KNOWN FOR HIS VASTREPERTOIRE OF FOLK, blues, ragtime, bluegrass, Celtic, and fiddle tunes, Harvey Reid has impressive chops on mandolin, bouzouki, and 6-string banjo, and is a virtuoso acoustic guitarist and autoharp player. His career took off when he won the National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship in 1981 and the International Autoharp Championship the following year. As the first Taylor Guitars endorser, he began doing clinics for the company in 1983. He has also had a long relationship with Fishman Transducers and was involved in research that led to the company’s Aura Acoustic Imaging products. A longtime proponent of independent recording, he has released more than 300 songs on 20 albums, all on his own Woodpecker Records label.
Reid is the world’s leading authority on partial capos and continues to pioneer new techniques with these devices. “I’m writing a book that documents and explains the partial capo configurations I’ve discovered over the years,” he says. “For some reason, very little of what you can do with a partial capo is obvious. Even a good guitarist has to be shown how to use one.”
On his latest album, Blues & Branches [Woodpecker], Reid performs an eclectic mix of traditional tunes and lively originals on flattop, resonator, and 12- string guitar, Dobro, 6-string banjo, and autoharp. One song even features soaring lines on a cranked lap-steel—heresy to some diehard acoustic fans. Unperturbed, Reid says, “I consider myself a purist, but not a snob. That was the most fun I’ve had in a while.”
The acoustic timbres on Blues & Branches sound rich and detailed. Do you have an elaborate home studio?
Not really. For the last 15 years I’ve recorded in my house, but it’s not what people usually envision as a studio. It’s just a small room with a few quilts on the wall and a rug. I run some nice Audio- Technica 4047 mics into an API 3124 preamp and an Apogee AD-8000 converter, and record on a Mac with MOTU Digital Performer software. That’s pretty much it. I can get away with a simple setup because I’m not loud. It’s a happy consequence of playing acoustic guitar and singing—neither of those sounds is enough to shake a room.
Describe your recording approach.
My goal has always been to capture music in its wild form. Long ago I discovered I have the patience to play a piece over and over with the recorder running. Of course, after you record all day, then comes the cruel and unusual punishment of listening back to what you’ve done and choosing the best take. I know people who have flunked horribly in that school—they���re simply unable to stomach what it takes to go back and listen to literally dozens of takes. For some reason, I have the iron constitution required to record a lot of material and then sift through it to find the right performance. It can be tough because often you’ll record a piece over a period of days. There will be a few takes here and there, so you have to start notebooks to keep track of everything, and it’s easy to misjudge the results when you’re working by yourself. I long ago wore out all my friends asking, “Which one of these do you think is the best take?”
Digital technology made it possible to record this way. When I started, I had to rent studios and the limiting factor was the cost of blank analog tape. Living in my van and trying to make my first LP, I couldn’t do a dozen takes of a song—a big reel of tape cost a fortune and it would only hold about 15 minutes of music. The turning point came in 1989 when I realized I could do a solo troubadour performance into a DAT machine. A two-hour tape cost ten bucks, so for the first time in my life I could record as much as I wanted. Solo guitar has always been the center of my art form, so it made immediate sense to work this way, but if anybody saw my shelves full of tapes and track sheets, they’d think twice about taking this approach.
So although you’ve migrated to computer-based recording with its unprecedented editing capabilities, you’re still emphasizing live performance.
Right. I don’t mean to belittle what others do, but I believe history will be kinder to recordings that capture something real than it will to recordings pieced together one frame at a time. If Robert Johnson had used a computer and spent all day punching in solos over sampled drums, nobody would be paying any attention to his music today. But the fact that he was performing live in that hotel room in 1936 is a big part of why he makes the hair stand up on the back of our necks.
You’re known for interpreting traditional songs. What draws you to them?
There’s something beautiful about the world of unschooled music. If you took the 20 most important recorded versions of Schubert’s Impromptu Opus 90 No. 3 in G-Flat, few listeners could tell one from the other— there are only minor variations in the interpretations. But man, no one would ever mistake Little Richard’s version of “The Rock Island Line” for Johnny Cash’s.
