In 1982, Newsweek called James Blood Ulmer “the most original guitarist since Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery.” Yes, he uses wah-wah and overdrive in a way vaguely reminiscent of Hendrix, and, yes, he plays with his thumb like Montgomery. But those comparisons don’t capture the originality of Ulmer’s sound, or his distinctive approach to making music. “Funky,” “jagged,” “jazz,” “hard rockish,” “tribal,” “searing,” “atonal,” “harmolodic”—all these words have been used in attempts to describe the man’s deeply personal style.
Blood hails from St. Mathews, South Carolina, where he started playing guitar at the age of seven as part of his father’s gospel group, the Southern Sons.
“I was the baritone singer, and I played the guitar,” recalls Ulmer. “We sang ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ ‘Imagination,’ ‘Come See About Me,’ ‘On the Cross’—no originals. By the time I was nine, we were gigging. My father instigated the whole deal. All I did was follow orders. He was a quartet man, but mama wouldn’t let him play jazz. From age 13 to 18, I also played with a musical group in school when we had chapel. I also tried to play the piano and the saxophone.”
The blues also figure in Ulmer’s musical background.
“Down south we had two kinds of blues,” he says, “One that was forbidden, and one that wasn’t. Mr. Johnny Wilson and Mr. Alton Smith both played the blues. Alton Smith lived down by me, and Mr. Johnny Wilson lived up the road. He had twin daughters that I was good friends with. Mr. Johnny Wilson would play some sh*t on the guitar that would make you wanna f**k,” and Mr. Alton Smith played a blues that was altogether different. I used to love to hear Mr. Johnny Wilson play the blues, and I used to go up there and try to listen to him. But every time I’d tell mama, I’d get my ass beat just for listening to Johnny Wilson. I would never get my ass beat if I listened to Alton Smith—he didn’t make it sound so rough.”
Blood ultimately moved to Detroit, and formed two bands: The James Ulmer Trio, which played commercial jazz and blues, and Focus Novi, which was an outlet for Ulmer’s original music. With Novi, he also began to develop the style he is known for today, as well as use what he calls “unison tunings” wherein a number of strings are tuned to the same note—in unisons or in octaves—to exploit the resonant sound of open fifths. (One such tuning, used on the song “I Belong in the U.S.A.,” is E, E, B, E, B, E.) These tunings remain a cornerstone of the Ulmer vocabulary to this day, and they allow him to play dense, polyrhythmic drones with his thumb.
“A drone is like a key to me,” says Ulmer. “You’re in unison, and you ain’t got no chords, but you can move the tonal center of the guitar, and because of the gauge of the strings, each tonal center sounds different. The only thing I do is change the key center by changing the tuning of the low E string.”
Eventually, Ulmer had to leave Detroit out of musical frustration.
“You couldn’t get to your own stuff in Detroit,” he says. “If you wanted to do something yourself, it was best to leave. I was playing ‘Honky Tonk’ with some band, and after I finished, I snatched my sh*t, and left.”
Excerpted from Walter Hetfield’s interview in the May ’90 issue of Guitar Player.