Words: David Mead / Portrait: Marina Chavez
Every concert Bonnie Raitt plays features at least one acoustic performance – check out her mesmerising duet with Richard Thompson singing Dimming Of The Day, for instance – and so, with a new album due in February, we thought it was high time to talk about her acoustic influences. To begin with, it occurred to us that, like so many other great players, Bonnie probably started her guitar playing career on a flat top guitar…
“ I absolutely did. I got a guitar when I was eight years old for Christmas, at my request.
I idolised my folk-singing counsellors in the summer camps I would go to and there was a folk revival craze in the late 50s, early 60s and I caught the bug. My heroes were Pete Seeger and The Weavers, Odetta, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary… they all were having great success. The Kingston Trio had a number one record with Tom Dooley and on TV, Peter, Paul and Mary were singing Bob Dylan songs. Joan Baez was the darling of the folk revival, the star of Newport and she was on the cover of Time. She was my hero and, because she was a Quaker and of Scottish and Mexican extraction and I was from California like her – and we were Quakers and Scottish as well -so I was indelibly a Joan Baez fan and I taught myself guitar from her records.”
It’s Interesting that you were attracted to folk first -it seems that folk and blues were very closely related back in the 60s…
“In the sense that they’re roots music.
There was as much interest in bluegrass and English/Scottish Child Ballads as there was in the blues artists being rediscovered in the South. Newport ’63 was an album on Vanguard that introduced me to the folk artists and the one from ’64 was my first blues introduction, with Mississippi John Hurt and Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry and John Lee Hooker, John Hammond, Dave Van Ronk and Rev Gary Davies. Those were the first acoustic blues musicians that I had heard and I fell in love with Mississippi John Hurt and taught myself how to play Candy Man.
That was the first blues song I ever played.
But before that I think there were some blues artists mixed in with the folk, but the folk music revival was all kinds of roots music.”
Was it the early blues records that drew you towards playing slide?
“Well I was only 14 when I heard slide guitar and there was no YouTube or nobody teaching blues guitar at that point, so I was just learning from records and reading Sing Out magazine.
I figured out I would have to try and find a bottleneck and the closest I could get was a Coricidin bottle and I soaked the label off and used my middle finger – that’s the one I could hold on my hand with the adjacent fingers. But. years later, when I actually met a lot of the blues artists or saw them on TV, I realised it was an impractical finger to be using. I was totally self-taught and just making it up in my room without any advice. I didn’t have the wherewithal to buy guitar magazines or take lessons or any of that stuff.”
So, later on, who were the influences with your slide playing?
“Well, early on, John Hammond Jr – that’s one of the first people I heard play Son House songs. I didn’t have the income or the ability to get to the record stores and so it was precious for me to finally get a blues record from my older brother’s girlfriend. I listened to Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters and then I fell in love with Mississippi Fred McDowell and I got his record on Arhoolie.
As I got older I got access to other people’s records and by the time I went to college I had heard quite a bit of British blues. They called it ‘The Invasion’, a rather hilarious moniker, but between The Rolling Stones and all the records that Mike Vernon put out, all of the blues styles were introduced to a lot of America and the rest of the world by the Brits. Little Red Rooster was the first time I ever heard electric slide. Then I fell in love with all the Chicago and all the acoustic blues artists.
I don’t really differentiate between acoustic and electric slide or blues, I like them all.”
Do you write on acoustic guitar?
“Well I’m not primarily a writer I’m mostly an interpreter but when I do write I write some on guitar and some on piano. I have a couple of great acoustic guitars that I play around the house but because I’m primarily an electric slide player, when I want to write a rock ‘n’ roll or a more band-oriented type of song, then I use my electric slide. But I love playing my acoustic and my Nationals and I love the sound of acoustic guitars and I would say they all get equal play in my working out tunes.”
What acoustics do you use live?
“I’ve had the same Guild F-50 big jumbo body for many, many years; I’ve had it since 1975. I’ve got a couple of other Guilds and one I inherited from someone who passed away, and I bought a couple more just to have spares for different tunings on the road in case something goes wrong with one of them. I’ve just recently gotten a beautiful guitar made for me by Jay Lichty who’s back east in the States here. He created a beautiful guitar out of sunken redwood for me so that’s something I’m using on the road as well.”
What tunings do you use for slide?
“I use open tunings for slide and sometimes just playing; I love to play open tunings for folk music or playing ballads. Primarily I use open A or open G. I either tune it up to open A or down to open G. I play what I call Elmore James tunings, that’s open E, which is slightly different, and we call that the ‘Dust My Broom‘ tuning in our band. Paul Brady, the brilliant Irish singer/songwriter, and Richard Thompson are both dear friends of mine and they showed me some interesting tunings – open C tuning and Richard showed me DADGAD years ago – but primarily I use what the blues guys would call Spanish tuning, which is three Es, two As and a C”
Bonnie Raitt’s new album. Dig In Deep, is released in February 2016 with a UK tour beginning in May.
Source: © Copyright: Winter 2015 issue of Guitarists’ “Acoustic” magazine
More: Lichty Guitars – Bonnie Raitt