TWiE Award winning Weissenborn player and total enthusiast John Merrill stormed onto the Weissenborn scene at the back end of 2014 with what I can only describe as a “blitz style” Weissenborn assault on YouTube that literally came out of nowhere. But as in all cases no one comes from nowhere and produces such a high density and quality of Weissenborn music overnight there’s always a back story to be told, and John’s one is intriguing. A story or highs and lows, from youthful dreams of making it big to the crushing lows of virtually losing it all in an instant. Join me as I talk to John and discover his fascinating story of how the Weissenborn turned this mans life completely around.
Tell us about your younger days. Tell us about the deal you made with your parents when you were 17.
I started taking conventional guitar lessons at 10. I remember lip syncing and playing my first guitar in front of the mirror to my sister’s Beatles records. I formed my first band at 13 with a couple of school buddies and we went on to claim fame by winning the talent competition at our middle school. I played in a few local bands throughout high school… just local gigs, friend’s parties and school dances, playing everything from metal to country. I practiced religiously to refine my style and technique and was voted the most talented member of my high school class (which I thought was pretty cool at the time). After high school, I wanted to explore the possibility of actually making a living playing music so I told my folks, who were set on my going to college, I wanted to take some time to see what I could accomplish with my band. So…the guys I was playing with at that time and I invested in an old school bus (with no AC) and converted it to sort of a touring vehicle. We booked whatever gigs we could scrape together ourselves, with no management. I remember actually having to super glue cuts in my fingers from playing so much in those days.
Take us through some of the bands you’ve been in during and after that period in your life.
There weren’t very many guitarists around the small town in Alabama where I grew up so it was always a struggle for me to find guys to play with when I was younger, at least those who were interested in the music I wanted to pursue. Every now and then some kid I knew decided they wanted to be a rock star so their parents would buy them a PA and they would be the self-proclaimed lead singer.
Since there wasn’t much competition in the guitar player market, I would sometimes get the call to fill that void and presto, you got yourself a band. I’ve played in too many “bands” to list but never really anything of real substance…mainly just cover bands, unfortunately no record deals or anything like that.
I also played in a jazz band in college and in my church band for several years and gave private lessons for a while.
What style of music did you play then, rock, metal, grunge, electric, acoustic?
Rock (especially the 70s and 80s album oriented rock) was always what I gravitated towards but in those days in the Southeast U.S., most venues wanted the bands to play southern rock or country so even though it’s not what I really wanted to play, we had to go along to get along. Every now and then we’d sneak in some Zeppelin or Floyd or Van Halen into the set. My musical tastes have evolved now that I’m older but I still love that old rock though. I still have the ’76 Les Paul Custom Black Beauty that was my main axe for all those years.
Was there ever a point when you made a living from music? And when did you reluctantly make the decision to give up on that dream?
Well I would call it a LIVING, but I was supporting myself somewhat for a while. Most of us had day jobs in addition to playing music. We tried to keep our gigs limited to day trips on weekends.
If possible can you tell us about that life changing accident in 2001, the aftermath and the rehab.
Yeah, that was a tough time. I was on a pontoon boat with some friends late one night on the bay near Pensacola, FL where I live when the boat bumped hard against a sand bar. I was standing in front of the boat and fell over into the water. The boat continued forward and I was trapped between the sand bar and the 2 pontoons of the boat with nothing but the propeller in the middle coming right at me. It all happened so fast all I remember was a really hard “knock” on my head. I was in shock and nearly unconscious but the water was shallow there so I was able to sit up somehow with my head out of the water until they came back for me. I wasn’t sure how badly I was hurt but I remember hearing the EMT in the ambulance radio ahead to the hospital they had a possible “amputee” coming in. Turns out, the propeller not only cracked my skull open but had also ripped up my back and left arm. The doc in the ER told me they would do their best to “save my arm” and I remember telling him that I was a guitar player and to PLEASE don’t let me lose it! I woke up in recovery after the surgery and immediately felt over to see if my arm was still there. Not knowing if one of your appendages is there was an eerie feeling. I was bandaged up but the arm was still intact, whew! I didn’t find out until later that my ulnar nerve was severed…that’s the nerve that controls the motor function in your hand and fingers. After a couple of surgeries and 6 months of intense physical therapy I tried diligently to play again but it was no use, I just couldn’t manage it. I have no feeling or function in half of my left hand and most of my arm is numb but still aches constantly. My elbow was shattered and is held together by a metal rod. I can only straighten my arm to about 75 degrees. The muscles in my hand have atrophied as well. You can kind of see it if you watch my You Tube videos closely. I reluctantly had to abandon my passion of playing the guitar forever. A friend of mine later suggested that I take up bass as I could use my thumb and forefinger to play one note on one string at a time. I did that for a few years and got back into gigging but I never really like playing bass and I wasn’t very good at it.
