Interview with Bret Hart
Name: Bret Harold Hart
Bands: I have been working solo & collaboratively for several years. Our defunct ‘avant-Appalachian’ band, BARBWIRE HEARTS re-convenes now & again, & my Massachusetts band, HIPBONE, plans to record again eventually.
Websites: Lulu Store - Edge Surfing Podomatic - Soundclick - Facebook - Aural Innovations Interview
Listen to "Punch Zone"
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Bret – It was a Sears Silvertone acoustic, the neck of which bowed within a year of purchase (1971). I learned rudiments on it, generally just fooling around, until 1974 when my friend David Chace taught me how to fingerpick. I got serious quickly & upgraded to a nice Epiphone dreadnaught in 1977.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Bret – I connect whatever instrument I have chosen to a string of moveable FX that tend to include echo, distortion, wah-wah, looping, reverberation, & pitch-shifting. I have a lot of vintage stuff in the ‘arc’ - MXR, E-H – along with much newer digital things to expand the palette. I like to run through a direct box, when playing acoustically. Electric instruments I send through either a Fender ‘Acoustisonic’, splitting the stereo signal between its 2 channels, or for small rooms, a 5W Epiphone ‘Valve Junior’ tube amp. I also have a 60W four-channel PA that sometimes functions as the guitar amp.
QRD – What is the most important part of your rig, guitar, amplifier, or effects?
Bret – The sequencing of FX in the chain. Improper pedal-arrangement can badly attenuate the signal or flatten an otherwise very cool timbre. Oh yes, & working cordage & lots of batteries.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Bret – The 5W Epiphone ‘Valve Junior’ tube amp I have is wonderful. It has an on/off switch & a volume control, that’s it. I generates remarkable volume, is clean & as quiet as the incoming signal, & when I turn it up to 11, the tube gets really hot & produces a fuzziness that sounds very 1950s. I traded a 60W solid state (noisy) Crate amp for it at a pawnshop & believe I came away with a deal.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
Bret – Presently, I continue exploring the possibilities of the 12-string electric/acoustic guitar. We obtained one a year ago & I just love it – unplugged or tweaked. The double-dulcimer timbre & strangeness that happens when it is sent through an FX chain offer a bunch of unexpected fun.
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
Bret – Mine would be similar to the best electric guitar I ever owned, a Baldwin ‘Nu-Sonic’. Lightweight, the nicest whammy bar I’ve ever encountered, & wicked differentiation between the bridge & neck pickup tones. Loved it! The guitar was stolen at a gig in Massachusetts in 1994.
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
Bret – Something like the new Electro-Harmonix ‘Memory Man’, combined with looping & pitch shifting.
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
Bret – I have one electric guitar, five acoustics, a homemade banjo-bass, & numerous other homemade stringed instruments that resemble most guitars.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
Bret – In our music room, with all the keyboards, percussion, & so forth.
QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?
Bret – Someone to carry them for me.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Bret – That it stays in tune & doesn’t look too dopey. Being cheap is a must.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Bret – Good guitarists should be given good guitars.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Bret – I play them until they break or something better arrives.
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
Bret – None.
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
Bret – Continuously.
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
Bret – I choose tones in real-time, based upon the needs of the moment.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
Bret – I think I’ve pretty much got all of the tools I need already.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
Bret – Low string action, closed-back tuners that work, a trussed guitar neck to minimize warp.
QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?
Bret – None. All good.
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
Bret – I just love Roland/Boss FX & recording gear, Electro-Harmonix & MXR pedals, & Fender Telecaster guitars.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
Bret – The idea that told me to pick up the guitar.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Bret – 1971.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
Bret – Probably about ten years ago. Since, I have been adjusting to increasing arthritis in my hands, elbows, & shoulder. I don’t expect to ever stop playing guitar, but physical necessities make me approach the instrument with respect.
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
Bret – Yes.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Bret – Why not?
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Bret – Both, & we like it that way.
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Bret – Neil Young, Fred Frith, JJ Cale, Adrian Belew, David Torn. There are tens of others that I enjoy & admire greatly, but these guys are the ones that made me try to achieve more at some point on the continuum.
QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly (e.g. naming their guitar)?
Bret – No. Whatever makes them happy.
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Bret – Making my first modified electric
instrument (The ‘Bend-Guitar’) was vicious. It had been a Hagstrom solid
body 12-string electric. I took a bandsaw to it & cut it in half between
the bridge pickup & bridge; then, reattached the halves with a huge
gate hinge on the back. While playing, forearm pressure on the body &
pulling back on the neck created IMMENSE string bends & immediate de/retuning
into strange places. This instrument developed a wiring problem & was
disassembled for parts in 1990.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Bret – I practice being happy & at peace. This allows for everything else.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
Bret – 3-5 hours weekly.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Bret – Medium nylon, with some flex & strength. I prefer to fingerpick, but use a plectrum when appropriate.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Bret – Extra-light, to permit more aggressive bending.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Bret – When they sound dull & dead. More often during humid months.
