Over the Moon with Her Rag Time Slide
Bawdy British Blues Woman with Brains and Bravado
By: Rick J Bowen, Steam Magazine
A Devonshire lass now residing in London, Bex Marshall’s unique style of guitar playing is a combined technique of slide, blues rock, ragtime and roots pickin’. Marshall came in second for the 2013 Best British Vocalist Award and her self produced, self released Album 'The House Of Mercy' came in third in the 2013 Best British Blues Album category. I got to chat with Marshall after her sound check at 88 Keys in Seattle on her tour of the states. We talked about her unique guitar playing and The House of Mercy.
Rick J Bowen: Welcome to Seattle. I have some super geeky guitar fan questions for you that must be answered.
BEX: Oh my god, Brilliant, ok. It’s cool.
STEAM: Ok, what was your first guitar and do you still own it?
BEX: Yes. It’s a 1965 Gibson Hummingbird. My Uncle gave it me when I was eleven, a couple of years after I had started playing. It has been with me since that day. When he gave it to me I was like,”oh why do I always get all the old rubbish? I want something new.” But as time went on I begin to realize how amazing it was compared to everything else.
STEAM: That’s 25 years ago, when you were eleven, and it was already a twenty year old guitar.
BEX: Yeah and when it came into the country it was part of the first batch of Hummingbirds that came to the UK from America. There was only four in the batch and my uncle had one and Mick Jagger had one of the other ones, and that’s a fact. I’ve seen him playing a Gibson Hummingbird now and again, but maybe he’s got hundreds of them.
STEAM: Maybe not, they are quite special.
BEX: I tell you what, that guitar has the ultimate sweet spot. And now it hangs on the wall in the House of Mercy which is my home in London, which happens to be a home studio and the House of Mercy radio station. My husband records several bands a week for a syndicated show, featuring roots, Americana and blues. It’s the house guitar. When people come they want to play it.
STEAM: Wow now people are paying you to play that guitar.
BEX: I can’t think of a better thing for that guitar, to be there and have people admire it on a daily basis, by some of the world’s greatest guitarists. They come in, they see it, then they drool and beg to barrow it for the session. Then they change their whole set because they’re playing it. And that’s exciting; it’s a joy to see.
STEAM: Is your uncle still alive? Does he know people are still playing that guitar?
Bex: Yes, he’s about seventy three, and he still has jet black hair, and he still plays every week in the old people’s home. He was actually in a band called The Marauder’s in the sixties. They had a hit, and he supported The Beatles, he was doing it back then. He took the Gibson Hummingbird and toured America for two years before he gave it to me. So it’s got some history.
STEAM: Did you use that on your records?
BEX: I always record with it. I love it. I’ll never sell it. It will be passed on to the next member of my family that plays guitar.
STEAM: Great story. You started playing guitar before you were eleven. Why guitar vs. anything else?
BEX: It chose me. It was an amazing need to play it. When I saw it as a child I had to play with it. Obviously I had seen my uncle playing, and knew it was a good thing to play. He had this voice like Roy Orbison, and he would strum, just the big strumming sort of thing, and sing. His voice with that vibrato would always shock me; it would kind of scare me. I’d love it. I saw this little guitar under the stairs with two strings, and thought “I’ll have that one, cause I want to do that too.” That was it I was hanging on to it and begging for someone to teach me.
STEAM: Any other people in your family that play?
BEX: No, but it’s a very musical family. A lot of them sing, its’ a very Irish sort of Celtic bunch and we all sing at parties.
STEAM: Most guitarists are collectors, are you? What do you have?
BEX: I do collect; I mean there is always a pretty guitar to buy.
STEAM: Great answer!
BEX: It’s a passion thing. I don’t trade guitars, some people do. When I get a guitar I am very loathe to get rid it.
STEAM: How many do you have?
BEX: I have about fifteen. Which is not too bad, but I’ve got a six string banjo as well. I am very much into the whole; anything with six strings I’ll have a go at it. The resonators I play are very roots sounding. I love it. That back porch metallic sound of the national guitar. It’s sort of a nightmare to try and amplify that sound when you’re in front of a band, because it’s a resonator and the feedback. I am adamant about that sound. I don’t want to go into an electric guitar sound. That’s my thing. It would be easy for me to pick up a Les Paul or something like that.
STEAM: I saw a photo of you with a Les Paul.
BEX: Yeah, that’s my gold top, but that one doesn’t come out either. I do use it for recordings and things.
STEAM: What year is it?
BEX: It’s a sixty nine.
STEAM: Oh wow, so it lives at the House of Mercy as well?
