Interview:David Jacobs-Strain - The Prodigal Son?
Blues is born from the depth of the soul, not the depth of the experience. Such might be the mantra of one David Jacobs-Strain, 20, of Eugene, Oregon. David is quickly making a name for himself on the national folk and blues scene for his adept playing and heartfelt Delta-styled singing. If you've already seen and heard David play, you know that while he might be young of age, he is not lacking in the soulful resonance needed to convey a great blues song.
David picked up a guitar at an early age and, having seen Taj Mahal perform live a couple of times, decided to follow a similar path: reciting from the great blues oeuvre and adding his own creations to it. Today he does so at folk and blues festivals nationwide, teaches a few lessons or workshops here and there, and generally enjoys slidin' along the highway.
Anyway, Guitar.com caught up with David at the recent Winter NAMM convention - a music industry trade show - where he performed and broadened his already respectable reputation. In the following interview, transcribed from the accompanying video interview/lesson, David talks about his influences, his instrument, his workshops, and his mature world view on the music scene today.
Interestingly, after our interview, while I was sharing some information with David about places to play in Chicago - pointing him in the direction of the usual blues and folk based clubs - he mentioned to me that he appreciated my suggestions, but really wanted to find more ways to perform for people "his own age," not heavily represented at Buddy Guy's Legend's or Kingston Mines. Cool, David, I hope you find a way.
Guitar.com: We're here with David Jacobs-Strain, an upcoming slide and bluesy player from Eugene, Oregon. How are you doing David?
David Jacobs-Strain: I'm doing wonderfully. I'm just enjoying the NAMM show, seeing friends, and playing lots of great guitars.
Guitar.com: I'm sure this isn't the first NAMM show you've been to...
Jacobs-Strain: Actually it is the first NAMM show I've ever been to. I'm here with D'Addario strings, and playing tonight at the Acoustic Café. It's the first NAMM show I've been to.
Guitar.com: What do you think?
Jacobs-Strain: Well, it's pretty overwhelming. In with all of the marketing and they hype, there's actually a lot of good musical instruments and a lot of great people.
Guitar.com: Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get involved in the guitar and how did you get interested in the music that you play, (which is largely a Delta blues style of playing)?
Jacobs-Strain: I play in a Delta blues style, although I write most of my own songs. I've been branching out a lot the last couple years, with both some instrumental guitar stuff, and then my own original lyrics. I started playing guitar when I was eight years old. I actually wanted to be a banjo player but that didn't work out so well, I think my parents realized the dangerous potential of the volume of a banjo.
So I ended up getting a guitar at a garage sale; my mom bought it for 10 bucks. And after a year of messing around and making noise on it, I started taking lessons. I took a couple years of lessons with a folk songwriter and then also a blues player. And at some point I realized that to play the music I wanted to play it really made sense just to teach myself.
So that's what I've been doing pretty much for the last eight years or so, teaching myself. I've been to a lot of workshops and met a lot of great players, both first-generation blues players and contemporary guitarists and songwriters. I've tried to develop my sound by collaborating with other people and by watching the people that I love to see play, and watching how they're doing it. And listening. That's really how I do it.
Guitar.com: Bob Brozman was a big influence on you, I believe?
Jacobs-Strain: Bob was one of the early influences on me when I started playing slide guitar, although I think my biggest inspiration when I first started playing was Taj Mahal. I heard him play solo a couple times within a month. That really got me psyched about the blues, and as you know - anybody who has listened to Taj knows that Taj is really an eclectic player. He has always managed to create music that fits with his basis of the blues in American folk music, but to really branch that out and expand the textures and sounds and styles of the music. So he was a big inspiration for me, both his acoustic blues and even his forays into reggae and sould music.
Other players like Martin Simpson have been inspirations to me, in recent years. But still, some of the early blues players who I never had a chance to meet - people like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Charley Patton, Son House, even Bessie Smith - those players who I never met or saw live, are some of my biggest inspirations.
