Slide Guitar Virtuoso: Scott Colby

Slide Guitar Virtuoso: Scott Colby

I first ran into Scott Colby on Henry Kaiser’s Eclectic Electric video a while back and was blown away by Scott’s original and innovative approach to slide whereby a lot of the action is going on behind the slide (fretting chords). To paraphrase Kaiser, Colby represents a totally unique guitar voice and once you hear his music your preconceptions about what slide guitar should sound like will be happily destabilized. After I interviewed Henry Kaiser I of course wanted to know about Scott Colby, and, lo and behold we now have not just an interview but a terrific piece of music journalism thanks to Scott’s enthusiasm and prowess on the computer!

His 1987 solo album, Slide of Hand, received excellent reviews and earned him a feature story in Guitar Player magazine. Long out of print Scott’s solo album Slide of Hand is happily available once again:

Slide of Hand on iTunes

You can also hear Scott’s playing on his version of “Mystery Train” for the 1992 Slide Crazy! compilation of unusual slide guitarists and on several of Henry Kaiser's albums.

Born and raised in New York, Scott was a member of the New Jersey-based dada-rock group ZOBUS in the early 1970s. He moved to Los Angeles in 1977, and has been living and playing there ever since. During the 1980s, he performed in L.A. clubs as a member of the groups Adjustable Julie, Little Triggers, and Pressure. In the 1990s, he participated in a special concert of slide guitarists at a jazz festival in Frankfurt, Germany, and performed in an acoustic band led by singer-songwriter Andy Robinson.

IE: Scott, can you pinpoint, biographically, the moment in your life where you made a decisive turn toward unconventional music (however you want to define that) in terms of your listening practices and also in your playing? Was it your encounter with Zoogz Rift or had you been moving away from the norm prior to that? And how would you describe “dada-rock”?

SC: Up until the mid-1960s, my listening tastes were very conventional and primarily defined by whatever I was exposed to on AM radio and on TV. I was a big fan of The Beatles, as well as other British Invasion bands, plus a lot of Motown singles artists and other pop music. I owe a big debt of gratitude to one of my closest friends as a kid, a guitarist named David Richman, for expanding my musical horizons. Over the course of the mid- to late-1960s, he was always trying to interest me in other musicians that he liked, starting with Bob Dylan, then progressing through the Chambers Brothers and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which was a big leap forward, and then two much bigger leaps – The Mothers Of Invention, and Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band. I had to listen more than once to the Mothers’ Uncle Meat and especially to Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica before I got past feeling uncomfortable with them. Those two albums and Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love are the ones that really opened my eyes and ears. They were full of such unfamiliar sounds and styles of composing, arranging, and playing; I had to adjust to them before I could even decide whether I liked them. Once I realized that I liked them a LOT, however, there was no going back. I wanted more.

As for dada-rock, I guess that I would describe our manifestation of it in the band ZOBUS as a blend of rock and avant-garde sounds, incorporating jazz-rock or progressive rock complexity along with unrestricted improvisation, simultaneously embracing and ignoring skill and technique, while placing equal value on humor of all sorts – slapstick, wordplay, visual props, sarcasm, and pure nonsense. Sometimes we were impressively clever and other times we were deliberately silly, often in the same song. We were influenced by all sorts of things, including Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, the Fugs, Sun Ra, pop music, jazz, hard rock, avant-garde composers and artists, quirky art-rock, plus the Three Stooges, and a dash of professional wrestling for drama and presentation.

It was generally quite entertaining on several levels, although not easy to find bookings when all the local clubs were only interested in bands playing either cover versions or stuff that sounded like safe, generic rock or dance music. Zoogz Rift was the founder, leader, and main driving force of ZOBUS. He went on to establish himself as a solo artist with numerous releases further exploring and greatly expanding on the kind of material we played in ZOBUS. When I met Zoogz, I was already listening to some jazz and progressive rock, including a number of groups who were never well-known in the U.S., like Matching Mole, Hatfield & The North, Henry Cow, and Patto, as well as Jack Bruce’s solo albums and King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues In Aspic. Through Zoogz, I got my first exposure to the Fugs and Sun Ra, among others.

