Over the years, Spencer Bohren has forged a unique guitar style, garnered from countless sources and tempered in the fires of continual live performance. He moves effortlessly from instrument to instrument, and uses different tunings and techniques to enhance whatever mood he seeks to create.
Naturally, there are many pieces which are appropriately played in the proper, so-called Spanish Tuning. From treble to bass, the strings are tuned E-B-G-D-A-E. These include Ragtime tunes such as Hey, Hey Daddy Blues or Maple Leaf Rag, country blues like Look Down the Road and Stone Pony Blues, and Piedmont-style songs like Eight More Miles to Louisville. Spencer’s recent album, the Blues According to Hank Williams has a few, like Lonesome Whistle and Lovesick Blues, and his all-original Blackwater Music disc features a moving version of his song, The Old Homestead.
The key of E, which Spencer refers to as “The People’s Key,” can sound very dark, and with its big, open bass string, is perfect for deep blues like Down in Mississippi, Goin’ Up the River, Catfish Blues and Cry of the Blues. Some of the greatest blues guitarists never got out of the key of E. Other approaches to the key of E can be heard on Cairo Blues, Come Back, Corinna, Beulah Land, Ghost Train, Sand to Sand, Your Mama and Your Papa and Jake the Snake. The classic blues shuffle is predicated on the E position. Listen to Snap Your Fingers, Key to the Highway or Cold Wind for examples. A country shuffle was used for Disappearing Nightly. Spencer has written many heartfelt ballads in E as well, including Wings of an Angel, Another Day, In-Between Friends, and Full Moon. His latest releases contain songs in the key of E like Hank Williams’ Honky-Tonk Blues and I Can’t Help It, and his own hilarious Bad Luck Bone.
The key of A, also popular for blues, is used to great effect on Spencer’s signature piece, Born in a Biscayne, and provides the motion for his hot rod blues, Straight Eight, inspired by Sonny Boy Williamson’s Pontiac Blues. The traditional Mississippi approach to the key of A is evident in Leroy Carr’s How Long Blues from Spencer’s Dirt Roads album. To hear an example of finger picked folk guitar in the key of A, listen to Spencer’s emotional I’ll Be Around on the Southern Cross album. The Long Black Line Disc features a topical song, Iowa Night, and his latest, Blackwater Music opens with Old Louisa’s Movin’ On, which combines elements of blues, folk and rock guitar playing.
Spencer uses the Drop D Tuning at least once in every set. It’s simply the proper “Spanish Tuning” with the bass string dropped down one step to D. This provides entree to songs like Darkness and Dark Road Blues, and occasionally on stage Spencer will play Deportees by Woody Guthrie or the charming Morning Blues, recorded on The Long Black Line and Live at the Tube Temple respectively. The sweet but deceptively dark Canned Heat Blues is also featured on The Long Black Line album. Occasionally it is effective to use this Drop D tuning in a different key like Spencer does on Blackwater Music’s Old Louisa’s Movin’ on. That recording also showcases the delicate blues of Has Anyone Seen Mattie? This simple change in tuning can open up a world of new ideas and get you used to reconfiguring chords, a necessity for playing in different tunings.
Open Tunings allow the guitar to sing a full chord with no fingers on the neck at all! They can transform your approach to the instrument, indeed to music itself. Bottleneck guitar, which often confuses the novice musician, suddenly appears within reach, and lovely fingerpicking melodies occur almost by accident. Open G Tuning, D-B-G-D-G-D, treble to bass, can be heard on Spencer’s Midnight Delta, I’ve Been Delivered, Take It or Leave It, and Down the Road. A more traditional approach to Open G tuning is evident in the Delta Blues bottleneck playing on How Long Blues and Mindin’ My Business, as well as the Sleepy John Estes romp, Drop Down Mama, from Spencer’s recently remastered first album, Born in a Biscayne. One of his renowned traditional originals, Goin’ Down the Bayou, adds flavor to the CD Southern Cross.
Open D Tuning, D-A-F#–D-A-D, treble to bass, is dark and mellow, and Spencer likes to use it on slow blues songs like Broke Down Engine and the unsettling Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues. On some albums, though, Spencer uses this tuning for upbeat numbers like Yazoo Bottom Messaround, Bound for Glory and River Jordan. On Deep Ellum, he takes advantage of the openness of the tuning to find a persistent groove, and the “guitar-spanking” of Eloise, learned directly from the great Bukka White, demonstrates a percussive approach, played on the National Steel guitar, that would be impossible in straight tuning, or on a wooden guitar, for that matter. On his most recent album, Blackwater Music, Spencer tunes his National steel to D Minor for the spooky Borrowed TIme.
Spencer Bohren has been a genuine pioneer in the area of solo lapsteel playing, both electric and acoustic. Having no frets, the lapsteel is truly a completely different animal, so to speak, than the guitar, though some bottleneck technique transfers quite effectively. Because of the construction of the electric lapsteel, Spencer is able to tune up as well as down, and most often plays in variations of A or E Tuning. These are identical to Open G and Open D, except every string is tuned one step higher. Examples of the A position are found in the atmospheric Sand to Sand, Witch Doctor and One Kind Favor. Electrifying ensemble passages are very evident in Middle of the Day and Cold Wind. To hear the electric lapsteel in D position, listen to Wade in the Water. Other notable lapsteel pieces Spencer has recorded include Long Black Veil, Somebody on Your Bond, an extraordinary version of Ode to Billy Jo, People Get Ready, and his homage to the bravery and confusion of New Orleans’ unfortunate citizenry following Hurricane Katrina, The Long Black Line. He uses lapsteel to electrify two Hank Williams songs, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and Ramblin’ Man, and the title track to his latest CD, Blackwater Music, is perhaps the most powerful slide guitar he’s recorded to date, though that would be a tough call. His Listen to the Wind and It’s Gonna Take a Miracle, from the same album, draw incredible emotion and depth from this amazing instrument.
One of Spencer’s most effective lapsteel pieces is played with the A or G position slightly altered to create a minor chord. This is done by detuning the second treble string 1/2 step. The dramatic results are explored in Night is Fallin,’ from his Dirt Roads recording and Ode to Billy Jo on The Long Black Line. There is a particularly fine second version of Night is Fallin’ on Spencer’s Live at the Tube Temple album, and the same minor tuning can be heard behind the vocal and guitar on his version of Ramblin’ Man from the Blues According to Hank Williams. Most recently, Spencer explores the acoustic / electric lapsteel, using this tuning on his cinematic tale, Listen to the Wind, from Blackwater Music.
For the last couple of albums, Spencer has been increasingly drawn into the beautiful sound of the acoustic lap slide guitar, which is nothing more than an acoustic guitar with a higher nut and saddle. The exquisite instrumental version of Amazing Grace, from his album Carry the Word, is a tour de force for this style, and the album also features the lap style slide on I Am a Pilgrim and The Word. Spencer’s previous disc, Dirt Roads, begins with his first recorded acoustic lap slide track, using the traditional favorite The Water is Wide as a vehicle, and Travelin’ also takes advantage of the particular qualities of the instrument. Spencer often chooses acoustic lapsteel as a background instrument on his recordings for its expressive sound and feel.