Forsaken: Sonny Landreth Sets the Slide Aside for John Hiatt's "Slow Turning" Tour

In our July cover story, Sonny Landreth discusses how he was able to set down his beloved slide and re-team with John Hiatt.
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Could this really happen? The most masterful and game-changing slide guitarist the world has ever seen faces a challenge when famed singer-songwriter John Hiatt asks him to go on the road for the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Hiatt’s Slow Turning?


“When we started talking about this reunion, I should have immediately started practicing in standard tuning right away,” says Landreth, who played electric, acoustic slide, 12-string, and steel on the 1988 album sessions. “Holding a flatpick after not doing that for so many years was a rude slap of reality. I’ve played standard guitar parts on albums and such, but it’s not the same as digging in full bore with a major artist. See, when we first got together with Hiatt in the summer of 1987, I was playing in both standard and open tunings. However, at some point down the road, I started shying away from standard. We got back together with John from ’99 through 2003 and made two more albums—The Tiki Bar Is Open and Beneath This Gruff Exterior—and that pushed me to play standard again, and I started feeling really good about it. But then I got away from it once again. So I guess John is responsible for keeping this going, but all these years later, the bottom line was I had to get my chops together!”

To rewind a bit, what made you decide to devote yourself to slide in the first place?

I started out playing standard guitar with a pick just like everybody and then I learned to fingerstyle from Chet Atkins. I came upon the slide a little later when I was a teenager. Until about 1995, I did both—especially with Hiatt. Half the songs were in standard tuning with light-gauge strings and a flatpick, and the others were with heavier-gauge strings for fingerstyle and slide. At some point, though, I just decided I had more going with slide. I kept discovering new techniques and coming up with ideas, and I thought it best to put my focus in that area. As a songwriter, the chordal-tuning slide-guitar approach enabled me to interpret different styles, and put it all together in a unified way that ultimately gave me my identity.

How did Hiatt approach you about touring with his Goners backup band again?

He called me out of the blue, and it was a total shock, because we hadn’t spoken in almost 14 years. He said it was going to be the 30-year anniversary of recording Slow Turning, but his original thought was to go out last year and do the Bring the Family album. As you know, Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, and Nick Lowe did that album, but the Goners were the touring band that went out and played all those songs. John’s idea was that we would segue into Slow Turning this year to commemorate our making the album. But, ultimately, it took until the beginning of this year to get all the dates scheduled, and that was just as well, because it gave me more time to get my thing together. It has been interesting to come back and play these songs after all these years, and to honor what we did and inject some new ideas and vibes into it. That has been a big part of the fun of this whole episode.

What was involved in getting up to speed for this tour?

The first thing was just re-learning the songs. I hadn’t played some of them in almost 30 years, and I had to revisit the arrangements, the changes, and how I played them. Listening to the recordings was kind of a strange experience—like a distant dream from another life. The other part was getting my chops in shape to play the songs in standard tuning. Much of what I do on slide involves using sympathetic strings, so I’ll leave things ringing in the tunings. But that doesn’t necessarily work in standard, and that has been one of the harder things to overcome—along with just bending a string and nailing it right on pitch.

But one benefit of playing in standard is that I’ve started using the whammy bar, which I’ve never really done—except for a song called “Ol’ Lady Luck” from my album, The Road We’re On. So I’ve gotten hooked on it again, and I had my guitar tech float the bridge on one of my Strats. I’m particularly enjoying using the whammy to get vocal inflections and effects, and I’ve taken some of my right-hand techniques from slide playing and applied them using the bar to come up with something altogether different.

Now that you’ve had to go back to playing with a flatpick, what do you use?

I used to play with extra-heavy Fender picks, but I’ve found them to be too much for me right now. On some songs, I’ll use something between medium and heavy. I did a gig with Carl Verheyen in Bakersfield around Christmas, and I was telling him how the flatpick just felt so weird. He said, “Why don’t you just use a thumbpick?” So I’m doing that on “Is Anybody There,” and also on “Feels Like Rain”—which is actually just my thumb and fingers. For fingerstyle and slide, I love these flat thumbpicks that Jim Dunlop has been making for years, and I also caved and got acrylic nails, which I’ve found work well for standard tuning on electric guitar. Now, I get a big, open sound, and I can do cross-picking and patterns. I’m using the nail on the index finger and holding it like a flatpick.

What gauges are you using on your standard-tuned guitars?

I’m going for the path of least resistance, so it’s a .009-.042 set. A long time ago, I started using an .011 on the top two strings, because that worked better for slide playing in standard tuning. But I didn’t do that on this latest go ’round. The skinnier strings make it easier for bending behind the slide, as well as for double-stops or when holding down two or more strings when playing chordal melodies—which some of John’s songs require.


Watching you play a Firebird and Les Paul with Hiatt recently was certainly something new.

