Selwyn Birchwood

Blistering Blues
Selwyn Birchwood
Selwyn Birchwood: Marilyn Stringer.

If you think the days of ferocious blues guitar are behind us, cue up Selwyn Birchwood’s latest, Exorcist. Within its grooves are blistering licks galore and the Florida guitarist’s powerful voice – perhaps one of the best blues singers around today. The capper is Birchwood’s “FLorida Man,” which uses real, hard-to-believe news headlines to tell a true blues story. It’s a contender for blues song of the year.

“FLorida Man” lets us hear your slide chops. Is that lap steel?
I actually did “FLorida Man” on my SG! I recorded almost all of my lead sounds on a ’80s Peavey Bandit. [Guitarists] Mr. Sipp and “Kingfish” Ingram really turned me onto the Peavey sound and you can get some really great tones when you set them right. Muddy Waters is still one of my favorite slide players, but also enjoy a lot of the sacred-steel players. And for the record, every lyric is true about our local legend, Florida Man!

Who are your other influences?
Some of my favorite blues guitarists are Albert King, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy. I really like a lot of the acoustic and pre-war blues guys like Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Fred McDowell, and Charlie Patton – I really dig how personal their music was. The process is to imitate, but eventually, create music; most of the music I hear and see nowadays is stuck on the “imitate” level. What really turns me on is when musicians get to that level of making new music with the self-expression I crave.

Like B.B. King, you’re a great guitarist who’s also a terrific blues singer. Who are some of the voices that inform your playing?
I listen to so many that it is hard to pinpoint, but I still go back to the foundation of guys like Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and John Lee Hooker. If you don’t have a good foundation, you don’t have anything.

Do you pick with fingers or a plectrum? “Done Cryin’” sounds like fingers.
I am constantly alternating between fingers and pick, depending on the sound I’m chasing in the moment. I tuck my pick under my pinky when I need to – I do it so often that people in the audience constantly ask me what I do with it. It’s like a sleight-of-hand magic trick at this point (laughs)!

“Horns Below Her Halo” has chorus-y chords; you don’t hear a lot of chorus pedal in the blues. Plus there’s wah on the solo.
Indeed! I am very minimalist and don’t like using a ton of pedals, so I try to get the most out of what I have on my board. I also find a lot of different sweet spots with the wah turned on – you don’t always have to be moving the pedal!

“Plenty More to Be Grateful For” has a swingin’ blues vibe – a bit of a B.B. King or that jazzy West Coast sound.
I hate to hear albums where I feel like I’m just hearing the same song at different tempos. This album has many different colors, and that swinging style is one of my favorites. It is fun to play the rough-edged and loud guitars, but I don’t want to be a one-dimensional player and you always have to play to what the song needs. I thought this one needed that “sweet” side – and that’s what I put to it!

Which guitars, amps, and pedals did you use on Exorcist?
I used most of the same gear for this album – a Fender Deluxe Reverb reissue and 1984 Peavey Bandit 65. Guitars were all Gibsons; a Les Paul ES, ES-135, ES-345, and the SG.

You crank the saturated gain on many solos. Is there a tipping point between electric blues and heavy guitar rock?
I think there definitely is a tipping point, but you can still be playing blues language with high gain. I think the tipping point happens when what you’re “saying” stops having anything to do with the blues language. I try to tiptoe that tightrope to have the sound be exciting and authentic; I want to be historic without being archaic.

We have a century of great blues guitar behind us. How do you approach the genre differently and make it your own?
I inject as much of my authentic self into my music as possible. That’s the only way find your own path. With my music, I am telling my story my way. As you said, there’s 100 years of blues guitarists, and I try to learn from all of them. But I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a group that sounds like Selwyn Birchwood Band!

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

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