The easiest roads don’t offer the best views, and when force of circumstance led Tom Doughty to change musical styles he discovered a whole new challenge – as well as an amazing world of 20th century guitar design. Lars Mullen drops in…
Tom Doughty is a guitarist who has performed with some of the world’s finest slide and lap steel players. He’s also a songwriter – his song Journeyman Blues was nominated for Best original Blues Song in 2013 – and has four critically-acclaimed CDs to his name. His has also been a different journey to that of most others, as in 1974, at the age of 17, the young fingerpicker had a road traffic accident that left him with permanent spinal injury and limited movement in his hands.
‘It was a difficult time,’ Tom says today. ‘Knowing I was going to be wheelchair-bound from there on left me totally devastated. I took on an enormous amount of stress by thinking that I’d never be able to play the guitar again.
‘For years I composed guitar music in my head, then right out of the blue, I thought it was about time I tried it and get it voiced through an instrument. I’d dabbled a little in my youth with slide guitar played upright in a regular way, but I knew that if I really wanted to pursue slide playing, I had to adapt to lap slide. Lap slide offers more variety as it totally relies on the slide performing on all the strings the full length and breadth of the fretboard, as opposed to conventional slide guitar playing.
‘I eventually took a dusty guitar off the wall and used a piece of pipe on the first finger of my left hand, but my right hand had very little strength and I couldn’t fingerpick. So I experimented with thumbpicks, and totally changed my approach to the guitar by using more elbow and wrist techniques.
‘It took about five years of dedication before I started to make noises that were becoming respectable. I worked very hard and sat there with invention and tenacity and simply found a way around the problems.
‘Previously I’d just followed the folk revival of the late ’60s and ’70s, but over the years I rediscovered the blues players of the ’20s and ’30s. I also developed my own style of playing; it has some major advantages over other lap slide players, but then again I can’t perform some of the techniques like a player with normal dexterity.’
Tom approaches his situation from an engineer’s point of view, and his life is full of helpful solutions, many self-invented. On his website you can view a video of his Journeyman Blues with Tom racing his dog Frank through the country lanes at great speed on a fold-up pedal trike that he built himself. ‘I’m not lucky enough to just be able to pick up the guitar here and there, and maintain a level of professional playing,’ he explains. ‘I have to continually keep as fit as possible to get the most out of my body in order to function as a guitarist.
‘I’ve adapted, remade and invented things to help my playing, and that’s fascinating and satisfying in itself. When I play live I’m lucky enough to often get a great crowd, but I don’t get any extra kudos for the challenges that I have. I can’t compromise what an audience of strangers must be thinking when I appear on stage, but I can say, hand on heart, that judging by the reactions, it’s not done in a patronising way.
‘Getting encores is always great, and I’ll normally stay on stage to see if that develops, as there’s often far too much effort involved to get me off stage and back again! I’m a firm believer that if a cloth monkey plays really good slide guitar, an audience will turn up and see him and say they had a wonderful time!’
Each one of the instruments in Tom’s collection is a specialist lap-style or Hawaiian guitar – a breed which arose following the huge Hawaiian music movement of the early 20th century. ‘The trend for the Hawaiian guitar – particularly the hollow-necked models – took off after they were seen being played at various trade shows around the world,’ Tom explains. ‘Like the 1915 Panama-Pacific Convention – that’s the point at which the craze more or less started. Players like Sol Hoopii from Hawaii helped create the movement, and he’s now regarded as one of the all-time great players.
‘I have a few acoustic guitars in the collection that early manufacturers adapted from their conventional models to follow the Hawaiian trend of the time. These have raised bridges, much higher nuts, and the frets have been filed right down flat.
‘Here are three: on the left is an Oahu with an open headstock and outward-facing machineheads, then comes a Sawyer Grand with an Italian gondola theme painted on the top, and finally we have a Regal with hand-painted chevrons on the soundboard. These were all budget models available from the famous US Sears Roebuck catalogue in the 1930s. The different brands were a bit like Austin, Morris and Wolseley in the era of British Leyland – they all came out of the same factory.
