Guitarist Pete Kanaras talks about the Nighthawks, Jimmy Rogers, Antone's and the House of Wounded Guitars

"The blues is the truth. It is the trunk of the tree for all American music."

Pete Kanaras: Dr. Blues Axeman

Renowned Blues guitarist Pete Kanaras has performed with a who’s who list of internationally acclaimed roots music celebrities. Pete spent his formative years in Poughkeepsie, NY, where as luck would have it got his first full time job in a record warehouse and was influenced by such disparate artists as the late bluesman Junior Wells and jazz piano giant Thelonious Monk. Pete credits a 1987 blues pilgrimage to Antone's in Austin, Texas (then on Guadalupe) as sealing his fate as a musician. Originally starting on both bass and guitar, Greek origin Pete had by then switched mostly to guitar in his own bands and was a member of a succession of harp-led units such as the Fat Tuesday Blues Review, Rockinitis, and the Knockouts.

As a sideman he did the majority of his work as a bassist for hire. By the early 90s, with this latter NY-based group and to a large degree with Steve Guyger, the Philadelphia harp virtuoso, Pete was making quite a name for himself in the blues dens of the quad state area. He struck up a friendship with the great guitarist Mark Ross of Queen Bee & the Blue Hornet Band, who brought Pete's name to the attention of Mark Wenner of the legendary Nighthawks. He spent the next nine years as guitarist for that venerable Washington DC institution, performing around 2000 gigs worldwide with them and appearing on 3 albums and one final DVD with the late blues icon Hubert Sumlin before departing in the beginning of 2004. Pete has shared the stage or recorted with Jimmy Rogers, Louis Myers, Lowell Fulson, Hubert Sumlin, Arty Hill, Jesse Yawn, Anthony Kane, and Lil Ronnie & The Grand Dukes and others. The catalyst for his leaving The Nighthawks was the formation in the summer of 2003 of The Shambells. That band was a damn wrecking crew, very much in the tradition of the great British pub-rock bands of the 70's. In 2009 he divides his time between The Remnants, a truly original roots rock band out of Annapolis and his own blues band, which is geared towards the more traditional side of things. Pete is owner of "House of Wounded Guitars" specializes in repairs and modifications on acoustic/electric guitars and electric basses. Located in the Greektown section of East Baltimore, since it's opening it has slowly and steadily built up a strong word of mouth reputation, particularly among professional musicians.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos: Alan Grossman, Tim Cook, Pete Kanaras Archive, All rights reserved

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Well, to me the blues is the truth. It is the trunk of the tree for all American music.

How do you describe Pete Kanaras sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I like to go for an honest sound that is clear and has some roundness and depth to it. Essentially a guitar, cord, and an amp with reverb and tremolo is all I need. Blackface Fenders I like best along with the tweeds, and I have an old Ampeg Reverberocket2 that I also love. A pedal here and there for fly gigs and such but never a distortion pedal, I just don't like them. I consider myself a traditionalist musically. While I love to take chances and do different things musically when it comes to blues my love is for the traditional electric sounds and the people who created them. My music philosophy? Well that could fill a book, but the most important thing is to listen. The song will never lie to you if you listen hard enough. That, and you have to go backwards in order to go forwards in this music if your playing is to have any real depth to it. I firmly believe that. Learn your history, absorb it and then create your own voice within that tradition. Not an easy thing to do at all, but the thing that all the old guys strived for was individuality, their own tone with no tricks. Play what you feel. Take your time. Trust in your instincts.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Well, the most important trip I ever made was to Antone's in '87, when it was on Guadalupe. I went for two weeks and when I returned home I gave my boss notice pretty much right after that. It affected me that much, and I’ve been a professional musician ever since. As far as advice I have had two career mentors, musically speaking, and they were both drummers. Frank Macchia taught me how to really listen hard, and he exposed me to all kinds of music back in the mid 70's. And I had the extreme honor of working with the late great Danny Sperduto for eight years. He showed me what it really means to be a Professional musician. The real deep in-the-trenches stuff. I think of him every day still.

Are there any memories from the Nighthawks on the road and studio which you’d like to share with us?

The Nighthawks was a great nine year run. I performed 2000 gigs with them, saw a bit of Europe, and toured Japan nine times. A lot of miles in the old road van as they say. A ton of great memories and new friends made. The first that comes to mind was my first West Coast tour with them. They hadn't been out west in quite awhile and we had great crowds everywhere we went. My first California gig, in Long Beach, was incredible. I had called my old friend Alex Schultz and given him a head's up, so I knew he was coming. And when we showed up there were Bill Stuve, Junior Watson and Lester Butler waiting for us too! Just a magical night, as you can imagine. Another amazing moment was our set backing Pinetop Perkins at Memphis In May. Ike Turner came out as a surprise and introduced Pinetop, who was Ike's piano teacher when he was a boy. Then they sat down and played a duet, piano four hands style, with us backing them. So now I can say I got to play with Ike Turner, a man whose name in my opinion should be mentioned in the same breath as Sam Phillips and Muddy Waters.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Well, our elders have almost all left us. The young folks coming up today will never have that "laying on of hands" experiences my generation had. That saddens me, because those moments are priceless. To have Albert King give you a big smiling thumb's up for a job well done, as he once did to me, those are the things you think back on when times get real tough. Having Jimmy Rogers motion you back into the dressing room for some one-on-one time, things like that. Even though I started late I was very lucky to come along at a time when a lot of guys like Jimmy Rogers, Louis Myers, Lowell Fulson, Hubert Sumlin etc. were still around to show us all how it's done. I was very fortunate to play with a lot of them. As for the future I think the music will be just fine. Times are tough right now but the music will never die.

