Thinking Man's Guitar: Skip Heller

by: Rick Bass
for PHILAMAP Musician/Artist/Performer

Former Philadelphian Skip Heller set up shop in Hollywood at the end of 1995, concentrating on producing, arranging, orchestration, and songwriting. But he's such a stylized guitarist that -- despite his protestation "I'm not a guitar player, I'm a songwriter" -- his smokin' guitar has turned many Hollywood heads. His recent appearance at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus showed that California living hasn't slowed him down. His impeccable taste, sophisticated mix of jazz phrases and country pickin', and formidable technique have quickly established him as a producer/guitarist on the Los Angeles roots rock scene, while at the same time his albums under his own name, Lonely Town and the forthcoming St Christopher's Arms, have cemented his reputation as a singer/songwriter. Also, he and ex-X drummer D.J. Bonebrake teamed up for a cool jazz date, One More Midnight (on Dionysus Records). True to form, Skip didn't solo on one song and laid out entirely on another. He eschews "guitar playing for its own sake", concentrating instead on the guitar's role in creating the mood for a song. He produced and played on the newest disc from rockabilly legend Ray Campi, Train Rhythm Blue, due out in December, which also includes guest cameos from Bonebreak, Blaster Dave Alvin, X guitarist Tony Gilkison, and Wall Of Voodoo frontman Stan Ridgway.

You avoid flashy guitar solos on your own records, but on other's peoples sessions, you play some pretty difficult stuff. Do you feel like you have two separate lives as a guitarist?

(Laughs) No, but usually if I'm playing on somebody else's date, they want me to play Jimmy Bryant stunt guitar. Dee Lannon, specifically, wanted more athletic guitar stuff than even I usually provide.

Really, my own records tend to be about songs and arrangements, so I'll rarely be in a position of stretching out and taking two choruses or something. I'm more of a control freak, and that extends to the guitar solos probably more than anything else. There are a few moments on the new record, though, like the Johnny "Guitar" Watson-styled thing on "Crazy Dangerous And Blue", or the two guitar trading on "It Takes One To Know One." But you're right. I don't step out too much on my own records. If you want to hear me do that, it usually happens on a rockabilly record.

What guitar players do you like for their arrangement-styled approach?

Curtis Mayfield is, to my mind, the master of it. He just comes up with the most memorable parts I've ever heard. Also, James Burton, just for his way of building a solo from the melody. If you listen to his solos on "Travelin' Man" or "Someday Soon", they don't draw attention away from the song at all. The reinforce the mood of the whole thing, they don't just play licks.

In my case, a lot comes from listening to old soul records, where the horn section has some figure that just holds up the fabric of the song in a hooky way. A lot of sixties pop records have that kind of ensemble passage, too. A lot of it comes from that I aspire to that but that I have a guitar, not five horns. Also, I have to say, I find the studio to be a weird environment for just cutting loose that way. Everything going on is more controlled. Unless it's a live-in-studio date, like rockabilly tends to be, it's just impossible to leap up in the heat of the moment.

You come out of an improvisational background, so I would think you put some kind of premium on that kind of thing in your solos.

I do, but I limit the context for myself. I think best in a tight structure. Not that I don't like to take ten choruses on "Stella By Starlight." That's the ultimate challenge. But, for recording, eight bars'll serve the purpose better in my songs.

You use a lot of rhythmic tricks in your solos. In "Welcome, Sara", you're playing a lot of phrases over the bar-line. Where did you get that from?

Joe Henderson and Bill Evans both do that a lot. I like to keep the line going as long as possible, but I hate sine-wave configuration eighth-note solos. I have a bad habit of being rhythmically static, and I've worked on that as much as I could. I try to vary up the rhythms and the direction of the line so it's not up-down-up-down all the time. Uri Caine, who I used to see back there in Philly, used to vary phrase length, which was a revelation to me, and really an important piece of the puzzle for how I play now. From Joe and Bill, I really learned some avenues to keep myself out of an eighth-note trap. Tony Gilkison is a master of not falling into that, too. I've probably learned more from him than any guitarist I've spent time around. He's shown me stuff about two-note bends, and just the way he takes these really unpredictable routes in his playing. He's brilliant.

Who are some of your favorite guitarists these days?

Tony, for sure. There's a guitar player here in LA named Harry Orlove, who used to play with Vassar [Clements], and he's dazzling. Greg Leisz, on any instrument. A guy named Rick Shea. He's pretty great, too.

If you mean on record, I like [Bill] Frisell more than just about anybody else these days. Jim Hall is still a favorite. Johnny "Guitar" Watson is probably the guy I listen to the most. Curtis Mayfield. Lowman Pauling, from the 5 Royales. His opening bit on "Don't Let It Be In Vain" is pretty incredible. Hank Garland's solo on the Davis Sisters' "Everlovin'" is pretty serious. Obviously, Jimmy Bryant. Obviously, since I'm from Philly, Pat Martino, Bob Jay, and Steve Giordano always knocked me out.

