A conversation with Seth Walker - Singer-Songwriter, Author, Poet, Painter
Whether writing a candid memoir of an itinerant musician’s ramblings around the globe or playing hard-nosed Chicago-style blues on a 70-year-old guitar or painting gently vivid portraits of a favorite river or penning lilting verse about a winter cardinal feeding, Seth Walker’s soul suffuses everything he does. To see/hear/read any of his work is like meeting the man himself.
Seth’s main line of attack against the vagaries of life is music. A classically trained cellist, converted-to-guitar-in-his-teens, he rambles around the world sowing seeds of Southern-sifted tunes accompanied by a gravelly voice and his favorite weapons of war: a 1965 Gibson LG1 small-body acoustic and his go-to electric, the 1952 Gibson ES-150 named Raindrop.
Raindrop got its moniker from a pair of ironically disparate incidents of catastrophe during its seven-decade career. The “rain” piece came from a momentary lapse in judgement on Walker’s part in which he left the guitar leaning all night against a chair after an outdoor party. When he woke the next morning, it was pouring rain. With a clearer mind, and a heart filled with trepidation, Walker found the axe, f-holes to the sky, half-filled with rainwater. “I thought for sure it was curtains.” Desperately, he dumped out the water, dried his guitar with fans and towels and plugged it in- it worked. “I never even had it fixed,” he laughs, “…that’s the secret to my sound, man.” The “drop” part came some years later when Walker’s strap lock gave out during a show at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, “I took my hands up and was clapping and the strap lock broke on that guitar and (it) went screaming to the ground. The whole place gasped. I picked it up— and it was still playing…I can’t believe it…I finished the song and gave it to my bass player and said, ‘Can you fix the strap for me?’ He turned it over, and there was a hole this big (Seth’s hands mimic a four or five inch oval hole). That was a traumatic experience.” Undaunted, the guitar was repaired in Frisco and has been working non-stop for nearly thirty years. Raindrop originally sported a single P-90 single-coil at the neck, but Walker had another P-90 placed at the bridge so he could stretch the tones, “I wanted a little more versatility. You put the selector in the middle and those pickups go out of phase; you get this real boinky, T-Bone (Walker) sound.”
When playing solo gigs, Mr. Walker also carries the LG1 acoustic. It is light, easy to handle and produces a raucous, vintage sound. He had a K&K acoustic pickup put in it, “I don’t want it to be super hi-fi. I’m looking to get it as woody as possible. I can do the blues stuff on it. I can be rhythmic with it. I can do the song stuff with it. It’s just very easy.”
To ensure that authentic blues tone on both of his guitars, Walker puts heavy gauge strings along their necks, “I tend to gravitate toward guitars that aren’t the easiest to play. I use really big strings: .012-.052s. There’s a tone thing. To my hands and to my ears, there’s a big difference between an eleven and a twelve. It forces me to play slower…it’s more of a groove and phrasing thing. There’s hardly any sustain…It’s like playing the drums…”
Walker also plays a vintage 1960s Silvertone 1446 single cutaway with two mini humbuckers, “I borrowed it from my landlord in Nashville. I was like, ‘Dude, I think I’m in love with this guitar.’ But he said, ‘I’m not selling it.’ And I told him how heart-broken I was…I gave him this real sad story and he ended up selling it to me. It’s got a Bigsby (tailpiece) and I must say I’m really addicted to the Bigsby thing. I love that now. And it’s also very forgiving. It makes an okay thing sound better.”
On amplification, Seth keeps it root-cellar simple, “I have a 1957 tweed Princeton. I play my ES-150 and all my electric guitars through that. The acoustic (LG1), too, is really cool through it, man. What I’m learning about the Princeton is that it’s such a responsive, dynamic amp that when I let up on the guitar…the amp kinda cleans up. You can actually work that amp and it can pretty much do anything you need it to.” And because the Princeton does not sport tremolo or reverb, Walker limits himself to two pedals: the Strymon “Flint” with tremolo and reverb and a Maxon analog delay, “You don’t even know I have the delay on. It’s a little bit like a forgiveness pedal…a mercy pedal.” Simple, simple, pure, basic, simple.
Regarding straight acoustic guitars Seth has an inside track on uniqueness; his luthier uncle, John Mark Hampton, made him a custom guitar through his company, Moriah Guitars. “He makes some beautiful guitars, man; he’s a wizard.” Besides the resonant sound box, of special note is the headstock design which places the tuning pegs more in a straight line to the bridge, “It makes it so there’s less tension on the nut.” Seth uses a different Moriah on the video of his song, “Turn this Thing Around” on YouTube and you can hear the way the guitar sings.
In true blues-guitar fashion, Walker uses the capo in a number of songs. Besides allowing ease in key changes, the capo provides real change in a guitar’s voice, “The only capo that I’ve found— that works the best is Shubb. I do a lot of things (demonstrates bluesy fingerpicking riff on the fifth fret) and you gotta make sure that thing is on there good because the strings’ll start to move on a cheaper capo.” Sliding the capo higher, he flashes a quick hammered, finger-plucked lick that shows off the bell like quality of the guitar’s upper range. “It’s really cool. Sounds good.”
Seth’s musical influences rise from “a sprawling bed of music,” and range from his classical musician parents and sibling to T-Bone Walker, Rev. Gary Davis, Allen Toussaint, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, “I’ve always loved this mixture of things, of blues and jazz, soul and rhythm, reggae, and early Ska music from Jamaica…but to find your own sound has always been an ongoing quest for me.” He cites, too, cities which influenced his growth, “Austin was the first real place I went to to really dive into the deep end of this world…,” and then to Nashville, “… to get more into song writing… and to meet new influences…,” and finally to New Orleans— “New Orleans will get you back in touch with maybe why you started doing this stuff in the first place. It’s all about the muse, the spirit and that re-aligned me. All these places have huge influences on my music…”
Walker’s book Your Van is on Fire is a magic window into the sensibilities of a restless but talented artist. One senses that the experiences he lives and feels are necessary to nurture his insistent hunger for artistic articulation. It gives a hint from where such profound but insistingly simple expressions of soul come from— as prefaced in the prologue— it’s all by feel.