Over five years of artist interviews in Guitar Moderne, it has become evident that a large number of modern guitarists are steeped in, or at least fans of, roots music like traditional blues, country, and/or gospel. Kentucky born, Sacramento raised Ross Hammond continues the trend. His journey begins in the blues, traverses jazz and free improv, and has come full circle to a personal style of acoustic instrumental work that often employs the steel-bodied resonator guitar favored by the likes of Bukka White, Son House, and Tampa Red. His record, Follow Your Heart sets his acoustic outpourings in a church, for some sonically beautiful and soulful music.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I come from a blues background. In school, I was into Band of Gypsies, Prince, Stevie Ray Vaughn, BB King, Buddy Guy, etc. That’s always been the starting point. The great thing about blues is there are so many different areas one can go to from there. I got more into jazz when I heard Curtis Mayfield’s chords on “Pusherman.” Those chords still get me today.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
I didn’t go to music school, but when I was in college I had a great guitar teacher named Jim Beeler. He helped me discover the link between Freddie King and Wes Montgomery. This was in the mid ’90s. He showed me a lot of jazz ideas on the guitar, and how to play those ideas all over the neck. He also let me borrow a bunch of his records. I remember taping the Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith Duo records and wearing those cassettes out. Jim is in Northern California and still playing full time.
After I got a little better at the jazz vocabulary, I got into free jazz. I had studied the history of the Civil Rights Movement in America since I was in high school. One day, I was in a record store and found a copy of Pharoah Sanders’ Black Unit, which destroyed me completely. It still does. I wanted to use music as art, as expression. After that record I went through the Impulse catalog and started delving down the rabbit hole deeper into Coltrane and Albert Ayler, etc.
At that time, I was also playing in a band that was based out of Santa Clara, CA. We were playing funk, jazz, free jazz, and learning to improvise. It was a great time; the kind of band where I’d drive to Santa Clara (which is about two hours from Sacramento) to rehearse all night and then come home. Money or gigs didn’t matter. We were all just excited about playing music. Sameer Gupta (drummer/tabla player in NYC) was in that group. We met 20 years ago and are still making music together today. He was a lot better than I was back then, so I credit him with helping push me off the cliff. You can learn a lot just trying to keep up.
Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.
There’s all the stuff above. Also, I’m originally from Lexington, KY and was raised in the church. I have deep-rooted Southern Gospel songs in me. Albert Ayler resonated with me so much because he linked together improvisation and Church music.
More immediately, living in California there’s a ton of West Coast musicians here that are doing incredible music. I’ve spent my career in the area’s DIY music scene and have met and heard nearly everyone out here. The caliber of creativity and expression is wonderful. Players like Lisa Mezzacappa, Phillip Greenlief, Darren Johnston, Ben Goldberg, Alex Cline, Bobby Bradford, Dwight Trible, Nicole Mitchell and John Schott have been inspiring to me. All of these players have an identity, an individual voice inside this larger music. That’s something to strive for.
Three musicians that have helped shape me more than anyone else are Vinny Golia, Scott Amendola, and Tony Passarell. They all helped guide me out of the haze of being a younger musician onto my own path. I met Tony when I was about 19 years old. He’s the improv king of Sacramento. The first time we jammed he just said “Eb!” and started off on this fast, free-bop motif. I had no idea what to do. Eb? What do you mean? Major? Minor? Blues? While I’m thinking about this, he’s already off to the races. Then I figured out that Eb didn’t matter at all. What mattered was staying in tune with wherever the music is doing. Tony was a good guy to run into at age 19. He’s still a good guy. We play together a lot.
Scott Amendola and I spent several years playing duets. He further helped me put things together in terms of music and direction. I’ve been a fan of Scott’s work since college and being able to learn while playing with him has been a gift.
Vinny Golia and I have been playing music together for almost 10 years now. I’ll be forever grateful for this, because he didn’t have to give me the time of day. I learned a lot about how to be a musician through Vinny: how to put out your own music; how to tour; how take charge of your own career, etc. On the musical side, Vinny is a beast: he’ll tear the horn apart whether there are 50 people in attendance or three. Music is a gift. Playing music is a gift. And all of the other bullshit that we put on top of it (low attendance, late start times, short sets, little pay, long drives, etc.) ultimately ruins the gift we’ve been given. I’ll forever be grateful for all three of these guys.
