The Seldom Heard Acoustic Side of Sonny Landreth

“I’m an electric guitar player,” says Sonny Landreth. “I suck at playing acoustic.
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“I’m an electric guitar player,” says Sonny Landreth. “I suck at playing acoustic. I can play it around the house or record it in the studio, but on a gig in the heat of battle—it’s just a different angle.”

Landreth exudes Southern humility, and a Stratocaster through a cranked Dumble or Demeter may forever be his hallmark, but he certainly does not suck on acoustic. Sonny is one of the top electric solidbody slide cats on the planet, and he doesn’t change his technique too dramatically to play acoustic. Tonally, he’s in a different universe. Landreth’s electric hurricane can range from a whisper to a category 5, and he’s a master of utilizing sustain to help facilitate a slew of original tricks and licks that have boggled minds for decades—many of which are based on slide bar harmonics and fingering behind the slide. Pulling that off on an acoustic, however, is a different story, so Landreth has enlisted a unique instrument to help him tackle the challenge.

GP caught a glimpse in May at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where he opened with an acoustic mini-set. Landreth played a cool metallic-blue resonator that caught everyone’s ears and eyes. As it turns out, he’d cut a half-acoustic, half-electric double disc in January at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in his hometown of Lafayette, Lousiana.

Recorded Live in Lafayette [Mascot/Provogue] dropped on June 30th, and it’s an epic, career-spanning journey. Disc one offers more insight into Sonny’s acoustic side than any previous release. His core power trio of David Ranson and Brian Brignac get in on the fun, switching to ukulele bass and cajón, respectively. They’re joined by Steve Conn’s accordion and Sam Broussard playing the hell out of a parlor-sized Martin. Landreth’s slide tone ranges from an almost traditional resonator rattle, to smooth and slinky with plenty of “pop”—practically approaching electric tones such as Marc Knopfler’s ultra clean Strat on “Sultans of Swing,” or even echoes of Robbie Krieger’s bottleneck blues on the Doors’ “Moonlight Drive.” It all comes down to how Landreth works his groovy blue resonator.

Who made that wild acoustic hot-rod?

Larry Pogreba is a unique character. The luthiers all like him because he comes up with creative ideas using interesting materials and simple, left of center appointments. Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne have his guitars. I first saw and played one back in the ’90s. He gave me one five or six years ago, and I’ve been trying to get better on it. I cut a few tracks with a metal-bodied Dobro and a vintage National on my last album [2015’s Bound by the Blues], but this guitar is completely different.

Can you share some details?

He calls it a “hubcap resonator.” Mine has a ’56 Oldsmobile hubcap for the cover plate—pretty trippy. The neck is made of wood. [Pogreba says it’s mahogany he salvaged from a centuries old stump on a trip to Belize.] The body is aluminum, so it doesn’t sound at all like an old National. I love the Pogreba’s brighter, airy sound. It’s got a cutaway, and it’s light. Carrying that through the airport is a whole lot easier.

What does it feel like to play?

Mine is real comfortable, and it looks especially cool with the hubcap, but sometimes I take it off because I’m so used to having my palm right over the bridge on a Strat. I took it off before Jazz Fest because I was having so much trouble positioning my right hand.

An acoustic resonator is such a different beast than your Strat, but it appeared that you were still up to your tried and true tricks technically.

Some of them—that was my hope [laughs]. It’s funny because for two years way back in the ’70s, I quit playing electric guitar altogether. I played a metal-bodied Dobro and my Martin D-28 all day and all night. Over the years since playing mostly electric, I’ve found that the basic positioning of my right hand has changed. So this was a bit of an eye-opening experience.

How did you set up for the acoustic portion of Recorded Live in Lafayette?

I sat on a chair to help my playing be more consistent. My engineer, Tony Daigle, set up a pair of microphones—a Neumann KM 84 and a Shure KSM137—to capture the natural resonator sound. The Pogreba has a single-coil Teisco pickup near the neck, and it did a nice job picking up the sound from a set of D’Addario EJ17 Phosphor Bronze Mediums, even though you’d think nickel-wound electric strings would translate better magnetically. [“Those Teiscos are so microphonic, they sound like whatever guitar you put them on,” adds Pogreba.] We split the pickup’s signal in two. One went to a D.I., where it was split again into the recording console and front of house. The other fed into a pair of pedalboards, and then my amp—a Demeter TGA-3 head through a vintage Fender Bandmaster 2x12 cab loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s.