IE: I was reading the Guitar Player (September 1989) piece and I laughed out loud when I ran into this: “...Colby began his musical life as an elementary school violinist. ‘Less than a month into the course,’ he chuckles, ‘the music teacher took me and my parents aside and said that I had little or no musical ability, and that they should save money instead of continuing to rent the violin.’ ” This reminds me of a guy I know who received a D- in high school sociology who later went on to earn a PhD in that field and now teaches at the university level. It seems to be a universal theme: formal institutions squashing creativity and enthusiasm right out of kids – schooling, i.e. administration, versus actual education. What kind of relationship do you think exists between your musical profile, as an adult, and your earliest musical experiences, and, perhaps, your first run-in with musical authority? And did you pursue formal musical education in college?

SC: Well, as I said, my earliest musical experiences were largely informed by the pop music I encountered on AM radio and TV. My parents loved music and often had it playing in the house, either recordings or the radio, so I got to hear some Herb Alpert, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Tony Bennett, “Easy Listening,” 1950s oldies, a little jazz, and plenty of other music besides the pop that was aimed at young Americans in the 1960s. Some of it was contemporary and some was older, and it all combined to create an environment in which I became an enthusiastic listener long before I began trying to play any music myself. I’m sure that it’s the same story for virtually everyone, although in my case, I was fortunate to grow up at a time when pop music went wild, rushing to embrace experimentation and psychedelia.

There were a couple of really good FM radio stations in the New York area, like WNEW-FM, and this was back in the days when the DJs had free rein to rely on their own musical tastes without being ruled by the restrictions of demographically constructed and marketing-defined playlists. Also, I was hooked on the wackiness of the old Warner Bros. cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s: Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies! The music of those animated shorts was a big influence, along with the visual and verbal humor, complete with decades-old references to then-popular culture, which was largely a mystery to me as a kid. As an adult, I am able to recognize that I was significantly warped from an early age – but in a good way. Over the years, that background led me to discover all sorts of wonderful music: Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, the Bonzo Dog Band, Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt, the Raymond Scott Quintette, and many more.

My first run-in with musical authority may have left me with the temporary notion that I had limited musical abilities, but I was already clearly hooked on music. Other children used to complain that I was “singing” while walking through the halls at school. I would correct them by pointing out that I was not singing, but humming to myself, although I didn’t always realize that I was doing so, let alone humming loudly enough to annoy anyone. If they were annoyed by a kid humming, just imagine how delighted they are now to be surrounded by people yammering on mobile phones everywhere. But I digress.... At any rate, that elementary school music teacher failed to dissuade me from ever again attempting to play an instrument, but I still did not succeed right away.

My parents were kind enough to buy an inexpensive acoustic guitar for me, and paid a guitar teacher to give me lessons. Unfortunately for me, I never progressed farther than learning how to tune it, play a couple of basic chords, and haltingly pick out a couple of simple melodies. After only a few lessons, I sprained a finger on my left hand while doing something else and was unable to play guitar for a couple of weeks. By the time the splint on my finger came off, I had lost interest in guitar lessons, mostly because I had been making such slow progress. I was an impatient kid, so I didn’t want to learn notes and scales, and play “On Top Of Old Smokey”; I wanted to just take a couple of lessons and be able to play songs immediately, regardless of the fact that this was unrealistic. Damn, I sure do give long answers to your questions, don’t I? Is it tomorrow yet? Oh, wait, you also asked whether I had any formal musical education in college. Just for fun, let’s see if I can give you a short answer to that question: Yes.

I took a couple of music courses while at college, and learned the basics of reading and writing music. I never did learn the various modes, however, so I don’t know Mixolydian from Lydian, but I can quote you the lyrics from “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady.” And I memorized the circle of sharps and flats, which has somehow failed to make me a millionaire thus far, damn it.

IE: I was looking at the song names and “subtitles” on the album and a few of them are pretty humorous: Metal & Wood: Walk softly and carry acoustic. Let’s Go Places & Eat Things: Walk softly and carry a breadstick. Sure Looks That Way: Odd times fly when you’re halving funk.  And aside from these winks and nods, much of your playing on Slide of Hand is playful and joyous. It seems that there would be a natural relationship between humor and really free and joyous music. But there seems to be a shortage of humor in the music world; and, especially in the guitar sub-domain, humor probably qualifies for the endangered species list. How do you think about the music-humor relation? I guess you’d have to have a tremendous sense of humor to play in a band with Zoogz Rift (Robert Pawlikowski), who’s been labeled a paranoid reactionary by some, and who had you in a band called “The Amazing Shitheads.”

