“I’LL OFTEN WRITE A SONG THAT I THINK IS GOING to be for one project, and then it turns out that it works better for something else,” says Canadian guitarist Paul Pigat in reference to his two very different albums, Cousin Harley and Boxcar Campfire. “For instance, ‘It’s a Sin’ was originally going to be a Boxcar song,” Pigat explains. “But then I plugged in one of my Gretsches and turned the reverb up to ten, and it was like, ‘Hold on, there’s a great surf guitar riff that fits with this.’ And all of a sudden it became the title track for the Cousin Harley record.”
The titles for the two albums also reveal different personas for Pigat, who alternately shifts between the Gretschwielding (and also steel-playing) “Cousin Harley” for his killer rockabilly thing, and the acoustic strumming—though hardly traditional sounding—balladeer behind Boxcar Campfire.
“My favorite part on the Boxcar album was on “Storm Song,” where I needed this big pad sound, but didn’t want to use any keyboards,” says Pigat. “So I played a ’30s Dobro with an Ebow, and spent hours doing those tracks to get a big washy texture. It’s kind of a Daniel Lanois sound, and I’ve always thought of it as distinctly Canadian. I know it sounds weird to say that Canadian roots music has its own sound, but it does.”
Who are some of your main influences?
For the Cousin Harley thing, and that style of playing, it would have to be Les Paul, and also Jimmie Rivers—especially for the western swing styles of the ’40s and ’50s. Danny Gatton really influenced me when I was a kid, and I’m also a big Blind Blake fan.
What did you pick up from Les Paul?
Oddly, I picked up a lot of theory from him. I have a degree in classical theory, so you’d think I would know how to work my way around jazz changes. But I remember the first tune I worked on was Les’ version of “Up the Lazy River” by Hoagie Carmichael. This was maybe 25 years ago, and I could play through the changes, but there were all these notes he used over the changes that I couldn’t figure out. So I did a little analysis of that style and I really got into a different headspace of how to use the altered scale and whole tone scale. It’s what really put me on the path towards getting into swing harmony.
When you mention Jimmie Rivers, was it the Brisbane Bop album that you listened to?
Oh yeah. I’ve had that album for maybe 15 years, and I can say I’ve never ever gotten bored of it for one second. I still listen to it at least once a week. Jimmie was the height of the Charlie Christian style of guitar playing, and he also had Vance Terry in his band, who was like the whole Duke Ellington orchestra in one steel guitarist.
Cousin Harley and Boxcar Campfire are such different-sounding albums. Did the way you record change for these records?
Not really, although with Cousin Harley the process was a lot simpler because it’s primarily a trio with some added rhythm guitar parts. With Boxcar, I recorded the rhythm section first as I always do, and also played all the banjo and Dobro on it. But then it took months and months for me to figure out the record, because I had so little time to work on it between other projects and touring for Cousin Harley. I knew how I wanted Boxcar to sound, but I sort of created it in the studio.
Does being adept at a variety of styles pose a problem as far as establishing your own an identity as a player?
I think so, but being a well-rounded guitar player also means that you can sit in on almost any kind of gig. Up until a few years ago I had a jazz trio, a rock band, a cowpunk band, and all sorts of other things. If I had a chance to play everything I like, I’d be playing in 50 different bands. Eventually, though, you have to focus on just one or two things so that people know what the heck you’re going for.
So rockabilly isn’t necessarily a defining style for you?
Well, I love it and it’s been the thing I’ve done the longest, but I wouldn’t call it defining. I’m actually doing a rock record with a singer-songwriter in town right now. As with any project I’m involved in, I just try to be appropriate for the music. There are going to be the occasional rockabilly inspired moments, just because that’s part of what I do, but then there might be some Tal Farlow- inspired moments, too.
In what ways did Tal Farlow inspire you?
I think he was one of the best jazz players to have ever walked the planet. And not only because of his playing, which was incredibly inventive. If you listen to that first recording, The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow, you can almost hear him think. He’s working his way through these tunes, and you can tell that he’s on the edge of his ability and really pushing himself. I’ve always been inspired by that kind of intensity.
What guitars and amps are you using now?
