Interview: Steve Earle on Guitars

I started leaning towards Martins again for the first time since my teens because of being around bluegrass players and making The Mountain, so I bought several Martin dreadnoughts. But dreadnought-sized guitars were starting to kick my ass when I was playing the material on this record and basically I was back to doing two hours and fingerpicking every night.
steve earleWe got a chance to take Martin’s new Steve Earle custom M-21 guitar for a spin in our November/December 2008 issue, (click here to read the review). We also got a chance to talk to Steve at length about various subjects. But mostly about guitars. We also hear he likes to talk about bonsai trees. Really.

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But, truly, it was a pleasure speaking with Mr. Earle about his passion and knowledge of acoustic instruments.

So the M-21 story starts at Matt Umanov’s shop in New York?
Well, Matt built this conversion on a complete basket case F7 that [David] Bromberg had, and he put a long scale neck on it, and he put a new top on it, so that basically all that was salvaged were the backs and sides. I moved to New York three years ago, and, ya know, if you pace too far in my living room you end of in Matt’s shop.

I had just written and was beginning to record Washingston Square Serenade and the Bromberg guitar came in, Matt had one of them (there were a hundred of ’em), and I bought that. And that was the first M guitar that I owned.

I’m obviously associated with playing bigger guitars. There’s a J-100 that was made in the mid-’80s in Nashville when Gibson first started making those jumbos like that again and Gibson was really starting to get their shit together again for guitar building and they were making really good acoustic guitars anyway. It started out in Nashville and then they moved to Montana and I played those guitars for a lot of years, some older ones but mostly they were newer guitars. I’ve always collected guitars. I kinda went through one collection, my drug habit ate an entire collection and I started over again mid ’90s.

I started leaning towards Martins again for the first time since my teens because of being around bluegrass players and making The Mountain, so I bought several Martin dreadnoughts. But dreadnought-sized guitars were starting to kick my ass when I was playing the material on this record and basically I was back to doing two hours and fingerpicking every night. Triple-aughts didn’t quite have the boom to them that I wanted when I was beating the shit out of ’em. And I really wasn’t even cognizant of this M-sized guitar. All it is really is a quadruple-aught sized guitar.

And I’ve always had a thing for 21-style Martins. I’ve owned like two D-21s, one from the ’50s, one from the ’60s. And 21-style guitars are just plainly appointed rosewood guitars. They basically look like D-18s but are made of rosewood.

And you picked Indian rosewood for the back and sides?
We did because there virtually is no Brazilian rosewood and I dont feel really great about using it. We kinda need those rain forests in this hemisphere or we’re gonna have trouble breathing. (laughs)

The only other thing that’s different is I decided on the Italian top based on the Bromberg. And Italian and German spruce tops are essentially the same thing, they are spruce from the Alps, the distinction is political, not botanical. They aren’t quite as deep, which I noticed also about the Bromberg guitar as compared to M sized guitars with sitka tops, they sounded a little deeper, and my theory and Matt’s was that they sounded deeper than the sitka. Adirondacks and other options which I think sounds different, maybe a little deeper, but I’d never heard an M-sized guitar with an Adirondack top. So at the time we went with the German because it was a known quantity. Mostly Matt spec’d it out. I was lucky to have him walk me through the process.

I’m in New York now and I was just down at the shop. I’m always interested when one comes through the shop now because people are ordering them. [Martin] has sold like over sixty of them. We didn’t limit the number, as long as people will order them we’ll make them. They are hand-numbered but they are not limited. So there are basically two numbers, the standard Martin serial number and then they have a hand number and then of course the labels are signed by me and Matt.

So Matt has some at his shop right now?
Right now he’s got the #32 guitar and I know that because it arrived and I got the #31 guitar and gave that to Ray Kennedy. I own the #1 and the #5.

Which one of those is the sunburst?
The sunburst is the #5. As far as I know there have been two sunburst guitars produced. And Matt sold the #7 sunburst. Mine is the amber sunburst, and they call it a “Chris Hillman sunburst” at Martin and we can’t figure out why.

So Hillman played one like that at one point…?

My guess is that Chris did an artist model. At Martin they can tell you about a number and why they did something technically but with stuff like that the record-keeping gets a little dodgy. My guess is that Chris ordered a guitar based on a sunburst that he’d seen before and someone at Martin said “Oh, the Chris Hillman sunburst” so they’re calling it that, informally, around Martin now. I orderd one of those guitars. Actually I bought a few of these guitars to give to people but when I saw that color I ordered a third guitar for myself just to complete the set. It’s really pretty. [Editor’s Note: The Amber burst will be also be used on the forthcoming Chris Hillman model.]