SC: Actually, most people don’t realize that it was “Zoogz Rift and HIS Amazing Shitheads,” with the capitalized H – as in “His holy word,” or “His will be done.” Not all of Zoogz’s humor is readily apparent, so a lot of people miss some of the best stuff, like “inside jokes” that may not make sense or even be detected unless you know Zoogz and the other musicians and past events. As for your question about humor, Frank Zappa asked the same thing with his album and video title, Does Humor Belong In Music? Lots of people might encounter music that includes a strong element of humor and be tempted to dismiss it as just a joke, overlooking the fact that it requires just as much musical talent to compose, arrange, and perform something funny as it does to produce something sober and serious. Listen to Spike Jones And His City Slickers, or Peter Schickele’s PDQ Bach recordings. Yes, they’re funny, but they are also cleverly constructed, requiring great skill to play, and they’re performed expertly. In my case, I have a definite streak of smartass, so it naturally shows up in my music and my titles.

IE: If you can, tell us a little about some of the folks playing on Slide of Hand. How did you put this configuration together? If I’m not mistaken, you knew some of these guys from your days with Zoogz Rift, right?

SC: Actually, no, it was the other way around; Zoogz met them through me. The bass player on my album, Willie Lapin, has been one of my closest friends – practically a brother, in fact – since the early 1980s. We met while playing together in a band called Little Triggers, which metamorphosed into the far less imaginatively named Pressure. The drummer on most of my album was Mark Crawford, and I met him through Henry Kaiser when they were playing together in a terrific group called Name, who sadly never strayed far from the Bay area before disbanding.

Lots of three and four part guitar counterpoint, tight unison playing, rhythmic shifts, and unusual lyrics. Not many people ever knew about them, I guess, and their recordings were not very easy to find, but I’m hoping that some of them may eventually be released again. After Willie and I left Pressure, we both accepted an invitation from Zoogz Rift to play on his album, The Island of Living Puke. Then, after Zoogz produced Slide of Hand, both Willie and Mark worked with Zoogz on his next record, Water II: At Safe Distance. Mark relocated not long thereafter, so that was his sole project with Zoogz, but Willie became a fixture in Zoogz’s recording and live performance bands from that point onward.

It was also through Henry Kaiser that I first met and became friends with John French, better known as the legendary Drumbo from his work with Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band. I very much wanted to have John play drums on at least one cut for my album, but because of budget limitations, scheduling problems, and geographic distance, we could have only one brief rehearsal with him a few days before the recording sessions began. Consequently, I decided that “Obligatory Blues” was the best choice, and after John, Willie, and I played it a couple of times in that preliminary rehearsal, I think we captured that long basic track for the album on our second take.

Scott playing with Henry and John

It’s important for me to note that we recorded all the basic band tracks with just my rhythm guitar and the bass and drums. Willie and Mark – and John on his track – all had to do their best to anticipate what the other parts were going to sound like, based on my hurriedly describing them or playing them by myself. I had demos of just four of my compositions that I could play for their reference, but only one of those demos offered a representation of the entire composition. The other three demos were older, and I had decided to add sections or make other changes that were not present in those recordings. Even Zoogz, as the producer, didn’t really know how some of the parts in my head were going to sound until I started adding them as overdubs.

I have to give Willie, Mark, and John a lot of credit for relying on their instincts in figuring out what to play. I tried using body language to emphasize dynamic changes, and I gave them specific parts to play for a few bars or phrases here and there, but most of their performances were all their own contributions. The others did not know how the horn parts were going to sound, or even the parts of the compositions in which horns would be playing. That was my first experience arranging horns outside of some very simple assignments back in my college music classes.

Somewhere along the way, I had met trombonist Toby Holmes, and he was extremely helpful to me in three ways for this project: First, he agreed to play on my sessions. Second, he recruited the saxophone players, Jim Germann and Benn Clatworthy, who were going to come in and play my charts without having seen them ahead of the session. Third, Toby played through my horn charts beforehand so that we could make sure that I had not made any transposition errors, or written parts that did not allow players time to take a breath or were outside the ranges of the horns for which they were intended.

Besides John French, the other “special guest” players on my album were (1) Bruce Fowler, who had played trombone with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart; (2) Jesse Ed Davis, whose playing with Taj Mahal and Leon Russell had made me a fan in the early 1970s; and (3) Henry Kaiser, the remarkable guitarist and sonic explorer. Henry and I were already very close friends, and I knew Bruce casually through some mutual friends and from having attended some low-profile local shows he had done. I was fortunate enough to have become friendly with Jesse after meeting him at a local gig. My album was made on a tiny budget, so I am still very grateful to all of the players for taking part despite laughably small compensation, either out of friendship or from the desire to have a little adventure while helping out a fellow musician.

