It may be the southernmost point in the country, but growing up in southern Florida is neither exciting or exotic for most people (sorry Miami Vice). While things can be downright mundane, it does give you time to invent your own entertainment. Growing up and coming of age in the early ’70s, Tinsley Ellis’ youth was spent like many of his friends, surfing, listening to music and hanging out at parties. For Tinsley the music of choice was blues and he went on to turn a love of blues into a career.
Getting his first guitar at seven, Tinsley started listening to the English bands that played “the blues.” This second-hand information only fueled a desire to find the original material. As a 14-year-old he found himself in a front row seat at a B.B. King show. After breaking a string, B.B. handed it to Tinsley. For most people this souvenir would be a thrill; for Tinsley, this talisman was the word from on high.
After reaching a dead end searching for a blues scene in Florida, he moved to Atlanta. He worked with Preston Hubbard in the Alley Cats. In 1981 he helped form The Heartfixers, which recorded four albums and played extensively through the South. Trading on The Heartfixers’ popularity, Tinsley went solo. Bruce Aglauer of Alligator Records heard the demo tapes for his solo album. Impressed, Aglauer went on to sign and release all of his subsequent solo albums, the latest being Trouble Time. Recruiting REM’s Peter Buck and the Allman Brothers’ Chuck Leavell to help out on the new album, the writing and playing stays in the pocket. I caught up with Tinsley at Manny’s Car Wash in Manhattan and talked before the show.
Vintage Guitar: You live in Atlanta now. Where are you from originally?
Tinsley Ellis: I grew up in Hollywood, Florida, where I was going to see all the blues I could see, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers…
How did you learn to play?
I’m a keg party jammer, that’s what they called us in Florida. I remember that you could hear the music forever and when you got there, there would be teenagers with the keg tapped and people trying to play Cream songs. I picked this up (the blues) listening and playing with the older guys, listening to their records and getting a feel for when they jump the chord changes and things like that. Thirteen bar blues, 11 and a half bar blues, things like
Who were some of your influences?
Freddie King, B.B. King, Albert Collins, Gatemouth Brown, Buddy Guy and Elmore James and Muddy Waters for slide guitar, the list goes on and on. Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, I’ve listened to a lot of rock, not hard rock, but like ZZ Top, Cream, Allman Brothers, stuff like that.
Was there a local blues scene in south Florida?
No, there was no local blues scene when I was there. That’s why I left and went to Georgia, and found out there was no local blues scene there either. I’ve been in Atlanta ever since. I like it a lot. We don’t play there much – we’re on the road all year long.
Are there any music shops that deal vintage there?
Mmm hmm. Quite a few. I’ve been to all the Fender dealers I can.
Who’s in your band?
My band is all from Mississippi. Mike Boyette on keyboards, David Sims on drums, James Ferguson on bass. I do all the guitar playing which is difficult because there are some songs I can’t play live, because they have two or three parts on record. There are only two or three of those. I’ve done the trio thing, the harmonica quartet thing. This setup is what seems to have the fullest sound. On the last album Peter Buck is on one track, “Sign of the Blues.” Chuck Leavell is on a couple tracks.
How long have you been out on the road this year?
I’ve been out since January, non-stop. This is the last fling. We quit in two weeks. I’ve played here about a half dozen times. The last show we did here in New York was at the Beacon Theater with Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker … a good show. Hopefully there will be a big crowd tonight. This year we’ll do 250 shows, that will top the Alligator roster, probably our agency’s roster too. How do we do it? Volume!
What guitars do you bring with you on the road?
My main road guitar is a custom-shop Strat, with a maple neck, a Mary Kay finish and gold hardware. I’m just crazy about it. It’s the best guitar I’ve ever owned, it’s as good as my old Strats. The main thing is it really stays in tune. I like the action fairly high, but I don’t use that large a string. I find if I change them every night I get a good amount of tone out of them. One of my Strats, the ’61, I had a guy set it up for me, it was so accurate that I couldn’t play it, ’cause I like to fight a guitar, sort of manhandle it. I’m kind of a whammy guy, not like a Floyd Rose whammy guy, more sort of a Ventures whammy guy, and the thing just stays in tune. Intonation is really important.
My other main guitar is a ’60s ES-345. It’s a hot one. That’s the top of the line Gibson as far as I’m concerned. It’s got some wear and tear on it. Takes a knockin’ and keeps on rockin’. Of course I can’t manhandle this one as much. I don’t know how old my 345 is. It’s an orange label one, but it doesn’t have a serial number. Someone told me once it was a mid-’60s. Whoever had it before me took pretty good care of it. It’s a pretty heavy guitar. I’ve got a ’71 335, a cherry red one, and it’s lighter. I used the 335 for a long time, then when I heard the Varitone … the #3 sounds like you’re playing through a straw, #4 is like tapping the bottom of a coffee can, that’s the only way to describe it. My buddy Mr. Varitone. I’m going to be using this tonight. It’s more of a traditional blues guitar. When you play a Strat you rock out a little more, strike a few more poses than with a Gibson. These two guitars have all the tones I could possibly need, with the whammy bar to boot.