How did you get better at your current style?
For the past two or three years I’ve been focused mostly on acoustic music. When I play an acoustic instrument it’s just the box and me. If it sounds good or terrible, it’s on me. But the thing that most appeals to me about acoustic music is the connection I feel to the instrument. I can feel the overtones of a resonator or a 12-string guitar vibrating against my body as it’s being made, in real time. It’s emanating from something directly on me, not an amp across the room. There are no pedals or sound sweeteners.
When I hear someone like Mississippi Fred McDowell play his slide on a 50-year-old recording and his intonation is spot on every single note, his guitar crying with a sadness that has 1000-year-old roots, that’s the music I want to get into. It’s the same feeling with Blind Willie Johnson, Son House, Tampa Red, or anyone like that. What I like about acoustic music is that it has all of the expressiveness of electric music but the extra parameters are gone—it’s just my guitar and me.
What are you trying convey with your music?
Most all of my music has to do with the human condition and the human spirit. My wife and daughter constantly inspire me; I’ll write songs for them as we all grow together. An eternal love and a sense of hope have been at the center of all of my music since I started writing it.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
Most of the time I’m playing an acoustic guitar in an acoustic setting (no PA, no amp). Sometimes if the gig is larger I’ll put a mic in front of my guitar, but, if at all possible, I don’t play through an amp on my acoustic sets. If it’s a loud venue with no PA, I’ll use a ZT Acoustic amp. It has phantom power and I’ll use an Audio Technica mic for my resonators. It clips onto the bridge.
Resonator guitars don’t really sound like resonators if you have a pickup because at that point it’s just magnetic signal. If the resonator part is bypassed it defeats the point. That is why 99% of the time I try to play smaller gigs where I can just use a loud acoustic.
Follow Your Heart was recorded in an old church in Sacramento. I used a Republic resonator and a Martin 12-string. My friend and engineer John Bologni recorded the guitars with three microphones: one up close on the guitar and then two stereo mic in the pulpit of the church. He captured some beautiful room sounds and blended them into the dry signal of the guitar. I like the overall sound he was able to get.
If I’m playing an electric gig I usually play a pine Telecaster straight into either a Silvertone, a ZT Lunchbox, or a ZT Club amp. I don’t really use pedals. There was a time when I was looping, but I felt it had been done to death and got bored with it. I like being able to get all the sounds out of the guitar with just my hands and slides, etc. I want as little as possible in between my guitar and amp.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
I like playing live the best. I’m not really into recording, even though I put out a lot of music. Playing live is an adventure. It’s hard for me to get that “off the rails” feeling when I’m recording. It’s hard to tap into the visceral side of music in the studio. Since I play acoustic music a lot, I’ve used a Zoom recorder for the past couple of years. To me, getting the vibe of the performance is way more important than getting a flawless recording. My 2015 record Flight was all done on a Zoom.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
Like everyone else, I try to maintain a presence on Facebook and Twitter. I think that’s important, especially for networking. Ultimately we all have to get out of the house and go play music. Gigs and tours will never go away. I like live features like Periscope and Facebook Live. Those are cool ways to bridge the gap. Just the other night I used Periscope to play a set of music on my porch and met a new friend in Siberia. Crazy times!
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
I’d love to make an acoustic record with Hamid Drake.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
Follow Your Heart was released in March. It’s available on LP, CD and digitally. It’s a solo record of originals and spirituals that was recorded at St. Paul’s Church in Sacramento. You can find it here.
I started a new project for 2017. It’s called the Acoustic Sanctuary Project. I’m going to different locations and making field recordings on a variety of different acoustic instruments. I released the first one this month: it’s in a room of gongs. There will be forests, cemeteries, abandoned concrete bunkers, art installations, music recorded in storms, etc. I’m really excited about this project. I’m using Alan Lomax as an inspiration and recording music wherever it happens. Instead of a record, it’s available on my Bandcamp page with an annual fee of $20. Listeners get a new recording on the first week of each month. In addition to the music, there are photos and videos from each location. It’s a fun, outside-the-box kind of project.