Kenny Sultan is a best-selling author of music books and instructional videos covering blues guitar, and is the guitarist in a blues duo with Tom Bell. As a kid, Sultan’s older brother would take him to blues clubs like L.A.’s Ash Grove before he’d even reached his teens. An accomplished photographer, the elder Sultan built his portfolio by shooting the likes of T-Bone Walker and Doc Watson, while the younger would watch the performers, blown away. “He gave me two albums…” Sultan says of his sib. “Muddy Waters’ Down on Stovall’s Plantation and Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, and I really got into Kweskin’s fingerpicking.”
Already a guitar player, by the age of 12, Sultan had “switched from rock and roll – playing the Beatles and Kinks and such – to playing the blues. While my friends were listening to the Monkees, I was listening to B.B. King and T-Bone Walker.”
The affect was so profound that when the time came to decide on college, he opted for U.C. Santa Barbara, where he majored in Black Studies. “U.C.S.B. was strict about a music major being tied to proper music training. But I wanted to play the blues, so I became a Black Studies major with Music as a minor. Black Studies was all about the blues and jazz and African and Caribbean, so I got all of the music in addition to the Black studies.”
Sultan’s senior thesis was based on his experiences going to blues clubs. “It was the greatest thing on earth! I watched guys play and had a couple of beers while I wrote notes. It was amazing.”
As a player, who are your most obvious influences?
Lightnin’ Hopkins and Reverend Gary Davis for the alternating picking; for the monotone, Lightnin’ is beyond belief. I love that stuff – his attitude and everything about him.
Jim Kweskin gave me the love for jug band music and good-time sounds. I like those guys because they did what they did and it was all very organic… I mean, 12-bar blues? Forget about it. It was more likely to be 13-bar, or 111/2!
I really admired ragtime players, too, but it’s so hard to play that stuff – with that moving bass and right-hand all over the place – that I couldn’t get my heart and soul into it.
It’s funny, I’m on a lot of records with people who are pretty good players – technically way beyond me – and I have no idea why they keep asking me back. I must be the comic relief, because I go in and I’m done in five or 10 minutes. It’s not technical left-hand work, but there must be something people hear.
Which guitars are you currently playing onstage?
Usually, newer instruments. I still record with my old ones and do special gigs with them. It’s kind of like having a ’57 Ford Thunderbird. You might take it out on Sundays with the top down for a cruise, but if you want to go cross country, you take your Honda so you’ll have a comfortable, reliable ride. Onstage, old guitars are great, but they’re sensitive, irreplaceable, and the tuners are 60 years old. So I play my Marin signature model 000-18 and a National Reso-Phonic Style O. It is one of the first 100 made before the company started, after the demise of National Resonator Instruments in 1941. And because I occasionally like the sound of a wood-bodied National, I also have an El Trovador.
When I play electric, I use my 1950 Gibson ES-350 – so clean it’s insane! I’ll also play an old Stratotone or the Mustang.
To record, I use old Martins ranging from the single 0 to 000s, or my dreadnought. But the basic stage guitars are a Style 0 for slide, the El Trovador, or the 000-18 signature.
Do any of your guitars have stories behind them?
There are a few. I remember a ’64 Tele I loved. But I don’t play electric all that much, so when one of my students asked, “Is that for sale?” I said, “Let’s talk.’” I got so much damn money for that thing I felt kind of bad. So the next day, I bought a ’52 reissue. It wasn’t as nice as the ’64, but it was certainly worth the difference-in-price nice.
I also traded a ’41 D-18 for a ’57 D-18 and a whole bunch of cash. But for some reason, on a dreadnought, I almost like the standard bracing. On smaller models – single, double and triple Os – there’s a huge difference with the scalloped bracing. On dreadnoughts, it’s a big difference, but I can’t dig into those that aren’t scalloped.
The ’57 sounds great. I don’t usually play dreadnoughts – it’s just not my sound and I don’t like to have my arm draped over the larger body. But I needed at least one dread, so I’ve kept it.
My son is taking over the ’65 Fender Mustang I played when I was 10. It’s Olympic White with a red pickguard – mint – really clean with the original case. I have pictures of me playing it when I was 10, wearing a polka-dot shirt with a Beatles haircut.
