Q&A with noted Weissenborn builder Tony Francis scheduled for June 12, 2021 @3pm Central Time (UTC-5)

As a follow up to Weissenborn Week at our Facebook discussion group, The Squareneck Journal will be hosting a live Q&A Zoom session with noted Weissenborn builder Tony Francis on Saturday, June 12 at 3pm Central Time Zone (UTC-5). The link is below

Tony will be on hand to answer your questions about vintage Weissenborn guitars – their hollow neck design and construction – what gives them their unique sound, the differences between certain periods of production and much more. We’ll also spend sometime unraveling Tony’s story as a New Zealand based builder, how he got started building his own instruments, what he learned from restoring numerous vintage Weissenborn guitars, etc.

Sebastian Müller

I know very little about Hawaiian Steel guitar music but watching and listening to your videos has definitely piqued my interest! What is your musical background and story?

I grew up in a musical family in Germany, my mother is a good singer, so is my father and he plays multiple instruments. I started out with piano at the age of six without much success. Around 10 I started playing Tenor Horn in a brass section, when I was 15 I started on classical guitar. I had a great teacher who encouraged me to improvise and soon I got into playing electric guitar, playing in several local bands. I was already at that time quite interested in recording and worked with a 4track recorder and drum machines. After high school I moved to Los Angeles to study guitar at the GIT. After studying there I realized that I am rather interested in music production than being a session player. I moved to Berlin and set up a home studio. Everything was about Electronic music at that time in Berlin and soon I started using my gear to produce my own tracks. I soon became part of the very exciting scene. For about 10 years I was producing my own and other peoples music, played live, spun records and was able to travel lots of countries doing music, great times. 10 years ago I was hired by Native Instruments, a Berlin based software instrument company where I work as a Sound designer. About the same time I started out on Dobro and formed a Bluegrass Band with two of my friends. Since my parents in law used to live in Hawaii we traveled there on a regular base. My first touch point with Hawaiian Music was hearing Slack key master Ledward Kaapana performing at the Kona brewery. I was quite impressed and started to play a bit of slack key, just for myself and for fun. In Hawaii I bought a CD called Hawaiian Steel Guitar Classics which contained mostly tricone recordings from the 20s and 30s and I was totally hooked. Soon the Bluegrass band was transformed into a Hawaiian Band, as much as we like Bluegrass it was clear that with vintage Hawaiian music we found our niche. A year later we were joined by our singer Yuko, and that is the core of the band for 8 years now.

How did you get started playing Hawaiian Steel guitar?

As I already mentioned I started out with Dobro, (using Cindy Cashdollar’s DVD) it was a perfect new challenge after playing guitar since I was 15, definitely some things in common with guitar but also pretty new and exciting. I also liked the fact that I can play a acoustic instrument without sitting in front of a computer, which is quite a common scenario when you are producing music nowadays.

Who were your heroes ?

I was always fascinated by the early Hawaiian players, these recordings are so pure, great musicality without showing off. The players that influenced me the most are Sol Hoopii, Dick McIntire, King Benny Nawahi, Sol K Bright, Andy Iona and Jim and Bob. It is actually amazing how many great steel players where around at that time, I could write a long list. I also love the specific style of the Rodgers family, Benny and Feet Rogers, they sound sooo Hawaiian.

How did you learn to play so well?

Thank you so much for the kind words, I am slowly getting there : ) Besides taking a handful of lessons from Alan Akaka and John Ely I am basically self taught. I used the Stacy Phillips book to learn some arrangements but started to transcribe steel parts from records right from the start. This is where I learn the most, carefully listening to the old masters and figuring out what is going on, how they slide into notes, when they use what kind of vibrato, and so on. At a certain point I thought it could be cool to do some performance videos of playing my arrangements, there were some great examples on YouTube featuring Dobro and Weissenborn but not so much vintage Hawaiian music. I posted my first video 2 years ago on Facebook and the response I got totally blew me away, I never had thought that so many people would be interested in that kind of music, it is quite a specific thing, right ? A niche in a niche : ) So the great feedback motivated me to produce more videos and by now I have 11 performance videos on my YouTube channel. More and more people where asking for tabs of my arrangements and I finally kicked my ass and started tabing out my arrangements during Covid-19. I am very happy I did, the tabs are a great tool to connect with other players and the combination of tab, playback and performance video seems to be helpful for player who want to learn that style of lap steel playing.

