Tinsley Ellis

“I set out to make a guitar album,” states Tinsley Ellis of Moment of Truth [Alligator], which is like Tiger Woods saying he set out to break par. Though initially drawn to British blues artists such as Peter Green, Ellis eventually discovered B.B. and Freddie King, as well as coming under the influence of the Allman Brothers Band. By the mid ’70s, Ellis was active on the Atlanta blues scene, and, in 1981, he co-founded the Heartfixers with singer/harp blower Chicago Bob Nelson. Upon Nelson’s departure, the Heartfixers became singer Nappy Brown’s backup band. A solo contract with Alligator in 1988 resulted in five critically acclaimed albums. A brief sojourn to Capricorn and Telarc produced some fine work, but Ellis resumed playing the guitar as if his life depended on it upon returning to Alligator in 2005.

You have an affinity for dramatic stop-time songs, such as the Motown number “Leavin’ Here” and your original “Somebody.”
That comes from hearing the local bands in the Deep South who were influenced by James Brown and his tight, funky arrangements on songs like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “Cold Sweat.”

“Bringing Home the Bacon” is a nasty blues, both instrumentally and lyrically.
That song was inspired by the most emotional guitarist I’ve ever seen, Buddy Guy, and my favorite album of his, Stone Crazy. I played my Fender Stratocaster through a Fender Super Reverb on 10, humming and buzzing and feeding back [laughs].

What is the evolution of your gear?
Before the Heartfixers, I used a ’72 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe through a Fender Twin Reverb or a 50-watt Marshall Plexi. Then, the Vaughan brothers blew through Atlanta in the late ’70s, and inspired me to buy a ’59 rosewood Strat and a ’65 Super Reverb. After signing with Alligator, I put the ’59 Strat under the bed, and switched to a reissue, maple-neck Mary Kaye Tribute Strat through the Marshall. One day, however, Delbert McClinton’s guitarist, Rob McNally, played the ’59 unamplified and said, “You’ve got to play this guitar!”

You have also been pictured with a Gibson ES-345.
I also played a ’67 345 because of Freddie King, and B.B. King’s Live at the Regal. I had to have one like them, with the Varitone switch.

Do you actually use the Varitone?
Yes. You can hear it most on “A Quitter Never Wins” and “The Axe” from my Live! Highwayman album. It sort of sounds hollow and metallic—like thumping the bottom of an empty coffee can. There’s another setting that sounds like you’re playing through a straw. If you set it in the first position, which runs straight to the humbuckers, the guitar just barfs.

Do you ever see yourself doing a whole album of solo acoustic music?
Well, there is a James Taylor in me just dying to get out!