Ben Harper: Shooting From Both Hips

I’m always thinking about different combinations and configurations to utilize both electric and acoustic instruments,” says Ben Harper, who is more of a “guitars” player than a guitar player. 

I’M ALWAYS THINKING ABOUT DIFFERENT COMBINATIONS and configurations to utilize both electric and acoustic instruments,” says Ben Harper, who is more of a “guitars” player than a guitar player. From lap steel to acoustic, electric, resonator, or even bass, if it has strings, chances are that Harper can handle it. This is what happens when you grow up around the family guitar shop, as Harper did in Claremont, California.

His 1994 debut, Welcome to the Cruel World, was an acoustic-based, singer-songwriter affair that showcased his mastery of the Weissenborn lap slide. He gradually gravitated towards more electrified tones as he built his band, the Innocent Criminals, and also displayed a talent for genre jumping, routinely bouncing from reggae to funk to rock and R&B. He was featured on the Standing in the Shadows of Motown soundtrack backed by the legendary Funk Brothers, and, in 2003, he recorded the Grammy-winning gospel CD There Will Be a Light with the Blind Boys of Alabama.

By 2006, Harper had amassed such a wealth of original and eclectic material that he was able to fill two CDs—one acoustic disc and one electric. The resulting double album, Both Sides of the Gun [Virgin], is technically a solo effort with Harper producing and playing most of the instruments himself. There are a few guests—including former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford on “Get It Like You Like It”—but the most notable session player is former Wallflowers guitarist Michael Ward. Now an official member of the Innocent Criminals, Ward brings a consistent solidbody presence to Harper’s dynamic live shows.

Why did you finally decide to add another guitar player?
As I was recording Both Sides of the Gun, it started out of the necessity to bring new life to songs that I felt required electric guitar. It was just time to fill up that sonic register, bring that dimension to the music, and open it up that much wider. I’d play acoustic, electric, slide—anything and everything—in the studio, and then I’d hit the stage and realize that I didn’t have enough arms!

What was it about Michael Ward’s playing that made him the right guy for your band?
I first heard him through John Hiatt’s music, so I’ve been a fan for about 12 years. I happened to meet him through [cyclist] Lance Armstrong, who is a mutual friend. Michael can take his instrument in almost any direction. He can sound like Albert King or Ali Farka Toure. I’ve never known another guitar player who appreciates such a wide range of music.

In your September ’97 GP interview, you didn’t show much appreciation for the electric solidbody. How has your opinion evolved?
I had to grow out of a corner. Everyone comes up defending his own domain. In that moment, I was defending the Weissenborn and its acoustic purity to the death, but I had to outgrow that in order to evolve. I eventually started plugging the Weissenborn into an amplifier, then I got into electric lap steel, and I finally got into solidbody electric, as well. I usually play a Gibson Les Paul Special or a Fender Telecaster.

How does having a consistent solidbody player in the band affect your approach?
Michael is equally capable at playing a solid rhythm or a burning lead, and it frees me up in many ways—as a producer, as a singer, as an acoustic rhythm player, and as a soloist on lap steel. I try to stick to my particular thing while still growing within that area. Having a roundneck player has allowed me to go deeper into how I play slide guitar, which is what drew me to music in the first place.

Deeper in what sense?
It just opened up for me. I started hearing the slide guitar as a brass or wind instrument. As a player, you go through stages. Sometimes, you get caught in what you think is a rut, but that rut is just preparing you to break out onto another level of the instrument. I feel that the solos on Both Sides of the Gun show me kicking through to the other side of a rut with new sonic and melodic ideas. Part of it is throwing caution to the wind—just digging in and attacking with my thumb and fingers. I’m losing skin every night I play the guitar, because I’m more into playing than ever before.

What are you most excited about?
There are three things. I have come to re-appreciate the Weissenborn’s pure acoustic sound. Some nights, I’ll go off on a 12-minute improvised piece, so that’s back in the fold big time. The second thing is the 6-string electric lap steel I co-designed with Billy Asher. I’m as drawn to its electric sound as I am to the Weissenborn’s acoustic sound—which is a first for me. The mahogany body is made with a cap—Les Paul style—and there are body chambers that give it a hollow sound, yet it’s an electric guitar. The third thing is Dumble amplification [laughs], and that’s that.

What is it about Dumble amps that’s so special? Extremely discriminating players sing its praises as if they’ve found the Holy Grail.
They are the most responsive, sonically pure, outer-planetary amplifiers. You can run an acoustic guitar through it, and it sounds the best it has ever sounded. Of course, 50 percent of tone is in your hands. From where I sit, the other 50 percent is Dumble. This was the first record where I actually had a Dumble throughout the entire recording process, and I felt like I broke out of a shell.

All the electric leads on Both Sides of the Gun were played on my Asher lap steel through a Dumble Overdrive Special. I’d place the mic way back—even blending in the drum overheads to put as much air around the sound as possible. I’m recording digitally to Pro Tools HD because the top-of-the-line stuff finally sounds as good as analog. I also like my solos to be one take, so it’s cool to be able to lay down a few of them, and pick the best one without waiting for the tape to rewind.

What’s the greatest difference in your guitar approach from the studio to the stage?
I try to make them one and the same by writing and playing for myself first. If you shift what you’re doing when there’s a crowd, you’re altering the essence of why you picked up the instrument in the first place. I’m finding my own comfort zone with how I step to the front of the stage. I was never comfortable sitting down the whole time. I always felt I needed to stand up, but all the guys I admired the most when I first started listening to music sat down. They were the old blues cats, such as John Lee Hooker, Son House, Bukka White, Skip James, Black Ace, Mississippi John Hurt, and Elizabeth Cotten.

