Sonny Landreth’s From the Reach, released earlier this year, is guitar-geek heaven. It features some of Landreth’s most accomplished songwriting to date, with the angry “Blue Tarp Blues” adding a welcome note of restrained fury at the drowning of New Orleans, but the biggest draw on any Landreth release is the chance to hear his unique slide guitar technique. Most of the tunes were written specifically to be played in tandem with certain musicians, such as “The Milky Way Home” (above), which Landreth wrote with Eric Johnson in mind.
Guitar Player sat Landreth down for an interview that ran in the October issue. The talk gets pretty technical at times, but even if you’re not a player you have to appreciate the level of craft and dedication Landreth brings to his music:
What did you have in mind when you wrote “The Milky Way Home” for Eric Johnson?
I heard his tone and signature guitar voice on it, and just got into this notion of having a spread of sound where he was on one side and I was on the other. That set up the approach for the rest of the album. We considered putting the solos dead center or using left and right panning for both players, but having the guest player on one side and me on the other gave a more conversational, call-and-response vibe to the recordings. Also, the overall sound works well because the slide and non-slide parts are different voices that complement each other—I got that from the Allman Brothers. Eric was the first to respond to my invitation, and when that track came back from him about a month later, my engineer and co-producer Tony Daigle put it up on the system and we went, “Man, this is going to be a ride!” The waterfall of sound Eric created on that song was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard.
Start taking notes, guitarists. By “the glass,” Landreth means the glass-tube slide he wears on his pinkie while playing:
How did you get that eerie sounding tremololike intro on “Blue Tarp Blues”?
If you put the slide at the 12th fret, then you have all these available tones on the left side of the glass when you’re looking down at it. And if you strum those strings from low to high, you get a completely different kind of sound than you would if you strummed them on the right side of the glass. It’s a more ethereal voicing, and it’s really great for building textures on a track. You can extract those textures by using your right hand finger like a bow on what would be the 24th fret on a Strat—which means that you’re doing it right over the polepieces on the neck pickup. It’s a really interesting technique. There’s a lot going on rhythmically and it excites harmonics in the tones that you normally hear on the right side of the glass. So what you’re hearing is a combination of all those things, plus I’m using my hand to create a tremolo effect. I used a G minor tuning—which is just an open G tuning with the second string dropped down a half step— and the slide was my Dunlop 215 Glass Moonshine, which has a special non-slip coating on the inside that was developed by Terric Lambert of Moonshine Slides.
“Uberesso,” one of the instrumental tracks on the record, deserves to be the “Eruption” of the early 21st century. Apparently Landreth’s been working on the technique for quite some time:
Is the fast staccato picking that you’re doing on “Überesso” a new technique for you?
I’ve been working on that for a couple of years. It was an idea that I could hear in my head, and when I hit on it I was totally amazed at the sound. It required a lot of woodshedding to get that machine-gun precision and I thought, “why couldn’t I figure this out when I was 25 years old?” It’s an interesting technique that produces kind of a collage of sound because the bar at all times is across all six strings. There’s a sympathetic thing going on where you isolate the individual notes within the overtones of the other strings, and that’s what really fascinated me about it.
Here’s Sonny playing “Uberesso” at the 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival:
The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2007 DVD set is very much worth your while, because after the amusing intro from Bill Murray — he whacks away at “Gloria” while Eric Clapton strolls onto the stage — the lead-off spot goes to Sonny, and the camera lets you see all the curious things Landreth does to shape and color his sound. Amazing stuff.
From the Reach has been getting a lot of attention, the kind of attention that’s been long overdue for Sonny Landreth. He’s played behind zydeco master Clifton Chenier, so he knows how to keep a party going, and he’s played behind John Hiatt, so he knows great songwriting. All of those skills come together on this record, and if you’ve never heard Sonny Landreth, From the Reach is the place to start.