The lows of losing the ability to play guitar like you did before the accident must have been heartbreaking.
Of course, but at the same time my experience has given me a profound appreciation for the fragility of life and how grateful I am to even be on the planet each day. Every time I’m having a bad day, I try to remember that. All I can add is my advice to NEVER take one day for granted, each one is a gift so make the most of it and take time to truly appreciate what you have.
Before the accident had you ever heard of a Weissenborn?
No, at least not that I remember. That didn’t actually happen for years later. I had heard of lap and pedal steels of course. I always like the sound but never actually tried to play one.
So how did you discover the Weissenborn for the first time.
I’m sitting on my back deck by my pool one Saturday afternoon about 3 years ago having a cool one listening to a program called “Acoustic Interlude” on my local public radio station when I heard a sound that immediately caught my attention so I listened closely to see what it was. Ed Gerhard was being interviewed, playing a weissy and explained what a Weissenborn was. That’s the first time I ever heard the term or heard one played as far as I know. My first thought was, what a wonderful sound. I wonder if I might be able to learn to play this “Weisssenborn thing” if I would only have to use my left hand to hold a slide.
Describe your first actual playing experience.
Uggh, not so pretty. I had picked up a real cheap-o electric lap steel off EBay just to see if I could learn to play the thing. I think I gave $100 or so for it. Well, I couldn’t even hold on to or control the slide at first so it didn’t sound good at all.
Tell us what physical obstacles you’ve had to overcome and still struggle with to play the Weissenborn.
In the beginning I actually had to use a rubber band wrapped around the slide and my index finger to hold it in place as I didn’t have the ability to hold on to the bar securely on my own. It took several weeks of practice but I was finally able to develop enough muscle control and strength in my hand to hold the slide pretty well with my thumb and index finger. My ring and pinky fingers are not really functional so I can’t dampen behind the bar very well. My technique is a bit unorthodox but I continue to work hard at it and feel I‘m improving. My hand also gets really tired and aches after playing over a couple of hours. I have a standing gig every month where I have to play for 4 hours straight, that’s a killer!
Your learning curve was steep but you climbed it at a very fast rate. Your previous musical background must have stood you in good stead in that regard in relation to “playing by ear”
Absolutely, I don’t read tablature so I play strictly by ear. I taught myself how to play the Weissenborn by watching You Tube videos over and over. I also bought a couple of on-line lessons from Troy Brenningmeyer (lessonswithtroy.com). I would highly recommend this site for any weissy or resonator guitar player. The first song I learned was “Rye Whiskey” by Ed Gerhard. John Wilde and Thomas Oliver were also huge influences and continue to be. Their albums, “Beneath The Weissenborn” and “After 8” blew me away. I wish Ed would consider doing an all-weissy album. Perhaps you could suggest that when you interview him! The other factor that helped facilitate my learning process was my previous finger picking experience. Although I almost always used a standard pick when playing conventional guitar, I had enough finger picking skill from previous experience that it came back pretty quickly to me. I still struggle a little with the alternating bass technique with my thumb but I’m working on it.
What did you find the hardest part about learning the Weissenborn at first?
Other than training my muscles to hold the bar…just the feel of the thing really. Holding the instrument in my lap felt foreign to me, after all those years of guitars strapped around my shoulder. Also, my inability to dampen behind the bar with my fingers forces me to compensate with my hand which is difficult for me due to the atrophy of the muscles. Oh yeah, and I hate changing strings on a weissy, the headstock is so small, can I get a witness?
