Sonny Landreth Interview - Tones and Tuning

The trio is sometimes considered the most raw and honest musical entity known to man. Perfect then for a practitioner of the raw and honest style known as the blues, and perfect then for Sonny Landreth. Slide king, Louisiana blues master sometimes sidekick to John Hiatt Landreth is a phenomenal slide guitarist and blues singer/songwriter.

The Road We're On, finds Landreth getting back to his bluesy roots, after years of excursions into the realms of Zydeco and various jazzy backwoods ramblings that grabbed his fancy for a time. With road-tested tunes and a rockin backbone made solid by long-time bassist Dave Ranson and drummer Kenneth Blevins, The Road simply rocks.

Landreth took time out between a John Hiatt TV shoot and a week of solo gigs to tell about his favorite open tunings, his behind the slide fretting technique, and to opine on whether boutique effects pedals are really worth their inflated price tags. So, how is the tour going?

Sonny Landreth: Well, it's going great. I had a little time at home, a few days, between this run with John [Hiatt]. All is well and good so far. We're selling some CDs and getting airplay, so hopefully we'll keep building on it and see what happens. Meanwhile I'm going to be busy either way. That's for sure. The new disc has some cool stuff on it. I really like it. I'm looking at your website right now and looking at information on tunings and gear and stuff. Is that somewhat current?

Landreth: Well, it's been kind of an ongoing series. We have this newsletter called SlideLines, which I'm behind on at the moment. But what we would do each time we do one is pick a song that I've recorded and go into some of the chordal tunings, and some of the gear that we used. It's sort of an ongoing thing. So on your site where it says Tunings, currently it says Stage Tunings and lists a bunch of songs, but it doesn't spell out the tunings for each song, as it does where you list the John Hiatt and the Goners stage tunings. Could I get you to spell out some of your favorite tunings?

Landreth: Oh sure. What is your A tuning?

Landreth: A is the regular A, Spanish. Low to high would be: E, A, E, A, C#, E. And then A minor?

Landreth: That would be the same thing except you drop that C# down to C. And then A Suspended? You'd take that C# up to D?

Landreth: Actually you'd take the B string down to B, as in boy. And then you take the top string and that goes down to C#. And your C tuning? Is that a normal C tuning?

Landreth: Which one did I use that on? Your online notes say you used C tuning on on Frisco Bay, which made a rare appearance in the setlist in the Golden Gate City.

Landreth: Oh, right. That's just like [standard] E or D, just down another whole step. So low to high it would be C, G, C, E, G, C. And then D minor?

Landreth: D minor is like D major, except you drop the third again. And that would be spelled D, A, D, F instead of F# A, D. And E?

Landreth: E is regular E, like Vestapol. E, B, E, G#, B, E. And G tuning?

Landreth: That's a regular G. That would be D, G, D, G, B, D. And how did you get started playing in all these different tunings?

Landreth: You know I started out playing lap steel. I had a Mel Bay slide book. So I learned G tuning first, actually. The one I just spelled out. And then I took that and adapted it I had a [Gibson] Melody Maker, early '60s and I put a high note on it, just like the lap slide. And originally started out with that extra high action. And little by little I would sand down the nut until I got used to playing with gauge 13 through 56, like you would on a regular acoustic guitar action.

And so I kept the G for awhile, and then I switched over to E. I worked with E for quite a bit, and then began going back and forth between the two. And then one tuning sort of lead to another. And I started thinking, Well, in terms of songs, what are some of the other ones I can figure out? And I just started making up and trying different things, experimenting. And reading about other tunings. But always I was more song-oriented about it. It was out of necessity, or wanting to figure out a tuning for a song that I was writing or working on. When you would explore a new tuning, did you just start putting your fingers or your slide down wherever, or did you think about which note would be where in this new tuning?

Landreth: A little bit of both. Mostly, with somewhat of an adventurous spirit, I'd say, "Well, where will this take me?" And I would try with open sounds cause once you get into open tunings you realize the beauty of having all those open strings, and being able to lay them out like you would on a piano with the sustain bar down. The sustain pedal down, I should say and letting everything ring one note against the other. I always loved that effect. And that would kind of guide me into a direction, and some things worked and some things didnt. But it definitely turns you on to different options and ideas, because as with the tunings, one idea would kind of lead to another. And you still fret plenty, besides your slide playing?

Landreth: Yeah. And you wear your slide on your pinky?

Landreth: Yeah. So you still have the other three fingers to fret at any time.

