On An Island

Using a multitude of fabulous stringed instruments made of wood, metal, old cigar boxes and even sports implements, Harry Manx has carved himself a unique path. Interview by Steve Bailey.

Out in the Gulf Of Georgia not far from Vancouver dwells Harry Manx; maverick, innovator and one of the finest exponents of Indian slide guitar in the Western world. Harry’s Salt Spring Island abode is also home to his exotic and downright bizarre collection of stringed slide instruments. It’s a suitably idyllic setting for a colourful character.

Manx’s blend of Indian, delta and contemporary influences sets him completely apart from other slide stylists, and his latest album Om Suite Ohm mixes these far-flung ingredients with great skill and a seductive sense of earthy spirituality. Intrinsic to Harry’s sound is his mastery of the Mohan Veena, an instrument that sits roughly halfway between a sitar and a big old jazz-style archtop guitar.

‘Somebody told me the other day “You’re in a category of one with that sound” – and I’m glad about it,’ smiles Manx with typically enthusiastic wonderment. ‘There are so many fine players doing so much great music, so if you find your own corner, it’s a blessing.’

Back in the early 1970s you’d have found Manx working as a sound engineer in a Toronto blues club, pushing the faders for greats like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. From there he was off to Paris, a stepping-stone for a long period playing slide guitar for small change on streets throughout Europe. His wanderlust took him to India in the early ’80s where he would eventually be introduced to the Mohan Veena and find a musical awakening.

‘I’ve had a relationship with the Mohan Veena now for 20 years, and it’s deep,’ Manx ponders. ‘I’m not even close to knowing it yet. Your average listener might be knocked out by what I do, but for me, having studied Veena with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, I know where I sit in the world of slide. He’s the mountain – and when you hang out with guys like him, you yet get humbled pretty quick.’

Manx had been in India for seven years, studying sitar in Bombay, when word came to him of an Indian slide guitar innovator based in Rajasthan in the north west of the country. It was the late 1980s by the time he decided to make the journey to seek out Mohan Bhatt.

‘I got to his house in the middle of the night,’ recalls Harry. ‘I played a couple of songs for him on slide guitar, he really liked it and he went and got the veena. It was the first time I’d seen one. He opened the case and strummed all the sympathetic strings, and it was so beautiful I just about died on the spot. I realised in a flash that my whole direction in life had changed. I didn’t leave there for years, because the only thing that mattered to me was learning how to make that sound.’

‘Veena’ is a general term for any Indian plucked string instrument, and they can take many different forms. Mohan’s father had been a great player and a teacher, and one of his European students had left a Craftsman archtop guitar at the family home. The teenage Vishwa decided to experiment by putting sympathetic strings on the guitar. With the help of a fine Indian luthier the idea evolved, and a new kind of veena was born. Bhatt’s Mohan Veena is generally played lying flat on the lap, and it has 20 strings in total. At the top, strung on the treble side of the fretboard, are three melody strings for slide playing; below them and to the bass side of the fretboard are five drone strings, and below them all are 12 sympathetic strings that attach to the tuning pegs that run along the top of the fretboard. Vishwa’s use of the Mohan Veena is perfectly captured on his 1993 Grammy-winning album with Ry Cooder, A Meeting By The River.

One aspect of Vishwa’s Mohan Veena technique eluded his student – his use of a Honda scooter axle for a slide. Manx did experiment for a while before settling on the Dunlop Lap Dawg slide bar he now uses. ‘I switched for a while to the door bolt from the house I lived in in India,’ he grins. ‘Every day I kept looking at it, thinking that would be a great slide. I had a guy come over and take it off, and I tried it, but it wasn’t right so I put it back. I’ll try anything!’

Vishwa actually gave Manx that first Veena he had showed him, but these days that important instrument is back with the master while Manx has the use of three Veenas made by a Calcutta-based luthier, Bhabasindhu Biswas. Gradually, Manx has solved the problem of amplifying the complex instrument. ‘It was a real challenge to get the sound electronically that I knew was in the instrument. I float a National pickup right in the middle between the lower sympathetics and the upper strings so it picks up on both sides.’

Harry’s most visually striking instrument is perhaps his National steel-style Mohan Veena (see header page), a creation from a fellow Salt Spring Islander, engineer-turned-luthier Grant Wickland. ‘He loves the challenge of instrument making. He’s been turning out resonators and cigar box guitars since the ’70s,’ Manx explains. ‘He came over and did measurements on my Veenas and I pointed him in the right direction. Suddenly he came over with one that he’d banged up out of metal! He’s an experimental fellow and I love that about him. He doesn’t play by the rules at all.’

Harry has one more Veena, this one with something of the Weissenborn look about it. It was Australian luthier Tim Kill’s first attempt at this kind of instrument, again with Harry’s advice. ‘He’s really well known among slide players – he builds guitars for Xavier Rudd – and he gave me that one as a gift. He makes Veena-type instruments, and also what he calls Chaturanguis – they’re really amazing. They’re like Veenas except they have six strings on top instead of three. I find I have trouble playing them because there’s too much going on… I can’t control all the overtones.’

