Harvey Mandel Rolls the Dice and Runs the Table on 'Snake Pit'

When it comes to bragging rights, it’s pretty hard to beat Harvey Mandel’s list of accomplishments.
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When it comes to bragging rights, it’s pretty hard to beat Harvey Mandel’s list of accomplishments. During his long career, Mandel has played alongside blues greats like Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters; served as a sideman for John Mayall, Charlie Musselwhite, and Canned Heat (who he performed with at Woodstock); opened for Cream in San Francisco in 1967; and was invited to record with the Rolling Stones for their 1975 album Black and Blue. His playing on “Hot Stuff” and “Memory Motel” brought him within spitting distance of the job that ultimately went to Ron Wood—Keef’s desire to replace Mick Taylor with another Englishman sealed the deal.

But true to form, Harvey Mandel went on to influence the guitar scene over the decades with his bold playing, innovative sounds, and desire to push his own musical boundaries above all else. Mandel’s 15th studio album, Snake Pit [Tompkins Square], marks a strong return for the guitarist, who has been fighting a rare from of cancer since 2011. On the mend now but faced with huge medical bills from multiple surgeries (donations can be made at helpharveymandel.com), Mandel jumped at the chance to make a new record, even though the deck was seemingly stacked against him. Recorded in two days at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California, Harvey teamed up with several Chicago-based musicians with whom he had never played before—Ben Boye (keys), Ryan Jewell (drums), Brian Sulpizio (guitar), and Anton Hatwich (bass)—even forgoing any rehearsing in favor of simply playing snippets of the tunes on his phone before tracking them. Talk about no fear!

Featuring six new original compositions by Mandel and two revisited songs—“Before Six” from his first album, Cristo Redento, and “Baby Batter” from his 1971 album of the same name—Snake Pit sounds inspired and energized with a live-in-the-studio feel that is practically nonexistent in this era of remote sessions. How he managed to conduct the music while playing his ass off is kind of mind-boggling, but as this electrified album reveals, there’s no arguing with the soulfulness and intensity that Harvey Mandel brings to a project.

Whose idea was it to make an album with players that you hadn’t worked with before?

Our co-producer Josh Tompkins had the idea to bring in other musicians just to bring a different flavor to my music, and it worked out real well. They were the guys from the Ryley Walker band, and they’re all excellent musicians. I played them some tunes from my iPhone and verbally ran down a few things, and we literally recorded an entire record in two days. Everything was like one take or two at the most. It was all live, which is great, and it came out fantastic—way better than I expected at the beginning.

Did you have a clear idea of the arrangements before going into the studio or were they more or less worked out on the spot?

I knew what songs I wanted to do and what new ones I was going to try and contrive on the spot. And pretty much what I had in my mind is what came out, and that’s what was so pleasing about the whole experience.

How do you come up with your song ideas?

I just have the ability that whenever I feel like writing something, I can. When I’m working on my computer and using Pro Tools, if I want to write a new song, it just sort of happens. I can start out with a drumbeat, and then add a rhythm guitar part, and it all falls into place. I just need a starting point.

Do you have a home studio?

Well I did up until a year and half ago, but then I got sick and I had to deal with all this other stuff, so my little studio got closed up. I still have my computers and Pro Tools, but I don’t have the studio setup like I used to. I can still perform all that stuff right on my computer, though. You don’t even need a studio nowadays.

What were the guitars you used on the Snake Pit sessions?

I endorse Parker guitars, so that’s pretty much all I’ve been using for the last ten or 12 years. I have a few toys that I use, and I’ve got my sound down really good—so, with any halfway decent amplifier and my Parker guitars, I can get the Harvey sound whenever I want. These days I mainly play through a Fender Hot-Rod Deville, and that’s all I used on this record.

Has your picking technique evolved over the years?

About three years ago I completely stopped using a pick. Almost everything you’re hearing on the new record is 100-percent my hand. There are certain licks I can’t play as fast as with a pick, which is more of a gymnastic thing anyway, but now that I’ve been using my fingers, it has improved my playing tremendously. So my whole style changed in the last three or four years, and this record is the culmination of that.

On the title track you play a lot of pick harmonics, for lack of a better term. How do you accomplish that with just your fingers?

I’ve developed my own little thumb technique. Everyone has their own way of getting harmonics out of the strings, and somehow I hit upon doing it with my thumb. I’m able to pick with my other fingers, and by using my thumb I can get those little weird harmonic sounds anytime I want. A long time ago it was hit or miss, but now I can pretty much do it whenever I want. When I decided to drop the pick and go all fingers, there it was—and it happened overnight. One day I was using a pick, and all of a sudden it’s a new Harvey. It changed the entire style of the way I play, and everything was for the better.

