From the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
In 2010, during a visit to New York City, Ben Harper stopped into the guitar mecca Rudy’s Music to check out instruments. He was sampling a series of top-of-the-line archtops when a guitar stopped him in his tracks: an instrument by renowned luthier John Monteleone. Though Harper is best known as a lap steel player who brought vintage Weissenborns into the limelight of contemporary roots-rock, he heard in that archtop a tone quality that he’d been seeking for years, and he wondered whether Monteleone would consider building a guitar for lap slide.
So began a years-long dialogue between Harper and Monteleone that led eventually to the creation of the Monteleone Radio City Special Deluxe acoustic lap steel—Monteleone’s first-ever guitar designed for lap-style playing (see “A New Kind of Lap Steel,” below). This one-of-a-kind guitar has become one of Harper’s core instruments, and a new album provides its ultimate showcase. Winter Is for Lovers, released in October, is a mesmerizing 30-minute journey on the Monteleone lap steel, with no singing and no other instruments. Harper conceived the music as a single piece with 15 movements, each named for a place, including Istanbul, Inland Empire (Harper’s home turf in Southern California), London, Toronto, and Islip—the Long Island town where Monteleone has his shop.
Though Harper has never been a flashy instrumentalist, his lush guitar work has been at the center of his music since his 1994 debut album, Welcome to the Cruel World. He literally grew up in his grandparents’ music store, the Folk Music Center in Claremont, California, a hub for folk and ethnic music that introduced him to instrumental masters such as David Lindley, Taj Mahal, and Chris Darrow, who became his mentors. Harper’s prominence as a guitarist is evident in signature models created by Martin (a limited edition 0000 flattop), Asher (electric lap steel), and Dunlop (slide bar).
Winter Is for Lovers follows a series of projects that reconnect Harper with his roots: the Grammy-winning Get Up! with bluesman Charlie Musselwhite and its follow-up, No Mercy in This Land; a folky collaboration with his mother, Ellen Harper, on Childhood Home; Mavis Staples’ We Get By, which he produced; and, most recently, a banjo/guitar duet with Rhiannon Giddens on Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog.”
Harper, now 50, loves talking guitars, and when I connected with him this fall, he spoke effusively about his new instrument and his lifelong quest for the ultimate tone. As this conversation explores, Winter Is for Lovers both spotlights Harper’s original love of lap slide and carries him into new territory.
When you first played a Monteleone guitar, what did you hear that was different from your other instruments?
I stumbled into the SoHo Rudy’s and was overwhelmed—it’s not just anywhere in the world you can play guitars like that, one after another. I’m not a big jazz guitarist, but I’ve always chosen flattops that have a little archtop sound to them, and I’ve always chosen archtops that have a little flattop resonance to them. I’d dreamed of being able to combine those [in one guitar] but had never been able to do it.
So there I was at Rudy’s, sitting there playing the D’Angelicos, D’Aquistos, the top level of archtops. As I sat there, Rudy [Pensa] came over and said, “Hey, man, try this.” I was mid-chord, and I just swapped them out. Didn’t take a close look. But what I heard from the very first note was a sound that I had been reaching for in one instrument and had not heard before. I had to take a second look: What is this? I could have sworn he handed me a flattop, but it was an archtop guitar, and I was stunned.
The more I played it, the more I was stunned. I knew of John Monteleone by reputation, and at that point I knew I had to find him.
A part of me was so taken aback by the sound, I was an inch away from walking out of that store with that archtop and turning it into a lap steel—raising the nut and adjusting it all. But I couldn’t do that to the instrument.
How would you compare the Monteleone’s sound to what you get from a Weissenborn?
Three main points: the sustain, the overtones, the projection. Weissenborns are incredible instruments, and they have carried me a long, long way. I will still be playing them live in every show. But John has a very rare understanding of what makes instruments not only sound great but thrive in a particular player’s hands.
John’s genius is not lore; it’s grounded and based in reality. I said to myself, if you were alive back in the day and had the means to obtain a Stradivarius from Stradivari, would you have done it? I went for it, and it was everything I had dreamed of sonically, and more. And that doesn’t take away from the Weissenborn and its place in the choir.
On Winter Is for Lovers, what were you looking to explore or accomplish that you hadn’t done before?
I’ve been planning on doing an instrumental record for quite some time, and the Monteleone was a major arrival that ushered in the completion of the project.