Do you feel that you’re at any significant disadvantage technically speaking with regards to what can and cannot play.
First and foremost I am very grateful and blessed to have a musical outlet again! I had thought those days were gone forever and the Weissenborn has opened up a whole new musical world for me. Sure, I have physical limitations due to my injury. It’s difficult for me to play fast and dampen behind the bar. I can’t even turn the machine heads with my left hand to tune so I’ll never be able to do Thomas Oliver’s cool move of tuning up and down during a song. I’ll probably never be as fluid as more accomplished either players but that’s OK. I’ll continue to practice and stretch my ability level just because I love playing so much.
What’s the very first Weissenborn you purchased?
An Anderwood (ST Series). Weissys are a bit of a niche instrument and it’s not like you can walk into any MI store and kick the tires on several. I don’t like the idea of purchasing instruments online without being able to try them out first but there was no other option for me. I chose the Anderwood because John Wilde was playing them so beautifully in their promotional videos and getting such a lovely sound straight out of the instrument. The ST series is in Anderwood’s mid- price range which I thought would be a good starter guitar without investing a bank roll. It featured a solid mahogany top and had a Fishman EQ/ pickup built in. It had a nice sound and I just really like the way they put that neat wooden logo on the head stock (although I don’t think they’re doing that anymore on their redesigned headstocks. They also sent me a cool bumper sticker that I still have on my Jeep. I eventually traded it in on a solid body Gold Tone, which I still have.
Tell us about your beautiful newest addition, The Koa Iseman.
When I felt ready to step up to the next level in an instrument, I did extensive online research to determine what luthier I wanted to build mine out. I chose the Iseman for a few reasons. I thought there was just something really cool about a Weissenborn that’s actually handcrafted in Hawaii. A Weiss is, after all, a life-style instrument rooted in Hawaii and you just can’t get that vibe from guitars made elsewhere. They also had a nice sale happening at the time so that was certainly a factor. The moderately priced Gold Tone, Anderwood and Imperial guitars I started with served the purpose adequately but are no comparison to the Iseman for ease of play, craftsmanship, greater volume and consistency throughout the guitar’s range and just great looks. I also shopped Bill Hardin of Bear Creek Guitars, Bill Asher of Asher Guitars, Tim Kill and Tony Francis among other custom builders whose passion for unraveling the secrets of the original Weissenborns has enabled them to build very accurate and beautiful reproductions both in terms of construction and tone. In the end I was intrigued by the “cool factor” and the glowing reviews on the Iseman website and decided to take a chance on buying a more expensive instrument sight unseen. Great decision, great instrument! They were also nice enough to post one of my videos on their website.
Any plans to add to your collection. What’s on your wish list?
I currently have a teardrop Zebrawood on order that I picked up off EBay. I’d love to possibly get something from Bill Hardin of Bear Creek and I love Tim Kill’s work (at least the pics on his website). I called Breedlove to see if they could build a weissy for me like the one they customized for Ed Gerhard but they told me they weren’t building any weissys anymore.
Describe how playing the Weissenborn makes you feel.
I just get lost in the thing. The sound is almost hypnotic to me. I love the way the sound is directed at the player so you’re immersed if the full rich tone of the instrument. I’ll commonly pick it up with the intention of noodling for a few minutes and before I know it, 2 hours have past. That happens all the time, as my wife will attest to. My job can be stressful at times and playing is therapeutic and calming to me. I try to play for at least an hour every day.
Favored tunings and gear……
Open D or C# for weissy. I recently had a resonator guitar built for me that I’m tuning to open G.
What are your personal gear preferences?……..
Preferred wood type (Weissenborn);
Strings & gauges;
Currently John Pearse Weissenborn phosphor bronze 68 – 17…Ed Gerhard told me he uses D’Addarios so I’m going to try those when I exhaust my currently supply of Pearse’s
Open D or C# (to slack the strings a bit)
Fingers or picks?
Fingers with thumb pick for highlighted bass attack. I’m practicing more with finger picks just because I want to be proficient both ways. There are a couple of tunes that sound better with the picks to me but I’m partial to the warmer sound of flesh on steel.
