Rick Holmstrom

Rick “L.A. Holms” Holmstrom lives in that timeless zone where country, swing, and jump blues cohabitate with ’50s rock and roll and atmospheric instrumentals, and his seductive tone is powered by the juiciest natural distortion this side of Willie Johnson (when he played with Howlin’ Wolf). Born in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1965, Holmstrom’s early musical odyssey was informed by the blues and rock records his DJ father brought home. Upon moving to Southern California in 1985, Holmstrom immersed himself in the West Coast blues scene, which led to prime gigs with harp blowers William Clarke, Johnny Dyer, and Rod Piazza. He embarked on a solo career with the instrumental Lookout! in 1996, and then flamed the purists in 2002 with Hydraulic Groove, which featured loops, samples, and guest turns by DJ Logic and John Medeski. Late in the Night [M.C.], his first studio outing in five years, finds him leading a trio, and playing with the rawness that makes his live show a guita

What’s the impetus for the sound of your records?
I was trying to figure out how they got that sound on old records such as Pat Hare’s Sun recordings. I began using multiple microphones, and pulling them back from the amps to get that roomy sound. But you can lose punch by overdoing the room sound, so now I use a combination of close and ambient mic positions. The most important thing is using real ambience—rather than signal processing—which I get by feeding the original guitar, drums, sax, vocals, and any other tracks that need air through an amp in a big room with a microphone placed ten to 20 feet away. Then, I’ll mix that sound with the drier, punchier close-miked tracks. It sounds better than using reverb tanks or digital reverb—though I sometimes use my Roland Space Echo on those tracks before the signal hits the amp. I think delay sounds fatter than reverb. Reverb washes things out, while delay, when used right, makes them stand out.

Speaking of the old way, “Better Way” is an 11-bar blues.
I was thinking of Jimmy Reed for that one. I once wrote a song called “One Bar Short” that we did on a Kid Ramos record, and the guys in the studio were scratching their heads trying to figure out what was going on. I kept telling them it’s because it’s “one bar short” [laughs]. It doesn’t matter to me how many bars there are—you have to follow the melody and the singer.

What gear do you use to get your killer guitar tone?
I have two early-’50s Harmony H44 Stratotone solidbodies, a Harmony H62 hollowbody, a Telecaster, and a ’49 Gibson ES-125. I use a custom set of GHS strings—gauged .012, .015, .018, .032, .042, and .052—and Clayton .80 picks. My main amps are an early-’50s Valco Bronson and a Valco McKinney—each with one 10" speaker. For effects, I have a Line 6 POD, a Roland RE-201 Space Echo, an SIB Echodrive, and an Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man. Sometimes, I run a line out from the Valco to the Space Echo, and then into a modified Fender Super Reverb with one 15" speaker.