Two summers ago, when this blog was a good bit more active than it is now, I thought I would swing for the fences and try to get an interview with Stefan Grossman, one of my all-time acoustic guitar heroes. Stefan wasn’t the first folkie, finger-picking guitarist that caught my ear… I had previously spent a good bit of time listening to Paul Simon, Nick Drake and Donovan. When my friend Michael turned me on to Bert Jansch, that was it. I was, and remain, an absolute fiend for British guitar music, a story that Stefan plays an appreciable part in.
So when I had the opportunity to peruse and purchase from a rather large record collection in Cambridge, Massachusetts a couple years later, I asked if there were any “British folk” records to be had. There wasn’t much, but there were a bunch of “Guitar Artistry” LPs on the Shanchie label, featuring John Renbourn (of folk/fusion supergroup Pentangle) and Mr. Grossman, solo and in duet. When I put on Snap A Little Owl and heard the jazzy chording and harmonized bends of “Spirit Levels” for the first time, I was entranced. This wasn’t guitar accompanying folk music, it wasn’t classical music, and it wasn’t blues or jazz… it was dedicated, complex guitar music, combining all these things, and I was down with it. Still am.
Flash forward about ten years… I had been reviewing records and DVDs from Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop on this blog, pretty much since its inception. I happened to see an announcement on Grossman’s Yuku forum that he was getting ready to present a country blues workshop in Sparta, New Jersey, his home base. I thought that this might be my opportunity to nab an interview with the man. I emailed Stefan and asked him if I attended the workshop and stayed an extra day, would I be able to get an interview with him for W&W. He graciously agreed, and so that became the plan. When the weekend came, my wife and I drove out to Sparta (about a six hour trip from Pittsburgh) so that I could spend a couple days polishing up my picking, and then have an in depth conversation with one of the greatest.
The country blues workshop was a trip. As expected, I was about the youngest fellow there. Many of the attendees appeared to be in their early ’60s or thereabouts, so I felt a little conspicuous. Stefan was very easy going, and was immediately interested in the guitar I had with me. In a sea of Martins, here I was with my custom Healy RM guitar, and I handed it to him to try out. “It sounds great!!” he exclaimed, which was nice to hear, but not a surprise to me… Trevor Healy and I had the sound of Stefan’s Prairie State jumbos in mind when we designed the guitar, and it was intended to sound punchy with just the right amount of boom, especially when played aggressively.
Though my primary objective that weekend was to get a great interview, I figured that any tricks I could pick up during the country blues workshop would be a nice bonus. We went through quite a variety of tunes, and I came away with “Mississippi Blues” in my repertoire. Before our conversations, Stefan commented to my wife “If everyone there could play like Raymond, it would have been an easy weekend!” haha… a nice compliment indeed.
So without further delay, here is part one of my interview with Stefan Grossman. In this section, we talk about Stefan’s formative years, his early instruments and his ideas about acoustic guitars.
W&W – Thank you very much for having us, weʼre very excited!
Stefan – Itʼs a pleasure.
W&W – I love listening to your stories about the blues players, your formative years and how you started out… but itʼs very well documented. The profile in Sing Out [magazine] a couple of years ago was a really nice overview, and a lot of that ground is covered on the Stefan Grossman anthologies that have come out on SGGW.
Stefan – Right.
W&W – What I hoped to talk about for workandworry.com was your European period, the Kicking Mule era… as well as some of your specific ideas about guitars, and the players that youʼve helped out and crossed paths with throughout the years. Weʼll start with a guitar question: what were some of your early guitars?
Stefan – Well I started when I was nine years old… learning how to read music, play “Autumn Leaves”, learning chords etc, from nine until eleven. My first guitar was an f- hole guitar, I donʼt even know what the brand was, that my father got from a Goodwill shop, then I eventually had a Gibson cutaway guitar, which was also an f-hole top.
W&W – This wasnʼt an electrified guitar?
