Tuesday, April 4, 2017

GUITAR GODS: Scott Ainslie

I saw Scott Ainsle first a number of years ago when he appeared on Woodsongs Old-time Radio Hour (2009, for show #502) for a celebration of Robert Johnson. There were two guests: Scott and the amazing Rory Block. As she is one of my favorite players ever, I had zero interest in this guy Scott Ainslie...until he began to play. And sing.



And then it just got better, and better, and better....because in addition to being a stunningly talented player & singer - and as authentic in the style as anyone you'll ever hear - he is also a walking encyclopedia of the blues...of American culture...of music.

I was immediately a fan.

Scott Ainslie started playing piano at an early age then picked up guitar and hasn't stopped since. Over half a dozen albums, thousands of concerts & workshops, a book of Robert Johnson's music, an instructional DVD of Johnson's style of playing, a stack of awards won (including the National Slide Guitar Festivals’ Living Heritage Award), music camps, school presentations, and sooo much more.

Story teller, historian, guitarist, musician, performer....We should aspire to such excellence.

Learn more about this musical master at his WEB-SITE, where you'll also get music, video, photos, bio, and more...and be sure to watch the video at the bottom of this page for an incredible performance!

I had a chance to speak to Scott recently. Check it out!


1) What are your current projects?

My latest CD, The Last Shot Got Him (Cattail #2014) is a collection of tunes recorded on a 1934 arch-top Gibson L-50, with a big round sound hole. The guitar came to me through a friend in Lafayette LA and was playing Cajun music when I met it. It sounded more like Robert Johnson’s recorded guitar sound than any instrument I have ever had in my hands and has a very particular voice and, not surprisingly, is well-suited to the music of its youth.

All the tracks on the CD are songs that this instrument might have been asked to play when it was just a young thing, songs recorded between 1928 and 1941. These include works from Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Rev. Gary Davis, as well as Irving Berlin, Fats Waller, Yip Harburg & Harold Arlen, and others. It’s a lovely collection of tunes recorded primarily as solos with minimal additions. There is one original song, Late Last Night, which hews closely to the harmonic conventions of that earlier time. Samples and a complete track listing for the work are available at: http://CattailMusic.com/store/last-shot-got-him/

2) How does this (do these) differ from your past work?

This was the first CD that actually has a narrative element, a story that helps unite a wide variety tracks. I’d never done a themed CD before and the story of the guitar ‘choosing’ the tunes helped listeners and reviewers to grasp the collection as a whole and allowed me to include songs that have not found a home on other collections. It offered me a wide variety of guitar styles to master and refine as I was working toward the sessions and the tour that followed.

3) Do you have one project that you are most proud of as a guitarist?

I have favorite tracks on all my CDs. My arrangements of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and of Stephen Foster’s remarkable “Hard Times, Come Again No More,” both on Jealous of the Moon (1995) are still tracks I’m inordinately proud of. They are smart and emotional arrangements that suit the words and spirit of the songs and can be done perfectly well as solo performances.

There are similar tracks on all the CDs, usually two or three per disc, that I truly love and am proud of. Generally these involve stretching the boundaries of solo song accompaniment in ways that allow the elements of music, made with just two hands, six strings and the voice, to seem bigger than they actually are. Some of these tracks are original songs, some old blues and slide or ragtime guitar pieces, some are covers of the songs of others. But, they all push my own limits and understanding of the guitar as an accompanying instrument, a second voice in a duet with the human voice.

4) Can you give our readers a run-down of your basic gear (live and/or studio), and do you have a favorite piece of gear?

When I fly, I travel with a 1931 National and a one-stringed diddley bow that can be taken apart for flying. The National came out of a pawn shop “way down in Columbus GA” back in 1991. It had lain under someone’s bed for 60 years and had been pawned two years before I found it. The diddey bow (or cigar box guitar) is homemade out of a cigar box and a pool cue, which is a modern adaptation that allows me to disassemble the instrument and fly with it.

When I drive, to these two, I add a fretless gourd banjo and one of two custom made Froggy Bottom Guitars. Both Froggy Bottom instruments far outshine any wooden guitars I have ever owned, if not every guitar I’ve ever played. That is not hyperbole, it’s just a fact. Of course, when I was touring behind The Last Shot Got Him, I toured with the little Gibson L-50, a charming and very handsome period guitar suited to the material.