BEX: Yes. I have left my Gibson on the bus before, drunk. Luckily I was the last one off the bus so I got it back. That’s probably why I haven’t had children because I’m afraid I’d leave them on the bus. (Both laugh) I like collecting things. I‘ve got a lovely little limited edition Ibanez, actually made from flamed maple that really looks like flames, that’s sweet. I’ve got a Gretsch and my banjo, I want them all but I can only play one at a time. At the moment I am playing Ozarks, they are sponsoring me. It is very difficult to get a resonator with a cutaway. The style I play is like a rag time with a slide, and it’s filled with wax that sits in the end of my little finger.
STEAM: Clever idea. Did you think that up?
BEX: Yeah, I fill the slide with hot wax; then put my finger in to size it up. It’s like agony. Then it fits perfectly. Then you can pick and slide, whatever you need to do, with a lot more versatility. It’s not heavy like a regular slide. That’s my idea. I do invent things. I tried to patent an idea of mine, I invented a stomp boot. Like the stomp box, but inside your boot, and wireless so you can stomp about. People would go nuts for it when I used it. I will manufacture it one day under the House of Mercy Ltd, and if they sue us, bugger em’.
STEAM: Who patented it?
BEX: Yamaha. They had already patented it back in the seventies. When I submitted the patent they came and said it’s already been done by Yamaha, and they have never done anything with it. I went into the patent office in Adelaide Australia where I was using it and the officer said “If this isn’t selling millions by Christmas I don’t know why, it is such a simple idea.” Like my wax filled slide just a simple idea.
STEAM: You need to go to Dunlop and have them make your Bex Marshall Signature slide.
BEX: I’m gonna contact them tomorrow, yeah.
STEAM: Everybody calls it G.A.S syndrome or Gear acquisition Syndrome because musicians are always buying more stuff. Do you have that problem?
BEX: No. All I’m gonna say is I am very simple. I’m not very technical. I think in colors and patterns not in technical, that’s me I’m a creative on the spot person.
STEAM: So you don’t need all the gadgets.
BEX: No. I don’t even like pedals. I am using them now because I am using two different resonators and I need to control the volume and sound because they are different. The action is higher on one for a better slide sound, and lower on the other because I like to play my electric rag time leads. All my lead parts are rag times, so I do two time signatures at once and I love doing that, it’s cool. The bass line is always solid but the style is a slap style, so I’ve got a certain amount of percussion going on. I’ve got percussion and the bass line and then these four fingers, I’ve got four plectrums here, and they all gyrate at the same time and playing. And then I can pull off with the left hand and get those extra notes, you pull it off to get that last impossible note.
STEAM: Who taught you this?
BEX: Nobody I worked it out. You know what. This is the story a real blues story, about nine years ago, my bass player committed suicide and I found him. Which is you know, uugh. I found him and I was so pissed off that he’d killed himself. He was one of these people that never complained and kept it all in. He was thee most reliable person in the world. He was a lovely giving person and a great bass player, and producer. I was so disappointed and it inspired me to do my own bass lines. I was so defiant and angry with him, I thought “screw you I’ll do my own bass lines then,” so I developed this style of doing a rag time rock. Doing what you would do with one string on a Les Paul, and doing as a rag time. Like when I do covers it’s a rag time, like I do Johnny B Goode and it’s got the lead parts and the rag time underneath. It’s fun. So it’s why I can’t get to technical, and I play in so many different tunings, you know as detune the whole s scale changes, so that’s why I think in patterns.
STEAM: That takes us to the next question; what is your amp set up?
BEX: You know what, Fender amps for me; they just work with those resonators. They give a great acoustic electric sound, which is a sexy sound. I don’t like to be too heavy or grungy or overdrivey, I don’t want to sound like too heavy. I like a clean sound for the picking, and then you know a little bit of drive when I go into my rag time and slide. That’s it. That is a Fender 212R solid state. Pretty straight amp really, but it has a lovely metallic sound. You get that nice metallic crunch when you slap it. I don’t like a wooly sound. You know I could go through the best amps in the world but with the resonator it would still sound like rubbish. It has a tendency to sound like rubbish through anything else but a bloody Fender. Just that tiny bit of reverb for sustain.
STEAM: You have a couple pedals, what are they?
BEX: I’ve got a Route 66, which I play my slide resonator through. And a Blues Breaker which has a different sound for the black guitar. And a boost with an equalizer, cause once again with a resonator you can get these “whaaaa” frequencies. And different venues with odd wiring you get some “zzzz”, but that’s normal and I stopped panicking about that a long time ago. Again with these resonators have just a simple lipstick pickup; you don’t need too much messing about with them to be honest. You know a bad workman blames his tools. (Laugh)
STEAM: Do you use the same set up for recording?
BEX: I recorded on several guitars, on The House of Mercy, all my goodies. Whatever is hanging around and makes the required sound. I produced this record myself and I’m very proud of that fact.
STEAM: You should be it was nominated for a British Blues Music award.
