Friday, January 8, 2010
Larry Perkins Bluesman's Journey.. And Meeting The Ghost of Orville Gibson?
Larry was on the second last day of his 3 month stint as frontman for the houseband at the Crazy Elephant club, Singapore, when this interview took place. An accomplished guitar luthier and repairman, Larry also worked at Heritage Guitars in Kalamazoo, from 1996 to 2006.
This conversation took place in a Japanese restaurant over a bottle of chilled sake and plates of seasoned baby octopus.
The Guitar Column: Tell us a bit about your early years. Where did you grow up and what was your earliest musical memory?
Larry Perkins: I grew up in Paw Paw, Michigan. It was an agricultural town. I remember going to a barn dance when I was maybe 3 years old and the guitar player was playing a Fender Stratocaster. I remember sitting there and just watching him for hours.
Later on, my older sisters were into the bands of the British Invasion. I was 8 years old and exposed to the music of the Beatles, The Stones. My favorite band was The Yardbirds.
TGC: Were you aware then that Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton were in The Yardbirds?
LP: I didn’t know. I just liked the songs.
TGC: When did you get your first guitar?
LP: It was 1967, I was 11 years old. My first guitar was an old Sears acoustic. It was a piece of junk. In school choir the kids got the baritone ukuleles, the 4-string ones tuned like the lower 4-strings on a guitar. I dove right into it and when the teachers saw I was pretty good at it, they put me in with the older group of kids.
I didn’t know it was Jimmy Page I was listening to when I was listening to The Yardbirds. When Led Zeppelin came out I found out that it was Page again, and I felt I had to listen to this guy!
TGC: When did you get your first electric guitar?
LP: I got it in 1968. It was a Teisco. My mother got it for me on condition that I stayed with the school music band. And I had a little amp. I had only one setting for the amp – turned up all the way up. It was the only way to get it to distort.
TGC: Were you really into the guitar by this time?
I was obsessed by it. I would stare at the clock in class and I couldn’t wait to go home and play. I couldn’t understand why everybody wasn’t into it.
TGC: What were you practicing? Did you jam along with records?
LP: I was jamming along with the records -- Beatles, Zeppelin.
TGC: When did you get your first band together?
LP: This would have been in 1968, when I was 12 years old.
TGC: 12 years old in ‘68! That must have been a great time to grow up!
LP: It was, it really was! Woodstock, flower power!
I had a very Mid-western upbringing -- you could put the same story all throughout America. The first band I was in played school dances, talent shows.
TGC: What songs were you playing?
LP: We did Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin, Donovan. I remember we played The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun. I also played a lot of old standards – American standard pieces. There was a jam session on Sunday outside of Paw Paw that I would attend. I played Satin Doll, A Foggy Day. I was a young kid hanging out with these old farts playing these tunes!
As a matter of fact, last New Year’s Eve (2009) was the 40th anniversary of my first band’s first bar gig. It was New Year’s Eve 1969 -- the drummer in my band called to tell us he had got us a gig. We got together and he handed each of us 40 dollars and a shot of whiskey. 40 dollars was a lot of money back then!
TGC: And things haven’t changed, there are bars that still pay musicians 40 dollars! You must have been pretty good by then.
LP: I got a lot of encouragement. I was into any band that had a big guitar sound. I was playing blues based rock n’ roll. I didn’t quite get the connection about the (traditional) blues yet because I thought it was kind of hokey. I was totally wrapped up in rock n’ roll.
TGC: Was it at this point that you wanted to play music seriously?
LP: No, I just always wanted to. I was always practicing. It was something I always wanted to do, to make a living from music.
TGC: What were some of the things you were working on at this time?
LP: I would work on my repertoire, my lead work. I would work on my tone. If my band was going to play a new song I would work on that. I also picked up the bass guitar. In high school I was also gigging as a bass player. I actually made a lot of money playing bass in college as a hired gun.
TGC: Where did you go to college?
LP: I went to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, studying science with a minor in music. I didn’t graduate but I was there for 3 years. I went in as a horn player, trombone, but I could play any kind of brass instrument. I would go to theory classes. As far as music, it exposed me to a more academic approach.
TGC: So there you were, a guitar player right in the heart of Gibson town!
LP: I never realized that Gibson Guitars was in Kalamazoo til after college! Somehow I never made the connection.
