An Interview with Blues Guitarist Steve Ditzell

Rick: How did you begin playing music? Did you start with a different instrument and move on to guitar?

Steve: I actually started playing with drums when I was a kid, like 12 or 13 years old. It was drums that originally caught my attention, I was trying to get together a drum kit, buying one piece at a time, and I saw this bass guitar. I saw it hanging there and I could actually buy that. So I bought this base, and that's where I starting learning where all the notes were and the frets and how to do that. I got very good on bass and thought I would do that and I went and saw this band called Cream, and I saw what Clapton was doing with the guitar, I was third row center, and that really made me think. I saw the kind of expression you could get with the guitar so eventually I moved over. I still like playing bass.

Rick: Do you still take up the drums?

Steve: No, no. I stopped, the guitar pretty well, keeps me busy enough.

Rick: What was the first guitar that you ever played and was it the first one you ever owned?

Steve: The first guitar I ever played really was not very well playable. I had a guitar when I was 12 and tried playing it but because it wasn't really playable, I got discouraged and didn't stick with it. Then back when I was about 15, is when I really got serious about the guitar. I got past the early stage where your fingers hurt; you don't have calluses so it's kind of painful, I decided to push on through that phase. I bought me a little old Montgomery Wards guitar for $9.99 that was when I was 15. I started learning things that I could play, obviously I couldn't play anything intricate, but I could play chords and stuff and I was listening to a lot of Dylan songs; at one point I knew all the Dylan songs, I could play those and all the verses. As I got better on the guitar I played more challenging things.

Rick: Do you prefer to play an acoustic or electric guitar?

Steve: Well when I'm playing around the house it's the acoustic, but when I hit the stage, it the acoustic or electric. I really like playing the acoustic, just when I'm sitting around and I get an idea of something I want to play, I grab that, really I like playing the acoustic more.

Rick: Any particular reason?

Steve: I don't know, I guess I just like the sound of it, but when I get out there with the band, I really like the sound of the electric, it's just louder and everything like that. But I really guess that I really enjoy the acoustic. And I really like listening to people who play the acoustic like Andres Sobgovia and people like that.

Rick: Do you have any particular things that you do to get ready for a performance?

Steve: No not particularly I don't think. I just get the darn thing tuned up and go ahead and play. Make sure there are some decent strings on it.

Rick: You're never really nervous or need to get warmed up?

Steve: I have had several occasions in my career, I can recall times when I was very nervous. Big shows, Carnegie Hall for example, I was really nervous, but once I start playing I'm ok. Waiting to do it kills me.

Rick: The anticipation?

Steve: Yeah, yeah.

Rick: Do you consider yourself strictly a blues man or do you have other strong interests?

Steve: Well Blues are my main thing; really it's the finest music. But you now, I really, if you look at my song lists and things for acoustic and electric, you see quite an eclectic mix. I like Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams and people like that; I do a few of their songs. Rye Cooter is a big favorite of mine; Rye Cooter is one of those guys that really gets into some really cool stuff that time forgot. A real blues man, that would be Muddy Waters that would be Howlin' Wolf, those are your blues men- the guys that play blues all the time. See I'm not a blues man, but I am a blues player in the sense that you know Eric Clapton is a blues player, he's a rock star, but a blues player.

Rick: What was it like playing live in front of an audience for the first time?

Steve: It was fun right away, I always liked it. Going back to my early teens when I was doing my very first gigs, I've always enjoyed playing for people. There's something kind of intangible about that whole experience. It's a very fascinating thing; music is something that people need more than they think they need.

Rick: When you are preparing for your performance, how do you come up with your set lists?

Steve: It depends on who I'm playing for, I play for some places where they like a whole lot of biker favorites so I'm going to do a lot of ZZ top in places like that. Then I'll play another gig that will be like a traditional blues type of venue, so I'll have a lot of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and things like that in there. And then most of my gigs their either going to be rock and roll and blues and they are going to lean one way or the other. And it depends on who I have on bass and drums that night, because certain drummers are really strong with certain things and not as good in other things, so. But I always do like to make a set list for each gig. You know I've talked to band leaders who work off the same set list every night, and I like the fact that can make a new one every night, depending on what I'm into and what I've really been getting into lately.

Rick: Who was the first big name that you ever played with and how did that experience go?

