Steven Seagal

For fading action heroes, it’s adapt, evolve, or succumb to the purgatory of straight-to-video roles. Ah-nuld became governor of California, Sly dusted off Rocky VI, Jean-Claude Van Damme disappeared, and Steven Seagal surrendered to the blues. Seagal may prove to be the toughest of the bunch, as his two releases—2004’s Songs from the Crystal Cave and the recent Mojo Priest [Steamroller Productions]—have been sucker punched into near oblivion by the music press, but he still holds strong to the conviction that he is a bluesman. Is his fortitude merely an actor’s commitment to career-salvaging role play? Only Seagal knows for sure, but it’s hard to doubt his sincerity as he talks about growing up in a Detroit neighborhood rife with displaced laborers from the deep South, and discovering the magic of a slide set upon Dobro strings.

“Some of the greatest blues players I ever knew in that neighborhood never got anywhere,” he relates. “Some of the guys got famous, and some of them didn’t. The smarter guys probably didn’t [laughs].”

Seagal conceptualized Mojo Priest as a tribute to his heroes, and he brought legends and burners such as Hubert Sumlin, Robert Lockwood, Jr., Homesick James, James Cotton, Bob Margolin, Josh Roberts, Pinetop Perkins, and Bo Diddley along for the ride. The album’s spit-polished production kind of bullies the blues into a tuxedo, but it also spotlessly documents the guitar tones—and what tones they are, as Seagal wields a ’54 Strat, a ’63 reverse Firebird, a ’58 goldtop Les Paul (all strung with .011 sets of D’Addario strings), a ’38 Dobro, a ’58 100-watt tweed Twin, a Danelectro 4x10 combo, and 100-watt plexi Marshalls from his storied vintage gear collection.

“Ever since I got my first guitar at 13—a Sears Silvertone—it has been my desire to craft a unique sound,” he says. “And, to me, that’s ultimately about having the right guitar and the right amplifier. Of course, you also have to really believe what you’re saying. I mean, if you gave a crappy guitar to Albert King, he could make it sound good, because he knew just how to hit those notes.”

You started out developing your style by playing slide, but now it’s something you rarely do. Why?
When I was young, I loved to listen to the slide on an old Dobro. Back in the day, people would use whatever they could get—Coricidin bottles, a knife, a bottleneck, a lipstick case—and they’d make their style off of whatever slide they were using. I love the sound of glass. When Muddy Waters went from glass to an old copper pipe, I didn’t like it. Well, I soon learned to play slide in some of these ignorant, hill-country styles—mostly in open G and open D. Now, if you start to play slide, the hair will stand up on your neck, because there’s nothing that sounds like that if you love the blues as much as I do. But if you love slide that much, you tend to stick with it, and what happened to me was that I started to lose my left-hand technique. Some guys are talented enough to play great slide and great guitar, but I’m not like that. So I put the slide down 20 years ago. I had to stop playing in order to keep my left hand developing.
Regarding my right hand, I learned from Albert Collins and Gatemouth Brown to play with my fingers, so I’ve never used a pick. I pluck, pop, and slap the strings with my fingers and thumb. When I want to play some speedy licks, I use my thumb. I’ve got a fast thumb, man. My technique is all feel. I’m not too cerebral about these things, but I feel like I’m still experimenting and changing.

How do you approach soloing?
One of these old blues guys said to me, “Son, if you talk too much, ain’t nobody want to listen to you.” That was his way of saying that it’s not how many notes you play, but how few notes you use to say what you have to say. That’s how you get respect. I never forgot that. I view a solo as a piece of the song, so I try to make sure there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. Your phrasing and control of dynamics are critical if you want to bring the listener on a journey. Having said all that, when I solo live, I take a Zen approach—you know, not thinking about it until it jumps in front of me, and then I just hit it [laughs].

It must have been a little spooky channeling Muddy Waters on your version of “Hoochie Koochie Man”?
To be honest with you, man, I couldn’t figure out how to record that solo. I wanted it to sound different, but I had no plan. I waited until everything was tracked. I mean, the album was over, everyone was moving on, and I’m sitting in Memphis, looking at myself, and saying, “How the hell am I going to play this song?” I was really afraid of it, because I love Muddy so much. It was like getting into a fight. You know, nobody wants to fight. But sometimes you’ve got to, and you don’t know if you’re going to win or lose, but at least you’ve got to get in there. So, one day, I just said, “If I fail, I fail,” and I went in and did it. It isn’t quite as different as I was hoping it would be, but people seem to think they can hear me in the song.

Finding one’s own unique sound is a real challenge. How did you find yours?
It is hard, and I don’t have any magic answer that would work for everybody. All I know is the obvious stuff—the stuff the blues guys told me back in Detroit, and the stuff you probably tell your readers—and that’s to never copy anyone else. You should cut yourself loose from what you hear, and seek your own sound. I was so paranoid about it in the beginning that I never even learned other people’s songs.

As you’re a noted vintage gear freak, how do you go about crafting your guitar tones?
I love that old sound—like ’50s Gibsons and Fenders, or a Silvertone through a Danelectro with six old speakers and a cabinet of aged wood. I don’t like anything too tubby. I set up the amp so that it’s not too bassy, has real clear mids, and doesn’t put out too much high end. Then, I’ll bring the volume up just enough so that it’s clear when I’m playing soft, and overdriven when I dig in. I have huge hands, my nails are strong, and when I hit those notes, I hit them hard. It’s all about dynamics, man. For example, Albert Collins was real aggressive, but Gatemouth Brown was a gentleman. He could put his amp on 10, and still play real quiet. But if he thought you were showing off, he’d kick your ass. I saw him run some famous players off the stage. He had great fingers.

Can you give us some insights on what it was like recording with blues luminaries such as Hubert Sumlin and Robert Lockwood, Jr.?
Obviously, it was an honor to be with my heroes. But it was a little bit of a job, as well. For example, some of these guys are in their 80s and 90s, and their rhythm isn’t always perfect. But I had my little ways of helping them get the performances down. Anything we had to do was worth it, of course, because I wanted this album to be a little “thank you” to them for bringing the blues to us. And, whatever it took, I certainly wasn’t going to lose that.