A Visit with Joey McKenzie
by Craig Dobbins
Note: This interview originally appeared as Joey McKenzie: Just Country Jazz in issue #70 (February 2012) of Just Jazz Guitar magazine. Visit the Just Jazz Guitar website.
What do western swing, vintage country, bluegrass, jazz & swing standards, and Texas style fiddling have in common? The Quebe Sisters Band! In the words of Eddie Stubbs, WSM Grand Ole Opry announcer and country music historian:
"The Quebe Sisters Band is one of the most precision-based units of acoustic musical perfection on the circuit today. With the outstanding triple fiddle work and beautiful trio sibling harmony of Grace, Sophia, and Hulda Quebe flowing over top of the pulsating rhythm section of Drew Phelps' bass in tandem with Joey McKenzie's rhythm guitar, witnessing this group in action provides an unforgettable experience.
With the advent of drums coming more prominently into country music in the second half of the 1950's, there was less focus on the crucial need for a rhythm guitarist who played in the closed-chord (or “sock rhythm”) style. Joey McKenzie has really done his homework in learning from some of the masters who preceded him. By spending thousands of hours getting down into the grooves of the old records and dissecting the works of such celebrated rhythm players as Homer Haynes, Eldon Shamblin, and Ray Edenton, then adding some of his own ideas rooted in this tradition, Joey is introducing the importance of this special sound to a whole new generation. For the professional musicians, fans, and students of the music that know about what Joey is doing, and who he has learned from, they are overjoyed to see someone carrying the torch for this very special style."
Legendary LA studio guitarist Bob Bain had this to say about Joey McKenzie:
“The first time I heard the Quebe Sisters Band their guitar player impressed me. His sound, chord progressions and ability to keep such good time- even when playing alone, was amazing. That guitarist is Joey McKenzie. His L-12 is the best sounding I've ever heard. You've got to hear him to believe it!”
And renowned Americana singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Marty Stuart writes:
I always keep an eye out for rhythm specialists. When I first heard Joey play I proclaimed him the best, rock solid. I’m sure the Quebe Sisters and Drew Phelps would agree with the old line, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Joey knows exactly how to swing it. He takes care of business at the microphone in a mighty way.”
Joey, who is also a world champion fiddler, is not only rhythm guitarist for the Quebe Sisters- he’s also their arranger as well as their mentor. The sisters, who are each world champion fiddlers themselves, started with lessons from McKenzie’s wife Sherry, who is- you guessed it- another world champion fiddler! (Must be something in that Texas water.)
I caught up with Joey last October at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddler’s Convention in Athens, Alabama, where the Quebe Sisters were headlining. As our visit began, I was trying out his beautiful 1948 Gibson L-12 archtop . . .
And you’ve got more of these at home? Could you send me one?
(laughter) You know, I do repair work also. (McKenzie and his wife, Sherry, own McKenzie Music in Mansfield, Texas.) I’ve always been interested in guitars. I was sort of a guitar nerd kid, you know, and I sat around looking at pictures of guitars, and studying about guitar models, and kind of longing for good quality guitars. We didn’t have a whole lot of money, so I started getting into repair work, and I would buy a damaged guitar back when you could find them at pawn shops and junk stores. If they were cheap, I’d buy one and fix it and sell it, and buy maybe a little better one and fix it, and buy two and keep one. I’ve been doing it for years, and so now I’ve got some nice guitars. I just bought a really nice ‘48 blonde L-5 that I love. It’s near mint, just a really good one. And I’ve got a 1924 L-5, a Loar L-5, that I’m in the process of working on. And I’ve got a ‘28 L-5 and a ‘48 Super 400, and a ‘48 Epiphone blonde DeLuxe that’s a wonderful guitar, and several other little archtops and flat-tops.
I’m coming for a visit!
(laughter) I would love that! We just got a bigger house that’s going to be set up for music.
Great! What type of strings do you use?