Some of my younger friends like Nikki and Matt Hill, Chris O'Leary, Dave Gross, and recently departed friends like Sean Costello and Nick Curran were and are keeping the old traditions very much alive. And the best thing about all of them is that they're not treating the music like its some dusty museum relic. Hell no, they understand the Spirit of it, kick ass every night and the young fans are flipping out all over again! Yeah, the music is healthy indeed in such capable hands. It warms my heart.

"My parents are both from Skoura, Lakonias in Peloponisous, Greece. And no I can't read or write Greek. Sadly it's long forgotten, but I can still speak fairly well…" (Photo: Pete & Hubert Sumlin)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

$1.00 a gallon gas and 50 cent toll limits imposed nationwide. Seriously.

What's been your experience from the “studies” on the road with the blues in Antone’s, Texas?

Well learning is a lifelong study that never ends. But basically I consider myself a very lucky guy to be able to do what I do and love the most. I wanted to be a musician my entire life, since I was like 10 years old or so. Looking back, even before I started playing I Knew. It took a lot of guts to walk away from another career that was successful, but when I got back from Austin there was no question in my mind. I’ve never looked back, and I’m proud of that.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Made me laugh? haha, that is not fit to print! Emotionally? Recently finding out that a great drummer here has been secretly battling Parkinson's disease the last few years. He didn't want anyone to know, but he had to re-teach himself how to play and so on. All through this ordeal he kept up a full schedule. I was shocked when he told me and damn near broke down crying in front of him. A cool guy and one tough bird. An inspiring man.

How did the idea of House of Wounded Guitars and your love for collecting vintage instruments come about?

I’ve been doing guitar repair on a professional level since 1987. I started in a great store called Rainbow Music in New York, a very big store. It was the best possible situation, a real trial by fire and I had a couple of great luthiers to guide me, the late Eddie Montelleone and Dominick Ramos, who is like a brother to me still. Back then, after I left the cooking world, I was doing guitar repair full time in the daytime and gigging full time at night. After awhile I got so busy with the music I had to leave Rainbow and I did repairs on a "family" basis for years. When I re-settled in Baltimore in 2006 I was fried from over 20 years on the road nonstop, without a break, and I wanted to relax and play regionally for awhile. So I decided to hang out my repair shingle out again and it's been nice, a slow and steady word of mouth thing. My clientele is mostly pro level players and serious home players and the response has been just great. The most gratifying thing for me personally is that in the last couple of years some old road friends have started shipping me their guitars for various things. That is just the best and very humbling too, an absolute honor. I will update the website soon with all sorts of things, and for those who'd like to have a look my site.

What made you get involved in the craftsmanship of guitars? What are the secrets of a good luthier?

Well I don't consider myself a luthier. Rather, I am a repairman, which is a very noble thing too. A luthier to me, in a nutshell, is a person who takes raw pieces of wood and creates musical art from them. True luthiers are people like Dominick Ramos in NY and my cousin George Goumas in NJ. These men are genius level luthiers, and I do not throw around the word "genius" loosely. In my view they are the best of the best. Luthiery is a lifetime of dedication to your craft, just like being a real musician is. But I am a musician first and foremost, and I am a good repairman too. I believe it's a real advantage. There are things you can only learn, repair-wise, from being in the trenches musically for a real long time on the road, as I have. That, and friendship, is the main reason why I have road friends shipping me their guitars. They know that with me they don't have to "explain" a lot of stuff because they know I’ve been there too. Plus we all love and play the same kinds of music, and all of that relates to guitars repair-wise, very much so. Let me tell you, what a blues/roots type player wants in their guitar is a whole lot different from what a metal guy wants; it's night and day different in fact. So I guess that's what I bring to the table in my repair work, a music knowledge combined with real road dog experience. Again, it all relates. I’m very happy with the way things continue to evolve on the repair end.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Well my dad was taken from me when I was very young. So if I had the keys to the way back machine I would wish for a day with my mom, dad and sister, all of us together digging Little Walter's band in a club!

"I like to go for an honest sound that is clear and has some roundness and depth to it."

And one last question, "Kanaras" is Greek name. Are you Greek origin…?

Of course I am! My parents are both from Skoura, Lakonias in Peloponisous. “Harika pou se gnorisa!” (Translate: Glad that you met you). And no I can't read or write Greek. Sadly it's long forgotten, but I can still speak fairly well…

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