Tim Scheerhorn stainless steel, I’ve tried several but this is my favorite so far. It’s expensive (about $80) but has a solid machined feel like no other. It’s the best for crisp pull-offs/hammer ons and is easier for me hold on to.
Duncan Mag mic, great pickup for weissys but I hate having the 9v battery inside the sound hole. It’s just difficult to get to if needed. I just ordered a Fishman Rare Earth Blend that I’m excited to try. Ed Gerhard uses a Fishman Neo D humbucker and told me he loves it so I dialed up Fishman to order one but their tech talked me into the Rare Earth. Says it’s better, we’ll see. Of course Ed could make ANY pickup sound amazing.
I’m currently using a Fishman Performer with a Schertler 400 as a slave. You can get a nice stereo blend using the 2 combined. I’d like to get away from amps all together and pick up a Bose L1 PA system (or something similar) and go straight PA, ala John Wilde.
Just a TC Electronics Flashback delay and Ditto looper. I’ve experimented with reverb and chorus pedals but have found the Fishman amp reverb and chorus sounds fine and I’m all about minimizing pedals.
Beard Wave, which is built for resonators but works great on weissys
What’s your best advice for beginners just starting to learn to play the instrument or thinking of having a go.
You’re probably not going to find an instructor so go into it prepared to teach yourself. Check out “lessonswithtroy.com for great on line instruction. Practice the fundamentals. Play each note with good intonation and don’t try to play too fast. That will come in time. Think tone and making the note ring out clearly. Master alternating bass picking with your thumb, this may be frustrating for some at first but it’s essential for weissy playing. Expose yourself to as many artists/songs as you can. Watch their You Tube videos closely and emulate what they are doing. If you don’t read music, work out as much as you can by ear. You must develop a good ear to play Weissenborn well. Always be working on something new and play every day if possible. Above all else, have fun with it!
What slide artists do you admire and who has had the greatest influence on your playing.
All the obvious ones: Ed Gerhard, John Wilde, Thomas Oliver David Lindley and Ben Harper. I also like Fernando Perez and Christiaan Oyens and there’s a guy named Mat Ango that has some very nice original compositions on You Tube. I’d like to thank TWIE for turning me on to Knut Hem, Chris Haugen and Steinar Gregertsen as well. Gerhard and Wilde are my greatest influences though. They were the catalyst for getting me started and keeping me motivated.
Favorite piece of Weissenborn music?
Tough one, there are SO many and I LOVE the sound of a well-played Weissenborn no matter what the song is. If I have choose, I’d narrow it down to Thomas Oliver’s “Let It Not Be Lost” and “The Moment”. Also John Wilde’s “Teardrops” and “Killing the Blues” by Ed Gerhard. T.J Owusu’s “Pathetique” by Beethoven on You Tube is pretty sick!
Now I don’t get jealous very often but going to an Ed Gerhard concert and meeting him in person afterwards does make me feel a little green. Tell us about the over ridding memories and observations from that night.
Ed does an abbreviated show here in Pensacola each year in conjunction with our local public radio station. He’s always on a bill with 2 other artists so he only plays 6 tunes (usually only 2 on Weissenborn and the rest on guitar). I have attended each show since I got into the whole lap steel thing. After this most recent show, which was in March, my wife and I went to a restaurant for dinner nearby when in walks Ed and his wife and they sat at the table next to us. Being on the shy side, I wasn’t going to approach him but my wife talked me into it. So, I told Ed the story of my injury and what an influence he had been on me getting back into playing music again. We had a nice conversation and he was nice enough to give me some pointers. He’s a real class act and it was a special moment I’ll always remember.
So what prompted the YouTube blitz late 2014 that resulted in you receiving an ‘Outstanding Achievement’ award from The Weissenborn Information Exchange?
I just wanted to be in that space because I had seen other players putting their stuff out there and thought a You Tube channel would be a great way to gain some exposure. I had never attempted to post a video on You Tube before. My computer savvy daughter actually put the channel together for me.
Talk us through some of the songs and artists you’ve decided to cover like Andreas Rydman, John Wilde, Ed Gerhard, Bert Bouwhuis and Troy Brenningmeyer.