Performing live, I have an Audio-Technica 4051 condenser for the National. Sometimes, I’ll pair that with a Neumann KM-184 on the f-holes to get a mixed stereo signal. If I’m using a wooden guitar, I’ll leave the microphone levels where they are set for the louder National resonator and add an additional line from the pick-ups on the wooden guitars to bring them up to the same perceived volume and presence. I always have a microphone open in front of an acoustic instrument. Always. (And I don’t ever want an audience to see me messing with the knobs on stage. My attention should be on the instrument, the song and the audience, not the gear.)

I use K & K pick ups on the wooden instruments and run these low-output signals through an LR Baggs Direct Box, generally on phantom power (to save the batteries and steady out the signal).

I would never choose a pick up that required a battery inside a guitar I cared about. I have seen them come loose in transit and a nine volt battery banging around in an acoustic guitar functions like a wrecking ball and can bang a thousand holes and cracks in the instrument in a very short period of time. (This hasn’t happened to me, but we can learn from other people’s mistakes, as well as our own, can’t we?)

My personal sound system includes a Mackie DL1608 Digital Mixer and a pair of QSC K-10 powered speakers. The QSC speakers were a revelation to me. Their clarity and power are unmatched. (Every soundman I talked to when I was buying new speakers recommended the QSC boxes – and they were all right.)

When I record guitars, I favor two matched Neumann KM-184 small condenser microphones. With the National guitar, I make sure I have one pulling sound from the resonator (higher frequencies) and one pulling from the f-holes, the source of a remarkably different sound and complex lower frequencies.

With a wooden guitar, I generally place the KM-184s about 20 inches apart roughly 15 inches away from and vertically parallel to the front of the guitar. The sound of the instrument seems to bloom into the microphones in this setting in really interesting and accurate ways. There is something about not having the sound wave assault the diaphragm of the mics directly that I find interesting. I often begin placing the mics there.

5) Who would you cite as early influences, and who are you favorite new players?

I have played music in one form or another since my mother found me, age 3, at the family piano picking out melodies from the records she listened to during the day. I picked up a guitar after hearing the complex and vital ragtime blues of northern Virginia bluesman John Jackson in 1967. I had no idea one person could get that much music out of a guitar, or that there was roots music out there in America somewhere that was infinitely more interesting, complex and emotionally powerful than what was coming out of the AM radios of the day. I grew up on Top 40 radio when that included The Yardbirds, the Stones, James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, The Beatles, rhythm & blues, soul music and folk.

Diving into the recordings of Mississippi John Hurt, while finding living southern masters of Appalachian old-time music like Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Albert Hash, The Hammons Family of Marlinton, West Virginia, and writing atonal chamber music in college, I’ve always had very wide palette of musical curiosity and affection.

I had two boys in the mid-1980s and at that time also found myself beginning to master the music of Delta Blues legend Robert Johnson. The combination caused me to pause in my musical explorations and try to capitalize on what I had learned. I spent six years transcribing the guitar parts and writing a book of transcriptions of Robert Johnson’s work, published by Hal Leonard in 1992. The book was taken out of print by the publisher while it was still selling successfully in the early 2000s and is only available now used on Amazon.com, but it remains a fine piece of work and copies continue to circulate. (Little Robert didn’t sell his soul at the crossroads, but I’m pretty sure he did give up his publishing…)

As for music I’m listening to now, I favor a lot of African acoustic players. Mali is a

favorite source: Ali Farka TourĂ© and Boubacar TraorĂ© are consistent in my CD rotations in the car or cooking in the kitchen. I gave up on commercial radio back in the 1970s and it somehow hasn’t attracted me since then. I like handmade music and music where one can hear the playing clearly. And, of course, I deeply admire the good song. I took up guitar to accompany my singing and I still consider my guitar parts accompaniments that have simply gotten more and more complex and interesting over time…

6) Can you give a few tips to aspiring players?

Learning to play an instrument is not unlike learning a foreign language. You will progress faster by spending 10-20 minutes in small, focused practice sessions than doing two hours before your next lesson. We learn incrementally and, like a language, we learn by speaking.

Understanding the theory can be helpful, but if you can’t create a sentence, following the language metaphor, then you don’t know the material. And we all know people with huge vocabularies and nothing original to say.

