Fretprints: Harvey Mandel

Infinitely Eclectic
Fretprints: Harvey Mandel
Harvey Mandel 2018: John Atashian/Alamy.

Harvey Mandel is a regular on the list of “guitarists’ guitarists,” yet is woefully unknown to the public. With an uncategorizable rock style and penchant for instrumentals, his 1968 debut, Cristo Redentor, foreshadowed fusion with its cinematic qualities that still sound modern and distinguished from typical jazz-rock.

Mandel presents a striking case of parallel evolution in guitar musicianship. While Brits emulated the Shadows, he copied the Ventures. While they studied Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy records, he lived the life by playing with the Chicago giants while building a formidable style that rivaled the intensity and innovation of Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. And then there’s the legendary bidextral tapping that graced his records from 1972 through ’74, six years before it became a rage among metal guitarists influenced by Van Halen.

Mandel was born March 11, 1945, in Detroit. His family moved to Illinois in ’46 and settled in Morton Grove, near Chicago. Captivated by the beatnik scene, he played bongos at 15 and was drawn to folk guitar. At 16, he fashioned a Harmony acoustic with a phonograph cartridge as pickup, and modified a radio to use as an amplifier. Impressed with the ingenuity, his father then got him a Silvertone guitar/amp set.

Mandel worked downtown Chicago’s “white blues” circuit as a teen alongside Barry Goldberg, Michael Bloomfield, and Charlie Musselwhite, becoming a fixture at Twist City and adopting the persona of “The Snake” (after his cracked-leather jacket and slithery fingering) emphasized in song titles like “Snake Attack,” “Carne del Serpiente,” “United Snakes of America” and “Snake Pit.” One of Chicago’s foremost new-blues guitarists, his first recordings came in ’66 on Goldberg’s Blowing My Mind and Musselwhite’s Stand Back!, which received enough airplay to command an appearance at the Fillmore West with Electric Flag and Cream. He subsequently relocated to San Francisco, performed regularly at The Matrix, and met DJ/producer Abe “Voco” Kesh, who signed him to Philips Records and produced Cristo Redentor; the album’s diverse program of soundscapes boasted an orchestral rendition of Duke Pearson’s “Cristo Redentor,” a psychedelic take on the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” and deft juggling of rock, blues, country, and R&B. Cristo advanced guitar-driven instrumental rock into the future and spent four weeks on the charts, but Mandel entered the big leagues with Righteous, a similarly eclectic set with a funk/R&B bent and big-band textures enlivened by jazz heavyweights Howard Roberts, Shorty Rogers, Victor Feldman, and Plas Johnson.


HM specified his tapping was “all over Shangrenade.” Indeed, the ’73 album marked an auspicious outing for bidextral rock playing, much of it unequalled to this day and beyond prescient. He invented his own template. Case in point is the theme of “Million Dollar Feeling.” His goal of realizing wide intervals with the technique is reached in the first phrase, which adds high E, F#, G (via a tapped bend) and G# tones on the second string to a basic two-note pentatonic shape fingered at the 12th position. Note the intricate and facile juggling of the tapped notes and the resulting angularity and unpredictability. This example sounds as fresh and modern as any post Van Halen/Vai shredder of the ’80s and ’90s, yet it was created a decade and a half earlier.

In ’69, Mandel joined Canned Heat and played Woodstock, then recorded Live in Europe and Future Blues, which yielded their hit “Let’s Work Together.” In ’70, he left with bassist Larry Taylor for Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, played on USA Union, and released Games Guitars Play. Signaling commercial aspirations in “Dry Your Eyes” and the pop-country-rock cover “Games People Play,” the album also featured the riff-rocker “Leavin’ Trunk,” blues in “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” and Horace Silver’s modal-jazz piece “Senor Blues.” ’71 saw Baby Batter, Mayall’s Back to the Roots (which also had Clapton, Mick Taylor and violinist “Sugarcane” Harris onboard), Rock and Roll Forever, a session with the Ventures, and his blues-jazz project Get Off in Chicago. He joined Harris in Pure Food and Drug Act, and played on Choice Cuts with fellow tapping pioneer Randy Resnick. The Snake offered eclecticism tempered by a unified band feel and greater emphasis on rock, blues, and funk. The album premiered Mandel’s seminal tapping (“Peruvian Flake,” “Bite the Electric Eel”), a tribute to Canned Heat’s Al Wilson (“Ode to the Owl”), rare lead vocal (“Uno Ino”), jazz-inspired pedal-steel and flute solos (“Levitation”), and guests Harris and Resnick. Shangrenade was a watershed record with HM’s bidextral style displayed on practically every track in themes, background parts and improvisations, epitomized by “Fish Walk” and “Million Dollar Feeling.” Feel the Sound of Harvey Mandel (’74) marked an artistic apogee that broadened his fusion sound with rock/soul vocals by Richard Martin, and completed the Philips/Janus cycle. A “best of” album followed, and he began writing music for films and TV.

Mick Jagger called Mandel to record with the Stones in ’75 after Mick Taylor’s departure; on Black and Blue, he tastefully colored “Memory Motel” and dominated “Hot Stuff” with extended improvisations. After Mick and Keith decided on an all-English lineup with Ron Wood, he formed Harvey Mandel Power Trio with Jimmy Haslip and toured, opening for Jeff Beck in ’76. He returned to Chicago in ’78, continuing as opener for groups including Roxy Music, and by ’80 moved to Florida, where he performed in the house band at Ron Wood’s club, Woody’s.

