The following is an excerpt from the new May/June 2013 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine.
Pickin’ and Grinnin’ — His hilarious musical numbers, including one where he serenades a giant cat, are the most hotly anticipated scenes in the blockbuster 'Hangover' movie franchise. But when it comes to his love for bluegrass and commitment to mastering its musical intricacies, Ed Helms pulls no punches.
By Richard Bienstock
Ed Helms is thrilled. Or at least he’s pretending to be. The actor and comedian is seated on a stool in the middle of a Hollywood photo studio, clutching an old and weathered acoustic guitar.
As a photographer’s camera shutter clicks away, he enacts an heroic display of affection for the six-stringed beauty in his hands: holding it straight up and out, his eyes filled with wonderment and adoration; planting it proudly on one knee, a pompous, ear-to-ear grin stretched across his face; and pulling it close against his body in a enveloping bear hug, mouth quivering as if he’s about to burst into tears.
Helms may be laying it on a bit thick, but in his defense, this is no ordinary instrument. Rather, it is a Gallagher G-50 that previously belonged to flatpicking and fingerstyle legend Doc Watson. Watson, who gave it the endearing nickname Ol’ Hoss, used the guitar almost exclusively in the late Sixties and early Seventies, including for his appearance on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken (where one can hear Merle Travis comment that the instrument “rings like a bell”). In 1975, he returned Ol’ Hoss to the Gallagher company, and the instrument subsequently took up residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, where it resided for decades prior to Watson’s death, at the age of 89, in May 2012.
But a few months ago Gallagher put the guitar, by far its most famous model, on the auction block at Christie’s. That the winning bid of $40,000 came in at roughly five times the high estimate is hardly surprising given the instrument’s pedigree. That the winning bidder was the guy who plays the tooth-losing, stripper-marrying, face-tattoo-getting dentist in the darkly comical bro-mance franchise The Hangover? Well, that was a bit more unexpected.
To anyone familiar with Helms’ career, however, his secret life as a musician isn’t much of a revelation, or even a secret. It has been divulged on the silver screen more than once: in The Hangover, where he sings and plays an affectionate piano ode to a Rohypnol-blitzed tiger, and in The Hangover Part II, in a profane acoustic reworking of Billy Joel’s “Allentown.” And he has performed on TV many times, most often on the mockumentary sitcom The Office, where, to pick just once instance, his character, Andy Bernard, can be seen engaging in a furious banjo/guitar battle on John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with his coworker, Dwight Schrute, in an effort to win the affections of a new receptionist.
Helms has also exposed his love for music—and bluegrass music in particular—online, acting in several shorts for the web site Funny or Die. In one, titled “Bluegrass Diva,” he is murdered in cold blood by the otherwise reserved banjo great Noam Pickelny. Another, “The Bluegrass Brainwash Conspiracy,” plays off the cliché of the music as a strictly backwoods phenomenon, with Helms revealed to be a clandestine member of the L.B.H.I.B.A.P.I.A.B.H. (a.k.a. the League of a Bunch of Hillbillies Intent on Brainwashing the American Public Into Also Becoming Hillbillies).
But Helms’ musical passions are hardly fodder to garner a few quick laughs. He is also one-third of the long-running, and quite good, bluegrass combo the Lonesome Trio, and is a cofounder and organizer of the L.A. Bluegrass Situation, a multi-day festival that is held annually at the famed Largo at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles. Over its three-year run, the event has hosted some of the biggest names in bluegrass and roots music, from the Punch Brothers to Sean and Sara Watkins to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Last year, the festival’s closing night performance featured a set by not only the Lonesome Trio but also Steve Martin, the man widely viewed as the preeminent—and only—bluegrass-loving, banjo-picking actor/comedian on the scene. That is, until Ed Helms came along.
Not that he’s looking to steal anyone’s thunder. “To be honest, I don’t know how much of a market there really is to corner here,” Helms says with a laugh when Martin’s name is mentioned. “But let’s just say there’s room for everybody.”
As for how he managed to wind up with the famed Watson guitar, Helms, who is a devoted fan of the picking great, chalks it up to a combination of perseverance and good fortune. “It’s something I knew I’d love to have, though I wasn’t willing to spend a totally preposterous amount of money to get it,” he says of Ol’ Hoss. “But it is more than I’ve ever spent on an instrument, for sure. But I feel so lucky to have it, because there’s so much life left in the guitar. It’s a real player, and it’ll get some good playing.”
Helms himself has been playing music for most of his 39 years. Though he started on piano (and yes, that’s really him tickling the ivories in The Hangover), he eventually moved on to guitar, receiving a Gibson Nouveau acoustic from his parents when he was 13 years old. “It was $400, used,” he says. “It was basically four Christmas presents in one.” As for what led a kid growing up in Atlanta in the early Eighties to use that guitar to play bluegrass and roots music rather than rock and roll, Helms offers a few explanations. One is just pure adolescent rebellion.
For the rest of this story, plus features on the Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Collection, Neil Giraldo and his guitars, Steve Martin, plus Hollywood's 25 Funniest Guitar Moments, check out the May/June 2013 issue (The Comedy Issue) of Guitar Aficionado, which is available now at the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.