IE: People who haven’t heard your album but already have preconceived notions about what a “slide guitar” album should sound like are likely to be surprised. For example, the song “Metal & Wood” features you playing bottleneck Dobro and kalimba. The sound is, to me at least, and for the lack of a better description, “Greensboro meets Dakar (Senegal).” What was your inspiration and what was the mental image you had on this song?

SC: Ah, now that cut is entirely the product of improvising in one late-night session with a 4-track cassette recorder in the bedroom of the apartment where I lived at the time. In fact, I am reluctant to call it a song or a composition because it was so unpremeditated. I was thinking that it might be a good idea to throw in a couple of brief quiet tracks with acoustic bottleneck slide to provide some contrast to the clatter of all the louder stuff. I had purchased a kalimba, or “thumb piano,” in New York back in the early 1970s, after seeing Taj Mahal play one at a concert. I loved its sound, but I had never done more than fool around with it occasionally and then put it back on the shelf.

Anyway, that night, I decided to set up my 4-track cassette recorder and one microphone, and try recording a short improvisation on the kalimba – nothing fancy, just something gentle and melodic. It was around midnight, or a little later, and I was feeling kind of introspective, calm, playful, and perhaps a bit melancholy, so that’s the mood of what I played. I then added a second track of kalimba, attempting to accompany and sometimes harmonize with whatever I had recorded on the first track. Finally, I added a track of Dobro, again improvising against the kalimbas. “Staring Out The Window” was recorded in much the same way in another late-night session. Considering how much ambient noise was usually present in that garden apartment complex, it still amazes me that none of those quiet tracks I recorded were spoiled by the sudden intrusion of a helicopter or plane flying overhead, or by neighbors quarrelling, slamming a door, or playing the radio too loud. Of course, it may have helped that I was recording between 1:00 and 2:00 in the morning.

IE: And then there’s the raucous, bluesy, riff-driven “Sure Looks That Way” juxtaposed with songs like “Late,” which is an odd-meter piece with synth cello patch, and “A Good Talking To,” featuring a pronounced Reggae feel. As far as words go, a reader might think that Slide of Hand is a collision of styles, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The album has a very organic flow to it and every song feels connected to every other song. Can you describe your strategy for connecting songs with such varying emotional and substantive content? Would it simply be the mechanical presence of the slide guitar that can bind all these elements together or is it that your interpretation of the blues runs through all your music at the core level?

SC: Well, I do love the blues, and a bottleneck slide guitar is essentially the lead voice throughout Slide of Hand. Of course, there is also the fact that my personal playing style is featured on every track, and I composed them all – or improvised, in the case of “Metal & Wood.” I did not have any sort of unifying concept or theme in mind to link the tracks in any way. In fact, I took quite a different approach in establishing a playing order for the finished tracks. After the recording was completed, I filled out an index card for each track, listing its key, the musical style, tempo, instrumentation, length, and the first and last notes or chords. Then I just shuffled the index cards around, playing with different sequences that would fit on the two sides of an LP, and trying to establish definite contrasts between the tracks so that no cut was followed by one that might sound too similar. In other words, I made a conscious effort to ensure that each track could have its own identity without seeming like it was cut from the same cloth as the preceding track.

IE: Can you tell us a bit about your song-writing process? Do you have multiple approaches or do you have a system you follow?

SC: No, I have no system. I haven’t been writing anything lately, but when I have composed music in the past, my methods are dictated far more by spontaneous inspiration than by planning. Sometimes, while strumming chords almost absent-mindedly, a certain chord progression or voicing might sound especially pleasing or interesting, and I will turn my attention to seeing where it might lead. On other occasions, I have just made something up on the spot, with little or no idea of what I was going to play beforehand. In fact, two of the compositions on Slide of Hand were written spontaneously in just that manner – and I have a witness! I was visiting Henry Kaiser in November 1984, and I had brought my electric guitar. He suggested that we go into his home studio and try to record a couple of short demo tracks that I could use as examples of my playing. He had a Linn drum machine, and he quickly created a few percussion patterns and asked me to play something over them. I improvised some chords and melodies, and wrote “Slide of Hand” and “A Good Talking To” right there and then, out of thin air, without any premeditation. I overdubbed a bass guitar on each of those tracks, and recorded solos on top, and the tracks were done. Very fast! The only thing that didn’t just spring out of my head as I played it was that Henry suggested I play guitar with the rhythms and inflection of someone talking over the pseudo- reggae percussion track he created, so I did, and that’s why I gave it the title “A Good Talking To.” I was expecting those off-the-top-of-my-head compositions to end up sounding like discordant attempts to combine unrelated chords, but I liked the demos well enough to cut the same songs again with Willie and Mark for my album in 1987.