So what do you leave at home?
At home I have all the Strats, Les Pauls, Modernes, Martins … I have a ’59 sunburst Strat, the first year of the rosewood neck, a ’61 custom color Strat with colored wood, sort of a reddish thing, it’s very played in. I have two Les Pauls, one new one and one old one with small humbucking pickups. I’m crazy about that guitar. I believe that it’s a ’72 Deluxe. I have a ’69 Martin D35, it’s not Brazilian rosewood. I’ve got one I’m crazy about, it’s this reissue Moderne that I used on the first solo album. It’s better than a Firebird or an SG, with that same kind of tone. I use that one in the studio a lot. I don’t take it out – the case is as big as an ironing board and it won’t sit on a stand. There’s a rumor that Billy Gibbons had a real one but I don’t think he’d miss a chance to be photographed with it. I also have a Telecaster. The Tele is a cream colored ’70s model. I can’t figure out how to work it so I don’t play it much. It’s too shrill for me. I like the tones that come out of a Strat much better. The Strat can sound like a Tele and it can sound like a Gibson too. It’s an all-purpose guitar. I got all the crazy, wild guitars – the Kays, Silvertones and Danelectros. They sound great, you know what they say about a bad guitar, it would make a great slide guitar. The badder, the better.
Do you record with all of your guitars?
I record with all the guitars, and with all the guitars I can borrow. I use a Fender blackface Super and a Fender called The Twin. It’s a new Twin but it’s not the reissue of the old Twin. It has two power settings – 100 watts and 25 watts. I’m using the 25 watt setting tonight. That does all the sounds for me. My favorite effects are volume and reverb. I’m pretty much a straight-in player. I use a wah wah pedal on one song. I like the old Leslie cabinets to play guitar through. When I record I use the head of the Twin and a Marshall 4 x 12 cabinet, it seems to have more punch recording. I don’t know much about equipment, but when it sounds good I know I like it. I don’t buy a lot of things. I won’t buy something unless I think I can use it. I’m not really a monger or a hoarder or a trader or anything like that, but I’m glad there are people like that. It just keeps it alive. I remember when the biggest guitars, the most popular and sought after guitars, were Les Pauls and Firebirds, I guess Les Pauls are back in. I had the old Strats back when no one else was using Strats. I got the ’59 for $700, and I’ll never turn it loose. Plus I got pictures of a jam where Stevie Ray Vaughan was playing it too. So it was really special to me that he played that guitar back in ’79. Here’s something of interest. Do you know who that is? (holding up a picture of Tinsley and an older black gentleman) It’s Jimi’s dad. He invited me over to play Jimi’s Strats the next time I get back to Seattle. He’s a very, very nice man.
Do you listen to any modern music?
Los Lobos (laughing), does that count? Robert Cray, that’s about as modern as I get. Anything that’s got that good real emotional guitar in it I like. Probably my favorite rock band is ZZ Top. I just love what Billy Gibbons does, the way he layers instruments. I’ve experimented with that on all my albums, like putting lots of guitar tracks, trying lots of different amp setups and things like that. He once said in an interview that when white guys play the blues it better at least be funny.
So whom have you played with?
Several members of The Allman Brothers, Little Feat, Albert Collins, James Cotton, Jimmy Buffet, Nappy Brown, Allen Toussaint, I’m sure I’m leaving people out. Probably my favorite was Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland. That was here in New York at Tramps for their anniversary party.
Have you recorded with anyone else?
I started out recording with a group called the Heartfixers in Atlanta. I did four albums for the Landslide label, two of which have been reissued Alligator; I’ve recorded with Nappy Brown, Allen Toussaint and Bruce Hampton. I’m more of a live player, we play lots of gigs.
Do you play any slide?
I use open D and open G tunings. I use a Strat with heavy-gauge strings set up specifically for slide. Right now the 345 is sounding pretty good for slide.
What are your guitars strung with?
Ernie Ball strings, 10 through 46. Sometimes I use a Shure wireless guitar system, if it’s a large stage and I want to cover a lot of stage. It’s the best wireless system I’ve ever found. But here tonight I’m just going to go straight in. We’re doing a national radio broadcast tonight for Blues Stage.
You don’t find that the wireless degrades the sound?
It changes it a little bit, but the fact that you can move freely all around the stage at a big concert more than makes up for it. I got so used to one wireless I even had to use it in the studio because I liked the way it squashed the sound.
The only thing squashed at the show at that evening was the crowd. Manny’s is a bit of a tight squeeze. It’s the kind of place where the person next to you can become your best friend before the night is out. Opening with “Highwayman” from the new album and culling older pieces with newer material, Tinsley played with passion and taste. While you may hear some of his influences the writing helps keep the focus. The band gave him a solid platform on which to open up and play with abandon. For an evening of down home playing and showmanship I can recommend giving him a listen.
Tinsley with his buddy, Mr. Varitone.
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’92 issue.