Whether it’s the blistering hot-rod rockabilly riffs, the stomping roadhouse swing of his musical alter ego, Cousin Harley, or acoustic artistry from the traditional, “Boxcar Campfire” collection, Paul Pigat’s persuasive sounds resonate through a wide range of musical genres.
From supporting Jacob Dylan in concert and conquering the 2009 NAMM shows in Los Angeles to recording with Neko Case to conducting Gretsch guitar seminars and wowing fans across North America and abroad, Pigat has become an industry favorite and one compelling crowd pleaser.
In addition to his latest releases, Cousin Harley’s “It’s a Sin” and “Boxcar Campfire,” Paul has issued a series of instructional DVDs that provide tips on alternate/Travis picking, rockabilly electric and jazz guitar. And when he’s not churning out gospel laced solos on tour with The Sojourners or tearing it up as Cousin Harley, fans can also catch the vibrant bebop jazz styling of the Paul Pigat Trio.
Paul was kind enough to take time out of his packed schedule to answer some questions about Cousin Harley, Hillbilly Squonk, Gretsch guitars and a number of other topics.
You’ve taken on the musical persona of Cousin Harley for about the last dozen years. On your website it states, “Sometimes, he takes on the guise of rockabilly hero, Cousin Harley to crank up the energy so high that no one can resist digging deep into their pockets to pay the wages of sin and dance around the still to Pigat’s exhilarating Hillbilly Squonk.” What was the inspiration behind Cousin Harley?
I grew up playing a lot of traditional rock n’ roll and honkytonk bars back in the 80s and 90s. My favourite was a place called the Matador Club in Toronto (I heard it just recently closed down). It was kind of a musicians’ hang out/jam session and opened at 1 am, kinda the place where all the giggers from around town would go to close the night. I’d try and get there every weekend if I could and sit in after my gig. That’s where I got a chance to start really hearing and playing rockabilly, western swing and traditional rock and roll. It was always full of local heroes and as I was pretty young, they had a big impression on me. When I started Cousin Harley I basically wanted to recreate the music that was happening at that place at that time.
How do you describe Hillbilly Squonk?
I’m not sure…I think someone else gave it that moniker but I’d say its country, rockabilly and blues all put together and played with an aggressive twangy edge.
Regarding Gretsch guitars, their representatives were so impressed after seeing you perform that they quickly jumped on the Paul Pigat bandwagon and added their resounding endorsement. You often play a hollow body Gretsch during live engagements. Considering Rockabilly giants Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Vincent’s influential lead guitarist, Cliff Gallup, made use of similar models when they created their vintage sounds, are hollow bodies like Gretsch the true Rockabilly guitar?
I don’t think you can define the “true” rockabilly sound by one specific guitar. Look at some of the other greats like Carl Perkins, Paul Burlison and Scotty Moore. They all played different guitars and each one makes a pretty awesome tone. I’ve used everything from Silvertones to Telecasters in my lineup of instruments.
I think it’s more attitude and approach. Don’t get me wrong, a good Gretsch guitar certainly will get you there pretty quick! They just naturally exude that classic tone and cool factor.
What Gretsch model do you favor?
I have a Black Falcon and a Country Club. I prefer a larger guitar with a longer scale so as both of these are 17 inch bodies with a 25 ½ scale. They work great, lots of twang from the long scale and a fair amount of resonance from the large body. That being said, I’d love to get my hands on a Duo Jet soon. There’s just something about them, bright and woody at the same time.
What types of pick-ups are on there?
I’ve kept both my Gretsch’s stock. The Falcon came with Filtertrons and it’s my go-to guitar for situations where I don’t know what amp I’m going to be playing and what the room size is. They just seem to be able to tame anything in any situation.
If I’m in a comfortable environment I go with the Country Club which has Dynasonics. They can be a bit hard to handle but when you dial them in there is no tone like it, kinda like a P90 mixed with a Telecaster in a large box. Glorious!
Is there a Gretsch Paul Pigat signature model on the horizon?
Don’t know, but if you’d like to start spreading the word that would be great. I’ve actually been thinking of getting an old Gretsch and modding it up to the “perfect” guitar for me. I don’t think it would be that different from production models though.
Do you have a favorite brand of strings and gauges when you play?
I play 11s and I’m not usually picky about the brand, just like the feel of them and since I pick and fret pretty hard, they stay in tune a bit better for me.
Your playing encompasses so many styles, do you strictly play in standard tuning or do you use alternates as well?
It really depends on the project. With Cousin Harley, it’s always standard tuning but with some of my other projects I use various tunings. I’m a big fan of country blues so there’s always a couple of guitars in open G or D kicking around the house.
Is there such a thing as a prescribed rockabilly amplifier? Which amplifiers do you prefer to use?
