The first time many guitarists hear Norman Blake they think to themselves, “I could do that.” But if they actually sit down to try, they soon discover that what sounds simple is actually devilishly hard. Blake’s melodic lines are direct and elegant, with little of the pyrotechnics often associated with the guitar style known as “flatpicking.” Instead, his music has an air of authenticity and basic honesty few can achieve. Grounded by years of experience, Norman Blake is about music, not ego.
His career started when he left school at age 16 to be a professional musician. Early jobs included playing fiddle, dobro, and mandolin in county dance bands before a short stint in the Army. After serving, Norman worked with June Carter, then Johnny Cash when Cash’s regular dobro player couldn’t make a session. He stayed with Cash’s band for over 10 years.
Norman was invited to play on the seminal album Will the Circle Be Unbroken in the early ’70s, and during the mid ’70s and ’80s recorded a series of highly influential albums that helped define what has come to be the flatpicking guitar style.
Recently, his work can be heard on Steve Earle’s Train a Comin’ and on his own newest release, Far Away, Down on a Georgia Farm.
Vintage Guitar: When did you start playing an instrument?
Norman Blake: Oh, when I was 11 or 12 years old, thereabouts. My first instrument was the guitar.
When did you pick up some of the other instruments you play?
Shortly after. Mandolin was probably second. I don’t remember the chronological order. I learned to play dobro and fiddle pretty early on, too. But guitar first, mandolin second. Those are my main two instruments.
Do you still play dobro?
Not a whole lot. I never did play it much in my own shows or on my own songs. I sort of embellished my records with dobro or slide Hawaiian guitar. I like to play non-resonator slide, like a lapsteel or a raised-nut guitar in the low-based tuning, which is different than the dobro tuning.
More like the Hawaiian dropped-bass tuning?
Yeah. It’s the same tuning as the Hawaiian A tuning, except I tune in G. All your old country players down through the years used the Hawaiian tuning, but they dropped it to G. And then – and I don’t know when – somebody raised up the bass strings, the two top bass strings to become the dobro tuning, but basically that’s the only difference in dobro tuning.
A lot of the old-time country musicians used Hawaiian guitar. They were both in G, but the bass strings were different. But then the real traditional Hawaiian players used the A tuning, which is, like I say, the same as the one that country people were using in G, but I call it low bass versus high bass. I speak of dobro just as my own identification of high-bass G and Hawaiian, or the way I play it, old-time country slide is low-bass G. In other words, the fifth string on a dobro is tuned to a B and the sixth is tuned to a G. On the other guitar, it would be tuned…the fifth would be G and the low string would be a D.
Unlike the dobro, where you basically just have the same repeating tuning…so it would give you a more flexibility, I would think.
Well, it’s a little better for accompaniment, which is the way older players used it. It gives you a little more…it just has a sound that’s conducive to songs.
And dobro was your introduction to playing with Johnny Cash, correct?
I played with him extensively for about 10 years, and I’ve been playing with him, on and off, for the last 36 years. I worked with him last week. He’s trying to do another album. You know, his health has not been good. He’s been recording at his compound at Hendersonville, Tennessee. So I been recording with him during this last year.
And what instruments did you play with him?
Guitar more than anything. Through the years I played dobro and guitar mostly, at some points way down the line a 12-string guitar, or a mandocello. He liked those things. But dobro and guitar have been the primary things I’ve played with him.
What was the first good instrument you ever purchased?
I started off on a Stella guitar, certainly was low-cost. It was a $14 Stella, a new one my father bought me when I was 11 or 12 years old. First good guitar I got was a used Gibson LG 2…’bout 19 and ’49 or ’50 maybe.
From the very beginning, were you drawn to the smaller-body, short-scale instruments?
Well, I didn’t see anything other than that. I never saw a Martin guitar for a long time. Back when I was coming up you saw more Gibson guitars than anything else. I don’t know why, I guess a lot of people could only afford Gibsons. You saw a lot of smaller-body Gibsons, Ls, double 0s, the old ones you know, the LG series and things like that. You’d see the occasional big Gibson, some kind of an SJ, J-35, or J-45. I didn’t see a Martin D-28, or remember it at least, when I was coming up as a kid. Didn’t see that ’til later.
You started with the small-bodied Gibsons and sort of stayed with them? Or at times did you flirt with the larger bodies?
No. I’ve played with a little of everything. I’ve had big Gibsons, of course, and still play small-bodied ones. I’ve played Martins. I’ve played everything. I played the D-size Martins, I’ve gone the whole route, so to speak. I enjoy exploring what to play my music on.
Are you still using a Gibson Nick Lucas and the Gibson Century as your main instruments?
Those are some of my main ones. I never stick to one thing. I like guitars too well. I get bored if I play the same one all the time. Lots of people seem to get on one guitar, which is a good thing if you can do that, but I never seem to do that.
