Interview by Aron Radford
If it wasn’t for a chance hearing of Ed Gerhard I would have never fallen in love with the Weissenborn in the first place or became a Weissenborn recording artist myself, and this website you’re visiting now simply would not exist. Ever since I first heard the hauntingly beautiful “Homage” I was hooked on the instrument and a fan of the man for life.
The phrase “Less is more” seems to epitomise Grammy award winning guitarist Ed Gerhard. From the very first note of any of his compositions you are awoken to the mans genius of dynamics and nuances. Let every note count, let every note ring long and true, that’s where the magic of Ed Gerhard is to be found. Never more so than when he plays a Weissenborn with its inherent open tuning and sliding bar limitations, Ed turns these limitations around and makes them its best assets. With the Weissenborns’ legendary sustain and earthy woody mid tones it’s as if the Weissenborn was made for his subtle “every note counts” approach. Tracks like “Homage” and “Shallow Brown” are quite simply songs that could have only be written and played on a Weissenborn. As a player and fan I try and play these songs quite regularly at home and that’s when you truly discover the mans genius. When you dissect and break down the passages you have a whole new level of appreciation for the mans deft nuances and inflections that he effortlessly and lovingly applies to each note. Every time for instance I hear “Homage” I hear another little unique dynamic that catches my ear and I then try and emulate on my own guitar. It’s a great lesson for all of us to adhere to, it’s not about getting the order of the notes right it’s about the heartfelt delivery that transcends people’s senses and consciousness. So as you can imagine it was my utmost pleasure to talk to this massively influential player and discuss all things weissenborn.
Hello Ed can I start by asking you this simply question. How did Ed Gerhard discover and fall in love with the weissenborn?
I’d see them around once in awhile over the years but couldn’t envision myself playing lap style so they didn’t hold much fascination for me. I did love the sound, though. When I was recording my “Counting the Ways” record in the mid ’90s I knew I wanted some Weissenborn on a tune called “Isa Lei.” The only Weissenborn player I knew at the time was Bob Brozman. By this point I had been hearing some Weissenborn stuff and began getting the itch. I went to Santa Cruz to record some overdubs with Brozman and Martin Simpson. One night during my stay I went with Martin to San Francisco where he was opening for David Lindley. Lindley had a bunch of Weissenborns and they all sounded killer. The next day, I believe, Brozman brought a couple Style 4s in to record with and I got hooked. We tried several takes but Bob’s solos on “Isa Lei” weren’t working. When I got back home with the tapes I decided I’d get a Weissenborn and track the solo myself. Luckily I could play it well enough that I got a solo that worked for the tune.
You got your first guitar at age14 and you did take some lessons i believe but soon ditched them and continued by playing by ear alone. Tell us how that decision has shaped your career, have you ever regretted not having studied music or continuing your lessons?
Everything I’ve ever learned in my life has been because of a natural curiosity. Never because it was drummed into my head. Playing, learning, practicing, struggling, it’s all been a huge party for me and I’ve mostly loved every minute of it. I wish I knew more theory sometimes, but I have no regrets. Music has always been an adventure for me, totally free of rules and constraints. I never cared if I was doing it “right.”
What advice would you give someone now in hindsight being inspired by players such as yourself to pick up the guitar and play. Is formal training a prerequisite to being a great player?
Just play. Let your curiosity and taste lead you where it will. Make up your own rules, break them when it suits you.
Ed your approach to guitar playing and especially the weissenborn seems to pivot on the notions “Less is more” and “Let every note shine”. The space you give each note to breath is where the magic lies in your playing to these ears, you never seem to play over notes or make them crash into each other. Talk us through how this agreeable style developed and is it something you are conscious of when composing new pieces of music.
I think it’s all really determined by your taste, if you’re self taught. You just gravitate towards stuff you like to hear. I was always drawn to melodies and to the qualities of sound itself. So I naturally just went there. I also loved hearing what were called back in the days I was beginning, “second guitar.” The players that would accompany folk singers with spare, tasty fills and little hooks and things. The sense that they were adding something really important to the music without stepping on it was a big deal for me.
