When Richie Havens was in grade school, his teacher noticed his exceptional musical ear and recommended that he go to a performing arts school to study music. Havens instead chose to follow his own musical path, and went on become one of the most beloved voices of the Woodstock generation. His best-selling album Mixed Bag (1967), followed by his unforgettable performance at Woodstock in 1969, secured his place in the history of popular music.
Havens is foremost a singer and interpreter, but his unique guitar style is just as much a part of the Havens sound as his powerful voice. In his early career singing in Greenwich Village cafés, Havens adopted an open-D tuning style as an easy way to accompany himself, a style he still uses to this day.
I first spoke with Havens for an article for Yahoo! Internet Life magazine. He named Guitar.com as one of his favorite sites, and said he was using the instructional features to help him realize a lifelong dream: to learn to play "normal" guitar. "I'd love to be able to play like those other guys," he told me. "So I go here and learn."
Lots of those "other guys," though, would love to be able to play like Havens. In fact, Havens has received so many requests for instruction that he created a section of his Web site [richiehavens.com] called "How I Play," which explains his technique in words and pictures.
An in-demand performer who plays almost every weekend and travels extensively, Havens recently played the Live Oak Music Festival in Santa Barbara, California, where I caught up with him once again...
Guitar.com: The last time we talked, you said you were using Guitar.com to learn how to play "the right way."
Richie Havens: Yeah, I've always wanted to learn how to play "the right way." That's what I go there for. I look at things, and I really try to get it into my head. I really need a nylon-string guitar in order to play correctly, though. I know where certain chords are, but I can't play them because my fingers are so big that I hit two strings at once. I like the sound of a nylon-string, so that's something I can really learn on.
Guitar.com: It would be a whole new sound for you.
Havens: It would be. Because I hear music. I'd love to be able to do the melody line to a song, singing and playing a melody. I'm a freak for Travis-picking and all that. I love all that stuff. In my tuning, I can fake it, but it's not the same. It's not being able to play that melody and pick at the same time.
Guitar.com: But you will learn do it.
Havens: Oh I will.
Guitar.com: The next Richie Havens album is going to be. . .
Havens: The one after the next one. [laughs]
Guitar.com: Maybe two or three...
Havens: It'll be two at least.
Guitar.com: Your co-guitarist [Paul Williams] plays in the same open tuning you do, right?
Havens: Yes, but he learned to pick. That was the difference between us. He used to play maracas with me and sing. He learned how to play by watching me on stage and practicing at home. One day he walked in with a guitar. I said, "What the hell are you doing with that?" He said, "I'm a guitar player now." And that was it. We've been playing together since that day. He's the picker, I'm the strummer, and between the two of us it's like we've got one giant guitar going, both picking and strumming at the same time.
Guitar.com: Do you think that someone who is, say, 35 years old and has never played music before, could develop his or her musical abilities?
Havens: Oh, absolutely. There isn't anybody who couldn't.
Guitar.com: What would you recommend to someone like that who's just starting out?
Havens: The fastest way to learn how to play is to start by playing something you really love. You love a certain song, and you don't even know why, but something in that song has got you. That's the song you learn to play. Once you get that, now you know the chords to twenty million other songs. Now you hear what else you can do. That's all it takes. I know this is true, because it happened to me. I learned how simple it was to take what I had and to learn that other song that I just heard.
Guitar.com: What is the difference between a good song and a great song?
Havens: I think a great song is a song that's informative ? informative in a lot of different ways. It could be emotionally informative, to let you know that you have feelings. It could be intellectually informative. It could be visual -- some people see movies when they hear music. A good song would be, to me, a song that you could call "cult." It does it only to a certain type of person. You'll find all the people who like that particular song are a certain type of person. It's like medicine for those guys. They need to have that medicine. There's something in there that triggers the instinct of that strata of people. Other people kind of tap their foot when it comes on, but they don't really want to. Something's getting them, but it's not enough of something.
Guitar.com: What's an example of a great song?
Havens: There are so many? "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall." One of the greatest in the world. I used to sing that song, and then I couldn't sing anything else. I'd have to stop singing. My problem was, I'd do it third or fourth [in the set] -- and I slowed it down, so not only was it already long, it was longer. By the time I got through it, it was such an emotional movie-ride for me. Every line is a complete movie for me. It's like taking a photograph of each line and then putting them in a row. Whew? How much information is coming out of that song? It's like a huge epic movie, and it's all-inclusive. That's Bob Dylan's power; to write a song that includes everyone, personality-wise.
Guitar.com: It's about essences.
Havens: Yes. Like Shakespeare. That's Bob Dylan. Jackson Browne is another. He's a writer. He's a political dynamo, really. If he wanted to be the Pied Piper, he could pull it off. He could lead the group from one city to another. If he got up and walked off the stage and started walking out of the park, the audience would walk out with him. There are so many great writers. Cliff Eberhardt is a fantastic writer. Some writers tend to pick a subject matter and stick with it. There are a few who cover a wide range. Cliff is one of those "range" people.
Guitar.com: What do you think would have happened if you had followed your music teacher's advice and had gone on to study music formally?
Havens: I'd be conducting an orchestra.
Guitar.com: Do you think you'd enjoy that more?
Havens: I don't think it would be more, I think it would be the same. But I hear music on that scale. There are no words to distract you, the emotion you feel is coming purely from sound. It's not coming from words or thoughts. It's an emotion that somebody wrote down on paper, and knew what instruments to use to portray it. That's what classical music is, really. It's pure emotion. That's what I like about music. It's a tag on the fact that everybody has exactly the same emotions.
For more information on Richie - visit his website @ RichieHavens.com