Where did you learn about tapping and what did you think when you heard Eddie Van Halen taking the technique to such an extreme?

When I was in Pure Food and Drug Act, the other guitar player, Randy Resnick, was the first guy I saw do it. He whipped out the tapping thing one day, and when I left that band I picked up on the technique and took it off into my own world. It’s just a technique, so what notes you play is going to determine what it’s going to sound like. One night I was playing at the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood, and who comes in but Eddie Van Halen and one or two other famous guitar players, and they saw me do it. Six months later I heard Van Halen doing it on the radio. So he got known for the tapping thing because of all those hit records they had. The first album I did it on was Shangrenade back in 1973, and the entire record is tapping. I was the first rock guy to ever do that technique, but the album was ahead of its time, and I didn’t get recognized as the guy who started it.

In your early days you were able to play with Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Mike Bloomfield, and a lot of other blues greats. How did that impact your own development?

Well, when I first started playing my major influence was the Ventures. I spent hours and hours learning every song on Walk, Don’t Run note-for-note, and that taught me a lot about guitar because the Ventures really were ahead of their time. The I got hooked up with my friend Sammy Fender, a musician from Chicago, and he took me out to Twist City, which was a famous blues club on the West side of Chicago. The guitarist who played there the most was Buddy Guy, so not only was I able to jam with every major blues artist who came to Twist City, but I got to play with Buddy dozens of times. I played there with my own little trio every week too, so after a few months of hanging out there, my guitar playing jumped up a thousand-fold, and that’s what really got me going.

Who do you think was the most influential blues player at that time?

The truth is that at the time B.B. King really was the king. He could play stuff that no one else could play. B.B. played instrumentals that were years ahead of the time, and that combination of blues and jazz sounds with his great bends and vibrato influenced me a lot. My song “Ode to B.B.” on this album was just my way of saying thanks to him.

What led you to get into heavier, psychedelic sounds in the late ’60s instead of sticking to more traditional blues?

In my mind I heard where guitar was going years before it got there. I knew there was going to be that heavy, sustaining sound along with different effects that now are common. Back then you were lucky to get the right pedal or amplifier. Like when I did the Baby Batter record I got a great tone using a Bogen P.A. amplifier with two of the four tubes removed to get a more distorted sound. It was way too soft to use as a gig amp, but in the studio it was fantastic. So it’s always been part of my style to go for a sustaining, violin-type sound that’s still clear enough where you can hear real licks instead of just a mass of noise. It took me many pedals and amplifiers and a lot of experimenting to get it to the level that I’m at now.

How did you get that modulated effect on your famous tune, “The Snake?”

That was a Uni-Vibe. Every record I’ve done has been with different guitars and different amplifiers and effects, so no two Harvey Mandel records are alike. On the Cristo Rendentor album I had an ES-355, and on Baby Batter I used a goldtop Les Paul with mini humbuckers. I used to like the semi-hollow Gibson sound, but when I started playing with bigger groups that got to be a hassle because they fed back too much. That’s why I got into the Strat thing for a while, but I never was a real Strat player. When I got hooked up with Parker, the lightness of the guitar and the way it felt just worked for me, and that’s what I’ve been playing ever since.

What effects are you using now?

I use a Roland VG-99, and the way I have it programmed I can get all the stuff I want—from a totally clear bell-like tone all the way to ripping Hendrix-y tone and everywhere in between—all at the flick of a button. So now I don’t have to show up at a gig with five guitars and a six-foot pedalboard. I can pack my Parker and the VG-99, and everything is programmed so I can go from a perfect rhythm sound to a solo tone. Everything you hear on Snake Pit was done live like that. I can literally make my one guitar sound like 10 or 15 different guitars.

So are you using the VG-99 for altered tunings as well?

I mostly stay in standard pitch, but I’ve got some special tunings on the VG-99 that I use occasionally. Like on “Jackhammer,” that’s a slightly altered tuning, which allows me to play certain chords in the positions I want and still go to killer lead stuff. Also, if I’m playing with Canned Heat and we’re doing “Going Up the Country,” instead of putting a capo on the 6th fret and playing open B, C, and G up there, now I can just hit a button and play all those chords without a capo, and I’m in a perfect Bb tuning. So for situations like that it’s really good.

“Buckaroo” is an interesting blues tune, but you obviously weren’t too concerned about making it sound traditional.

I always take things one step further, so I was thinking blues, but then I automatically played some outer space stuff mixed in with it. I know I went into one of my supersonic echo sounds on the guitar, but I still always try to play real licks. There are certain scales we all know as guitar players, and a lot of guys play them like gymnastic feats of speed. I can do it, but I’ve purposefully avoided all that because I wanted to play like the guys who inspired me. If you listen to an Albert King lick or a B.B. King lick, it’s definitely not about showing you how fast they could play.