TOULOUSE ENGELHARDT IS NO LONGER CONTENT TO BE THE most amazing 12-string guitarist you’ve never heard of. With a sizzling new solo album and old music getting rediscovered, the sun-crusted Californian—born 59 years ago in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—is finally poised to finish the breakthrough he started in the 1970s. He first showed off his dazzling double- six chops on the LP Toulousions, made for John Fahey’s Takoma Records in 1976, and remastered for CD 20 years later by Hollywood Records. Initially compared to Takoma label mates such as Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho, Engelhardt proved hard to pin down—picture Dick Dale and J.S. Bach wrestling for the soul of Reverend Gary Davis and you get some idea of the sound.
His nerves got frazzled in the ring, however, and the guitarist opted for simply raising a family in Laguna Beach. Engelhardt collects old sci-fi and fantasy posters, and in his second coming this zeal has infected his packaging, as well as his music. Check out Engelhardt’s wacky Martian Lust disc, recorded in 2006 with a Mosrite 6-string made for him by Semie Moseley himself. His current outing, Perpendicular Worlds [Lost Grove], made with the production team known as TEA, contains nine originals and two standards, by Davey Graham and Jimi Hendrix. This collection of swirling solo miniatures, recorded mostly on 12-string and with only the subtlest of effects, is garnering the biggest raves of his life. So the beret-wearing eccentric gets pulled in from the margins once again. Guess everyone should have listened in 1988 when Moseley called Engelhardt, “One of the most creative guitarists I have ever heard.”
You started with surf music, but your dad played tenor guitar.
He was really a virtuoso and he loved Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. My mom was an opera singer. My first years were in San Francisco, and then Hermosa Beach, where Ozzie and Harriet Nelson lived next door. I’ve got photos of Ricky and me with beach buckets. Eventually, we migrated to Orange County, where my parents bought me my first Mosrite, a fantastic Ventures model that was stolen in the ’70s.
By the time we moved to Palos Verdes, there were garage bands everywhere. Two blocks away, Eddie & the Showmen practiced, and I got to know Bob Knight, the sax man. I liked the simple, melodic lines. That’s so important to my music, even today. In fact, I’m doing do a version of “Miserlou” on my next record.
You’ve said you only had two guitar lessons, but apparently the teachers were pretty good.
It was the summer of 1966, and a pal said, “You gotta come down to the Lighthouse and hear some jazz.” We were kids, but on a hot night they’d open this porthole door. “Tequila” had just come out, and the band was playing that. Pretty soon, my friends took off after some surfer girls, and I stuck around. After the show, I went down the alley behind the place, and there was Wes Montgomery, sittin’ on the steps by the kitchen door, having a cigarette. Before I could say anything, he said, “You’re a guitarist, aren’t you?” I asked him how he did those octaves, and he reached around the doorway, pulled out his Gibson and showed me how he worked that big thumb of his.
The other was Larry Carlton. He had a ’57 Bel Air and he drove to my house. The lesson was in my bedroom. He told me I should learn to read and really get to know the instrument, but I just wanted to play some songs. He taught me “Walk, Don’t Run” and left. My parents said, “If you’re not going to do what the man tells you, we’re not paying for any more lessons.” So that was that.
What prompted the focus on 12-string?
It was the Byrds influence. They played at my high school in 1966, and I was knocked out by [then] Jim McGuinn’s Rickenbacker—by the power of that thing. Davey Graham was another one who played the 12. Believe it or not, my first was a Fender Villager. Sheesh. Then I saw what David Crosby was playing, and wanted to get that. It was a Martin D-12-28, so I got one, a ’71.
You later toured with the Byrds, and that has proved a lasting connection.
