Nashville Session Ace Richard Bennett Talks Twang and the Supremacy of the Song

You can be forgiven for not knowing who Richard Bennett is.

You can be forgiven for not knowing who Richard Bennett is. The man has made a career of hiding in the shadows while helping others shine. A peek at his recording credits reveals over 100 sessions before you are even out of the Cs. A highly abbreviated list of those he has enabled through tasty guitar and/or production work would include Mark Knopfler, Ringo Starr, Conway Twitty, Sammy Davis, Jr., Johnny Mathis, Roseanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Waylon Jennings, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Barbara Streisand, and T-Bone Walker. If nothing else, he produced the two Americana records that helped define modern twang: Steve Earle’s Guitar Town and Marty Stuart’s Hillbilly Rock.

Bennett’s solo records will remind you why you love guitar, with their pure-toned instrumentals redolent of cowboys riding across a western vista and smoky clubs where people dance to small instrumental combos. This includes his latest, Contrary Cocktail [Moderne Shellac], where all the notes are perfect, but none are sterile. From London, on tour with Knopfler, Bennett reveals some tonal secrets and talks about the art of accompaniment.

Is it fair to say Duane Eddy was an influence on this record?

I’m guilty, because it is just so delicious to play like that. I tend to play melodically, and anytime you play a melody on the fourth string or lower, people invoke Duane Eddy.

Did soundtracks of the ’50s through the ’70s also influence you?

Of course—we are victims of our birthdate. Soundtrack tunes were popular hits on the radio when I was growing up. Movie themes and instrumentals would chart on the Top 40.

How much of the tracking was done live?

On all my records, I am cutting the tracks live, with bass, drums, and one or two guitars. I might come back and replay it a couple of times. We may also do some comping and a little bit of sweetening. I try to get as much of the vibe as I can on the rhythm date, without having to layer a bunch of stuff on top to make it happen.

There are three other guitar players listed on the record. Did you track with them in various combinations?

I like a couple to go down at once. I could stack guitars myself or get another person to do it, but I don’t like how that sounds. I prefer other people’s fingerprints on things.

When did you pick up pedal-steel guitar?

I’ve played it nearly as long as I’ve played guitar, but have never touted myself as a steel player, particularly since moving to Nashville. Somebody once said, “Another steel player in Nashville is like another hooker in Las Vegas.” But I love to play steel.

Which pedal-steel records or players influenced “Segue to Sundown?”

The old guys who wrote the book influenced me: Bud Isaacs, Buddy Emmons, and Jimmy Day. I love the real hardcore, basic steel sound, which is a little stiffer and a little woodier than the modern sound.

How do you get such depth on your guitar sound without a lot of reverb or delay?

I don’t play loudly, just enough to hit the mic properly. It’s how you attack the string. Sometimes the easier you attack, the more sound wells up out of it. With Mark, I did these big shows through a little 12-inch Tone King Imperial combo amp. That’s what PAs and microphones are for.

What amps did you use in the studio?

A lot of the previous album was a ’61 Fender Pro with a single 15. I like amps with a 15-inch speaker because it covers a full range and has a very rich sound. You get plenty of top out of it, and clarity, but you also get a lovely depth. On this album, I used a ’66 blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb and a Polytone Mini-Brute. For a few things, I used a little ’60s Benson amp that my friend, Al Casey, played on a million sessions.

How do you choose keys for your instrumentals?

I think there is something true and pure about staying in the key in your head or staying in the key where you first stumbled across it on the guitar. Often, it won’t be in a normal guitar key. It will be in Eb, B, or F. Other times, it is where it lays best, which, again, is not always a guitar key.

Do you usually start with a melody or chords or both?

90 percent of the time it is a melody, and then I’ll structure the chords around it.

Do you remember which guitar you used on “The Girl Was Northern” ?

The first verse of it is a ’56 Gretsch 6120. On the second verse, it goes up an octave and changes to a little Flamenco guitar.

Is that a Tele or a Gretsch on “Tresero” ?

It’s a Gibson ES-330. They are making fabulous reissues in Memphis. My buddy Michael Voltz, who looks after Gibson’s Memphis division, gave me a couple to play around with at home. I ended up dragging the 330 to the studio and using that through the Deluxe Reverb.

Is that a cuatro or a tres playing rhythm?

A tres. “Tresero” is Cuban for somebody who plays a tres. I love playing the tres. I just read the Bert Berns biography. Berns was a fabulous record man in New York in the ’60s who loved Cuban music. If you listen to his songs, like “Twist and Shout,” so many of them are based in Cuban/Latin music combined with New York rock and R&B. I love that stuff and it inspired “Tresero.”

“A Lovely Day to Cry” really has that full jazz guitar sound. Is it an archtop?

I used a mid-’70s, solidbody Gretsch 6121 with a set of flatwound strings. I got the strings about 25 years ago and they are still on there. It gets a beautiful jazz tone. I had done a version with a proper jazz guitar, but rearranged the tune a bit and decided to use the Gretsch through the Polytone.

Do you use flatwounds on most of your electrics?

I only keep a couple of guitars strung up that way: the 6121, a Fender Duo-Sonic, and an Eastman jazz box. The rest are roundwounds. I’ll use whatever is cheap. I think electric guitar strings are slightly over-hyped. There is really more difference in gut strings and nylon strings. There is a company out of Italy called Aquila that makes fabulous things called “nylgut.” It is a nylon string that has the stability and the good qualities of nylon with the sonic qualities of real animal gut.

What would you typically bring in terms of guitars, amps, and effects to a Nashville session?

I have a couple of guitar trunks that get delivered for day-to-day session work. One is full of acoustic things from a cavaquinho to a tiple. I carry some sort of a Spanish-style Dobro or Del Vecchio resonator, as well as some Gibson acoustics and some Martin acoustics. I always bring a gut-string.

In the electric box is a Strat, an old Tele, my 6120 Gretsch, a 335, a Danelectro 6-string bass, a Les Paul, and whatever I am enamored with at the moment, like this historic reissue 330. For amps, I have been using a reissue Fender Vibroverb that Marty Stuart gave me, and the Tone King.

I am not an effects guy. My effect is no effect. If one guy is very effected and one guy is organic and clean, it makes a beautiful combination.

What do you use when you are playing on the road with Knopfler?

I have a very simple Benado pedalboard with tremolo, delay, and a very good-sounding overdrive. I also have a volume pedal and a wah-wah pedal. I haven’t played wah-wah since the late ’70s, and it’s fun to get back into it again. A little A/B switch goes between a Vox AC30 and the Tone King amps.

Do you have any tips for playing second guitar?

It’s a tricky bill to fill, though not difficult. You just have to listen and be able to support. Don’t try to elbow into the spotlight, but don’t lie down and play dead either. You need be creative in that role and really contribute something, yet stay out of the way. I think one should always practice their rhythm guitar playing—acoustic and electric—and try to come up with good little parts and patterns or lines. You are there to serve the song. It’s not about you. Even when you have to step up and do a solo, it’s not about the guitar playing—it’s about the song first.

On some of the earlier records you do beautiful improvised solos. Are you ever called for that on record dates?

I used to be that guy. I tend to be a rhythm guitar player these days and I’m perfectly happy doing it. It’s a very honorable job. Now and again, I will get asked to do solos, but these days they usually call somebody younger and better looking.