Nils Lofgren

The Secret Weapon
Nils Lofgren
Yoakam, Prine: Emma Delevante. Nils Lofgren: Rob DeMartin.

Guitar wizard Nils Lofgren has been an in-demand sideman for more than 50 years, working with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, and solo work along with appearances with everyone from Roy Buchanan to Ringo Starr. Lofgren recently released Mountains, a powerful solo set with strong songs and his trademark uncanny guitar work.

“Only Ticket Out” and “Won’t Cry No More” have fierce blues guitar. When you play blues, are there any players you’re channeling?
Blues masters that still inform my playing – Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Roy Buchanan, Albert King, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Keith Richards, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton. Though there are many other great guitarists, those are the most influential through my transformation from classical accordionist to blues rocker. I’m still learning.

What was in your rig on “I Remember Her Name”?
The main part is a Gretsch Black Falcon through my Fuchs combo. I’m fingerpicking a percussive, muted rhythm with a melodic theme, using some delay with a hint of reverse reverb. The lead part is my ’61 Strat. Again, with subtle delay and reverse ’verb through the amp; my longtime friend – and great engineer – Jamie Weddle, helped get whatever sounds I was looking for. I was also honored to have my old friend David Crosby grace the song with his magnificent voice. I miss him.

You often add artificial harmonics to your solos, which is rare in a rock context. It’s your signature.
I fell in love with harmonics through Roy Buchanan, who made them sing like bells. When I was young, Roy was another local Washington, D.C., guitarist; we got to be friends and played together occasionally. In the ’60s, I’d go to the Crossroads, a country bar in Bladensburg, Maryland, to hear Roy play in Danny Denver’s band. I had a Beatles haircut the patrons didn’t like, and Roy had to warn them to leave me be as I was his friend. Between sets, we’d sit in a tiny, funky dressing room and Roy would show me how he made those harmonics with his thumb and flat pick. It seemed impossible, but loving that bell-like sound, I learned how to get them to sound with the thumbpick, using my first finger to brush the octave of the string.

Which other guitars, amps, and pedals did you employ on the album?
I grabbed a Strat, Falcon, Zemaitis, a hybrid Tele/Mustang one-off, PRS, Hagstrom electric 12-string, Kay electric, Fender Jazz bass, Takamine acoustic, Martin D-18 and D-35, Gibson J-50, dulcimer, and an Ogden lever harp. I ran most guitars through the Fuchs combo, sometimes with a Bassman for stereo imaging. Pedals included a TC Electronic Nova Delay for reverse reverb, Electro-Harmonix Micro Pog, Strymon Brigadier delay, and a Barber Burn Unit for overdrive.

How did you decide to become a professional musician?
One night in D.C., I saw Herman’s Hermits, The Blues Magoos, and the Who at Constitution Hall. It was an amazing show. Then, my friends and I ran over to the Ambassador Theater to see the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was a mind-blowing night, plus Pete Townsend was in the audience! Jimi’s set was life-altering; I left there knowing I had to try to be a professional rock musician – an idea that had never occurred to me until that night.

You met Jimi when you were 19.
Grin was touring as an opening act after our first album came out in 1970, and were blessed to open three California shows for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Awesome! The gig in Ventura was on my 19th birthday. As a birthday gift to myself, my mentor, producer David Briggs, convinced me to knock on Jimi’s Winnebago door. Jimi answered and I got to thank him for being the inspiration behind me turning pro, and how honored we were to open for him. Jimi was smiling and easygoing. He looked in my eyes, shook my hand, and acknowledged my extreme gratitude. It’s still one of the highlights of my musical life. There are more cool stories in the “Rockality” video series on my website.

When you gig with Springsteen, what’s it like to play for 20,000 people?
Big shows or clubs, whether I’m the band leader or in a band, I’m always thrilled and inspired to walk out in front of people expecting a great musical experience. The bigger shows with Bruce and the E Street Band, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, or Ringo’s All-Starrs always feels like I’m playing a Super Bowl for a hometown crowd, and we’re guaranteed a win! I have massive gratitude as I’m using a gift bestowed on me by my beautiful parents and a higher power I believe in, one that has nothing to do with any organized religions.

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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