Doc Stevens and His Guitars and Equipment - Part 3

Thursday, February 11, 2010 2:43 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: When you visit a rural American who plays music, at first he or she may only let you know about one or two instruments that are in the house (or cabin). After you get to know them, and they stop thinking of you strictly as an outsider, they may show you some of their other treasures.

But even then, they will not let you know where they keep them. They will disappear into the back of the house or even go out the back door, only to return a few minutes later with another guitar, banjo or whatever instrument it is. It may have been kept in a shed, or out building, or even in the camper shell on the back of the pick up truck, or in the boot of one of the cars sitting on blocks out in the back garden.

Doc has agreed to talk about some of his guitars and other equipment, as you could read from the earlier two postings. One of the guitars that I know he keeps in the boot of an old Ford in the back garden is a three string acoustic. I already had pictures of him with this guitar, so I guess it was the most natural one for him to want to talk about.

Doc: Ok Tondy. This guitar is a Colgate guitardoc stevens 002...

Tondeleo: Actually, Doc, the brand name on it is Collegiate...

Doc: But I don't know what that means, and it looks like Colgate...

Tondeleo: Collegiate means "having to do with college," like this was a guitar that a college student might play.

Doc: Well, ain't no college student ever owned this one! But someone who brushes his teeth owns it, so it is a Colgate guitar for sure now.

This guitar cost about $10 when it was new. It is from about 1958 or 59. Belonged to a boy down Gate City, Virginia what gave it to me cause he was gonna throw it in the trash which is where it belongs. It's been played by a lot of people so the finish is wore through. It's cracked in the front and in the back. Aint had no bridge or that thing up the top of the neck for the strings to go through [the nut].

It only had three strings on it an' it still does, because a lot of people down there just play with what they got. It ain't the same three strings, it's got some strings left over from another guitar on it now. I'll play it for you to put on that yourtube if you want, but not right now. Later.

I play at places where everyone's got a new guitar that costs like more 'n 500 dollars, and the cases look like you could eat off of them, but they ain't never get that right "down home" sound 'cause people playin' roots or blues ain't got the money for guitars like that. We got hand me down guitars an' guitars we could buy off someone else who needed money for rent or bail or whatever.

It ain't the guitar what makes good roots or blues music, it's what's inside the person playin' 'em. If you got the music in your heart, you can make your music touch other peoples' hearts even if it's on a $25 guitar. Or a three string $10 guitar like this.

It's got a bolt for a nut and a piece of molding for a bridge and a 'lectric pick up what I put on it. It still sounds like crap, and is a piece of crap and is now worth about $9 I think. But it plays pretty easy. Twice as easy as a 6 string cause it only got three strings.

Tondeleo: Is it tuned like a regular guitar. Doc?

doc stevens 003 Doc: No, it tunes like this: The bottom string and the top string is the same note but the top one is higher, and the middle string is like the ... it's somethin' you just hear. Like, if you were playin' the intro to "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" and the bottom string was the first two notes, the middle string would be that third note.

You imagine playin' it, and tune the second string to it (Doc hums the guitar part, and demonstrates how to tune it. To me it sounds like, if the first and third string are an "E", the middle string would be a "B").

You tune it like that Tondy and you can play most any song in the world. You can use a slide with it, or just pick it, it don't matter, it'll sound good. I done heard boys down in the mountains play Jimi Hendrix's songs on three string and it sounds just fine. I just play blues on it.

If it's all you got, you can make a lot of music on it. I got a couple of home made guitars what I made a long time ago - electric ones what was made from wooden boxes and parts of off other broken guitars. Once I got some real guitars I ain't played 'em too much in public, but I will get them out and show you some time.

Anyway, that's a three string guitar.This one right here.

Doc Stevens and His Guitars and Equipment - Part 2

Wednesday, February 3, 2010 12:54 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: I finally got Doc to trust me enough to let me take pictures of some of his guitars and equipment, and to tell me about them. Here is the first one.

Doc: Tondy, this one come from Mitchell Cole's great uncle, like I said before. He played it in the 60's and 70's in bars in the Maryland and DC and Virginia. He was near about 80 when he died. It was covered in nicotene and the pickups was orangey yellow from it, instead of white like they came. They sounded bad. I put three Tele pickups on it, and now it sounds like a train comin' through.


