John Hall: The Orleans Guitarists and Former Congressman Talks Funky Hooks and Sustaining Solos

Orleans’ “still the one” and “Dance with Me” have ruled pop radio for decades.
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Orleans’ “still the one” and “Dance with Me” have ruled pop radio for decades. But if they remain your only encounter with John Hall’s guitar work, you owe it to yourself to check out the first, self-titled, Orleans record. There you will find him playing the catchiest, funkiest rhythm riffs this side of Jimi Hendrix or Nile Rodgers, along with the nascent guitar harmonies that defined the band’s sound.

Delving further back into Hall’s sideman solos on Taj Mahal’s live “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie (Any Mo’)” and Bonnie Raitt’s “Stayed Too Long at the Fair,” a theme of privileging melody over riffage and/or flash emerges. Hall’s virtuosity is so embedded in the DNA of each particular song that it’s possible to think of his parts and solos as simple—until you try to emulate them. If you don’t believe me, try the signature lick to “Half Moon”—a Hall composition that was a hit for Janis Joplin.

The guitarist’s career spans composing Obie-winning theatrical music, solo records (one containing the No Nukes theme song, “Power”), writing tunes covered by Chet Atkins, Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck, Bonnie Raitt, the Doobie Brothers, and James Taylor. (His credits are largely chronicled in the self-published memoir, Still the One: A Rock ’n’ Roll Journey to Congress and Back.) And did I mention his two terms as Congressman from New York’s 19th District?

What first attracted you to the guitar?

Looking cool in front of the mirror, and getting more attention from girls. Actually, I was listening to commercial folk artists like Peter, Paul and Mary. Later, it was the Ventures, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles, quickly followed by Hendrix, Clapton, and the British groups that came to the States. I had been studying piano since I was five, so by the time I picked up the guitar, I had some knowledge of harmony and melody.

What influenced your melodic style?

I played French horn in school, which got me thinking that the guitar could be melodic—like a horn. I thought a solo didn’t have to be a bunch of flash. It could be a composition. I like both kinds of solos. I just gravitate in a melodic direction.

Would it be fair to say your solos outline the chords as much as playing through them?

That is true. My background in classical, church, and folk music involved largely major or minor keys. It was seldom modal, or in the spaces in between. But, sometimes, I make an effort to play outside the chord when the tension makes sense. I really like it when Robben Ford plays a straight blues, and then I suddenly go, “What the hell was that?”

Which players influenced you when you were first starting?

Jimi Hendrix was probably the most influential. Every song started with a rhythm guitar lick, and the song is built around that skeleton. I try to do the same thing. You can really hear the Hendrix rhythm influence in “Half Moon.”

The first Orleans record is a collection of great rhythm parts—some reminiscent of Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman.”

We used to play that song at sound-check. There were other influences, such as Curtis Mayfield and the Isley Brothers. Playing with Taj Mahal eventually pulled it together for me. He understood the importance of behind-the-beat guitar parts and lagged dotted-eighth-notes, where it feels like the rhythm is falling over backwards. Taj taught me by getting up and dancing around. He made me realize the importance of the rhythm-guitar part. If I played too many lead licks, he would yell, “Get back on that rhythm!” Playing lead is fun, but writing a unique and propulsive rhythm-guitar part is an accomplishment. When I was in Washington, a protester approached me on the steps of the Capitol to give me a message. It turned out to be, “I really love your rhythm guitar part on ‘Spring Fever.’” That was a high point of my four years in Congress. Maybe he was just protesting bad rhythm guitar.

For the most part, you don’t play with the kind of distortion that Hendrix and Clapton used on their solos. How do you get such a fat, sustaining tone?

On the early records, it would be a Strat through an MXR Dyna Comp into the amp. The amp was either an old Fender Bassman, or in the case of “Still the One,” an old Fender Princeton, which I still have.

How do you set the Dyna Comp to get sustain without squashing the attack.

I don’t set it up full. I think both knobs are around one o’clock. Some of the sustain comes from sitting close to the amp, and some comes from maintaining a little vibrato on the note.

On your solo record, Power, the sound was more distorted than early Orleans. Were you just pushing the amp harder, or did you go to any pedals?

It was mostly pushing harder. I was reluctant to give in to pedalmania. I eventually went through various pedalboards with individual stompboxes, and I had to worry about power supplies or batteries. At this point, I have narrowed it down to a Boss ME-50 or ME-80 multieffects pedal. On fly dates, it’s great to be able to have one pedal that will fit in my suitcase and needs no internal cords or batteries. You just plug in the power with one cord in and one cord out. Sometimes, I just bring the Dyna Comp and two cords, because the amp will have reverb in it, and our house engineer has more effects than I can shake a stick at. He knows what I am going for, so I can get that fat, sustained sound on stage and let him fill in the rest.

Which pickup do you favor for solos?

It depends on the song, but mostly the middle—especially for the slide parts. I might flip to the bridge if I need an edgier sound for part of a solo, or go to the neck and middle, or the neck and bridge positions for a woody sound that is fat in a different way. It depends on what the band and the stage sound like, and what equipment I have. For a lot of gigs now, we are renting backlines. I show up and there’s a ’65 Fender Deluxe reissue there. They sound pretty good.

How did you work out the guitar harmonies in Orleans?

Usually, I would play first, and Larry [Hoppen, Orleans co-founder/co-guitarist] would be in the control room with the talkback button, coaching me through my take. He’d say things like, “It’s great for the first four bars and then let’s punch in.” Sometimes, he would say, “Try adding a little of this here or that there.” I might do a one-take solo for a session with Bonnie Raitt or Jackson Browne, but with Orleans that was rare. We were building a masterpiece. When I finished the solo, we switched roles, and Larry would have the harder job—learning my part and then playing a harmony. He would play a fourth or fifth above, or sometimes below.

Tell me about the natural finish, maple-neck Stratocaster you have been playing almost exclusively for decades.

When Mountain Music in Woodstock was getting ready to go under, the owner sold me his personal guitar. It was already stripped and worn out—it looked like a piece of driftwood. It has a great neck and pretty good pickups. The only modifications are the Telecaster knobs and a five-position switch. That’s still my number one guitar today.

Is it a hardtail?

Yeah, the strings come up through holes in the body. It stays in tune if you break a string.

What strings are you using?

I use Elixir strings, gauged .010-.052.

What picks do you use?

I really like the Herco gold picks. I use them until I run out, and then I’ll use a Dunlop medium. But the Herco gold pick is a little bit more flexible—it’s in between the Dunlop medium and the Dunlop light.

I understand you had some physical issues that affected your playing.

When I had surgery, they nicked a nerve in my left wrist, and my left hand stopped functioning. I did therapy and a lot of woodshedding on songs I already knew. Interestingly, playing harmony parts uses well-worn pathways, so there is no problem, but I had to build up my improvisational skills. My brain knew what it wanted my hand to do, but the signal wasn’t getting to my fingers. The nerve actually has to regenerate, and that takes time. Elliott Randall and Robben Ford gave me exercises that enabled me to open up the neural pathways and bring the hand 98 percent of the way back.

What’s in the future for John Hall?

Orleans is working on new material and we have a couple of things recorded. I have some solo shows that will combine talking about my experiences in politics and music with playing songs. There are so many stories. That’s why I wrote a book.