Monster Mike Welch

From Phenom To Blues Veteran
Monster Mike Welch
Monster Mike Welch: J.O. Welch.

Twenty-seven years after his debut album at age 17, Monster Mike Welch delivers perhaps his best disc yet with Nothing But Time. Co-produced with multi-instrumentalist Kid Andersen, it features bass legend Jerry Jemmott, who worked with Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, and countless others.

A commanding guitarist and music scholar, Welch flirts with heroes from Magic Sam to George Harrison, in the grooves as well as in conversation.

Having gotten recognition at such a young age, did you go through any identity crises?
When I was 21, I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing, so I took some time off. I did two semesters at Berklee College of Music – a great experience, having had years as a professional musician. People go to music school not knowing who they want to be. For me, I knew what gaps I had in my education. But in my second semester, David Maxwell asked if I wanted to do some dates with James Cotton, and Mudcat Ward asked if I wanted to join Sugar Ray and the Bluetones. Being a sideman allowed me to make music for the sake of making music. I think it would’ve been a much more difficult transition if I’d continued the same path I’d been on as a teenager. That’s when I started coming into my own.

Speaking of Cotton, there’s an argument to be made for Luther Tucker being the perfect hole-in-one blues guitar player when you consider everything he did and the fact it all came out sounding like him. From playing on the Little Walter records in the ’50s to being able to totally kill it when Cotton played soul tunes, there’s so much there.

In terms of influences, are there any that would surprise people?
Richard Thompson is one. I didn’t hear him until I’d been playing guitar almost 20 years, but the sheer freedom, dancing on the edge, and the fearlessness of bending strings and breaking beyond the confines of the fretted note.

I didn’t play slide guitar on this record. Anything that sounds like slide is bent. In “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day,” there’s stuff that sounds like slide, and some of that is definitely inspired by Richard Thompson. He’s using it to sound like a cross between bagpipes and pedal steel; I’m using it to sound like slide guitar or the human voice.

What’s your technique while doing that?
The simple version is approach each note from a half-step below, pre-bend it, and that allows you to get the vibrato going flat and sharp. If you’re just adding vibrato to a stationary note, you’re only going sharp. With slide guitar, there’s a much greater range going up and down from the note. Because I’m approximating blues slide, it’s a little more forgiving. When Muddy Waters played slide, his intonation was perfect but not correct (laughs). When country players mimic pedal steel with mechanically precise bends, every note has to be in tune. I’m looking for something rawer.

What gear did you use on the album?
Mostly, I played the blue Japanese Strat I’ve had since my teens, with Lindy Fralin pickups and a USA Custom neck. I bought it new in 1992. I ended up using Kid’s amps, mostly an original tweed Bassman. On “I Ain’t Sayin’” and “Losing Every Battle,” it’s a Vox AC30.

“I Ain’t Saying” sounds like early B.B. King.
I didn’t even realize I was doing it at the time, but he’s so important to me. My vibrato is always wider and looser; Otis Rush is a clear example of that. When I was very young and heard Clapton and Hendrix and Mick Taylor with the Stones, I always tried to get this wide vocal-like vibrato that wasn’t really the way they played. When I later heard Otis, it was like, “That’s the sound I’ve been trying to make.” Ronnie Earl is someone who put all of that stuff together, but you can tell it’s him from the first note.

As a kid, there were one or two Clapton interviews that defined my musical taste for a long time, because that was the first time I heard about Freddie King and Little Walter, or Ray Charles Live At Newport. But Blues Breakers Clapton had a very specific melodic sense that was different from any of his influences. In “Little Girl,” that ascending line is gorgeous, and it’s not something Freddie King would’ve ever played.

What made you decide to do “I Me Mine”?
The Beatles records were the first things that got me interested in music, and that’s still some of my favorite music. “I Me Mine” is basically a minor-blues ballad that turns into a blues shuffle, and I looked to see if this was something that a bunch of blues people have covered. I heard it almost as an Otis Rush thing. There was something freeing about it, because I’m going to do songs I like, and blues is how I express myself.

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

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