It really depends on what I’m doing. If it’s a jazz gig, I’ve got some custom archtop guitars that a friend makes over on Vancouver Island. If I’m doing rockabilly, then the Gretsch is usually my first call. I plug it into a Gretsch Executive amp. Before I hooked up with Gretsch, my main rig was a ’49 Gibson ES-350—the Tal Farlow guitar—and an Ampeg GU-12 amp. That’s what I used for 15 years. I also recently bought a Squier Classic ’50s Vibe Telecaster that I’m really in love with. I actually sold another of my really nice Teles when I got it because I really don’t need anything else. I’ve got a Hipshot B-Bender on it, too, that I use a lot. I found a guy in town recently who made me a clone of a Fender 5E3 tweed Deluxe, and I’m using that amp in the rock band now. I also have an old Silvertone 17" archtop, a couple of Gibson ES- 125s, and a Gibson L-1 fl at-top from 1928 that I used on Boxcar Campfire. I’ve got upwards of 30 instruments, including a ’50s Stringmaster steel and an Audiovox steel from the ’20s, which is a very weird thing.
Which Gretsch model are you playing now?
I use a two-tone Country Club. Gretsch first gave me a Falcon, and I completely fell in love with it because it had a 25½" scale, which gives you a little more clang. But about a year later they sent me a Country Club with DynaSonic pickups, and it completely changed everything because I was able to get the twang that I used to get out of my old ES-350. I can also get almost a Telecaster tone out of it, so I have the best of both worlds with that guitar.
So you generally prefer single-coil pickups?
I’ve never owned any guitars with humbuckers, and have mostly used P-90s with my Gibsons. I find humbuckers hard to control because I like to turn my amp up a lot in order to get overdrive. Humbuckers tend to oversaturate the amp for what I want, and even though the DynaSonics squeal really easily, you can get a certain snarly growl out of them and still get that hammer-on-a-sheet-of-steel kind of sound off the pick. There’s really something about the DynaSonic; it’s like a very big-sounding Tele pickup.
Do you use any effects?
Yes. I have a small pedalboard that has a couple of Boss pedals from the ’80s—a CS-2 compressor and a DM-2 delay. I don’t even use the CS-2 as a compressor; I turn the compression all the way down and the volume all the way up, and use it as a lead boost. And then, if I can’t turn the amp up loud enough for grind tones in the venue I’m playing, I have a Z.Vex Box of Rock that I’m quite fond of. I also have three Nocturne pedals—the Dyno Brain, Atomic Brain, and Billy Brain. I’m not sure which is on my pedalboard now, but it’s just another level of boost that I can use to hit the front end of the amp. And if I have to use an amp on the road that doesn’t have reverb, I have a Malekko Chicklet. It’s really small, and it has a weird vibe that reminds me of an old Silvertone reverb.
Your fans seem to expect the unexpected from you, so how do you keep moving forward musically?
I’m kind of like a pitbull on a bone when it comes to practicing, and I always try to find new ways around things. I don’t necessarily like sticking to three-chord rock and roll, so if I’m soloing over a simple progression, I’ll try to use some subsitution harmony in the melodic line just so it moves around in unexpected ways. When you listen to a great jazz guitar player you never can predict what’s coming up, so I try to put a little of that in my rockabilly stuff.
What I practice, though, is generally not what I play. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of work on altered scale stuff because I want to get a little more outside with my shapes. The bassist in my instrumental rock trio is a free jazz player, and free jazz has always eluded me. I’ve never been able to understand how you can play for ten minutes and never establish a key center, so I’ve been trying to learn to do that, too. It’s never going to come out in Cousin Harley, but it does allow a certain freedom, because you can see that no matter where you go, there’s a way out. Of course, I may also just work on Buck Owens stuff—I never know what I’m going to be practicing.
Do you improvise a lot when soloing?
Oh yeah. I’ve had students who want to play solos off my records, and I’ve had to sit down and learn them all note-for-note. In the studio, I typically have a couple of goes at the solo and pick the one I like. Now that we’re touring more I’m trying to be more specific with solos or riffs on certain numbers. There’s only so much you can do when improvising anyway—and I hate repeating myself—so having a couple of tunes with set solos can help me avoid doing those riffs again on songs that I’m improvising over.
Will your rock trio become an album project anytime soon?
A lot of people have said they’d like me to do a record with the trio, but I feel that I have to focus on Cousin Harley and Boxcar Campfire for now because that’s the stuff that is closest to my heart. But there’s always time to make a record just for fun. It’s just another opportunity to get to play stuff that I don’t do all the time, and that’s what keeps you fresh.