Landreth: Well that's the thing. And what I discovered- I was frustrated with playing in a blues band, and we'd play a minor blues tune, and I would be tuned to E major. But at the 12th fret I could see that G natural behind the glass, and I'd press down and hit a big E minor chord. And thats what set me on my path to discovering fretting behind the slide. So the technique is that you hold the slide all the way across all six strings those notes are floating. And there's enough room, if you have your action and your string gauge and the right thickness slide, you can fret behind the glass [slide] and that string or that combination of strings will go underneath the slide and vibrate just like they would when you'd typically be fretting. And it's the combination of those fretted notes with those slide notes that are floating that creates that clash, and gets the mojo. And it opens up a window in terms of possibilities harmonically, rhythmically, and you get more percussive effects as well. So with the new album, The Road We're On, you have some quotes in your press kit saying, I wanted to get back to the blues. And also you took a more traditional recording approach, with a lot of live tracks. What made you want to go the live route?

Landreth: I think when the live shows and the energy we get that, and the sound we get from that. And I always loved live albums. There's just a feel to that you can't get any other way. And even though on other albums, some of those tracks had quite a bit of it live, it still wasn't the full-blown effect of, OK, we have a three-piece band, so here are the guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. And I just wanted to get back to the blues. It just all made sense. Things have a way of working out at the right time. I was ready for it. I wanted to get back to that more simplistic approach. And again, it's about the song first. Those are the types of songs I wrote and that's the direction I wanted to take with them. And it's fun. I think you can feel that from the tracks. It's much more than the band live. Are you doing just a trio live?

Landreth: Yeah, I've been doing that for years. It gives me the opportunity to really cut loose and concentrate on techniques that really get the full potential of the guitar and using the slide for me. I love other instruments. I love working with my friend Steve Conn on keys. He's fantastic. He'll come sit in with us from time to time. He played on some of the tracks. And I love other instruments too. In years past I had much larger bands with more instrumentation. But I've kind of just hit on my thing with the three-piece. I always loved that too. I heard Hendrix in the late-60's. The power trio thing always stuck with me. And I think getting the big sounds like that. It just seems to get the point across more. Do you play a lot of acoustic stuff live, or is it all electric?

Landreth: All electric. I would certainly welcome doing more acoustic work, and I've been wanting to get to that over the years. But unfortunately, logistically, it's just really hard, with the way we travel. We're flying to all the gigs, and it's just gotten harder and harder in terms of gear what you can bring with the airport security and all thats going on these days. So it's a little bit of a compromise in some things. So I try to think differently. I think any good song can be interpreted in different ways. We've always had songs that we would have a studio version, and perhaps have a different arrangement for the live version. And it's in keeping with that spirit too, on some of the more acoustic songs, we'd find a different way to channel that with the electric guitar. What are you carrying on the road with you these days?

Landreth: If were flying I take my amp head, my Dumble. And I have this either.I have this double Strat case. And one of the Strats has a Trilogy tuning bridge on it, and so we can go back and forth while I'm playing one guitar, and my guitar tech, Billy Gosser, can be tuning the other guitar and getting it ready for the next song. So if we have a set where I'm using six different tunings, we can handle it.

The other way, I have a Les Paul with a TransPerformance system. It's an amazing computerized tuning bridge that literally moves the strings. And I program all my tunings, and just hit a button and, zing, youre there. I took a look at that a couple years ago, but don't remember a lot about it. You like it a lot?

Landreth: Oh, it's amazing. It's like the Star Trek of multiple tunings for guitar. If you use a lot of tunings, and that's your thing, it's a God-send. Especially in situations where you can't sometimes there's only three of us myself, Dave Ranson on bass, and Kenneth Blevins on drums. And it gives us a way to sort of hit and run as a commando outfit, cause we can take all of our gear, and it still gives us options. And it works beautiful and sounds great too. How does it move the strings?

Landreth: There's a servo motor believe it or not, on each string. And the brain, the computer everything equates back to standard tuning and measures pitch. There's also a sensor on each string as part of the bridge of the system that Neil Skinn he's the inventor built. That way you can go in and program all your tunings and different menus. Usually one menu will do it for me for a night, or for a set at least. And program the different tunings in there. And you have the flexibility of tweaking the tunings in between as well, the touch-up mode. It's really incredible. I'm going to have to look at that again. And what is the Trilogy bridge you have on the Strat.

Landreth: Well the Trilogy I've had for years, before the TransPerformance system. This is a mechanical system are you familiar with the Hip-Shot, Drop D Tuner? Yeah.

Landreth: Yeah, Dave Barosov, he invented this bridge. Each string has a three position Oh yeah, I've seen those.

Landreth: Yeah, you go in mechanically set each one and tune it. You sit down with your tuner and figure outyou have to write all your tunings out and figure out the commonality on the strings. Then you start with your high string and you work your way down. It's great, especially if you're going from E tuning to A tuning, it works really well. If you go from E to G tuning, or a lower tuning, you have a natural phenomenon in which the neck is going to move no matter what, just from lack of tension. But it sure gets you in the ball-park as opposed to tuning from scratch, turning the keys. I've never been one to be able to do that in front of people and be all that comfortable with it, like my friend David Lindley. He can tell stories while hes retuning all his strings (laughs). It's great. But it's a great tool. And what are you playing through as far as effects?