Guitar.com: Did you study these people's playing in a note-for-note fashion?
Jacobs-Strain: No, I never did. I've never been a note-for-note player. I've always gone for trying to create the texture or the feeling that evokes the music, rather than trying to learn note-for-note what somebody is doing. That just seemed kind of wasteful and indulgent or something. I'm not really into copying other players. Certainly I've imitated a lot of the sounds and tried to connect with those emotions they put out, but I've never had an interest, the way a musicologist would, in being able to reproduce a particular sound exactly.
Guitar.com: Can you describe for us (or show us) the difference in texture between something Son House would have done, as opposed to Charley Patton, or even Taj Mahal?
Jacobs-Strain: Sure. There's of course variation in the guitar sound and the style of playing, and then also just a difference in the emotional content. Taj Mahal plays a National just like Son House did, but Taj Mahal tends to have a much - I don't know if I want to say - friendlier sound, but he's certainly very approachable conceptually. And somebody like Son House - a lot of his blues is not good time, party blues. I don't want to pigeonhole him, but he's really known for his hard-hitting songs about...
Guitar.com: Hard times.
Jacobs-Strain: ... Hard times. So I try to bring a range of emotion to the music I play. I mean I grew up in Oregon; I'm 20 years old - I'm not going to sing about picking cotton. That would just be silly. But there's plenty of blues material that totally fits, that I feel I can sing, and it makes sense for me to sing. It's interesting too, because people always talk about the "old" blues singers. It's funny because a lot of the great pre-War blues players made their recordings when they were young - my age or a little older. Robert Johnson died in his 30s - maybe younger than that, I can't remember [Editor's note: Robert Johnson died at the age of 27.] But he died early. The blues is not an old person's music. It's what we make it, and what you bring to it.
So one thing I might play is something that is a little slide guitar, influenced by some of the gospel blues of Fred McDowell, or also Blind Willie Johnson.
So that would be a little taste of... my take on Fred McDowell and Blind Willie Johnson. I think I'm really drawn to a lot of players like Fred McDowell because, even when the music isn't overtly religious, it still has kind of a spiritual level to it. Even his blues about how many women has he had down at the juke joint, it still has an approach that has a wider horizon, it has another spiritual kind of resonance to it. I don't sing a lot of overtly religious music; it's not something that I can relate to. But I do really like musicians who are able to put a kind of passion into their music that does have that other level to it.
Guitar.com: Many of the visitors to Guitar.com are younger. If they wanted to explore this music what would you recommend, both in terms of recordings and the books that are out there.
Jacobs-Strain: I haven't read a lot of books, but a few of them. But I would get the Harry Smith Anthology of American Music, first of all. There isn't even that much blues on there, but to start to understand the roots of American music I think you have to look at not just blues, but the context that it was in. None of these players existed in a vacuum, just like nobody does today. Certainly we have a different level of media saturation, but there were plenty of blues players that were listening to the popular music of the day and absorbing that in their music. So I would recommend listening to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Music, which gives a really broad picture of American vernacular music.
And at the same time I would try to listen to all of the music that has been influenced by that. I would listen to Led Zeppelin. I would listen to... there's all kinds of rock 'n' roll, all kinds of popular music that's almost directly influenced by the early blues. I think it's really worth listening to that. In fact, to me, I'd rather listen to a lot of '70s rock 'n' roll than a lot of modern electric blues. It actually feels closer to me to the roots and to me is often more powerful than that slick, ensemble blues you hear a lot of people playing these days.
Guitar.com: Tell us about your Guitar.
Jacobs-Strain: This guitar was made for me by Jeff Traugott in Santa Cruz, California . We designed it so that I can play both fingerstyle and slide guitar. It's got a longer scale so that even with fairly light action - as you can see the strings are not far off the fretboard - I can play slide. The longer scale puts more tension on the strings. Right now I have it tuned all the way up to open E. Sometimes I tune it down to open C. For me it was really important to have a guitar I could do everything that I do on. I also play a National steel guitar, but I didn't bring that today. But on my main guitar, I want to be able play fingerstyle and slide guitar - whatever - all on one guitar.