Lately I’ve been using D’Addario 80/20’s. The set’s called EJ12. I just got an artist deal with them, so I’m excited about that.
What kind of pick?
I’ve used the same kind of pick since I was 12 years old. It’s a Dunlop, teardrop shaped 1 mm nylon pick, the black one. They came out with a little different grip on these recently. I think it’s called Max Grip, and I really like those. I’ve had people tell me that I should buy better picks. I’ve tried $25 picks, I’ve tried everything and I always come back to the Dunlop. I like the sound that I get, and that’s the bottom line.
What works, works.
That’s right, and these work for me.
I noticed you were plugged in (DI to PA system) today. What kind of rig do you use?
Well, when I do plug in, I use a Pickup The World pickup. It’s a small company, I believe in Colorado. I called these folks and gave them the measurements for my bridge, and they made the pickup specifically to fit my guitar. It’s a thin material that fits between the bridge and the top of the guitar. I really can’t notice an acoustic difference when I’m plugged in- it might be 5%. The tone that I’m after is an acoustic tone, that sounds closer to a microphone. I love to use a mic, if it’s the right setting.
In the venue we’re in today (outdoor festival) it sounded great, for all practical purposes like a microphone.
Well, I’m glad to hear that. That’s the idea, and it’s why I’ve been really happy with this pickup.
You play the fiddle, too.
Or should I say you play the guitar too. You started out on the fiddle, right?
Well you know, it’s kind of evolved over the years. I originally played guitar before I played the fiddle. And then, once I started to play the fiddle, I really saturated myself with fiddle music. It’s a tough instrument, so I spent hours and weeks and months and years trying to learn how to play the fiddle, but also playing the guitar at the same time. But more as an accompanist at fiddle contests, and playing with friends, and playing swing tunes around the house, but not playing guitar jobs. I was always playing fiddle when I was called for session work or a gig, especially when I moved to Texas. I also played mandolin, kind of a swing mandolin.
I play mandolin about that much (holds up thumb and finger). You’re probably familiar with the Louvin Brothers (legendary country music duo) ?
Oh yeah! Charlie and Ira.
Right. That’s the style I play. I love Jethro Burns too. I’ve got a Washburn Jethro Burns mandolin, but I never was able to play like him.
Well, Jethro Burns is my hero on the mandolin. And talking about Jethro, I’ve got to mention Homer Haynes.
Homer was next on my list!
I think Homer Haynes is probably the most underrated guitar player I know. I guess when you get around people that know who he is, they understand, but you don’t hear his name mentioned a lot. His rhythm, his touch, his taste, his ability, is just second to none. And Homer and Jethro, the “Playing It Straight” album especially, is one of my desert island recordings.
The very first time I heard you play, I told my wife, “He sounds like Homer!”
I’m glad to hear you say that, because I hope a little bit of his music rubbed off on me. I listened to so much of it and tried to steal some of his stuff.
I noticed you played that “bdddrrrppp” (Homer Haynes double time rhythm lick). I don’t know what you call that.
I call it a quadruplet. That’s my own terminology. (plays example)
When you’re playing that lick, do you keep the pick at a certain angle to the strings?
You know, I don’t think about it. But, I am a teacher, so I’ve taught the lick to some of my students. I guess I try to stay pretty close to a 90º angle, but I guess maybe the forward side of the pick is the leading edge, ever so slightly.
Do you play mostly at the end of the neck, or more over the fretboard as some rhythm players do?
My bread and butter spot . . .
Where the money is?
Yeah, where the money is! I play an inch, inch and a half off the end of the fretboard on this guitar (Gibson L-12). It depends on your fretboard extension, how far it comes down. But I like that balance before the tone gets muddy, and if you move backwards it starts to get brittle. I like the attack, but it’s still a fairly smooth position for me.
You mentioned Homer Haynes. Other influences?