As you now know i am a huge, huge fan of yours and your music is the sole reason I discovered the weissenborn. So forgive me when i ask this rather “to the point” question. For a man who is universally praised as one of the best weissenborn players alive today why have you only written, arranged and recorded 4 weissenborn instrumentals (5 if we included “White Christmas” which was i believe is a guitar/weissenborn combo) . Over a career spanning 28 years and 9 albums that’s a ratio of 101 (guitar) – 5 (weissenborn) recorded tracks, why so few on the weissenborn an instrument you’re so obviously and amazingly talented on?
Well, thanks for your kind words. Actually I’ve recorded a fair amount on Weissenborn, mostly accompaniment tracks. A bunch of electric steel, too. My main thing is six string acoustic and that’s what I do most. I’ve got a couple of solo Weissenborn tunes in the works, though, and hope to have them finished before too long.
You are regarded as a legend among Weissenborn instrumentalists. Are you aware of the great esteem you’re upheld in amongst Weissenborn players out there today. Many of the great players today including Thomas Oliver and John Wilde and many more have patiently learned and practiced your compositions on their own road to excellence.
I had no idea I was regarded as a “legend” but I am aware that there are others playing some of my Weissenborn stuff and I am honored, truly.
Do you listen to other Weissenborn players or are you even aware of other Weissenborn players output?
Truthfully, not so much. I do hear Lindley and Greg Leisz more than occasionally and they usually kill me. I love Jerry Byrd, too, and I got to hear Greg Sardinha when I played a slack key guitar festival in LA a few years ago. So cool. I try to go for some of that smoothness that you hear from the great electric steelers like those guys.
What or who inspires you creatively?
The music itself is usually its own inspiration. I find what I’d call “acknowledgement” in a few other places, though. Ancient Chinese poetry, for one. Granted, I’m reading translations, but my favorite ones are lean, powerful and illuminating. That’s what music can be for me, too.
What’s your view of the weissenborns’ current popularity in todays music scene as you see it? Have you perceived an increase in its popularity or awareness?
It seems that, for a short while, you weren’t complete as a Weissenborn player unless you had dreadlocks. I blame Lindley for that. Fusing the Weissenborn with a reggae groove or attitude is a powerful mixture! It’s just right for the socially conscious music a lot of these guys are making with Weissenborns. Very cool. As an aside: when Lindley does that deep reggae groove right hand rhythm thing all my cells want to explode. He destroys me. Love him so much.
So while i have your delightful company and attention for a while can we talk through the four main tracks most weissenborn players associate with Ed Gerhard. Can you give us some technical and sentimental insight into how they came to life?
‘Homage’: That one turned out as a sort of circular melody. It folds back into itself and comes out where you don’t necessarily expect it to. I tried to make it not do that but the tune refused.
‘Killing the Blues’
‘Killing The Blues’: I’ve always dug the song and one day it just popped out of the Weissenborn. Sometimes tunes will do that, you know. Boom, there they are, nearly fully formed.
‘Rye Whiskey Mash’
‘Rye Whiskey Mash’: I was monkeying around with what I thought was “Rye Whiskey” but it turned out to be some other old folk song, the title of which I don’t know. When I realized this I snuck a little of the actual melody in the middle of the tune. Now I call it “Rye Whiskey Mash.”
‘Shallow Brown’: I first heard that song way back in elementary school. I’d forgotten it for many years until I heard Martin Simpson play his gorgeous version of it. It all came back to me. I loved what Martin did with his interpretation and borrowed and modified some of his ideas. To interpret a song like that requires a great deal of respect and humility. It really taught me a lot, working on that tune.
What Weissenborns do you own at this present time, both for home use, recording and touring?
I have a pretty good stash of Weissenborns, both original and modern ones. I have an old Style 1 that is the best I ever heard. Loud, open, clear, dynamic and just enough of that beguiling nasality. My other original Weissenborns are all fantastic, too. The modern Weissenborns I love are just as beguiling. My main touring Weissenborn is the one Jayson Bowerman and the guys at Breedlove built for me. It’s myrtlewood and the figure and color is hypnotic. It’s not as sharp sounding or explosive as koa but it’s really rich sounding and has great sustain. I also have a Bear Creek that is a total monster. Some Weissenborns are bright and zingy, some are dark and a little dull. I love ’em all. But this Bear Creek is serious, for lack of a better word. Big, heavy tone. Bill Hardin really has something special going on with his guitars.