I don’t feel that any one guitar does everything. I have a couple Martins and I play the Gibsons, too. I have a 12-fret 1926 Martin 000-18, and I have a ’28 00-45 that I like awfully well, and then a ’29 Gibson Nick Lucas Special. It’s a 12-fret Nick Lucas Special with a mahogany body. And of course the ’35 Century. I also have a ’29 L-1 prototype, or one of its kind, I’m not sure. Nobody has ever seen one like it. It’s a very unusual guitar. There’s L-1s like the Robert Johnson guitar, but this has the later L-size body like the Nick Lucas, but it has the older 241/4″ scale, which would be more like the earlier round-hole Gibsons…it’s probably one of the early transitional bodies of that type. It has the bridge like you see on a lot of the plectrum and tenor guitars. It has small, short, thin bridge and it has planet banjo tuners on it. It has an H brace with one straight brace behind the sound hole, one straight piece in front of the bridge, and then one between that and the soundhole. So it’s a very unusual bracing pattern, very thinly built as most of the old Gibsons are, but this one seems exceptionally, painfully thin. Never seen one like it.
I don’t use very heavy strings on those real old Gibsons. And I haven’t used medium-gauged strings in years. I don’t buy straight sets. I just buy individual strings.
What kinds of mandolins do you favor?
I have a 1929 [Gibson] F2 and a 1913 natural-top F4, double flowerpot. I also have a very rare 1910 two-point F4 with the wire and pearl peghead like the three points, which is also natural top and finish. And I have a ’38 raised fingerboard F4, a Vega – not a cylinder-back – but like those, except it isn’t cylinder-back or top with a sunburst finish, which is unusual.
Regular old-time lute-style mandolin, that’s a Vega with pearl inlays around the top. Very nice mandolin. Then I have a ’26 Martin Style B. Brazilian rosewood style B Martin, round-hole mandolin. And I have the rarest of the Martin mandolins. I have a Style E with all the pearl trim, like the Style 45 except it’s double-bound. There’s two borders of pearl on the top and around the hole, side to side. They made 62 of those. I have a ’22 Gibson A2. I’m not very fond of snakeheads. I’m not fond of the Loar-era, round-hole mandolins. The necks are too narrow and their intonation is rotten. Many Gibson and Martin instruments have rotten intonation, always have had from day one. The Loar period at Gibson was their low point.
Do you find you have to fix the intonation on most of the older instruments you own when you first got ‘em?
You do on some if you want them to play right. You can fix it. We’ve found that Gibson’s guitars have what we refer to as the “Gibson expanding scale.” Some of the frets are right and some aren’t…but usually you’ll find the 12th fret is sharp on most old Gibson guitars. The five is usually off. Then there’s some in the middle that’s about right. But above the 12th fret, anything can happen.
Loar-period mandolins have a very flat second fret and most of the people that make copies of those mandolins have used the scale off of ‘em. A lot of the earlier copiers, copied that same bad scale. I’ve had the frets moved on a couple of mandolins.
Probably the fullest-sounding mandolin I have that would amaze most people would be the ’38 Gibson F4. It’s like a lot of F5s wish they were, strangely enough. I prefer a little more of a classical sound out of a mandolin. I’m a fan of the real European mandolin sound, tone-wise, I like to hear that traditional music.
You like good sustain and some bass extension from your mandos?
Well, yeah, the sustain, but even more the patina of the tone. Sometimes mandolins that have been used in bluegrass can be just a little bit too punchy and coarse. The F4 I have, the ’38 with the raised board, is more of a jazz/country mandolin to me. It has a more of a subdued treble and has a real round, fat, full sound where some of the older Gibsons have more of a classical tone. It’s a little thinner, but it’s sweeter.
Any new instruments you favor?
I have one newer guitar, it isn’t totally new. A friend of mine has a guitar that was made for me, a Wayne Henderson, that’s mighty nice. I also have a John Arnold guitar that I like very well.
Do you prefer old guitars?
It depends on what you’re doing. I don’t always prefer the old ones. If I want to hear a really bright sound, something with a lot of immediate pizzaz, a new guitar can do that. Newer guitars have a lot of things going for them; the intonation can be more sophisticated and the action can be adjusted precisely.
Old guitars tend to be problematic. You have to love them, court them, woo them, and take care of them. They all are different. Lot of those old instruments just have characteristics that weren’t worked out at the time, like intonations weren’t worked out as good and a lot of things. But they have that age and dryness and all that old time factor about them, that’s one of the most important things. It depends on the sounds you want. There’s a sound for everything and an instrument for every sound, and every one is different. Every one will teach you something new, every one will lead you to do something else.
How many instruments are in your collection?
I don’t know. I probably have 10 mandolins at the moment. It varies up and down. Sometimes I have more or less. I have a dozen guitars, maybe, and eight to 10 fiddles.