The Radial Engineering Elevator multilevel boost pedal works great with that guitar because you can select the amount of midrange punch at either 10dB or 5dB, which is what I used—just enough to make the mids pop. From the Elevator, the signal fed a Fulltone Plimsoul overdrive pedal that I’d kick in now and then. The Teisco usually sounds flabby when you drive it, but that Plimsoul has better articulation, and just a bit of gain from it worked well. The signal then ran into my regular pedalboard where I had an Analog Man compressor and an Analog Man chorus that I used for Bound by the Blues. The chorus is rich, and it gets kind of crazy, but it shakes up the sound in a cool way. I felt it gave the guitar more of an identity—the steel drum vibe I was going for on that particular song. I also used a Visual Sound Dual Tap Delay to add a bit of ambiance at times. I like delay in general, and on an acoustic it’s nice for thickening, vibe, and definition. “A World Away” is a good example, and that’s the only minor tuning in the acoustic set—G minor.

How did you deal with multiple tunings when you only had one Pogreba?

I had the Pogreba in G major [low to high: D, G, D, G, B, D], which is my favorite open tuning, especially on a resonator. From there, it was only a half step down on the second string to G minor. I had one other guitar—a beautiful Beltona resonator given to me by Mark Knopfler—that I used to play “The High Side” in open D [low to high: D, A, D, F#, A, D]. The Beltona is actually the guitar on the album cover. While I played that, my tech Jimmy Bedsole put a capo at the Pogreba’s second fret to put me in A minor, which was the original key for “Bound by the Blues.” After that, I took the capo off, and with a quick turn of the second string, I was right back to open G for “The U.S.S. Zydecoldsmobile.” We worked that out at soundcheck on the third of three nights recording, so that was the only acoustic performance of it we’d ever done at the time.

That’s a powerful tune. Did you use your usual glass slide for the acoustic set, or another material?

I used a metal slide that I hacked off from a motorcycle handlebar when I was a teenager. It’s longer and weighs more than glass, so I was able to get a bigger, smoother sound, and wider vibrato. It helps me produce more energy and punch playing live. That’s one of the adjustments I’ve been making because I have such a light touch on the electric. The metal bar aids me in the challenge of approaching the acoustic, especially on the top strings. Even more to the point is trying to incorporate my fingernails to get more plucking power, rather than the flesh of my fingertips.

What frustrates you most on acoustic?

Fingerpicking. I use my nails, flesh, and the same Ikeda thumbpick that I use to play electric, but the great players like my friend Jerry Douglas that use fingerpicks—man, they cut through so well. I can’t go at it like that because my nails are shot to hell. I’ve thought about getting acrylics, but even those probably wouldn’t stack up compared to classic Dobro-style fingerpicks because the attack angle is completely different. The latter covers the underside of the fingers, and that’s where I could use the leverage.

Kaki King encouraged me to go all in on acrylics a few years back, and it’s world of difference.

I think I need them for even for my regular electric playing. I’m still on the fence, but I might jump!

Key to the Highway” has become one of your signature blues covers. Can you comment on the challenge of creating shimmering harmonic overtones without the aid of an amp, and making those acoustic strings sing rather than plink?

Using a metal bar helps. Sometimes, such as when I’m playing in the lower registers, I’m not hitting the strings as hard as you might think to get those harmonics ringing out on top. Mostly, you have to find the sweet spots, and let it breathe. Let the open tuning open up the sound of the guitar. When you find the sympathetic tones, the sound becomes more complex—like a layering effect, or a collage. That’s how it works, even with an acoustic guitar.

Are you bringing the Pogreba on tour along with your Strat?

Yes, and the audience seems to appreciate the added dynamic range of the acoustic set. Songs with lots of lyrics such as “Bound by the Blues,” with its verses paying tribute to various heroes of mine—and even one verse about resonator guitar—come across better when the entire band goes acoustic. Having Brian on cajón rather than a drum kit opens up a lot of space. And Dave’s ukulele bass has an upright vibe. You get in a rut doing the same thing all the time no matter how good it is. You need to change it up. The acoustic was such a big part of my life so long ago, and this seemed like a good time to bring it back into the fold.