Landreth: I go back and forth. Sometimes I'll take a pedal board out. Mostly I'll keep a compressor, like the Dynacomp or the Analog Man, and I like that with the clean channel on some of the clean songs. And a little bit of delay. And that's pretty much it. With the Dumble I just change channels. There's the overdrive channel and then there's the clean channel. There are several different modes in both that you can adjust. But I've given into simplicity now. I'm taking the Dynacomp, and I have a couple of different settings on the Line 6 delay pedal. They work really well. And I just go back and forth between the two.

If I'm doing the full-blown pedal board, then sometimes I'll have for example if I'm using a Fuzz Face, you have to use that in line first, cause it likes to see the guitar signal first. It doesn't like anything in between it. Then I'll go to one of the compressor units the Dynacomp or the Analog Man. And then from that to something perhaps like the. Do you use the Big Muff still?

Landreth: Oh yeah. I'll swap it out. I'll use either the Fuzz Face or the Big Muff. Or, I'll tell ya, a really great pedal is Mike Fullers '70s Pedal. I like that a lot. And he's really got it tuned like when they changed the Fuzz Face to the silicone diode. And he's got a midrange control on it that works really well. And for awhile I've used his Full Drive II pedal. That's really great too. Do you notice a serious difference between these more expensive, boutique pedals, and the off-the-shelf effects, such as Boss or MXR?

Landreth: Well, I'll tell ya, there is a difference. And I think it's taste as well, it's what you want to hear. Different players like different sounds. And the way a pedal reacts: Is it more touch sensitive? Is it more get-up-and-go as soon as you hit it? Does it do something drastic? Or is it that you like the sound of your amp the way it is, but you just want a bit more gain to kick it. And there's something like the Klons that work really great for that. If you want something that really changes the sound drastically, put a Big Muff in there. You'll know it when you step on it! (laughs).

But I think Mike Fuller certainly makes high-end pedals that are built really, really well. They hold up on the road. They sound fantastic. He's definitely put the time and effort into them. And there's a difference.

I think all the Boss pedals a lot of them are really cool. They work great. I find that some of the distortion pedals don't really have the impact that some of these others have. They have really nice color. But that's somebody else's cup of tea. And that's exactly what they like to hear. It's really a matter of taste.

But basically I like to get it out of the amp. It's just that in certain situations you don't have that headroom in a smaller venue, or if you're doing a taping for a TV show or a radio show, sometimes you just can't do that. Or if you're doing an in-store or an appearance at a radio station. And you have to rely more on the pedals then.

Landreth: Yeah, exactly. And it's good to have something to fall back on for that. I was at a vintage guitar show yesterday and I was looking at a Big Muff pedal, cause I used to have one back in the '70s. And I was looking at it and thinking, "I ought to buy one of these things again." I don't know why I ever let go of the first one I had, or where it ended up.

Landreth: Yeah, you have to wonder about those things. And little did we know, huh? (laughs) Yeah, exactly.

Landreth: Well, at least I had enough sense to hang on to my Dynacomps. I still use those to record. What gear did you use in the studio on the new disc, The Road We're On?

Landreth: I wanted to get back to some of my earlier inspirations and I used a real basic formula. I used a '66 Strat through a Dynacomp, into my old Marshall 50 watt head. And that went into this Bandmaster cabinet I've played tons of gigs and it looks like it loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s. And that was the basic sound on all the tracks, except let me think about this except I used a Matchless DC 30 on "The Natural World", and I used the Matchless Chieftain on "Gemini Blues". And on that track I used a 1960 sunburst Les Paul. That's basically what I did for the whole album. So that's it? Just those two guitars?

Landreth: Let me think: On some of the acoustic layering I used an old 30's National. And also I had a prototype for a signature model Dobro. It was made back in '95. It's a brighter sound. It's basically a reso-guitar. Did they make the signature model?

Landreth: You know, we were right at the next phase of it, and Gibson pulled the plug on their factory in California and moved everything to Nashville. And it kind of got lost in the shuffle. Some of the people dont work there that used to. So it kind of fell by the wayside. But actually the guitar that I have is quite close to what I had in mind. Its brighter than what I wanted, but Ive found that it really works well in a lot of tracking. It jumps out in the mix a little better. Do you search around for new equipment when you travel?

Landreth: Well, if I have time. I'm probably as much of a hopeless addict for this stuff as anyone else. But I'm kinda putting the breaks on it. I'm trying to work with what I've got at this point, in hopes of simplicity. But yeah, I like to go to shops, especially some of the vintage gear and see what's in there. Usually curiousity gets the better of me. It's really more a matter of time, we're on the go so much. Are you online much Sonny?

