Make Your Guitar Sing: An Interview with Orville Johnson

Sl_orvillejohnsonOrville Johnson, Artistic Director of Slide and Steel at Centrum, came up in the St. Louis music scene, where he participated in a wide variety of blues, bluegrass, and American roots music. In the years since, he has played on over two hundred albums, released four recordings, and been featured in multiple soundtracks.

Centrum: What in particular do you think attracts people to the sound of the slide guitar?   

Orville Johnson: One of the most fascinating things about the slide guitar is that there are no frets, no musical breaks. Because of this you can re-create vocal sounds and imitate singing on your instrument. The human voice has this complete range where you can weave around and cover the spaces between the notes. An instrument that is fretted can’t do this. But a non-fretted instrument, like a dobro or steel or slide guitar, can imitate the singing voice with its full range. Essentially, you can sing through your guitar. 
The slide guitar as we know it came from Hawaii, and became widely known in America during the Panama-Pacific World Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. A group of Hawaiian musicians played all through the fair’s duration. During that time some of the musicians made recordings, and Hawaiian slide music swept the nation—much like rock and roll would later. It instantly made its way into other forms of music such as country and blues.

C: Where do you see slide guitar music heading in the future?

OJ: Slide guitar is being used more in popular music now than ever before. Primarily this is because there’s lots of exposure to the instrument through popular music, television,  and soundtracks. I don’t see why that won’t continue to be the case because it’s such an expressive instrument. Slide can really fit into any form of music because of the fact that you are singing through your instrument. You can sing any genre of music, so why not slide it?
The Campbell Brothers use steel and slide in religious settings by imitating gospel singing. They’re a new wrinkle in the mainstream gospel genre, even though this kind of music has been done in their church since the nineteen-forties. I‘ve used it myself in jazz, Brazilian, and Latin music, and, of course, in country and blues. Slide guitar can fit into any kind of music because, essentially, it’s singing. 
I have students of all ages and I tell them that I can teach them how to make the notes, play scales, and technically operate the instrument, but the only thing that makes it music is their expression. There’s no right or wrong way to do that…it’s all up to the individual. Once I’ve taught them how to technically operate the appliance, it’s up to their expression to bring music out of the instrument. I think the slide guitar is one of the easiest types of instruments with which to gain access to one’s personal expression. I see students of all ages responding to that. 

C: What new or continuing projects are you working on right now?

OJ: I’m always working on my own music since I’m a musician as well as a teacher. I’m finishing up an album of dobro duets with other players, and I hope to have that out at the end of this year. I’m also working on an album of my vocal tunes which will be out by next summer. I do a lot of producing, so right now I’m working on an album with a singer/songwriter named Kate Borkowski.

C: As the first Artistic Director of Slide and Steel at Centrum, what is your vision for that program? 

OJ: It’s interesting to have a guitar workshop that isn’t limited to a musical genre. Many of our musical workshops are categorized: Jazz, Blues, Fiddle Tunes…they focus on a certain kind of music. With Slide and Steel it’s a different kind of event. It’s great because we’re not limited to a genre or type and can include all kinds of music. I also want to continue offering Voiceworks at the same time as the week-long slide workshop.
Every other year the two will happen simultaneously, and in the alternating year I want to have three mini workshops: bottleneck, dobro, and steel. That way, we can also focus on one instrument’s aspects and then bring them all together in the weeklong session.

Orville Johnson leads a special weekend workshop in bottleneck guitar January 31February 3, 2008. $550 includes all meals and lodging, and he's joined by Mike Dowling and Steve James in the weekend gathering celebrating what is considered by many to be the most expressive and tuneful sound ever conceived. The weekend will include workshop sessions, faculty demonstrations, tutorials, and open jams.

Participants must have a basic technical command of their instrument(s) and basic knowledge of music theory. As part of the workshop, participants will receive free admission to the February 2 public evening performance in the Joseph F. Wheeler Theater. For Workshop Registration follow this link or call 360.385.3102, x114. Faculty bios are beneath the jump.

Faculty and Performers

Mike_dowling In 1995, Mike Dowling launched his solo performance career with the release of the critically acclaimed Swamp Dog Blues. Dowling’s engaging voice, self-deprecating wit, and arsenal of elegant interpretations of old blues are well known—as is the quality of tone he produces when he lays a slide on a string.

Steve James is known internationally for his playing, songcraft, and original approach to Steve_james_2 the  roots music he’s heard since childhood. A workshop veteran, Steve has published numerous articles and books, as well as instructional DVDs. His studio work, both solo and in support of other artists, has earned him many accolades, including Grammy nominations.

Orville Johnson, the Artistic Director of Slide and Steel, came up in the St. Louis music scene, where he participated in a wide variety of blues, bluegrass, and American roots music. He moved to Seattle in 1978, where he was a founding member of the folk/rock group the Dynamic Logs. Johnson has played on over one hundred albums and released four recordings.