Keb’ Mo’ has been such a fixture on the acoustic roots scene for the past quarter century that it’s easy to take him for granted. That would be a major mistake, however. The Grammy-winning master finger picker and slide stalwart is still challenging himself and listeners, both onstage and on record. His new release, Oklahoma (Concord), features inventive songcraft and interesting acoustic instrumentation, as well as important contributions from players like Robert Randolph, Taj Mahal and Rosanne Cash, and producer Colin Linden.
The title track begins with a wild stuttering, turntable-scratching kind of sound layered over a Latin-flavored nylon-string vamp. It proceeds to address Americana subject matter and features a tasty fiddle solo, along with a mercurial slide solo on the outro. “I’ve got to give Robert Randolph credit for bringing that tune to life and inspiring me to put it on the record,” Mo’ says. On “Put a Woman In Charge,” he combines driving acoustic guitar rhythms and resonator slide playing in a “Me Too”-era anthem that features a commanding vocal performance from Cash. Says Mo’, “Her appearance is the most powerful moment on the album.” The guitarist lends nuanced finger picking to the delicate tune “The Way I,” while “Ridin’ on a Train” is a quintessential stomping resonator blues with a choppy rhythm track and another that weaves in and out as Mo’ alternates between fretted and slide licks. “That’s a National ResoRocket in DADGAD,” he explains. “I played both parts using the same guitar because I wanted them to blend together.”
The guitarist has been taking Oklahoma on the road in a solo acoustic show that gives him ample room to display his chops. Its set features a backdrop that looks like the front of a rustic building, a bar with a turntable on it and his name emblazoned in lights. Mo’ waltzes out alone to his stool and picks from the five instruments at his side, laughing and joking as he runs through the gamut of Americana styles. But as he reveals, when it comes to his shows, guitars and music, a great amount of technical and creative decision making is at work.
What design elements are most important to you on an acoustic guitar?
I like a smaller box with 12 frets to the body, and I prefer a wide fingerboard with enough string spacing to really get in between and do some finger picking. I like the sponginess in the way a 12-fret plays, and there’s something about the anatomy, perhaps the location of the bridge in relation to the soundhole, that makes it sound sweeter and feel more resonant. When I had a chance to work with Gibson on a signature model, I asked for a parlor-sized 12-fret because I wanted something I would actually play as my own main instrument on- and offstage. “The Way I” is a good example of its sound. Having 14 frets to the body can be convenient, but as Chet Atkins used to say, all the money is in the first few frets anyway. [laughs]
Didn’t you also work with Martin on a limited-edition signature dreadnought with 14 frets to the body?
Yes, but that was back around 2003, when I was going for a bigger sound. I wound up combining the stylistic elements of a D-45 and D-18, and I chose Hawaiian koa for the back and sides, making it somewhat exotic. The Martin was my main guitar for a long time before I adopted the Gibson Bluesmaster as my primary flattop. I also use a Martin 00-18 quite a bit on gigs, in open tunings as well as standard tuning dropped down a whole step when I want a wooden-body sound for playing slide.
How about when you want a steel-body sound?
I mainly use a National ResoRocket, which is a single-cone resonator that’s based on a tri-cone design. The ResoRocket is cool, because it delivers the resonance of a 12-fret guitar, and it’s got a cutaway so you can slide up high on the neck. My other main resonator is a Republic guitar that I use to get that really nice cheap sound.
What kind of slide do you prefer?
I exclusively use the Mudslide by Moonshine Slides. I love the feel of the Mudslide because it’s thick without being too heavy like some thick metal slides. I like the sound of a ceramic slide because it doesn’t make any noise when you drag it across the strings. I use medium-gauge D’Addario EJ17 Phosphor Bronze strings for my slide guitars, including the Martin, and the light EJ16 set for finger picking on the Gibson.
What’s your M.O. when it comes to finger picks?
I’m generally an either/or type of player. I use finger picks when I play steel guitar because I like the clankiness they bring, and I like the warm sound of fingers on a wooden guitar. But I’m experimenting with using just a thumb pick on the wooden guitars.
Did you use any other acoustic guitars on Oklahoma?
I used an acoustic that was handmade by Will Hirsch out of Northern California to play the title track in DADGAD tuning. I also played a Bedell nylon-string on that song. Robert Randolph played lap steel over the intro vamp and on the outro.
How did all the elements on the title track come together?