A big influence for me was Eldon Shamblin. He played rhythm guitar and some lead guitar with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, starting out in the ‘30’s, and even working some with the band after Bob passed away. I was introduced to Eldon by an aunt of mine from Wichita, Kansas, who gave me a Bob Wills record when I was a young teenager, called “For the Last Time: Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.” I had never listened to that music, and I took it home and dropped the needle on the turntable, and it’s like that first song changed my life. It was like I had found a music that just rang a bell with me and I just played that record over and over. I sat on the edge of my bed, holding that album cover and scouring it, looking at every picture and reading the liner notes (it’s got really extensive liner notes). Since I first listened to that record there’s been rarely a day go by that I haven’t listened to Bob Wills. It’s something that I love. It’s not the only thing that I love, but it’s been a really important part of my life, and I’ve really been drawn to rhythm guitar players. I love Freddie Green too.
I noticed that you were playing only two note chords sometimes, like Freddie Green did.
Sometimes I play two notes, and a lot of things I play, like that example I played you earlier, is Eldon Shamblin-type stuff with a lot of bass notes and triplets leading into chords. And you know, some of the stuff like three note chord things (plays gypsy jazz style progression) like a minor 7th I guess. I know very little theory, but that’s sort of like Hot Club rhythm, and I really have always been enamored by Django Reinhardt’s rhythm playing. I obviously love his lead playing, He’s one of my idols, and he’s just one of those . . .
. . . one in a million.
Yeah! You know, I’ve heard so many great players playing in that style, and you think “Wow! This guy’s really awesome!” but then you go put a Django record on, and . . .
. . . it’s already been done, much better.
That’s right! But I really love his rhythm playing. The whole band had great rhythm, but then when Django would take a solo and he would come in on rhythm, the whole thing lifted, and the spirit. And the cute licks he would put in! You know, little cute ornaments in there that were just “How did you think of that perfect thing to put right there?”
And so your style, then, would be a mixture of all these influences.
Do you consciously think “I’m going to play a Homer Haynes rhythm lick, and then an Eldon Shamblin walkup, followed by a Django lick . . .”
I don’t think about that consciously. But it definitely is a part of who I am as a guitar player, all those people. I’ve always tried to find my own voice. I think that’s important, but it’s also important to me that if Homer walked in the room, or Eldon Shamblin, and heard me play, they would like what I’m doing, and not think “Man, what did you do with my music?” So it’s important to me to be respectful to people that are my heroes, and pioneers in that style of music. And, it’s also important to me to not try to copy them. It’s the same thing with our band. If we do a Bob Wills tune, and Bob Wills walked in the room, we hope that he would like what we do, but we try not to just copy Bob Wills. On “San Antonio Rose” for example, we don’t just copy his arrangement note-for-note.
Click here for Joey's lesson on Eldon Shamblin style rhythm playing.
I would also like to mention some things that are very important to me as a guitar player. Something that really had a big impact on me is some of the rhythm players that played fiddle music in the Texas style. That was a big influence to me, and they really are excellent timekeepers. And the bass notes that they play! Most of these players did not play professionally. They accompanied fiddle players at contests and things. But some of these guys, their rhythm and their choice of chords and notes is impeccable and very well thought out. Guys like Royce Franklin and Omega Burton were two big heroes of mine. In the Texas style fiddle community, they’re like Elvis. You get outside that community and they’re not so well known, but they’re absolutely phenomenal guitar players and a big influence on me.
Do you think western swing is the bridge between country and jazz?
Well, basically, it’s just country jazz, you know?
How do you approach arranging for the Quebe’s?
Well, it’s in my head. I don’t write music. When we sit down to do an arrangement with the band,I have a pretty good idea in my head of going from this verse to the next verse, how it’s all going to move. I try to think of songs that I think would work well with our band. The Quebe Sisters Band is very lean. My good friend Drew Phelps, the rockin’est bass player in Western swing music, we’re so happy to have him in the band. And then three fiddles and an acoustic guitar. So my guitar and the bass are the only thing that’s happening besides the singing or the fiddles. We have to try to think of arrangements that are interesting, so you work up a song and think “this worked pretty well!” But then you have to come up with an arrangement that’s hopefully different from the song you just did, otherwise you’re going to lose your audience in five songs. They’re going to be saying “Well, I really liked that. I think I’m going to leave now.”