It started out as an exploration of steel guitar. I have a very in-depth collection of lap steel guitars, and I had planned on using them all, or at least my A team. I was going to weave electric and acoustic tones in and out. But once the Monteleone got behind the mic, the producer/engineer, Sheldon Gomberg, just kept saying, “You know, let’s stay with that.” He and I agreed that the tone seemed fresh and original, and no other instrument could beat it. So we said, let’s just stay in this same lane. Winter Is for Lovers is written as one piece of music; let’s define that in the way that the old classical guitarists would have, on a single guitar.
A few years ago, you talked about doing trio and orchestral arrangements for this project. Did you just decide the guitar felt complete on its own?
I wish I was that concise and precise. In full disclosure, I went into Capitol Studios and orchestrated this record to the moon. It was fully produced with percussion, symphony, piano. I put a great deal of time into that particular version of this record before it dawned on me that its strongest step forward and its purest voice was going to be just the guitar. I stripped it all back.
The challenging part was actually coming to that realization after it was done, as you can imagine. The silver lining was the experience, because it was wonderful working it up as a symphonic piece—to show myself that you can build a symphonic orchestration around a lap steel. And it’s even more gratifying that we have [orchestral versions of] “Joshua Tree” and “Inland Empire” as B sides. I’m very excited about those, in particular because the maestro, the great Robert Glasper, is on keyboards, as well as Christopher Bleth on duduk, Mike Valerio from the L.A. Philharmonic on upright bass, and Jimmy Paxon—drummer for myself and Charlie Musselwhite, the [Dixie] Chicks, Stevie Nicks—on percussion.
People ask, why did you wait till now to make this record? If I were any younger, I wouldn’t have been able to step back and remove that production. I would have been too tied to it. But I am at a place in my life where I have the presence of mind and clarity to know that I had gone too far.
I was surprised to learn that you recorded the album in 2019, because this really sounds like a quarantine project. The music is so intimate and meditative, and with place names in the titles, the album is like a travelogue in a time when we can’t travel.
Wild. I have debates with very close friends about how context redefines content, but boy, it has never been proven so clearly as now. You’re absolutely right.
I actually had a friend call and inform me that, because she missed traveling so much, she actually felt like she was traveling by way of this record. And I thought exactly what you’re saying. I was moved that music without lyrics could take you on a sonic journey in that way.
In the age of the shuffle, it is unusual to have an album that follows a sort of storyline for the entire 15 tracks.
I’m so excited to hear you say that in an era where the album is on the ropes, so to speak, as far as how people receive music. To me this feels like an album that can only be an album. Some albums, even that I’ve made, I’ve looked back on them and said, I could have done an EP or I could have just done a few songs at a time. But this one I feel confident is an album from first note to last.
In some ways, this music brings to mind steel-string soloists like John Fahey or Robbie Basho. Did you have any particular artists in mind as models?
Connected to my family’s music store was a coffeehouse called the Golden Ring, a renowned venue in the late ’50s, early ’60s, for traveling folk musicians. John Fahey was a mainstay there. I never met John nor heard him live, but my family has first-person contact with him and many stories. John Fahey gave birth to Leo Kottke, made way for Michael Hedges. . . . You know, Michael Hedges’ record Tap Root was a revelation for me at a young age.
So yeah, I’ve long been an appreciator of that sound and that direction a guitar could go in, and I also had a healthy dose of David Lindley, Ry Cooder, Chris Darrow, who were all from the surrounding area and circled my family’s music store. And Taj Mahal—I’ve known Taj since birth basically. Being a Black youth and seeing a Black man play an acoustic instrumental was incredibly potent. Taj was the first person I saw mesmerize people with an instrumental.
To my ear, the music on Winter Is for Lovers is not very blues-based. It sounds more like parlor music.
One hundred percent. I’ve never been able to play like anyone else. I love Andrés Segovia, Narciso Yepes—I could never do what they do. All the people I mentioned, John Fahey, Leo Kottke—I could never do that. But I’m a lap steel player. I grew up with the sound of the lap steel as my childhood lullaby. I feel fortunate to have lived long enough for that stuff to find its way into my own unorthodox style and method on the lap steel guitar.
I’ve always heard this cross-section of classical and flamenco and blues and then something else, maybe something Celtic, far off in the distance. I mean, I’ve been hearing this record in my soul for a long time. It just took me till now to reach that sound.
As far as I can tell, all the pieces on the album are in the key of D, and played in open-D tuning or maybe variants of open D. Is that right?
