With a new all-instrumental album, the guitar slinging bluesman Tinsley Ellis delves into his influences while putting the spotlight on his expressive guitar playing. Though heâ€™s been playing for decades and recorded more than a dozen records, Get It! Marks the first time heâ€™s collected an album consisting solely of instrumental tunes. The choices he makes in the cover tunes (Booker T & The MGs, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry) speak to his influences, while his original tunes show a player adept at creating a variety of sonic spaces that are entwined together with his emotive skill. In this interview, Ellis discusses those influences, his writing process and of course, Col. Bruce Hampton.
What made you decide to do an all-instrumental album at this time?
Itâ€™s been my experience that itâ€™s good to give everybody something to talk about with an album. Every album needs to have a story so thereâ€™s something you can say about it other than its just another studio album. I sort of had that philosophy in 2005 when we did the live album and that was a good angle to be able to say something about the record. With the instrumental approach, itâ€™s something that fans have been asking for for literally decades. I do a lot of instrumentals in my show. I always have and Iâ€™ve always recorded them on albums as well.
Are these songs collected over the years or did you set out to write an instrumental album?
Â Other than the two cover songsâ€”the Bo Diddley song â€œDetour,â€ and the Freddie King song (â€œFreddyâ€™s Nightmare Dreamâ€)â€”the songs are songs that I recorded without releasing them and performed them, all the way back almost into the â€˜70s and early â€˜80s when I was in the Heartfixers. The original songs were written over the past 10 or 20 years. Some are really old and some are really new. I just sort of stockpiled them. One day I was going through my music files on my computer and dragged all my instrumentals into a folder. Then I looked at the folder and, lo and behold, I had about 20 or 30 songs that were instrumental. I started messing around to see which ones were the best ones and those are the ones on the album.
Did you re-record all those songs or use the versions you had?
Â I re-recorded them because they were just demos. I have a home studio and when I write a song I play all the instruments. Then when I go in the studio, I have the people who excel at those instruments play those parts. So I had them all demoed out and there were a lot of songs. I started thinking about all the requests from people over the years and decided to do an instrumental album and just let the guitar do the singing. Rather than just go in and rip it up and have everything be a solo, I had to be melodic. That was my goal to have it tasteful and melodic. Sure there are some times when the guitar ripped it up almost to the point of over the top and stopping just before we get to that point hopefully.
How did you put together the players for this?
Â Ted Pecchio is in my band now and Iâ€™m really excited to have him in the group. This was our first thing we did together. I brought a handful of songs over to his studio and he put the bass on, took off my bass. I really wish I had him play all the bass on the album. At the time I had no idea it would sound so good. When he put that upright bass on the Chuck Berry tribute, â€œBerry Tossinâ€™,â€ that was the sound Iâ€™ve been looking for for decades.
Glad to hear yâ€™all are hooked up. I first got to know Ted through Bruce Hampton. I know youâ€™ve played with Bruce in the past. How did working with him influence you?
Â Bruce Hampton is â€¦Iâ€™m not sure if heâ€™s blues or folk music. But heâ€™s someone who is a pivotal character on the scene here in the southeast. Iâ€™ve known him since the â€˜70s. Our paths cross a lot of times over the years. We had a group called The Stained Souls. It started off as a blues band and then, that was what I do best. Then he takes it out. It turned into something completely different. Iâ€™m not sure there is a way to characterize what that band is.
Only Bruce Hampton could describe I guess.
Â We started doing it 30 years ago this year. We havenâ€™t done it in a while. The last time we did it was at the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam as few years ago. Itâ€™s always me and Bruce and a revolving cast of characters in and out of the groups. Itâ€™s just a matter of when we do it. We seem to do a lot of benefit type stuff, which is cool because thatâ€™s when the music is best.
Are Kevin (McKendree, keyboards) and Lynn (Williams, drums) also in your band?
Â They are Nashville guys and play up there with people like Delbert McClinton. I know them from Delbertâ€™s band, although Kevin McKendree has played on every album Iâ€™ve done since 1997 when we hired him to do an album that Tom Dowd produced. So Kevin has been a fixture in my recording world. We actually had him mix the album and I think he did a super job mixing it.
Were there other instrumental guitar albums that influenced the sound of this one?
Â Freddie King had an album called Hideaway in the early â€˜60s with a lot of his instrumental hits on it. Thatâ€™s one of my favorite albums. You know, a really big one for me was the Jeff Beck Blow by Blow that came out in the â€˜70s. I actually saw that tour in the mid â€˜70s. But it seems lately that the whole genre of guitar instrumentals has sadly gone away. In the â€˜60s when I was first getting into music there were a lot of instrumental bands like the Ventures, and my favorite band of all time was an instrumental band called Booker T and the MGs.
Yeah, I kinda hear some Booker T and the MGs on this album, â€œFront Street Freezeâ€ for one.
Â Absolutely. Thatâ€™s my favorite group, so hopefully that shines through.
Another that I hear flavors of is the Meters.
