Strings of Fortune

Steve Dawson deals a richly rewarding experience on 'Lucky Hand,' his new instrumental acoustic guitar album.
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Steve Dawson’s Lucky Hand (Black Hen Music) is simply one of the most enjoyable instrumental acoustic releases to come across the Frets desk this year. He applies virtuosic Americana chops to imaginative instrumental narratives, and about half of the record features astonishingly unique and wonderfully complementary string quartet embellishments arranged by his former touring partner, violinist Jesse Zubot. Dawson is a thumbpick-wearing fingerstylist schooled in the Chet Atkins method and a master of advanced fingerstyle and slide techniques blueprinted by Leo Kottke. He also excels at resonator and Weissenborn approaches inspired by Skip James, Ben Harper and David Lindley.

Dawson tours extensively, performing with Americana/folk act Birds of Chicago, with a few solo dates thrown into the mix. But the multiple Juno Award winner — whose production credits include Birds of Chicago, Kelly Joe Phelps and John Hammond — is most at home in the studio. A Canadian expatriate, he relocated his Henhouse workstation to Nashville about five years ago but wound up returning to his Vancouver, British Columbia, stomping grounds to record Lucky Hand at the Warehouse Studio. The facility, which is owned by pop star Bryan Adams, boasts George Martin’s former Neve board, and Dawson and Zubot’s string quartet recorded live off the floor to tape. Lucky Hand is the guitarist’s eighth solo release, and it’s astounding that one player is responsible for such an array of acoustic guitar goodness. And then there are those incredible string arrangements!

How did you develop the vision for Lucky Hand?

I made a record about four years ago, Rattlesnake Cage, that was simply solo acoustic guitar, so I figured it’d be cool to do something else this time. Playing fingerstyle guitar with a band is difficult, because they tend to be redundant, so I thought about Van Dyke Parks’ string arrangements. He produced Ry Cooder’s first record, and Ry was a big influence on me. “One Meat Ball” [from Cooder’s debut] is essentially a blues tune, but Parks’ avant-garde string arrangement takes it out of context in a cool way. He did a similar thing with Phil Ochs at around the same time. Parks was busy, but my old friend Jessie Zubot had become very accomplished at arranging strings, and he arranged a quartet based on my demos. Then the pressure was on me to relearn the songs exactly, in order to perform them along with the string players reading charts. It was important to me that we capture the spirit of the performances live in the studio.

How did you set up to record both the strings and guitar authentically?

We set up the string quartet traditionally, in a semicircle spread over about 20 feet. We miked them close, far away and also with the Decca Tree technique, which is a very specific way of spacing pairs of microphones around a symphony. I was about 15 feet away and facing them.

Do you have a primary miking strategy for acoustic guitar?

After years of experimentation, I’ve boiled it down to the simplest format. I rarely record with multiple mics, because I don’t like the phase issues that arise, and in this case we had a lot of extra room mics around. I played into a single vintage Neumann U47 positioned a couple of feet away.

What’s your main instrument?

My workhorse is a Larrivée that I bought new in 1993. It has a gigantic jumbo body with a sharp, difficult cutaway. John Larrivée was experimenting but decided it was too much hassle and gave up on the design. Anyway, I’ve always loved the deep sound of that all-mahogany acoustic, and it’s got a rather magic setup. You can still play it fretted, but it’s set up fairly high for slide, with heavy strings. I use a D’Addario EJ17 medium set, but with a .015 on top. It’s the best acoustic for playing slide that I’ve found on the planet, plus it’s comfortable for gigging and travels well, so I always have it with me. I also have a 1952 Gibson J-50 that I love, but I don’t like to travel with it. I was going play my Larrivée on all the six-string stuff for Lucky Hand, but I changed my mind when I got to Vancouver.


What happened?

I decided I wanted another guitar with lower action for a few non-slide songs. I’ve never bonded with a Martin guitar before, but I ended up doing so with a Jeff Tweedy model that jumped out at me for its great sound and feel. It’s 00 size, so it’s very different from the Larrivée, but it’s also a very deep body. I was originally renting the Martin, but I ended up buying it. You can hear that Tweedy model on the fingerpickers “Lonesome Ace” and “Lucky Hand,” whereas the Larrivée is on tracks featuring slide, such as “Bone Cave,” “Hale Road Revelation” and “Old Hickory Breakdown.”

Can you address the art of getting a smooth slide tone on acoustic within the context of complex instrumentals?

I’m not stacking the slide up against all six strings as in a standard blues style; I’m isolating it on one or two strings. On a song such as “Bone Cave,” a lot of the melody is played on the top string. I’m angling the slide away from the rest of the strings, so it’s kind of easy to play the melody cleanly. Other songs require a lot of right-hand muting that takes endless hours of practice to perfect. You figure out how to use one finger to play a note on a certain string while all the fingers are anchored, muting other strings. That’s the key to a clean slide sound in a fingerpicking song.

