“Beyond Berkeley Guitar” Interview : Trevor Healy

by Raymond Morin

Trevor Healy is a guitarist, repairman and luthier based in the San Francisco Bay area. In addition to playing in the group Meridians, Trevor composes for solo acoustic guitar, and was tapped by Sean Smith for the new Beyond Berkeley Guitar collection, out now on Tompkins Square. We recently talked to Trevor about his appearance on the comp, as well as his approach to building and playing the guitar.

W&W: Please describe the guitar you play on your track, how long you’ve owned it, where you got it.

The guitar is a Stella 12-string, made by Harmony sometime in the 1960’s. I got it on EBay about 6 years ago after becoming interested in Leadbelly’s 12-string playing. When the box arrived, I realized that the guitar had not been taken out of its case since the 60’s, but needed a ton of work to make it a playable instrument. Like many Harmony guitars, its body is made of plywood and the neck is poplar, which some consider low-grade materials. It’s light weight and darker tone spoke to me though, and I thought it had some real potential to become a decent instrument. So, I re-set the neck for proper bridge and action height, made a new bridge and saddle, radiused the previously flat fingerboard and re-fretted it. Acoustically it is pretty quiet and has an almost lute-like tone. I have come to love this quality. I then put in an under-saddle piezo pickup to amplify the sound in live situations. When I first plugged in the guitar, I was blown away by its tone. I have played it almost exclusively since then.

I really love working on guitars that have been discarded or forgotten. It is rewarding to bring an instrument back to life. These guitars have a lot of character and can lead your playing into unexpected territories. The Stella has certainly done that for me. The experimentation with adding the pickup lead me to work with feedback and amplifying natural resonances of the instrument as well.

W&W: What is the tuning / capo position (if any) on your track?

The tuning is CGDGBE, a sort of modified open G. The majority of the song is in the first position, with the picking hand doing most of the work. I use Silk and Steel strings which have a much lighter tension than regular bronze guitar strings. These strings have silver-plated copper winding over a silk and steel core, which produces a nice, mellow and deep tone.

W&W: How do you know Sean Smith? How did you get involved in Beyond Berkeley Guitar?

I work at a guitar shop doing repair work, and hear people play all sorts of guitar styles all day long. One day someone was playing in a style that made me want to hear more. That person was Sean. He was playing electric guitar and doing some great modal fingerstyle improvising that really impressed me. I introduced myself and went to see one of his shows a few months later. We ended up talking a lot at that show about fingerstyle guitar and our influences.

Later, my band Meridians, a two guitar and vocal duo with Julie Napolin, played a show with Citay, a band that Sean had recently joined. I guess it was there that Sean first heard me play. After seeing each other play a few more times Sean asked me to contribute something to Beyond Berkeley Guitar.

W&W: Please describe the recording of your track. Home? Studio? “Wrapped In Water” has a very deliberate and balanced sound, and a wonderful clarity to it.

Sean booked some time for us at Wally Sound, a studio in Oakland run by Wally Heider. He has some great analog gear and amazing microphones, but more importantly, a great ear and a willingness to experiment.

I always amplify the Stella when recording so I brought along my 70’s Silverface Fender Twin Reverb. This really helps bring out the bass frequencies of the guitar. We had the amp set at a moderate volume behind a baffle with one mic on it. There was one room mic and two or three others focused on picking up the acoustic sound. Wally mixed all these mics together, creating the great sound on this track. We knew there was no way to avoid bleed from the amplifier signal into the other mics so we just used this mix as the sound’s identity. Wally never saw this as a problem, just a unique challenge. The locations and frequency range of each microphone widened the field of sound causing some subtle panning effects when different notes are plucked.

W&W: The words “American Primitive” are thrown around a lot these days in reference to modern acoustic guitar music. What, if anything, does “American Primitive” mean to you?

The term “American Primitive” sounds somewhat mysterious and provocative but ultimately it imposes on a true description of the individual’s music and playing style.

W&W: I tend to agree with you on that one… though it seems like Fahey (who coined the term) is the gateway through which a lot of people discover solo guitar music.  Please discuss ways that you go about composing a guitar instrumental, or alternately, what do you think makes a great guitar instrumental?

I often recycle pieces of previous compositions. “Wrapped in Water” began in the form it is recorded here, but took a detour for about a year in a major key version called “Well for Water” with Meridians (track embedded below) “Well for Water” has some chord changes in the beginning phrase to keep the piece moving forward, but “Wrapped in Water” allows a more meditative cycle to occur, which is a theme in much of my work.

