Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ben Harper's ROCKIN' '64 Riviera, and his special Weissenborn guitars

Ben Harper, shown here performing with the Blind Boys of Alabama in 2004, has a daily driver, a cherry '64 Buick Riviera, profiled in the March issue of Maxim. For a musician who's an indefatigable world-traveling performer year in, year out, it's surprising he actually has a special car. I mean, when can he find the time to drive it?
Harper says one of the Riviera's special aspects is the low-ride shocks. "It's really strange being lower than a Honda," he told interviewer Jon Guzik.
He doesn't sing much about cars per se, but on his true debut album, "Pleasure and Pain" (a limited release on vinyl back in 1992), he included "Quarter Of a Man," which begins:
"There's a quarter of a man in the market
With a quarter of a car so it's easy to park it.
He gets to the counter, he pays what he can,
But he only pays a quarter--he's a quarter of a man."
When I was looking up Harper's accomplishments on the Internet, I found he played his signature instrument, a Weissenborn hollow-neck acoustic Hawaiian lap-slide guitar, on Beth Orton's song "Stolen Car," the lead track on her 1999 CD "Central Reservation."
The Weissenborn, produced in the 1920s, is quite rare for rock music. It's fretless and made from Hawaiian koa wood, imparting an unusually sweet but also boldly resonant tone--which gives Harper, a greatly skilled guitarist, a wide range of expressive possibilities. It plays like a cello, actually, with considerable sustain. "With this instrument," wrote one music historian, "Ben can generate a musical style that's deeply rooted in the blues, yet in his hands becomes unique and quite personal." The older, original Weissenborns suffer when pressed to travel, and are affected by temperature changes, so Harper has had several custom-built. Kinda like how a gearhead might go at it!
For an in-depth look at the man and his music, there's a wonderful interview with Ben Harper from Madison magazine, November, 1999 by Mark Mordue--which took place in the backseat of a Ford Falcon parked backstage at the 10th East Coast Blues and Roots Music Festival in Byron Bay, Australia:


Anonymous said...

Thanks man! I love Ben Harper and love that he is quintessentially California, like me. Sun, Surf, Skating, Guitars, Cars, God and the Lakers (not in that order, haha!).

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