Reverb Interview: Bluesman Keb’ Mo’

With three Grammy Awards and 10 studio albums, Kevin Moore, better known as Keb’ Mo’, seems to lead a charmed life, especially for a bluesman.

His latest, That Hot Pink Blues Album, is a double-live album recorded while supporting 2014’s BLUESAmericana, which was nominated for three more Grammys, and offers a career retrospective that showcases a tight band well in command of a strong catalog.

With his 30-date tour — including more than three weeks in Europe — kicking off within days, Keb’ spoke with Reverb about the differences between analog and digital recording, getting kicked out of early sessions, why EQ is so important to his sound, his guitar collection, as well as who has — and hasn’t — influenced his playing.

How did you pick and choose for That Hot Pink Blues Album?

I turned it over to my drummer. I said, "Casey (Wasner), would you produce this record [laughs]? Here's some money and here's some points [laughs].” Then when he got down to the final mixing and the stuff, I stepped in. But he did the heavy lifting: to go through, listen to things and present them to me. A couple occasions, we had to go back in and listen again because the parameters I gave, there might have been exceptions, you know?

What kind of parameters? Give me an example.

We wanted a strings song from our Nashville gig to be on the record. But one of them was a better version that we did somewhere else. When you listen to things over and over, the flaws start to come out. We had to fix a line or two here, there. The live is very raw and just in the moment and it's visual. And the record is just for the ears. Eyes and ears are more forgiving than just ears.

How has your recording and writing process evolved?

In the days of tape there was only so much you could do and it was quicker. The digital age is more prolific; you can manipulate it so much. I think it's taken a toll on the way we make records. The old records are more fun. You didn't notice little imperfections. Now, something's a little off, you just move them over 10 milliseconds.

Tape was a commitment. The last tape session I did was when I covered “Folsom Prison Blues” for a Johnny Cash tribute record. The producer — Marty Stuart — wanted to do it with tape, and we were in The Village, in Studio A. I remember on the playback just going “Wow!” I felt like someone had covered me in velvet. It just felt so lush. We got down to takes and we picked. It was just such a great recording because we found a performance. We didn't manipulate a performance.

But Pro Tools? I don't know [laughs]. I love it and I think it's the most evil thing that happened at the same time, you know? It's not the medium itself. It's kind of like when all of a sudden we could overdub. When you couldn't overdub, everything was on two tracks and you had to splice sections together. There was a certain kind of seriousness in a session that you don't see today. Early on in my career I got kicked off of sessions, right in the middle of the session, because I wasn't cutting it.

What? How'd you tighten up after that? Do you go back to the woodshed for 10,000 hours?

Well, it wasn't like not being able to play. It was lack of experience in the studio. The chord chart was laid out in front of me and I start playing all the chords. I didn't really know how to be on a session. They just cut with the trio and then called somebody else later. My part was bleeding in with the drums and the piano. You had to play your part and play it well.

Keb' Mo's Gretsch Electromatic G5620T and Mesa Boogie Mark Five 35 (Photo: Michael B. Hicks)

Tell me about this Gretsch; is there a story behind it?

Yeah, I had brought out a very stripped down thing, a trio. I had one electric guitar with me and it kept buzzing. I got just tired of it and went to the store. I knew I wanted a semi-hollow body; I wanted it to have a single coil and a humbucker, but four knobs: separate tone and volume for each pickup.

I looked up on the wall and I saw that Gretsch, pulled it down. Did the trick perfectly. Now I have two of them [laughs]. It's a Gretsch Electromatic G5620T with a center block, a Bigsby and the TV Jones pickups.

You’ve moved up to the Mesa Boogie Mark Five 35 from the 25; what do you like about them?

I've been using Boogies since way back. I like that it's a hybrid. Everybody's trying to make an amp sound like a vintage Fender, basically. I like that they put graphic EQ on their amps. The regular tone, mid and bass don't cut it for me on an amp. I can't get my tone right with just that. I need to be able to get down there under 100Hz and in the low mids to sculpt the sound better. And I can't do that with other amps.

There's a couple EQs on your pedalboard too.

Oh yeah. I'm hugely into EQ. There's an Empress five-band parametric EQ, and with that pedal I can sweep the frequencies that I want to lose in my sound. I can get microscopic with tone. Most amps have plenty of tone; around 2KHz, there's a bitey kind of sound, then there's a big harsh mid-range around 800Hz, and then there's low-mid garbage that just makes your guitar sound foggy around 250/300Hz. And I dip that. I like to play with a keyboard player and I want the low mids of my guitar not to clash with the bass and the keyboards.

I want to be heard; what I want gone is everything somewhere between 150Hz and 200Hz, so that it's a really tight, fat, focused sound. That's why I use a lot of EQ. The MXR EQ on my pedalboard is for when I can't hit something with the parametric.