Mandel stepped away from the scene until 1990, when Live in California marked his return. Highlights of the period include his Blues Guitar & Beyond instructional video, Twist City, Snakes and Stripes, and performances at the Fillmore and B.B. King’s club. In ’97, he formed Snake Crew and released Planetary Warrior, Emerald Triangle, Snake Live, and in 2001 launched Electric Snake Band. Since then, he has recorded consistently, adhering to his eclectic fusion style while adding modern rock elements on Snake Pit, Snake Attack, and Who’s Calling.

Mandel’s primary influences include the Ventures, B.B. and Albert King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Clapton, Howard Roberts, and Pat Martino. He also studied Joe Pass and Ted Greene books.

Rock, blues, jazz, funk, country, fusion, soul, techno, avant-garde, psychedelic, electronic – you’d run out of categories labeling HM’s music. A self-described “blues-rock player who likes jazz and country,” he made originality his credo and fusion his domain at the outset. “Cristo Redentor” applied vocal-like melody and lush orchestration years before it was fashionable. “Before Six” marked blues-rock guitar advances beyond Chicago with hybrid-picked textures, sustaining fuzz/feedback lines, and syncopated lead phrasing that became sonic signatures. “The Lark” featured rhythmic string scrapes evoking locomotive effects, while “Snake” juxtaposed droning raga references and spacey fuzz soloing. Massive distortion and sustain graced “Wade in the Water” and “Bradley’s Barn.” The latter combined wah rhythms with layered clean/dirty lead lines, venturing into jazz-rock. “Lights Out” blended heavy blues with Beatles-inspired “Walrus” string pads, while “Nashville 1 AM” pitted aggressive rock licks against pedal-steel mannerisms.

From the start, jazz was a favorite environment in HM’s repertoire. Though he downplays his skills and knowledge as a “traditional” bopper, you wouldn’t know it from this excerpt; the opening passages from “Local Days” reveal a wealth of ideas. Played over a Brazilian bossa-nova groove, they come off like a happy collision of Pat Martino and Howard Roberts spun with an HM twist. He follows the changes with a bebop mindset and employs double-time phrasing masterfully throughout. Check out modal/minor blues approach over Fm7-Bb7 in 1-3 contrasted by a long scalar sequence over Ebm7-Ab7 in 4-5. Emaj7 finds him double-timing with a sophisticated Bmaj7 superimposition (Lydian) that merges beautifully with Dmaj7 in measure 7. He follows with a funkier line incorporating slurred unisons and a resolution to major blues in 8-9.

Mandel’s guitar style is as eclectic and unconventional as his repertoire. His choppy rhythmic phrasing in rock leads was complemented by sustaining violin-like lines, distorted blues mutations (“Just a Hair More,” “Hank the Ripper”), and complex clean-toned jazz improvisation (“Local Days”). He plays country/jazz amalgams over a funk groove in “Poontang,” puts his own stamp on soul-jazz classics (“Jive Samba,” “Senor Blues”), channels Albert Collins’ biting fingerplucked attack in “Morton Grove Mama” and “Freedom Ball,” and marries Jerry Reed-flavored country licks and blues-rock string bending over the prog-rock background of “Midnight Sun” – all without sounding derivative. Moreover, HM is apt to abruptly deviate from typical blues-rock pentatonic vocabulary to favor odd intervals and diminished-scale tangents, as in “Sugarloaf” (3:17) and “Rankachank Blues” (0:52), or to opt for feedback-dominated passages emulating backward-guitar envelopes, as in “Lights Out,” “Summer Sequence,” and “Ridin’ High.”

Mandel was among the earliest rock guitarists to exploit tapping; he had seen other players doing it – Randy Resnick or possibly Vittorio Camardese on Italian TV in ’65 – and developed a variant heard on Shangrenade and Feel the Sound. Billy Gibbons and Larry Carlton applied taps sparingly to string bends and Van Halen saw it as an expansion of Jimmy Page’s pull-offs, but for HM it was a means to create wide-interval melodies, claiming “You can get octaves apart – like a piano or sax player.” Moreover, it facilitated difficult stretches compensating for his smaller hands. In “Fish Walk” he melded R&B and jazz in the chord intro with a harmony-guitar theme, avant-garde atonality in the solo, and developed a lengthy tapping section (2:39 to 3:30). He frequently used tapping in conjunction with pull-off/hammer-on figures and held bends to produce intricate phrases and themes as in “Million Dollar Feeling.” Tapping remained a sonic identifier after the early ’70s.

Mandel’s proclivities run the gamut from blues a la Buddy Guy to hard rock, jazz, and country. He mentions practicing every form of vibrato, gleaned from Guy, Clapton, the Kings and Otis Rush, and striving to perfect the technique as a young Chicago-blues player. Personal refinements like pushing ultra-light G and B strings under the D for extreme bends and vibrato lent a different feel to solos like “El Stinger.” His use of massive sustain (amp overdrive/compression), fuzz-box transients, echo, and volume swells in rock playing was offset by his clean Tele-Strat sounds in his work with Mayall and on tracks like “Pegasus,” which foreshadowed Mark Knopfler’s approach with its note choices and fingerpicked timbres. Ceaselessly evolving, HM advanced with the years, purveying a modern-rock feel and metallic sound with post-’80s whammy-bar antics on Snake Pit and Snake Attack.

Snake Box compiles the first five albums plus Live at the Matrix (’68), a jam-band classic with Jerry Garcia and Elvin Bishop. A comprehensive look must include Shangrenade and Feel the Sound of Harvey Mandel. Midnight Sun: Best of Harvey Mandel is a serviceable collection covering highlights of his early years.

This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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