TGC: When did you start getting into guitar building and repair?
LP: In college, I owned a Guild solidbody. And I had friends who would come with minor guitar problems and I would do repairs. I learned to solder at a young age and I would work on guitar electronics. Just helping friends with repairs for a few dollars, and maybe a joint. You can print that!
TGC: What bands were you playing in after college?
LP: In my 20’s I had my rock n’ roll band but I also bounced around in half a dozen bands, sometimes playing bass. I was in demand because I was known as the guy who could sing and play guitar, or sing and play the bass.
1983 was a real turning point. I auditioned and joined a band out of Detroit as the bass player. The band was a drug front. They (the management) didn’t care about the band -- they were only using the band and the club as a front to sell drugs. I had to leave. It broke my heart.
I was engaged to a girl about this time and went the route of selling every bit of gear I owned in November of ‘83. You know, ‘quit music and get a real job’. I went to work for my future father in law.
Four months went by and I had to get a guitar. I got a Harmony Flying V and a Peavey amp and started working on my chops again. At this point my first wife had some drug issues and was indulging in drug-related behavior. I got into the bottle pretty heavy.
I would go down to the basement and try to reinvent myself, I wanted to work on my chords. I would take a chord and find every possible position to play it. So as my first marriage disintegrated, I was reinventing my guitar style. I went back to the roots with the blues as well.
I put a band together called Red Rooster which lasted from 1981 til 1999. I almost died from a drug overdose in October of ’88. That was the darkest period of my life, ’83 to ‘88, but it put a fire in me and gave me an understanding of myself and my talent.
In 1989 I got divorced and moved back to Kalamazoo. I hadn’t had a band for almost 6 years, but I had a new lease on my guitar playing. I had lots of old friends and connections with the clubs in Kalamazoo. And within a couple of months I was doing gigs. I was doing a lot more blues gigs as well.
TGC: What happened after that?
LP: In ‘91 I got more heavily into repairs. I went to work in a music store, Farrow’s Music in Kalamazoo. They had a couple more stores in the country. This was the era before the big Guitar Center stores.
TGC: A real mom n' pop type operation – just a little bigger.
LP: Exactly. I got the job by complaining to the manager about the guitars they had on display. They were poorly setup, strings were rusting, the guitars were dirty. I told him I could increase his guitar sales and that I would work for free for 2 weeks to prove myself. I sold more guitars in 2 weeks than he had sold in 6 months, just because I cleaned them up, put new strings on them and set them up well. I ended up working there about two and a half years.
When Farrow’s closed I worked as a groundskeeper taking care of things in an apartment building, Milham Meadows – taking out the trash, shoveling snow in winter.
TGC: You’re the king of guitar setups. Your guitars at the Crazy Elephant all play great. What do you look for when buying a new or used guitar?
LP: I’m really anal about my setups.
I wouldn’t buy a guitar if it didn’t have the features I was looking for. The last thing I would consider would be how it looks like – which is probably the first thing that most people buying a guitar look at. One thing I insist on though is a nitrocellulose finish because I‘m old school.
TGC: I remember in the late 70’s Fender was making Strats with really heavy ash bodies covered in thick polyurethane finishes.
LP: Guitar culture is festooned with myth.
Brass nuts and heavy bodies were the in-thing in the 80s. But those same guys telling you that you needed brass nuts, brass bridges, these were the guys with the tiny mosquito tones. And they would tell you these things -- that you needed brass to get sustain. Sustain comes from your hands first.
TGC: Do you have any setup secrets you would care to share? How do you set the neck relief on your guitars for example?
LP: Good action is good playability. Most of my guitar have low action, but I like the guitar to fight back a little bit.
The first thing I look at is the relief on a neck. It doesn’t matter if a guitar is poorly setup with too much relief. If you sight down a neck (the fingerboard) and see the curve of the relief only occurring between the 3rd and 8th fret, that’s the neck that’s going to dial in perfectly.
When I worked at Heritage Guitars I would look at the neck blank the same way. Once the fingerboard is glued on, it will accept stress in the same way. When I was ready to build my personal guitar at Heritage, I went through about 40 or 50 neck blanks (necks with no fingerboard installed yet), and picked out one. I brought it to the guy in the neck and body department and said “This one’s got my name on it.”