Harry has also been playing six-string banjo for 20 years. His current Goldtone Banjitar – festooned with stickers of Hindu gods and tuned to open C, a whole step down from DADFAB – features on the new album on songs such as All Fall Down and Carry My Tears.

‘It’s funny… the traditional kind of banjo doesn’t really attract me, but I love the six-string,’ he muses. ‘I play it on a lot of records. I’ve had the Goldtone a long time. I’ve got big fat strings on it – .016″ to .056″ – so there’s a lot of bass. It actually has more bass than any other instrument I have. You don’t think of the banjo like that, but I use it for playing everything from Jimi Hendrix to Indian kind of stuff. My other banjo is a Grant Wickland banjo. It’s like the Goldtone, but a step up in quality. I play it at home because I love the sound, but for the stage I can’t give it up my old Goldtone.’

Many like their cigar box guitars built on the rudimentary side, but Harry’s main squeeze – made by Johnny Lowe in Memphis – takes the concept to new levels. ‘He calls it the Lowebow. It’s held together by those shitty dollar clamps – it’s real salt of the earth! The neck looks like two broomsticks. I got tired of shooting in the dark trying to find the bloody notes, so I put all those fret markings on with tape. I recorded the Springsteen tune I’m On Fire with it and it didn’t sound half bad.’ Bruce Springsteen came along to a Manx gig in New York – and when asked to sign the Lowebow, he scrawled all over it.

Harry also showed the cigar box to Grant Wickland, and he clearly took it as another challenge. ‘I think it was Thursday night and not even two days later, on Saturday morning, he brought over the best cigar box I’ve ever played. It’s made with great precision. His wife told me he’d stayed up all night making it. It’s tuned low to F#; the string length is really long, so it’s pretty slack. If you put too much pressure on the slide you’re out of tune very quickly, but it’s got a huge sound. From the high string I tune root, 5th, root, and then a low root, so three F#s and a C#. The lowest string is the G string from a bass.’

Arguably his most bizarre instrument is, well, what appears to be a hockey stick with strings on it. ‘I really shouldn’t have the ability to indulge myself sometimes,’ grins Manx. ‘In Canada hockey is more popular than anything, so I tried to cash in on some of that. Originally I gave Grant an actual hockey stick and said “Put some strings on this for me,” so he came up with this. I took it out to one show and people laughed so hard I couldn’t get them to take the song seriously!’

Manx doesn’t own a traditional solidbody electric but his white Subway baritone from Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay area comes within the remit. It was built by a man known simply as Fatdawg. ‘Everybody knows Fatdawg! He works out of this little crowded shop that you can hardly get into – it’s full of used instruments and junk. You might see Taj Mahal sitting in the corner… Taj loves the place. Mark Knopfler plays his guitars, Michael Franti used to work there, Charlie Hunter worked in that shop too. It really is a trip. When Danelectro went out of business Fatdawg bought containers of stuff from them – bodies, necks, electronics – and he builds instruments he calls Subway Guitars. You can ask him to build you anything; they’re cheap – $400 or $500 – and sound amazing. Don’t try and email him, though… he doesn’t do internet! He says, “Come over and talk to me if you want something!”’

The only other guitar that resembles a normal electric is an Asher Ben Harper. ‘The Asher is probably the best you can buy, the Rolls Royce of electric slide guitars. I love it. It has just the right tension on the neck and it’s perfectly balanced. It’s really lovely.’

It’s been a busy couple of years for Harry: there’s been the release of his second collaborative album with Kevin Breit, Strictly Whatever, and his latest solo recordings for Om Suite Ohm had to be shoe-horned in during lulls in a busy gigging schedule. Tracks were laid down in Melbourne in Australia with didgeridoo player Ganga Giri and vocalist Gunjaarra Waitairie, who brought a flavour of the outback to Way Out Back. Ex-LA session man, producer and fellow Eastern music devotee Hans Christian added rhythm tracks, cello, bass and strings in Wisconsin, and Harry brought the whole thing together in a studio on Vancouver Island in Canada.

Manx actually saw fit to play a standard Telecaster on the record, although it did have the strings raised and a Hot Rails pickup onboard – and, of course, it was borrowed. ‘I’ve never owned an actual electric guitar in my illustrious career, but on Blues Dhamra you can hear me playing the melody on a Tele. It’s at a pretty good volume so that helped to get the sustain, which allows you a lot more possibilities.’

Though a late starter – he didn’t record his first album until he was 46, in 2001 – Harry Manx is fast making up for lost time. The latest is his sixth studio solo effort, and his two collaborative LPs with Kevin Breit bolster the numbers further. ‘It came easily, this album. I didn’t have to struggle, it came like it was the right time. I think it’s probably the best work I’ve done. Maybe it’s because it’s the sum of everything I’ve learned up until this point.’

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