuned that way, it’s relatively straightforward to figure out how to fingerpick those blues licks.
How did you get that old-timey folk blues sound on “Trust You to Dig My Grave”?
That’s a 12-string Fraulini guitar. Todd Cambio from Fraulini is dedicated to faithfully recreating guitars made during the Lead Belly era between, say, 1930 and 1940, such as Stella and Tonk Brothers. He’s obsessed to the point of using wood from the era. Blind Boy Paxton is a contemporary traditionalist who is true blue old-school, and he plays Fraulini guitars. “Dig My Grave” is in a crazy low open A tuning with the third on the top string. From low to high it goes A E A E A C#.
How did you find that?
I don’t remember where I found that tuning specifically, but the rumor and myth of the Lead Belly 12-string is that he used to get free piano strings from a piano refurbishing company. After they’d do a job putting on new ones, they’d give him the old piano strings. Of course, they were thick, so they’d bend the neck of his guitar if he didn’t lower the tuning way down. That became the Lead Belly 12-string sound. “Trust You to Dig My Grave” is a thumping fingerpicking blues, played in the style of Mississippi John Hurt or Furry Lewis.
What guitar did you use for “Bad Habits”?
That song was written and recorded on an old plywood Stella guitar. It belongs to Jackson Browne, and it was completely customized by a friend of Jackson’s who owns this funky guitar shop in East L.A. It’s got a soft wood nut and a leathery covering on the bridge saddle. It has a funky Django Reinhardt tone. The song came leaping out of that guitar using standard tuning in the key of A.
Did you use a Weissenborn for any tracks on No Mercy in This Land?
Yes, on one track, “Love and Trust,” tuned to open D. It’s a Weissenborn Style 4, which is one of the early, transitional ones, from when he was trying to decide whether he was going to do a Kona or a hollow neck. It’s not a Kona, but [like a Kona] it’s got a square solid neck up to around the 7th fret, and then it goes hollow. The body is a bit thinner than the final design he used into the ’30s, before he went out of business.
“Love and Trust” started out as a demo of just me playing the Weissenborn and singing when I was working on Call It What It Is, but I actually wrote it for Mavis Staples because I had got a call from her management looking for a song. I wouldn’t have written it otherwise, so it went to Mavis first. Mavis did an extraordinary job on it, and hers is actually the version. But I had this demo sitting dormant, so I built this version around it with Charlie and the band.
Have you had any recent epiphanies about amplifying acoustic guitars onstage?
For years, I would simply plug my signature Martin with its killer onboard Fishman Ellipse system into a D.I. box running straight to the house, so I’d hear it back through the stage monitors. But I recently did a solo gig at a festival where there weren’t enough channels to have a separate D.I. for the acoustic, so I ran it through my amp, and it sounded great. The amp on that gig was a ’50 Fender Tweed Deluxe, but my main stage amp is a Dumble Overdrive Special.
Now I always use a blend of the direct signal with the amp sound, and my acoustic has never sounded better. I was already blending a D.I. and amp tone from the Weissenborn onstage, using the signal from a Seymour Duncan Mag Mic pickup, and I’ll use pedals with that too; but with the Martin I’ll run the amp clean. The Dumble sparkles like a Fender Twin.
Are you doing any studio work?
I’m producing a band called Hey, King! that recently signed to Anti-. They’re a female couple duo. Natalie London is a badass songwriter and guitar player — electric and acoustic. We’re five songs in.
What’s on the horizon for your own material?
I’m making my first lap-steel instrumental record. The idea is for it to be a combination of the Weissenborn and my other main acoustic lap steel, an archtop made by John Monteleone. I might even incorporate some electric lap steel, but really clean. I may add a symphonic component or some other instrumentation for texture. I’m not sure if the instrumental record will be next, but it’s rapidly approaching.