When I was 11 or 12, my older brother turned me on to the blues and gave me his Gibson J-45. Unfortunately, that’s the only one of my guitars that’s ever been stolen. It was taken out of the trunk at a gig years ago.
Do you have trouble getting rid of guitars?
I’ve let a few go, sometimes because the cash was just too good, but usually because I knew the guitar was going to a friend who’d let me play it when I felt the need. One day I realized I didn’t have a need for seven 000-18s.
You recently sold one of your prized vintage Martins at auction.
Yes, a 000-42. Martin did an event at Christie’s where it put up 50 guitars, and I figured it would be great to hang out. When it went up for sale, I was really nervous. And I lost money on the deal, but it didn’t really matter because of the way it all turned out. [Martin Artist Relations Manager/historian] Dick Boak said, “You’re not going to believe who bought it… Chris (Martin IV). He bought it for the museum.” My day changed. Martin doesn’t really sell guitars once they get into the museum.
The Martin Museum is like Cooperstown to me, so it’s in a good home. I had the 000-42 for several years, but felt weird playing a guitar that was more expensive than a Mercedes-Benz.
How did you get involved in designing your Martin signature 000-18?
James Jensen, of Solid Air Records, is a very good friend, and he told Dick Boak, “I think it would be great to have a working blues guy have a signature model.” I wasn’t privy to all of the conversations, they set up an appointment for me and Dick at the NAMM show. I figured the odds were 99 to 1 I’m not going to get one of these things. I told Jensen, “Come on, they’ve got Eric Clapton, Sting, Tom Petty, Paul Simon… and me?”
Well, Santa Barbara to the NAMM show in Anaheim is a good four-hour drive, but soon enough I was hanging out, waiting for my 2:30 appointment with James and Dick. I tell my buddies “I’ll be about five minutes…” You know, thinking nothing was going to happen. Dick was looking at some of my stuff, and I have Martins on all of my CDs, books, and DVDs… I just love Martins. So Dick looks up and says, “You never asked us for anything.” I said, “I’ve never really thought of it.” So at that point I’m thinking, “Here comes the ‘No.’” But he looked at everything on the table and said, “Let’s do it.” He shakes my hand and I walked out thinking, “So that’s how things are done. A five-minute meeting and a handshake deal. He’s the greatest guy to work for.
Next thing I know, I get five pages asking my ideas for the signature guitar. We wanted to make it like my ’36 sunburst 000, but they wanted to do different things. I think it was the same year the 000-18GE was being released, so if you looked at a sunburst GE, it appears very similar. But Dick said, “We have a stash of fiddle-back mahogany and I’m thinking of using it on yours. What do you think?” It’s amazing stuff, it looks like flamed maple or Koa, but it’s mahogany.
Going down the spec sheet, I had to answer questions like, “What kind of spruce do you want for the top?” Now, I’m a guitar player and a collector – to a point. I like everything original and straight, but as far as the condition, I don’t care. In fact, some of my better-sounding guitars are worn and frayed. But I had to choose from Adirondack, Engleman, Sitka, whatever, for the top. Because Adirondak was used in the ’30s, it was our obvious selection. And I wanted an ebony fingerboard and bridge. I also liked snowflake and diamond inlays, so that also made the list.
Boak approved about 90 percent of it, but steered me a little. For instance, I didn’t want my name on the fretboard. And there were certain things I wanted, like a herringbone stripe down the back, tortoiseshell binding. We also went with an ebony truss rod cover, but I was concerned about how ebony can look like plastic, so I asked for a Grade 2 to offset the highest grade on the fingerboard and bridge, so you could actually see the grain of the wood. I originally requested Grade 1, but Boak said it might be too streaky. I also decided to step up from what would have been a traditional headstock decal and opt for the CF Martin Company logo to be inlaid in pearl.
I wanted a 13/4” nut and a modified V neck, or something that felt ’30s, but a hair less “clubby.” But it’s a wide neck – 23/8” with 5/16” string spacing on it, ebony pins. All these little things started to add up, but it was fun.