Stefan – Unamplified, and I was just strumming chords… and then I gave that up. By eleven, I was more interested in going to the park to play handball and basketball.
When I started [playing guitar again] at fifteen, the first guitar was a Harmony nylon- string guitar, and I was starting to learn to fingerpick a little bit. I had gotten records of blues artists and white folks, you know, the Pete Seeger records, Woody Guthrie records… but there was also a record of a guy named Guy Carawan… and he had what I thought was a big Martin guitar on the cover, and I thought “Oh, I have to get that guitar!” In retrospect, it looked like a 12-fret [Martin] 000-28, but it was actually a 00-21.
So I got a 00-21, and when I went up to Reverend Gary Davisʼ house, that was the guitar I had, initially. Of course, because he was playing a [Gibson] J-200, the idea was that eventually after a couple of years, I had to get a J-200, and I did get one… but during those years, ʼ65/ʼ66, Gibson had changed their design… they still had the sort of mustache bridge, but they put a lot of hardware on, to where the saddle was very similar
￼to their electric guitars.
W&W – To make each string adjustable?
Stefan – Right. So those bridges had a lot of metal…
W&W – Which changes the sound a lot.
Stefan – Well there was no sound, at all! In ʼ66 I went out to California, and that J-200 was the guitar I was playing… but [Berkeley guitar shop owner] Jon Lundberg took all that stuff out, and just put a piece of ebony in the slot. That got it a little more tone, but it was never like Gary Davisʼ, which had a booming, strong sound.
W&W – How old was Gary Davisʼ J-200?
Stefan – Well, Gary Davis would get a guitar and then, after four or five years, he would wear it out. Literally! That meant that the action got too high and it needed a neck reset… and he just thought that if he had the money, he would just buy a new one. So when I went there, he had a sunburst J-200, which was an incredible sounding instrument… but he would use medium-gauge strings and the action was pretty high. When I tried to play it, it was difficult for me to play. Eventually he got rid of that and got a clear-body [natural] J-200. When you see photos of the sunburst one, you know itʼs in the late ʻ50s, early ʻ60s, and then after that itʼs the natural.
Working at Lundbergʼs shop, that totally expanded my knowledge of instruments, because of Jon. His personal guitar was an OM-45, and I thought “Wow, what an instrument…” I ended up working the whole summer there, for a dollar and hour, and at the end of the summer, he was willing to sell it to me, I donʼt know why! It was $1200.
W&W – Thatʼs a lot of money!
Stefan – In those days, yes. So I had that guitar, and I never looked upon it as if it was a collectorʼs item… all of my guitars were always working instruments. I had that, but at the same time I had a Stella six-string that I had purchased at a pawn shop in New York City. I was very good friends with Mark Silber, who ran the Fretted Instruments [shop]. My first trip across the country, I went with him, and the deal was that any of the guitars that we found, the pre-wars went to him, and anything after [went to me]… we found a great D-28 herringbone… but the Stella cost $47 or something, and the pawn shop across from the old Madison Square Garden also had an old D-18 for $50, and I bought both of them. I was teaching guitar at that point, so I had a little cash. The whole idea was that when you got a guitar, you sell one to pay for the other one.
W&W, speaking from personal experience – Still true today!
Stefan – The D-18 I sold to Doc Watson, and I got the Stella fixed up… it had action that was about two inches high, and that was my bottleneck guitar, basically. So now I had
￼that and the J-200, and eventually I was able to get the OM-45. I wasnʼt touring at that time, I was just a student at college. When I went to Europe, I brought the Stella, because I didnʼt know where I would be traveling. My thoughts were that I was going to end up in India, so to me, the Stella was a cheap, traveling guitar. When I started to perform more in England, around ʼ67 or ʼ68, my parents came to visit me in London and I asked them to bring the OM… so that was the performing guitar I had.
During that period I did find other guitars… I had a rosewood [Gibson] Advanced Jumbo, I had a 1930 rosewood J-200, which was a dog… it looked fantastic, but it didnʼt sound good! I had a bunch of Euphonon Mauers… you start going through guitars, and I started to use them on different occasions.