‘Here’s another made by the Oahu Publishing Company, a late ’30s K71 jumbo in sunburst with a fancy floral gold leaf design around the bottom of the soundboard. It was one of their top-of-the-range models, priced just under $100. It’s made from sycamore and spruce, and it’s got excellent sustain. The little Gibson LG-2H next to it also has a high action and a purposely-designed square neck for slide playing. Most of these have standard width 1 7/8″ fingerboards, although some are a little smaller at 1 3/4″. This cute little guitar has survived its 62 years on the planet very well indeed, and it sounds wonderful.
‘Martin was another company who took on the conversion-from-standard concept with raised nuts and bridges and filed-down frets. Even back then they were one of the world’s biggest names in acoustics, and this small-bodied Martin OO-40H from the mid-’30s is a lovely example; the H in the model number denotes “Hawaiian”. From the front it looks like a regular parlour-sized guitar, but a side view of the string height soon puts it into perspective. This guitar hails from that golden era of Martins, with a Brazilian rosewood body and Adirondack spruce top, and it’s brimming with quality appointments like snowflake position markers and abalone trimmings. The tone, sustain and note separation of this guitar are exquisite – it just seems to bring out the best in me every time.
‘This Martin was left to me by the late John Pearse, a truly amazing player and a very clever guy who became my mentor and close friend as well as a real supporter of my music. I used to go and visit him in Germany, and we’d just sit and play together and I’d use this guitar. When he died in 2008, his wife said it should be mine to inherit.
‘I also have a Martin 0-28KH, built in 1928 from flamed koa. It’s the same body size but with less high-end cosmetics, but it’s another truly wonderful example.
‘People often ask me if I think old acoustic guitars like these have sonically matured over the years, and for me there seem to be two avenues to go down. I’ve talked to players who say that if an old instrument gets played so much it’ll eventually wear out, give up and go to pieces, while others agree the sound gets sweeter and mellower with age. But I think all these instruments have individual circumstances… so the jury’s still out on that one for me at the moment!’
Not all Tom’s guitars are acoustic, and next he shows us a trio of solidbodied vintage classics. ‘I’ve had several solidbody electric lap steel guitars over the years, and once again I’ve had to adapt my playing technique to them. I’ve learned to be less busy with what I play. It stands to reason that an acoustic model is just that, and you to have to work to coax out the tone. But of course, an electric solidbody is going to have a lot more natural sustain that’s enhanced by an amp, like my Laney 8W valve combo when it’s cranked up. I’ve used this for more gigs than I can remember, from performing live on Radio 2’s Paul Jones blues show to teaching at a lap steel workshop in Poland… where I was the only one who couldn’t speak Polish!
‘On the left is a ’50s Oahu Tonemaster, which has some nice trimmings. They were quite popular back then and are fairly collectable now. It’s got rope-design binding around the mahogany body and fretboard and the headstock is faced with tortoiseshell.
‘The only electric lap steel that has a permanent position with me on stage is this Harmony Supertone, which has been fitted with a horseshoe pickup made by Rickenbacker. I love the art deco design going on here, especially the headstock! Apart from the rosewood fingerboard the whole guitar is made from aluminium, and it really sustains. It’s dirty, loud and raucous, and it’s my first choice for rowdy festival gigs.
‘The one on the right is a ’40s National Waikiki which features National’s own pickup and what I think is a maple body. It’s a great example – it almost plays itself.’
Tom’s bent for engineering has proved useful in more ways than one. ‘I got a little vexed about having several slides on stage, some made from glass and some made from metal, and often I found myself halfway through a song wishing that I’d picked the other one…
‘So I decided to something about it, and invented the Evolution Slide, with one side glass and the other metal. It solves the argument of what is the best material for a slide. In terms of engineering, I must say it was a challenge. For sure, they both have their own distinct tonal qualities, but now the player can have the best of both worlds on one finger and vary the tone simply by turning it around. There’s a load of info on the slide out there if anybody’s interested, on YouTube and on my website.’
Few serious steel players can withstand the allure of an original National steel-bodied resonator, and Tom has some beauties. ‘These are two almost identical Style 1 National Tri-cones which date from 1928 and 1929. The ’28 model came from the USA and has a rather unusual warm sound for a metal-bodied reso. But it’s the ’29 that has some great history behind it, and it’s always one of my first choices when it comes to gigs and recording. You can hear this on most of my albums including The Bell, Running Free, Have Taste Of This and the Journeyman Blues EP.
