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Sonny Landreth: “I once played slide with motorcycle handlebars!”

Sonny Landreth: “I once played slide with motorcycle handlebars!”
(Image credit: Future / Greg Miles)

Look elsewhere for your industry-standard rock hellraisers. Sonny Landreth ticks precisely none of those boxes: no ego, no attitude, no Harley, no whisky - and definitely no tattoos.

“I don’t like needles, man,” drawls the 68-year-old. “I’m not having someone sticking that stuff on me. Plus, I sorta change my mind about things. So a bunch of tattoos - it’s not for me.”

Yet beneath that bookish exterior - imagine a nuclear physicist spliced with Frasier’s Niles Crane - Landreth is more renegade than any rock pig. Born in 1951, schooled in the lineup of Zydeco king Clifton Chenier and closely tied to his native Louisiana scene, his solo catalogue has pushed the art of slide guitar where others fear to swoop.

Now, with experimental tunings, leftfield gear - and one song on which he goes entirely slide-less - Blacktop Run might be Landreth’s most daring album yet.

I remember, when I started out, I was damn scared - if not terrified - about playing in front of people

Are you pleased with how Blacktop Run came out?

“I’m real happy with it, man. I feel like a lot of things converged in a cool way. When you make a record, there are so many variables, and any one can put you on a detour. You might be happy with your playing, but sonically it isn’t happening. It’s frustrating when something’s not quite there. On this one, I was happy with everything.”

Is it important to push your guitar work forward?

“It is, because the minute I get bored, then I haven’t done the listener justice. Once I feel good about my core sound, I like to veer off, go on the hunt. It could be a new technique, a color, a sound. I brought my old producer back, RS Field, and he’d come up with cool ideas like playing a backwards slide part or running the guitar through a Leslie speaker on Many Worlds.

"I improvised those parts, and the solo, and I played the Leslie guitar live using a footswitch: I love the cosmic dust that happens when you hit the switch and it starts to slow down. I also used a Dm7 tuning for Somebody Gotta Make A Move [low to high DADFCD].

Though I’ve experimented and used minor and seventh tunings before, this one is a bit different - it offers a lot of interesting harmonic possibilities, overtones and plenty of atmosphere.”

Mostly, my thing has always been about preparation. But I still feel like improvisation is the highest goal in music

Much of this album was improvised. That takes balls, doesn’t it?

“It can be akin to a high-wire act without a net. But you have to be willing to take chances. If you don’t, it’s like the old Shakespeare quote - ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. I remember, when I started out, I was damn scared - if not terrified - about playing in front of people.

"Mostly, my thing has always been about preparation. But I still feel like improvisation is the highest goal in music. There’s nothing else like it. And once you get a taste of succeeding at it, you don’t want that to go away. So you gotta be willing to fall down and get back up. 

"And that can happen within the same song, the same solo. The great trumpet player, Clifford Brown, would literally say there are no wrong notes. He would hit a clam, then he’d propel from that, he’d bounce and just go into the stratosphere, and make people go, ‘Holy shit, what was that?’”

How do you prepare for a studio album?

“For me, I have to keep playing. I love coming off a run of live dates and going right into the studio, because you have an edge and a head of steam. Playing at home is super-important, but it’s still nothing like playing a gig. Live, it’s all happening, it’s all on the line, something in your brain just clicks.

"It’s about being able to keep that feeling inside me, and the biggest challenge is keeping that edge. I’ve noticed, it lasts about three days. That seems to be my statute of limitations. It’s like, from that point on, you’re on your own, kid [laughs]. So for Blacktop Run, we went from the road to the studio, several times. Hopefully just knock one over the fence, keep going like that.”

When you’re doing anything over and over again - whether that’s playing guitar or sitting at a keyboard - you’re prone to injury, eventually

What was the key gear on Blacktop Run?

“Well, I’m kinda funny about guitars. Sometimes it’s whatever is closest to me - I’ll just grab that guitar and start working. I have the two prototype Strats that I worked on with Fender [featuring DiMarzio Fast Track DP181 and Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot singlecoils]. 

"I have a couple of vintage Strats – for Groovy Goddess, I was using a ’66 with the Fulltone ’69 fuzz, into the Demeter TGA3 and a 4x12 Bandmaster cab with Vintage 30s. 

"I have one of Larry Pogreba’s custom resonators: he’s an eccentric cat, lives in Montana, off the grid. It’s got a blue aluminum body with an Oldsmobile hubcap. It’s really live-sounding, has a lot of air about it. That aluminum just has a whole different effect to steel and brass. 

"I’ve done a ton of work with my ’69 Martin D-28, which has just got richer and more complex. Then I use a ’60 Les Paul That’s on The Wilds Of Wonder, through the Dumble Overdrive Special.”

You’ve always liked leftfield gear - any recent discoveries?

“Well, I also used a Komet 60 - are you hip to them? Oh man, they’re awesome. They’re just an hour from where I live, in Baton Rouge. Some cats, they deserve the recognition. These guys are good friends of mine, they’ve been around a long time, but they’re coming into their own. 

"The Komet 60 is just way overbuilt - it’s all hand-built, the best components, and it’s more of a pure [ethos]: just plug in the amp, no channel switching, very touch-sensitive. You get the sound from the power section doing its thing and the power tubes heating up. I like to shed a little light onto cats like that.”