To me, it’s your job as a musician to tackle some of those classic songs and find your own way to interpret them. I like to use iTunes to study the dozens of versions artists have done of certain songs. It’s a joy! You used to have to be a dedicated folklorist or librarian to pull up 50 versions of a song and compare them, but now we can all do it in our underwear.
What guitars did you use on Blues & Branches?
I played two Taylors—a 1984 rosewood 810 and a 1987 maple jumbo 12-string—a 1975 rosewood Bozo B-809, a 2004 cocobolo Bourgeois jumbo OM, a 2002 Owens Bayou Special resonator guitar, a 2000 graphite Chrysalis Damsel, a 2008 graphite CA Series 8, and a 1997 Dobro.
On “Hollywood,” I dug out my ’61 Supro lap-steel, plugged it into a Mesa Boogie F-30 1x12 combo, and overdubbed a screaming electric solo for the first time ever. That Supro pickup just won’t quit. I’d have been an electric player if I’d found a guitar that sounds as good as this steel.
You’ve been using partial capos for decades. Give us some background on these devices.
Non-guitarists often have an easier time than guitarists understanding the concept. It seems to be fundamentally confusing because the mind just doesn’t like playing strings of different lengths across a single fretboard, which is really what it’s all about. For centuries, guitarists have altered the tuning of their instruments, yet very few have played around with this other parameter.
As a solo guitarist, you quickly discover that just one ringing note can determine whether an arrangement works or not, so you’re always looking for an open string that will keep the song going while you move around the fretboard. Essentially, a partial capo changes the landscape of where those open strings occur.
Where’s a good place to start exploring partial capos?
The three-string Esus configuration, which you’d notate 0 2 2 2 0 0, is by far the most common and seductive. It offers great depth, yet it’s easy to use because it’s based on standard tuning.
What are your latest discoveries?
I did two sneaky things on Blues & Branches, both of which involve putting the guitar into an open tuning and then capoing selected strings. “Sly Damsel Serenade” is a slide piece in a minor key. I keep my slide guitar in open D [D, A, D, F# , A, D, low to high], and this piece uses that tuning. But at the first fret, I slap on a capo that’s notched at the third string to allow it to ring open. You’d notate this capo position as 1 1 1 0 1 1. In open D tuning, clamping a standard capo at the first fret would give you an Eb major chord. But because of the notch, the third string is lowered a half-step and this creates an Ebm when you strum the open strings. It gives me the effect of an open minor tuning and its corresponding Im chord, yet because the guitar is actually in an open major tuning, when I barre with the slide, it makes a major chord.
There isn’t much minor-key slide out there and that’s probably because not many songs have more than two different minor chords. Using this partial capo approach, I was able to create a piece that combines the harmonics and ringing resonances of an open major tuning with an eerie minor-key feel. I have the ability to grab a major chord—a IV or V, for example—and still have the Im. It’s a cool effect and a million times more interesting than having a minor chord at every fret.
And the other sneaky trick?
It’s just the opposite—I capo one string as opposed to notching out one string. I’ve owned a Woodies G-Band Model 1 singlestring capo for years, but only recently figured out how to use it. It creates an effect that’s beyond what you’d imagine, and it worked wonderfully for “St. James Infirmary
I started with open C [C, G, C, G, C, E], an old blues tuning. I realized by capoing the first string at the first fret [0 0 0 0 0 1], I could transform the open C into a Csus4 chord. The first string [E] becomes F when you capo it, and that note belongs to both the IV [F] and the V7 [G7] chords. The voicings that come out of this Csus4 tuning are perfect for the song, and once again a barre yields a major chord. I call this configuration Csus Plus.
Almost all Celtic guitar music is performed in tunings that feature a suspended 4 chord, so I used Csus Plus for “Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore”—another tune on Blues & Branches. It’s surprising how different Csus Plus is from either tuning the guitar to open Csus4 [C, G, C, G, C, F] or tuning to Csus4 and then capoing 1 1 1 1 1 0 to bring the open-string chord back to a major.
Csus Plus is one of the most exciting discoveries I’ve made in over 30 years of exploring partial capos. It’s cool to think there’s still something like that hiding inside the fretboard I’ve been staring at for decades.