IE: Scott, did you enjoy the whole process of making a solo album, were you satisfied with the results, and, if you were to do it over again, what would you do differently?

SC: My answer to the question about whether I enjoyed making the album would have to be Yes and No. There were some parts of the process that were just fantastic – like the first time that I heard the four horn players sight-reading the charts that I had written, watching Henry and Jesse cut their guitar solos, and feeling simultaneously excited, nervous, and pleased while laying down the basic rhythm tracks.

However, there were other parts that were no fun at all – like the difficulties that resulted from having a ridiculously small budget to make the album, discovering a technical problem that complicated the mastering of the album, and mostly the fact that Zoogz and I kept disagreeing about various things and irritating each other until he finally got so mad that he quit. I cannot recall now whether it was one, two, or three days of sessions that he did not attend because he had walked away in anger and frustration. Willie Lapin stepped up and assumed the responsibility of the producer for those sessions, with help from the engineer, Marc Mylar, who is also a musician. They were able to listen objectively and guide me in making decisions, such as knowing when a take really needed another attempt or was good enough to keep. Eventually, Zoogz and I reached some sort of agreement, and he came back when it was time to mix all the tracks.

I think the basic problem was that we had embarked on this project without first discussing our respective roles as the producer and the artist, defining how we would collaborate. In all of my previous experiences working with Zoogz, he had been the guy calling the shots as bandleader. He was in charge then, and I guess that he was approaching his job as my producer with much the same attitude, coupled with the opinion that the producer is responsible for the end product, and is therefore the boss. However, I was feeling that I was the artist, this was my music, it was my solo album, and it was going to be my name on the cover. I was looking for him to produce my album in much the same way that George Martin produced The Beatles: trying to help the artist obtain the best individual performances, the best sound, the best final presentation of whatever the artist is trying to do, rather than imposing his will on the process.

Some producers, whether intentionally or not, put their own stamp on the artist’s recordings, so that they have a distinct sound or feel. Other producers play a more supportive and less obtrusive role, assisting artists in making and releasing a final recording that will be a good listening experience and an accurate representation of the artist’s intention. I felt bad that both the album and my friendship with Zoogz suffered as a result of our inability to recognize our problems and seek effective ways of compromising. He resented anyone daring to interfere with his plans or doing anything that seemed to undercut his authority, and that included me as well as others in this instance.

Having said all that, however, I am very happy that the album turned out as well as it did in spite of all the financial, technical, and personal obstacles we faced. I am proud of it. As for what I would do differently, well, I would certainly try to create more illustrative demos so that the other players and the producer would not have to guess at what the songs were intended to sound like. I would also like to have a reasonable budget, and I would definitely want to make sure that the producer and I shared an understanding of how we would work together before setting foot inside the studio.

IE: You said in Guitar Player “I try to sing through my instrument....I try to get a very emotive, vocal quality from whatever I’m playing. I tend not to play fast scalar runs as much as something that I might sing if I were a really good vocalist. In music from Korea and other Asian countries, as well as in Indian music, you find a certain way of singing through the instrument, or using stringed instruments to approximate a wailing voice. You also hear it in Delta blues. When I heard the same thing happening in all this music, it filled me with some sort of hope, because all these different cultures and musical traditions had the same theme running through them. It was indicative of the fact that music truly is a language common to everyone. I found that very uplifting, somehow.” A number of things come to mind here for me: namely the intersection of (a) vocalization and the instrument; (b) a specifically “wailing” voice; (c) hope and emotional uplift; and (d) the prospects for universal meaning. Please, explore this for us more in-depth. How do you see your music fitting into the larger, global musical language in terms of the content and intent? What would you be trying to “say” that would be shared by, say, a female musician in Mali? Many people would argue, for example, that all meaning is local, (over)determined by things like culture, language, gender, class, religion, etc., and that people outside those particular horizons of meaning can never really comprehend that which lies on the other side – in other words there could be no undistorted communication between them. Do you think of yourself as optimistically humanist in some ways? Do you think durable bonds of solidarity can be forged through music? The kinds of bonds that could suspend, contain, or neutralize other forms of social division like gender, ethnicity, politics, religion, etc.?

