Martin Harley Interview by Aron Radford

You travel all over the world and play in some of the most unusual and remote of places, top of mountains, on airplanes at 30,000ft, on push bikes and motorbikes. Have you ever had any mishaps with your Weissenborn?

Other then loosing a tunning peg on stage in France I have stayed incident free…. touch wood. It’s fallen off the car roof in Denver but the case saved it. 

I think you have a wonderful bed side manner and contagious personality, have you ever considered doing a commercial instructional videos for slide guitar as a side project?

I’ve done a few free instructional clips for Guitarist Magazine which can be found on YouTube. I hope to put together some more concise instructionals at some point. Being self taught has not made me a great teacher but I hope people find something positive to take away from those videos. Question’s are always welcome, so drop me line on Facebook if there’s something you want know. 

What can we expect from the new solo album this year, plenty of Weissenborn I hope lol?

Yes, theres a boat load of electric Weissenborn on ‘The Bird To Whistle’ EP which will be out this spring. There’s plenty of acoustic Wiessenborn on a live solo album that I recorded at Southern Ground in Nashville last year and that will be available in the Autumn of 2015

What are your touring plans for 2015?

Tours are already in place for most of the year. All the details can be found at where people can also join the mailing list to receive up to date gig listings. I’ll be in France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Finland, Ireland, England, Scotland, Switzerland, America, Barbados and more. 

And finally. What advice you could give a beginner who has just bought or thinking of buying there first Weissenborn?

Less is more. Sometimes the simplest things sound the best. 

It just remains for me to thank you once again for your time and support and to say all the best to you.​​

Do you find yourself constantly explaining what this weird fretless lap guitar is to your audience and fans? And how would you say it’s modern day profile is at this present time?

During my recent explorations and tours of the US I was surprised to find that most people have little idea what it is. I’m regularly asked if it’s a mountain dulcimer, a Dobro and occasionally a Banjolin. Wiseness what… Wise Board? It seems more recognised by my European audiences, though why that is remains a little mysterious to me. There have been some fairly monumental boosts in exposure to the Weissenborn over the last decade or two. Ben Harper being the most notable advocate. This also seems to have pushed prices for originals way up but on a positive note has inspired many luthiers to add a Weissenborn to their product range.

Are there any countries in particular where the instrument seems to have a stronger connection and understanding by the audience?

There a great melting pot of styles in Australia for sure. Roots, blues and folk, often with slide or Weissenborn featuring heavily. Therefore I’d say that’s the place it’s makes the strongest connection. If you haven’t heard of Jeff Lang than your missing out on a truly great Antipodean slide player. He’s a strong influence on artists like John Butler. 

What are your personal gear preferences?……..

Preferred wood type for a Weissenborn; Koa (please!)
Strings & gauges; Jonh Pearse are the best of me. I use D tuning sets. 60-15
Tunings;D Major, D minor, Open G and the some C# and B tuning on the Kiff Wood Baritone
Fingers or picks; It used to be fingers all the way but the live shows incorperate some picking on regular guitar so a thumb pick sneked in there. It’s been a long road getting used to it after so many year of naked thumb action but it’s starting to pay off. It’s opened up some different approaches to lead playing and also gets the bass end sounding really solid. I’m using Fred Delvin Slick Picks at present.
Tone bar; Shubb SP 2 but I love ‘Daddy Slide’ Slides too.
Pickups;  LR Baggs active M1 is the best for my AC WB. I also like Sunrise pickups, they’re feedback resistant but create a more electric sound so if you like to go straight into an amp they’re a good choice.
DI’s; I’m not too fussy but I do carry a couple of radial 48s with me
Amps; Peavy classic 30/ Wem Dominator / Marshall Class 5
Effects pedals; Vox V847 Wha, Moollon Overdrive. Hall of Fame reverb

What songs of yours featuring the Weissenborn would you say you get the most pleasure from playing live?

‘Blues At My Window’ and ‘Cardboard King’ both have room for improvisation on continue to evololve as compositions. Playing them live is always fun. I like to think all songs are works in progress as they change a little over time. Just because it was recorded at a certain time doesn’t make the arrangement final for me. I think I’ve released three versions of ‘Blues At My Window’ so far. It growing like a weed. 

Have you ever considered recording an all out Weissenborn instrumental on one of your albums, no singing or backing instruments just to show case your amazing slide playing prowess?

Watch this space. I think maybe I have more guitar melodies than lyrics at the moment so its really quite likely

The main Weissenborn we see you play these days is your beautiful Andreas Cuntz built Weissenborn. How did your association with Andreas come about?

Andreas and I met at the Frankfurt Music Messe. At the time I was sponsored by another guitar company and killing time wandering around the guitar hall. I stumbled across that fine looking instrument. After playing and possibly salivating over it for quite some time I started chatting more with Andreas. We exchanged details and I gave him a couple of my CD’s. The rest is history. 

Did you have the above mentioned Weissenborn made to any personal requirements or preferences, or did Andreas have free reign on the finished instrument?

Andreas built that without any input from me. He’s the expert after all. The pickup choice took some time to get right. Under-saddle pickups almost always sound unnatural to me. Much of the Wissenborns sound is due to the hollow body and neck resonating so I settled on the Active M1 from LR bags. It seems to make the whole thing microphonic and captures the sound much more accurately than anything else I’ve tried to date. I bought a Calton Case for it a few weeks later and have to say it was a really great investment. World travel can be hard on guitars and I’ve had some lovely ones smashed to pieces by careless airlines and baggage handlers. Not mentioning any names …. VIRGIN ATLANTIC!

