Interview with British slide guitarist and scholar Michael Messer - the bridge of blues around the world

"The Blues means everything to me. Apart from my family, the Blues is my life’s blood."

Michael Messer: The Bright Side Of Blues 

Michael Messer was born in 1956, Middlesex, England. He is the pre-eminent UK guitarist to incorporate the National steel guitar, as well as slide guitar, into his acoustic performances. Messer spent some time in Nashville as a young man soaking up the sounds in the home of country music. He returned to England in the late 70s and bought his first National steel guitar in 1979. His work on the UK blues circuit brought him into contact with singer Mike Cooper, resulting in session work for Cooper and Ian A. Anderson’s 1984 release The Continuous Preaching Blues. During this period Messer also began working with rhythm guitarist Ed Genis, a partnership that would endure into the new millennium.

Messer made his debut three years later with the acclaimed Diving Duck. His name was soon being championed in the UK blues press and in 1991 he won the UK Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year award, sponsored by British Blues Connection, though this was as much an endorsement for his capacity for incorporating styles other than the blues into his playing. Musical ideas borrowed from Hawaiian slide guitar, reggae, jazz and King Sunny Ade’s worldbeat sound all illuminate his playing. The ambitious 1995 release MOONbeat featured scratching by DJ Louie Genis (son of Ed Genis) over a fusion of world music and blues. The follow-up National Avenue was recorded with musicians including Ed Genis and Terry Clarke and was given an extremely limited production run. Messer marked the start of the new millennium with the release of the successful compilation album King Guitar. His next studio album Second Mind featured backing vocals by soul singer Ruby Turner. In 2005, Messer signed a new recording contract with Cooking Vinyl Records. He made his debut for the label the following year with Lucky Charms. September 2013 saw the first concert of Michael's new Delta Blues project with Hindustani slide guitarist, Manish Pingle, from Mumbai, and Tabla player, Gurdain Rayatt, from London. The trio did their first concert at London's legendary Troubadour Club. The concert was recorded and filmed and is due for release on DVD in 2014.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I have learnt that playing the Blues is something that I cannot live without. I did not really choose the Blues, the Blues chose me and I have been playing them for more than forty years. The Blues means everything to me. Apart from my family, the Blues is my life’s blood.

How do you describe Michael Messer sound and progress, what characterizes your music philosophy?

The Michael Messer sound is of course always led by my slide guitar playing. The sound is based in the traditions of the Blues, but it is always pushing forward to create new sounds within the Blues. Over the years and across ten albums, I have worked with many different elements and styles to create my own sound that keeps my Blues music personal to me, contemporary and up to date, but still...and very importantly, containing the traditional elements of the Blues, both in the way it is played and in the way it is recorded. I have added elements of Rock, Country, Soul, Folk, African, Hawaiian, Latin, Hiphop and Rap, and recently, Indian slide guitar & Tabla, to my music. However, my music is still the Blues and still remains true to the traditions that were created by the original masters of the Blues.

"I have learnt that playing the Blues is something that I cannot live without. I did not really choose the Blues, the Blues chose me and I have been playing them for more than forty years." Photo © by Lucio Vidotto

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

It is difficult to answer that question at this point in time as I hope for more interesting periods to come! However, so far I would say the whole thing has been very interesting and exciting. Each part of my musical life - when I was a child hearing Pop, Rock & Roll and Blues for the first time, learning how to play music in the 1960s and early 1970s, and then learning how to play slide guitar, forming my first band, making my first record, ....making all my records! in 1993 having the legendary Johnny Cash support my music and write the liner notes for the Rhythm Oil album, in 2001 having a US number one Blues album with King Guitar, in 2003 winning an award for Best International Blues Guitar Album for Second Mind,  ....touring with my Second Mind Band, with Jesse Taylor, with Louisiana Red, with B.J. Cole, with Ed Genis for so many years, producing and recording albums with many artists including Ted Hawkins, S.E. Rogie, Terry Clarke, Lucy Zirins and Earl, appearing on BBC TV and TV in many other countries, recording countless radio sessions over the past 25 years, going to India with the Second Mind Band to play the Blues, playing the Royal Albert Hall at this year’s London Bluesfest, and recently working with two incredible Indian musicians, Manish Pingle and Gurdain Rayatt, to make a whole new sound within the Blues. These, plus so many more experiences are the exciting and interesting periods in my career. And the worst moments of my career.... well that has to be the problems with various record companies and publishers along the way.

Why do you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

A folk music that started being played around a hundred years ago by the poorest of people at the bottom of society has become a worldwide music played in every country and every language - it is an amazing story!