Do you arrange all the triple harmonies, both fiddle and vocal?
Do you give the girls any leeway, or now that they’re getting older do they contribute more?
Now that they’re older, the Quebe’s have become great musicians in their own right, and they’re still developing, as we all are. And I’m really proud of them for their love of music and their work ethic and their diligence. They’re so excited about working up a new tune, for example. I’ve played in bands, and maybe you have too, where you say “Hey, let’s try this cool lick that I’ve thought up!” and they go “Nah, let’s just keep playing it the way we’ve been playing it and get the money at the end of the gig.” You know, great musicians that have maybe gotten little bit weary and lost some of that spark. In our band, I’ll have to say, we’re all excited about working up new material, so I can come up with something new. Originally I would say “You play this for the first part, you play this for the second part, and you play this for the third part.” Now I can say “Let’s try this idea- grab a part.” They know that routine. Sometimes I might suggest an alternative with the chords to make the band sound a little bit bigger. That’s something we try to do with our band being as small as it is, and that’s to not sound tiny, but to have enough power.
I’ve heard this before, especially when folks see the girls and see how petite they are- you know they’re ninety-five pounders- and people think “Oh, this is going to be so cute, these girls are going to get up and play really sweet perfect fiddle music” and then they get up there and play “Take the A Train” or a great Bob Wills western swing tune that’s as stout as any boy could do it!
One last question- what’s next for the Quebe Sisters Band?
Well, we hope to get in the studio this winter and make a new CD that’s long overdue. We’ve had a heavy touring schedule, and we’re really happy about that. We got to go to Europe and do our first European tour for three weeks. We toured in France, England, and Wales. We’ve toured in Canada, and from coast to coast in the U.S. So, we’re having a blast with that. The new CD, it’s going to be a lot of different music than what was on the previous CDs. The band has evolved quite a bit. But, you know, just more fun- we’re having a blast doing what we’re doing.
I’m really enjoying my role as rhythm guitarist for The Quebe Sisters, and hopefully we’ll be doing what we’re doing for a really long time.
Joey McKenzie Gear
Joey McKenzie relies on vintage instruments to provide the rhythm for the Quebe Sisters Band. “I’m so respectful of the wonderful guitar makers today.” says Joey. “They’re making some fantastic instruments now, but for me, nothing beats the sound of a great vintage instrument.” His main archtops are a well worn 1948 Gibson L-12 sunburst and a near mint 1948 Gibson L-5 blonde. Also in his collection are a couple of 1920’s Gibson L-5’s, a 1948 Epiphone DeLuxe, and several vintage Gibson flattops and a Martin tenor guitar.
McKenzie uses either medium gauge D’Addario 80/20’s EJ12 strings (gauges .013-.056) or EJ22 nickel wrap strings (also gauges .013-.056). “The EJ22’s are the closest I’ve found to the old Gibson Mona-Steel strings.” Joey sets up his L-12 with what I would describe as a medium-high action, for maximum volume and tone. He prefers a Dunlop teardrop shaped 1 mm nylon pick.
Joey likes to use a high quality microphone whenever possible, for a natural sound. He usually carries a Shure KSM44 large diaphragm condenser on the road. For select venues and studio recording, he has a vintage RCA 77DX ribbon mic, reworked to original factory specs by former RCA employee Clarence Kane of Pitman, NJ.
When McKenzie plugs in he uses a Pickup The World archtop guitar pickup system, which mounts between the bridge feet and the top of the guitar (http://www.pick-uptheworld.com). He runs through an LR Baggs Para Acoustic DI , which gives him more control over his volume and tone.
Copyright © 2012, 2013 by Craig B. Dobbins.
Visit the Quebe Sisters Band website.