Eventually everything changed, guitar-wise. I sold the OM-45 for $9000, which was an enormous amount of money in the early ʻ70s… but imagine what it would be worth nowadays! Basically, because I had played it out, and it needed a neck-reset. A neck- reset on an OM-45 is very expensive. So I started to play the Advanced Jumbo, which was a different sound. I also had a Prairie State that I had gotten from Lundberg, and I started to play that… each one became a guitar that I would perform with for several years.
Then I got a Franklin guitar. [Franklin guitar founder] Nick Kukich, he had never seen my Prairie State guitar, which had been an f-hole guitar that Lundberg had changed into a round-holed guitar… he had put a new top on it, changed the [neck] angle… he kept all the design features, the “bling”… that was sold to Dick Weissman in Denver. Dick brought it back to Lundberg because the top was too thin for Colorado weather, and it had cracked. So Lundberg put a slightly heavier top on it, and I got it.
Nick Kukich saw that guitar, only in pictures, and he started making his jumbos. He gave me one, it must have been the early ʻ80s at that point, and I was just amazed because the guitar sounded as good as my old guitars, but it was coming right out of a case, it was new.
W&W – And Nick was just trying to approximate it from the pictures? It wasnʼt like now, where all of the luthiers can go back to the original specs of desirable pre-war guitars…
Stefan – Yes! Right. He was just going from the pictures, and he was only making two types of guitars, the jumbo and an OM… though I think he may have made the occasional dreadnought. So I thought, “Wow, this is amazing.” and eventually I ended up with a cutaway model in Indian Rosewood, one that was Koa…
But [the problem was] if you were performing in a situation bigger than a club or theatre, where you could amplify with microphones for the best sound… at that point, pickups were just beginning to be available, there really were no good pickups. Even today, people buy these very expensive acoustic guitars and they have pickups in them and they sound like crap! They sound like cheap guitars on stage. The best pickups back then were Takamines, but Takamine wouldnʼt sell the pickups by themselves. So Nick would buy a Takamine guitar, take the electronic guts out, and put those into the Franklins. So I have three Franklins that have Takamine pickups in them! Then you would have to figure out how to adjust the tone, the volume and the bass, so there were three sliders on the side. I used those for many years, touring. I discovered other makers, [John] Greven was making guitars that were incredibly attractive, good sounding instruments. So I got with Greven guitars, with Franklin guitars… it was mostly Franklin because nothing beat a Franklin. In a studio situation, nothing records, for me, as well as they do for regular fingerpicking. Likewise for slide, nothing records as well as an old Stella!
Nowadays, the old Stellas are so hard to find, and when you do find them, the prices arenʼt extravagant like an old Martin… but Mike Hauver is making replicas of Stellas. Theyʼre mahogany guitars, not ultra-expensive, and his workmanship is great. Because I live in two places, the United States and Britain, I have a Stella here and a Mike Hauver replica in England. I try not to travel with the guitars as I go back and forth. I have a Franklin in England and a Franklin here, I have a Martin signature model here, and one over in England… I didnʼt have an OM and Nick said he would make me one… that is an incredible guitar. My friend El McMeen gave me a present, an OM-28V, and thatʼs over there… itʼs a lot of guitars, but theyʼre in two different places.
And an OM is different than a jumbo. Iʼve always found that with the music Iʼm playing, that can go from Mississippi John Hurt to Celtic music, which is delicate, to the music of Gary Davis, which is funkier and you want to use fingerpicks, that the Prairie State, that jumbo design, or the HJ-38 [Stefanʼs signature Martin guitar] is the design for me. I want a guitar that is not as responsive as an OM-28, because I want to be able to really dig into the guitar sometimes… most of the time. Eventually, I felt that the smaller- bodied guitars – always long-scale, I donʼt like short-scale guitars, the string tension and the way they feel – I need to have a guitar thatʼs not as responsive as an OM, so I can put the picks on and really make it sound out. If Iʼm playing a John Hurt tune or a Celtic tune, that sounds fine on an OM, but it also sounds good on a big guitar.