Part of the reason is because at a basic level with a couple of chords and voice, you can make Blues music. But there is more to it than that. The Blues reaches into people’s souls in a way that perhaps no other Western style of music does. I have seen people reacting to the Blues in countries where they have no tradition of Blues music at all. I said ‘Western’ style of music, because I believe there are other musical forms around the world that can have the same effect on the listener and the player, but because those styles are more complex to play and are not sung with English lyrics, they are also less universal and accessible for listeners. Indian classical music is one, Greek Rembetika music is another. Africa has many musical styles that have that effect on listeners, especially the Malian sound of people like Ali Farka Towre and Tinariwen. This is as close as you can get to Mississippi Blues in another country. In India they really love the Blues, and I can totally understand how it connects with their taste in music; there are Ragas that use the Blues scale and the approach to playing certain types of Blues is very similar to Indian classical and folk styles, taking a theme and improvising with it.

"I am emotionally touched when I see a young artist who really understands the Blues and can use it as a vehicle to create their own music, still keeping it pure Blues, but with an edge that makes it contemporary and relevant to their generation." Photo © by Alan Messer

What’s the best jam you ever played in? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

I have met and jammed with so many great musicians from many different walks of musical life and cultures, that is is impossible for me to say which was the best. I have jammed with some of the world’s greatest musicians and I consider those experiences, being around truly great musicians and playing music with them, are beyond words. These moments are spiritual experiences that took me to a higher level of consciousness.

Playing music with musicians, who I consider to be better than me, is the way for me to advance my music. Jamming, or playing music in a social situation, rather than on a stage, is possibly where the purest and greatest music is played.

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had? Which memory makes you smile?

When I think back about which gig makes me smile, they all do, because each one is a special moment in time for me. I consider it an honour to play my music to an audience and I try to savour that moment, so every gig is special, otherwise there is no point in being there. Playing on stages where legends have played their music is always an uplifting experience.

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

I have met many wise people along the way and so many words of wisdom have been passed to me that I don’t know where to start.... Possibly the advice given to me by the legendary singer, Ted Hawkins, has stuck with me for the longest. I was 32 years old at the time - Ted said that “If you keep on playing that slide guitar and never giving in, no matter what happens in your life, that eventually in the future, people will recognize you for being a great slide guitarist”. Ted was right. I do not consider myself to be great, but people now talk about my music and my slide guitar playing in a way that I never dreamed was possible all those years ago. Johnny Cash said to me that being a musician is a long and hard career, and that musicians need all the help they can get to continue their journey. He was also right, being a musician is a hard, but rewarding lifestyle and career.

"In India they really love the Blues, and I can totally understand how it connects with their taste in music; there are Ragas that use the Blues scale and the approach to playing certain types of Blues is very similar to Indian classical and folk styles, taking a theme and improvising with it." Photo: Michael with Hindustani slide guitarist, Manish Pingle

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

The Blues is here to stay. In various forms and styles it will never go away, but what has gone away and will never happen again, is that there can never be the giants and legends of the Blues that we saw in the past. These giants of the Blues are now like dinosaurs, they are an extinct species; Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Blind Willie McTell, Bukka White, Son House, Mance Lipscombe, Lightning Hopkins, Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Kokomo Arnold, Johnny Shines, Elmore James, Earl Hooker, John Lee Hooker, Louisiana Red,....etc. They have all gone and there will never be anything like them on this planet again.

My hopes are that the Blues moves on and stays contemporary to the time in which it is played, but my fears are that it is becoming like a classical music that must stay exactly the same and be played in a certain way, the way it was in the past.

One of the problems is that so many of the musicians who think they are making the Blues modern and contemporary, are actually turning it into something that is no longer the Blues. It becomes diluted and sometimes turns into a pastiche of what the Blues really is. Just because it has three chords and a slide guitar that does not automatically turn it into the Blues.

Make an account of the case of the blues in UK. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

The UK has had a long and fascinating relationship with the Blues. I believe that is changing now, but in the past if it wasn’t for the Rolling Stones, European-Americans might never have discovered the music of their African-American neighbours. We in the UK have been playing the Blues since the 1950s and it has become an important part of our musical culture and history. Some of the greatest names in modern Blues have been from the UK, but whether that will continue is for me a questionable subject. I think I am one of the youngest of the British Blues players, at 58 years old, to be around the real thing and to have seen the giants of the Blues playing live. This is quite a big subject to cover, but I believe that some of the early British Blues players, people like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Dave Kelly, Alexis Korner, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Mick Jagger...etc, have a better and clearer understanding of the Blues than many of the American players did and still do. The younger British and American players are passionate about the Blues, but they see it from a very different perspective to me and the older musicians. I would say that much of the current UK and American Blues scene is ‘Bluesy’ but it is not actually the Blues. I do not mean that it should stay as a museum piece in the past, but that it should still be recognizable as ‘The Blues’, and it is not. Much of it relies on a caricature image and sound of the Blues, but is not actually the Blues at all. It is its own genre of music that developed from more than just the Blues, it developed from their parents record collections.