It was fun specifying the herringbone inlay in mother-of-pearl. Herringbone is not part of the traditional model 18 trim, and to do that single inlay with no lines on either side was really tricky. I wasn’t sure it was going to look good, but it came out simple, understated, yet elegant.
When you sat down to run through the details of its construction, what was your primary focus?
I was looking for tone. I like scalloped braces and a few other features of the original. I even specified Waverly tuners.
What was your impression when you saw one finished?
I freaked out. And it wasn’t that my name was on it – it’s just a handsome guitar. The design is why people buy it. They all come out so beautiful and play so well. About 25 of my students have one, and they all sound great.
So you’re a good salesman, too?
No, they sold themselves. I have three of them now, and the other night a couple of friends were comparing them. The sunburst looked a little different on each, which I like, because the hardest thing for me was developing the finish; we wanted it to match the ’30s in the feathering from the dark to light, rather than an abrupt change.
The other challenge was the pickguard. I wanted the nitrocellulose they used in the ’30s, but Martin steered me toward the more stable type they use now.
The prototype came out just right, and the guys at Martin were really happy.
Was retail cost a consideration?
We wanted it to be $5,000 or lower, and we were able to meet it even with the fiddleback mahogany, Adirondack, and pearl herringbone binding. So if people were enticed by a bit of bling, that’s a bonus. It just performs so well as far as tuning and sound. Woods and hardware have a break-in period, but this guitar sounds great straight out of the box.
Has it sold well?
I think they sold 80 at its first NAMM show, and I’ve heard the projected target is 30 or 40 guitars to break even. They’ve been a good company to work for. The plan was to build 50 to 60 signatures, but they made about 80 and ran out of signed labels. Currently, they’re into the second or third hundred, because I know I’ve signed at least that many labels. It’s a funny story because I’ve heard of a couple of people trying to order a custom guitar and they asked for the fiddle-back wood, and the Martin salesman actually says that wood is reserved for the Kenny Sultan model. So they’re reserving what they have and it seems they still have some great wood left.
In the music business, few make big bucks. Most depend on a day job to pay the bills.
That’s true. I decided about 15 years ago to have a day job related to music, so I set up a studio. I realized that playing live would have me playing on the road most of the year, which would be a drag on my family life. Or, I could teach. I used to teach guitar before I met Tom, so I thought I could teach through videos or DVDs and do some studio work for television, video, or film. Now, playing live is icing on the cake. I went from doing a couple hundred gigs per year to doing maybe 90, and I don’t want to go on the road for more than eight or nine weeks of the year, because my son is a little older. So I center my travel on cool spots.
Recording and performing aside, is there a guitar you turn to when playing for pleasure?
Well, my first choice is always my ’36 sunburst 000-18. But for comfort, I’m drawn to single 0s. I have a 0-18 and a 0-17, and they’re so comfortable. So I’m gravitating to smaller bodies. Travelling, I’ll usually take a single 0 because they’re small and sound great.
When I sold my 0-18, I bought my first real Gibson acoustic – a ’37 L-00 for a different sound. It’s nice to have one Gibson acoustic around.
As a teacher, what basic tips do you generally share when players ask?
I tell them it’s all about technique. The fretting hand is what you know – it’s the skills and the things you’ve learned. But the picking hand is who you are. I’ve tried get that idea across to my students, because that’s the heart and soul of your playing – your picking hand. And it’s where some of the best players use technique to get a groove going. That, and the way you strike the strings – down, up, or flat. I’ve honed my technique to where I play lighter now, maybe because I have to hold back so I don’t get as sore during extended performances.
With the portable sound systems available now, you don’t have to beat the guitar to death to be heard.
Right, and a good guitar can project a lot of sound. When I bought my older guitars, there were so many to choose from, and I had this ability to choose guitars that had been places. I can tell there is a story behind a guitar by just playing it, and you can tell if a guitar has been in some funky spot at some point. It won’t take more than about six strums before I know if I want a certain guitar.
What kind of a setup do you prefer on your guitars?
I don’t mind a little string buzz – it adds character. But now I play with a little more right-hand technique, which allows me to put more feeling in my playing. I overplayed when I was younger, and a lot of newer players have the same issue. I love dynamics.