What’s your slide preference?

I prefer a large glass slide on my pinkie. I don’t mind if it’s a little loose, but the weight is very important. It needs to be thick enough to feel some gravity when I’m trying to get a good vibrato or simply changing positions. If the slide is too light, my hand goes flying all over the place. I prefer the smooth, clean sound of glass as opposed to a scraping metallic sound.

What do you look for in a 12-string?

Twelve-strings are tricky, because they’re so finicky. It can be a bit of a nightmare to find one that works well for slide, and there simply aren’t very many to choose from. I wound up with a Taylor Leo Kottke signature model. I like that it has a cutaway and that it is designed to be tuned a step and a half down from standard, to C#.


Are there any tunings you tend to use more than others?

I never play the 12-string in standard, but I’ll drop everything another half step and use a form of a double-drop D tuning, which is now a double-drop B tuning that goes, from low to high, B F#B E G#B. I tuned that way for the two 12-string tracks on Lucky Hand: “The Circuit Rider of Pigeon Forge” and “Hollow Tree Gap.” When doing sideman work, I’ll use actual double-drop D tuning — low to high, D A D G B D — because the middle four strings are the same as standard tuning, so I can look at my strings and know where to find a chord at any given moment. I can also relate to the lower three strings, as they form a thirdless D chord, and the top three strings are like an open G chord — G B D.

I get a lot of mileage out of open G. “Bone Cave” is tuned to that. I’ve got plenty of experience in open D, but I don’t find it as interesting. I like to use a low open C tuning on acoustic guitar, especially the Larrivée, and on the Weissenborn lap steel. Low to high, it goes C G C G C, and then I’ll alternate the top string; I usually tune it to D, occasionally to E, and sometimes to C so it’s in unison with the second string. Kelly Joe Phelps showed me another version of that same C tuning with an F on top, and I used that for “Hale Road Revelation.” I might have capoed it up a step or two. I do that sometimes with the C tunings.

Talk us through how you got into playing Weissenborn-style lap steel.

I was blown away when I saw Ben Harper play a Weissenborn in Vancouver around 1991, just before his first record came out. I was drawn to the instrument, and in 1997 I met Neil Russell from Celtic Cross Instruments, whose specialty is making lap slides in true Weissenborn style. He made me one that’s big and a bit unruly, and I love it. I eventually got into David Lindley’s Weissenborn playing from his live records, and then I started getting into Hawaiian music, which sounds great on a Weissenborn. Most people use a thumbpick and two fingerpicks to play it, but I use three fingerpicks, as I do when I play pedal steel or Dobro. I use ProPiks, which don’t have any fingertips. It’s like a metal ring around your fingertip, so you can still make contact with your flesh, but with the volume of a fingerpick.

Can you share some insights to the resonator tune from Lucky Hand, “Bentonia Blues”?

Bob Brozman turned me on to National resonators, and they eventually sent me a Tricone that’s loud and projects well. I stopped playing it live because it’s heavy, but I’ve always used it for writing and recording. It sounds really good in D tunings, and “Bentonia Blues” is D minor: low to high, D A D F A D. That’s the same tuning Skip James used, and some of the chord voicings are right out of his book, even though the song itself has nothing to do with Skip James’ music. Sonny Landreth’s influence appears on that track as well, especially at the very end. I love the records he made with John Hiatt. He had stopped playing acoustic altogether for a while, so it’s good to hear that he’s back to playing some acoustic these days.

You interview great musicians on your Music Makers and Soul Shakers podcast, available through your website []. How did you get into podcasting, and what’s coming up?

I love the format of the WTF with Marc Maron podcast, but he’s a comic, so his musician interviews don’t go as deep as I’d like. I adopted that format and started doing podcasts about two years ago. I’ve featured John Hammond, Van Dyke Parks, and I just talked to Chuck Leavell from the Rolling Stones. We discuss sessions and I fade in the music they talk about as it comes up in the interview. I was doing one every Wednesday, but I couldn’t keep up on the production side, so now it’s more like once a month. I always find it very interesting to do, and if other people like it as well, that’s even better.

You’ve been touring considerably. What’s your strategy for making the plethora of acoustic instruments you play all sound great onstage?

I gave up trying to make an acoustic guitar actually sound like an acoustic guitar onstage a long time ago. I put a Sunrise magnetic pickup in the soundhole of all my touring acoustics, including the lap steel. I love the tone and consistency of a Sunrise through a tube amp with a spring reverb. Whether I’m with a band or playing solo at a festival, I can walk onstage, plug into the amp, and I know it’s going to sound good. Give me a reissue Fender Deluxe and I’m happy.