Meridians – “Well for Water”

Most new ideas come from improvising in an unfamiliar tuning. I rarely write down ideas, but usually play a part repeatedly until I remember it clearly in hand and mind before moving on to the next part. This process is evident in my composition and reflects my interest in minimalism. I enjoy how time can really slow down if you allow yourself to become immersed in a repeating form. When writing in this meditative way my mind often wanders off into different thoughts, leading to new directions. A song is never fully done until I have played it live a few times, and even then, I end up improvising within the structure of the song each time I play.

Many things can make a great guitar instrumental. Pacing in a composition is important. Chuck Johnson’s piece exemplifies this to me. He begins with some interesting sonorities within the alternating bass form, and after a minute or so transitions into a slower exploratory section. These very deliberate changes offer a lot of variety within a short period. Each part could stand-alone but the combination of the two makes for a great instrumental.

W&W : Your track on Beyond Berkeley Guitar has a much more composed feel, a stronger melodic sense and more parallel voices than a lot of supposed “American Primitive” guitar music… what / who are your influences on the instrument?

The first solo acoustic guitarist that really blew my mind was Michael Hedges, and his records Aerial Boundaries, and Breakfast in the Field. His music is thoroughly composed, very melodic, and yet experimental. To this day he remains the single most inspirational guitarist to me. He is also the first person I knew of that studied classical guitar and composition, yet chose to work with the steel string guitar as his primary instrument. I identify with how he incorporated spliced tape compositions and ensemble work seamlessly with his solo pieces.

Tara Jane O’Neil is one of the best guitarist/songwriters in my book and I have loved every record she has put out. Her ability to create a mood with a single note or chord is unparalleled. After seeing her use live looping, I pretty much ran to the store the next day to get a Boomerang pedal, which I use for drone and rhythm accompaniment.

The British guitarist Martin Carthy is another favorite, especially live and on his record Sweet Wivelsfield. He has a very strong right hand technique where he pulls on the strings and lets them snap back on the fretboard. He has influenced my right hand technique and my use of left hand pull-offs, which I use a lot in “Wrapped in Water.”

Additionally, the music of composers Lou Harrison and Leo Brouwer and my study of classical guitar in college allowed me to form the technique I use today. When I started working on Lou Harrison’s “Suite for Guitar” I immediately noticed his use of drone strings as a modal focus and his strong Eastern influence. He often has alternating bass happening but without a strict pattern, similar to the way a sitar or oud player would hit drone strings. The bass notes fill in the empty spaces of the melody. I still mainly use the right hand technique of classical guitar using my thumbnail instead of a thumb pick or the side of the thumb. It gives me much more control over volume, tone and causes much less hand fatigue.

W&W: You’re not only a player, but also a luthier. Could you please describe what kind of guitars you set out to build? Is there any particular approach to the way you voice your instruments? Please talk about your approach to instrument design, and how people can purchase or commission an instrument from you.

I often start designing a guitar with some historical reference in mind. The last electric guitar I made has a very long, Tiesco-esque headstock (a Japanese company that made guitar’s in the 60’s) and a wide-band sunburst similar to some old Harmony guitars. The body is similar to a Jazzmaster, but incorporates the construction of a Firebird. My goal is to create an instrument that has it’s own unique identity while still fitting into a recognizable framework.

There are many ways to voice an instrument, from wood choice to the bracing style in an acoustic guitar. Lately my ear has been leading me to experiment with ladder bracing that is often found in parlor, or small-bodied guitars made in the early part of the 20th century. These guitars often have a strong midrange and are quite loud despite their size. Making a guitar that is structurally sound while maintaining good tonal qualities is a welcome challenge. In this next year I hope to be playing a 12- string guitar of my own design, the first of which I am working on now, made of Koa that the customer purchased in Hawaii directly from the logger.

I feel that my understanding of how a guitar is constructed has an impact on my writing and playing. I get to play many different guitars every day and try to absorb the tonal and functional nuances that make each instrument unique.

Anyone interested in talking about commissioning a guitar can contact me through my website: www.healyguitars.com.

W&W: The liner notes from BBG mention that it’s rare to present a solo acoustic track from you, since you so often collaborate with others and record with lush accompaniment… be that as it may, do you think there might be a solo guitar record somewhere in your future?

I would definitely like to record a solo record, and hope to incorporate some arrangements with other instruments. I recently played “Wrapped in Water” live with bass clarinet accompaniment which I would love to record, along with some cover songs too. Some of the techniques I have developed with the Stella, such as vibrating the strings with a cymbal to create overtones will likely find a place on the record as well.

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2 thoughts on ““Beyond Berkeley Guitar” Interview : Trevor Healy

  1. Pingback: “Beyond Berkeley Guitar” Interview : Chuck Johnson « Work & Worry

  2. Delta-Slider

    Good interview. Really liked hearing how he rebuilt the Stella and the way it was recorded is crazy to this record at home with two mics pointed at the 12th fret-guy.
    Hard to believe that sound on the CD is coming from an old Stella.


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