Do you keep many dobros around?
I have one. I always keep some guitars strung up with the Hawaiian thing.
Are there any instruments you still lust after?
Oh, I’m always looking for something, I guess. I’ve had so many guitars, you know, I should’ve kept a lot of them that I’ve traffic’ed and traded over the years, but nobody knew what some of this stuff was gonna be worth.
I currently don’t own a large guitar. I wouldn’t mind having a good Gibson J-35 or an old SJ. Something like that would be nice to have around, but I’m not too interested in Martin D28s and D18s. Anything with long scale doesn’t interest me too much.
Is that due to their sound, or playability?
I think you can get too much area and not enough depth no matter what size top you’re dealing in. If you haven’t got enough side depth, it hurts the sound. I think there’s a thing that matches up with the area, in other words, I think those two lines bisect the top area versus side depth. I think triple 0s are just a little too shallow. The 00 has that depth and it has the smaller soundboard, and I think you’re getting a real good, close thing. Also with the size vs. actual depth, one thing that I think is wrong with a lot of guitars, is that the bridge is in the wrong place. I think the bridges should be further down in the soundboard. Down on the table, so to speak.
You mean further toward the back of the instrument?
Yeah. They tend to put it up too much toward the waist. I think you need the bridge just a little bit further back. The widest part of the guitar is where the bridge should be. It’s one reason 12-fret neck guitars sound better, their bridges are in a better place.
Most of the guitars you own tend to have slightly wider necks than the modern standard. Is that a preference of yours?
I’m not a measurement person, I just know from feeling things. I think my Nick Lucas Gibson is wider than most new guitars. I like 12-fret Martins that are generally wider. I have a couple Hawaiian conversions which are a little uncomfortably wide, but they’re good guitars. I have a 00-40H with a pearl top, but no pearl around the end of the fingerboard, no inlay below the fifth fret, no binding on the neck, and no binding on the slotted peg head. Its got a 12-fret neck and Brazilian rosewood, made in 1934. It’s a fantastic guitar, but it has a rather large neck.
Then I have an HG 00-sized Gibson Hawaiian that’s a conversion also. I cut the neck on that one down some so now it’s shaped it more like an old Gibson neck. This particular one has a truss rod. I do like the truss rod in guitars. I like to be able to put a neck where I want it. Something I have learned by experience is that I’ve mistakenly converted some 12-fret Martins from bar frets to t-frets. That was a mistake. You lose the compression on the fretting, and their necks can start to pull forward, no matter what you do. The only successful way you can convert a guitar that has bar frets to t-frets is to change the fingerboard, which is a drastic measure.
So if you’re going to have a guitar like that, keep the bar frets on it. I’ve put bar frets back on two to correct these problems, and it works because you can compression-fret it with the bar frets and straighten the necks back out. Of course, it’s very hard to get someone who knows how to work out a set of them. It’s [difficult] to do a set of bar frets from scratch. Not many luthiers want to tackle it because it is a dirty, hard job. I have a friend who’s gotten very good at it. He’s a good player and he likes bar frets. So he has gotten very good at working ‘em. He does do some of the best bar fret work I’ve seen.
What’s that gentleman’s name?
Bob Chuckrow. He’s in St. Elmo, Tennessee, up near Chattanooga. He plays some with me, too.
Your most recent album, Far Away, Down on a Georgia Farm is an interesting mixture of original and traditional material. I was a little disappointed in the liner notes because there isn’t much information on where the traditional tunes came from.
I’ve never gone into that very much on the last few records. I did that on the Shanachie label releases. Strangely enough, Richard Nevins, who is a very knowledgeable person, and one of the foremost 78 RPM record collectors in the world, discouraged me from doing so. He thinks it’s better to let the music speak for itself. I’m not blaming him for that, ‘cuz I have artistic control of my records. I just decided to not go into it.
There are people who know more than I do. I don’t consider myself a historian. I know a bit about the old music and I love it and I play it, but I’m not the historian type, really.
Two tunes that especially intrigue me are “Pasqualli Tarafoe’s First Night in Leadville” and “Rag Baby Jig.” “Pasqualli” interests me because I’m in Colorado and I suspect the Leadville referred to is Leadville, Colorado. “Rag Baby Jig” reminds me of the music of the late renaissance English lutenist Thomas Byrd.
I’ll fill you in on “Pasqualli” first. That one’s sort of a tongue-in-cheek thing. There is a fiddle tune called “The First Night in Leadville” in Ryan’s Mammoth Collection, or “Cole’s One Thousand,” as it was published for years. “First Night in Leadville” is in that book of fiddle tunes in the key of E.