SC: Wow, I’m not sure how to begin to answer all those questions. I’m just a music fanatic who plays guitar in a peculiar manner, so bringing the people of all nations together in harmonious cooperation through music seems like a bit of a tall order. I do consider myself a humanist – a secular humanist, actually – but not much of an optimist. The words that I used in that Guitar Player interview were chosen on the spur of the moment, so perhaps they did not convey my meaning with sufficient detail. For example, you noted my description of hearing a “wailing” voice being approximated or implied in the playing of an instrument, but that was not meant to imply exclusively the communication of sorrow or suffering. I was referring more to the expression of human emotions, which surely seem to transcend differences in language, culture, tradition, gender, class, or religion.

I’m sure that this will sound blatantly obvious and fundamental, but I was talking about recognizing our connection as human beings through the ability to perceive emotions in music without needing to understand words. Sometimes it’s easy to feel overcome with despair and disgust at the continuous display of the darker ways in which human beings around this planet often treat each other: violence, exploitation, corruption, abuse, greed, intolerance, and so on. Those feelings are counteracted to some degree, for me at least, by realizing that we can all recognize human emotions expressed in instrumental music. Joy, sadness, pain; laughing, crying, moaning – these are all things that I think nearly everyone can hear and identify in a musical performance, and maybe they can feel empathy for the performer and the composer. I am not suggesting, however, that instrumental music is an ideal method for communicating one’s philosophy, the flavor of your favorite food, or the reasons for proposing a revision to the local tax laws.

IE: Scott, you and I had talked earlier about the mid-80s and Guitar Player magazine’s place in music and guitar journalism. We both expressed a relative admiration for what Joe Gore and company did at the time. From your perspective, do you think it was simply the idiosyncrasies of Gore and friends that made for good reading for a while, or was there something unique about the 80s such that major segments of the guitar “community” were aching for new, exotic, and interesting things? Not to lead the questioning, but my own take on things was that Gore was not only pushing a personal agenda, but was also tapped into a cultural “Zeitgeist” of the period that echoed reactions against the economics, politics, and aesthetics of the day. For example, I think it’s not merely happenstance that niche musical “markets” started to explode at roughly the same time as affordable, digital recording technology created the initial surge in project studios. People were in a better position to explore and produce their own music rather than passively consume corporate product – and, of course, this is about the time that boutique manufacturing really started to take off. Being in the thick of it in California during the mid 80s, what did you perceive?

SC: I was a regular reader of Guitar Player from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. My impression of the magazine during the 1980s was that they were making a sincere effort to cover guitar players across a wide range of musical styles, and to provide honest, objective evaluations of the equipment that they reviewed. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes when decisions were made, but they seemed to be doing a good job of balancing things: on the one hand, the desire to produce a quality publication that would be informative and interesting, and that could introduce readers to new players and techniques; and on the other hand, the need to attract sufficient numbers of advertisers and readers by including lots of reviews and by featuring attention-getting players on the cover.

As for what I saw and heard taking place in California during the 1980s, I was mostly aware of the growing D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) trend.  People began assembling more capable home studios, and there were more independent record labels and magazines. It was exciting, even if some of the music didn’t interest me or seemed to have the aroma of trend-following poseurs.

IE: You’ve had a rewarding musical relationship with Henry Kaiser, and, in fact, I first discovered you through his video Eclectic Electric in which you appeared. How did you first hook up with him?

SC: During the second half of the 1970s, I had been corresponding with Chris Cutler, who was playing drums and writing for the group Henry Cow, and who played a crucial role in founding the Rock In Opposition movement. After I relocated to the Los Angeles area, I kept running into Denny Walley, who had played guitar with the band Geronimo Black, and was then playing guitar with Captain Beefheart’s current lineup of The Magic Band. I would bump into Denny at stores and in the park, and we had become sufficiently acquainted that he knew I played slide guitar and was familiar with Beefheart’s music. He mentioned that he was going to be leaving The Magic Band and offered to suggest that they audition me as a potential replacement. I was very excited about that, so I wrote about it in my next letter to Chris. He wrote back to say that Henry Cow had just played some concerts with Henry Kaiser on the same bill, and that he (Chris) had told Henry about me, and that I would probably be hearing from Henry. Meanwhile, what neither Denny nor I knew was that another guitarist named Richard Redus had already been invited to replace Denny in The Magic Band, so I never got a chance to audition.