I bought it unseen and unplayed en route to a festival gig in Canada, Ontario, in 2006. I took a chance and just plugged it in on stage, and it was absolutely stonking. I’ve since traced the original owner, who bought it new in 1929 and used it for teaching. You can see that the position marker at the fifth fret is missing as a result of a tumble on stage, and that also put a hefty dent in the body. I had it repaired by a friend who worked in the local car body works. A scary moment – I winced as a two-ton press went to work. They did a fine job, and I swear it now sounds even better!
‘I also have a ’34 National Duolian that came from George Gruhn’s in Nashville. It’s a metal guitar with the original optional brown paint finish – which looks like the false wood effect found on a lot of old American station wagons. It’s in superb condition and it’s one of the loudest guitars I own.
‘The ’39 National Silvo was one of the company’s first forays into electric resonators in an attempt to attract players to a new sound. When you stand back and look at this one you see it’s built from components they probably had in the parts bin, but what a joyous thing it is. The Silvo didn’t sell that well, and I believe it was dropped around 1939, so it’s a rare model. It was offered with the Silvo pickup system installed into a tenor guitar-size body, which has its cone area covered with the most amazing art deco cover, and I love the Roman numeral markers on the regular-length fingerboard and the coaxial-style input socket.
‘This jumbo-sized acoustic slide guitar was built by George La Foley, a British maker from Kent who made a lot of instruments for the London distributors Barnes & Mullins up until around 1930, including mandolins, ukuleles and guitars.
‘He was one of those boundary-pushing pioneers, designing guitars that he hoped would produce a new sound. This guitar was obviously built for lap-style playing with the high action and no frets, but he drilled extra soundholes into the recessed area behind the bridge, probably with the intention to enhance the tone and increase the volume. I bought this in 2006, and in the case was half a ticket that confirmed the guitar had been owned by Walter Darby and had travelled on the P&O steamship Comorin, which was a passenger service between Australia and the USA. I’ve often wondered if he was a travelling musician, but I’ve drawn a blank trying to find any further information.
‘George La Foley was certainly a very interesting maker but all the statistics and figures are very vague, so I can’t tell you much about the little parlour-sized guitar on the right either. What I have noticed, though, is that the grain on the soundboards and bodies of a lot of his guitars is almost identical, as confirmed by a friend who collects his mandolins, so I reckon a lot of these were made from the same source of wood. Maybe he bought a tree!’
We pop over to France for this next very unusual guitar. ‘This Gélas Hawaiian guitar is a little unusual – one of those fascinating designs that tried to enhance the output and tone of an acoustic guitar. They were a favourite for many high-profile players in the first half of the 20th century.
‘It was built by the Frenchman Lucien Gélas in the early 1900s, and features his patented twin soundboard design called the Double Top. He used the same construction method for his range of regular guitars and mandolins. In theory, the space between the two soundboards acts as a resonating area. It does seem to work, as this guitar is certainly louder than any other of the same size.
‘My little Tabu Hawaiian parlour guitar is quite interesting; it’s made from the ground up using very thin flamed koa. The inner label has the name “Paul F Summers”, and he was quite a famous player during the ’20s, so this must have been built to his specifications… his signature model, maybe. It’s as light as a feather and very vibrant. I actually heard about it from a house clearance sale in Manchester, and it arrived complete with a case, with strings, a bar and some sheet music. A great find, this one.’
Tom is delighted that the Weissenborn brand of Hawaiian guitars has enjoyed something of a revival over the last few years. ‘These are superb, purposely designed lap slide guitars,” says Tom. ‘I have original Weissenborn guitars, and some nice examples by some lesser-known brands as well.
‘One of them is another from George La Foley, looking great with the typical Weissenborn body shape and hollow neck. Once again this was made for Barnes & Mullins, but in typical La Foley style it includes another of his inspiring ideas. This time he’s drilled holes right in the centre of the position markers to act as soundports for the hollow neck.
‘Here’s another one, built by James Mann of Auckland, New Zealand. This came to me with its original bill of sale proving that a certain Mr Cooper bought it for £15 in 1927. It fuels my interest immensely to know that these luthiers were still experimenting to find the optimum sound, volume and tone. I’ve never seen a version like this one before… in some ways it’s built to resemble a cello with a suspended fingerboard and an arched body. It almost sounds like a archtop jazz guitar, but with extra sustain.