I get the amp EQ first. The amp is set up in EQ to have a certain tone. Then the room has a tone. The room fills it out differently. And I tune my guitar sound to the room so that when I'm up there playing and singing into the audience, I can have a flawless encounter. I have all the tools on my pedal board to get the right tone that I need.

Keb' Mo's pedalboard (Photo: Michael B. Hicks)

What else is on your pedalboard?

I don't use that many things. I use tremolo, a little dirt sometimes, some delay very sparsely, some clean boost and the EQ. On that Mesa Boogie Mark Five 35, it has more headroom and it also has a separate thing so I can boost my clean tone and I can boost my dirty tone as well. And I can adjust how much is boosted. I find Mesa Boogie to be a very smart amp. It's pro. It's a big boy amp.

You’re known as quite a gearhead. Can you tell me about your guitar collection?

I’ve got no secrets. But it’s not in the gear; it’s in your hands. The gear helps you, but your tone is in your head, it’s who you are. No matter what guitar B.B. King picked up, he sounded like B.B. King.

I’ve got no secrets. But it’s not in the gear; it’s in your hands. The gear helps you, but your tone is in your head, it’s who you are."

I’ve got about 60 guitars over here that I pull out at different times. I think the most I’ve paid for a guitar is $3,000 — a Goodall Concert Grande. It’s got a big fat sound like a J-200. It’s got a koa back and sides and cedar top. It’s a good sounding guitar. I’ve got a Paul Reed Smith Vela, a Suhr, a Squier [J Mascis] Jazzmaster, a couple Gibson prototypes that I use for different stuff. I just love guitars and the whole deal. I’ve got a Yamaha Red Label, an Orange Label, but I’m not into vintage; not the ones you just sit and look at. I like variety, I don’t want $50,000 tied up in one guitar. I want to play them.

Were you actively involved in the design of the Keb’ Mo’ signature acoustic?

Yes, I was. It's based on a model made by Epiphone called a Bluesmaster. I played the Bluesmaster for years, I loved it. I wrote on it. It had the best tone. I paid $800 for it. It wasn’t an expensive guitar; it's just a nice guitar, and it got stolen. And I was heartbroken. I kept trying to find a Bluesmaster and Gibson said, "Why don't we just make you one?” And that became my signature model with a few adjustments to it.

Hammond B3 Organ and Leslie Speaker (Photo: Michael B. Hicks)

I was interested to see you with a National Reso Rocket. There's got to be a story about that one.

The Reso Rocket is great, it's a single cone and it has the cutaway, which I like for playing slide. Normally I don't like the cutaway because I can hear the tone missing out of the piece that they cut away. It works really great with open tunings. I can slide way up on the neck to get that octave. That's a new model. Boy, they nailed it, man. I use that when I'm playing solo or small ensemble. When I play with a band, I use the Republic resonator. It's nasty and it cuts through the band.

Yeah. I'm looking at a picture of that: the “Highway 61.” This is a good place for me to ask you about Robert Johnson: covering his songs, doing that film [“Can't You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life & Music of Robert Johnson,” from 1998]. I'm wondering if his influence is something that you're still experiencing in your songwriting.

Robert Johnson for me was a jumping off point. I learned how to play slides and all that stuff because of Robert Johnson, but I wasn’t obsessed with Robert Johnson. He had range and I liked that about him. But all the blues guys, I analyzed them not to imitate them, but to understand what those guys were doing that set them apart. Why is Muddy Waters Muddy Waters? Why is B.B. B.B.? Or Albert King? I just want to know what makes those guys tick. And then I go and figure out, well, what makes me tick? Where is my individuality? What do I do that's special?

Who else has made you think about playing differently or led you to explore different styles or techniques?

That would be Taj Mahal. And as far as my electric guitar playing, I'm more influenced by probably David T. Walker than anybody. David T. Walker is a session guitarist from the '60s, '70s and '80s, and he still performs, mostly in Japan. His famous guitar lick was in Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” He's an amazing guitar player. He's played with The Crusaders and Aretha Franklin and has his own records. He’s a slow burner; just sit there with him. He's not going to blaze you on the first lick. You know?

I love session guys. When listen to records, I would be looking at who's playing on the record. Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, I wasn't really into any of those guys.


I didn’t want to play loud. I didn't want to play dirty. I didn't want to be that. I liked playing guitar and the guitars I heard played on the records. I was really into what Wah Wah Watson (Melvin Ragin), Ray Parker Jr. and Paul Jackson Jr. were doing. I was interested in what sessions those guys were playing and why they got to work so much, because that's what I wanted to do.

Gretsch drum kit with Bosphorus cymbals (Photo: Michael B. Hicks)

Keb’ Mo’s Selected Gear List


Wireless, DIs/Mics

Banner Photo by Andrea Lucero

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