It’s D A D F# A D; regular open D, the whole piece. It’s funny you would say that because, I mean, in classical music, it’s OK to have a 30-minute Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G major. It’s OK if you have a 20-minute classical composition that’s in one key. So why wouldn’t it be OK for a lap steel symphony? That was part of my mindset: that violinists and cellists can’t have all the fun when it comes to longer symphonic compositions.
But don’t think it didn’t cross my mind numerous times: Am I allowed to do this? Is this OK? Do I need to tune up to E or down to C or use a different guitar? You ask yourself all these questions but, at the end of the day, you have to choose what’s going to bring out the best in the music. And if you’re not being brave, you’re not pioneering your art form. Along the way, of course you’re going to take the hits, you’re going to fall flat, you’re going to be embarrassed. But if we’re not going to take chances in this life, when are we going to get to do it?
Videos for the new album show you at the Folk Music Center, performing in front of a wall of stringed instruments from around the world. What is your connection with the store these days?
The store has been open for 62 years, and my oldest son, who is 23, is just now starting to work there. He is the fifth generation to work in the store full time: my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my mom, me, and now my son. So that’s incredibly rewarding, because I would like to keep it open.
Another important component of the store to me is providing instruments for beginners that play in a friendly way, whether it’s violin, banjo, recorder, or guitar, so that they have the best chance of maintaining their relationship with music. It’s hard enough to play an instrument without the action being through the roof, without it being set up properly. So we want to maintain that connection with people who are just starting out, as well as keeping a stable collection of vintage instruments. That gets harder and harder to do with the online vintage sales that happen now, but we maintain.
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And the third [aspect] is commitment to community and providing an environment where musicians at all levels can thrive. A lot of that ties into our open mic night, on the last Sunday of every month. I think it’s the best open mic night in Southern California, if not California, period. Everybody gets two songs and no more than 15 minutes, and no matter how long the line is, everybody ends up getting their time and getting that exposure. And I mean, we’ve had everybody on that stage before they were recognized, from myself to Phoebe Bridgers to the Black Pumas. It’s game on there.
A New Kind of Lap Steel
When Ben Harper first contacted John Monteleone about building an acoustic lap steel, in 2010, the soft-spoken luthier didn’t immediately agree—he wanted to make sure first that he could create an instrument unlike anything already available. But Monteleone was intrigued, especially when he recalled seeing local players try alternate tunings and slide on small-body archtops like the Gibson L-5. “What I noticed in those early days, long before I met Ben, was that the archtop guitar has possibilities beyond what is commonly assumed,” says Monteleone. “To bring it into a more sensitive fingerstyle guitar always interested me.”
Monteleone considered building a hollow-neck instrument but concluded that was impractical—and he didn’t want to re-create a Weissenborn. Ultimately, he decided to adapt his 16-inch archtop with a square neck. The body and neck of Harper’s guitar are red maple, and the top is Adirondack spruce with a pair of elliptical duet-style soundholes. For the tuners, tailpiece, and other details, Harper picked Monteleone’s Art Deco–inspired Radio City design.
Monteleone builds most of his guitars with side sound ports, which offer a unique opportunity on a lap-style instrument. “On his guitar I thought, well, the soundholes are going to be facing him directly anyway,” says Monteleone, “so let’s put a port on the treble side, toward the audience.”
The side port has a sliding panel made of stainless spring steel, and, Harper says, “That little bit of steel plate amongst the carved wood is like having a little reverb chamber in the body cavity.”
Monteleone knew Harper was planning to use the guitar acoustically as well as plugged in, and he had Kent Armstrong build a custom floating magnetic pickup. “One aspect of the pickup I wanted to do was build the volume and tone controls into the tailpiece, so they wouldn’t interfere with the soundboard,” says Monteleone. “That worked out really well.”
The new lap steel underwent one significant modification after its delivery in 2017. To make the guitar sit more level across Harper’s lap, Monteleone added what he calls a top hat: a carved wooden support that’s permanently attached under the neck and rests on the left leg.
As for the sonic result of this collaboration, Winter Is for Lovers captures the guitar in fine-grain detail, recorded with two microphones and a touch of pickup signal. Harper sets up the guitar with D’Addario light-gauge Flat Tops and uses a Scheerhorn stainless steel bar in the studio. He played the entire album with bare fingers except for one piece (“London”) with a pick.
For Monteleone, hearing the music Harper has already created on the guitar is the greatest reward. “I had no idea that he was going to respond to the guitar so quickly and become inspired enough to produce an album such as this new one,” says Monteleone. “What an honor.” —JPR