‘The Schireson Brothers, Nathan and Jacob, also made their own versions in Los Angeles. Here’s one of their models, a very rare, top of the range Lyric Style 4 with a mahogany body, spruce top and inlaid rosette. It’s in amazing condition and complete with the original tan canvas case and a set of very old strings.
‘In their 20 years of production I believe that only about a thousand real Weissenborns were produced, so it’s become a rather rare instrument. Luckily, the mouse that lived inside the case of my Weissenborn Style 1, dating from as far back as 1925, only feasted on some paperwork and sheet music! The guitar and accessories are in good order for the year. This is one of many which were sold or distributed by the Henry Stadlmair Company of New Jersey; it’s completely original and built completely from figured koa, which gives a balanced sound that’s warm in the bass with a cutting, yet mellow top end.
‘A lot of the builders of this style of guitar were all based in one area of Los Angeles which couldn’t have been any bigger than a square mile. They included Knutsen, the De Lano brothers, and also the Oscar Schmidt company who made my 1920s Hilo model. It’s built from mahogany, with decorated rope-effect bindings around the body and soundhole. This guitar has a much deeper body which produces a gorgeous deep warm tone, and at $38 it was a good, affordable alternative to a Weissenborn.
‘Here’s a more modern-style version that was built by my good friend Erich Solomon. Erich is based in Epping, New Hampshire and he’s renowned for making fine guitars, including beautiful archtop jazz models. This one is simply called a Long Scale Hawaiian, and it has a body built from black walnut and a spruce top. It was made in 2006 and it really raises the bar in the sound department – acoustic volume, bass, treble, dynamics, resonance and the quality of the overtones. This is one of the few guitars in my collection that I use full time for gigs. It’s got a Fishman pickup and it sounds fantastic through any amp or PA. It’s currently the newest guitar I own.
‘A different contemporary approach is taken by my Bear Creek Hawaiian guitar, as it’s based on a traditional Weissenborn Style 4 design. It’s an instrument I feel very honoured to own, for a special reason. The story is that over the years I got to know and had the privilege to play in the USA both with Woody Mann and the late great Bob Brozman. During one visit, Bob let me try his own Beer Creek Kona Rocket guitar at one of the International Guitar Seminars that they created. It was obvious to Bob that I was totally in awe of his guitar, but little did I know that he actually set up a fund among IGS members to raise the money to buy me this guitar. What can you say to that… it was just an amazing experience.
‘The looks of the guitar speak for themselves, and anyone who hears it always comments on the sound quality – the Fishman pickup reproduces the acoustic tone perfectly. It’s probably the most treasured model I own, and I use it for all my gigs, and it can be heard on all my albums.
‘The last of the original Weissenborns is this Kona Style 3, dating from the mid-’20s. Again, it arrived here complete with case, tickets, strings and slide and the name “Ralph Voecks” pencilled inside, who I now know lived in Nebraska. He couldn’t have played it very much as it’s in remarkable condition, and it’s very loud indeed.’
There’s one outwardly lesser instrument that holds a dear place in Tom’s heart. ‘Ah, this takes me back,’ he grins. ‘It’s the first dusty guitar that I took off the wall when I decided to go down the slide road, and it was my first attempt at self-converting a normal acoustic to slide playing.
‘It’s a Yamaha FG-260 12-string acoustic. I removed six of the strings, had my dad make a brass nut, and tinkered with the height of the bridge. It had a naturally wide fingerboard, so I was already halfway there. I used it to record a cover of Charley Patton’s Banty Rooster on my first album, The Bell.
‘It’s been a long and enjoyable ride collecting these wonderful guitars, as well as recording and playing live over the last 35 years – and I’m still enjoying every minute. You know, the template for regular electric and acoustic guitars was more or less set years ago, but for me, all these lap-style guitars reflect a different path – the work of people who were inventing new ideas about guitar construction and striving to achieve what they thought would be the best-sounding instruments in the world of acoustic guitars with hollow sound chambers.
‘I think there’s a analogy to be drawn between these instruments and any guitarist, never mind the level of their musical talent or their physical ability. If you are really hooked on your passion, then rather than just resting on your laurels, you just have to carry on moving forward, developing new sounds – and new music, too.’
For more information on Tom Doughty – and Frank the dog – visit www.tomdoughty.com