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Ben Harper Rocks a Les Paul Special and Shares Acoustic Lap Slide Recording Tips

Ted Drozdowski

Fans of Ben Harper knew his next album was going to sound different. After all, when Harper and his new band Relentless 7 played their first show in December at Los Angeles’ Spaceland, he thundered through part of the set with his ’56 Les Paul Special strapped on.

For most guitarists that wouldn’t be a big deal — just evidence of good taste. But Harper’s the first pop star who developed his reputation playing primarily lap slide guitar. He can get plenty of snarl out of them, too — even from hollow body Weissenborns, a Holy Grail instrument among acoustic lap guitar stylists.

And while Harper’s played conventional round neck guitars on-stage and in the studio before, they can be heard growling more than ever on Ben Harper & Relentless 7’s White Lies for Dark Times, which hits music shops on May 5.

The disc opens with the howling protest “Number with No Name” and rocks on from there, consistently delivering a more defiantly noisy strain of music than Harper’s 11 previous albums and departing from the generally quieter, jam-crowd-friendly tenor of his concerts. The title captures the material’s dark, contemporary outlook, which is also echoed in the video for the buzzing blitz “Shimmer and Shine.”

A key to Harper’s new, harder-rocking sound is his creative partnership with guitarist Jason Mozersky. Harper was introduced to Mozersky’s playing when he was slipped a demo tape by the singer for Wan Santo Condo, which featured Mozersky on six-string. Harper helped the group get a record deal and drafted Mozersky for the 2005 sessions for his own Both Sides of the Gun. Mozersky showed up for the sessions with bassist Jesse Ingalls and drummer Jordan Richardson, and jamming ensued. One of the core tracks for Both Sides, “Serve Your Soul,” resulted, and in summer 2008 the four reunited under the Ben Harper & Relentless 7 name.

When he’s not slamming his Special, Harper — whose primary slide tuning is open D — still pulls a wealth of unpredictable sounds from his conventional solid body lap guitars as well as his Weissenborns. He and David Lindley are the leading exponents of the esoteric instruments. And when we caught up with Harper on an earlier tour, he shared his secrets for making difficult-to-record acoustic lap guitars sing like Gabriel or snort like Satan on tape.

“Ideally, you double-mic, with one microphone on the neck and another on the sound hole. If you have a pickup, you can use that for some bottom and blend that with the two mics for a really rich sound,” he explained.

“Or you can get a good sound by sticking a microphone between the sound hole and the neck. When I amplify the Weissenborn I use a 100-watt Demeter amp that gives a very warm sound. The preamp tubes add compression, but allow the high end to sing. For pickups I use a Fishman and a Seymour Duncan Mag Mic that’s super accurate.”

And when it comes to piling on effects, as he does in “Shimmer and Shine,” Harper suggests going at a mid-level volume to allow whatever pedals being employed to be heard.

“You can’t go high volume, because the minute you go over the edge you lose definition,” he cautions. “I use a flanger, wah, tube compression, and a volume pedal. It’s hard to vary the volume with the pedal when I’m using acoustic for harder rocking stuff. So I set the pedal full throttle and bring the amp down so that when the pedal is all the way open it’ll be at the edge of having everything defined. For more volume I kick in a vintage Ibanez TS-808 tube screamer.”

Photo Credit: Danny Clinch

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