W&W – I had the same conversation when I was designing my custom guitar with Trevor Healy. We talked about going against the idea of lots of lush overtones, I wanted to kind of dry it out… something boomy and deep, but that I could really dig into.
Stefan – Right, but you also want it to project. Last week I was at the Martin museum with Dick Boak, who is in charge there, and we were just taking out all the guitars… and there are a lot of good guitars in that museum! A lot of the OM-45s, 000-45s, 12-frets… theyʼre all great instruments, but the one that was the absolute, most phenomenal sounding instrument in that whole museum was a 12-fret Ditson dreadnought, one of the first dreadnoughts that Martin had made. It was totally different than the 45s, the rosewood models, where you pluck the strings and each one sounds like a jewel, perfect and individual… with the mahogany Ditson, you just strummed it and it was like cannons… literally like a dreadnought, a dreadnought being a battleship! You could just sit there strumming a chord slowly, and each string you thought “Wow!” It was mahogany, and thatʼs one of the virtues of mahogany.
W&W – Well, the player is also a big part of the equation!
Stefan – Absolutely. The sound of the instrument is totally in your hands. Once you have good hands, if you have a better instrument, you can get better stuff out of it. But you have to think of Mance Lipscomb on his Harmony Sovereign… later on in his career he got a J-200, and the Harmony was a much better sounding instrument for the way Mance played.
When I got the Prairie State, I was very much into vintage guitars… pre-war, everything had to be from before 1944…
W&W – That was actually one of my questions: how early was the idea of vintage guitars being fetishized? It obviously is today, with the auctions and everything… but even back then, everyone was already focused on pre-war?
Stefan – Oh, all the time. Absolutely. By the early ʻ70s, Martins were so overly braced, they sounded terrible. So when Jon Lundberg would get a new Martin, he would go right into it and scallop the braces. It would void the warranty with Martin, but when you went to Lundberg and bought a new Martin, it had gone through his process, and it sounded fantastic! Iʼll have to show you the Prairie State, because it shows how creative Jon was. I was doing a gig in Turino, in Italy, and was flying back to Rome… when I got the guitar out of the plane, the peghead had cracked. So how do you get a peghead back onto its neck? The way he did it was so creative, and made it even stronger. [note: I saw the guitar a little while later, Lundberg had created a new laminated neck joint much further down the neck, extending almost to the octave fret… agreed, a very interesting solution to this particular problem!]
So I realized… this is a guitar, itʼs had one new top, and now itʼs had a second new top, is it a vintage instrument? The rosewood around it is old, but the guitar itself, well it was sort of like a new instrument. So when Nick gave me the Franklin, I was open to it. My thinking had changed to where I thought “You donʼt have to have a vintage instrument, necessarily, you have to have a good guitar” and at that point, there were a couple of makers building guitars with those ʻ20s and ʻ30s conceptions. You donʼt want to go earlier than that, because those are too light. I had an old 000-45 12-fret that John Dikeman, who was the head of Martin at the turn of the last century, had built for himself at Martin. Design-wise, it was unique, it had an ivory bridge, and the nut was designed to play regular or Hawaiian [in place of the traditional nut was a multi-piece system, with a sort of trough which could have nuts of various heights dropped into it]… but the wood on the back was too thin, so the back had some cracks… but as a collectors item, it was very rare. So just because it was old, it didnʼt make it an instrument that I could use professionally, and any guitar I get, I need to be able to use it… but that opened me up to idea of luthiers making new instruments.
Nowadays there are many, many luthiers. I havenʼt tried all of them, but Iʼve tried some where the guitars ainʼt so hot…
W&W – Do you get approached by a lot of luthiers for your perspective on guitars?