I do believe in the existence of Real Blues nowadays, but it does not always come from the people you expect it to come from. Nobody will ever play the Blues like Muddy Waters and Son House did, but real Blues does exist if one understands the genre and allows it to flow through you to your voice and your instrument. But ‘REAL’ Blues.....I am not sure that there is anyone left from those times. My great friend, Louisiana Red, was possibly the last great Blues man on this earth.

"My hopes are that the Blues moves on and stays contemporary to the time in which it is played, but my fears are that it is becoming like a classical music that must stay exactly the same and be played in a certain way, the way it was in the past." (Louisiana Red & Michael Messer, Photo © by Stephen Chown)

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

Just because you like the Blues doesn’t mean your music is the Blues! I hear all kinds of music on Blues radio shows and at Blues festivals, which to my ears bears no relationship to the Blues at all, but somehow the inclusion of a resonator guitar, or a soulful lyric, makes it the Blues. In many places ‘The Blues’ has become a title, a pigeon hole, for adult orientated music. So that makes me laugh and sometimes it makes me cry!

I am emotionally touched when I see a young artist who really understands the Blues and can use it as a vehicle to create their own music, still keeping it pure Blues, but with an edge that makes it contemporary and relevant to their generation. They are very few and far between.

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

There are lots of moments from the past that I would love to visit, but I think that looking at it from a Blues slide guitarist’s perspective, I would like to visit the incredible slide guitarist, Kokomo Arnold, in Chicago in the mid-1930s. Kokomo Arnold was one of the greatest slide guitarists ever, and his unique style is the most difficult and unapproachable of all the slide players I have ever heard. So to be in the same room as Kokomo Arnold and watch him play, would be a pretty cool way to spend a day. ....If there’s time in that day I would also like to see the great slide player, Casey Bill Weldon, and his band, which sometimes included Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy on rhythm guitars. I would also like to spend a day with Muddy Waters in Chicago in the mid-1950s, see the Beatles at the Cavern, the Rolling Stones at the Marquee, Elvis Presley on the Louisiana Heyride shows, Hank Williams at the Grand Ole Opry, and of course it goes without saying that an afternoon hanging out with Robert Johnson would be a lot of fun!

Do you know why the sound of slide and resonator guitar is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

This is a big question and one that I have put a lot of thought into over the years. There are really two parts to your question; slide guitar in the Blues, and resonator guitars in the Blues. The sound of slide guitar is so associated with the Blues, because it has been one of THE sounds of the Blues since the very beginning. W.C Handy’s account of hearing Blues played with slide guitar while he was waiting for train at Tutwiler Station, Mississippi, in 1903, is probably the earliest account of anyone hearing this instrument in the Blues, rather than in a Hawaiian band. Slide guitar is the perfect Blues instrument; it is also the perfect accompaniment to the human voice. Slide guitar is immediate, as expressive as the human voice, and because the notes are not fixed (the player makes their own notes) it has a mystical quality. Each great slide guitarist has their own voice that does not sound like anybody else. The only other instruments like this are the human voice, horns; trumpet, saxophone, trombone...etc, and strings...violin, cello, because they too do not have fixed notes. In the Blues and in fact in any folk music, this allows the player to be very creative and vocal, but with quite a simple basic technique. Of course to be a master of any instrument, it takes more than basic simple technique, it takes decades, but to get started it is quite easy. I have dedicated four decades of my life to playing and studying slide guitar, and I still feel like there is so much more to learn and understand about this special way of playing a guitar. I love Blues slide guitar and play it every day of my life, but I also love and study slide guitar in all its different musical styles.

The resonator guitar’s involvement with the Blues is a whole different thing and is also a subject very close to my heart. Son House said in an interview that the reason he played a National guitar was because it was rain-proof, he could take it out in the rain and it did not get damaged!!!!

I have played, studied and collected resonator guitars for 35 years and in that time I have seen them rise in popularity from being a rare antique that only a few people had ever seen, to becoming one of THE main instruments, if not THE main instrument, in the Blues. I never dreamed that so many people all over the world would own resonator guitars and that it would become an icon of the Blues.

Back in the 1920s and 30s very few of the legendary Blues players used resonator guitars, so the iconic image is something that developed in the 1960s and has continued and grown since then. Spider John Koerner in Greenwich Village playing his seven string National Duolian in the very early 1960s, Son House appearing in folk clubs and recording his legendary ‘Father of the Folk Blues’ on Columbia in 1965. Son House was seen playing National Duolian guitars and National Style 0 guitars. These are the people who in my opinion started the ball rolling. In the 1920s and 30s, there was Tampa Red, Bukka White, Casey Bill Weldon, Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Blind Boy Fuller and a handful of others playing National resonator guitars, but most of the legendary Blues slide players used regular acoustic guitars; Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, none of these musicians played National resonator guitars.