I think you can get away with almost any amp as long as it based on a traditional tube amp. You don’t want anything with too much gain but it should break up a bit. Reverb and tremolo are always an asset, as well.
Right now I’m using a Gretsch Executive and a Tweed Deluxe clone but I still have my old Ampeg GU12 and a few old other Gibson amps that get used in the studio quite a bit.
Besides rockabilly, your music often crosses into different creative territories that have led you to perform with a variety of artists, including a recent stint in New York City supporting Jakob Dylan. How did you initially hook up with him?
One of my best friends is Paul Rigby, who plays for Neko Case. We have a duet called Pigby. It’s just a throw together thing that we do to blow off steam and blow chops whenever we have some time in town together. Last year Jakob was using Neko’s band for his tour. They had done most of the summer together but come the fall Paul had a previous obligation with Neko and T Bone Burnett, so he gave me the call to fill in. It was a truly fantastic experience.
I love being a sideman but don’t get the chance much lately. It’s great to step out of what you always do and put on a different hat for a month or so, and hey, playing the first few notes of “One Headlight” with the guy that wrote it is pretty exciting!
You are credited with playing the lap steel on Neko Case’s 1997 alt-country solo debut titled, “Virginian.” What was it like working with Neko?
When I met Neko she was playing drums for a local Vancouver band called MEOW. At that time I had no idea that she was a singer too. As it turned out I was just about to start what turned out to be the first Cousin Harley recording and I asked a couple of friends to sing backups on some tracks. They suggested we invite Neko in, although the record is pretty low-fi and was done as a bit of a lark. Somewhere out there are tracks with Neko Case singing BGs. It may be the first time she ever recorded her voice, I dunno’. Months later, she called me up and asked me to be on her new CD. I loved the tracks she sent so I made the trip over to Vancouver (I was living on Vancouver Island at that time) and was promptly met at the studio by Brian Connelly (Shadowy Men from a Shadowy Planet) who was producing the record. We had a blast and still to this day, I consider that one of my favourite sessions.
Your musical projects also cover a diverse selection of approaches and material, including “Boxcar Campfire,” which is largely an acoustic undertaking of originals that contain the hauntingly sad, Dig Me a Hole and the dark, Johnny’s Poorly, both of which reflect an introspective side of Paul Pigat. What brought you to this songwriting approach?
When I was a teenager, I worked in a band with a fella’ who was nuts for Townes Van Zandt. Even though we’d play Ramones tunes all night we’d end up listening to his singer songwriter mixed tapes after the show. I really was attracted to the dark atmosphere of those tunes. I guess it just stuck with me.
The Paul Pigat Trio, a showcase for vintage bebop and jazz standards, is a divergent stretch from the Boxcar Campfire project. Where does your enthusiasm for jazz come from?
I’ve always loved jazz. Most of the guitar players I’ve tried my best to emulate have deep roots in the jazz idiom. I love the idea of good harmony and the blues and the swing/bebop era of jazz that I try to play encompasses both. I just hope I do it justice.
When you perform with the Paul Pigat Trio what guitars do you play?
Either my 1949 Gibson ES350 or a Benedetto style archtop made by Scott Heatley.
Do you find the back and forth transition between musical genres creatively difficult?
It can be a bit tricky at times. Keeping up a certain kind of vibe for a specific project can be a bit difficult if you’re not performing it a lot. On the other hand, I have a tendency to mix a lot of stuff together so it all morphs into one thing eventually, kinda like gumbo over different chords and a different groove. It can be tough to get the nuances of the different harmonies in your head when you’re thinking of another style though.
You have a number of instructional DVDs that tackle Travis picking, rockabilly and jazz guitar. What prompted you to release these?
I’ve always been a teacher and was asked a few years back by a friend to help him out and do a lesson for his new DVD company. I really didn’t have any expectations that they would be as successful as they’ve become, because the first one did so well we did a couple more and they have all done well. I’m glad I did it. I’ve had great teachers and I’ve learned to teach from them. It’s always a great feeling when you see a student get a new concept.
Are you planning to go back into the studio soon?
I’ve just started working on some new material. I still don’t know which project it’s for but I’m hoping to have another Cousin Harley and Boxcar CD ready for 2012.
What are your plans for the rest of the summer? Are you touring a lot?
Touring has been pretty crazy up until now. The rest of the summer is primarily in Canada but we’ll end it off in Pagosa Springs, Colorado the first week of September.
Where can we watch your upcoming shows?
I think the next batch of shows is in Edmonton Alberta for Indy Race Week.
What can your fans look forward to in the near future?
I’m hoping for a couple of new CD’s and finally getting around to launching my instructional website.
Thank you Paul, for your time!
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