Stefan – Not so much. I think they realize that Iʼm very close to Nick at Franklin, and Iʼm very close with Martin. When we worked on the signature model at Martin, I was somewhat confined by the molds that they had, but [itʼs different] with a luthier.
W&W – Where does Tony Klassan (ARK New Era Guitars) fit in?
Stefan – Tony wanted to make a guitar that I had owned, but he didnʼt realize that I had owned it! He referred to it as John Faheyʼs guitar…
W&W – The Seniorita!
Stefan – The Seniorita. I told Tony that no, that was a guitar that I bought in New York City. When I went out to California, John Lundberg saw the guitar, and the first thing he did was to put his hand inside the body of the guitar, realized that it was overly braced, and so he shaved the struts. The pickguard on it was ugly, so John designed a pickguard. That guitar got sold to Fahey, and it was on the cover of the Vanguard record. Fahey sold it to Country Joe McDonald, who sold it to someone in England…
So Tony called me up and said that he was making one of these, and I told that story to him. I told him the guitar that he was hearing Fahey play had been through Lundbergʼs hands. He said he was going to make one, and I said that Iʼd love to get one. He said he was going to make three, one for Country Joe, one for Henry Keiser, and one for me. He asked me what specs I wanted, so I said Madagascar rosewood, thin frets… I like the bar frets, but theyʼre problematic for guitar makers… Henry wanted different frets, a different type of wood…
So Tony Klassan made the three guitars, and I had still not met him. I thought that what he was doing was very interesting, since most makers were reproducing pre-war Martin guitars… which actually got Martin to get off their asses! When they realized that with Santa Cruz and Collings guitars, there was this whole market, and Martin were ignoring it… that market was being filled with good instruments!
So Martin all of the sudden realized, “What are we doing?!” but Tony, he was doing Prairie States… so I had to talk to Tony about Prairie States. They got popular with players at one point, I think, because I was playing a Prairie State or a Euphonon, made by the Larson Brothers. But again, the Euphonon that I was playing, which was a maple-bodied one, had been heavily worked on the inside, to bring out the sound! So people would buy Euphonons and they would be dogs, because they were too heavy! I explained that to Tony. The Euphonon models were very different, they had nothing to do with Martins…
So when Tony was going to bring over the Seniorita, I told him to bring six of his other guitars, and that I would play the same song (“Mississippi Blues”) on each guitar, and then Iʼll play a Gary Davis tune with picks, the same tune… and you can put it on your website, and people will be able to see what model they want. Just by chance, my friend Tokio Uchida was staying with us. Tokio plays very different than I do, he plays with his nails, a bit more delicate. So Tokio did the same thing, demonstrated the guitars the same way. It was wonderful to be able to help out Tony, because heʼs a great guy, and heʼs a great builder… people were able to see and hear these guitars, and now he has a two or three year build list, which is terrific.
W&W – Itʼs great for contrast, too, because watching Tonyʼs own demo videos, he plays a lot of Fahey songs, and the guitars sound wonderful in that style… but when you play them, itʼs a totally different feel, and it shows the scope of what the guitars are capable of. So what youʼre saying is that Tony Klassan isnʼt making exact replicas, but something that reflects your input?
Stefan – And Roy Bookbinder. Roy likes a light guitar. I sent Tony my Prairie State guitar so that he could study the specs, he had it for a few months, seeing how Lundberg did it. Aesthetically, they look like the old guitars, but theyʼre better! Theyʼre better sounding guitars than a lot of the old ones were. And whatʼs great is that heʼs doing all the weird instruments, the Larson Brothers, the Senioritas, some strange Gibson guitars… and thatʼs great. Itʼs different, itʼs an individual luthier whoʼs doing works of art as well, and he has many different models. Heʼs not doing only OMs or only dreadnoughts. Most of the makers are making dreadnoughts because thatʼs the preference of strummers, bluegrass and country players.
