M: I had once heard a story about how your Bigsby was stolen. Can you tell me about it?
L: What happened was we went to a Western Swing meeting up in Sacramento at the Sky Lanes, which was a bowling alley. We saw a great show and our gear got ripped off that afternoon in the van out in the parking lot, broad daylight—it was a funky neighborhood, a lot of tweakers and crazy people hanging out. We went and literally bought instruments in San Francisco because we were playing a big show the next night and I got a Gibson Consolette D-8, you know the korina wood one, actually a nice guitar. By the time we got back everyone knew that we had our stuff ripped off and this was before the internet and I was good friends with Roseanne Lindley, Dave’s daughter, but I didn’t know who Dave Lindley was and she didn’t really make a big deal about her dad. So, she came to a show at the Doll Hut in Anaheim and she was like, “Hey, my dad heard about you getting your guitar ripped off—he wants to give you a guitar.” I said, “Really, what does he want to give me?” and she said he had this Rickenbacher triple neck he wanted to give me. She said, “I don’t think he should give it to you, though, I think you should pay for it.” I said, “Well, yeah, of course I’ll pay for it.” So we get over there—Big Sandy drove me over and he said “You know her dad’s Dave Lindley?” I’m like, “No.” “You never heard of Dave Lindley? He’s a famous guy, man, plays weird slide guitar, stuff like that.”
So, we go over there and there’s Dave Lindley and he goes, “Hey, sorry to hear about your guitar. That sucks. You lost a Bigsby, that’s horrible!” He was genuinely bummed out. He was a really cool dude. we hung out over there and he pulled out all these crazy instruments, there was just amps and junk everywhere—it was like a pawn shop/music store/house—he said, “This is nothing, I’ve got a 3 car garage full of crap.” And he said, “I bought this guitar at a church in San Bernadino in 1971 and they had their own recording studio and were fully equipped with Rickenbacker equipment. Basses, guitars, steels, amps—everything.” He said, “I paid $100 for this guitar in 1971 and to be honest with you I wanted to give this to you, but Roseanne seems to think you have to pay for it.” “OK, I’m willing to pay for it.” “I’ll tell you what—I want $100 for it—I want my $100 back.”
M: Was it one of those big old wooden rectangular jobs? I had one of those, too….
L: Yep, the “trailer park model”–the 507. It sure sounded good. He actually gave me a good tip and told me to take the bottom off and fill it with foam. He said, “Back in the day, they didn’t get that loud, and it wasn’t an issue, but if you’re playing louder than they played in the ’50s take the bottom off and fill it with foam and that’ll cancel any of that feedback stuff—you’ll be able to play as loud as you want.” He was right.
He was like, “When I was 12 years old we’d sneak into KXLA and we’d look into the studio and watch Speedy and Jimmy playing radio shows.” And he was totally hip to Murphey and all that stuff, too. He was like, “Oh, man, Joaquin–me and Freddie Roulette used to sit around and listen to that stuff.” Freddie loved Joaquin.
M: And it was happening right in his backyard….
L: Yeah, he was just into music, way more open than I’d ever be. He was just super open and just a generally nice person with a good karma about him.
It was funny about 2 or 3 years later, my wife woke me up and I had a had a raging hangover, and she said, “Just get the phone, I’m sick of this guy calling.” So, I answer the phone like “Yeah?” And he goes “This is Ry Cooder, I want to ask you a few questions.” I was like, this is Alan getting back with a crank call, he’s got someone from Rhino to crank call me. “Did Alan put you up to this?” He said, “No, this is Ry Cooder, I got your number from Roseanne Lindley.” He wanted to just ask me about Bigsby steels, he was thinking of buying one from Paul Warnik, a PA reissue—he said, “I can’t stop listening to Vance Terry, I want to do that.” [laughs]
M: What kind of rig are you using these days?
