Keb’ Mo’

Writing by Subtraction

Keb Mo
Keb Mo: Andrea Lucero.
Keb’ Mo’s latest album, Blues Americana, nearly wrote itself.

“Going in, I had planned to make a solo acoustic record,” he said. “I got the songs together, but felt it didn’t really hold up. So, I made the record like I wanted – started simple, with guitar and vocal and a click track, because I wanted to spell out the songs from the guitar and vocals. Because of that, it’s more guitar-heavy than keyboard heavy. I grew the songs totally from around the vocals.”

Slinky guitars abound across the album’s 10-cut mixture of R&B, soul, country blues, and jazz. But Mo’ feels he took a step back from the sophisticated pop/jazz arrangements of 2011’s The Reflection.

“I’d been adding elements – a lot more chords than I had used on any other record,” he said. “On the new one, I actually subtracted elements.”

“Writing isn’t always the same. Songs all start with the stories, but the recording process can be very different. I don’t really have a goal when I go in, other than to make a record I really like. I probably get a little smarter with each one.”

With a laugh, he adds, “My wife says maybe I should get more smarter with each one and be a better businessman, but I like working from the heart.”

Mo’s history goes back further than many realize. In the ’70s, he played with violinist Papa John Creach. That start took him many places, including making a pop record under his given name, Kevin Moore, for Casablanca Records back in 1980. By 1994, he was recording under his stage name, which is adapted from his real name.

While the blues informs much of his music, especially country blues, his main influence over the years comes from a band known more for sophisticated arrangements and clever lyrics. “I’m a big fan of Steely Dan,” he said. “They make songs out of things right under your nose that you don’t see, and they make the best records. Everything they do is clever and innovative. When I hear their music, I always think to myself, ‘Damn, why didn’t I think of that?’”

While he has favorite guitars, he finds it difficult to narrow the list. Among those he mentions most are a Gretsch Electromatic with a Bigsby. Onstage, he has two resonators – a National ResoRocket and a smaller Republic. Also joining him at gigs is a “masterclone” banjo and a beloved Duesenberg. There are also has several guitars of recent vintage.

“I have a Paul Reed Smith they made for me. It’s a really nice guitar – chambered, but doesn’t have any holes. I used it on the record. I also have a Gibson Midtown, which I got special from Gibson. It’s like an L-5 with a cutaway. It weighs a ton, but sounds really good, like a cross between a Les Paul and an ES-335.”

His taste in amps covers a lot of ground, and focuses on sound more than any other factor.

“I’m not much of a gear head, but once I find something that gets a sound I like – that I want to hear – I know which amp to pick to do that. A lot of amps have too much low-end or maybe midrange for me. I like a very simple, clean, transparent sound that reflects the guitar.”

The amps that supply the sound he wants start with a Fender Deluxe blackface reissue. “I like that because it always gives me what I want.” He also uses an Egnater Rebel 30 and a Mesa Boogie Mark IV combo. “I use that live and in the studio. I love the versatility and the fact that it has parametric EQ, which you don’t find on many amps.” And, there’s another boutique amp that recently has caught his eye (and ear). “I just discovered Two Rock,” he said. “I’m going to get one eventually. It reminds me of a Dumble.”

Mo’ says ultimately, the songs dictate to him what guitar and amp he will use. “I like to use different guitars and different amps to get different textures. I like the sound of the guitar, so I use light effects – a little tremolo, some slap delay, and occasionally, a little overdrive.”

The road is a constant part of Mo’s life and, depending on when one catches his band, it could be in any number of configurations. “It changes all the time. This current one started out as a duo, and it’s ended up being a trio.”

Blues Americana, he says, came from a very honest place. “It was hard to get all the players focusing on the same page, so I had to start small, work my way up, and I got what I wanted. I’m very happy about that.”


This article originally appeared in VG August 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.