Who is the most inspirational player you’ve ever seen live?
Tom Morello is one of the most exciting guitar players I’ve ever watched. He’s such a brave player. You know it’s him from the first note.

Last year, Guitar Player launched an annual Guitar Hero competition. What would you look for in each contestant if you were a judge?
I’d look for someone with a unique sound and style. Technique is important, too, but it needs to go somewhere. People want to hear who you are, and why you are you. They want to hear your pain, your triumph, your sorrow, and your sadness. They want to hear you scared, and they want to hear you brave. If that’s not coming out, it doesn’t really help to have technique. You need to have a balance of technique and passion.

Can you take us through some of the songs on Both Sides of the Gun? Let’s start with “Better Way.”
The signal path for that one is a giant tube mic placed just off the soundhole towards the neck of a Weissenborn Style 1 lap steel. I’m also playing bass, drums, and keys, as well as African and Indian percussion. David Lindley plays tambura. I pieced this song together an instrument at a time. The sound was massive, so I didn’t really mix it. There was too much stuff to micromanage, so I decided to just sing over it and be done.

What about “Engraved Invitation”?
That’s my Asher lap steel in open E tuning played through a Dumble Overdrive Special on its 50-watt setting. I used a Vox wah, and an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone. The acoustic is a Gibson J-50 played with a pick. I played everything on this track, and when you’re playing to your own musical instincts, you turn corners and create subtle nuances in the same places—even if you’re playing different instruments. For example, if I do something erratic on the drums, chances are I’m going to do it in the same place on the bass.

I love the solo on “Gather Round the Stone.”
That may be my favorite on the whole CD. We had a discussion about the lyrics before I took that solo, and I feel it’s the most lyrical solo I’ve ever taken. It sounds like a woman who is wailing over the loss of her son. Actually, this is the only solo I recorded without an amp. We plugged my Asher lap steel straight into the Neve console with a Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer and a Vox wah. There was no amp.

“Please Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating”?
That entire track was cut using just a kick-drum mic and two overheads.

Mark Ford guests on “Get It Like You Like It.”
His slide guitar is in the left speaker. He’s extraordinary. That man is pure tone. He’s living proof that half the tone is in you. Michael Ward and the rest of the Innocent Criminals also play on this one.

What inspired the jazz vibe of “The Way You Found Me”?
That jazzy chord progression was in my head. I’m a music theory hack, so I sang it out to find it on guitar. I just kicked it out on a roundneck, worked out the bass line, and brought in proficient players who locked right into it. I loved playing the solo on this tune. Hopefully, you’ve not heard slide guitar played over those chords for a long time—if ever. That was exciting. I was like a kid leaning into that song. For that whole solo, I was in the mindset of a horn player. Once again, the tone is my Asher through a Dumble Overdrive Special.

At nearly nine minutes, “Serve Your Soul” is the longest song on the album.
I had been working on “Serve Your Soul” for a while, and I finally got it to a place where I had all the different movements and pieces of it ready for one long song. It was about 15 minutes, so I cut it down. I know it’s crazy to say a nine-minute song is the “edited” version, but I approached it as a classical piece. I brought in Jason Mozersky—who is a super soulful Albert King disciple—and bassist Jesse Ingalls and drummer Jordan Richardson, who play in a band called Oliver Future. I’m a fan of their Zeppelin sensibility and sensitivity. My manager brought them by the studio. I showed them the song, and we just laid it down a few times. I’m playing all the acoustic guitars, as well as the electric leads in the middle and outro sections. My guitar is mainly in the right speaker, and then in the center for the middle solo. I used a Gibson J-50 for the acoustic parts, and the Asher—tuned to D major—plugged into the Dumble for the slide solos.

How did you approach “Morning Yearning”?
I’m double thumbing the bass line—à la Taj Mahal—and picking with my finger on a Martin D-28 tuned to drop D. It’s a blues fingerpicking style, but the melody is coming from a different place. I put a string section and an acoustic bass around it, and gave it a beat. At first, there were no drums on it—and it was cool that way—but a backbeat played with brushes really brought the song to life.

“Sweet Nothing Serenade” is a beautiful instrumental.
That was recorded with a single tube mic on a Weissenborn Style 1. Originally, I was going to play all the parts—the bass line and everything—on slide guitar, but I decided to take it in a different direction. I played drums, bass, and vibes to fill up the sound a bit more. The melody is the same as the first few notes of “The Three of Us” from my debut album, Welcome to the Cruel World. That’s the first time I’ve clearly plagiarized myself. I didn’t notice until after it was done.

Both Sides of the Gun spotlights your current approach to acoustic and electric playing. Can you describe how your focus has shifted over the years, and where you might be heading in the future?
It has really grown one song at a time. Welcome to the Cruel World showed signs of where I would go on Fight for Your Mind, and how that would evolve to become more electric on The Will to Live. Each record has clearly represented sonic growth on the instrument, and progression as a songwriter. The Blind Boys thing just fell into my lap, and I’m hoping something else will, too. I’m open to suggestions—seriously.

How about a blazing rock album that kicks ass from the moment you put it on until the moment you take it off?
I hear you loud and clear. It’s done. I’m going to shock you all with a record that peels the paint off the walls!

Special thanks to Harper’s guitar tech, Randy Freed.