W&W – Hanging out at Acoustic Music Works in Pittsburgh, I was able to get a peek at the sales figures for Collings guitars from last year… the rosewood dreads and OMs were far and away the biggest sellers.
Stefan – And itʼs interesting, I think the OM was partly because I recorded with OMs and appeared in a lot of pictures with them. Not to say “Oh, Iʼm great!” but itʼs the same thing as when I saw Guy Carawan with that 00-21. Guitar players, just because it has a major pop-music name attached to it, that doesnʼt sell guitars, but when you have someone with “integrity” in the guitar community, itʼs somewhat meaningful. Martin and I were very pleased with the sales of my signature model, which exceeded all expectations.
W&W – Your signature model is also unique, itʼs an interesting instrument. Itʼs not just a traditional OM or dreadnought with different appointments and your signature on the fretboard! Would the HJ-38 be considered a small jumbo?
Stefan – No, it is a jumbo. Initially I thought maybe the guitar wouldnʼt be quite as deep,
￼and I had the custom shop make me one like that… what they would probably call a 0000 or an “M” model. But the HJ I think is even better than a 0000, and I made sure that my name did not appear on the fingerboard! That was one of my stipulations.
W&W – Itʼs a little cheesy.
Stefan – Thatʼs what I thought!
W&W – Almost done talking about guitars… but Iʼve always been curious about the guitar on the cover of Guitar Landscapes. Is that an Ibanez?
Stefan – Yes. At one point while I was living in Rome, Ibanez approached me, and they wanted to do a signature model. At that point, I was somewhat associated with DʼAddario strings, and they were represented in by Morris Somerfield, who also represented Ibanez in England. So they came to him, he came to me, and we agreed to do a signature model… so I showed them my Prairie State, which John Lundberg had modified, and I said “Letʼs do this.”
They did one like that, a jumbo model, but it was so garish, it just didnʼt work! So I said “No, thank you!” Then they sent that guitar [from the record cover in question] which was more like an OM, which was not what I wanted. I sort of gave up, thinking that it was useless… so that was the “Stefan Grossman Ibanez”.
W&W – But you didnʼt ever play it?
Stefan – No, no. In fact, that picture was for them. That was the promo photo for Ibanez.
W&W – One last guitar question… Iʼve seen a lot of pictures of your guitars, and in some cases you had the full-on “tree of life” inlay, the real bling-y OM-45, the bling-y Larson Brothers guitars… do you have particular aesthetics when it comes to guitars, things that really appeal to you, visually?
Stefan – Well, the one with the “tree of life”, that was a guitar that was just a regular guitar that was scarred, or something like that… so I gave it to Randy Woods, who was working at Gruhn Guitars at the time. I said that we should do a sunburst, and the thing on the neck, but I never played it! In the ʻ70s I went to Japan and ended up giving it to the guy that arranged the tour!
Basically, what I like is not to have very much on the fingerboard… just dots or snowflakes. Because whenever you have to do work on the fingerboard, if you have all that stuff, it just gets impossible [to work on]. You have to understand that in the ʻ60s, when you had abalone on the side of the guitar, that was really something special. It designated that the guitar was a 40, 42, 45, which in the case of Martins meant that not only did it have the abalone, but the wood was better. When the Japanese started to make guitars, all of the sudden every guitar had that. So it didnʼt really mean anything.
So I really like just a simple herringbone. When we made the Martin signature model, I wanted it to have as little bling as possible, to keep the price down, you know? The OM-45, or any 45, tends to use the best wood that Martin has… but there is something about that joint, where the top and sides meet, theres something happening there… all that binding, that has some affect on the tone of the guitar. If I was going to put abalone on a guitar, I would do it like the old Larson Brothers guitars, because theirs was different, it was thicker. But to be honest, I just prefer the simple herringbone, like the binding on the Stella, itʼs just lovely. I like the Brazilian and Madagascar rosewood, aesthetically, over Indian… I donʼt know if it really sounds better or worse.
PART TWO COMING SOON… STAY TUNED!