Can you walk us through how are you have come up with one of your arrangements? Since I’m not super familiar with the material to begin with I’m not sure if you’re improvising the lines, trying to stay as close as possible to the original melody or embellishing them on an improvisational basis, etc.?

It really depends. Sometimes it can be a almost note for note replay of a original. This is always tempting because the originals are so good it feels weird to change or add anything. Most of the time I add at least one solo that is my own, sometimes I come up with a my own arrangement, I am planing to do pieces where there is no steel guitar version yet. Before I do a song I do some research, I collect a couple of different versions, not only from steel players, could also be from musicians like Django Reinhard or the Mills Brothers, and find out which parts I like. I will record a sketch backing track and do the arrangement, come up with all necessary parts. If necessary I have to practice the arrangement to bring it to the speed I want. I will redo the backing track and add some variations and breaks to make it more interesting. I focus more and more on the quality of the backing track, it is so much more fun to play over something that has a good groove and is harmonically interesting, the backing tracks I did years ago are just less inspiring not in the right style, using wrong playing techniques and sound, I didn’t care 🙂 ! You could look at spending so much time on the backing tracks as a waste of time that you rather should use playing steel, but I don’t think so. You train your rhythm and you focus on the harmonic structure of the song. Focus on that really helped my arrangements, it is super helpful to know what is going on when you play on the steel, what chordtones you are playing in the moment and so on.

Can you walk us through the process you went through to learn about and finally acquire the acoustic and electric lap slide guitars you own? It looks like you favor vintage instruments?

Living in Germany means that you will hardly have the chance to play a vintage American steel guitar at a dealer. So all the steels I play now I ordered without playing them before, it is always quite a thrill when the instrument arrives 🙂 I love vintage instruments, always did, I have some really nice electric guitars and amps so if you are inspired by the old players it definitely makes sense to use similar gear, helps to get that tone. I own a Postwar Rickenbacher B6. I can totally recommend these steel guitars, they are such a great value. Don’t use it so much since I have the Frypan. My Tricone journey started with one from Republic. I changed the cones and it is a great travel guitar, it is loud and a fine instrument, doesn’t sound as sweet as my National, though. I even put a Hipshot Doubleshot on it, I switch in between A Hibass and C#Minor. When I ordered the Tricone from 1931 I opened the box, tuned it and is sounded horrible. Like an old Banjo, almost no sustain. I put new NRP cones in it and it sounded great. Love that guitar. Since I am a big fan of Dick McIntire I always wanted to buy a longscale Rickenbacher Frypan. Traveling to Hawaii I was able to play some of these instruments but nobody wanted to sell one. I searched for about 2 years until I finally found one. I also own a Clinesmith Aluminum Cast 8 string. This is a great steel guitar, being a 8 string is slightly confusing to me and I was trying out a lot of different tunings. I think I found a great tuning now so I hope I can feature it in a future video.

The audio/video quality of your YouTube videos is outstanding! Is there a certain process you follow to put them together? I’m assuming you start by recording an rhythm track and overdub on top of that?

Thank you ! Yes, everything is overdubbed. I think most important are the Instruments and the playing technique to get a certain sound. I use a Gibson EH 175 and a The Loar L5 copy. I use Ribbon mics exclusively to create a warm sound. I use a fair amount of EQ to shape the sound into the direction I like. Being a sound engineer /sound designer comes in handy : ) I use a Sony A6300 and a handful of lights, when it comes to video I am a total beginner : )! I use a Fender Tweed Deluxe quite a lot in the moment, sounds great with those horseshoe pickups.

What do you love most about being a musician? What have been some of the highlights of learning to play lap slide guitar for you? What makes it worthwhile?

Music just continues to excite me! I love meeting and playing with other musicians and traveling the world while doing music is the best thing ever. And music, especially Hawaiian music is just so good for the soul 😁 At least for mine!