However, a few weeks later, Henry phoned and introduced himself. He was coming down to the L.A. area to give a couple of performances, and he asked if he could drop by and hear me play. He came by, we talked for a while and jammed quietly in my apartment, and then I went to see his concert that night. To my surprise, I was approached by several people after his concert, all saying “I hear you’re a really good slide guitarist.” Henry had apparently been telling people all sorts of nice things about me – promoting me, in a way, regardless of the fact that doing so offered no benefit to him. He has often done the same thing for other musicians, writers, filmmakers, and artists over the years, just because he likes what they do and wants to tell others about them. Anyway, Henry and I kept in touch, talking by phone on a frequent basis, and we became close friends.

I’ve enjoyed all the occasions where I have gotten to play music with him in the studio or onstage. We’re different in some ways, but we have a lot of similar interests and values. He’s one of my favorite people, a great guy who’s interesting to talk with about all sorts of things. I’ve also been introduced to a lot of good music from around the globe through Henry, as well as movies, books, and food.

IE: Do you have any advice for players wanting to explore slide techniques, and what do you consider to be the “must have” slide recordings that people should consult?

SC: Slide guitar advice? There are a few basic suggestions I can offer. First of all, be sure you understand that the idea is to just apply firm pressure against the strings; if you press the strings down to the neck with the slide, it sounds terrible and you’ll look like an idiot. Second, low action and light- gauge strings may be more comfortable for regular guitar playing, but neither of them are good for playing slide. Low action can make your notes sound mushy, and it’s hard to avoid that clunk-clunk-clunk sound of your slide bumping over the frets when you play. Light-gauge strings give you a thin sound. Third, use a slide with some weight to it. Don’t opt for a lightweight slide or you’ll have to press harder to put any power and authority in your playing. I experimented with both metal and glass slides when I was starting out, and I definitely preferred the sound of the glass slide. Consequently, I ended up using the heaviest glass slide that was available commercially at the time, and I’ve stuck with them. They give me the mass I need when I snap the slide onto the strings or play quick slurs. Finally, one other useful tip I can offer is to sing a short wordless melody into a tape recorder, listen to it carefully, and then try to recreate it exactly – with the same nuances and emotional tone – using the slide on your guitar.

As for essential slide guitar recordings, this may not be a definitive list, but here are the ones that come to mind beyond the well-known stuff like the Allman Brothers Band playing “Statesboro Blues” live at the Fillmore East:

JOHNNY WINTER – “I Love Everybody” (Second Winter), “Black Cat Bone” (The Progressive Blues Experiment), “I’m Yours And I’m Hers” (Johnny Winter)

SONNY LANDRETH – “Native Stepson” (South of I-10), “Levee Town” and “Spider-Gris” (Levee Town), “Outward Bound” (Outward Bound)

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART AND THE MAGIC BAND – “Crazy Little Thing,” “Sun Zoom Spark,” and “Big Eyed Beans From Venus” (Clear Spot), “Bat Chain Puller” (Shiny Beast)

BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON – “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground”

RY COODER – “Dark Is The Night” (Ry Cooder), “I Think It’s Going To Work Out Fine” (Bop Till You Drop), “Alamo Bay” (main title theme from Alamo Bay soundtrack)

JEFF BECK – “Definitely Maybe” (Jeff Beck Group), “Nadia” (You Had It Coming, and also Live At BB King Blues Club), “I Ain’t Superstitious” (Truth)

LEO KOTTKE – “Vaseline Machine Gun” (6- and 12-String Guitar), “All Through The Night” (Ice Water), “When Shrimps Learn To Whistle” (Dreams and All That Stuff)

BOZ SCAGGS (featuring Duane Allman on slide) – “Finding Her” (try to find the longer version on the original 1969 Boz Scaggs Atlantic LP rather than the 1977 remix later released on CD)

MALLARD (featuring Bill Harkleroad on slide) – “Back On The Pavement” (Mallard)

IE: Speaking of Kaiser’s video and the sharing of information, did you ever have the idea of making your own instructional video? Undoubtedly you have a completely unique perspective on slide guitar that a lot of people would no doubt benefit from. And, I guess it would be obvious to ask: Have you in the past and do you now give lessons?