Pasqualli Tarafoe was an Italian harp guitar player of extreme note, and made a lot of 78s. He was an extremely gifted classical harp guitarist. So this was just sort of a joke, actually. “Pasqualli Tarafoe’s First Night in Leadville,” just seemed like the ghost of Pasqualli got around when that tune was bein’ made and it just ended up in the title. So that’s just a play on the title of “The First Night in Leadville.”
The “Rag Baby Jig” is an antebellum Civil War banjo piece. I don’t play the tune like it’s written, at all. I don’t play it in the correct time values.
It’s written in a dotted rhythm and I didn’t play it in a dotted rhythm, I play it straight and I probably play it faster and moodier than it would originally have been. In the minstrel era, anything that was a dance would revert to the jig dancing. Jigs in that sense are not 6/8 Irish jigs, but are just straight-time pieces of music in dotted rhythms. They’re referred to as jigs, though they’re not 6/8 jigs, and this is the same thing.
“Rag Baby Jig” is a minstrel show tune somebody might have danced to. I play it totally wrong, but that’s my concept of it, so that’s the way I wanted to play it. If something just dictates to me, I’ll just do it that way. I’m not a very scholarly person in my approach. Some people think I am, but I’m not.
Do you spend a lot of time learning new tunes?
Not enough. I don’t have any real constructive work habits, I’m very lazy. I just work as the need arises, or when I feel the urge. I don’t have any real practice habits. I play all the time, but I don’t call it practicing. I just play and I work, and I look for whatever I’m looking for. Sometimes I might play a tune for six months, looking for a better tone.
One of the things that impresses about your playing is the economy of motion and your relaxed right hand. You and Tim O’Brien have very relaxed right hands and wrists.
Thank you. Yeah, I’ve worked at that, I’ve tried to cultivate that along with tone and dynamics. I try to play with dynamics. I try to be very conscious of the ups and downs of volume. I try also to be very conscious of not overplaying, if I can help it. I try to draw the tone out of the instrument. There’s a tone in an instrument that is it’s best quality, and I try to draw that out.
Some people say, “Oh, this is a great guitar,” or “This is a great mandolin,” and they only play it one way. Maybe it ain’t so great because you can’t get but one sound out of it. I think a good instrument is one that you can get a lot of different shadings out of. Some guitars just seem to have a sort of a flat response. They’re one dimensional, and tend to deliver just one spectrum. Others have this broader thing that just sort of blossoms all across on both ends. Those are the ones I think are the best.
Occasionally, you get a guitar that makes you try to pull its sound out. You have to work at how you attack it, pick-wise, how you attack it on the left hand, maybe change the strings you’re using. I don’t do anything most folks consider normal. I don’t like to always use the same kind of setups. I don’t like to use the same weight of strings. I don’t always like to use the same kind of strings. I don’t like the long-scales, for example. Anything that everybody usually doesn’t like is exactly what I do like.
Sounds like whenever you get a new guitar there’s a period of figuring out how to play it.
Yeah, you have to find out what’s in each one. That’s one reason I’ve liked old Gibsons. A lot of times the real old ones have a broad scope of tone. A Martin guitar can be kind of right in the middle, and it doesn’t go on either side. A Martin guitar is a tighter guitar. It’s built tighter, it sounds tighter, and it delivers a narrower band of dynamic range. It’s good at what it delivers, but it doesn’t go as far off on either side as some of these old Gibsons do.
Is there anything you’re working, or about to start working on?
I have an album that’s just finished. I don’t know when it will be coming out or what label it’ll be on. There’s a lot of duet work on it with Bob Chuckrow. I’m playing some mandolin, along with a variety of old instruments. It’s got a little bit of solo stuff on it, but it’s probably three-fourths duet stuff.
You mentioned that you just finished up some sessions with Johnny Cash.
Yes. I also just finished a banjo session with a fella’ named Paul Hopkins over in Shelbyville, Tennessee, along with some members of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, with Allan O’Brien producing. Stewart Duncan was on fiddle, along with Roland White on mandolin, Gene LaBaye on bass, and Paul Hopkins on the five-string banjo. It’s sort of bluegrass, but it’s even more old standard, favorite old-time things. His daughter even plays the piano – nice piano – on some of it.
How many dates do you do a year?
I don’t know, not that many. I don’t know if I do 50, and they’re mainly summer festivals, but some are just concerts, a few clubs, some private things. I don’t work a lot. I have a place down here in the country in Rising Fawn, Georgia. I worked many years to build and pay for it, and I like to stay here. I’ve always believed that if you’re really gonna stay on the road all the time, there’s really not much point in having a home.
Lots of people love the road. It works for them, but it never has for me. I’ve done it out of necessity, I still do it out of necessity, but it’s not been something I want to do. I don’t want to stay out there ’til I drop. I’m 62 and it has worn on me a little bit, you know.
All photos: Donald Kallaus, courtesy of Scott O’Malley & Associates.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.