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Published: 2012/11/23
by Brian Robbins

"A Wedding Ring or Two Rattling off the Frets" : John Bell on Widespread Panic’s Wood

Photo by Tarver Shelton

A little guitar talk – you’re primarily a Washburn man, aren’t you?

Yeah, those guys have always treated me well and the guitars and mandolins take a beating. It’s a good relationship: they’ve never asked me to sign anything – everything we do is mutual agreement; mutual comfort level.

I always love hearing that; some companies make great stuff, but they’re not always easy to deal with.

Yeah, I’ve been with Washburn for a long time.

Do you write primarily on acoustic?

Yeah … if it’s a case where the music’s in my head, then I’ll go and find it on the guitar. Or sometimes I’ll be goofing around on the guitar and I’ll hear something quirky that I like. Or maybe a lyrical idea will come in – either lyrics themselves or a concept – and then I’ll go to the guitar and try to match the feeling of what the images are telling me. From there, I’ll usually go to a multi-track situation and create a demo – enough to give the guys an idea of where I was going with it. Maybe a little bass, or some electric guitar or pedal organ … a little percussion – even if it’s just a shaker – just to give it a listenable sound. Not to say, “This is how the song goes and that’s the way we’re going to do it” – but just to give the idea a chance so that they have something to work with.

That’s pretty much how everybody writes: we all just come up with ideas and shoot them off each other. Nothing’s sacred and we usually inspire each other to make it a better song … a band -written song. That’s what makes it fun for me: then it’s almost like you’re playing a cover because it didn’t all come out of you; it came out of the guys you’ve been playing with for 25 years.

The live acoustic setting doesn’t come easy for a lot of people and I think they get unnerved by it.

Yeah – and it’s not just the accidental sounds you get; it’s the percussive elements, as well. And that’s very helpful when you’re writing – the acoustic guitar is more or less your drum track.

That’s always been my approach to guitar playing: it’s a six-string drum.

(laughs) There you go. And that’s basically how I approach it with Jimmy: he’s obviously got this huge musical vocabulary; a command of melody and single-note leads; all the flavors and feeling for different modes and stuff. I like to stick to shapes and movement and things like that.

You don’t have to worry about me saying, “Hey – I wanna take a lead!” (laughter)

Well, it’s a nice mix and you two always work well together. Hey – you mentioned the mandolin earlier: I want to hear some more John Bell mandolin, man.

(laughs) Yeah, who knows? Maybe I’ll work out something for New Year’s.

Cool – bring it on! So looking ahead, we have the pair of New Years shows in Charlotte, NC on the 30th and 31st …

And then we have the Dominican Republic at the end of January – the same sort of things we did in Cancun but applying what we learned to make it better for everybody. We’ve never been to the Dominican Republic before, and that’s pretty cool.

That’s part of it for me: I like being together for 26 years and still doing new things.

It’s great that it feels that way to you, man – I’m tickled to hear that. I should let you go now, John. I appreciate you taking the time to talk about the new album … it’s really something to be proud of.

Thank you. I’ve got to admit, I’m listening to it from time to time now … even with how much I listened to it putting the sequencing together. (laughter)

Thanks, take care, and be careful out there, John.

All right, man – thank you. Cheers.

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