Conversely, we can point to many musicians with very limited versatility, who can bring us to our knees. Many of the old Blues guys were like this. They put to full use what they knew. They weren’t waiting to learn a new chord form and master all the scales before they made their mark. The struck out with what they knew as if their lives depended on it. And often, their lives did.

I believe in the act and usefulness of apprenticeship. I think that performers should allow the music they love to transform them, before they transform it.

This is how traditions remain vital. They are changed by the people who are intimately familiar with them, who love them, and who have been changed by them. If they do not change, they die. But if they are diluted by performers who aren’t deeply familiar with the musical language and performance practices passed down from player to player, they also die. This is handed knowledge. When a tradition changes hands, it is always personal.

I suggest young musicians go out and find the best and oldest players who have experience in the music they love and go spend time with them. In the case of musicians who have died before you got to them, apprentice yourself to their recordings, while looking for people who met, knew, played with, or played music like the stuff you like. Don’t be in a rush to get to the market place. It is not about the money. There are far more important things at stake.

Finally, I’d direct a young player’s attention to their right (or picking/playing) hand.

One hand changes the sound – making different chords and scales/notes.

The other hand makes the sound.

Most players ignore the hand that makes the sound in favor of the hand that changes the sound. This is a mistake.

Mastering the hand that makes the sound is critical. (I’ve have taught an entire week of right hand technique at the Swannanoa Gathering’s Guitar Week. It’s like Paris Island for the right hand. And at the end of the week, people hate me. They glare at me in frustration. But, the next year, I am consistently told that that one class, out of sometimes twenty years of guitar camp classes, three and four per year, made more difference in how they sound and their satisfaction with how they sound than any other six or seven hours of instruction.)

My working theory is that a tradition is contained not in its melodies, but it how they are dealt with, how the sound is made. Tradition is in the right hand – the picking, bowing, flat-picking hand. One can play a melody and still sound nothing at all like the traditional that it is a part of. How one makes the sound, how you deal with the melody/music, is where a traditional identity becomes clear.

(As a footnote, I’m not against fusion. But, I’m in favor of deeply understanding the ground upon which one stands before you start mixing it up with other traditions or customs.)

7) You work as a recording artist, interpreter of classic blues works, instructor (having both written a book and produced a instructional DVD), story-teller, performing musician, and more. Do you feel each role compliments the other, or do you find yourself struggling to do less of some and more of others?

I was a Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude graduate of Washington & Lee University back in 1974. I frankly had no idea what that meant at the time. But in the years since, I have realized that my inherent curiosity, my passionate discipline, and the demands of being raised white middle class while working among non-white, non-middle class musicians, music and cultures have all conspired to force me out of whatever comfort zone I had and out into the wider culture and history that we share. I have had the luxury of spending time with very senior musicians on both sides of the color line. These men and women have changed me. I am not the kid I was. I am not the man that kid was going to become either.

I find the various parts of my working life–teaching, performing, sharing stories and history, writing new songs, interpreting old ones–to be not just complementary, but mutually reinforcing endeavors.

There are, of course, days when I wish I could just play. But, even blues audiences often know almost nothing about the music they love, the history that informs it, and the conditions in which it developed. They may know the music, but not the people, nor their history. This is a bit like not knowing who your parents and grandparents are. It is good to know where we came from, where what we love came from…

Audiences come into a room with such disparate experiences, it is difficult to just play music and not have a considerable amount of its power and meaning lost.

A part of what a performer or a teacher does is to take a bunch of strangers and turn them into a group, a community of interest or of shared experience. So, a balance must be struck between sharing what I know and sharing what I feel.

As Yip Harburg once noted, words cause people to think a thought; music causes people to feel an emotion; and a song causes people to feel a thought.

We have to give the audience the best chance at feeling the thoughts embedded in these songs. Some of the songs are quite old or are unfamiliar. Offering a handhold to strangers can make you friends.

Working out the proper thing to say before a song is not accidental. And I generally have a 15 second, 60 second, and three to five minute introduction to every song I play.

A proper song introduction tells the audience something useful about the song and something about who is singing it for them. It should be revealing. And it should triangulate on the song, not explain it. If it isn’t revealing or is simply explanatory, it’s a waste of stage time.

8) Many instructors struggle with the notion that many hold that studying guitar formally will somehow rob them of their "feel"; that music theory or technique drills somehow have knowledge or ability crushing their ability to hear the magic in music or convey the emotion to an audience. Can you speak to that?