So are you Martin M-21 man all the way or are there other guitars you play?
There are guitars that I use but every night on shows I play an M-21 all the time. The 12-string I’m playing is a Taylor, Leo Kottke model, and I really like that just because it’s built to be tuned to C# and it’s really the only affordable guitar that’s built to do that. I carry that and two M-21s and I’m playing a lot of National resonator guitars these days.

Yeah, I saw you play a resonator at Newport Folk Festival with the DJ.
That’s a new 14-fret Model-O that they made for me. I’ve got a ’37 but it’s got the original cone in it and I got scared carrying it on the road. And National is making really good instruments these days.

Those old cones are tricky.
Yeah, they are. I promise you a TSA can crush the cone on a resonator guitar without ever knowing what they’re doing. They can break bowling balls. It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.

So you are using the M-21 live?
I’m using them in the studio too. They surprised me. They really seem to jump on tape. You don’t spend a bunch of time EQ-ing boom out. Now there’s sometimes I want them to boom. I do pick up a dreadnought for playing bluegrass with a microphone. For almost anything else I use the M guitar or something smaller. I mean I’ve got an 1880s-something size 1 Martin that I use a lot.

Yeah, a little parlor guitar?
Yeah, it’s what people call a parlor guitar but I don’t know what that means. Size 1 was the only size guitar there was! (laughs) The way Martin’s sizing works is there’s size 1 which is their original size. And a size 1 is two sizes smaller – and keep in mind what you’re literally talking about is if you draw the circumference of the guitar and go up or down a size, it’s like an inch, it’s really less than an inch – than a double-aught guitar. And originally they went 1 through 5 and the higher the number the smaller the guitar. That Terz guitar, the baby Martin like Bobby Gentry and Marty Robbins played, that’s a size 5 Martin. It’s not a ¾ sized guitar, it’s short scale, it’s just a small-bodied, short-scaled guitar. 4’s there were very few made. There were quite a few 3’s made. 2’s there were very few made. So we’re talking mainly 5’s, 3’s, and 1’s and then they made the 0 guitars, and they don’t make single-aught guitars that I know of at the moment. They still make double-aught, and the triple-aught is a size up from that and then they stopped and jumped to the D guitars, the dreadnought. And the dreadnought guitars were started in 1918 and the biggest battleship made at that time was called dreadnought class.

What pickup do you have in the M-21?
It’s a Fishman driving a Fishman aura system. I actually don’t have images of my guitars yet. I haven’t had time to image them. I’m using an image from the George Martin model M guitar, the M3M. And as long as images are the same size as your guitar it usually works just fine.

And in the studio…
In the studio I’m just sticking big large diaphragm microphones in front of a really good guitar.

And you are liking the M-21 for both live and studio applications?
Yeah, I am so far. I’m just starting a record. I just did the first recording with an M guitar, brand new still thinks its a tree, sunburst guitar, when i first got it. I was really surprised. We just did it because it was the guitar that was handy and Ray Kennedy and I were doing a mic shootout. I’m getting ready to record a whole record of Townes Van Zandt songs. And I was just getting my rig ready because I’ll do a lot of the recording at home on my own rig and we were just shooting out several microphones and it just blew our mind the way that that guitar sounded. And I’ll use the David Bromberg model because it’s a little deeper sounding because it’s older I’ve had it longer, it’s pretty broken in.

Do you like to use older stuff in the studio?
I do to some extant. It depends on what’s around. I kinda live in more than one place. I’ve got a lot of guitars. And also pulling out different guitars keeps you from getting bored.

And you just run over to Umanov’s…
Well I’ve done that before too but that’s like…you know, he sees me coming. I went down there this morning to get some coffee and came back with a banjo.

I used to talk to Zeke at the shop when I lived in New York…
Oh, I just left Zeke a few minutes ago. He’s a really really good guitar player too.

He was showing me some Robert Johnson licks and I thought I knew ’em but he had them figured out a whole different way…
Yeah, as soon as this tour’s over I’m gonna get him to show me how to do the Robert Johnson stuff. I can play the Robert Johnson stuff in standard tuning but he knows all the open G stuff. He’s got it totally down.

Anthing else you’d like to mention about your guitar?
Naw, it was just really cool that it got done and it’s such an honor to have your name in a Martin guitar and it’s cool that Matt got to sign it too. I don’t know who was more excited, me or Matt.

Sounds like it was a true joint effort.




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Martin > Steve Earle M-21 Signature Guitar