Tinsley Ellis

Tougher Than Ever

Tinsley Ellis
Photo by Flournoy Holmes.
After decades of roadhouses, bars, and international touring, bluesman Tinsley Ellis is still going strong. A 1979 graduate of Emory University, he always aspired to play blues guitar.

“The first bluesy stuff I ever heard was by the British Invasion acts,” he recalled. “Hearing ‘Little Red Rooster’ by The Rolling Stones for the first time was a turning point; I had never heard slide guitar. After that came Cream, then Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. We had local faves like the Allmans, too. All of them led to me seeing B.B. King in concert in 1971. He tied it all together for me.”

Ellis’ discography reaches back to the early ’80s and totals 18 albums. The most recent three are on his label, Heartfixer Music.

“I love the freedom of having my own label,” he said. “Not only can I record what I want, I can record when I want. I modeled it after Alligator Records, which I have a long history with.

Ellis’ new album, Tough Love, is stripped-down and “…describes how I feel about not only life – love is tough – but how I feel about 35 years on the road. The road’s a tough life to love most of the time.”

His recording setup was fairly simple, highlighted by his longtime favorite instrument – a ’67 Gibson ES-345 with a stop tailpiece. “I call it the Big Dog. It’s the most-versatile guitar I’ve ever owned.” He used it and his ’59 rosewood (fretboard) Strat direct through a reissue Fender Deluxe Reverb he calls, “the best recording amp I’ve ever owned. I didn’t need an overdrive pedal; I just used the Volume knob to get different sounds that ranged from sweet to scream.”

Other instruments included a ’72 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe, a 2000 Les Paul Standard, an ’82 Gibson Moderne for slide, a ’69 Martin D-35, and a Fender resonator. The only other amp was a ’66 Fender Super Reverb, while effects included a ’70s Echoplex, RMC Picture wah, and a Soul Vibe. And, while the album is blues, only one song, “Everything,” has a straight 12-bar progression. “It’s also my harmonica debut,” he said. “I’ve been told by some that I put the word ‘harm’ in harmonica!”

“All in the Name of Love” has an Albert King/Stax vibe. “I love the Memphis sound and those Albert King records are classics,” Ellis averred. “Booker T. and The MGs is my favorite band.”

The rawest-sounding track is “Should I Have Lied.” “I wanted it to have that dry Peter Green sound. So many songs on the album have multiple guitar parts, but that one has the live feel.”

Ellis hosted a premier for the album in Atlanta’s Little Five Points area, where he started 40 years ago.

“I still play once a year at the Variety Playhouse, which is a great venue,” he said. “I plan to release an album a year on my little label, then we’ll tour. I don’t see slowing down anytime soon.”


This article originally appeared in VG‘s May 2015 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.