BEX: Basically, when I’m in the studio and have the luxury of time, and I did this time, I can be really imaginative on it. I was very aware of not being too sort of precious, not every track needs to be Bohemian Rhapsody. Though The House of Mercy is different because it has this outtro jam, blue grass thing that happens. I wanted to put across what happens in our house; it’s full of musicians and musicians love to jam. It’s all about the excitement of a jam. That’s what I wanted to capture in that song. That’s what The House of Mercy really represents for me as our company and our radio station and this record. It’s all about the music. I’ve got a lot of wonderful musicians who donated their time because they love what we do at the House of Mercy; keeping it real. Its’ a cottage industry. There are no adverts on it. No sponsorship. We sold the CD through Amazon. And there is a little book store on there. We have a list of what artist are reading on the road and that is our book shop. You can look at the bookshop at House of Mercy dot TV; it’s quite a great collection of books. If you buy from us through Amazon we get a tiny percentage and it is what is keeping us running. We are very independent. My husband Barry was one of the original pirate DJ’s of Radio Caroline in the seventies. His whole jazz collection is at the bottom of the ocean at the moment, when the main rig sank in the end. He has always been in radio, he worked on a syndicated show called Rock Around the World, where he was meeting people like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters and The Doors back in the seventies. He was a tour manager for T Rex and booked a top venue in SoHo at one time. He was just awarded a lifetime achievement award in the U.K; he is a tastemaker, subsequently all the bands that come through are top. That’s what we are promoting, real music. We look after them we put bands on the road, put them up, there is always something on the stove, always leftovers in the fridge.
STEAM: A real natural evolution.
BEX: Well, I’m Irish so that’s kind of an open door policy that we have anyway. So I am on the road promoting what we do in London. That’s what a cottage industry is; it’s a brand, we’ve got The House of Mercy record label, studio and an album. Everything promotes everything.
STEAM: Music Biz is a do it yourself industry now.
BEX: That’s right, it’s not easy and you have to trade. When I come to America and I’ve needed to be put up for five days like I have been here, and with my whole band, people help out. I call whoever has done that, The House of Mercy Seattle Branch, or Denver branch or Memphis branch. We have branches all over the world. That’s the network. When people come to London they come and stay with us. It’s important because it is expensive to tour and it’s getting harder and harder for independent artist. I am lucky with Facebook, with all the help I can get just putting it out there.
STEAM: Another guitar question. Do you feel like you’re playing hard ball in a man’s world?
BEX: No. I don’t feel like it’s a man vs. woman anything. All the men guitar players I know are respectful of what I do. They don’t do what I do, it would baffle them to try, you know I do my thing and they do their thing. I enjoy jamming with guys. I am a different sound but I fit to what the category is.
STEAM: Do you run into the “oh you play pretty good for girl” thing?
BEX: No I don’t cause they just look and go”how the hell do you do that?” (laugh) and we leave it at that. (laugh) You keep to your one string I’ll keep to my five. There is an incredible amount of great guitarists out there, and I think people excel at different things. I don’t think too much about it and I don’t study too much, and try to be particularly anything, I like to soak things up when they feel right for me. That’s pretty much the way to go for me. I’m always learning, I pick up stuff all the time and put them in there, that’s the way you get better and better. Playing every night is just wonderful. It’s the best thing about doing what I do. The live in the moment thing is the best job on the planet.
STEAM: Studio vs. live what is better?
BEX: I’d much rather be out playing, but there is something about it. It’s just as good to record when you’ve got good production. I was weary of it. I could not trust anyone else to do this record. I had so many ideas, and I knew they would work. Putting them in the hands of somebody with a fresh outlook on it I knew I would be disappointed. I had the help of the most incredible engineer; we spent hours and hours on the mix. It is all in the mix.
STEAM: You received nomination as a producer that is a big achievement.
BEX: I am very, very happy about that, more than being nominated as a singer; which I am over the moon about. But the album for me is such a big achievement because I’ve never done it before. Certainly a huge honor, one up for the girls as well. It put it forward that you can produce something yourself. You don’t need be too scared.
STEAM: What are your thoughts of being a woman in the music industry?
BEX: I am practically my own manager, so I have to put on hats. I look at my image ya know, you have to make sacrifices. I am not a size eight by any means, so I manipulate my image to be the way I want it to be and the way I feel comfortable. It’s always a battle as a women, you’re never happy, but I am very aware of how I look. You have to be as good as you can be. I work so hard on the music and production, and the image wasn’t an issue when I was in the studio. You have to use everything you can to your advantage in this game and it’s not easy. Yes doors will open if you’re looking good and you walk in with a wink and smile. That is not a difficult thing to nail if you put your mind to it; the hard part is the music, and getting that right. Nobody presses me to do anything, and that is the beauty if being an independent. I think these days you just got to go for it, it’s always going to be tough but go for it.
TOUR INFO: USA TOUR APRIL-MAY