Â Yeah, the Meters are another great group. You know, being from the Georgia area I think we lean closer to the Memphis sound than the New Orleans sound.Â In fact, the rhythm and blues people from Georgia, when they would go to record, they didnâ€™t take them to Chicago, they didnâ€™t take them to New Orleans. They took them to Memphis. So you had Sam & Dave recording in Memphis. You had Otis Redding go there to record. And maybe thereâ€™s a Georgia â€“Memphis collection. Of course New Orleans is its own world and nothing sounds like New Orleans. I wouldnâ€™t dare try to say that I could even have that sound. But I can get into some Memphis stuff for sure.
How do you go about coming up with titles for instrumentals?
Â That is a tricky one. An even harder thing to do is to get people to remember which song is which because there are no words to help you remember. Thereâ€™s a real dreamy one on the album called â€œThe Milky Way,â€ and that is kind of the mood of the songs. Youâ€™re kind of looking up at the stars. But the song didnâ€™t have a title. I had demoed it and just was calling it by the date I wrote it on. I was struggling with the name and I went into my kitchen and we keep a little candy jar for the kids and I reached in and pulled out a candy bar and it said â€œMilky Wayâ€ on it. I thought, that songs kind of sounds like youâ€™re looking up at the stars. So I guess I named it after a candy bar. Then â€œFuzzbusterâ€ is an up-tempo rockinâ€™ song that sort of sounded like driving music. So I thought about the fuzzbuster up on the dashboard of your car to tell you where the po-po are. â€œFront Street Freezeâ€ is one where a little more thought went into that. Front Street is of course the Memphis thing and the backing of that song is probably the most Booker T influenced song. But the freeze part comes from Albert Collins. He was the iceman so he named his songs the freeze or thaw out, or frosty or ice cone. So itâ€™s a combination of Albert Collins and Booker T and the MGs.
This record is out on your own label, Heartfixer. What made you decide to go into the record business?
Iâ€™ve been with a lot of different labels over the years. Landslide Records in Atlanta. Alligator two go-rounds. I did one album for Capricorn records back in the 1990s. Some of my musician friends helped me get a deal with them and that was a great opportunity. Of course the record company went out of business. And Tel-Arc as well. I canâ€™t forget them. Gosh, Iâ€™ve had a lot of labels. Iâ€™ve learned a lot from each of them. Iâ€™ve been with, probably Michael Rothschild at Landslide and Bruce Iglauer at Alligator probably are my two mentors in the record business. I wanted to give it a shot, give it a try. This is a quirky, kooky little album anyway. If it doesnâ€™t work out I can always blame it on that. Iâ€™m learning a lot and starting to see things from the record companyâ€™s point of few, which I never did before. Every trip to the post office I make, every time I put my credit card in that postage machine I start to see things from the record companyâ€™s point of view.
Is there anything you want to tell us about the particular guitars you used, just for the gear â€“nuts out there?
Â Oh yeah! Well, thereâ€™s three guitars used mainly on it. I used a 1959 rosewood Fender Strat. And you can definitely hear that on the first three songs of the album. Then on some of the songs I used a Les Paul on some of the more rock songs. Then I used a 1967 Gibson ES345 on some of the, I guess to describe them Iâ€™d say the bluesier songs on the albumâ€”the two cover songs and the Chuck Berry tribute because thatâ€™s the kind of guitar he used. Thereâ€™s not a lot of pedals involved, though I did play through a Leslie cabinet. You can hear that on the opening track to hear that spinning sound. I recorded the whole album through one little Fender amp, a little small Fender deluxe reverb amp. Usually I use something larger like a Fender super or a Marshall. But this was recorded through a little amp. I found that I could really crank it up and it would give me the overdrive and the distortion that I usually use a pedal for. Iâ€™d like to think there are more pure guitar tones on this album than Iâ€™ve ever done. I think tone is one thing you really need when youâ€™re doing an instrumental, to be conscious of the melody and the tone.
You donâ€™t use a lot of pedals normally, do you?
No. There is wah-wah on one song, â€œFuzzbuster.â€ I try to make it something unique that doesnâ€™t sound like somebody else that maybe got famous doing it, using a certain kind of pedal. I try to use oddball vintage effects like the tape echo unit or the Leslie cabinet. I try to use them sparingly because you can get carried away with it, thatâ€™s for sure. The amp did me right. Oddly enough it just doesnâ€™t have enough power to use in a live concert. I use a 1967 fender super reverb amp [in concert].
Who else is in your touring band right now?
Iâ€™ve got JJ Boogie. He had been playing with Arrested Development. Now heâ€™s my drummer. He was their guitar player, so weâ€™re talking about a real musical guy. Heâ€™s a hip-hop engineer as well, and has mixed several big hip-hop records, including Arrested Development albums. So Iâ€™ve got a couple of really musical cats with me and itâ€™s really inspiring, doing the trio thing.
Editorâ€™s Note: Portions of this interview originally appeared in Living Blues magazine.
For more information on Tinsley Ellis:Â http://www.tinsleyellis.com/