During the 1980s and early 90s the popularity of resonator guitars grew because of two main ingredients; in the USA a new company was started by Don Young & McGregor Gaines, the company was called National Reso-Phonic Guitars Inc, and they started manufacturing modern versions of the original 1920s and 30s National guitars. This made them available to everyone. Another ingredient was the photo of Mark Knopfler’s National Style 0 on the front cover of the 1984 Dire Straits ‘Brothers In Arms’ album. These two things, plus many other events around that time, including the mass-production of cheap resonator guitars from China, Korea and Indonesia, started to make National-style resonator guitars easy to get, cheap and affordable, and therefore popular. Suddenly everyone could look like, if not sound like, Son House, Tampa Red, Mark Knopfler, John Hammond, etc... and when a guitar is that beautiful and shiny, and sounds so powerful and evocative when played with a slide, it is bound to become an iconic image associated with the Blues. These days, anyone who wants to appear soulful and to show their fans and audience that they have ‘deep Blues in their bones’ has a shiny resonator guitar to help prove that point. I am not trying to sound negative, quite the opposite, I think it is amazing how popular they have become, and these days there are some incredible musicians playing resonator guitars, but I can see another side to it.

"I have added elements of Rock, Country, Soul, Folk, African, Hawaiian, Latin, Hiphop and Rap, and recently, Indian slide guitar & Tabla, to my music." (Photo: Michael, Manish Pingle & Gurdain Singh Rayatt, Blues & Indian slide guitar concert at the Troubadour, London, 2013)

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Africa to States and from UK to India and beyond?

This is a good question...

Because of America’s multicultural society that was made up of immigrants from all over the world and of course the slave trade from Africa, the Blues is by no means a pure American art form. There were so many styles of local folk music from different countries being played and shared, that it is not possible to define which influences, apart from African music, are actually in the Blues. There many traits from African music in the Blues, such as flattened 3rd and 7th notes, but these are also apparent in music from other countries too. However, there is no doubt whatsoever that if you listen to John Lee Hooker’s music from Mississippi, and then listen to Ali Farka Towre’s music from Mali, that Hooker was a descendant of people from Mali. Their music is too similar for it to be a coincidence. I think that more than any other style of Blues, that the North Mississippi Blues is a very African, both in its lyrical approach to story telling and in its musical content. Another Blues artist that I can hear African influences is Mississippi John Hurt. John’s guitar playing style is very similar to West African guitar picking. For example, listen to Miss’ippi John Hurt and then to S.E. Rogie from Sierra Leone and you will hear many similarities, both in the way they pick the guitar chords and in the approach to rhythm.

Whether or not slide guitar in the Blues comes from Africa, is in my opinion a debatable point. There is very little evidence to prove that African people played slide on stringed instruments. There are a few accounts of travellers seeing this Africa, but not enough to actually state that slide guitar in the Blues is from Africa. The most logical explanation is that slide guitar came into the Blues and American culture in general from Hawaii in the last two decades of the 19th century. There is very little doubt in my mind that slide guitar in the Blues as we know it, is very Hawaiian. This makes sense, because Hawaiian music was extremely popular at that time and as much as it found its way into the Blues, it also found its way into country and folk music. Slide guitar was not a Hawaiian invention; it found its way into Hawaii from India where stringed instruments played with a slide have been used for centuries.

It is interesting that 100 years after W.C. Handy first heard an African-American playing slide guitar Blues on Tutwiler railroad station, that the Blues has reached all parts of the world. Possibly the most extraordinary of those is that the Blues is becoming very popular in India, especially among the wealthy communities. They go wild for electric guitar Blues; I was there last year with my band and was amazed to see that people like Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, Robert Randolph, Walter Trout, are very popular there. I can understand why they like it so much, it is exotic and it has many similarities to Indian music. The rhythms are totally different to Indian rhythms, but the approach to soloing on an electric guitar using a Blues scale (pentatonic) is very similar to ragas in Indian classical music. That is why back in the 1960s that Ravi Shankar was so popular with rock & roll audiences. Hypnotic trance music that takes the musicians and the listeners to a higher state of consciousness. It is all very closely related.

My current Blues project is a trio consisting of myself singing and playing slide guitar, Manish Pingle from Mumbai playing Indian slide guitar, and London-based Indian Tabla player, Gurdain Rayatt. We don’t play Indian music, we play Delta blues and instruments and styles fit together perfectly. We have a CD/DVD package due for release sometime in the next few months and we hope to be able to tour together later this year.

Michael Messer - official website

Photo © by Paul Martin

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