Wellington, New Zealand-based acoustic and electric steel guitarist Thomas Oliver’s playing is quite visible on the web, serving as an inspiration to many fans of Weissenborn-style acoustic steel. Oliver was initially best known as the front man for the roots, blues and rock-oriented Thomas Oliver Band, with which he’s toured quite a bit as both a headliner and a supporting act for marquee artists like Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, George Thorogood, and Tom Jones. In recent years however, Oliver’s been focused on playing and arranging for Weissenborn. His spare, soulful Weissenborn instrumental song, titled The Moment, Has garnered almost 200,000 YouTube views.
Oliver received his first Weissenborn a few years ago from Waikanae, New Zealand-based luthier Tony Francis and hasn’t looked back. Oliver’s CD, Beneath The Weissenborn, documents his collaboration with Francis, who builds stunning recreations of vintage 1920s guitars as well as his own updates of the timeless Weissenborn design.
Rather than the groove-oriented music of his full-band projects, Beneath The Weissenborn focuses on a more introspective, folk-roots-new age aspect of his playing. The album was recorded using Tony’s Style 1, 2, 3 & 4 Weissenborns plus an original teardrop model. The ten tracks showcase the huge dynamic range of these instruments from rich, throbbing bass, to cello-like midrange, and gossamer high-end. Oliver exploits their dynamic, high fidelity sound by using long sustain and little vibrato, exploring the full range of sound these amazing hollowneck instruments can produce.
Besides his excellent phrasing and attention to texture, Oliver also makes creative use of the haunting sounds available from playing behind his un-blocked tonebar at the 12th or 7th fret. While the late Bob Brozman used these as a sound effect, Oliver tends to include these zingy, splashes of harmonic overtones more organically as part of a given composition.
Most of the tunes on the record are somewhat introspective and melancholy in emotional affect and (at least to my ear) sound like they’re played in mostly open D, D minor and/or G-based tunings. This leaves out many of the chords and sounds available from a 6th-based tuning yet still affords a rich and varied palette of musical color.
Perhaps the standout cut is Oliver’s arrangement of John Williams’ Theme from Jurassic Park. I admire his fortitude in tackling a symphonic piece like this as well as his arranging chops in pulling off a lap guitar reduction so well. This cut shows just how up-to-the-task Weissenborns are for handling many more musical genres than they’re typically used for; it just takes effort and imagination. Segovia was often quoted as describing the Spanish guitar as “an orchestra in miniature” and this cut proves that’s definitely an attribute of the Weissenborn guitar as well.
As Oliver says, “I was 7 years old when Jurassic Park was released. I went to see it at the movies about 5 times. Even at the age of 7, I was absolutely enamored by the music. … “ The melody stuck in my head for 20 years before I finally owned it myself. And when I bought it recently, it was like being reunited with a long lost friend, and I played it over and over and over again, as loud as I could, thrusting my arms into the air in the middle of my lounge room. Every time I listen to it, still I just can’t believe how good it is. It remains my favorite film score ever. “
While there is some use of overdubbing and effects on the record, they’re used with taste and restraint. Belfast, the record’s bonus track mixes the steel with the ethereal sound of a wordless choir. All-in-all, Beneath the Weissenborn is a fitting tribute to this instrument that makes a lot of us crazy and serves as a showcase and sonic “proof of the pudding” that Francis’ meticulous builds sound as good as they look.
Andy Volk is an award-winning Boston-based television producer/director, writer, designer and musician. He’s the author of the books Guitar Dreams, Lap Steel Guitar (Centerstream/Hal Leonard), and Slide Rules and co-author (with John McGann) of Joaquin Murphey: Classic Western Swing Steel Guitar Solos. Volk is a also contributing writer to The Fretboard Journal and Acoustic Guitar as well as various online venues.