Dayna Kurtz’s Slide Serendipity

“I never thought of myself as a guitarist by nature,” confesses Brooklyn song- stress Dayna Kurtz. “I’m flattered when people think I’m good, but I’ve only gotten better by accident. I write slide parts in my head, then I actually have to learn to play them. I look at slide as an extension of my voice. It’s as if I’m absent-mindedly humming along with the song’ melody.” And while a sultry alto voice and lyrically poignant folk songs with world-music overtones are Kurtz’s calling cards, the body of expressive slide work on her fourth and latest CD, Another Black Feather [Kismet], shows her to be a unique and talented string stylist—accidentally or not.

What inspired you to take up slide?

Hearing Chris Whitley in the mid ’90s opened my ears to the possibilities of slide, and how it could be emotive like the human voice. Early on, I toured with Kelly Joe Phelps, and watching him every night was like going to Bottleneck University. He taught me to take advantage of overtones, and let the sound of the slide interact with your voice, so I don’t dampen strings the way a traditional player would.

What’s your current rig?

My main guitar is a ’59 Gibson J-50 strung with a .013 set. I like a high action that you have to dig into. In the studio, we miked the guitar, and also plugged into a Fender Twin. Live, I go directly into the board. I amplify my guitar with a Bill Lawrence A300 soundhole pickup because it sounds closer to the guitar’s natural tone then anything else I’ve tried.

What tunings do you use for slide?

On Another Black Feather, I used open D [D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high] or open D minor [D, A, D, F, A, D]. On my last record, I played “Fred Astaire” in open-A [E, A, C#, E, A, C#, low to high], because I was trying to approximate the sound of an autoharp. Is it hard to translate a song’s studio arrangement to your typical solo-guitar performance?

No. I actually have trouble the other way around. I can write on acoustic, and visualize completed arrangements in my head, but the challenge in the studio is having to maintain a steady tempo. Because I usually perform live without a rhythm section, I speed up and slow down as I feel the song needs it. Sometimes, I can adapt to bass and drums fairly well, but, often, I’ll want the chorus to be two beats-per-minute faster, or the bridge to be five beats-per-minute slower. It’s hard to communicate that to the band, because it’s something I feel intuitively.

What is your approach to soloing?

I barely think at all when I solo. I played a Gibson Skylark lap steel on “Showdown,” “Right for Me,” and “The Miracle,” and, for those tracks, I had to concentrate on intonation. I considered using pitch correction on some of the parts, but, ultimately, I thought it was better to present how I really play—warts and all.

You’re well respected as a singer and songwriter. Is it nice to be getting recognition as a guitarist, too?

When I toured with Richard Thompson, he’d call the audience members that watched his fingers “fret counters.” I’ve certainly noticed more fret counters at my shows lately. Part of me feels like I’m putting something over on them because I am so not a trained guitarist. On the other hand, it’s nice to be regarded as more than just the chick singer.