Clarence White gave me a lot of tips. He turned me onto playing with a capo. Chris Darrow was in a latterday version of the band, and he’s been a constant, as well, producing a lot of my music. Chris was also in Kaleidoscope with David Lindley, who has been like a big brother to me, pushing me to get back out there. David made quite a few calls for me. Recently, he turned me onto Hani Naser, this fabulous percussionist, and I appear as his special guest. Jack Bruce is one of the best people I’ve ever worked with. As far as influences, Vernon Reid once said I sound like Sandy Bull on speed. I don’t listen that much to other people, although I have to admit that Pat Metheny has been a subtle influence in recent years—even if we don’t sound anything alike.
Tell us about plugging in at McCabe’s Guitar Shop when that Santa Monica landmark was still reserved for folkie purists.
I played there in the Toulousions era, so I started with my 12-string. But then I pulled out the Mosrite and played “Pressed Hams,” a tune I still do, with its purposely corny runs. Man, it was drenched in reverb. Phil Gallo wrote a review in Variety, and mentioned that I was the first guy to play electric guitar on their stage. I was blacklisted from that place for 20 years [laughs]!
More recently, you’ve been associated with Taylor and A Davis Guitars, both of which you endorse.
Art Davis used to make guitars for Taylor, before he went out on his own. I can’t do some of the counterpoint I need on my Taylor 855 Jumbo, which has very low action. The Davis SD12MCS, from 2003, has a bright, crystal-clear sound. It’s made out of solid Santa Cruz cypress. It’s smaller, not as deep as the Taylor, and the neck is a bit thinner. It was Jackson Browne’s guitar for a year, before I got it.
I also have a ’76 Ramirez 1A classical that’s pretty nice. There are three nylon-string pieces on the new record, although one comes from 1978. One day, I had this gig at the UCLA coffee house, and cellist William McNairn was there with me. The rest was 12-string, and I had forgotten my classical guitar. So for “Lost in the Luminiferous Ether,” I ended up playing this cheap, madein- Tijuana nylon-string that belonged to a girl Bill was dating. Someone recorded it on a Sony tape deck and gave it to me. Last year, I finally pulled out the cassette.
What kind of action do you like and do you favor any special tunings?
The action is medium-high, I use D’Addario light-gauge bronze strings, and my calluses are pretty thick. I also take a lot of calcium glutamate. People assume I use open tunings, but I don’t find that any easier. My favorite, which Christopher Parkening also uses, is a simple dropped-D. My version of “Anji” is in standard tuning.
Counterpoint on the 12-string is very difficult, but I have strong enough hands to just about pull it off. Fahey pushed me to use more dissonance, and I play in odd times within the same song. I guess I’m still influenced by that first Fender going out of tune all the time, because I play in Db a lot [laughs]. My main characteristic is that I’m willing to go out on a limb. For example, when I do “Third Stone From the Sun,” I go right off the fretboard. Leo Kottke and I call it “shotgun guitar.” Leo worships Jeff Beck, so he switched to using his nails. But I use National steel fingerpicks. They’re not super-comfortable, but they make it happen for me.
Where did you get the monicker?
I was opening for the Byrds around 1973. At that point, it was McGuinn, Clarence White, bassist Skip Battin, and Dennis Dragon on drums—his dad, Carmen, wrote the soundtrack to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Anyway, some Hell’s Angel was heckling me and I shot something equally vulgar at him. We had it going back and forth. Thirty thousand people were laughing, but I never got to finish my set. I was using my original initials then—T.L. Englehardt—and the next day, there was a review and the writer said, “I don’t know what T.L. is for, but it might as well stand for Too Loose.”
Why did this resurgence take so long to happen?
I got disillusioned and lost my own momentum. I skipped the whole Windham Hill era, and took a sabbatical from the New Age. So now I’m doing Old Age instead. It took me 30 years to put out three records. But as I got older, I was able to deal with pressure better and realized I could be more prolific if I needed to be. But you know, guitarists have a wonderful memory. If you do something great, the players remember.
What next, a surf band?
This record’s certainly a reflection on the years I disappeared. I think I need to let more people know this side of me before I go off on some other tangent. I have to be careful: I’m the new guy again!