Lap Slide Guitar & Folsom Prison Blues

Playing a regular guitar turned over on my lap wasn't an intentional attempt at originality. I simply didn't have any money for a real lap slide -- I could barely afford to eat at age twenty -- so I made my own. I was helping my friend Scott move out of his parent's house, and he had this piece of shit Korean guitar, a Tanaka, that he was going to pawn off. I told him to give it to me instead, which he did, and I raised the action on the guitar (the action is the space between the strings and the neck of the guitar) and converted it into a lap slide. I was amazed at how good it sounded.

It's less common to play an regular acoustic guitar like a lap slide, as opposed to a dobro, which is a pretty common instrument in bluegrass and country music. Dobros generally have a square neck and a very twangy, high resonance sound. The cool thing about converting a regular acoustic is that you don't have any of that twang; it's not bluegrass-sounding -- instead it's got a deep tone and it's bluesy and more rock-sounding.  (Note: "Dobro" is an actual company that makes lap steel resonator guitars, but a lot of musicians use the name in a general sense to identify a lap slide guitar.)

Growing up in Colorado, there was a pretty prominent bluegrass scene; some of my friends played dobro, and I liked what they were doing with it. I like bluegrass, but I don't really play it. My main influences on the lap slide are (in order of influence) 1. Ben Harper 2. Xavier Rudd 3. Jack White and 4. Morphine (the band). 

I still have the same lap slide that Scott gave me. I've broken it half a dozen times; twice on purpose. My friend Henry Rust in LA finally fixed it for good with some bolts and washers on the headstock, to keep it from cracking. It's got a lot of personality. I tune it to a really open drone, influenced by early Velvet Underground and the band Morphine. It only has two notes, a first and a fifth note, generally Eb and Bb, and that's it.

If I had to choose, I'd say my favorite song on the lap slide is my cover of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Here's how that came about:

I had just turned twenty, and I was playing in a band called Strange New Shoes in Durango, Colorado. I had just assembled my lap slide, and I was messing around with it. I went out into the mountains, deep into the woods with two of my friends, and we took some acid. This dose was some of the purest LSD I've ever tried: it was an out of body, near spiritual experience. I played my lap slide for four or five hours, almost non stop, and it completely changed the way that I thought about music. It felt like I was playing the guitar backwards and upside down; I was totally reworking my brain on this new experimental instrument I had made. I really learned how to play the lap slide that day. It was such a rhythmic instrument for me more than anything else; really percussive when I got into it.

The musical waves were moving me hard, and I started putting together this melody in my head, and figuring it out on the lap slide. It became the crying, sorrowful, melodic solo to Folsom Prison, although I didn't know that then. The acid was so intense that I'd figure out a small part of the melody and then I'd have to stop and take a walk to breathe again. And then I'd trip out on a flower -- or see myself outside of myself, tripping on a flower -- and then I'd hear a little bit more of the solo, like it was a bird singing to me, and I'd go back to the lap slide and work it out, bit by bit, until I had this cohesive and really beautiful musical part. 

By the time I had figured out the solo and was comfortable with playing it over and over, it was night time in the woods. We built a fire, and I kept playing. I suddenly became aware that I was playing in open E, and I knew that Johnny Cash's song Folsom Prison Blues was just a 1, 4, 5 chord progression; that is, E, A, and B. Without thinking at all, I picked a few notes on the bottom strings, and out came the classic introduction to Johnny Cash's most famous song. It was fate, I felt, like the song had chosen me or something. 

I had learned to fingerpick by studying Paul Simon, playing his Simon and Garfunkel guitar arrangements, and I had just started getting into Lindsay Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac, so I started picking on the lap slide and going through the chords of the Johnny Cash tune. This was the very first time that I had incorporated fingerpicking into my lapslide playing. It was around the end of the night when the song came together. I recorded it two years later, after the band had broken up, and I was preparing to move to California and start over as a solo artist.

People sometimes tell me that they like my version better than the original. I don't know about that. But I will say that I think my take on it does the original song justice. I think Johnny Cash would like it. I grew up listening to Johnny Cash; I love his music, and he has a special place in my heart.

I enjoy playing covers on the lap slide because I make the song my own -- there's very little resemblance to the original song, and the only reason it's a cover is because I've made it a cover. The song Teen Spirit, off of my album Desperate Timesis a good example of that, too. The song came to me in much the same way as Folsom Prison did: under a heavy current of controlled substances. One minute I was jamming, and the next, it was like I woke up and was playing a Nirvana song on the lap slide. It just came to me, nothing was forced.

It's kind of unfortunate that so many of my songs have come to me while I was under the influence, but I'm grateful that I was able to take something from the experiences that I've had and create some positive art from it. I've learned that I was able to create my music in spite of my drug use, not because of it. These songs would have found their way to me eventually. Now that I'm sober (I just passed two years clean -- fucking crazy), I'm pushing the limits of what I can play every day, and there's nothing holding me back stylistically. 

Here's the Johnny Cash song. And the Nirvana one, too. I hope you like them.


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