Life in Music inspired by Joe Henry

dinsdag 28 oktober 2014

Joe Henry on Vintage Guitars

There is one thing I absolutely adore seeing with people during a conversation. It is the twinkle in their eyes when they start talking about their passion, I just love listening to them. I think Joe has that twinkle when it comes  around to vintage guitars. Those of you who know Joe a little bit, know his love for these wonderful instruments.

I wanted to ask Joe to talk a little bit about his passion, and I had that opportunity. Therefore I need to send out a big thank you to Joe’s management for making this article possible.

          - But mostly, of course, thank you Joe Henry for offering these insights!

JH: There is much to address here; but to begin…guitars are very romantic things to me: mysterious and evolving; no two alike –even two of the same model and vintage. They all have something different to tell you, and invite different things from you.

          - In Fretboard Journal n°26 you said: “I knew that on his first record Bob Dylan played a Gibson J-50 and I was deeply invested in Woody Guthrie at that time”(1) . Did your love for vintage guitars started with seeing your heroes play them?

JH: When I was young and impressionable –in that way that only a na├»ve young person can be—sure: I made note of what guitars my heroes played –for style as much as sound; and I noted early on that Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson all played not only Gibson guitars, but most specifically, small-bodied models: Woody long-associated with a mid 30s Gibson L-00; Bob Dylan –in his seminal years 1963-1966—almost exclusively playing a Gibson Nick Lucas Special from 1930 (same body shape as Woody’s L-00, but fancier and with deeper body dimensions; and Robert Johnson most notably associated with a late-20s Gibson L-1 –a precursor to the L-00. And because I admired these artists so greatly, I found the similarities in their choices to be significant, and formed an attachment to the idea of these models.

          - But it was only later on in your life, that you got to play such instruments yourself?

JH: I was in my mid 40s, honestly, before I ever saw or played ANY of them in person. I responded to them romantically, and then discovered that their unique sound –owing to light construction, short body scale, etc., contributed to a feel and the harmonic overtones that I found speak so vividly to me.

          - Thinking about it, the evolution of your love for these vintage guitars, (and probably any man’s passion) I see a comparison to ‘falling in love’ with a person, which then slowly grows into ‘loving’ a person.

JH: Yes, One does grow into the relationship with an instrument like one does with a person; and it is part of the magic of the convergence.

”Tom Waits is right, of course”

During Joe’s last concert in Boston someone in the audience asked about his guitar. He said that “his Gibson was from 1935 and his other guitar was custom built from mahogany wood that was salvaged from a sunken ship….”(2)

            - The story triggered my curiosity. So I couldn’t resist asking if it was a true story.
JH: the story is completely true –about a new Martin 000-17 from their custom shop. It was made from what they refer to as “sinker mahogany,” which literally means it was dredged from the bottom of a lake/channel/ocean, dried/cured for years, then used for guitar construction.

              - I really need to look up some more about that, it intrigues me. You know, even if it was just a story, Tom Waits would probably say: “does it really improve the story if it’s true?”(3)

JH: He is right, of course, that the truth of the story doesn’t make the guitar sound better.

I did search some more info on Sinker Mahogany, and especially for these Martin Custom guitars. “Sinker Mahogany has its origins in the Central American country of Belize roughly 300 years ago when the British felled massive, 250-300 year-old trees ideal for shipbuilding.” (4) Read the full story at the hub . A wonderful and amazing story.

Over the last years, Joe has also found a love for new guitars. New guitars based on Vintage guitars.  New Era guitars designs and makes custom guitars. Joe is 1 of their clients. This relationship has grown into some ’Joe Henry signature’ guitars, which are all based on vintage models.  

“It is turning into something quite special and should continue to. I have never had a romance with a new instrument, but am with this one.”(5)

And it did continue. Fretboard Journal had, just recently, an interview with Tony Klassen, the beating heart behind New Era Guitars. 

TK: It’s been a real pleasure working with Joe. He loves my work, and often will give me little updates on the guitars, his travels, recordings and the people who get to play them. It’s very exciting for me. Our first project together was taking the Senorita S-6 and converting it to a 12-fret version. Without Joe’s input I don’t think I would have ventured to do this. The outcome was pretty amazing and really changed the tone of the Senorita. Mellow, deep and responsive. Our next project will be another 12 fret configuration of a 1930s Tonk Washburn. I can’t wait!(6)

           - So a new Joe Henry signature guitar is coming up, and of course, also we can’t wait. Could you give a little more info about it?

JH: It is still in the design phase, but Tony and I are working on a model together based on a Regal guitar from the mid-30s, but with variations based on my favorite Gibson guitars –most notably a short-scale.

In that same fretboard interview(6) Tony Klassen gave away, that Joe has named the guitar ‘The Bellwether’.
These days, in sociology, a bellwether refers to a person or group who tends to create, influence or set new trends.
Is there a more wonderful name you can give to a musical instrument?

           - One last question Joe: Do you know in advance, for certain songs, which guitar will sound best for a tune? Or is it more like ‘trial and error’?

JH: I have many guitars out on stands all over my house and studio; and when I am working on a new song, I walk around and frequently play what I am working on on different guitars; and then invariably I’ll hear it more fully in one particular instrument. “Oh, it’s in THIS one,” I say, then focus with that guitar.


(1)    www.fretboardjournal.com (issue 26)
(2)    http://concertmanic.com/2014/07/08/concert-review-joe-henry-6272014/
(3)    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9kWrB6D0bQ (3:20 min)
(4)    http://thehub.musiciansfriend.com/featured-private-reserve-guitars/martin-custom-sinker-mahogany-dreadnought-crafted-with-rare-wood-retrieved-from-the-depths
(5)    http://www.fretboardjournal.com/features/online/joe-henrys-ark-new-era-guitars
(6)    http://www.fretboardjournal.com/features/online/bench-press-new-era-guitars
And also thank you David, for showing directions to lots of info.

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