I wrote the music and started singing “Oklahoma” over the hook. It sounded right, but I’m not from there, and I like to be authentic. I eventually did a songwriting session with a lady I’d just met named Dara Tucker, and it turned out she was from Oklahoma. We finished the song together. I was still on the fence about recording it, because I wasn’t sure it would fit on the album. I was producing for G. Love at the same time, and Robert Randolph was there to play on his record. I asked him to play on my guitar-and-vocal demo of “Oklahoma,” and it sounded so good that I called up some players to flesh out the recording the next day. I was going to put a guitar solo on it, but then I heard violin in my head, and having Andy Leftwich’s solo on there took the song to another level. Once I had the rest of the material, “Oklahoma” not only made sense on the album — it made so much sense that it became the title track.
What’s the guitar story on “Put a Woman in Charge”?
The driving rhythm is the Martin 00-18, and I played the slide part on the ResoRocket. I wrote that song last September when I was working on tunes for this album, but the subject matter was so timely that we decided to put it out as a single right away.
“This Is My Home” is a nice true acoustic track. How’d you get that unique tone?
That’s the ResoRocket in standard tuning with a capo at the fifth fret. I think I used my fingers for a more delicate sound. I originally played it on a National piccolo, but when I tried it on the ResoRocket the tone was a bit warmer and not as prickly. That steel-guitar track sounds kind of like a kalimba and makes the song sound a little more exotic.
What’s the stringed-instrument story on the Western saloon blues, “Don’t Throw It Away”?
Will Hirsch made that mandolin for me, and you can tell I played the part myself because it’s not that good. [laughs] There’s also a National piccolo part on that track played by Colin Linden, and Taj Mahal played bass and did the grunting background vocals. He came over to my house just as we finished writing the song, and we decided to record it right then and there in my home studio.
How do you generally go about miking your acoustics?
I wound up using a Shure SM57 for this album. High-end mics can hear too much. They’re so delicate, and they hear so many frequencies that the sound can be overwhelming on the track. The 57 only hears what needs to be heard. When you run it through a high-end microphone preamp, such as the Neve I used on this album, it sounds great.
What are some of the challenges of performing as a solo acoustic act?
Your concentration level has to be higher than when you play with a band. Keeping good time is the hardest part. I practice with a metronome a lot, and I tap my left foot onstage. There are multiple layers to creating the game plan. The first consideration is the songs, and the first song has to have a good opening line because it’s also the opening line for the set. I try to play the same guitar for the first three songs to get a flow going, although that’s not the case on this particular tour. I try not to play two alternating-bass finger picking songs in a row. When I make the set list, I consider the key, subject matter, impact, popularity, feel and rhythm of each song.
With so many considerations, does that mean you play the same set each night?
I’ll vary it a little, but I stay close to the same set list for each show on a tour. Making a set is like writing a song. It has a certain flow, and that’s your show. That’s the script for your movie.
You created a stage set for this tour, with a bar and a turntable.
Yeah, it’s an event, and there are things to look at. The walk-in and walk-out music is on vinyl, and I can play a record whenever I feel like it. I try to keep things moving. I consider the number of guitar changes because that takes time, and so does taking finger picks on and off. I used to just do the whole show with finger picks, but I like the sound of fingers on the flattops.
I’ve also found that a good engineer is essential, because it takes a long time to dial in the sound of each guitar. I have five instruments with me now: the signature Gibson, Martin 00-18, National ResoRocket and Republic resonators, plus a Gibson L-5 that I run through a Mesa/Boogie California Tweed 1x12 combo behind the stage, even though the one folks see out front is a vintage Fender Princeton, which fits the look of the set better.
Can you share some details on the pickups and preamps you use to amplify the acoustics?
I have a custom Neve box that I use to EQ each acoustic, and they all feed into a custom Neve preamp with one global setting that goes to the house P.A. It’s nerdy stuff, but I try to take out as many unflattering frequencies as possible, and then I can pump the preamp to put some of the bass back in the sound. The Gibson and Martin have built-in L.R. Baggs and Fishman piezo systems, respectively.
The steel guitars have Highlander pickups in them, and they are much easier to EQ than the wooden guitars. Those piezos are right under the bridge saddle, so there’s a lot of sound coming in there, which requires a lot of frequency cutting. On the resonators, the piezo is wrapped around the biscuit of the cone. The Highlander sounds so good that it’s practically plug-and-play: Pull off a bit of the high end and dial in the low mids, and you’re good to go. The wooden guitars require a whole lot more sculpting. They need a high-pass filter to get rid of boominess, low-mid and high-mid cuts for clarity, and a low-pass filter at the right point to take the bite off the high end while leaving a sparkle on top. That one can vary greatly depending on the nature of the speakers in the house P.A.
You put all of that thought into your show to give an audience the impression that you’re sitting up there plucking and singing on a front porch?
Oh yeah. There’s a lot more going on up there than folks realize.