For Holmstrom, the answer is a style that blurs the lines between traditional blues – the genre in which he has invested most of his nearly 40-year career – and a place at the edge of the envelope, where chromatic lines , fingertip slide imitations, microtonal bends and a devout belief in the infallible power of groove telegraph his vision. These elements, along with his clean, lazy, typically telly tone, made him Mavis Staples’ musical director since 2007 and caught Ry Cooder’s ear. His ability to evoke the spirit of Mavis’ late father, Pops Staples, on his renditions of Staple Singers classics is uncanny, while retaining the distinctive Holmstrom flavor.
While his resume certainly leans towards the old school – he’s toured with harmonica aces William Clarke, Johnny Dyer and Rod Piazza, and recorded with Jimmy Rogers, Billy Boy Arnold and Booker T. Jones – he also added a spectral game at the Classic straddling the RL Burnside space I wish I was in heaven sitting and recorded a solo album in 2002, Hydraulic groove, which harmoniously combines funk, trip-hop, ambient electronics and roots music. In a place less conservative than the blues market, it would have been widely advertised as connoisseur masterpieces know.
Bubbles – Rick Holmstrom
Now he has a new instrumental album called You understand! it’s a funky and emotive showcase for his style; pursuing his passion for almighty groove but following his distinctive path where bends get weird (“Weeping Tana”), melodies swing loud (“Robyn’s Romp”), the great minds of the genre are summoned (“King Freddie” ), Moroccan strains echo (“Taghazout”) and sample-worthy hip-hop rhythm tracks (“Kronky Tonk”) do heavy lifting.
Holmstrom’s journey began as a child in Fairbanks, Alaska. His father, a local DJ, exposed Holmstrom to the blues, soul and R&B that would define his career. There’s no doubt Staple Singers hits like “I’ll Take You There” and “Freedom Highway,” both of which are part of Mavis’ live sets today, were in heavy rotation.
“Let’s get past all this existential post-apocalyptic fate and have a funky good time.”
Cooder was instrumental in her arrival as Mavis’ musical right-hand man. “My band opened for Mavis on the Santa Monica Pier,” he says. “We come off stage and the promoter says, ‘His band is stuck at LAX, but Mavis is here. Can you back her up for a few songs? We didn’t really know her songs, but we played three or four of them.
“As I was leaving the stage, a guy with yellow glasses tapped me on the shoulder, and it was Ry Cooder. Ry was producing a Mavis record, and he liked the way we played with her. kept saying to Mavis, I guess during the session, ‘I really loved that band that played with you.’ Then our first gig with her, incredibly, was The show tonight. [Laughs.]”
“The album is all my ’53 Tele except for two songs,” says Holmstrom. “It’s the variety of sounds you can get out of it. ‘All About My Girl’ – that’s the neck pickup. Looks like it could be a hollow body. The middle is pure Stax or Motown, and the bridge is whatever you want.
Photo by Brad Elligood
Holmstrom’s individuality is all the more surprising as he cut his teeth during the blues explosion of the 1980s. As he dug into Chicago, New Orleans, Stax and Motown, all the world was obsessed with one particular player from Austin, Texas. “I wanted nothing to do with Stevie Ray Vaughan,” he says. “And that’s not a problem at all. He really is a great guitarist. But when it came out, I was like 12. Acting was still an option for me. Then he arrived, and that was almost enough to give up the guitar.
“All you had to do was look around and see all these guys copying it. Everyone had a Strat, a hat, boots and a Super Reverb,” he explains. “So , I had a big hollow body with a single P-90 and no cutaway and tried to learn big band saxophone and horn section melodies.”
By forging his own path, Holmstrom avoided the blues-shred of those years. Preferring to let his parts breathe, he fills this space with… nothing. Discover his solo on “Looky Here” by You understand! The guy sometimes gives up for full measure. He even ends the solo by hardly playing at all for the last two bars. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a guitarist who inspired this restraint.
“Years ago we were playing in Boston with Mavis,” Holmstrom recalled. “We arrived a night earlier and Ahmad Jamal was playing. He was breaking down a melody and only using two of the notes. It attracts you because you don’t hear all the notes that might be there. Your brain is allowed to imagine the rest. It was a concert that changed my life.
Like his playing, Holmstrom’s songwriting is also decidedly non-guitar-centric. Instead of tuning in, showing up and going, he says he listens. “When I’m composing songs or creating a groove, I’m humming or singing to myself,” he says. “So I’ll be thinking, ‘Where does this melody go next?’ I don’t play guitar at the time. I hum it and sing it to myself. ‘Does it flow? Alright, now let’s go back and learn that on the guitar.’
Of course, the contemporary zeitgeist – not just a quest for melody – also played a part in the creation of You understand!
Rick Holmstrom’s gear
Holmstrom mostly picks with his fingers, but will revert to a pick for some solos to achieve a sharper attack and more colorful tone.
