Norman Blake Interviews

Newest interview: NPR, Fresh Air, March 19, 2015:

 Norman Blake Interview

From the Web:

[This interview was from 1995]

Q: Do you use the John Arnold guitar as your main guitar?

NB: No, I use my D-18H on stage. There were four D-18H's made; mine was made in 1934 (ser # 56300) and others are two from 1936 and one from 1957. George Gruhn said the other two from 36 haven't been located so mine could be the only one in existence. Anyway, this has been my main stage guitar for a long time. Nancy uses a 1928 00-45 (serial # 37422)

Q:  You used a D-28 in the beginning?

NB: Yes, I used a D-28 that I got in 1970. I used it for a while then I  got the D-18H, since it has a wider neck

Q:  You use the sunburst D-18 after that?

NB: I used a sunburst D-28 for a short while, which is actually a 1933 D-28S [12 fret dreadnought].

Q:  Is the John Arnold guitar made after the D-18H?

NB: Yes, and a little fancier. He made it for better playability such as the adjustable neck and low action. Essentially it is a D-18, mahogany

back and sides with 12-fret body.

Q: You used a 1934 D-18 once?

NB: Yes, it was a 14-fret D-18 from 1934 but I don't have it any more. I do have a 1939 D-18 (ser # 72146). I keep it in my bedroom.

Oh by the way, I have a peculiar way of set up. I set up all of my guitars so that the bass string is moved to the very edge of the fingerboard and

the action of that string is as low as it can go. [There is a photograph of it, link at end of article - the 6th string appears to be about 1/16" from the edge and 5th-3rd strings were moved as well]. This is not usually done but I like to wrap my thumb and I need the string to be closer to the edge.

Q: So you just changed the nut?

NB: Yes [ed: he seems to fill the nut slots and cut new ones], but I also change the bridge too. Otherwise, the string will fall off the board when

I capo since I use open tunings and I use capo often. So the nut adjustment works most of the time but sometimes I have to adjust the bridge

and the saddle. I used to play Dobro so I don't really need low action. When John Arnold worked on this guitar, he re-fretted it but he did not use

high frets. However, he shaped the frets so that they extend to the edge of the fretboard all the way [instead of rounding it off].

Q:  When you had John make the guitar, it was made in this manner from the beginning?

NB:  Yes, and that was really nice.

Q:  Does it affect the tension [and intonation]?

NB: No, I don't think so. I don't use a standard set of strings anyway.

My basic set is: For the John Arnold, .012, .017, .025, .034, .045, .060, so it's light gauge on treble and heavy on bass. On my Nick Lucas, I use lighter strings as .011, .016, .024, .032, .042 and .059 or .060. Nancy does the same for her Martin. My set depends on each guitar.

Q: Who makes your strings?

NB: To me, the gauge is more important than the make. I endorse D'Addario and I also use GHS which I really like.  So I use either one depending on

the guitar.

Q: What about pick?

NB: It's home made. I get an extra heavy pick (triangle) and then trim the edge and polish it. I like a small pick but I can't find a small triangle type.

Q: Who does your set up and repairs?

NB: John Arnold or Craig Hoffman.

Q: What would make an easy-playing guitar for you?

NB: I think it depends on the kind of music you play it on. I play without amplification, without drums and bass. I just play with Nancy, so to me,

the playability comes down to good action for every note. I'd look for the volume and the low action. Other than that, I don't play anything too

complicated so I'd prefer a wider neck so that my fingers don't get in the way of each other.

Q: What kind of maintenance do you perform yourself?

NB: Well, I change strings, adjust the nut, check the action. I don't polish the guitar, although I wipe the guitar with a soft cloth. No, I've

never used the polish fluid.

Q: What about climate and humidity?

NB: I don't pay too much attention. Of course, I have to worry about my stage guitar which travels with me, since we tour the dry West Coast often [or arid Arizona?]. As long as we live here (GA), it's a good climate humidity-wise. It does get humid during summer and when that happens, I close windows and use the air conditioner. That's pretty much it. I do not like winter when it gets too dry. When it is too dry, the neck bends backward and, since I got low action to begin with, I get buzz. I don't do anything, though. Once winter passes, it will come back by itself.

Q: Do you loosen the string if you don't use your guitar for a long period? [Apparently this is a major topic for Japanese guitar people :-)]

NB: Yes, but only about one full note. I don't think it's a good idea to loosen it all the way. You'd need some tension on the neck, otherwise

the guitar becomes a piece of wood.

Q: You don't use a pick up?

NB: No, I don't

Q: Any interests in Vintage Guitars?

NB: Not at all , laugh. [Yeah, right!]

Q: A brief biography?

NB: I played a nameless guitar at home in 1950. I was born in 1938 so I was 12. When my father saw me do that, he went to town and got me a

Stella. Maybe I was interested in playing guitar when I was 10. Back then, everyone in my neighborhood listened to hillbilly music on radio

and records and wherever you go, you could find an instrument or two. So that's how I got inspired when I was 10.

Q: Who was your favorite then?

NB: I had a cousin named Woolard Norman who played fiddle and he was a major influence to me. I did his back-up and learned so many things

like chord changes. And there were other local musicians. And the records from Grande Ole Opry, Monroe Brothers, Carter Family, Jimmy Rogers,

Chuck Wagon Gang, and so on.

Q: When did you start as a professional?

NB: You mean making money?  I was 16.

Q: You played locally?

NB: No, it was in Chattanooga. I was on radio station WOOD with the Short Tail Band. Then I played on "Tennessee Burndown" on WNOX in Knoxville.

That's around 1952 or 53. I also appeared on TV, WROM in Georgia. I guess these were my professional debuts.

Q:  What kind of music did you play in the band?

NB: My first band was a two-person guitar band and I played Dobro. Do you know Johnny and Jack? That's the kind of music we did. We also had fiddle. Then we started something like a mixture of (Johnny and Jack), (Roy Acuff) and (bluegrass) and divide it by three. So it was not a hardcore

bluegrass, but we didn't care. I now wonder when we started to use the term "bluegrass"? This kind of music has been around for a long time.

When I listened to Bill Monroe, the radio did not use "bluegrass". It said "Bill Monroe and Bluegrass Boy", and maybe that's how the name got


Q: Can you think of any good practice for flatpicking?

NB: I consider myself as a country musician and I don't feel like a guitar player. So I've never practiced to be a guitar player. I practice

by repeating what I can play, that is, to maintain my own patterns and licks so I can use it any time. I look at chords and pay attention to how

the chord develops in music, or I play my own tune a number of times. So I guess I try to play guitar as much as I can as opposed to practice for

practice's sake.

Q: Was that the way you did when you started?

NB: I played along with the hillbilly music on radio. There wasn't anybody to show me how to play, anyway. I just wanted to sound like what I heard on


Q: Once I read an interview with Doc who said "Norman is the best"...

NB: Yes, I heard that too. I think he is great and I admire him a lot.

Some pictures of Norman from the same interview
Norman and Nancy in Their Front Porch

1934 Martin D-18H (#56300)

John Arnold

1939 Martin D-18 (#72146)

Nancy's 1928 Martin 00-45 (#37422)

Close-up picture of the nut

As he said in the interview, Norman likes to have the bass string very close to the edge. The other strings are shifted, too. I hope you can see it.

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