SC: No, I’ve never given lessons, and I don’t think that I would be good at it. It’s hard for me to condense what I do into an organized presentation. My playing style developed through experimentation, trial and error, over years of listening to lots of different musicians and various styles of music, and then trying to figure out how I could use my odd technique to play some of what I had heard.

IE: If you were asked to be an advocate for slide guitar, what would you say were the primary virtues of slide that may be missing in normal technical vocabularies?

SC: Avoid clichés, take chances, break out of playing only blues or in box patterns, and try new things. Jeff Beck and Leo Kottke are good examples. Another player who impresses me in that regard is Jimmy Ågren, a Swedish player whose style displays the influence of the slide guitarists who have passed through the ranks of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Other groundbreakers are Dave Tronzo, who plays jazz on bottleneck slide guitar, and Brij Bhushan Kabra and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, two lap slide players who each play traditional styles of music from India.

IE: What have you been listening to lately?

SC: A mixed bag, including the following items:

TODD RUNDGREN – Liars and No World Order

DANNY GATTON – Funhouse and Portraits

THELONIOUS MONK – Big Band And Quartet In Concert

JEFF BECK – Live At BB King Blues Club

ROY ZIMMERMAN – Homeland / Security (two companion CDs)


WALTER BECKER – 11 Tracks Of Whack HAPPY THE MAN – Crafty Hands

BEAU HUNKS – The Original Laurel & Hardy Music and The Original Little Rascal Music

NRBQ – Peek-A-Boo and Live At The Wax Museum

ENSEMBLE MODERN – Plays Frank Zappa’s Greggery Peccary And
Other Persuasions

RON JARZOMBEK – Solitarily Speaking of Theoretical Confinement

TERRY ADAMS – Terrible

THE TAPES – Party and On A Clear Day And also a friend’s CD compilation of terrific Salegy music by JAOJOBY and other artists from Madagascar

IE: Who are some of the guitar players or other musicians out there now that excite you and that readers might not be aware of?

SC: Well, besides Jimmy Ågren, who I mentioned earlier, there’s an acoustic guitarist named Kaki King. She has a very percussive style and uses the entire body of the guitar. Many of the recordings that I listen to repeatedly are older, and the artists are no longer active – or in some cases, breathing. I often return to my recordings of Shawn Lane, Danny Gatton, Frank Zappa, “Ollie” Halsall with Patto, Professor Longhair, and The Raymond Scott Quintette.

IE: What is your equipment setup at the moment?

SC: I’m still playing the same instruments that I bought back in the 1970s. My acoustic guitar is a round-neck Dobro resophonic that I bought new around 1972. I believe the folks at Manny’s music shop called it a “hound dog” model. My electric guitar is a Gibson SG that I bought used in the mid1970s. I later had it equipped with Bartolini pickups and switches that allow me to select whether they’re wired in series or in parallel. My amp is a solid-state Pearce G2r, which I bought in 1988.

IE: Can you tell us more about the Frankfurt jazz festival? How did your participation come about and who did you play with, etc.?

SC: Henry Kaiser was contacted by people who were organizing or booking this event. They asked him to help organize what I think they called a “slide guitar workshop”; an assortment of different slide guitarists presented together in a lengthy set as part of the final night of this festival. Henry assembled a guitar line-up consisting of himself, me, David Lindley, Bob Brozman, and Freddie Roulette, with Merle Saunders on keyboards, Hilary Hanes on bass guitar, and John Hanes on drums. Bob Brozman and David Lindley each performed solo, without accompaniment, whereas Merle, Hilary, and John played with Freddie, and also with the combination of me and Henry. At the end, we all joined together for a blues jam. It was a very quick, hectic trip, but also exciting and fun. That was one of the only two occasions where I’ve performed material from Slide of Hand in concert.

IE: I see that you’ll be on a couple of album releases this year – presumably as a “sideman.” Do you have any solo projects coming up in the foreseeable future?

SC: Not at present. I’ve really been devoting most of my time to what I used to call my day job, which is being a technical writer at a software company. It’s not nearly as satisfying as music, which is obviously a more creative endeavor, but I do enjoy the challenge of trying to communicate complicated or confusing information in ways that are clear and easier to comprehend.

IE: Have you been tempted or bitten by the home-recording bug yet?

SC: Not so far, but as a committed fan of Macintosh computers, I’m intrigued by all the positive comments I’ve heard about Apple’s Garage Band software.

IE: Scott, is there anything that I neglected that you’d like readers to know?

SC: Yes. Good manners and personal hygiene are ever so important.