Multitalented. Eclectic. Innovative. Independent. These are terms used to describe acoustic maverick Harvey Reid. But such accolades—although accurate and well deserved—don’t begin to sum up a musician who excels at guitar, bouzouki, mandocello, autoharp, 6-string banjo, and mandolin. Nor do they specify that Reid wields these stringed weapons in a gaggle of styles that draws on bluegrass, folk, ragtime, Celtic, country, classical, and rockabilly.
Although a self-described “illiterate musician,” Reid has authored textbooks and taught college courses on acoustic guitar. He is also a pioneer of the amplified acoustic, contributing to the design and evolution of products such as the Fishman Blender system. Reid’s latest record, Kindling the Fire [Woodpecker], showcases his stunning chops, deep musical knowledge, and infectiously positive approach to “handcrafted, traditional acoustic music.”
It seems like you can play anything with strings on it.
Well, I only really work at the guitar. I just dabble with the rest. I love the plucked string in many forms—and I have always delighted in playing mandolins, autoharps, banjos, and Dobros—but I am permanently addicted to the response you can squeeze from an acoustic guitar. You control the volume and the tone by how you hit the strings, and flatpicks, bare fingers, nails, fingerpicks, slides, tunings, and capos are all ways of pulling different colors out of the guitar. When I play electric, I’m often confused and frustrated, because knobs and electronics do most of that for you.
Why have you chosen to incorporate elements of country, folk, Celtic, bluegrass, blues, ragtime, and so many other styles in your playing?
I never had a master plan. I’ve always approached music emotionally. I am a modern American guy, and I have helped myself to the whole radio dial. But, as a result of the economic necessity of playing solo for a living, I have gravitated to rhythms and styles that can be performed on a solo guitar.
As a student, you want to explore what came before you, and my early guitar work reflected a lot of attempts to play in established styles. Solo Guitar Sketchbook [Reid’s best-selling CD, released in 1989] was a conscious attempt to cover a lot of bases, but as I need to have some kind of personal, cultural, and emotional connection to the music, I did not push the diversity concept and try to play ragas and every imaginable sort of music. That album is admittedly eclectic, and it reflects my belief that the guitar is very versatile, but it all feels the same to me to play. I have never felt weird playing a Bach piece and a Chuck Berry song back to back.
How do you keep centered with all these different musical elements bouncing around your head?
I started out as a guy who played guitar at parties and street corners, and my whole identity as an artist revolves around being a human who plays music. It sounds simplistic, but you learn in the streets when you have people’s attention, because they stop and listen, and, even in bars, they shut up if you are in the zone. The most reinforcement I get is when I touch people’s lives, and I have gotten a lot more reinforcement for going inward and playing my ass off on a song that means something to me than by doing other things.