by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2007 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Jeff Lang’s expansive take on the blues has made him a mainstay of Australia’s music scene. The virtuoso guitarist and singer-songwriter has released more than a dozen CDs in his homeland, the best tracks of which comprise his debut U.S. release, a career overview titled Prepare Me Well: An Introduction to Jeff Lang. Folk, world music, and roots-rock influences abound in Lang’s work, as do elements such as ghostly atmospherics, backwards leads, and pulsing tremolo work. But the first thing listeners typically notice is his soaring slide guitar sound.
"The slide is appealing to me because of its ability to subvert the fretboard," says Lang, who uses a Shubb-Pearse slide, and cites Ry Cooder, Leo Kottke, and David Lindley as key influences. "With the slide, you can play a complex melody in a seamless way by striking the string once, and then using the bar to articulate the phrase. I also like to explore different tones in some phrases. For example, if you hold the slide at an angle, the string will buzz against the face of it, providing a sitar-like sound that can be added to any note in the melody. In addition, you can mute the strings slightly with your picking hand to create a sound similar to a Japanese koto. You can vary this sound within a phrase, as well, by starting with your picking hand muting at the bridge, and then lifting the 'mute' as the slide moves to the next note. If you add pressure with the bar at the same time, it can give the subsequent notes the effect of swelling up in volume."
Lang's main instruments of choice include a Jeff Lang acoustic lap-steel and a Jeff Lang 6-string acoustic, both built by Australian luthier David Churchill. Lang also favors '60s Valco Airline and Supro Reso-Glass resonators for his slide playing. The Churchills are equipped with a Sunrise S-1 magnetic soundhole pickup, and the resonators use either a Barcus Barry Hi Tek Dobro magnetic pickup or a National low-profile magnetic pickup. When on tour, the pickup in each guitar runs to a Sunrise Buffer Box, with one output going direct to the P.A. via a T.C. Electronic DPE Dual Parametric EQ, and the other going to a Boss FV-50 Volume Pedal and a Boss SD-1 Super Overdrive.
"When I play live, I'm shooting for a larger-than-life acoustic sound similar to what I get when I record in the studio," says Lang. "I'm really trying to create a rich and vivid experience that makes audience members feel like they've been shrunk and placed inside the guitar. I want to envelope them in an almost psychedelic way. The Sunrise pickup is a major part of this experience, as it provides rich and warm mids and lows. It's important to note that I don't cut any top end. I capture the full spectrum of sound."
Lang also seeks to engage his audiences by employing a variety of altered tunings. "My goal is to try and carry the songs as a solo performer without having the crowd feel like it's missing a band," he says. "My use of open tunings is inspired by people such as Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, and John Martyn. Open tunings allow you to cover a lot of sonic territory with interesting chord inversions and broad voicings, as well as hold down the low end while you simultaneously play things higher up around the range of your voice. In addition, they let you express more interesting melodic phrases when you're using the slide. Home base for me is Open-E (E, B, E, G#, B, E, low to high), because it enables me to improvise freely. I also like DADGAD a lot."
The late, edgy blues innovator Chris Whitley was among Lang's many admirers. Lang and Whitley were long-time friends, and, beginning in the early '90s, they occasionally toured together. Six months prior to Whitley's untimely death in November 2005, he and Lang collaborated on Dislocation Blues—a recently released duo album. The raw, stripped-down recording finds Lang and Whitley taking on a selection of original material and covers, including deeply soulful versions of Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" and the traditional "Stagger Lee."
Dislocation Blues features Whitley performing on a National Style O, a National Duolian, and a Kalamazoo Acoustic. Lang relies on his favorite instruments, augmented by an early-'60s Guyatone electric, a '50s National e-scale Reso-Phonic, and a 14-fret Style O reproduction, built by Australia's Greg Beeton. The duo was intent on capturing a live, organic vibe when laying down the album's 12 tracks.
"We used a 'do it all at once' approach with the vocals, guitars, and band going simultaneously," says Lang. "I find you always get better vocal and guitar takes that way, and there's less 'red-light fever' in that the musicians are focused on the music instead of technical stuff. The band tracks were done in two days, and Chris and I spent half of the third day recording three duo tracks. At that point, we felt we had said everything we needed to say at that moment, and that we could always do more later on. Sadly, that didn't turn out to be true. I'm honored to have had the opportunity to make the album. Chris was a singular talent who stayed true to his vision, and he pushed the envelope right to the end. It was a truly joyous experience to work with him."