Photo by Joseph A. Rosen
- 1953 Fender Telecaster with Ron Ellis neck pickup and 50s Fender lap-steel bridge pickup
- 1955 Les Paul Special with phase switching
- 1940s Gibson ES-150
- SIB Electronic Echodrive
- 60s Fender Reverb Tank
- Milkman The Amp (used as a preamp for the rented AC15 while on tour)
- Bronson 1×10 combo made by Valco from the 1950s modified to Tremolux tweed spec (with 6V6 tubing)
- Fender silver-panel Vibrolux (with 6V6 tubes)
- Vox AC15 (backline rented on tour, with EL84 tubes)
- D’Addario (.011–.050)
“It was January 21 and my previous record, see this light, hadn’t even come out. Then the insurrection happened, and it started to drive me crazy,” he says. “I watch MSNBC and I read The temperature and all that, and it really bothered me. The only thing I could do was get creative and take my mind off things. I booked a session and started creating drum loops of grooves that I thought might work.
While world events have led some artists to exercise their struggles through dark, introspective works, Holmstrom has gone the other way. You understand! is about having a good time, feeling free, and reminding ourselves of a simpler, joyful way of looking at the world. “I wanted this record to be something you could put on when you get your friends together or when you have a barbecue,” he says. “Let’s get past all this existential post-apocalyptic fate and have a funky good time.”
“I’ve gotten to the point where I hate guitar pedals.”
While the album is packed with great blues, songs like “Surfer Chuck” and “Taghazout” play with ’60s surf rock, sultry Middle Eastern motifs, and whatever else Holmstrom was drawn to. “FunkE3” in particular, with its percolating Meters-style groove and stylistic shifts, shows just how far Holmstrom and his team can go.
This one had been dragging on for a while. “We did a tour years ago with Mavis, where Joan Osborne opened, and we supported Joan as well,” Holmstrom says. “One of our background singers said, ‘Dude, why don’t we take her out with an instrument and then, boom, go right into Mavis’ set?’ So ‘FunkE3’ is the song I started working on and ended up being the one [transitional] sing many nights.
Even with a wide range of styles on You understand!the scrapbooksound and production are the secret to its cheerfully old-school character. Inspired by classic blues albums from the 50s and 60s, the musicians recorded together, in the moment, without thinking too much. “I was always trying to make things sound like Chess Records in the ’50s — like that Little Walter, Muddy Waters kind of thing,” Holmstrom says. “You can tell it’s three instruments very close to each other, with a bit of bleeding.” The other two musicians in the room were Steve Mugalian on drums and Gregory Boaz on bass.
Rick Holmstrom’s band on You understand! are also his touring partners: drummer Steve Mugalian and bassist Gregory Boaz.
Photo by Brad Elligood
Holmstrom’s commitment to tradition also permeates his guitar sound. From start to finish, he smothers the album with vintage-style amp tones from a small combo with a split pedigree. “I used a tiny little guitar amp called Bronson. It’s a weird Valco amp from the 50s. I had a buddy of mine turn it into, like, a tweed Tremolux from the 1950s. 50. This is a magic little amp that sounds great.
Despite the wide gain range used throughout the new album, the Bronson’s built-in tremolo, a tube-driven SIB Electronics Echodrive delay, and a 1960s Fender Reverb Tank are all effects Holmstrom uses. Even that may have been too much for him.
“I got to the point where I hate guitar pedals,” he says. “I absolutely hate them. Ideally, I would like to plug directly into an amp. No 9 volt power supply, no wall warts, no skinny little power cables that will snap right before the gig. I prefer to use my hands.
“I was always trying to make things sound like Chess Records in the 50s, like that Little Walter, Muddy Waters kind of thing.”
So how does he get all his sounds? Like everything else, old fashioned. “I lower the volume on my guitar and I play a lot with my fingers. Then, if I turn up the volume on the guitar all the way and play with a pick, it’s quite gaining.
Unsurprisingly, Holmstrom also prefers vintage guitars. Except for a few tracks, the entire album was recorded with only one of them. “The album is all my ’53 Tele except for two songs,” he says. “It’s the variety of sounds you can get out of it. ‘All About My Girl’ – that’s the neck pickup. Looks like it could be a hollow body. The middle is pure Stax or Motown, and the bridge is whatever you want.
As versatile as the Fender Tele was, the songs “King Freddie” and “Pour One Out” were asking for something different. And while that something else – a 1955 Gibson Les Paul Special – was also a drool-worthy vintage piece, this one was different. “It has an out-of-phase push-pull tone knob on the bridge pickup,” says Holmstrom. “I can mix up the amount of phase shift so it’s not completely nasally thin. That’s what Peter Green did, I’m sure, with his Les Paul. All the dots lead back to the blues, really.
Erlee Time – Rick Holmström