You call your pedalboard ‘The Runway’. How’s it looking?

“It’s been through a lot of changes, but some pedals have stayed the same, for the core lead sound in particular. The first pedal is the Demeter Fuzzulator, and I actually use that for a boost, so most of the time it’s off. From there, it goes to the Hermida Mosferatu.

Oh man, I think the minute you start thinking you’ve perfected something, then you’re presupposing there’s an end to creativity, and I just don’t believe that. There’s always more

"That’s a MOSFET design, and I’ve never heard any other drive pedal as smooth and dynamic - it’s like the perfect midrange amp in a little box. Then it goes to an Analogman Compressor, into the Voodoo Lab Giggity: that’s like a mastering EQ pedal, and it’s great for fattening up single coils. On Groovy Goddess, it’s the Fulltone ’70 fuzz.”

Lover Dance With Me doesn’t feature your trademark slide at all…

“No. I’d written a whole batch of songs that weren’t slide songs - they were just regular old flatpicking or fingerpicking. What got me back into that was the 30th anniversary reunion with [former bandleader] John Hiatt last year. 

"I had to do a lot of woodshedding to get back in shape. I hadn’t played without a slide in 13 years. I just wish I could keep both [techniques] up at the same time. Regular playing is real taxing on my left hand in a completely different way, because of my tendonitis, in particular the index finger.”

How do you think tendonitis might affect your playing long-term?

“A long time ago, I realized I’d have to start doing maintenance to off set the repetitive motion syndrome. When you’re doing anything over and over again - whether that’s playing guitar or sitting at a keyboard - you’re prone to injury, eventually. 

"When you’re young, you don’t think about it because you feel so damn good. But it does catch up with you. I have trigger fingers, as they call them; three on my right hand and three on my left. 

“But about five years ago, I was working with Jimmy Buffett, and he’d found this incredible sports medicine doctor. He has this technique where, essentially, he goes through the tendon with a metal bar and breaks up the calcification using a cold laser. 

"Then the doctor showed me these isometric stretches and strengthening exercises, where you put your fingers in a rubber band and press them outwards. And, man, it was night and day. 

"But if you don’t stay on top of the maintenance, it gets very painful. Then there’s the swelling. And what’s really bad is the contraction - that’s when the tendons to your fingers start pulling inward, as if you’re going to grip a ball.”

Does it ever feel normal to count Eric Clapton as a friend?

“[Laughs] I’ve had to pinch myself on occasion. Never more so than the first time he sat in with us. All of a sudden, he just cuts loose - and it almost blew me over. It just really hit me, like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s Eric Clapton, just tearin’ it up’. The cat that inspired me so much as a kid, y’know?”

Drink and drugs wouldn’t be compatible with the way you play, would they?

“Nah, man, I figured that out when I was 17 years old, playing the local bars. We recorded the show one night: I thought I was achieving nirvana, but then I listened back the next day, and just went, ‘Oh my God, what shit was that?’ The other thing is, I’ve really had to work at singing. 

"I’m not a great singer. I have my voice, and as long as I’m in shape, I can do my best with it. But I had to quit smoking pot a long time ago. Marijuana smoke is hotter than tobacco, according to the experts - and I was struggling as it was, just to sing in tune and hold it together."

Do you think you can ever actually master the slide guitar? 

“Oh man, I think the minute you start thinking you’ve perfected something, then you’re presupposing there’s an end to creativity, and I just don’t believe that. That’s a core belief for me. There’s always more. 

"The guitar just seems to keep going, and I think the reason is the personal connection. Physically, if you’re holding this instrument close, it flips these switches inside you and that comes through in the music. 

"Even with three chords, you can change the world. The guitar is still such a powerful tool. Just the versatility and the enormous palette of colors, sounds, genres - it just crosses all of that. And for me, slide guitar in particular, I think has a lot more potential to cross those lines. That’s when it gets really creative.”

You don’t seem like a 68-year-old. What’s the secret to staying young?

“If I find out, my friend, I’ll let you know. I look pretty good on the outside. On the inside, it’s another world. I feel the bumps a lot more than I used to. But I still love playing. There’s nothing like it, man…”

Sonny on the weirdest thing he’s ever had on his finger...

Sonny Landreth

(Image credit: Future / Greg Miles)

“Have you heard of David Tronzo, man? You should look up some of his YouTube videos - he comes up with some pretty wild shit. I haven’t done anything that wild, like playing slide with a shotgun barrel. But I did once use motorcycle handlebars. 

"When I was 16, my friend’s family owned a Triumph and Harley-Davidson shop. I don’t remember how, but I bought these handlebars, got a hacksaw - then I had a lifetime’s supply of slides.

“What’s funny is, I still have that slide, and when we started doing the acoustic set, about four years ago, I was having a hard time getting the notes to punch out. So I went back and started trying metal, got the old handlebar out - and that’s what I’ve been using since. 

"I sanded it as best I could, but never got it smooth, so it’s funky, a little jagged on the edges. But because of the weight and the metal, I could get a more substantial sound, especially with a resonator. The cool thing with slide is, every single solitary thing I’ve ever used - wood, glass, metal, ceramic, Pyrex, you name it - they all sorta have their own sound. You can really get creative…”

Sonny Landreth's Blacktop Run is out now via Provogue/Mascot Label Group.