Breedlove Guitars released a Gerhard Signature Weissenborn in collaboration with you. Tell about the spec and what input you gave Breedlove when designing this guitar. And is this guitar still in production?
Unfortunately they’re not making them any more. There was a momentary flash of interest on Breedlove’s part when the former owner seized on the Weissenborn and I brought my old Style 2 out to Bend. Jayson Bowerman, who was at Breedlove at the time, spent a day with me and my Style 2. We measured everything, took all kinds of photos of the guitar both inside and out. I had some ideas about putting frets on the bass side of the neck so I could fret the low E with my little finger or thumb while playing other stuff with the bar. I was doing that a little and thought it might be cool to incorporate that idea. I’d never heard of anybody doing it before. Lindley told me at one point that there were some examples of that in some old steel music. I’ll have to press him on that, I’d love to hear it.
You have and still do use a myriad of different tunings with your conventional guitar compositions. Have you explored open tunings on your Weissenborn in the same way?
I stick mostly with open D, sometimes open G. I have a tune in the works that’s in a variant of open C. I’m not as wide ranging in my tunings as I once was but I still find new ones and try to put ’em to work if I can.
Do the open tunings and the lack of frets on a weissenborn have inherent limitations for you creatively? Is it harder to write compositions for the Weissenborn as opposed to conventional guitar?
For me, writing tunes on the Weissenborn is a bigger challenge. The way I write on guitar is not based on finding something accidentally and asking myself “How can I use this?” I’m usually working towards something and asking myself “How can I get this?” The Weissenborn presents one with many limitations polyphonically. You can’t always get the bass note or chord you want and the desired melody note at the same time. It can be a little daunting but if you work just a little harder you find what you need.
Your tunings on weissenborn seem to be inclusively open D (DADF#AD) but tuned down two whole tones to an open B (BF#BD#F#B) can you explain why this tuning is so agreeable to you.
Actually I’m tuned to C now, still with the structure of open D. B was a bit low. The strings feel a little mushy down there but the tone you get when you work ’em right is real nice. Up to C feels better and sounds better for me these days.
You’re often referred to as “The preverbial tone master”. Talk us through what constitutes great tone in your opinion and what lengths have you gone to to achieve your current sound. Are you a tech junkie, are you constantly trying out new hardware in an attempt to improve your current sound, or did you arrive at your desired tone destinations many years ago?
OK, its about to get windy here: I’m interested in stuff that sounds great and is built well. It’s gotta work every time and never fail. Once I find that I stick with it. I take some time to get to know it. And, really, the only way to do that is to take the stuff on the road and use it in real concerts. What I’ve been using for Weissenborn almost since day one is a Fishman Pro Platinum EQ DI. I’ve had this since the first year of its manufacture and it wins on all fronts. Never ever failed me. It’s a great road piece. Three ways to power it; wall wart, 9v battery or phantom power. I played a place near Detroit a few times that had a rotten little PA system. The board didn’t put out enough phantom power to work the DI. There wasn’t even enough juice coming up the line to light the little phantom power indicator LED! Pathetic! I popped a battery in there and all was well.
Sometimes, if I don’t trust the system or the operator I’ll plug into my six string rig. It’s a different rig but I can make it sound good. The main thing with gear is that for the most part, my sound comes “through” the rig, not “from” it.
As far as tone goes, that’s a hard one to answer. Great tone is whatever is appropriate for the note you’re playing. I’ve always loved the phenomenon of sound purely for its own sake. Sound, tone, nuance, dynamics, phrasing in the service of good music is what I love to do. I don’t worry so much any more about making the guitar sound good. I want the music to sound good. When I play a show with that attitude I can generally prevail over whatever technical or audio obstacles present themselves.
Talking strings for a moment. What string and gauges do you currently use on your weissenborns.