What other weissenborns have you owned (or still do) down the years?

I have a Kona Style I which was haggled for hard at Norms Vintage and Rare Guitars in LA. Its much brighter than the AC guitar and lacks some of the rich bass probably due to the solid neck. I have a Kiff Wood baritone Wiessendorn made from indian rosewood. Kiff would probably call it a prototype. Though It was intended for a D tuning It’s slightly longer scale length suits B and C tunings very well. It has an unlikely combination of Kiff’s own acoustic pickup design and a 70’s ovation piezo. Having said I don’t like under saddle pickups much the mixture of the two systems in the baritone works very well. 

We have a mutual love of Ry Cooder and especially his ‘Paris Texas’ soundtrack I understand. The blues is one of your pivotal musical styles. What makes the Weissenborn the main instrument you chose to express your musical creativity through, what makes the Weissenborn such a conduit for blues music?

It’s hard to listen to the Paris Texas soundtrack without falling under it’s spell. For me it’s simple, haunting and from the first time I heard it I wanted to to emulate those distant lonely phrases. Like the majority of guitar players I’d toyed with bottleneck and open tunings but didn’t quite find what I was looking for. It wasn’t until I heard Kelly Joe Phelps and experienced a happy accident with an over-heated guitar while living in my car in Australia, that lead me to playing an acoustic across the lap. (Old 12 strings with warped necks make good 6 strong lap style guitars). KJP used bigger bodied Gibson set up for lap slide for the ‘Lead Me On’ and ‘Shine Eyed Mr Zen’ albums. Once I found out there was a purpose built instrument for this style I set my sights on owning a weissenborn. It’s a complete instrument for me .….almost orchestral. Alternate or travis picking allows you to carry the bass line and rhythm leaving the the top strings free for soaring melodies.  

Although I never seen the great Kelly Joe Phelps play an actual Weissenborn you’re style of playing really resonates with his signature sound from his early days and particularly the album ‘Lead Me On’. Would I be right in saying you’re a fan?

Yes I’m a fan. I attended a stunning performance at the union chapel in London that had me running straight home to re-calibrate my expectation of a solo performance. His style incorporated blues but is not bound to it. In a similar way I love the blues but wouldn’t call myself an out and out blues player, though the style resonates with me on a deeply personal level. I enjoy the variety of styles that a weissenborn can be applied. Time spent gigging in the states has exposed me to great new artists and has helped me open up my style to incorporate more elements from hill country Mississippi blues, western swing and old school country. 

How would you describe your playing style and musical direction to the uninitiated? I hear blues, rock’n’roll, bits of jazz, swing and folk. There’s a lot of influences there from a lot of different genres?

I’m not sure what direction I’m heading in until I get there for the most part. I get bored easily and often head off in random directions before finding myself back at the beginning. Think of a musical version of Johnny Cash’s car from ‘One piece at a time’ and you’re on the right track.  At the moment I’m quite focused on going back to a raw and acoustic approach to music with just me and the Weissenborn and Dobro. 

Who are your wider spectrum of musical influences that have shaped your musical career to date?

That can change form week to week. It could be as diverse as John Martyn, Johhny Cash, Queens of the stone age, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, RL Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Nina Simone and Django. 

Favourite piece of slide music ever?

‘Meeting by the River’ It’s an improvised instrumental album Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt from 1993.

Martin Harley is one of the UK’s finest exponents of lap slide guitar in recent years. His open minded approach to music, life and personable demeanour have won him many friends and fans the world over. When  you listen to his bluesy rock’n’roots music you hear this melting pot of musicals style and influences that have been marinated through years of extensive traveling. At the heart of this his music the lap steel is king, whether it’s electric lap steel, dobro or Weissenborn, Martin excels at the rhythm and blues style picking and slidin’. A big fan of Kelly Joe Phelps and Ry Cooder the blues and lap steel slidin’ is a fundamental part of what Martin Harley is about. And so it was with this in mind that I contacted Martin and asked if was up for a chat with the ‘Exchange’ about this aspect of his music and career. Like the absolute gentleman he is he graciously accepted and took time out just before he commenced his latest UK tour to talk to me.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview Martin. I was chuffed to hear you had even heard of “The Weissenborn Information Exchange” and absolutely bowled over when I heard you were a big fan and regularly visited. Thank you for your support its greatly appreciated, I’m sure my readers are going to be fascinated hearing you talk about weissenborns.

Thanks for taking the time to put the questions together. It’s great that players and enthusiasts have a thoughtful and informative site they can reference. If I can help in any way in the future please drop me a line.

I love hearing how people discovered the Weissenborn for the first time and how they got hooked on this wonderful instrument, so what’s your “falling in love” story Martin?

The first time i got my hand on a Weissenborn was at the Frankfurt Music Messe. I wondered passed Andreas Cuntz’s rather small and unassuming display booth and this beautiful instrument caught my eye. I stopped and exchanged pleasantries with the genial German luthier and asked to try it out. That was the beginning of a love story with the instrument and a long friendship with Andreas. A week later it arrived at my house.

What individual songs would you direct Weissenborn fans particularly  towards who haven’t experienced your music before as a door opener to whole wider Martin Harley listening experience?

‘Blues At My Window’ from the ‘Bird To Whistle’ EP (A more current version than on ‘Money Don’t Matter’)
‘Bird To Whistle’ and ‘I Need A Friend – from the ‘Bird To Whistle’ EP
‘One For The Road’ – ‘Grow Your Own’
‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ – ‘Grow Your Own’
‘Cardboard King’ – ‘Mojo Fix’
‘Treading Water’ – ‘Mojo Fix’

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