QRD – How often do you break strings?
Bret – Seldom, these days. As a teen, all the time.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?
Bret – I am proud of both hands, as they each have so much to be mindful of. Because I fingerpick, the right hand is involved in all sorts of arachnid stuff. Because I simulate slide guitar & dip into a lot of extended technique with the left hand, there’s a lot of horizontal stuff going on over there. They’re both proficient at what they are asked to do.
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
Bret – Self, unless badly damaged or beyond my abilities.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
Bret – In my college days, I tried all manner of open tunings. They have their uses, & make for some very chiming stuff. These days, I use standard & drop-D tunings a lot. Sometimes, I drop the high E-string down to a D as well, but keep my fingerings standard. Neat things happen.
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
Bret – I have composed using graphic notation (the CD, ‘494 Possible Polygons’). I wish I could write scores. For songs, I type-out lyrics & place chords changes above syllables where the changes are called for.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Bret – The right bout is below my nipple.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Bret – I took-on this challenge about 20 years ago & have broken free of the unconscious habits that used to stiffen my playing. Improvisation is cathartic & cleansing.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
Bret – Any of them. Music is about ears, not instruments. Trying & failing miserably on an unfamiliar instrument is always a great reintroduction to one’s familiar instrument.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Bret – Hawaiian slack-key guitar. It’s beautiful & reeking with delicacy.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
Bret – Copyrighting all of my guitar compositions.
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Bret – A little loop of duct tape on the body of the guitar is a great way to keep picks nearby, right where I want them.
QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?
Bret – I have enjoyed the E-Bow for many years. They’re great! I also am so happy with the gains made in tuner technology during the last decade. Can you believe this? – I used to tune with a pitch pipe.
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Bret – Finger-picking using the right ring finger & pinky - I just can’t train that little waifs to behave & do what needs to be done. My picking style is similar to the 3-finger banjo playing of Country music pioneer, Charlie Poole, who invented the style.
QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
Bret – I truly owe my enthusiasm for guitar to David Chace, who told me I could do it, then showed me that he was right. I learned how to fret chords, fingerpick & strum along with songs I liked at the time. I believe that the ability to jam along with a song one likes is the key to continuing with guitar.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Bret – Rhythm matters, so I work hard to deliver a sense of what “good time” is while playing. I teach from where the child (or adult) is. If they have a nascent strength, I build from that talent. If they have no talent, I help them find things that they can do well, then build on that.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Bret – They might need to lighten-up a little. I enjoy surprises in real-time. This took ages to get to. People are ‘wired’ to hear error. I have worked to love the unexpected & unlovable sound.
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
Bret – They’re cool. The knife-edge whammy on my old Baldwin was smooth & left the intonation intact. Bigsby’s are nice, as are the Floyd Rose systems. I also have a terrific admiration for players who use the Clarence White ‘B-Bender’ & ‘HipShot’ units with virtuosity. Brad Paisley, like Country Music or not, is an absolute genius with them, as is Albert Lee.
QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?
Bret – Continuously.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
Bret – I have learned to be both at once. I started off as a rhythm player in the late 70’s, but then was thrust, rather uncomfortably I might add, into the role of soloist. I hadn’t a clue. I knew what my ears liked, but hadn’t the hands or dexterity to pull that kind of stuff off. Many years have given me a style that is suitable to many situations.
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Bret – No, although I can enjoy any musician-visited-by-genius during the moments that is happening. Bad music often contains gems of instrumental virtuosity.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Bret – ‘The Log’ that Les Paul made, one of Hans Reichel’s beautiful self-crafted instruments, one of Eugene Chadbourne’s guitar-inventions. (I own the first “Rake” of his. It’s part of a windchime in the back yard.)
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Bret – I have no idea. I don’t know who’s out there any more. My heroes are, mostly & pleasantly, still living, so I still listen to them. When I was an independent music reviewer in the 80s & 90s, I learned that there’s such a thing as musical dilution from hearing too much. I may sound way out there about this, but too much choice is too much. When friends recommend something, I check it out.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
Bret – Live, on a good night. Otherwise, I’d suggest anything that rings one’s bell at my lulu.com storefront. Read the blurb & listen to your eyes.
QRD – Anything else?
Bret – Thanks, Brian, for this opportunity to musically reflect. It’s been fun.