I left his emblems on it. He gots them Cadillac emblems, cause to him, that was his Cadillac. He loved it like a Cadillac. The other one I don't know what it is. Meant somethin' to him. I left it on there.

Let's see. I put that handle on it so I can carry it round better. I got handles like that on a few of my guitars. Make's 'em easy to carry. I don't know why the factories ain't never put them on. But I do put them on.

I put them rubber legs on the bottom, too. That's so it don't roll over when it's leanin' against the amp or against a wall. I seen a boy's Les Paul [guitar] leanin' against a amp a few years agao, down Kingsport [a city in Tennessee] and the neck snapped right off there at the end, between the neck and the tuners! He broke down and cried lie a baby an' I went an' looked at it an' I cried too, right there with him. I went back to my room and took the legs off a radio an' screwed them onto my guitar so it ain't never happen to me. I got them little legs on a few of my guitars what I take out.

I already said Tele pickups. I like how a Tele sounds so I put three of them on here. I changed some of the wirin' so they sounds better.

Tondeleo: What did you do, to make them sounds better, Doc?

Doc: I ain't sayin. Just it ain't hard. If it was, I couldna done it. Ok, I'll tell you. Take a piece of wire and solder it to the tone pot at the bottom thing where wires can get soldered. Then you solder the other end to the middle one on the volume pot. It's already got a wire to it. That makes it sound better. That is one thing I done but ain't tellin' the rest. Let 'em find out like I did. Won't hurt no one.

Tondeleo: Anything else that you did to this guitar, Doc?

Doc: Yeah. I put two bass strings on it. That gives it more bass sound. I play bass with my thumb and play the rest of the guitar with my two fingers [index and middle finger] and then the other two. It sounds real full that way, an' I don't need to bring a bass player along, to have to split the money with. Mostly just me an' Marilyn unless Big Dave or someone else comes along. Then we just split the money by however many people it is.

Tondeleo: And the bass strings just fit right on it?

Doc Stevens 07 Doc: No, they don't just fit right on it. You gotta drill out down there at the bridge and then drill out your bottom two tuning keys, cause a bass string's fatter and won't go through the holes what comes on a regular guitar.

Tondeleo: Did you think of this yourself or did you see it somewhere or what?

Doc: Nobody showed it to me. I was comin' up the road real late one night after playin' up to DC, and thinkin' about how to get a fuller sound. I already play fingerstyle with a thump-thump bass style. Then I heard a voice, what mighta been the Lord, sayin' go to Wal-Mart and get some bass strings and put it on your guitar. So I did and that is how it got started. I ain't never seen no one else do it. That's all I done to this guitar, basically.

Doc Stevens and His Guitars and Equipment - Part 1

11:22 AM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: I am not a musician. So when I talk with Doc about music, guitars and equipment, I am clueless. I just like to hear the blues/roots music that he and his friends play. But I am clueless on how they get the sounds that they get from what is obvious, even to me, is cheap equipment. Much of it appears to be homemade.

I don't always know the questions to ask when talking about the equipment or instruments that these people use. When I DO ask questions, they are the wrong ones, and they end up teasing me relentlessly about my ignorance of guitars, harmonicas, dobros and amplifiers.

I asked Doc if he would be willing to talk to me about the instruments that he and Marilyn use, and he has agreed to give me enough information to have two or three "blob" postings.

Doc: OK, Tondy, I'll talk wi' you about some of the 'quipment what we use but I aint given away no secrets. A man's guitar is like his dog, and his sound is like his woman an' he ain't gonna have you pettin' his dog or comin' on to his woman, ya know. You ain't gonna tell someone else how to do it.

Tondeleo: OK, Doc, I won't press for any secrets, but I notice that you and your friends tend to have beat up guitars that, in all honesty, don't look like they were very good even when they were new...

