Phil Keaggy's Expanding Universe

“THERE ARE TIMES WHEN I AM ABLE TO FREE MYSELF from concerns about technique, and suddenly my spirit soars and the music just flows through my hands spontaneously,” enthuses Phil Keaggy.
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“THERE ARE TIMES WHEN I AM ABLE TO FREE MYSELF from concerns about technique, and suddenly my spirit soars and the music just flows through my hands spontaneously,” enthuses Phil Keaggy. “That comes with living with the guitar for a long time.” Indeed, and in the nearly half-century that Keaggy has been playing he has released almost as many records, spanning genres as diverse as psychedelic rock, funk, folk, new acoustic, new age jazz, and worship music.

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Case in point: In the time it takes many artists to record and release a single album, Keaggy has released four, all on his Strobie Records label. Cover of Love (“Pretty much just some simple songs, most of them covers, which point in the direction of love,” he says), the rollicking Cosmic Rumpus with the Jack Giering Trio, an in-studio performance of his masterful live-looping set called Live from Kegworth Studio, and an intriguing collection of improvisational duets with global percussionist Kyle Jones titled Numen. And that’s not to mention 2011’s Glass Harp Live at the Beachland Ballroom 11.01.08 [Special Friends], which showcases Keaggy with the legendary power trio that he fi rst achieved success with in the early 1970s.

Keaggy’s playing also graces recordings by numerous other artists, most recently five tracks on Mickey Dolenz’s upcoming album Remember.

Once a luminary within the then-nascent Christian music industry, Keaggy’s faith continues to inform his life and music. “I believe music and all that is good is inspired by a loving creator without whom there would be nothing beautiful,” he says. Whatever its origin, Keaggy’s extraordinary guitar playing communicates in a universal language that anyone with ears and half a heart can understand.

What guitars are you playing these days?
There are three electrics that I play mostly. My main electric is the ’71 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe that I modified with PAF and PRS pickups, which I have been playing for a long time. I also have a ’64 Fender Strat that a friend gave me in 1987, which is a fantastic instrument that I do a lot of recording with. And the third electric is a Strat-style Zion with two Seymour Duncan humbuckers. It is a well-crafted instrument with a whammy bar and a beautiful tone that they made for me back in 1986. My brother Dave also gave me a 1959 Gretsch Anniversary that I love. He bought it new in 1960, and used to let me play it when I was in 7th grade. Finally, I have two Flatline guitars, which are awe- some. One is a Tele-style instrument called a Delta 90, which has a regular Tele-type pickup in the neck and a P-90 in the bridge. The other is a Vistaglide Custom, which has Gretsch-style pickups. My main acoustic is still the 2004 Olson SJ Cutaway, which plays and sounds wonderful.

Do you have a standard live rig?
When I play nearby I use a mid-’60s Vox AC30 with Top Boost, often combined with a modified early-’60s Fender Deluxe—though recently I substituted a Peavey Classic 30 for the Fender on a local gig and got a great tone. I set the Peavey right in front of the Vox, so it was a combination of the tones. You still feel the oomph of the Vox, but the level is slightly attenuated. When I play away from home I typically borrow amps from friends. As for effects, I’ve got a Pedaltrain board with a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler, a custom- built compressor, a Visual Sound Route 66 overdrive/compressor, a Swell G-TOD over- drive, a Tone Freak Abunai overdrive, and once in a while I use a Franklin ProDrive. I also have several old Boss pedals, including a CH-1 Super Chorus, a TR-2 Tremolo, a DC-2 Dimension C, an OC-2 Octave, and a FV-60 volume pedal. I use both the DL-4 and a rack-mounted Lexicon JamMan for looping. I also still use the Heet Sound EBow.

Cosmic Rumpus was released by the Jack Giering Trio, which shares the same lineup as the Phil Keaggy Trio.
Exactly. They did Inter-Dimensional Traveler, and we’re working on the third album now, which will be by the John Sferra Trio. They’re all going to have the same psychedelic covers.

There are some great tones on that album, like that slightly overdriven solo on “Blue Cayman.”
That’s my ’71 Les Paul going through an unusual signal chain. As I recall I used a “Blackface” setting on the Line 6 POD, then into a LaChapelle tube preamp and a Daking limiter compressor, and probably a Line 6 Echo Pro delay, though I don’t think I used a lot of delay. I was trying to emulate a little of the Bloomfield style on that one. It’s strange because the tune itself has this kind of David Rose “The Stripper” vibe.

And what about the sweet, steel-guitar-like solo tone on “Forest Green”?
That’s the Zion guitar. I was going for an unusual midrange tone to create a kind of “deep forest” sound, and using the whammy bar with volume swells to get the steel-guitar effects.

Describe your picking techniques.
When I play acoustic, I use acrylics on my thumbnail and my three fingernails [Keaggy lost his middle finger in an accident when he was a child]. When I started out, I played exclusively with a pick, but then I began incorporating my third finger, and eventually I put the pick aside almost entirely. Not having a pick in my hand freed me up to play multiple notes simultaneously and do things like slapping harmonics. I still use a pick if I’m playing a song with strumming throughout.

On electric, I mostly play with a pick, though about 30 percent of the time I play with just my fingers, which opens up a whole different world of expression. The direct contact with the skin puts you more in touch with the strings, and you feel and hear things differently. Jeff Beck was a big inspiration for that. When I do use a pick, I prefer Fender Medium-style teardrop picks. I’ve tried all sorts of picks, but that always seems to work for me.

Talk about your vibrato. Do you move the string up and down or back and forth or combine the two?
For typical blues-type stuff I’ll go up and down. Sometimes I do it while the palm of my hand is still cradling the neck and some- times without. You know how Clapton does it where it seems like his hand is just floating? I also go back and forth—especially if I’m doing volume swells with my pinky and want to get that violin-like sound. When I was a teenager I used to think I had to do a really fast vibrato, like Jim McCarty and Jorma Kaukonen. Michael Bloomfield did that early on, too, but as he got older he slowed down.

And you also use a vibrato bar?
My Zion guitar has a vibrato bar, which I use when I’m playing it. Before I had a guitar with a bar on it I developed a technique that sounds like I’m scooping a note in the way a bar would, and I still use that sometimes.

Is there any aspect of your playing that you feel has evolved significantly in the last few years, either technically or aesthetically?
One thing that’s happened more lately is that people will come up after a performance and say, “There was a phrase you did that touched my soul.” So maybe what has evolved is my ability to put more heart into my playing, rather than anything technical. That comes from an appreciation for the gifts of life and music and of being able to communicate something to people with my playing.

Your playing encompasses many types of music, yet you have a unique voice. What’s one aspect of your “signature” style?
One evening recently I listened to a lot of my music on random play, taking it in like I was somebody discovering me for the first time, and I realized that I do have a signature style. I noticed that I have a way of holding down one or two notes, like pedal tones, while other notes are moving about, and that was a consistency across my approach. I’d been so wrapped up in playing my whole life that I hadn’t noticed something that really contributed to making me who I am. I think when a musician realizes, “That’s me, that’s what I do,” it helps them appreciate the gift that they have, and the hard work that went into finding their voice, and that encourages them to keep going further.