Do you have a particular luthier you like to work with?
For the last 25 years I’ve worked with Jim Lombard, here in Santa Barbara. I ran over a guitar one time, and he fixed it. I was sober, but it was an early morning and I put the guitar on top of the car, then realized I’d forgotten my briefcase. Next thing you know, it was crunch time. Jim does all of my setups, and I couldn’t ask for better.
What elements shape your trademark sound?
I rely on right-thumb technique. I like the percussive effect of striking the strings in certain ways. I have an automatic damp on my two and four, so I try to eliminate overtones, and that’s probably why I like mahogany – it offers less overtones than rosewood. Although I do have rosewood guitars, the majority are mahogany. My stuff is more a dampening, rhythmic style. I love rhythm kind of not on the beat; I have a really difficult time trying to play to a click track. Most of the stuff I play, I’m in control of the rhythm, and sometimes when I’m recording for a movie or TV spot, I have to play to a click track because the drummer already has his track down. As I flow in and out, it doesn’t sound as good, unless we’re all doing it at once, together. Then you meld together. Otherwise, it’s rough.
Describe the picks you use and how you use them.
Right now, I use Dunlop brass 20-gauge finger picks, which are nice. I wear them fairly low and turn them toward my thumb. Most fingerpickers don’t pick straight up, unless they play classical. Picking at an angle, you can get a lot of pick noise. I turn the pick toward my thumb so that even though I’m picking at an angle, the pick is coming straight up. It improves the tone.
For a thumb pick, I use a Dunlop nylon. I also wear that low so I can play with my thumb if I want to. I strum with the flesh of my thumb hitting the string. Again, my style usually has me using two fingers and my thumb. When I teach or play at home, I don’t use picks.
What led you to reside in Santa Barbara?
You mean the blues Mecca of the Pacific Coast? My older brother went to U.C.S.B. – he’s the one who influenced me most about music and guitar at an early age. So when I had a chance to go to college, it was either going to be at U.C.S.B. or at Santa Cruz. I liked both, but Santa Barbara was a little closer to where my folks were living, yet still far enough away. At the time, they had a better musicology base than Santa Cruz. I continued my collegiate education here with a little work at U.C.L.A. afterward.
How long have you been playing with Tom?
It’s a funny story. I was teaching at U.C.S.B., was on the radio at KCBX, and I was hanging out with blues historian Greg Drust – we started the Santa Barbara Blues Society. So, on my radio show in ’79 I promoted my classes, played music, and I heard of a harmonica player in town. Eventually, I met him at an Eddie Vinson and Big Momma Thornton show in a tiny club. Tom was invited to sit in with the band, and I played guitar some. Then, someone called in to the radio show and said he wanted to hire us for a show that was only two days away! Of course, we said “Okay!” But we didn’t know anything. Tom didn’t sing and neither did I, so I said, “You better start!” So we put on a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee record and stole every song!
The gig was at a health food restaurant, but we drew a rowdy crowd, and we didn’t last long. We then moved over to the Bluebird, and the rest is history.
Do you write most of your own material or do you throw in some covers while performing live?
Tom and I have been together long enough where I think it would be cool to do some covers of traditional songs, because we have our own sound. Tom is very aware of the blues scene and doesn’t want to do anything anybody’s heard before, because he doesn’t want to be compared. He’s very much the traditionalist. And now, we’re the old guys! As it is, our typical set consists of about half of our own material, and about half of other artist’s, but it’s rearranged and hard to tell if it has been written by us or not, because it’s usually the same sorts of topics. But we don’t sing about sharecropping or anything because we live in Santa Barbara.
Sometimes, people like to hear familiar material, especially when we go on tour to Europe. Our biggest hits are songs they know, even though they may not get the slang as much. So I’m working on Tom, but right now we’re about half and half.
Besides sleeping in, what’s the best thing about making a living playing guitar?
Well, you don’t have to go to work! It’s a plus when what you do is your life. I’ve always thought that. I’m a musician, so I do what I am. That’s a very satisfying feeling, and I’ve never once dreaded going to work. And that’s a cool thing!
This article originally appeared in VG May 2010 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.