Doc: Well, we ain't got the kind of money like them boys what goes out an' buys a new guitar every time they come out with a new one. I been up to that Hot Licks (Guitar Shop)in Waldorf an' they got more shiny guitars what is all perfect than I have ever seen in my life. They is shiny like plastic and got chrome like a mirror on them. Fact, they even got some what is already dirty an' worn like someone had already played 'em hard for a few years, but they is brand new! They got fake dirt on 'em Tondy! Called "Road Worn."

Tondeleo: That's nice, Doc, but back to your guitars and equipment...

Doc: OK. Mostly, we use what we got or what been give to us. I got a bunch of guitars what I have got over the years. Some been give to me. Some was payment to me, like when I fix someone's car or somethin'. Got a few guitars that way. Got a couple guitars what I made from old parts. Got some amps, too.

One my Grandaddy give me when I was 12 years old. He played it for a bunch of years then give it to me cause I started playin. I still got it. It is hogenny [I looked at it - it's mahogany] and is a archtop and is a Kay. It is from about 1940. It has a 'lectic pick up what he put on about 1950. I ain't take it out cause somethin' might happen to it.

Tondeleo: So tell me about some of the guitars that you DO take out to play...docstevensgear

Doc: I was gettin' to that. Mostly is about four of 'em. There is one what is called a Fender Frankenphantom. It ain't the real name. It means its made from parts an' Fender ain't never made one like it. If you heard it, you'd know WHY!

It is a 40 year old piece of crap guitar with a neck like a piece of beef. That means it ain't too good. I got it from Mitchell Cole's great uncle what died a few years ago. His widow charged $75 for it. I had to do some work on it to make it sound right.

Tondeleo: What kind of work?

Doc: Well, changed the pick ups. His was full of nicotene and mold and rust and sounded bad. I put some Tele [Fender Telecaster] pickups on it, three of 'em and it sounds good. That picture you got there is afore I swapped the pickups. Those ones in the picture was supposed to be white. They is the color in that picture, like a piece of caramel candy because of 40 years of smoke and nicotine which is why they ain't sound like nothin'.

I 'justed the neck. It needed spacers under it cause it was bowed. I put bass strings on part of it cause that's how I play. It sounds good now an' I like how it feels. And ain't nobody gonna steal it.

Tondeleo: Is that the one that's in a lot of the videos on YouTube?

Doc: Pretty much. I play it a lot. It gots that Cadillac emblem on it. To that man what owned it, it was his Cadillac.

Tondeleo: What else do you take out regularly... equipment wise, I mean.

Doc: It depends on where I am playin'. If I'm playin' outside to make a few dollars, I take out that guitar or another one, my foot box what has a tambourine on it, for rhythm, and one of my little amps what is battery powered. The tambourine gots a VW hubcap on it for people to throw money into. It's gots my name an' phone number on it too, so they can call if they want to get us to play somewhere else. I got a couple of battery powered amps. One of 'em I made from a old Peavey amp what someone backed they car into and busted it, so I made my own box for it and added that it can be powered by a car cigarette lighter, plus batteries plus plugged into the wall 'lectric. I use that the most for playin' on the streets.

When we play out on the streets, it is gettin' some money for the day, but it is also givin' away free samples.

People calls us after hearin' us almost every time and we play at pig pickin's, family reunions, for white and blacks but ain't never done no Mexican or Chinese, an' sometimes festivals an' other places. We played inside some hotels too, after people heard us playin' outside! Like a Marriott and a Sheraton. Some people what was stayin' there heard an' asked us to come in and play for them business people what was havin' a convocation or somethin' like that there. Guess what? The next year when they come up to Alexandria, they called us up again and we played there again! Gave us $500 and a hotel room an' all the food we wanted! Just to play two nights for about a hour an' a half! $500!

Some of them has had us fly to them down south, to Atlanta, to Florida down to Fort Lauderdale, which ain't no fort, and sometimes in Texas they did have me come, but not Marilyn cause she couldn't get off work. All because they heard us play on the sidewalk in Washington, DC! They put us up in Sheratons mostly.

I like that name Sheraton, cause I thought he said it was a Share a Twin and thought you had to share a twin bed to stay there! Had one of them innerspring mattresses...when you laid on it, the springs "inner" your body!

No, I was just makin' funny, there Tondy. But that's enough for today anyway. I want to go eat.