I start with a D’Addario EJ17 set, which is phosphor bronze, medium gauge. I replace the low E with an .059, the B with an .018 and the high E with an .015. The phosphor bronze wound strings hit the magnet just fine but retain some acoustic punch.
Ive heard you say “I usually change strings every show, though I can sometimes get two or three shows out of a set. Sometimes I change them between sets if I’ve killed them”, firstly how do you kill a set of strings halfway through a set? Is this a similar scenario with the Weissenborns?
Yeah, you can kill a Weissenborn set just as quickly as a six string set some nights. Palm muting, left hand muting- if your hands are touching strings you might kill ’em.
Another quote of yours I’ve read is; “I’ve found that keeping fresh strings on the Weissenborn, especially treble strings, help the bars last longer, as a rusty string will scratch them up” What’s your preference of tone bars and how often do you change your bar then?
I use a Shubb-Pearse SP-2. I try to change bars every few months and always keep at least one or two brand new ones for studio stuff. If I’m playing electric steel with a little tube drive, sometimes a scratchy steel works a little better. With distortion, sometimes a little more edge going in makes it a little creamier in the high end.
Are you still using the Fishman Rare Earth Humbucker pickup and Pro Platinum EQ?
I now use the Fishman Neo-D Humbucker, which is passive. I still use the Pro Platinum EQ DI. I have saved my ass with that box a million times, it’s just great. It’s never failed me, ever. Sometimes I’ll plug in to an Aguilar DB900 tube direct box. It’s a really great DI. I always use one on my six string.
What effects do you use on your weissenborn (verb,compression, delay etc) when playing live or in the recording studio?
I use whatever is required on a record but live I do like a high quality reverb. It’s nearly impossible to find a truly good reverb in most venues these days so I bring a Lexicon LXP-1 with me. I usually don’t use compression when I record or mix, but when I recorded “Shallow Brown” on my “House Of Guitars” record I ran the harmony Weissenborn through an Aphex 661 compressor. It kept the dynamics of those lines real tight without sounding squashed.
“YouTube” You’re not its biggest fan I understand. You allegedly don’t like your performances being videoed and uploaded, which is kind if ironic to me seeing that’s exactly how i and many others discovered your wonderful music in the first place and the sole reason this website and interview exist. Would you care to comment on the subject and and explain your thoughts and opinions on YouTube and social media.
My love/hate thing with YouTube is mostly because I hate being on camera. I’m aware of the great value of YouTube, I’ve discovered some great things there. And I know that people have discovered my music on there as well. But when I’m playing from my soul to an audience and I see a bunch of little red lights or faces illuminated by cell phone screens, I feel myself holding back.
You are well known for your excellent guitar workshops, Have you had any Weissenborn specific ones in the past or any plans to do so for the future?
I’ve not done a Weissenborn specific workshop yet but I’m happy to make time for a fellow “Weissenbornist” when I can.
You seem a quiet reserved man who seems at peace with himself, tell us your secret on how in today’s mad world we can achieve such a relaxed peace of mind?
I am not always quiet, reserved, or at peace with myself. It is important to remember that art is not merely an object like a painting, sculpture, poem, dance, etc…. Art is a FUNCTION. Be functional as much as you can. That’s where your peace might be found.
What inspires you to write and is your writing process very methodical and laboured or quite spontaneous and effortless?
I’m always inspired to write, it’s never triggered by anything. My “process” varies from tune to tune. I find myself lately laboring to stay “on point.” I don’t give a rat’s ass about “virtuosity” or dazzling a listener. There’s enough of that. I strive to be direct and at the least, interesting to a listener.
Are there any imminent plans to record or release any new materiel soon?
Maybe. I’ve got some tunes and arrangements finished and am working on a few solo Weissenborn tunes. I have no immediate plans to release anything just yet.
Can you say when we are likely to hear an all new Ed Gerhard Weissenborn instrumental again?
It just remains for me to say; “Thank you Ed it has been a massive pleasure speaking to you and i wish you all the best and thank you on behalf of all my readers for this insightful fascinating interview”.
Aron, thanks so much. It’s been a great pleasure and all of your questions have been really good. I’m flattered by your kind words and your interest.
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