The notion that knowing what’s going on in music will rob it of its beauty, magic, mystery, originality, or emotional power runs counter to everything I know about the world.

Knowledge is power (period).

But, how one practices, how one learns theory and incorporates it is a real issue.

Feeling trapped in a theoretical framework can be one temporary phase of learning something new. It feels foreign. It may even feel unnatural for some period of time to think and play in such terms. But, integration of new knowledge removes it from the front burner of the brain and allows it to suffuse the work as it becomes the new normal.

It is deeply important to divide one’s music time into work time and play time.

If all you do is work, you’ll likely work yourself into a corner and the joy of the sounds we make may become distant or lost on you. If all you do is play, then you’ll make the same mistakes five years from now that you made twenty years ago. So finding a way to work on new core technique and understanding AND to simply play music in each practice session seems important to me.

Eventually, the core technique work will inform the play.

We don’t call it working music; we call it playing music for a reason. But, without focused, concentrated effort, you won’t progress. We all cut our own deals with these particular devils. There are no right or wrong answers. It depends on what you want. You can only evaluate someone on what it is they are hoping and trying to do.

9) You've won awards, traveled the world, recorded albums, written books, taught audiences large & small, released critically acclaimed music, have the unfailing respect of your peers, and so much more. What do you see as the Scott Ainslie legacy?

Though I was given a lifetime achievement award more than twenty years ago, I still consider it far too early to consider a legacy. But on the general topic of legacy, I will say this:

Our heritage–culturally, historically, musically–is what we have inherited. Not all of it is good. Not all of it is worth passing on.

Our legacy is what we pass on. We can all edit and filter our heritage and choose to pass on, not all of an uncritically accepted inheritance, but the very best as our legacy. Everyone has a responsibility to critically examine what we inherit and to shape their legacy consciously and with care. I hope, when I am done here, that I will have left more good than bad behind.

And more, I hope a few people will have taken up the handed-knowledge I received from the old people and will happily still play the sort of music and in the sort of traditions that I have been entrusted with.

10) What are your future plans?

Even though over the past ten years CD sales have fallen more than 80% (across all genres) with the advent of music streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, I’m working on new songs and toward another recording.

Fans are enjoying our work without paying anything for it. Record distributors have always robbed musicians. It is hard to have the fans so quickly embrace the new version of this abuse of the very artists and musicians that they enjoy and admire.

But, people don’t tend to pay for what they can get for free. And our technology has always evolved faster than our ethics. So, a question arises about not just the viability of commercial recordings, but why one would undertake to make them in the absence of the likelihood of recouping the investment of time and money.

So, the reason for making a new recording is to place into circulation emotions and thoughts (following on Harburg’s remarks about songs above) that may make a difference in the community and history that we share. That may engender compassion, extend understanding, and/or help create empathy.

Making money, while necessary to sustain us all, is also an insufficient compensation for the struggle it takes to become a working, professional artist. We pick up our instruments for other reasons: I picked up a guitar not to make a living, but to make a difference; not to thrill an audience, but to thrill myself. Returning to these original motivations as the music business changes to some new model of compensation (or lack of it) is instructive. Even inspirational.

So, from my perspective, saying what wants to be said, adding something to the sum total of human knowledge – rather than just creating another piece of plastic that will in a few decades or less be floating in that vortex of plastic floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – continues to be my goal for my future work.

And I hope my last sentence on earth is something like this:

“Catch the guitar….”

11) Thanx for talking to us, Scott!

If you'd like to support my work...


  1. I have known Scott since he, and I, were skinny kids in 1970. Scott is indeed a national treasure. I love the history Scott illuminates as much as the tunes he plays.

  2. In the summer of 2000 I went for the first time to this thing called "The Swannanoa Gathering." That first night when the instructors introduce themselves in Bryson Gym, I heard Scott Ainslie sing "Wayfaring Stranger." It was one of those performances that one never forgets. Not many performers can give you goose bumps and make your scalp tingle. I shall never forget that night, nor the lessons I learned from Scott about the history of the music and playing the music at that and following gatherings. He is indeed a national treasure.

  3. I love this guy, the passion he puts in his art, you can feel it when you listen to him play.Sure, Scott is a treasure .