Guitarist to the Stars Smokey Hormel Gets Big Tones From Vintage Gibson Hollowbodies and Amps
Smokey Hormel is the Sam Spade of guitar: a superbly capable hired gun who can grasp any situation, roll with the punches and still — when it comes to crafting gorgeous melodies — be a romantic at heart.
The New Jersey-based string-bender’s approach has earned his card a slot in the rolodexes of Tom Waits and Beck — with whom he’s toured — and über producer Rick Rubin. And he’s played on albums by Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, John Doe, Joe Strummer, and bluesman R.L. Burnside. He also held the guitar chair with roots rock legends the Blasters from 1988 to 1992 when he lived in L.A., replacing another formidable guitarist, Blasters co-founder Dave Alvin. Hormel blasted away in that band on Gibson hollowbodies and Gibson amps.
“In the early ’90s I was really into the blues and American music from the ’50s and older,” Hormel offers. “Older Gibson amps like the GA-20 and Gibson hollowbody guitars were perfect for dialing in great sounds. Ry Cooder befriended me and we used to travel around hunting for these amps and guitars.”
When a friend gave Hormel a CD of early electric African music, his interest in that decade expanded by a continent. “I found so many parallels between classic American music and this period in African music before it was influenced by American rock, funk, and pop,” he continues. “I really wanted to play it.”
After Hormel returned to the New York area in the late ’90s he found a crew of musicians just as interested in performing this music. They played a series of weekly gigs at the club Tonic under the name Smokey’s Secret Family, until other commitments pulled the Family apart.
Now Hormel is aiming for a Family reunion so he can undertake a major city tour later this year in support of his new Smokey’s Secret Family, which covers seven of the African tunes Hormel became smitten with, including “Lakambo Ya Ngana” by the famed Congolese bandleader Franco and Brazilian folksinger Luiz Gonzaga’s “Acaua.”
“A lot of this African music was inspired by Cuban and South American music, which was played on juke boxes at bars in Africa at the time,” Hormel explains. The guitarist also makes his own contributions with two originals. The thread between all nine numbers is the pure joy sparked by the gentle rhythms and Hormel’s fluid, percolating melodies, spun off a solidbody Harmony Stratotone he acquired during his stint with Tom Waits and a 1958 ES-345 that’s one of his favorite axes.
“The rhythms of African music from this era are much gentler than King Sunny Ade’s JuJu music or Afro-Beat,” Hormel observes, “so it just inspires you to play in a natural way that lets the melodies pour out.”
Not that Hormel’s ever been short on melodies. And when he’s crafting them in the studio he typically brings 10 guitars along including a late 1930s ES-150 he acquired as a teenager in thrall of Charlie Christian, his ES-345, a 1960 ES-330 TDC, an early ’40s L-7, and a late ’50s J-50. Along with a box of effects that holds Fulltone wah-wah and Octane pedals, a Z-Vex Fuzz Factory, a Memory Man, and a host of other cool signal tweakers, he taps an armada of amps. Among his favorites are a late ’30s Gibson EH-185, a mid-’50s GA-20 (given to Hormel by the Cramps’ Poison Ivy), a late ’50s GA-6, an early ’60s Falcon, and an early ’60s Vanguard with an oil-can echo box.
“I am obsessed with old Gibson amps,” says Hormel. “They’re not very high powered, but they give you plenty of distortion and that cool low end. When I plug in my Charlie Christian guitar and roll back the high end, it barks!”
Barking, howling, buzzing, and singing angelically were all part of Hormel’s requirements for his high-profile gigs with Tom Waits and Beck.
“They’re both such great performers, and they’re really demanding, although they have different styles,” says Hormel. “Beck has very specific tastes that you need to learn to satisfy. And Tom tends to leave a fair amount of room in the arrangements for improvisation every night on stage, so things are always different.”
If Hormel reunites his Secret Family this year it will be for his first tour under his own name since 2002, when he teamed with Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori for the bossa nova influenced group Smokey & Miho. Until then he can be found most Wednesday nights leading his western swing band Smokey’s Round Up at Sunny’s Bar in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn.
“You walk into the bar and it looks like it’s 1920,” says Hormel, “and when we’re playing it sounds like it’s 1930 or 1940.”