Steve: I have to say that would be Junior Wells; I first played with him I was about 25 then and I had gone to Chicago and I was going down to Theresa's Lounge and hanging around and I eventually got in the house band at Theresa's and Junior Wells was in Europe, so he finally got back from there about a month after I had been playing in the house band there, so now he's on stage and it was pretty funny. He had this expensive looking briefcase with gold all over it and everything, and when I was out in the audience I can remember thinking that I wish I could see inside that, I imagined all these sparkling harmonicas laying in blue velvet in there and all that stuff, so that's what I thought it would look like in that expensive looking briefcase. So now I'm up on the stage and he opens the briefcase and I'm thinking, " Hey now I get to look inside", and I look inside and he's got two bottles of booze and a harmonica in there, and he played the one harmonica all night. Harmonica players usually have harmonicas for each of the keys; Junior Wells didn't have to do that, he just played that one harp in all the keys all night long. That guy was amazing.

Rick: Not quite what you expected?

Steve: No.

Rick: Given all the memorable people you've played with, who are some of the ones who stand out the most?

Steve: Well, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, very much so. Big Mama Thorton, Jay Mc Shannon, I played with Jay Mc Shannon and Big Mama Thorton at Carnegie Hall; I did that gig with them there. I've been on shows with some really memorable people that I didn't actually get to play with, but we were at the same bill so I got to hang out with them, people like Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, Bob Marley and the Wailers, when I was with Koko Taylor we opened up for them, so I got to hang out with them and that was a very interesting experience. (Editors Note: Ask Rick Why when you see him)

Rick: When you are playing, what are some of the songs that people request the most and do you have a song that you like to play the most?

Steve: I get a lot of requests, people request Crossroads a lot, Pride and Joy by Stevie Ray Vaughan, I get a lot of requests for that. People like Stevie Ray's music; by the way Stevie Ray Vaughan is a person I left off the list. He's one of the people I got a chance to play with that made a big impression on me, he was one a real down to earth guy and a phenomenal musician, and he was one of the nicest people I have run into in the business. B.B. King, I played Lucille, he let me play Lucille for a bit. He's a really nice person. Those are some of the nicest guys I've run into. As far as songs I like to play, I've got about a dozen of them I have a lot of fun playing. Every time I play them it's a bit different. Crossroads is like that, that's one that I like to play, it's never the same twice, it's always different and I never know how I'm going to play it. It's a nice song to solo over, because of rhythmically the way it's set up; I just have a lot of fun to solo with.

Rick: Famous or not famous, who would be you favorite performer to play with?

Steve: Well I would say Sammy Lawhorn. Sammy Lawhorn was the guy down at Theresa's Lounge who played lead guitar in the band there, and he traveled with Muddy Waters, toured with him for 16 years. He was Muddy Water's favorite guitarist for his music; Muddy told me that. He said that Sammy was just the best. Sammy Lawhorn was one of those really unique guitar players that you could watch play and you would be shaking your head because you couldn't figure out what the heck he was doing. Some people you can watch and pick up, like Eric Clapton and B.B. King, you could watch them and I could go and grab my guitar and figure out what they were doing. With Sammy Lawhorn, that never happened, I could watch him all I wanted to but I was still mystified with how he did it. I wish he was still around so I could jam with him a bit.

Rick: If you could have the chances to play with anyone that you've never played with before, whom would that be and why?

Steve: Clapton, because I never have. I've played with a lot of big stars, and I've met a lot of big stars, you know when I was with Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Koko Taylor, I was with some big name blues acts so I had the pleasure to of jamming with some very big stars, like Robert Plant, from Led Zepplin, and Tom Wates, but somehow or another, never crossed paths with Eric Clapton. He's the one, and really just a huge inspiration to me, he's the real deal, he's a real blues boy that guy.

Rick: He's really the one who influenced you into guitar?

Steve: Yeah, really. I went and saw Cream, I was third row center for Cream; the most expensive ticket you could get at the time, $10.75 - it was an expensive seat. But I was blown away by them all three of them obviously; Ginger Baker is my favorite drummer, and Jack Bruce is my favorite overall musician/bass player and singer, and Clapton is arguably my favorite guitar player. They were fantastic, they really were fantastic, I saw them in 1968 when they were probably playing the best they ever played. It's hard to describe how intense that experience really was, it really blew me through the back wall.

Rick: Out of all the comic book stores you've given a performance in, what has been your favorite?

Steve: (Laughing) Al 'n Ann's Collectibles. Of all the thousands of comic book stores I've played..

Rick: After this experience, what do you think the likely hood would be that you might go on a tour visiting the comic book stores of the nation, exposing the comic collecting and gaming masses to things other than death metal, the Cure and their mothers screaming down into the basement that the Domino's guy is here with their pizza?

Steve: (Laughing) Well, if somebody's paying, I'm playing.

Rick: Any plans to headline Alapalooza or tour with Al?

Steve: Same answer (Laughing).

Rick: I want to thank you very much for this opportunity.

Steve: Thanks.

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