Landreth: No I'm not. I'm still holding out (laughs), but that's about to give way here in the next couple of weeks. Because we also run another website called It started about six years ago as a vintage guitar site. And we've got about 260 retailers and collectors that are selling stuff there. There are about 30,000 items in the database. And there's some pretty cool stuff in there.

Landreth: Oh I bet. There's all kinds of gear: $100,000 Martins and stuff like that which I'm sure you'll want to log right on for and buy! (laughs)

Landreth: (laughs) I think that one has been there for awhile.

Landreth: Yeah, it's been there for awhile. But it's kind of a cool resource.

Landreth: Oh yeah man, I'd love to check that out. So when you're going back and forth between Hiatt's gig and your gig, how does it change your approach to the playing? Certainly your gear changes a little bit?

Landreth: Yeah. With the gear part of it, it depends on the song that were doing in the set with John. And I tend to have more pedals to be able to color some of the melodic lines. It works better to treat it that way.

On my gigs, I really simplify it more these days. I'm out with the Dumble and the delay pedal and the compressor for the clean channel on a couple of songs, and that's really about it. I just go through these phases, probably like other players do, where sometimes I get into the pedal using a lot of pedals and sometimes I'm just going for a simpler approach. And the fact that I fly to all our gigs I can't take as much gear, although I've pushed the limit I'll say that as much as I could.

With John we travel by bus mostly, and it affords me the opportunity to bring more of my equipment on board. Taking a bus on the road is actually more expensive than flying, isn't it?

Landreth: Oh, it is. You know with John we have a whole crew, and road manager, and bus driver. It's a really expensive enterprise to do it that way. But it's great. I used to do that. In '95 and '96 we had a bus out the whole time. Now it's just that the economics of it work out so much better this way for me. And it's something kind of part of the- uh- just sort of uh- going at it with a little rougher approach, there's just something about it thats kind of fun too. We play a lot of festivals. You just show up, you blow and go. There's no time for a soundcheck or anything like that. But you're bringing your own amps. Are you bringing those on an airplane with you?

Landreth: I bring my own heads. And as part of the backline, the promoters provide a cabinet for me, a drum set, and a bass rig. So Dave brings his bass. I bring whatever guitars and the amp head. Oh, that's not too much to carry then.

Landreth: Well, it's not too bad. It works, and that's about the max with our luggage we can take on the plane these days. Have you ever had any problems with your gear getting messed up or lost?

Landreth: A couple of times, but all in all I have to say knock on wood if the guitar, if the guitars don't show up with the flight I'm on, they'll come on the next or a flight that comes later. It does show up. I've never had anything lost, and hopefully I never will. And you've got to wonder, how many times, as much as we fly, and as many gigs as we play, we're kind of rolling the dice I guess. So far so good. What kind of cases are you using?

Landreth: I've got flight cases for everything. I really like Jan-Als cases. He's really great, out in California. And there's also a company outside of New Orleans called B.A.D. Cases. I forget what it stands for, but they do a really good job as well. How do I spell Janal's name?

Landreth: It's J-a-n-a-l. It's two different guys that own the company. And they're based, I think it's Los Angeles. I think they're right outside of Los Angeles. And they've probably got a website.

Landreth: Oh, I'm sure they do. We like to link to these people and give them a little credit.

Landreth: Oh, I'll tell you what, they really never get the attention or the praise they deserve, the really good ones, because we couldn't do it without 'em. I mean, when we fly all this gear, or even traveling on a bus, it takes a beating. And that's your equipment. And I have road Strats specifically for that, they're really tough and they survive just about anything fortunately. I couldn't take my vintage instruments out, which is a drag, but that's just the reality of it. But still, those are guitars I play, and they need protection. So you have a big week-long stand coming up during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

Landreth: It's more like two weeks, really. We're just playing a lot in those two weeks, it's a real busy time of year. That's kind of cool.

Landreth: Yeah, it's a lot of fun. And then off to Tokyo for the Japan Blues Carnival

Landreth: Yeah, I'm going over doing that solo, actually. Have you done that one before?

Landreth: Never have. The last time I was in Japan was with John, that was in 1997 or '98. So is this Japan Blues show a big show? Do you know who else is on it?

Landreth: I don't even know who else is on it. I requested to get that information about that but haven't gotten it yet. I imagine if it's four days it must be a pretty big festival.

Landreth: Must be pretty extensive. I think it's gonna be fun. No European stuff on your schedule right now?

Landreth: Not yet, but they're working on it. I'm sure we'll go over there, probably not til later in the summer. Do you typically get over there every year?

Landreth: Yeah, I usually do. There's a big blues crowd over there, isn't there?

Landreth: They're great. The crowd is just great over there. They're very attentive and they're very into detail. They know all the facts. It's pretty cool. All right man, thanks so much for your time.

Landreth: Well I appreciate it.

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