Yeah. It was cool to be able to bring the Firebird and the Les Paul, because a lot of people have never seen me play either of them. I would have never forseen two years ago the need to set up a guitar for standard tuning again, and I had to decide which ones I was going to use. I knew I wanted the Les Paul, because on the last album we did with John, Beneath This Gruff Exterior, I used it for “Almost Fed Up with the Blues.” I later converted it for slide, and that’s the way I’ve been using it all these years—although mostly at home. Now, it’s back in standard tuning

What year is your Les Paul?

It’s a 1970, and it has T-top humbuckers—which I’ve always liked. They’re very much like a PAF, but they have a little more output and brightness. The Firebird is a 1964, and I bought it from a great player named Paul Black when I was in a jam-blues band back around 1971. I also got a ’71 Marshall head from him. That was the first Marshall I had, and I used it for a long time until it got stolen. The Firebird’s neck is incredible. It just had all this range, and that’s what I still love about it. It’s a different beast, though, and not for everyone. Getting used to the balance is a trip, but once you do, it’s a totally unique sound and feel—especially for slide.

You also rolled out a few different Strats on this tour.

Right. Two of them are from the late ’80s. The red one with the floating trem has Fishman Fluence pickups. They sound great and they’re dead quiet, which is a real plus in some situations—especially when using a compressor. I took my ’65 Strat up to the Fishman factory, and they did their magic with it, and now my red Strat’s pickups sound so close to the ’65’s that the difference is negligible. The grey one I use for “Georgia Rain” has a Fluence PAF-style humbucker, and I can get two sounds out of it—a stock PAF tone and a hotter sound. The rosewood-fretboard Strats I’ve been playing are the last of the prototypes for my signature Fender model, and they have a Tele bridge plate that’s bolted onto the trem block, a really different neck profile, and some other cool things. I use them for D tuning with slide on “Trudy and Dave” and “Icy Blue Harp.”

What is the benefit of having so many guitars on this tour?

Well, it’s the way it ought to be. My band does fly dates mostly, and the advantage is that you can cover a lot of territory in a short amount of time, and you get to go home after four or five shows. The disadvantage is that you can’t take all of your gear, and that makes a big difference when you start looking at production values. I’ve always felt I wasn’t giving people the best of what they should be hearing, and that has always concerned me. But now, I’m bringing out guitars I haven’t played in years, along with my whole rig.


What amps are you using?

Right before I left, I blew out a bias pot on my Demeter TGA-3 head, and my Dumble needed tubes, so I just used my Demeter Mighty Minnie head for the first week, and it was great. Then, we had a day off in Los Angeles, so I went over to Alexander Dumble’s house, and he got my amp rockin’ with new tubes and all that. I was playing these different amps with all the various mods he has done, so I also got him to modify my Overdrive Special so that I could do more switching on the floor. Basically, he added more relays inside to turn some of the features on the amp’s front panel on and off. Now, for example, I can go to the clean channel and use some of my pedals on one song, and then go back to the overdrive channel, and maybe use a delay or a compressor on another song. I have more options.

Are you using overdrive pedals with the Dumble?

If I’m on the clean channel, and I want to drive it, I’ll use the Hermida Audio Mosferatu. On “Feels Like Rain,” I’m using the clean channel along with a little bit of compression. The Voodoo Lab Giggity also works great on both channels to make everything sound fatter. Like, if you want a clean sound for a lead tone, it gives it more depth. I put it last in the drive department—before effects like delay and chorus. The Giggity is more like a studio EQ that you would use for mastering. You can use it to drive the front end, but I like it mainly for fattening up single-coil pickups. I also have a bunch of delay pedals, but I’m back with the Strymon El Capistan. I always thought it sounded great, but the one I had started working intermittently, so for a while, I switched over to the Wampler Faux Tape Delay. It’s simple and straightforward, and I was ready for that after some of these more complicated pedals. But I went back to the Strymon, because I was familiar with it, and I like the remote taptempo function.

How does playing with Hiatt change how you use effects?

On John’s gigs, I’m basically playing guitar and singing harmony on a few songs, so I have the luxury of being able to reach over and adjust the settings on my amp or effects. Normally, I’m talking and singing, and controlling my amp or effects is something I can only do with my foot. Some of my songs—the instrumentals in particular—are more demanding, because I’m changing effects on different sections of the song.

What do you appreciate most about playing with John Hiatt?

John is the consummate songwriter, and he’s at the top of the list along with Bob Dylan. John’s songs have such meaning and depth, and they’ve stood the test of time. Here we are 30 years later, and I swear that playing them seems like yesterday, because they sound so fresh. He doesn’t polish anything, either. It’s all about the raw emotion of the lyrics, because there’s not a set form. A good example is “Sometime Other than Now,” which is all simple chords, but they change with the lyrics. A lot of pop songs sound like the words are written to fit a musical scheme, but with John’s songs, the lyrics come first, and the music supports that. It’s more spontaneous that way, and the challenge is more about remembering the arrangements. John makes the joke every night about trying to remember how we did these songs originally, but we didn’t know what we were doing back then. That’s the creative side of it I love. It’s more of an adventure, and the songs are different every night because of it. I think people relate to that, because they know they’re getting something raw, fresh, and in the moment. It’s a great honor to be able to work with music on that level.