Playing it cool with Epiphone’s newest star
Two Thousand Fifteen will be remembered as the year 81-year old jazz and country bop guitarist Bob Wood became a modern media rock star after the second of two performance videos (the first featuring Bob careening through “Besame Mucho” at a Nashville music store) spread across the web or as he describes it, “went viral on me.”
And it looks like the momentum is still building, which has helped to keep the former studio guitarist, Wheeling Jamboree member, and music store owner busy at concerts and festivals throughout the U.S. We’ve been especially thrilled that Bob has been performing exclusively with his favorite guitar, a 1968 Epiphone Riviera, which he brought to Epiphone’s headquarters in Nashville on his first visit to the showroom just before Christmas accompanied by his wife Cookie.
Bob bought the vintage Riviera from a customer who was in search of an acoustic guitar. “We had a good flattop in the store for about $500. One Sunday morning, a guy calls me up… and I live in Hendersonville, 18 miles from the store. He says ‘Hey man, I heard you got a guitar up there for $500 that sounds just like a Martin. If I came up to the store would you sell it to me?’
“I’ll tell you what son, if I drive 18 miles to that store on a Sunday morning you better be serious about buying a guitar. He said, ‘if it sounds as good as they say it does, I’ll buy it.’ So I go up there and he tries it out. And he says: ‘It’’s no, lie–it’s pretty good. You take a trade in?’ I said sure what you got. He brings in this old bass case and I’m thinking oh boy. And there it is–a perfect 1968 Epiphone Riviera. And I thought: maintain your composure Wood! Don’t throw it man! So I said, well I guess we could go with it if you could throw in $150. And he jumped on it! I should be ashamed to tell it (laughs).”
Bob warmed up on fiddle tunes like Old Joe Clark (“I just found he was my great grandfather–my grandmother was a Clark”) and lots of pop and jazz standards including a spirited Over the Rainbow. “I mainly play on the rhythm pickup. I like the mellow tone. Out on the road I never would buy a distortion pedal. I hated them. I was a bit of a purist–I thought why pay $500 for an amp that plays clean and then spend $35 on a box to make it sound dirty? It didn’t make sense to me. And then I started playing in church and bam (slaps his knee) I had to go out and buy a distortion pedal. They were playing contemporary gospel. Now I got a pedal board I bring to church. If I go play a gig I leave it setting there.”
In between expert renditions of guitar and fiddle standards, Bob recalled his early days as a performer. “I learned as a kid growing up in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia where I was born and raised. My Daddy was a 5-string banjo picker and I learned to play at old fiddle hoedowns–playing things like Arkansas Traveler.” His early love of jazz came with his growing sophistication on guitar.
“We started learning more chords and you wanted to use them. And in country music, if you played more than three or four chords, you’d get blackballed and kicked off the stand (laughs). So I started playing jazz. I really loved the big band stuff. My real bag was the swing stuff. Howard Roberts was one of my favorite jazz players. He’d play the melody–then he’d get wild–but he’d always come back to the melody. You knew what he was playing.”
Bob first came to Nashville in 1969 as a rep for Microfret guitars when he got his first contract to cut a single. “I was here demonstrating those guitars in the Hermitage Hotel and I got a record contract with a little label in Memphis. I cut two of the songs and got Pick of the Week in all three trade magazines–Cashbox, Billboard, etc. I told the fellow who owned the label: they’re trying to send you a message–they want to know if you’re serious. We have a potential hit. It will go up a lot slower than it comes down. He told me ‘well Bob, I think you’re a great talent but I’ve become disenchanted with the music business. The fellow who produced your session took me for twenty grand.’ So I go back to Virginia and cut an instrumental album–Bob Wood Plays It Cool. That got me on the Wheeling Jamboree and I stayed there 14 years. And when my record came out, I’d stand right there by the record table to sign autographs and say: ‘well why you’re waiting, I’ll sign one of these..’ Man! I’d sell them suckers like a goose eatin’ grapes.”
Seeing the numerous and colorful Epiphone Les Pauls on the wall, Bob expressed his admiration for the Wizard who would have been 100 in 2015. “Les Paul blew my mind–trying to figure that stuff out. He taught me to set my goals higher. But I never tried to copy anyone. It wasn’t my bag.” Bob does share Les’ knack for surviving potential career ending disasters. “He cut the tip off of one finger and then the tip off another in his cabinet shop,” said his wife Cookie while Bob was warming up with the fiery intro to “How High the Moon.”
“That’s right,” chimed Bob. “And both times it happened during the month of October. She told me you got to put a sign up in the shop–Closed in October. You cannot go in there in October again. And I haven’t been in there in 10 years. When you feel that little sting, it’s too late. No need looking’ it’s gone! The doctor told me he didn’t think I’d play guitar again–this was October–and I said Doc I’ll play Christmas carols. And I played Thanksgiving Carols–just cut the finger out of an old archery glove. Whatever works.”
Bob played in the showroom for over an hour–the very kind of impromptu jam session that Epi Stathopoulo (and Les Paul as well) wanted to be a hallmark of the House of Stathopoulo. “This is a fine guitar,” said Bob of his Riviera, “It’s my baby. I play it all the time.”
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