L: My latest steel guitar rig that I’ve been using for almost a year now is an amp that was built by a guy named Skip Simmons. Skip lives out in Dixon, CA, south of Sacramento, and Skip is a guy who takes old 40s and 50s tube PA heads and converts them into really nice sounding guitar or harp amplifiers. I asked him if he ever made anything for steel guitar, because I knew he had this clout with a lot of the Blues community: Rick Holmstrom, Little Charlie, Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson—pretty heavy hitters in that scene. But he was a steel guitar nut, which was cool—he was into Bob Dunn, Leon McAuliffe and early electric players. And I was saying, “Can you build a steel guitar amp? I want it to sound like this, this and this.” And he made me an amp and it was pretty good. It didn’t have the headroom I needed. I said, “I’ve only got this one sound, Skip, I need more variety than this. I like what it does in the top end but I want the bass to be louder and snappier. I want this to sound like a 25L15 and whatever Boggs was using. When I crash the bar, I want it to snap, like on an old Noel Boggs record.”
So, we went back and forth and eventually he built me something. We dialed it in! And he started making other stuff and he said, “Try this for me” and I’d try stuff out, road test it. I’d start giving him more and more steel music to listen to and I sort of gave him more and more information so he could listen to what I was asking, and he got it. And now Skip is making a damn good steel amp—basically taking a 50 year old PA head that’s built like a Sherman tank, with even more iron on it, which equates more headroom, fatter bass—just better, more musical. These things are like overbuilt and are of no use to anyone because no one is going to use them as a PA, but what they do make is damn good 25 or 8 watt or whatever wattage you want guitar or steel amp. This amp is gonna last longer than you—totally indestructible and really sweet.
I think there’s a ton of guys playing Hawaiian or Western Swing that would love to have one of his amps. If they owned one, they’d go, “Oh, shit, there it is!”—Fender and Gibson sounds. Skip basically will put you an amp together for $600.
M: What are you using for a speaker?
L: I use a 12 inch Altec, a 417-C. I would use a 418-B but I’m trying to downsize. My guitar is like a Rolls Royce. [laughs] I swear to God, the 418-B is probably the best steel guitar speaker ever made and the 417 is right behind it.
M: Tell me about this record with John Munnerlyn….
L: It really wasn’t my project—he was just like, “come play on my tunes and could you write a couple of things?” I was kind of busy touring with Big Sandy, but I came up with “Blues For Earl.” And there were a few others. I wanted to come up with something in that Joaquin tuning. I never got too deep into that tuning, but I should try it again now because I think I’ve got better ears.
The funny about it is, it was done in 2 pieces the second recorded sessions was a different rhythm section and we went in the studio and played him the original stuff and said, “We want this to sound as if it was all done at once” and that was hard to do, with different guys as well. When all is said and done, people like the record. I think John did a really good job and wrote some really nice tunes.
M: The West Coast Ramblers—did you put this project together?
L: Yeah, more or less—the project was started by a guitar player called Nick Rossi, a great Hammond B-3 player and he plays Jazz guitar, has a really cool ’50s Jazz trio that plays kind of Sal Salvador, Chuck Wayne, NY stuff. And he went to the singer and said, “Let’s get Lee to play steel and put a Western Swing band together” and as soon as we put it together, he said, “I can’t do it, I’ve got too many irons in the fire.” So we found the present guitar player…he came over and blew our minds.
M: Are you thinking about doing any recordings?
L: Yes. Very soon—we’re actually working on something right now. We’re putting out a 45.
M: I’m sure I can speak for everyone when I say I’m looking forward to hearing it.
L: I’ll tell you what: there’s a lot of hope—there’s some young guys out there in their mid to late 20s. One guy that comes to mind is a steel player in San Francisco, he’s been playing probably 3 or 4 years. His name is Mikiya Matsuda. He’s coming on really strong and playing cool stuff, listening to all the same guys we like and he’s talking to me about music. He’s into Bach, and odd experimental Jazz, and stuff like that and he got into the steel through Hawaiian music and being in Hawaii and hanging out with these Hawaiians. They actually turned him on to Western Swing guys—Bobby Ingano said, “I like Noel Boggs and Joaquin, you should listen to those guys.” [laughs]
M: Lee, I just want to thank you again for all the stuff you’ve done for me, Lee, and I consider you a real friend.
L: Well, you’re welcome.
Lee Jeffriess Selected Discography – Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys – Jumping From 6 To 6 (1994, HighTone Records); Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys – Swingin’ West (1995, HighTone records); Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys – Feelin’ Kinda Lucky (1997, HighTone records); Big Sandy Presents The Fly-Rite Boys (1998, HighTone Records); Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys – Night Tide (2000, HighTone Records); John Munnerlyn & Lee Jeffriess – Guitars In Perspective (2009)