I use light gauge strings now. I used to use mediums, but I replaced the top two strings. I use the .014 and the .017. At one point I was using .056 in the bass and .016 on the top, which is ridiculously heavy. With the lighter strings I have to play a little lighter when I'm tuned down low, but I can tune it high like this and get that really bright slide sound [plays].
To me one of the really important things about playing guitar - especially slide guitar - is keeping a very relaxed hand. Of course this is something I struggle with myself on stage: But to get a really good tone out of the slide, you can just have really high action if you want, but then your guitar is only good for slide. So with lighter action it's very important to not press down on the strings too hard to get a clear tone. If I press down too hard, which a lot of people do when they start to play slide guitar, you get a bad tone.
I like a really clean slide sound. I say that after having mentioned one of my inspirations being Son House, who plays with a much more rattling kind of sound. It doesn't mean that I don't like his slide playing, but I'm not trying to imitate Son exactly. I'm going to try to create the biggest sound I can get on the guitar. And a clean tone is how I try to do that.
Other tips for playing slide: I'll often sing a passage before I play it when I'm trying to learn something. If you can really feel something, you'll probably be able to play it. When I teach slide to a group or when I do lessons, I'll have somebody sing a passage. [sings and then plays the same line]. I often find that by singing a passage on the guitar, it connects you more with the music, instead of these just being notes on the guitar, you really make that into a musical, emotional statement. To me that's really important, beyond clean tone and all those others things I do think are important. But those are tools, techniques, they aren't really music.
Music is really what you convey. And that - as the playing of someone like Son House proves - what you convey really may not have anything to do with your technique. The emotional content you put in your music can come from one note. I appreciate virtuosity, but I also feel that the best players are the ones who can play one note and totally move an audience.
Guitar.com: These two riffs you just demonstrated were very much like the work chants of the African-American farm workers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which obviously were strongly influential on the original slide players, people such as Son House and people before him.
Jacobs-Strain: Sure. As far as I know, the first slide players played diddley-bows, which were one-string instruments. You could make one by tacking a guitar string or a wire from a broom or whatever on the side of a house, stack a brick on one end to weight it down and create some tension, then play it with a bottleneck or a butter knife or whatever you want. That's how a lot of the first slide players started. That's a one-stringed instrument. To me a lot of the best slide players are very vocal, and you don't need more than one string to do that - to create a really human, vocal sound. I think that's why people are really attracted to the sound of a slide, the same reason that people are attracted to some electric guitar players: You can create a really vocal tone, which to me just has a lot of humanity.
Guitar.com: You teach at workshops around the country. Where can people go to take lessons from you?
Jacobs-Strain: In the past I've taught at the Augusta Heritage Blues Week in Elkins, West Virginia. I've taught at the Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop in Port Townsend, Washington . This summer (2004) I think I'll be at the National Guitar Workshop Seminar in Chicago . And I know that there's going to be a bunch of great blues players there. I also teach at a lot of the blues festivals. If I give a performance, sometimes I'll give a short workshop which ranges from being really formal, like, 'All right, let's get out our guitars and try this... .' to more of a performance and demonstration.
People can look on my website, which is www.DavidJacobs-Strain.com, and it's got a schedule on there and will let you know where I'll be. It's also got links to a lot of other great players.
Guitar.com: All right David, it was a pleasure to meet and talk, and hear a little bit of playing. We look forward to seeing you on the site and around the country playing guitar.
Jacobs-Strain: All right, thanks for having me.
About the Author
Adam St. James joined Guitar.com shortly after the website launched in the summer of 1999 and has been the site's Editor for several years. Adam is the author of several guitar instructional books, including "101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use" (published by Hal Leonard). He fronts blues and rock bands in the Chicago area. See www.adamstjames.com for info on all Adam's books, bands, and barstool banter.