I didn’t consciously decide to cover them, I was just trying to learn to play. There aren’t many Weissenborn instructors out there so I had to teach myself and the best way I knew to do that was by watching their You Tube videos and trying to replicate what they were doing. I started with the artists and tunes I liked best like: “Rye Whiskey”,” Grano”, “Serenity”, “Killing the Blues” and “You’ll Never Be the Sun”. Once I started getting the hang of it, I started working out other tunes by ear and I wrote a few originals.
Now it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the videos were of a very very high standard indeed. I did spot a film crew in some shots so talk us through what the set up was and where you recorded them.
A buddy of mine who is in the video production business produced most of the videos on my channel. Another buddy of mine who owns a bar let us use the facility for a day for the shoot. We shot about 20 videos in that one day. I’m very pleased with the video quality although it was a bit unnerving to play while a camera was moving around me so closely. The audio levels aren’t quite where I’d like them to be though. In hindsight, we should have had the mikes closer to the amp rig. I recently purchased a Sony HD MV1 video camera that is specifically built for high end audio recording with a video cam attached. I am experimenting with doing solo some video production with it and hope to be adding to my channel very soon. The new videos won’t be as slickly produced but hopefully will sound crisper. I’m still using my amp rig for recording but I’d like to get away from that and get a high end mike set up and move more toward the way John Wilde and Thomas Oliver produce their videos with a visually stimulating setting, great audio right out of the guitar and high end video. Easier said than done for sure but that’s the model I’d like to emulate.
To what ends have you produced these videos. Are they acting as a form of promotion for you. Are you properly perusing a part time career as a professional Weissenborn player for hire and gigs, or is this purely fun?
It’s purely for fun at this point although as I improve my playing I would very much like to explore other playing opportunities. I don’t sing so most gigs I would be suited for would probably be limited to restaurants, wine tastings art galleries, that sort of thing.
I played “Cannon” at my niece’s wedding recently and that was a blast. My daughter made up some business cards for me to hand out so we’ll see what opportunities that opens up.
So what are your short term plans musically?
Practice, refine my technique and learn about 10 more songs. That would give me enough material to play about 3 hours of uninterrupted music which should be enough to cover any gig without repeating tunes. I’m also just seeking out any local gigs.
And long term plans?
Produce a CD, I have to write enough original material first. Also, just try to generate additional exposure by growing my You Tube channel and possibly expand that into a website. I really like what John Wilde has done with his.
Do you have any more covers scheduled for release soon?
I’m trying to learn Gerhard’s “Homage” and Oliver’s “The Moment” but those are tough for me.
I’ve just about got John Wilde’s “She Moved Through the Fair” and I’m working on learning some of Mat Ango’s originals. I’ve written a couple of originals that I’ll be recording and posting on my channel in the next few weeks.
So the logical progression for you is surely original compositions and a possible album?
Yes, that’s my goal. It’s given me a new appreciation for Bert Bouwhuis’ accomplishment of 12 original instrumentals in 12 months. I probably have enough material to do one now but some of my compositions are rather amateurish. I want to write more in depth quality pieces first. I’m sure I’ll be emailing you for pointers when that time comes.
Have you recorded in the studio yet, is that something you want to do?
Not since my accident but it’s definitely on my bucket list. When I play publically, I am often asked for a CD and it’s a little embarrassing that I don’t have one yet. I’ll probably invest in a DAW and do it myself at some point rather than record in a professional studio.
Try and to put into words how the Weissenborn has changed your life?
Playing music had been a passion of mine since I was a little kid. Being a guitar player was kind of my identity growing up. After my accident I had written off the possibility of ever playing again. The Weissenborn has changed all that and I suppose I have become a bit obsessed with it, perhaps trying to make up for lost time.
If I’m not playing, chances are I’m listening to weissy music. My Spotify playlist is almost ALL Weissenborn tunes and I am usually scanning You Tube for more weissy videos before I go to sleep a lot of nights.
It just remains for me to say thank you for sharing your story with us all and to wish you all the best for the future. So until next time goodbye.
Thank you as well Aron for the opportunity to share my experience. I’m a big fan of what you’re doing with TWiE.