TGC: What are your opinions about neck woods?
LP: I want very straight grain. No grain that moves in a wavy pattern, and no knots in the wood. I generally avoid flame or figured maple for necks. Flame necks have been known to shatter at the figured part of the grain, but this doesn’t happen very often – maple is quite reliable.
TGC: Do you prefer quartersawn or flatsawn wood for necks?
LP: Flatsawn or quartersawn are both ok. Fender necks if you notice are mostly flatsawn. But if it’s a mahogany neck, I prefer it quartersawn.
TGC: Tell us how you got your job at Heritage Guitars.
LP: I joined Heritage Guitars in November 1996. My second wife worked with a girl whose father was one of the owners of Heritage -- J P Moats. My wife said that she heard they were hiring and suggested I apply. I went for the interview and after that I was going there every 2 weeks for a year, pounding on their door. They finally agreed to hire me.
J P Moats started with Gibson Guitars in 1956. He was what we call in the manufacturing business, a 'floater'. He could do about just anything. He would move from department to department making sure everything was ok. You had to be a pretty senior employee to do this.
I played a few Heritage guitars before I worked there. I was impressed – the playability, the way they looked. I actually bought a H150 model, the Les Paul type. They preferred to keep it a small operation. They maintained the handbuilt aspect.
TGC: Jig saws and routers, no CNC machines.
I was the first non-Gibson guy they hired. All the employees were ex-Gibson guys. Heritage started in ‘85 and when I went in, it was the 11th year of Heritage Guitars. (Note: The idea for Heritage Guitars began when Gibson decided to move its factory from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Nashville, Tennessee in 1984. When a number of staff refused to move, they decided to buy the Kalamazoo plant from Gibson, including the original tools and machinery, and started Heritage Guitars.)
When I started, they put me in white wood prep (the pre-finishing stage) for six months, ensuring that all aspects were perfect. They liked my attention to detail and in Spring of ‘97 I was promoted to the finishing department . I did the finish on guitars for Roy Clark and John Sebastian. These guys would always ask for custom finishes, custom binding. Actually every Heritage guitar coming out of the factory now is custom.
TGC: The Heritage Les Paul-style solidbody you mentioned you had specially built -- did you build it entirely yourself? Were there any special features you had put in that you wouldn’t find on any other Heritage guitar?
LP: I did some of the work on it, but it was put through the production stages (at the factory). There is a higher arch on the carved top. From the side it looks like a turtle! And the guitar is all-maple – I wanted a bright sounding guitar. Heritage uses the VIP system which allows you to cut coils and get a few switching combinations out of two humbuckers.
For my guitar I came up with a system, that allowed me to get every possible switching combination from three humbucking pickups. This allowed me to get any sound I wanted – I could get it to sound like a Les Paul, or a Tele or a Strat. There were only two Heritage guitars built with these electronics. And I own both of them.
TGC: I notice you went with a Bigsby tremolo.
LP: I like Bigsbys. They stay in tune if they are maintained well, and they have a nice 50s vibe. And you don’t have to rout out the guitar to install them like with most tremolo systems. You can’t do dive-bombs with them of course.
TGC: Any insider stories about the goings-on at Heritage?
LP: The old Gibson factory that Heritage took over has a lot of ghosts! Lights would turn themselves on and off, footprints would appear on the floor. Orville Gibson himself is said to wander around the factory. Almost everyone in the staff has at least one Orville story.
TGC: Did you have any encounters yourself?
LP: One winter day, during a bad blizzard -- this was in my second year at the company -- only about a third of the staff showed up. My boss came to me and told me that once I was done with what I was doing, and if the blizzard didn’t subside, I should go home.
It was about 10 in the morning. The last thing I needed to do was take a rack of guitars to the finishing department upstairs. I rolled the rack to the elevator. And sitting in front of the elevator, partially blocking the door was this dolly with a 20ft long piece of mahogany on it.
It probably weighed about a ton and I definitely couldn’t move it by myself. So here I was wondering where I was going to get someone to help me move it – there was hardly anybody around. And then the dolly with this huge piece of mahogany just moved about 8 inches by itself! Just enough so I could get the rack into the elevator!
TGC: Did you go up the elevator then? I would have split!
LP: I went up and then I went home. I met Orville. Everybody at Heritage has an Orville ghost story.