For years, I was completely under the sway of Big Al Anderson, from NRBQ. I love all his things, and I still hear bits and pieces of him in what I play. A lot of people who I haven't really listened to closely in quite some time still have a huge effect on what I play, like Marc Ribot or Norman Blake or James Burton. I went through huge periods of being ruled by those people, and it's not like I can just throw a switch and cancel them out. Wouldn't want to. Steuart Smith's playing on Rodney Crowell's records really affected me. On "Back Of My Heart", there's this one diminished lick I do that I lifted right from his solo on "Tell Me The Truth." I didn't realize I did it until Matt Cartsonis pointed it out.

Do you think having good influences is the most important thing for a musician?

It's extremely important to have good role models, sure. Practicing, obviously, is important. The other thing I think that's extremely important is to come up playing with good rhythm sections. That was the great thing about Philly. I got to play with drummers like Dahoud Shaw, Colin Diemer and Ed Kamuaraskas. and bass players like Topher Horner, Steve Beskrone, and Aldo Jones. It let me loose to try things. They'd catch me if I fell off a mountain I was building and couldn't climb. If you're playing with bad rhythm sections, it takes everything to keep the band from falling apart. You can't find any freedom to try new things in the music.

You don't use signal-processing gear. Do you hate effects?

Not at all. I don't really have call to use them much. A little slap-back, maybe. But, believe me, I'm all for anything that gives you more colors to paint with.

Right now, I'm really obsessed with becoming a better accoustic guitar player. I'm pretty terrible at it. Everything I play on it is transplanted electric guitar stuff. And it makes me angry at myself, because the tonal properties of the accoustic instrument are so different, the touch is different, everything. And, here I am, not being able to really exploit this instrument as itself. And, as far as I'm concerned, it's a whole set of primary colors. I'm not trying to go back to anything. I'm trying to extend the range of what I do. What's the difference if a guy -- who can play -- is doing it with a different instrument or a stomp-box or MIDI? Use whatever you've got. Don't be a purist. All that gets you is the approval of other purists.

When I'm in the studio, I use all kinds of signal processing after the fact. What's the difference if I do it after or during the performance? I overdub, I punch in, I use whatever is at hand. Effects are fine if they're used by somebody doing something musical. Look at Johnny Marr. He's a total effects-oriented stylist. But, first and foremost, he's a great guitar player. Same with Frisell. What box a guy plays through doesn't answer the question of whether he's saying something on his instrument.

What is your equipment?

A black Fernandes Strat copy with a wide maple neck. I love that guitar. And a Mossman dreadnought accoustic with a mustard-yellow face that Dave Alvin basically sold to me for nothing. He knew I had wanted it for years. That's the nicest thing anybody ever did for me. For recording, I occasionally borrow a guitar if I want something different. There's a seventies Strat there that I used all over the Ray Campi record. The piano player, Rip Masters, had a Tele that I used on a few things, and I borrowed a Les Paul Junior from Tony that had a pickup on it that had been on one of Wes Montgomery's [Gibson ES] 175's. On the Sammy Masters album, I used Deke Dickerson's 1954 Tele. I think that's everything I've used since I came to Los Angeles! But, mostly, it's that black Fernandes, which, by the way, is all stock.

My live amp is a Marshall Lead 20 combo. Small, loud, and clean. I avoid sustain by turning the guitar down to two. In the studio, I use either a new Fender Twin with two switchable channels, which I use so I can have two standing settings for reverb and tone, and also a small Randall combo with one 12" speaker, which is great for a dryer sound. If I was braver, I'd just use that.

I use Fender medium picks, and my strings are Fender Super 250's, .010 to .046. I like them because they're not too bright, but they're not dead-sounding, either.

Do you have any special tricks for recording your guitar?

None at all. I get the sound I want out of the amp, and just take care to make sure that that sound makes it to tape. We usually use a Shure SM 57, just like everybody else. The only exception to this I can think of is the electric on "It Takes One." There's a very quick slapback and a tweaked outboard EQ thing. I wanted a sound like Amos Garrett got on the Berence Whitfield version of "Irma Jackson", so I played it for Steven Bardo, the engineer, and he knew what to do to get the kind of tone I wanted.

What would you say are your best solos on record?

"It's All Up To You" on the Dee Lannon EP. "It Takes One To Know One" on the new Skip album. "Welcome, Sara" on Lonely Town . Any solo I've played has some stuff I like and some stuff I wish I hadn't put to tape. Actually, probably the best rockabilly solo is the one on Ray Campi's version of "Burning In Water, Drowning In Flame."

You made all kinds of records -- jazz, country, rockabilly, bossa nova, more pop-type music. Is there anything left that you haven't recorded that you're just dying to do?

Well, I'm gearing up to do an all-accoustic traditional country record with Ray in early '98, and that's going to be an immense challenge. And I'm going to be arranging and producing an organ trio record with Big Jay McNeely, and he wants me to play on that. I guess if I just keep doing different things, I'll end up covering everything I can find a way to do.

I hope you understand that I've never set up my focus in such a way as to be somebody who's viewed as a guitar player. I'm a songwriter and producer who happens to play the guitar. I can arrange pretty good, and I sing a little bit, and I think my qualifications fall into that order. At the core of it all is that I love to make music, but I don't really care how I go about it, or what task I'm performing to hear something nice. When I was a kid, I wanted to play rhythm guitar and sing high harmonies in a bluegrass band. And I'd still be more than happy to do that.

Other Interviews:
The Eclectic Warrior: Skip Heller
Skip Heller on LES BAXTER